Saturday, December 28, 2013

Are MOBAs Sports?

It's possible you've seen this little clip from HBO's "Real Sports" thing briefly talking about the "League of Legends" championship, followed by a minute or so of old people popping their monocles.

Now, I'm not here to talk about why these old people don't matter. Whether or not they think LoL or DOTA2 or any other MOBA counts as a sport matters about as much as it did when Roger Ebert said that games can't be art. Yes, it might be maddening and inspire us to rant and rave about this or that, but it won't really change anything. MOBA championships will still continue to be increasingly popular and other video game championships will likely join the ranks and no one will care whether or not old sports journalists consider it to be a legitimate sport.

But it does make me wonder... are MOBAs sports? I mean, it probably doesn't really matter, but I like to ponder these things anyway because the MOBA genre is interesting to me and I haven't really talked much about them before.

What's a MOBA?

MOBA stands for "multiplayer online battle arena". Not very helpful, I know, but it's a relatively new-ish video game genre that started out as an off-shoot of real-time strategy games like "Starcraft" or "Warcraft". The primary difference being that instead of setting up buildings and micromanaging soldiers, you primarily only concerned yourself with one character and all of the buildings and soldiers were mostly out of your control. All you had to do was defend your own team's buildings while destroying your opponents. You mostly did this by leveling up over the course of the game, gaining power, and buying new items.

Matches are played in real-time between 5 players on a symmetrical map. The first team to destroy their opponent's primary structure at the opposite end of the map, wins. That's pretty much the main focus of the game, but if you want to know more, just Google it or play "League of Legends" or "DOTA 2". You can play both games for free.

While there are sometimes modified ways of playing (one-on-one, different rulesets, etc.) the primary game is played 5-versus-5 in the way I just described, and almost everyone plays in this way.

"It's Not a Sport, It's a Game"

Probably the second-most nerd-rage-inducing comment from the video above (the first would be the "Star Trek" comment) would be the quote, "It's not a sport, it's a game."

This distinction is left undefined, but it's one that modern humanity has debated for quite a while.

For example, in order to be a part of the Olympics, technically all an activity needs to qualify is to be sanctioned by an international sport federation. Chess is such an activity, yet it is unlikely to ever be included in the Olympics, nor is it probably ever going to be considered a sport.

There is one obvious answer: The difference between a game and a sport is that a sport requires strenuous physical activity.

This seems fair, but it's not always applicable. Archery, for example, does not require a great deal of physical strength, relying far more on precision and coordination. Equestrian sports depend little on the physical acumen of the rider, depending far more on the horse. 

Well then one might say that those sports still require physical precision and practice. That muscle memory and physical training are still a required component. You certainly can't say the same about chess.

And that seems fair, but if we are merely talking about some kind of physical demand, MOBAs certainly fit that bill.

Almost all high-level players utilize lightning-quick reflexes, precise timing, and complicated maneuvers that require a great deal of practice and training. While not necessarily physically demanding, muscle memory and coordination are as key to professional MOBA playing as they are to archery or golf.

The problem then is that you could then potentially call "Guitar Hero" a sport. It does, after all, require a lot of physical coordination and muscle memory, perhaps more so than MOBAs. And in that regard, why aren't real musicians considered athletes? Drumming is far more physically exhausting than golf.

Well, for starters, you can't objectively measure standard music playing. Music is an art and its quality is nearly impossible to quantify in an unbiased way. While ice dancing can be argued similarly, judges often rate performances based on very specific criteria.

OK, that explains why real musicians aren't in the Olympics, but what about "Guitar Hero" or "Rock Band" or "Dance Dance Revolution"? Those games are scored.

Well, to get into why MOBAs could be considered a sport in a way that "Guitar Hero" cannot, we'll have to talk more about MOBAs in general.

The Court

Even though it's scored, there's a reason why competitive rhythm game competitions never really caught on. The result of a competitive match often depends on what song you pick.

I played in a few small competitions for rhythm games when I was a bit younger and the competition format was always very haphazard. There was really no fair way to do it. No one was equally good at every song. There were some matches when I defeated someone far better than me because we were playing on a song that I knew really well. I think I technically missed more notes, but because I knew when to use Star Power most effectively, I still won. That wasn't because I was a better player, it was because I just happened to know that song really well. I could just as easily been given a different song and lost.

This applies to games like "Halo" as well. The format varies from tournament to tournament. Maybe they choose a different map or a different set of rules. There's too much potential variety.

Whereas if you play a game of basketball, it doesn't necessarily matter where you play. Yes, different courts might have different subtleties about them and different referees might be stricter about certain things, but the structure is the same. The rules are the same. The court is essentially the same.

Most video games don't really have just one "court". "Call of Duty" wouldn't be half as popular if it only had one map. And the map of one online shooter is going to be vastly different from another online shooter.

But when it comes to MOBAs, there's really only one format. One primary way to play.

And the interesting thing is, this isn't just individual to each game. The overall goals and mechanics of DOTA2 are more-or-less identical to LoL. Just about every MOBA game has the same "court":

You have 2 bases, 3 lanes, 22 towers, 6 inhibitors/barracks. The intricacies may change between games, but the overall mechanics of a MOBA are basically the same no matter which one you play.

The big difference between MOBAs are the characters. Most popular MOBAs have very large rosters of characters, each with their own unique power sets. There are very few characters that can be identified as particularly "strong" or "weak" because it's all relative to what characters are popular at the time. If one character is popular because of a certain ability, other characters that are good at countering those abilities tend to become more popular while those more susceptible to those abilities become less popular. Then if another type of character becomes popular or if new characters are added or existing character mechanics are modified, things start shifting.

This isn't all that different from how actual sports work.

Let's look at basketball again. In the decades we've been playing it, the way its played has changed a lot, but not because the rules have changed, but because the people playing it have changed the "metagame".

There's another reason why MOBAs work more as a sport than most other video games, and it actually is tied in with the court aspect.


Part of what makes a sport a sport is less the game itself and more the community around it. Plenty of sports have been invented, but if you can't get a crowd to show up and watch them, no one will ever care.

"Call of Duty" multiplayer requires a lot of skill, strategy, and physical precision, at least as much as any MOBA does, but as a spectator sport, it's far inferior, and that's because the spectator is rarely given an omnipresent view of the situation, and if they are given one, it is separate from the view given to the players.

Imagine watching a game of football entirely through the perspectives of the players. You'd never really understand what was going on. The player, on the other hand, has the ability to understand pretty much the whole big picture because of the way the field is laid out. They can pretty much see any part of the field at any time they want, though they of course have to pay attention to what's right in front of them as well.

In a shooter, even if you did watch the game from a top-down perspective, it's an experience entirely divorced from what the player is experiencing.

But the way a MOBA is structured makes it function in a way not dissimilar to other spectator sports. The spectator gets the same top-down view that the players have. The players can't necessarily see EVERYTHING due to fog of war, but they can get an idea of the big picture. However, like a football player, it behooves them to get an impression of the big picture as often as possible while still focusing on what's in front of them. Also, one thing that I find fun about watching MOBAs is that some of them allow the spectator to focus on whatever they like. They can see it from the perspective of a player or just look at a general area. The viewer gets to absorb the game as a whole rather than focus solely on one part of it that they can't control.

The one big problem with MOBAs as a spectator sport is fairly obvious to anyone who tries to watch a MOBA game without having played one. It can be confusing.

There are so many characters and abilities and items and strategies that the amount of lingo in a MOBA can be staggering. While this is true about a lot of sports, most sports have a baseline of understanding that can give a new spectator a tenuous grasp on how the game is going. Specifically, a score. When I didn't really understand the rules of football, I could at least understand that bringing the ball to the end of the field was a good thing and that the team with the most points won. I could tell who was winning and I could tell when something good happened for one team when their score went up. If something they did caused the score to go up more, I got the impression that it was a good thing to do.

MOBAs often lack that baseline appeal. Part of what makes a MOBA exciting is that the tide can be turned at almost any point in the game. While most matches are decided very early in the game during the laning phase, a really good jungler or a well-organized team can still pull out a victory if they play their cards right. But it means that it's hard to really grasp something as simple as "who's winning?"

You could get a vague idea of who's winning based on which team has destroyed more towers or which team has farmed more experience and gold or which team has died fewer times, but while those aspects of the game influence the outcome, they don't decide it. Until a base is destroyed, anyone could win.

Chess has a similar problem. While there is a point system to chess that could be used to suggest someone is winning, that's not what decides the game. Until someone has delivered a checkmate, it could be anyone's game. Still, people who walk by while you're playing may still simply ask "who's winning" because unless you play a lot of chess, it's hard to really know who has who on the ropes.

That's kind of the biggest problem with MOBAs as a spectator sport. However, as the video at the beginning of this post points out, MOBAs certainly aren't lacking for spectators.

So why is that? Why do so many people come out for MOBA tournaments than pretty much any other kind? Well, I think there are three main reasons.

First, MOBAs are really popular right now. Thanks to the free-to-play model and the dedicated fanbase for real-time strategy games that built the MOBA genre, MOBAs are played by a lot of people. So naturally, there are a lot of people who understand the games enough to enjoy spectating.

Second, as I already mentioned, MOBAs have the "court" structure which makes them easier to watch than most other competitive games. Fighting games come close, but the problem with fighting games is that the characters aren't different enough to really make a compelling and perpetually evolving metagame. It's why they have to keep making new versions of fighting games every few years. If you just add new characters to an existing fighting game, it throws the whole roster out of balance because while each character has their own special strength and abilities, the basic mechanics of each character are easily compared. At the end of the day, every character kicks, punches, and has some kind of mega-move. But MOBAs tend to deal more with what Extra Credits calls "incomparables" (more on that here if you're interested) where the abilities of one character can be wildly different when compared to another character, particularly when you also have to take into account how they interact with the other members of their team. Even fighting games that allow you to tag out multiple characters and have dozens of characters to choose from like "Marvel Vs. Capcom" tend to gravitate towards a handful of characters that fit particular play-style niches that have developed in the fighting game community over the years. Meanwhile, MOBAs are free to fundamentally alter their entire metagame simply by introducing an innovative new character into the system.

Lastly, even if you don't really understand what exactly is happening, a MOBA is visually interesting. Complex without being too crowded and alienating. When something cool happens in a game, even if a spectator has no clear idea of what exactly is happening and why it matters, they can still tell that it's cool. For example:

You might have no idea what the announcer is talking about. You might have no idea what exactly just happened. You might have no idea why it matters. But in a way, you don't really need to. What did you see? You saw a bunch of those guys with red bars team up and ambush the team with green bars, sucking them into a black hole, but then the green guys dispelled it, sucked them into a black hole, and killed all of them. You don't have to know much to know that "killing all of your opponents at once while being ambushed" is pretty damn cool.

Because all MOBAs have the same basic setup and maps and the only variety is in the characters and the players, you have a game that can be played in virtually infinitely-many ways while still maintaining the basic setup and structure as a point of reference. Everything is built-upon rather than discarded and rebuilt from scratch.

Are MOBAs Sports, Or What?

Up until now, I've kind of been dancing around whether or not I think MOBAs count as sports. Instead, I've mostly been effectively talking about why MOBAs seem the most sport-like out of any other game. Why they draw the biggest crowds. Why the champions seem far more impressive. Why they are the most fun to watch. Why people argue for them being sports more than just about any other games out there.

But really, what does it boil down to? What feels so sport-like about MOBAs?

I could cheat and say "the only thing that makes a sport a sport is whether or not a majority of people consider it a sport", but I don't think that's true. I think there's something more fundamentally intrinsic to sports that make them stand out. And I think it's the idea of a game around a game.

I'm not talking about the metagame, although that's certainly part of it. I'm talking about the narrative of a sport.

I was never really into sports growing up and I still pretty much don't care all that much, but I was often confused as to why some people got into it as much as they did. Why they cared so much about teams that didn't even represent their own hometown or state, why they wore the jerseys of players, why they constructed and competed with fantasy teams. Eventually, I realized that the answer to my question was basically the question itself. People care because people care.

A simple game of American football is exactly that. A game. But there's more going on than just that game. There's a metagame being played by the managers and coaches where they decide what new players to add to the team and which old players to trade or retire. Every new season, fans watch closely to decide whether the changes have made their favorite team better or worse. It makes them grow attached to individual players, particularly if they have interesting life stories.

Just look at fantasy football. It's a game built around the idea of managing a game, not playing it. And it's insanely popular. It's because that's really the part that people love about American football. American football as a game is actually pretty boring. It's slow-paced, scored in a bizarre manner, and has a lot of weird rules that are hard to explain. But as a sport, it's deep, engaging, and ever-changing. I don't really care for it, but I understand why people get so wrapped up in it.

In order for a game to be elevated to a sport, a single game has to mean more than "just a game". The outcome of every individual game has to build to a greater whole. Each victory and loss has to matter. Each player (and in the context of MOBAs, character) has to be evaluated and have their own story.

And while it's still rather underground and mostly niche, MOBAs are starting to develop that. The ever-evolving rosters of the games change strategies every year in the same way new draft picks can change an entire season of American football. Teams are starting to forge identities of their own with star players with ambitions, dreams, rivalries, signature styles and strategies. In a way, playing a MOBA while tangentially aware of the high-level strategies being employed by the pros influences the play-styles and character choices of the more casual players.

Also, there really isn't a sport quite like a MOBA that currently exists, and for that matter, there really can't be. A fighting game or a shooter can be just as easily represented in real life, albeit with some limitations, but the core gameplay would be there. Why watch a video game of two fighters when you could watch a boxing match? Why watch a CoD game when you could watch or play a game of paintball or laser tag? But a MOBA can't really be represented in real life. You can't represent the complex power sets or the respawn times or the farming or the murdering. It can really only be represented digitally. Even just the basic goal of "destroy a base" can't be represented accurately in real life.

So I think out of all video games, MOBAs are kind of poised the most to actually thrive in the competitive community at this point. So long as the core gameplay remains the same and the crowds keep getting larger and the coverage gets better and the characters keep shuffling, I think it can stand the test of time. Maybe not the games themselves, but unlike fighting games, the individuals MOBAs don't matter as much as the universality of the game mechanics. So long as the court never fundamentally changes, the crowds will just keep growing.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Burning Under the Spotlight - A "Catching Fire" Review

I liked the first "Hunger Games" film quite a bit. I hadn't read the book (and I still haven't... I'm bad at reading) so I went into the movie knowing very little and I left more-or-less satisfied. Like many people, I had a number of qualms with it. Most people cited the shaky-cam or lack of originality as the bigger complaints, but I honestly found those to be minor problems. The shaky-cam was necessary to obscure the violence enough to score a PG-13 rating, crucial for a film like this. And yeah, we'd seen movies like it before, but "Hunger Games" did enough differently to stand apart and justify it's existence.

My biggest problem with "Hunger Games", as I've said before, was that Katniss was never put in a situation where her survival meant doing something morally compromising. Every time the movie almost gave her an impossible situation, they found a way to rob her of it. When (SPOILER ALERT) Rue died, I was upset, but not largely because I particularly cared about Rue as a character, but because her sudden death robbed the film of an interesting question. Suppose everything went Katniss' way. Suppose she and Peeta and Rue all survived until the end of the Hunger Games as the last three standing. Then what? Would she have tried her berry-eating routine with Rue, too? Would that have worked? Would she have sacrificed herself to save Rue knowing that she wouldn't have been able to return to the sister that Rue so reminds her of? Would Rue have been able to live knowing that Katniss and Peeta gave their lives for her? Rue's death at the hands of some random shmoe meant Katniss would never have to make a hard decision for her survival. And that's kind of how that entire film works. Most of Katniss' enemies either die off screen or she only kills them after they do something horrible. I left the theater liking Katniss but not exactly knowing much about who she really was.

Luckily for me, "Catching Fire" tackles this particular angle head-on, almost from the very beginning, and we end up with a film that's more engaging, more complex, and far more enjoyable than the previous.

No Spoilers

A running theme in "Catching Fire" is really about what I discussed above. Katniss in the first film had two major motivations: to survive and to be a decent human being. At no point in the first film did she have to choose one over the other. This leads the insane President Snow to believe that Katniss, whose efforts to be a decent human being have inspired a fledgling uprising, is not the revolutionary many seem to believe her to be and that when push comes to shove, she'll save her own neck before laying herself on the line for others.

This actually serves as a major point of conflict for her character. See, for Katniss, survival isn't really a selfish desire. She wants to survive for the sake of her sister and her mother and her friends. Yet her survival almost entirely depends on her willingness to cooperate with President Snow. She knows that any act of defiance will put her loved ones at considerable risk. But as events continue to escalate, she comes closer and closer to the inevitable decision between doing the right thing and putting herself and her loved ones in harm's way. And how she handles that decision, in the end, is a truly defining moment for her as a character and really drives this movie in a way the first film didn't.

The direction here is great, and not just because Francis Lawrence knows how to use a tripod. Say what you will about Lawrence's other works, the guy knows how to frame a shot. But more than that, I've always felt like he was very good at evoking a character's personality through simple visuals rather than through dialogue. While "Constantine" is a mess in terms of plot, dialogue, and pacing, I love watching it if only for the larger-than-life feel of most of the characters. Like the first "Hunger Games", most of this film sticks to the book's limited point-of-view around Katniss. The viewer rarely knows more than Katniss does. In fact, unlike the book, we are often left knowing less than Katniss does. Still, through very excellent and subtle acting and cinematography, we always know exactly what Katniss is thinking or feeling without her having to say a word. That takes skill and restraint.

Some may say that this film's weakness is that it doesn't stand on it's own, and I've said before that that doesn't really bother me. Sure a film that can stand on its own and function as a good sequel is ideal, but for me, it's extra credit. So long as the film that came before it is worth watching, I don't mind doing a little extra homework.

The few weaknesses the film does actually have are actually fairly difficult to articulate, but I'll do the best I can. While I can understand perfectly well why we are limited to Katniss' perspective through the majority of the film, I do think they could have eased back a little bit on it. Film is a visual medium and being told about a thing that's happening is almost always less interesting than actually seeing it. That said, some of the things we do see are at times not very interesting. If you can't create a convincing CGI baboon-thing, you probably shouldn't center an entire action sequence around them. Just saying.

All-in-all, though, I was extremely satisfied with this film and would recommend checking it out.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How To Get Into Bitcoin (via Litecoin)

Most of you have probably heard about the whole Bitcoin thing by now. I'm not here to explain it to you -- plenty of other people have already got that covered -- but a lot of people might be wondering whether or not they can get into it, and if so, how.

I myself have been dabbling in the cryptocurrency scene lately and have gotten to a place where I've managed to make a modest profit despite spending no money in terms of investment. So I thought I'd share it since I probably would have appreciated it if someone else had explained it in equally-simple terms a few months ago.

I had known about Bitcoin (abbreviated BTC) for a while, but it wasn't until last Summer that I actually had any real interest in it. However, I'm not a gambling man by nature, so I wasn't about to throw actual money into the ring. Truth be told, I wish I had because back then, Bitcoin was $100 per Bitcoin and now it's currently around $1000, so I could have made 10x what I could have put into it, but hindsight is 20/20.

Still, you don't need to buy Bitcoin in order to get Bitcoin. There are methods where you can mine Bitcoin using your computer. There's just one major problem. Bitcoin is really hard to mine. And I don't just mean the fact that you probably need a fairly decent working knowledge of computers to get it working, no, I mean that for a machine, mining Bitcoin is a lengthy and work-intensive task for all but the most over-powered computers. It didn't used to be that way, but in the past year, devices specifically designed to mine Bitcoin (known as ASIC miners) started to become popular and this increased the difficulty of mining Bitcoin considerably. I was not about to throw money away on an ASIC miner (and they're hard to find even if I wanted one), but I was mining Bitcoin too slowly to really expect to see any kind of return on my investment of time either.

That's when I discovered Litecoin (abbreviated LTC). Litecoin is an alternative cryptocurrency which is similar to Bitcoin in a number of ways, but it's biggest difference is that it uses a different algorithm for mining. This algorithm makes it pretty much impossible to make a dedicated device to mine Litecoin. The best way to mine Litecoin is to use a really good graphics card and/or CPU. Using the same personal computer at home, I can mine 1 LTC in about half the amount of time it would have taken me to mine 0.01 BTC. And while Litecoin is significantly less profitable than Bitcoin, it currently trades at about 0.035 BTC per LTC.

A decent number of people believe that Litecoin will one day stand alongside Bitcoin as an equal, but I don't find that terribly likely. Still, I do think that Litecoin has a future as a complement to Bitcoin since it costs less and allows for trading smaller amounts of USD than BTC currently allows in most exchanges. More importantly, it also functions as a decent entry level for people who are just looking to dabble rather than try and make a living on speculating cryptocurrency.

In general, people who are looking to get in on Bitcoin either try to just buy some or figure out how to mine it. My advice is to do neither. My advice is to mine Litecoin, which is much easier to mine for people who don't have the kind of money to spend on additional hardware, and then trade it for Bitcoin.

Here's my current process:

Step 1: Mine Litecoin

Using as a mining pool, cudaminer to mine from my NVIDIA graphics card (you can use cgminer for AMD graphics cards, which tend to work better) and cpuminer for my CPU, I can mine about 0.05 Litecoins per day. The whole process of setting up a computer to mine cryptocurrency can be daunting, but if you run into problems, odds are good that someone on Reddit can help you out. 

The problem with mining pools is that you can only actually get your coins once you've reached a certain threshold. Under current Coinotron rules, I can payout Litecoin at the 0.3 threshold at the cost of 0.03 LTC, so we'll say that in 6 days, I get 0.27 LTC that I can actually use. For the sake of sanity, let's go with a full week before payout and get 0.32 LTC per week. Obviously, depending on whatever system you're using, you'll make more or less Litecoins per week, but if you've got a decent gaming PC, you can probably do about the same, possibly better if you've got a good AMD card. If you want an idea of what kind of results you'll get, check these charts: AMD charts, NVIDIA charts (more comprehensive than the other link).

Step 2: Transfer Litecoin to BTC-E

Rather than transfer the LTC to a wallet, I just transfer it directly to BTC-E to save on time and fees (and hard drive space since wallets take up a lot). BTC-E is an exchange service for various cryptocurrencies. There are a number of exchange services, and most of them are probably fine, but BTC-E has one of the highest LTC/BTC trading volumes. If you have a lot of faith in Litecoin, you could theoretically just ignore this step and all other steps and just get a Litecoin wallet and keep Litecoin indefinitely or until the prices get even higher (which they might), but odds are you're looking to turn this into money sooner rather than later, or at least turn this into BTC, so let's keep going.

Step 3: Convert Litecoin to Bitcoin

Once you've got some LTC in your BTC-E account, just sell it for BTC. As of writing this, the current LTC/BTC rate is about 0.035, so our 0.32 LTC is worth about 0.01 BTC.

Step 4: Move Bitcoin to Coinbase

Theoretically, if you just want to get some BTC and then sit on them, you're more than welcome to do so, but odds are, you're looking to turn Bitcoin into US dollars, and BTC-E is actually pretty lousy at withdrawing USD, which is why we converted to BTC instead of USD in the previous step. But now that we've got 0.01 BTC, that's the bare minimum amount needed to withdraw BTC from BTC-E, so go ahead and do that. Create an account on, add and verify a checking account, and then transfer over your BTC from BTC-E. Now you have about 0.01 BTC on Coinbase. You can either let it sit there or if you want, go ahead and sell it. At current prices, it'll be worth about $10. I personally intend to let my BTC accumulate in Coinbase until either prices get truly ridiculous or I find myself in need of quick cash.

So yeah, $10 a week probably seems like peanuts, and it truly is, but considering I didn't spend any money on getting this whole thing setup, I'd say $10 a week is pretty cool.

And of course, this all assumes that BTC and LTC will still be worth a damn in the future. And that's fair. For all I know, Bitcoin's current price of $1000 is the highest it will ever go and all these digital coins will be about as worthless as Monopoly money in a few months. Well, if that's the case, all I've lost is idle computer time. That's why I haven't invested any actual money into this. Plus, a computer mining cryptocurrency can be a cheap substitute for a space heater during these colder months.

And hey, imagine how crazy it'll be if BTC rises even higher. If in a year it ends up being worth $10,000, by then I might have about 0.5 BTC, which will be worth $5000. That's certainly worth the effort, I think. It won't be enough to make me rich or anything, but money is money. And yeah, that's probably a really optimistic guess, but so far, those who've underestimated Bitcoin have done so at their own peril.

Now you might have some questions, and I'll do my best to answer them pre-emptively:

Why convert to Bitcoin? Isn't Litecoin also enjoying record-breaking price increases?

It's true that, like Bitcoin, Litecoin prices (both LTC/BTC and LTC/USD) have never been better. A lot of Litecoin fans will say things like "This is just like what happened with Bitcoin!" and "Soon Litecoin will become just as profitable." And maybe they're right, but as of this moment, I see no evidence to suggest that Litecoin is being bought for anything other than a means to make BTC and USD. Bitcoin, on the other hand, is being used for a number of high-profile online services. Bitcoin is an actual currency, albeit a rarely-used one. Yes, Litecoin's prices have been on the rise, but almost exclusively in direct proportion to the rise of popularity of Bitcoin. Until Litecoin becomes independent of Bitcoin, I see little reason to favor LTC over BTC. And frankly, I think it's a lot to assume that the mainstream economy is ready to accept one cryptocurrency, let alone two.

What about energy costs? Is it worth the money to mine when you factor in the amount of power used by your computer?

One common concern among cryptocurrency enthusiasts is whether or not they can mine efficiently. Whether the amount of money they make from mining justifies the increased power draw from their PC. CPU mining is specifically less efficient than GPU mining, and both are far less efficient than ASIC mining. And if you're looking as short-term gains, yeah, I'd say this is a reasonable concern. I personally haven't seen much of an increase in my energy bill and I certainly haven't crunched the numbers to see if it's worth it in the short-term. But honestly, I'm thinking more in the long term. Maybe I'm increasing my electricity bill by $12 a week to make $10 a week. I don't know. But I do know that over time, mining Litecoin will only get more difficult. Perhaps not as quickly as Bitcoin, but it's just the way cryptocurrency is designed. And if prices do continue to increase, I'll certainly be glad I maybe took a small hit regarding my energy costs.

Will it harm my computer to leave it running all the time?

Probably, yeah. At least to an extent. If you try to squeeze every drop of processing power out of a machine (particularly if it's a laptop) and leave it running all day every day, you're bound to wear out that computer faster than you probably would have normally. That's just common sense. But you don't have to run your computer into the ground. Most mining software lets you tweak how much you want to push your hardware so it isn't running at full power the entire time. Of course, if this is just a spare computer or something, you might care less. Or if it's a desktop PC, it can probably handle the workload better and replacing parts would probably be easier. Also, obviously, if you're using your CPU or GPU for mining, you'll probably notice a considerable performance hit if you try to play video games or something. So just turn off the miners if you plan to do something like that.

All this mining stuff is complicated. Can't I just buy Bitcoin and make a profit by trading?

Mining certainly isn't for everyone. Most decent mining software requires a certain amount of technical ability. Most require some working knowledge of how to use the command-line. Most require some troubleshooting or trial and error. If it's just too much trouble for you, then yeah, you're more than welcome to just buy some Bitcoin through Coinbase or whatever and then buy and sell as prices fluctuate in an effort to make a profit. That seems to be what most people are doing, otherwise the prices probably wouldn't be so high. But doing this is somewhat risky. It's hard to say if what we're seeing right now is the beginning of something or the end of something. If you buy into Bitcoin now, you could stand to lose quite a bit if it crashes. Just keep that in mind before you start throwing down hundreds or thousands of dollars.

And... well, that's really all I've got to say. I'm not going to waste my breath speculating on whether or not Bitcoin or Litecoin or whatever will continue to be worth something, whether or not they will become widely-used currencies, or whether or not different cryptocurrencies will enter the scene. I'm just sharing my method in case some of you are interested in getting into Bitcoin but aren't really sure how.

Best of luck.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Additional Thoughts Re: "Contrast"

In my initial thoughts on the PS4 from earlier in the week, I mentioned that I rather liked "Contrast". I also mentioned that I hadn't actually finished it yet.

As of yesterday, I finally got around to finishing it.

And... well, my opinion has shifted somewhat.

See, when I discussed it before, I talked about how the game felt unfinished, but the story and unique mechanics elevated it enough to feel worthwhile to me.

However, having now completed the game, I think I can safely say that the whole thing basically falls apart in Act III.

Act III feels more than rushed. It feels like the original creators of the game all died and then the janitor swooped in and tried to finish it.

The first two Acts of the game, while somewhat unpolished, served as a solid foundation for the story and the game mechanics, but the final Act decides to rob the story of any dramatic weight and scrape together poorly-designed gameplay to bring about the finale, which has an ending tonally incongruous to the rest of the game.

To be more specific, I need to go in SPOILER territory, so forgive me.

Alright, so the first two Acts establish an interesting -- if a bit cliche -- setting in a noir style about a young girl, Didi, and her imaginary friend, Dawn (the playable character). Didi's mother, Kat, works as a cabaret singer and is struggling to make ends meet due to her deadbeat husband, Johnny, getting the family in trouble and then skipping town. Then, of course, Johnny shows up wanting his family back. He has another ridiculous plan to start a circus funded by mobsters, with the highlight act being a man named Vincenzo, a sort of hybrid between Houdini and Tesla. His plan seems to be coming together, but Kat still doesn't want him getting the family involved. She pulls a gun on him and reveals that Johnny isn't even Didi's real father, and that, in fact, Vincenzo is. Didi stops the fight, leaving Kat little choice but to give Johnny one more shot.

The next act is about trying to get the circus up and running. Johnny, being a natural-born screwup, needs Didi and Dawn's help to fix basically everything in order to keep Vincenzo from leaving. You succeed and the circus seems ready to go. Didi also wishes to talk to Vincenzo to learn more about him, but he seems hard to get ahold of.

To me, this was a pretty good setup. Johnny was depending on the guy his wife cheated on him with in order to try and win his family back. Dramatically, that's pretty dynamite. Simultaneously, you have Didi who at once wants to give her father another chance and have him around again, but also wants to learn more about Vincenzo. And last, you have Dawn, whose origin and identity is very much a complete mystery, particularly in regard to her powers. Is she a ghost? An actual imaginary friend? Didi from the future? A manifestation of Didi's latent psychic powers? It seems like a great setup for a killer Act III.

So Act III begins with Didi wanting to go find Vincenzo to talk to him. We find out that he's hidden in his lab. Now this was the first big failing for me. The lab of someone like Vincenzo should have been a much more interesting place than it was. Sure, there were tons of gadgets and gizmos all over the place, but almost none of them actually come into play. On top of that, the level design is just ridiculous and needlessly complex. There's no clear sense of space or logic to the layouts.

Anyway, you get through this and Didi finally confronts Vincenzo. And Vincenzo basically reacts about how you would expect... he never wanted her, he's too busy, she's better off with Kat, etc. Still, this scene felt weird to me. The context of the scene is that Didi seems to want to run away with Vincenzo, but the game never really gives us a clear indication of why. Up until this point, Didi has been very dedicated to wanting to bring her family back together, and now she suddenly wants to leave? I mean, granted, if I were a kid, I totally would have wanted to go on an adventure with Houdini-Tesla, but her sudden desire to ditch her family seemed to come out of nowhere.

Still, the scene could have had dramatic weight. After all, her father also left their family to pursue his own ambition, and so her desire to leave could have been used to mirror her father's mistakes. That could have made for some interesting drama, but it never materializes.

Anyway, the big climax in Vincenzo's big performance, which of course has technical difficulties. Didi is suddenly very upset with the fact that she has to fix Johnny's screwups -- something she never seemed upset about before -- and she goes to the nearby lighthouse to save the day.

Now here's the first problem. Didi has shown that she doesn't want to live with her family. She's shown that she doesn't like Vincenzo for abandoning her. She's just now explained that she's tired of fixing Johnny's screwups. So why then is she bothering to go to the lighthouse? Why does she care about the self-centered, witless, frustrating adults enough to go through the trouble of fixing everything?

More importantly, Didi hasn't really done much of anything. Dawn does pretty much all of the heavy-lifting. Particularly in Act III where Didi is nowhere to be seen for the majority of it.

So you climb the lighthouse, a task which is really not that difficult and only introduces one new mechanic that you use twice. Along the way you discover Dawn's identity: she was Vincenzo's assistant that he somehow got trapped in a parallel dimension. Then you get the lighthouse pointing at the stage, Vincenzo does his performance, and then we get our big finale.

Johnny tries to get Vincenzo to take his daughter with him because he's a screwup. They praise Didi for being incredibly thrifty and for saving the day (even though it was Dawn that did it), and Johnny says that Didi should travel with Vincenzo rather than stick around and cover for Johnny's mistakes. But then Kat, Vincenzo and Didi all tell him that it's OK and that everything is better now and their family can be happy again now that his insane mob-run circus somehow turned a profit. Then we get a brief scene where Vincenzo thanks Dawn for looking after Didi, revealing that he was aware of her presence and also possessed her abilities of hopping into shadows. End credits.

OK, what the fuck?

First of all, if Vincenzo knew about Dawn, why did he praise Didi? He knows she didn't do jack shit. Second, why are we OK with the fact that Vincenzo is a terrible person? He got his assistant trapped in an alternate dimension, he slept with a married woman and then abandoned the resulting child for purely selfish reasons, he decided to help out the cuckolded father, but only for money and unreasonable demands (and was a major dick about it the whole time), and in the end, we're supposed to be... OK with this? We're supposed to care that he thinks that Johnny is a suitable father? What gives him the right to have an opinion? He's clearly an asshole!

Next... what kind of ending is that? Everything works out? Kat, Johnny, and Didi live happily ever after? What about the mob? Are they going to still be extorting Johnny? What about the circus? Is it going to have to keep running indefinitely? Will it remain successful without Vincenzo? If the circus was just a one-time thing to settle some debts, what is Johnny going to do now? Is Kat still going to try to become famous? Why does Didi suddenly love her family again after all that huffing and puffing and wanting to run off with Vincenzo? Why does the world seem to be falling apart from Dawn's perspective? What did we learn? What was accomplished?

It's incredibly aggravating. The game has a very intriguing setup and then attempts a resolution that is unearned, tonally dissonant, and lacking any real dramatic weight or climax. Everything just works out and everyone is happy. No one learns anything, no one loses anything, and what the characters gain seems undeserved and possibly doomed.

It's beyond clear at this point. This game needed at least another year in development. Not just to correct the numerous bugs, glitches, and half-finished levels, but also to find a fitting conclusion to the story. The shadow mechanic is fun, but unlike a game like "Portal", the player is never really challenged to master those mechanics or use them in creative ways.

I wouldn't say I hated "Contrast", because it certainly kept me engaged the whole way through, and while the ending was massively disappointing, I was more or less satisfied with the experience. Though it probably helped that the game was essentially free thanks to PlayStation Plus. But $15 is way too much for a game this unfinished.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Initial Thoughts on the PS4

I've talked a number of times about my history with Sony in regards to video games. I had never owned a PlayStation until college and the PS3 was the very last console from the previous generation that I purchased, and I mostly only did it because a friend of mine got me hooked on the "Metal Gear" games. And after using it for a while and warming up to it, I ultimately decided that I should have purchased the PS3 in the first place.

The PS3 was the best system of the previous generation, at least for me. I'm not big on online multiplayer, which I think the Xbox 360 clearly did better, but pretty much everything else the PS3 did much better. I've gone over this before. Better media sharing, better hardware stability, better exclusive games, better indie support, better controller (I'm sorry, I'm not a huge fan of the 360 controller), better digital game support, easier to upgrade the HDD, better paid subscription service, better interface... Honestly, the only reason I still have my 360 is because that's where all of my "Rock Band" DLC lives and it has a Blip and HBOGo app. That's basically it.

So my decision to get a PS4 wasn't born entirely out of the fact that Microsoft completely screwed the pooch on their initial console announcement. And while we're on the subject, yes, I know they've recanted most of the things that made people edgy, but based a recent statement from Albert Penello, it's pretty clear that Microsoft is probably hoping to go back to their original plans later on:

"We just think that's the way the future's gonna go... We may have been right. What we were wrong about was that it's just too soon. People just weren't ready to make that leap right away."

But no, I didn't just get a PS4 because it cost less, lacked an online requirement, and had a lot of support from indie devs. No, I also got it because in spite of my own admitted biases, Sony won me over last generation and I felt like I kind of owed them the benefit of the doubt. I regretted not buying a PS3 sooner last generation, so I felt it made sense to get a PS4 right out of the gate this time around.

So on Friday, my PS4 arrived, I got it set up, and I gave it a whirl. I didn't play with it excessively over the weekend, but I do think I've had enough time to give my initial impressions.

The Setup

Unboxing it was fairly painless. It comes with an HDMI cable, which, yeah, I think this is the first system to do that. Hope Best Buy doesn't mind. The first problem I ran into was... well, finding the power button.

Seriously, because of the way this thing is designed it took me about 5 minutes before I could find the "On" switch. I had to point my lit-up phone at it to see the tiny power and disc ejection buttons sitting wedged in the middle of the front face. Say what you will about the PS3's weird-looking design, at least you could tell how to turn it on and eject a disc.

Once I got it to turn on and connected it to my WiFi, it started downloading the initial Day One update almost immediately. I was actually pleasantly surprised by that. I had heard that the network was really congested, so I actually came prepared to load the initial update manually. Turns out I didn't need to. The update downloaded and installed pretty quickly. I think the whole process took about 5 minutes. Perfectly painless.

Then I tried to log into my PSN account. That... was less smooth. I had to go at it for roughly an hour, sometimes getting errors, sometimes just seeing it spin its wheels for about 10 minutes before backing out and trying again. Eventually, though, it let me through. I still got warnings periodically about PSN Maintenance the whole time, but my connection seemed more or less stable for the rest of the night.

I thought it was a bit strange that the initial update was fine, but logging into my PSN account was a nightmare.

In any case, I needed to connect to my PSN account before I could play any games.

The Games

I was initially going to purchase "Knack", since I kinda liked the colorful design and unique mechanics, but pretty much all of the reviews I've read have panned it, so I decided to cancel that order.

But that wasn't too much of a problem, thankfully. Since I have a PlayStation Plus account (which has more than paid for itself several times over in free games and discounts), I decided to go all-digital this launch. It was a bit of a problem due to the whole PSN Maintenance debacle, but once I got through, it was less of an issue.

On day one, I was able to get "RESOGUN", "Contrast", "Warframe", and "Blacklight Retribution" all for free.


"RESOGUN" is a fun little game. It kind of feels like a hybrid of "Gradius" and "Missile Command". It's a side-scrolling shoot-'em-up, but you are confined to a single circular area and you have to defend and save 10 humans in the map while simultaneously avoiding getting killed yourself.

It's a really well-designed game and I enjoyed playing it, but I think my only problem with it is that it's not terribly addicting, which is kind of a death-knell for a shmup. I played the first couple levels, had a pretty good time, failed on the third one and then just kind of moved on to other games.

I think part of the problem is that each level feels sort of self-contained. In "Galaga" or something like that, even if I die right out of the gate, I still might feel the urge to keep trying in spite of myself. In "RESOGUN", however, if I lose a life early on or a human dies early on, I feel less inclined to keep going since surviving ten waves of Keepers, which are green, glowing smaller fleets of ships that have to be destroyed to free one of the humans. If they are not destroyed quickly enough, the human just dies. If you destroy them, the human is freed from its cage and you have to fly over to it, pick it up, and bring it to an evacuation point.

Let me just say that this very critical aspect of the game took me way too long to figure out. I knew I had to "save the last humans" as the game tells you at the beginning of every level, but I had no idea how to. I couldn't figure out who the Keepers are, what I was supposed to do to them, and how their deaths affected the humans.

All that was probably my own fault for not paying as much attention as I should have, but I'm just saying the game isn't necessarily terribly intuitive. Also, I still don't quite get why letting the Keepers live causes the humans to die. I would think it would make more sense if the humans got captured or directly attacked, but it seems like the humans just die as a result of the Keepers existing. And when the Keepers are destroyed, the human it frees could be anywhere on the map, often causing a rather intense mad dash to the other side of the map to find them before they get killed, and rushing in this game can be tricky since, like any decent shmup, touching another ship will kill you.

All in all, though, I liked "RESOGUN", I just don't think I'm crazy about it. It certainly is the prettiest game of the bunch.


"Contrast" is probably my favorite game of the bunch. I haven't beaten it yet, but I really enjoy playing it.

I'm not 100% sure what exactly is going on (again, haven't finished it yet), but it seems that you play as Dawn, an imaginary friend to a girl named Didi, who lives in a noir-style world. Didi is the only character you can actually see. Everyone else in the game is shown only in shadow. Similarly, it seems no one else other than Didi can see you, though it seems they can see your shadow (though they most seem not to notice you at all). Also, the rest of the world seems very... unfinished. It's unclear whether or not this is just the way the world appears to Dawn, if her ability to interact with the world is limited through Didi, or if the world truly is this collection of concrete islands trapped floating on a void of nothingness.

In any case, the core gameplay of the game is platforming with a slight twist. Dawn has the ability to slip in and out of shadow form, resulting in some very clever level design and puzzles. The puzzles thus far haven't been terribly difficult, but they are still engaging. The platforming itself is a bit flighty and glitchy. Reminds me a lot of "Psychonauts". Clever ideas, but lacking the polish of a platforming game like "Banjo-Kazooie" or a Mario game.

The real highlights of the game, however, are the story and the atmosphere. Didi's story of a girl caught between two parents teetering on the brink of annihilation is a bit cliche, but still engaging. Didi understands more than her parents think, but she also is more concerned with the simpler side of the situation. She understands that her father is in trouble with the wrong sort and she knows that his plans tend to not work out so great, but she just wants her family to stay together and for everyone to stay happy. Her motivations as a character are clear and sympathetic and inform the gameplay by providing simple goals.

The gameplay might be a bit buggy at times, the assets might have needed a bit more polish, and the level design could be tighter and a bit more complex, but the game manages to engage me far more than "RESOGUN". I'd say they are almost complete opposites in that way. While "RESOGUN" has a great deal of polish and balance, it lacks any kind of hook to draw the player in. Meanwhile, "Contrast" probably needed more time for polish and balance, but manages to hook the player in through its unique ideas and compelling story.


"Warfram" is free-to-play game for everyone, not just PlayStation Plus subscribers, but I think you might need PS+ in order to play it online. I could be wrong, I don't know.

In any case, this isn't a new game as it's been out on the PC for close to a year now, but this is the first console port.

It's a cooperative third-person shooter where you play as a sort of cyborg going through and fighting aliens. Part of the gimmick is that it allows for a handful of different play-styles. Some levels can be played with stealth rather than constant running and gunning, though if you're playing in a team, good luck using stealth.

Your characters get a number of abilities and the use of a melee weapon (a sword), which is pretty cool, but the gameplay isn't terribly unique.

For what it is, though, I certainly don't regret playing it and I might go back to it. I'm always a fan of compelling cooperative play and as a free-to-play game, it handles microtransactions responsibly. If you have patience, you can unlock everything in the game without paying a cent, but since a lot of gear is obtained randomly by purchasing blueprints and fusing upgrades, spending real-world money to get a particular piece of gear you want would probably save you time. I personally think that's the best way to handle free-to-play in the current marketplace. Meanwhile, games like the upcoming "Killer Instinct" claim to be free-to-play, but there's no way to get all of the content without paying. Sure, you can play for free if you only want to play as one character, but no one in their right mind would do that.

But I had my problems with it. The art design is way too dark, making it really difficult to spot a lot of enemies. I'm also not crazy about the melee attacks. When you use your sword, you lunge forward, so if you space it improperly or your opponent strafes, you may have to spin around wildly to get your bearings straight again.

Still, I'd say it's worth a go. It is free, after all.

Blacklight Retribution

When I tried to play, there was apparently some server trouble, so I wasn't able to play it. The game is still in Beta anyway, so it probably wouldn't be fair to give it a whole review at this stage.

Back to Games In General

So in spite of the fact that I didn't buy any games at launch, I had a pretty good time with what I was able to get for free. Game installations took a lot less time than they did on the PS3, multiple games could download simultaneously, and once I got PSN to connect properly, the downloads went along pretty quickly. My guess is that they were throttling the number of PSN logins so that the download speeds would remain optimal for update and game downloads. Kind of an irritating trade-off, but I guess it makes sense.

I really do wish that they made an effort to have more PSN games from the previous generation to have some compatibility on the PS4. I've downloaded a lot of PSN titles and it would have been nice to see some of those purchases carry over. Also, yeah, the whole backwards compatibility thing is a bit of a drag, but I understand why it's a problem and I hope that the Gaikai streaming service will prove stable. In the meantime, I still have a perfectly functional PS3.

I will say that I can understand the hesitance regarding the 500 GB HDD. On the PS3, 500 GB was plenty. Even for someone like me who has been binge-downloading games from PSN could fit dozens of games without any problem on a HDD that size. However, I did tend to buy my AAA titles via physical copies just because those sorts of games can take up a lot more space. The PS4, however, will need to install all of your games, in full, no matter what. Again, I understand why. I mean, our PCs already do this. But our PCs aren't limited to one 500 GB HDD. We can have external drives and multiple drives and larger drives. The PS4, however, can only have one 2.5" HDD for game installs, and that's pretty much the largest HDD you'll find that will fit within that form factor.

Honestly, though, it shouldn't be as huge of an issue this generation. The ability to play certain games from only a partial download/install will make it less of a hassle to delete games that you aren't playing anymore. Plus, even though 500 GB is by no means "more than you'll ever need" (which is always a doomed statement to make at any given time period anyway), it should be plenty for about a dozen AAA games, which is certainly more than I can typically juggle at any given time, so I don't really have a problem with this. At least not yet. We'll see how I feel in the future.

In general, though, I feel like the games I got were enough to quench my thirst for at least a weekend, and the fact that I didn't have to pay for any of them makes that even nicer. I would have liked to be able to play "Watch Dogs", but I'm willing to let Ubisoft take their time to get that one polished. It looks great.

The Features

The PS4 is more than just games, though, and people expect more from their video game systems as well. So what else do we got?

Well, the controller is very nice. I haven't had a lot of games that used the touchpad much, but it's easy to reach when I have needed to use it, so I think I'm OK with it so far. The rest of the controller is very ergonomic and comfortable and it has an audio jack port this time, which is probably the only feature from the Xbox 360 controller that I would have liked the DualShock 3 to have. Bluetooth was always a nightmare for chat audio. Also, the controller uses micro USB, so you can charge it with most mobile device charge cables if you don't want to plug your controller into the PS4 itself. Overall, the controller is great. No complaints.

One feature that I had a fair amount of fun with was the built-in streaming. Without needing to buy anything extra, you can set up any game to stream directly to for the world to see. It was easy enough to set up and you can share announcements for your streams on Facebook to let people know when you're online by spamming their Facebook timeline (sorry about that). I liked the feature, but I have some minor issues with it. The overlay takes up about 1/4 of your TV real estate to show you that you're on the air, whether or not your mic is active, how many people are watching, and what people are saying. That's all well and good and I like being able to read the chat as I play, but I really think popup notifications could have been plenty for me. The ability to turn off the overlay would have been nice. Also, while it tells you how many people are connected, I wouldn't mind knowing who is watching, even if it's -- again -- just as a popup notification. It's pretty cool and I think I'll keep using it, but it could be better.

The new interface is fine, though there's really not much to say about it than that.

Not all of the apps that were available in the PS3 are available in the PS4 yet. Most notably the YouTube app, which I thought was a strange omission. Still, I imagine it will be carried over soon. And yeah, I really would like it if they could get apps for Blip and HBOGo so I could stop using my Xbox 360.

Probably my biggest complaint is that there doesn't seem to be any media server support. Look, Sony, I get it, most people watch movies and TV through Netflix and Hulu and stuff these days rather than downloading and streaming locally. But seriously. How hard would it have been to support media streaming? The PS3 has been able to do this since launch. There are $50 devices made by startups probably working out of a garage that can do media server streaming. It's just frustrating, that's all. Thankfully, this can probably be added fairly easily in a software update.

I didn't get the PlayStation Camera, mostly because it's voice control features are severely limited and there aren't really any games that really use it yet. Unless I want to start including my face in my streams, I don't think I'll be rushing out to get one yet. Maybe if they release a better version in a few years or if more games start supporting it or if Harmonix ports "Dance Central" to the PS4. I could get down with that.

The Takeaway

Here's probably my biggest takeaway from this experience so far:

I still use my PS3.

If I want to watch YouTube? I switch to my PS3. If I want to stream a video from my laptop? I switch to my PS3. If I want to play "XCOM: Enemy Within"? I switch to my PS3.

This is a problem, and it's a problem both new systems share. I understand that the PS3's current incarnation lacks backwards compatibility, but it didn't at launch, and that's probably when you need it the most. Games are still coming out for the PS3 and not all of them will have PS4 versions right away, if ever. Gaikai is still months away at the earliest, and even that is probably optimistic.

The PS4 doesn't feel like a replacement to the PS3 or even a successor and I worry that it might take a very long time before it does.

On the one hand, I guess I'm kind of OK with that since I love my PS3 and I would feel weird disconnecting it and putting it in storage, but my PS3 is also really getting old. I finally got the Yellow Light of Death a number of months ago and had to send it back to Texas (read "Mexico") twice to get it repaired. It's working fine now, but I doubt it will have the same kind of longevity that my N64 has. It won't last forever and I have a terrible sinking feeling that when it dies, I will have to either repair it myself at considerable cost (probably from a third-party) or buy a replacement (which would lack PS1/2 backwards compatibility) in order to be able to play most of the games for it. Maybe I'm underestimating Gaikai or perhaps the PS4 can one day natively support some PS3 games through emulation, but this transition feels rocky at best.

I plan to keep using my PS4, but I feel like I'll still be using my PS3 far more often. I'm hoping that will change in the next year, but I think that's the other problem.

While I don't necessarily regret buying the PS4, I feel like I probably could have waited a year and it wouldn't have bothered me much. In a year, I'll probably be done with most of the PS3 games I'm still playing, most if not all of the new games will be available on the PS4, Gaikai might be working, YouTube might be supported, and maybe media streaming too. But I feel like until that day comes, my interaction with the PS4 will be sporadic at best. I still stand by my initial feelings from long ago that Sony and Microsoft would have been smart to hold off for another year and really come out swinging rather than do the usual "rush it out and fill in the blanks over the next year" that most consoles have done in the past.

Still, it feels like a worthy investment. I think I will get good use out of it, just not right out of the gate. I'm hoping that the somewhat sparse launch line-up leaves some room for indie devs to crash on the scene and build names for themselves. I'm hoping that the new hardware gives devs more freedom to push the boundaries of both visuals and game mechanics, especially when it comes to AI. I'm hoping that the PS4 will eventually be my new media hub that I turn on first thing when I get home from work every day.

So... I'd say my feelings are mixed. If you're reading this hoping to get a fix on whether or not you want one... well, I guess my feelings are that if you already have a PlayStation Plus account and you know you'll probably buy one within the next year or two, you might as well go for it now. It probably won't get any cheaper for another few years and if you've already got a PlayStation Plus subscription, you can take advantage of the free games that will come out in the meantime. Build up your library. If you're debating between getting this and an XBOne, I'd say that if you like to play smaller, indie games and you don't want to always have your system connected to the Internet, you should probably go with the PS4. But honestly? I don't really know if the PS4 is a clear winner yet. I've heard the stories about how devs are saying off the record that the PS4 has more hardware power, which is great, and yeah, while Microsoft has said that they're taking steps to be more indie-friendly and they've taken away their online requirements, I find it difficult to trust them. The reaching out to indie devs feels like little more than a token gesture at this point. They say that indies will get equal treatment, that they'll set their own terms, that the XBOne will work as a complete SDK eventually, and that publishers will no longer be needed, but for now those are only words. I'm hoping they prove me wrong, but they rarely do. As for the recanting of the online requirements, as I said near the beginning of this post, Microsoft rarely truly gives up on anything. If something they create doesn't go over well, they take it away, change it up a bit, rebrand it, and try again (see also Vista, Zune, Windows Phone, Windows 8, Microsoft Surface, etc.). I'm willing to bet that in about a year, they'll try again with the online requirements. Maybe offer a new feature that you can only use if you opt into the always-online feature. Then eventually, if the feature is adopted by a large enough percentage of users, they'll make it a requirement. If they get blasted in PR, they'll probably just cite some metrics saying that the majority of their users are always connected anyway or something like that. The only reason they're recanting now is because they still need people to buy the damn things, but that's a problem that will go away after launch.

But that said, if those things don't really matter to you... If you really only play AAA titles, you always have a stable Internet connection, and you think Kinect is worth $100, then... well, yeah, the XBOne is a pretty comparable choice at this stage. It will probably support most of the same 3rd party games and the graphics probably won't be very different. They've started doing the free games thing that Sony started with PS+, though the selections have been pretty underwhelming so far. The Kinect is undoubtedly better than the PlayStation Camera and the system in general has a lot more app support, even if most of those apps are stuck behind a paywall.

But if you like indie games, you're worried about Microsoft changing their minds again, and/or you really don't care whether or not the Kinect is better than the PlayStation Camera... yeah, the PS4 is probably your best option.

Of course, people like Yahtzee will always say that you don't have to choose between the two and that you can just as easily get a PC. And yeah, that's true, but honestly, while Steam has improved the PC ecosystem dramatically in a short amount of time, I just prefer console gaming. With PC gaming, everything feels a bit like a roll of the dice. Usually everything works the way it should, but every once in a while, something just doesn't and sometimes it can be a nightmare to fix it. Consoles offer consistency. A promise that I will be able to use this hardware to play most of the games that will come out in the next decade or so with no serious game-breaking problems. For example, I just got "XCOM: Enemy Within" on my PS3. My PS3 is over 5 years old. So here's a challenge: find me a 5-year-old PC that can play "XCOM: Enemy Within" as well as my PS3 can. Then tell me how much that PC cost 5 years ago. I'm willing to bet any PC you bought 5 years ago with a graphics card capable of playing the PC version without overheating or significantly reducing the settings probably cost somewhere around two or three times what I paid for my PS3 five years ago.

I like PC gaming, I think it can be a great option for certain types of games and Steam often has great deals. But I don't think I could ever make it my "primary" method of gaming. And the Steam Machine coming out next year isn't really a solution either as far as I'm concerned, but that's a whole other ball of wax.

I feel like the PS4 was a good choice. I might not get a lot out of it for a while, but I stand by it nevertheless. At least for now. Hopefully I'll still feel that way in a year.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Thor: The Dark World" Review

I'm going to break this review up into two parts. Non-spoiler and then spoiler. The non-spoiler part should be more or less complete, the spoiler part will just be where I get into the nitty-gritty geeky specifics that I love to go nuts over.


The first "Thor" movie, despite being pretty good, had a number of problems. Asgard looked too pristine and unused for a multi-millennia-old kingdom, the side characters were often under-defined, and the whole plot felt overly rushed and compressed into a short period of time when it didn't have to be.

"Thor: The Dark World" manages to at least fix those first two problems. While Asgard still looks gorgeous and impressive, it feels like people actually live there. Less Naboo Starfighter, more Millennium Falcon. Additionally, while the side characters probably have about as much to do as before, what they do actually has more relevance to the plot than it did before. Also, the background characters aren't just completely ignored either. When soldiers die, the movie finds subtle ways to make you care. The bodies (when bodies still remain) are left strewn across the once-spotless halls of the All-Father. They are mourned.

It is fairly easy to say that "Thor: The Dark World" is a notable improvement over its predecessor for the reasons above as well as a few others that I'll get into later. However, one thing that remains unchanged from the original film is that this sequel feels even more rushed and compressed.

Very little time is devoted to giving characters room to breathe. It can often be a bit exhausting. While the first "Thor" movie suffered partially because it was hard to believe that Thor could change so much and fall in love within the span of a day or two. Thankfully, there's not a lot of enormous character whiplash this time around, but instead we simply end up with a movie that kind of feels incomplete.

Characters are introduced and then ignored. New conflicts emerge and then are left to be dealt with in a sequel. A lot of people say that a good movie should be able to stand on its own, and I don't entirely agree with that, but if a movie CAN stand on its own, that's usually a point in its favor. The fact that "Thor: The Dark World" is in no way a self-contained movie doesn't make it a less enjoyable movie for me, but it does mean that I'm far less likely to watch it on its own rather than as a part of a Marvel movie marathon or something.

Still, while what we got was a bit rushed and perhaps slightly incomplete, it was still incredibly entertaining.

Probably the one thing about "Thor: The Dark World" that I didn't expect was how incredibly funny it was. The "Iron Man" movies were funny, but "Thor: The Dark World" is hysterical. I was laughing almost the entire way through. The movie realized that one of the best things about Thor is how much he stands out. The best parts of the first movie were the parts where he clashed with modern-day Earth. It was funny, not just because he didn't understand the nuances of Earth culture, but because he genuinely didn't care. He treated the whole thing as just another adventure where he would mix and mingle with the local populace and then move on. Eventually it meant more than that, but at first, it was just very funny to see Thor throw a coffee mug on the ground or ask for a dog large enough to mount and ride like a horse.

While Thor doesn't spend much time on Earth in this one, that element of Thor and his kin having a very larger-than-life persona is never forgotten. Some of the best comedy is built on confusion or contradiction, and Thor is very much an inherently funny concept. That an advanced alien race would behave like characters written by Shakespeare is comedic gold when played right, and this movie manages to do that without straight-up making fun of the source material. It never apologizes for it's apparent silliness, but it does acknowledge how peculiar it is.

Most importantly, the movie always remembers to have fun. Too many action movies lose that element of fun and it can often make the set-pieces feel dull and detaching. This movie doesn't have that problem.

The only other criticism I can give is that Thor doesn't really have a lot to do in his own movie. Oh, he's in most of it and he does things and feels things, but almost every critical detail of the plot is acted upon by someone in his supporting cast. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Thor is often the one arranging all of the moving pieces and making sure they're in the right place and ready to do what they need to do when he needs them to do it, but when all is said and done, Thor's role in pretty much every plan he directs is to show up and the right moment and hit things. And perhaps Mjolnir deserves more credit for that than he does.

Still, despite Thor's lack of doing stuff, he remains an interesting and entertaining character to follow through the story and his supporting cast is really given time to shine and develop.

Overall, I'd say the movie is thoroughly enjoyable, I just think it's a bit... peculiar. Not necessarily bad, just... particular. Slightly off-putting.


OK, time to get detailed and nit-picky. This part is going to be more stream-of-consciousness than anything else.

First and foremost, I'm still disappointed that they killed Frigga. They really didn't need to. I'm glad she at least got to die a hero and all that and it's good that the movie doesn't lack for proactive female characters, but a fridge is a fridge. The movie wanted a reason for Loki to cooperate, and so they decided that Frigga was expendable to achieve that end. I find that upsetting and while it didn't ruin the movie for me, it certainly didn't help.

Next, the reveal at the end, while pretty cool, is incredibly maddening. Too many questions are left unresolved. Where is Odin? Is he alive? Will Loki continue to pretend to be Odin? Will this mask his presence from Thanos, who I imagine is still pissed at him for failing to get the Tesseract? It feels like a huge cliffhanger with serious potential consequences and it's pretty irresponsible to just leave this hanging.

Speaking of the Tesseract, I was a bit surprised that they decided to make the Tesseract one of the Infinity Gems. Er, Infinity Stones. Presumably the Mind Stone, since the Mind Gem was also blue and Loki's staff, which was somehow connected to the Tesseract, had the ability to possess people's minds. Similarly, I'm assuming the red aether is the Power Stone as it seemed to give its users the ability to perform impossible feats of strength and power. Also, yeah, because it's red. It's interesting because this basically means that any artifact, regardless of shape or form, can be an Infinity Stone. Makes you wonder if they've hidden any other Infinity Stones in plain sight.

On that same note, HOLY CRAP BENICIO DEL TORO IS PERFECT AS THE COLLECTOR. "Guardians of the Galaxy" can't come out soon enough.

I really liked how Sif and Jane didn't do the whole love triangle bullshit outside of Odin being an ass and implying how much he ships Thor and Sif because Sif won't die on him.

Loki tends to get over-praised, but he really deserves it here. They kept me guessing from beginning to end and Tom Hiddleston just had so much fun with it. Loki did a lot of frowning and brooding in his previous two outings, but in this movie, he's the grinning mischief-making chessmaster full-tilt. And it's incredible.

I was worried that Jane would be possessed through the majority of the movie a la Hawkeye in "Avengers". Thankfully, she was never robbed of her character or agency and actually probably did more to move and resolve the plot than Thor did.

Odin was way more of an asshole in this film than he was in the first film, which was a bit aggravating, but it is how he usually behaves in the comics, so... yeah, I'll take it.

The Captain America "cameo" is utterly hilarious. Absolutely brilliant. Vaguely surprised that Chris Evans can do such a convincing Loki, but not that surprised.

Darcy is also absolutely great. I love how she cares so much even though by all accounts, she probably shouldn't. Wasn't she interning for the credit? Why is she still there two years later? Did she change her major?

I find it curious that S.H.I.E.L.D. ignored what was going on, possibly because Darcy was the one who reached out to them. I am surprised they didn't do anything about Selvig's naked craziness at Stonehenge. I do hope they devote an episode of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." to dealing with that random monster from Jotunheim that's bombing around London, but it's probably outside of their budget.

It feels like S.H.I.E.L.D. in general has been pretty hands-off lately. Maybe it's because they wanted to decrease the saturation or maybe it's because something is corrupting S.H.I.E.L.D. from within. Perhaps we'll find out.

Malekith, much like Laufey in the previous movie, felt very underdeveloped. Why did he want to destroy the universe exactly? What did he stand to gain or lose? Can he not survive in a world with light? Does he just prefer the darkness? Did he used to rule the universe when it was enveloped in darkness but lost control after light showed up? If so, why does he want to rule the universe? What agenda is he pushing?

Kurse was pretty awesome though. At least I got that he was completely loyal to Malekith in a Waylon Smithers-esque fashion.

I thought it was pretty much bullshit that Hogun got dumped off on Vanaheim to be with his people. Apparently Hogun isn't an Asgardian in this universe. Whatever. I get that he didn't provide as much comic relief as Fandral and Volstagg, but did we really have to ditch the only Asian dude in the movie? It would be interesting if in MCU continuity Vanaheim is to Ancient Asian mythology as Asgard is to Ancient Norse mythology. I think I could maybe get behind that, though calling it "Vanaheim" seems kinda dumb if that's the case. Maybe this is the realm where K'un L'un is located. Maybe Hogun will show up in the "Iron Fist" miniseries. Maybe this whole convergence thing is how he discovers K'un L'un. I dunno. I guess we'll see.

I touched on this before, but I really liked Loki's master plan. He starts out the movie with a number of problems. His family hates him, he's in prison, and Thanos is presumably after him as well for not holding up his end of the bargain. So what does he manage to do? Get out of prison, regain his honor, avenge his step-mom, fake his death, AND stick it to his father and reclaim the throne of Asgard. Gotta say, he played his shitty hand really well. He's my favorite kind of villain. He doesn't let his petty bullshit get in the way of his true goals. He may not be fond of Thor, but he knew that he would be better off playing nice with him than trying to off him. And he may be an ego-maniac, but he's fine with pretending to be dead and posing as Odin simply because he knows that's the only way he can get what he wants for now. He's smart and selfish, not single-minded and pointlessly evil like, say, Malekith.

I thought it was a nice touch to illustrate how Loki learned his magic stuff from Frigga. It made his devotion to her a lot more believable.

I also like that Loki is perfectly amicable towards Jane. He really has no reason to hate her and so he doesn't. In fact, I think he saved her life at one point, though that was probably just to help convince Thor that he was OK again.

What the hell was with Jane's new boyfriend, Richard? He seemed nice and all, but he seemed to serve absolutely no purpose that couldn't have been fulfilled by something else that already existed in the movie. Maybe he'll be important later? I dunno. He kind of reminded me of Doc Samson in "The Incredible Hulk". He was just sort of... there. Maybe he originally had more to do but they cut it out.

Darcy's intern, Ian, was pretty OK though. I mean, he was about as pointless as Richard, but at least he was funny and had good chemistry with Darcy. He reminded me of Rory from "Doctor Who". 

I loved loved loved the spaceship battles. I dunno, I just have a thing for that sort of action sequence. Maybe that's once reason I love "Star Wars" as much as I do. Man, I am going to have a cow over "Guardians of the Galaxy".

Friday, October 18, 2013

What's Still Wrong With Windows 8.1

Probably my most popular post on this blog would be my post from over a year ago about the problems with Windows 8. As I've said there and continued to say in related posts regarding Microsoft's recent OS strategy, they want something they can't have: control. They want PC users to get all of their apps through their apps store, they want developers to develop their apps for the tiled UI, and they want to be the first on the market with hardware with things like the Surface. They just assumed for some reason that everyone would be OK with this. After all, it pretty much worked out for Apple. But they were wrong. Windows 8 was a flop. And inexplicably, they tried to do the same thing with Xbox One, attempting to seize control of their customers through constant online access and game installation. Again, customers balked at it and they have since gone back on their always-online plans. The moral of the story is that Microsoft can't change their entire relationship with their customers -- particularly not if the customers are blatantly losing out in that new dynamic -- just through simple marketing and rebranding of a product.

And on that note, here comes Windows 8.1, the second marketing attempt to rebrand the Windows 8 image in a last-ditch effort to somehow turn it into a success. They promised to alleviate some of the complaints most of us raised and finally manage to get us on board.

For those wondering, yes, I have been using Windows 8 since it came out. Not really by choice so much as necessity. I work in IT and the last time I skipped an operating system (Vista) it actually put me at a little bit of a disadvantage when it came time to evaluate Windows 7. So I decided to learn the ins and outs of Windows 8 through experience in order to have a better understanding when Microsoft inevitably releases the next Windows.

And on that note, I have also been using the preview build of Windows 8.1 for the past two months or so, and as it has just been fully released, I felt this would be a good time to give it a review.

And... well, it sucks. I'd go into further detail, but honestly, the biggest problem with Windows 8.1 is that it's pretty much just Windows 8 with a few minor cosmetic changes. If I were to review it, it would basically just sound like my review of Windows 8. If you just want to know whether or not 8.1 is different enough to get you to upgrade, the short answer is no, if you intend to use a mouse at least. You could probably manage to tolerate it, but if you aren't looking for a headache, just get a PC with Windows 7.

Reviewing it is pointless for me, so instead, I'll just outline what's still wrong in Windows 8.1 that's going to hold it back from being the savior Microsoft wants it to be.

Tiled Interface Still Unavoidable

It baffles me how Microsoft can so completely miss the point and nothing says it more than two of the most publicized 8.1 changes: 1) The start menu icon is back. 2) You can boot into the Desktop now.

On the surface, this might seem like a great change. Oh good! You can turn off the tiled interface, right?

Except, that's not what they're saying. Yes, you can boot directly into the Desktop, and yes you can see that old familiar Windows icon sitting in the corner again, but when you click on it... well, this Penny Arcade comic articulates it very clearly:

So really, what have I gained? Well, before, I would have to click the "Desktop" tile to get to my Desktop after booting. And before, if I clicked where the start menu icon used to be, it brought me to the "tile shit". So Windows 8.1 saved me a click at boot time and drew a bigger icon in the corner for me to mostly ignore.


This is a perfect example of someone hearing a complaint and not understanding it but trying to appease it anyway.

You know what I miss? I miss being able to click on my start button and easily scroll through my programs folders. Now when I click it, I can see my programs folders, but they're all expanded and they take up the entire screen and I still have to scroll along to find the one I want. I get that this is more convenient if you are using a tablet, but in case I haven't made this abundantly clear:






I have nothing against tablets and in fact I am very interested to see how tablets work in the future, but right now they just aren't good enough for me to use as my main computer. And so long as I'm using a mouse instead of a touchscreen, this interface is a very large and annoying step backwards. This is why we want to be able to turn it off. Not avoid it, not work around it, turn it the fuck off.

But no, we can't. Why? Well, that brings us to the next step...

The App Store Is Still Garbage

The App Store is Microsoft's entire reason for forcing this "tile shit". They want you to use the tiles all the time so that you will get your apps through their store so they don't have to keep supporting Win32 apps (the ones that end in .exe for my non-tech readers) and so they can actually have some decent apps for their phone OS that keeps getting its ass kicked by iOS and Android.

And... fine, whatever. I get why they want that. Frankly, so much of our computer experience has moved into the browser that it's not all that unreasonable. If I was forced to only use apps from Microsoft's App Store, even as it is now, I could probably survive and get a fair amount of my non-IT work done.

But they don't understand that this is a negotiation, not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. We're their customers, not their hostages. If people don't like their new app environment, they'll just keep using and developing for the Win32 stuff. And if they stop supporting the Win32 stuff, they'll just keep using the perfectly good operating system that does.

They need to incentivize the switch to touch-based fullscreen apps, and so far the new app store doesn't do that. The tiles that show "live" information are hilariously out-of-date, next to impossible to manage the settings for, and take forever to load. When you actually do use the apps, navigating between them is ridiculous and requires what amounts to several different secret handshakes, which are made even more impossible if you don't have a touchscreen. Multitasking has never been harder. The apps can't easily be closed and the few built-in menus they have are hidden and unintuitive when you find them.

Why would I ever want to use the tiled version of Internet Explorer on my laptop when the Desktop version allows me to see all of the buttons and close a window without jumping through hoops or taking up my entire screen?

If they want people to use the tiled interface, that's fine, but they have to make it not suck. Even the one app I do use on the tiled interface (SmartGlass) is a headache to navigate and buggy as hell. If I am watching Game of Thrones and want to watch a behind-the-scenes thing on my Xbox, doing so will crash the HBOGo app on my Xbox. Every time. And this is the good app. This is the one I like and actually use.

So it's no surprise that basically no one is taking their app store seriously. And they will continue to not take it seriously until they improve the tile interface and the core app experience that's at the center of the problem.

Windows RT Is Still Useless

Windows RT used to be a waste of time that could only use apps procured through the App Store and offered no support for Win32 applications.

But now with Windows RT 8.1... it's still exactly as useless and still can't support Win32 applications.

You can apparently jailbreak it and run DOSBOX and some Win32 emulators (that I imagine don't work very well), but that's exactly the problem with Windows RT. You have to jailbreak it. As though it were a phone.

I really don't understand why Microsoft is intentionally holding Windows RT back. Yes, I get that it can't support Win32 apps and I'm fine with that. But we aren't talking about a phone here. This is a computer. A Windows computer. People expect to be able to just do shit to it outside of what you offer in your app store.

I get that it's supposed to compete with the iPad which also only supports things within its own app store, but you don't compete with something by being exactly like it. You have to be better than it. Have the app store but allow people to develop their own applications if they want to. Let people work outside of your garden and maybe people will actually start playing with it. Tinkerers are the reason technologies take off. Low-risk environments foster innovation. Without innovation, Windows RT (and Windows Phone for that matter) will die. It's just that simple. You tried it your way and it didn't work. Give it up.

Limited User Access

Windows Vista introduced this annoying feature where even if you were logged in as an administrator, you would typically only operate with the simplest level of privileges possible and anytime your computer needed elevated privileges to do something -- such as install an application or change system settings -- it would generate a pop-up that asked if you wanted to allow it. If you clicked OK, it would elevate your permissions to do that one thing and then proceed as normal. This was called User Account Control, or UAC. And it was the devil.

With UAC active, Windows started asking your permission to do just about everything. All this so that if you tried to install a virus, it would at least ask you first if you were really sure. While that might sound good in theory, when you just instinctively click OK fifty times a day, you stop actually reading it and deciding whether or not it's safe to elevate your permissions. It's just annoying.

In addition, having this setting creates a slew of problems with installing or running older applications that just assume administrative permissions while running.

In Windows 7, they created the feature to disable UAC in the Action Center and it was a godsend.

In Windows 8, they still allow you to disable the prompts, but doing that no longer disables the Limited User Access feature, which is the part that lowers your privileges. Even with User Account Control disabled as in Windows 7, it still requires you to manually run something as an administrator in order for it to function.

However, there was a minor workaround. If you went into the registry, you could disable LUA with the caveat that it would prevent most of the tiled apps from working (what a tragedy).

In Windows 8.1, however, disabling LUA doesn't seem to correct the administrative privileges issue. Everything still runs with lower privileges and the tiled apps still don't work. So if you're using Windows 8.1, sorry, but you'll have to manually use elevated privileges whenever you need them and as far as I can tell, there's no way around it. This probably won't be too big of a deal for most of you, but if you're a tech geek like me, this gets really annoying really fast.

Fun New Problems

I'm not sure if these problems are going to be resolved in the official release, but as of this week, Windows 8.1 Preview Build also has a fun suite of new problems that I didn't experience in Windows 8.

Adventures in WPAD

Excuse me, but this next part requires me to get a bit technical.

As I mentioned, the PC I've been using Windows 8.1 on is my work PC. At work, we have a web security service that requires our web traffic to go through a proxy server. We have the Automatically Detect Proxy Settings option checked, it finds a WPAD file through our DHCP server (we used to use DNS, but this caused problems for our remote site workers) and the browser uses the WPAD file to determine where to send the web traffic depending on the destination IP address. In addition, we have a service that determines what user to associate that traffic with through Windows' built-in authentication. In Windows 8 and below, this worked just fine.

Windows 8.1, on the other hand, is a fucking nightmare.

When I first started using it, it simply refused to work. Yes, I could set it to send traffic directly to the proxy tower, but this caused issues if I needed to access resources from my local network and we also have Group Policy settings to reset the proxy settings for users who use laptops (like me) so I'd have to reset it constantly.

And you might be thinking, "Well Pat, just don't use Internet Explorer!"

You don't understand. Among other things, the Internet Options that affect Internet Explorer also affect Chrome, Windows Updates, the App Store, and (dun dun DUUUN) Activation.

That's right, I couldn't activate Windows because of this stupid problem. And the previous trick I used to activate Windows 8 with a different product key (since you could no longer change the product key in the dialog itself for some reason) stopped working as well for some reason. It just... refused to work.

Eventually, after changing all sorts of registry entries to force a WPAD override, I now sort of got it to work. After I boot, I have to open up Internet Explorer, disable WPAD, load a page, let it fail, and then re-enable WPAD and reload the page (sometimes twice). After this, Windows 8.1 finally gets the WPAD information and allows me to browse and activate. However, even then it still has annoying problems with the user authentication part.

You see, if an application doesn't support the automatic user authentication stuff, it prompts for a username and password. Microsoft stuff never used to do this because this is an authentication system they created. But what happens if I ever try to get Windows Updates direct from Microsoft instead of through my WSUS server? It prompts for authentication. Of course. Same thing if I try to use the App Store.

I just... I can't. Since we've started using WPAD throughout the company, we've accepted that sometimes software developers don't properly account for the use of proxy servers and it can be annoying, but we usually have ways around it. But there's really no excuse for the company that developed the freaking operating system that uses the proxy to not properly support it. It's completely asinine.

This particular thing probably won't affect 99% of you, but it's probably the one thing about 8.1 that annoys me more than anything else.

Search Sucks Now

I'm not sure if this was just something I didn't notice in Windows 8 or something that actually changed in 8.1, but I've found that Windows Search apparently sucks at searching file contents. I mean, it still technically does it, but it seems to only do it for folders you have indexed. Unless I'm mistaken, if a directory wasn't indexed before, it would still search through the file contents, but it would take a long time to do it. But now if I'm trying to search through my files on one of my workplace's servers, it just refuses to search through the contents. And since Windows can't index networked locations, I don't know if there's a way around this.

This is just another one of those things that I just don't understand. Windows 7 used to be able to search file contents on networked locations. As far as I know, this was never a problem. But now, Windows 8.1 can't do it. Why did this have to change? Is it because your new interface is so terrible that it's next to impossible to use efficiently without using the search tool for basically everything?

Oh, and on that note, the search tool now searches Bing as well as your files and folders. Because I'm sure that's exactly what everyone was asking for. More Bing.

Things I Actually Like

While most of the changes in Windows 8 and 8.1 are irritating and stupid, I can't deny there are a handful of things I actually like, so for the sake of full disclosure, here are some things I don't hate or even like.

It Works Great On Tablets

I recently had to deploy a bunch of tablets for a new demo room. Three of them were running Windows 8, one was running Windows 7.

You know what? Yeah, most of the interface changes and weird gestures actually make sense on a tablet. With Windows 7, the targets are just too small to use effectively and so it takes you several attempts just to do the thing you want. In addition, you don't really need to multi-task quite as much with a tablet as you would with a laptop or desktop, so the more simplified interface makes sense too.

I don't know if I'd call it perfect, but if this interface could be turned off when you don't have a touchscreen, I'd probably be a lot happier with it since it clearly has a place with at least some devices.

In addition, the Windows 7 tablet had a much harder time installing the proper drivers for the hardware and I wasn't able to get it to sync with the Bluetooth keyboard, which worked great on all of the Windows 8 tablets.

So yeah. If you want a tablet, I'd... well, actually I'd recommend you wait until tablets get better because they still haven't quite hit that sweet spot yet, but if you really want a tablet right now and you have a decent amount of money, I'd probably recommend getting the Surface Pro. It's pricey, but honestly if it had 4G LTE built-in and I could get it through Verizon and the battery life were significantly better... I'd legitimately consider getting one.

It Is Slightly Faster

Yes, the operation speed is generally a bit peppier than Windows 7 was. Particularly the boot time, mostly through a complete overhaul of the BIOS and architecture. Beyond that, it's not really all that noticeable in your day-to-day.

I Love The File Copy Window and Task Manager

One change I absolutely love is that they finally got around to making the copy progress bar useful to look at. No more green or blue bar with an approximate completion time that makes no sense. Instead, you get this handsome devil:

Look at that. You can actually see the increase or decrease of transfer speed over time. It's so elegant and informative. Whoever designed this deserves a raise. I know it's a minor detail, but I just love it. Maybe I'm weird, but for a guy who spends half of his day waiting for progress bars to finish filling up, something like this feels genius.

On a similar note, I like how the new Task Manager gives a lot more details regarding particular applications and processes and groups them together. Very slick.

I Like The Style

Some of my friends and colleagues aren't fond of the new style of Windows with it's flat colors and capital letters. Now that I've gotten used to it, however, I for one actually kind of like it. I dunno, I just think it looks clean and that it pops really well. In certain cases it doesn't lend itself very well to readable interface design, but for the most part I think it's a pretty snazzy look.

I've Adapted

After using Windows 8 and 8.1 for a while, I've got a few simple tricks that have made it so I can pretty much operate without changing too much of my usual work habits.

1) If you miss the start menu, just right-click the new start button. Doing that brings up a lot of the old familiar things like Control Panel or Shut Down. You can also install ClassicShell for the complete classic experience, but I'm not big on apps that completely change the core experience of an Operating System just because they tend to break with updates.

2) Pin everything. If you like to use apps that you used to just find in your Accessories folder like Notepad or Calculator, just pin them to your taskbar. Finding them in the new tiled interface, even if you do look through the all programs menu, is like playing "Where's Waldo?" Oh, and the Accessories, which used to be at the top of the list, are now filed under "Windows Accessories" near the end of the list, so watch out for that.

3) If you don't want to pin things, the Windows key is your new best friend. If you don't want to waste taskbar real estate on simple Accessories, the fastest way to find an app is to hit the Windows key (the one between Ctrl and Alt that you probably never used before) and start typing the app's name. When you start typing, it automatically starts running the search tool and will hopefully bring up the app you're looking for rather quickly. Apparently, this is how Microsoft wants you to find your apps now. Have fun memorizing the names of all the apps you don't want to pin!

4) Disable UAC and Windows SmartScreen. Just as with Windows 7, the first thing you should do when you get it is go to Control Panel, change "View By" to icons rather than categories, find the Action Center, click "Change User Account Control settings" and drop it down to "Never Notify". Then go back and click "Change Windows SmartScreen settings" and select "Don't do anything". This will stop Windows from prompting you any time you want to run something as an administrator or download things. As I mentioned, this doesn't stop LUA from existing and ruining your fun, but it's easy enough to run applications as an administrator if you right-click them and select the option to "Run as Administrator". And at the very least, you won't have annoying pop-ups asking your permission every time you want to do something.

5) Win + I. If you must use a tiled application, just hit the Windows key and I and it'll let you access what little options that application might have. I had the hardest time trying to find out how to remove accounts from the Mail app until I found out how to find the in-app options menu. Why isn't it just a part of the interface? Why is it hidden? I don't know. But at least it's somewhere.

What Microsoft Should Do Next Time

Look, it's been a year, and a lot of the things I said last time still hold true. But having been able to actually use Windows 8 for roughly a year, I think I can safely say that it's not completely unsalvageable.

The obvious stuff from last time still applies. They need to either kill RT or open it up to more tinkering. It worked for Android, maybe it'll work for RT and Windows Phone. They need to overhaul the tiled interface and improve the overall app experience in their core products. They need to bring Office into the tiled interface. They need to improve multi-tasking in the tiled interface a LOT. If I can't hop between different apps with just a simple move and click, the Desktop automatically wins because that's what I'm already doing. And if they can't do these things right away, they need to make it so you can disable the tiled interface or at least make it so it can more closely resemble the former start menu.

But they also have to refocus on the things they're doing in regards to marketing. Stop hiding the Desktop. I know they don't want people to use it and they want people to get used to the tiled interface, but the Desktop is their biggest selling point over an iPad. The biggest problem with iOS is that there's no centralized experience. No true "home". The tiled interface is similarly problematic. Once you start clicking, you just bounce around from app to app and getting back to square one to get your bearings straight is difficult and unintuitive. People don't find the new tiled interface inviting, they find it alienating. If they offer us something familiar, something we've been using since long before the iPad, they'll make us feel welcome and open to trying new things.

I don't care about the snappy keyboard or the cool sliding tricks you can do when you hire a choreographer. I do care about the fact that if I get a Surface Pro instead of an iPad, I can play Steam games on it. I can manage files and folders on it. I can connect a controller to it. They need to advertise the things it can do that people have been wanting tablets to do for ages. This is a tablet that can do the things most tablets can't do without sacrificing the things some people like about tablets. The Surface Pro has the potential to be the link between the desktop/laptop world and the tablet world. It just needs to not destroy the desktop/laptop world in the process.

Right now they're trying to get people to switch to tablets by making it really hard to use a mouse. Every time I have to navigate the tiled interface, it's like Microsoft is telling me, "Man, this would be so much faster if you had a touchscreen!" And yeah, that's true, but it's still not faster than the start menu from Windows 7, so why the fuck am I forced to use it? What they should be doing is making it easier to use a touchscreen than a mouse. They should be trying to make me want to switch interfaces.

But really, I don't expect them to be able to. They aren't playing the same game the rest of us are. They aren't really all that interested in making us happy. Right now our best alternative to Windows 8.1 is Windows 7, so why should they care which one we buy? They get money either way. They just want an app store so they can actually compete with iOS, which is the one market they can't seem to get any footing in, but they don't want to go the Android route of opening it up and allowing experimentation because that requires them sacrificing too much of their potential bottom line. So they changed their entire primary OS just so they could try and strong-arm the development community into giving a shit about their mobile devices. Maybe they think it'll eventually happen if they just get stubborn enough. After all, Windows is ubiquitous enough that we can't all just collectively give it up. Maybe they expect us to all get the interface equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome if they hold out long enough.

Then again, Microsoft has been known to just give up when something isn't clicking the way they want it to. They gave up on Vista, they gave up on Zune, they gave up on most of the new features for the Xbox One. Maybe the probable failure of 8.1 will be the last straw before they finally just give up and start developing Windows 9, which will probably have a less terrible interface that you can completely turn off if you don't have a touchscreen.

Better luck next year, guys.