Copyright

All blog posts, unless otherwise noted, are copyrighted to the Author (that's me) and may not be used without written permission.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Pain Revisited

After my bout with the migraine, my back continued to hurt to the point where I could barely walk, as every movement and step with my right leg gave me screaming pain, enough so to bring literal tears to my eyes. I emailed a friend with whom I had planned to go to the movies yesterday and canceled. Yesterday, Wednesday, I called my MIL, who is a nurse, and asked her advice about going to my GP or the ER and simply what she thought I should do about the pain/discomfort.

With the time of year, and with the poor medical system in this town, she recommended that my GP was most likely out of town/away and that I would sit for literally hours in the ER without being seen-- which wouldn't help my back and would probably make me sicker, what with all the ill people that would be there (their doctors being out of town too). She recommended taking some Midol/Aleve, keeping the heating pad on it, and taking a hot bath or shower as soon as my wife got home (so, if I couldn't get out of the tub, someone was here to take command and/or get help).

I asked my wife to come home at lunch and work from home the rest of the day, which she was happy to do. I then took the Aleve before she got home and went and took a piping hot bath soon after she got home. By the end of the bath, I was much more mobile, although still with pain. The pain was down to manageable levels and I was able to walk much more assuredly on my right leg.

Today, my coccyx area and the spot of the pain are both still sore. I'm having some issues with bending and twisting, but it is not the 'gasp out loud and double over or fall to my knees' level of pain. I can sit at my desk without undue discomfort. And I haven't needed to take more Aleve this morning. Hopefully I've knocked through/past the pain and can get fully better from here. It is good to know that the Aleve and hot baths will help alleviate the issue if it does come creeping back.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Privacy

Why is a customer's privacy so hard for current programmers/companies to safeguard?

Recently there have been many articles, lawsuits, and news programs/segments dedicated to showing just how much of your personal data is constantly leaked to third parties (just one example, here). I find it mind-boggling that these same companies, Facebook and Apple in particular, year in and year out are the subject of these lawsuits and reports, yet don't fix the system so it doesn't happen. It literally is cheaper for them to settle the lawsuits or go to court each time than it is to simply fix it so it can't happen.

Some will argue, "But you are using a social networking site, you take that risk!" No, actually, I don't. Just because a site is based around the idea of connecting with others doesn't mean I automatically give up my right to choose to whom I give my personal data. I use Facebook to connect with people I actually know. I limit my app usage. I am NOT, in any way shape or form, asking for X company to contact me about Y "deal." Yet, I may still be giving third party advertisers more info about myself than I want to simply because Facebook uses a constantly evolving and moving goalpost for its policies on privacy and is constantly adding new features without a) looking at the ramifications for user privacy, b) checking for new holes in privacy leaks, or c) alerting its user base to these changes and/or setting the changes to default to the most private setting (rather than always defaulting to the least private settings). Yes, I could stop using the application; but then I have lost a primary means to contact the actual people that I actually wanted to (re)connect with in the first place, simply because the application developers can't seem to understand the fundamental laws of the nation(s) in which they do business.

And apps on cell phones are assumed by the majority of owners to be "safe", as they aren't 'social networks.' Yet, if you own an iPhone, Blackberry, or other smartphone with a camera, you are likely geo-tagging ever single picture you take with the current location (in latitude and longitude). This setting is set by default by the camera manufacturers. You remember that cute picture of your kids playing in the park near your house? Geo-tagged. That picture your daughter took of herself in her bedroom? Geo-tagged. Now, all it takes is someone to stumble on those pictures, download geo-tag reading software (which you can get/find fairly easily online), and viola! the person knows what your kids/daughter looks like and where they play/sleep. How's that for creepy? Your cell phone also defaults to geo-tagging your location at all times, regardless of camera capability. Anyone who has the means of accessing the GPS system can know within a about a dozen feet where you are at any time if your phone is turned on, by default. And turning this feature off can be a pain in the ass on most phones.

For those who say simply don't use the apps or devices, I respond: well, what are my alternatives? I could call them by landline phone, I guess, but then if I wasn't using the social networks I wouldn't have reconnected in the first place and wouldn't know their phone numbers. And, even if I do use a landline, the government under the Bush administration made it legal for the gov't to listen in on any phone call at any time without the need for a warrant or to go through the legal process to get the tap, so I'm trading telling advertisers information for telling my government information. That's better. Even if I only ever say or do anything both legal and morally correct, what business of either group is it? I have the right to privacy.

Use standard email you say? Well, the gov't is also checking those under the same laws passed by Bush. Use standard snail mail, you argue? Okay, that is probably the least likely to be intercepted or opened and read by the gov't or advertisers, I agree, but we go back to the whole "how would I know my friend's address if I hadn't reconnected via the social network site in the first place" issue. Plus, land-line calls and snail mail cost money. And snail mail costs resources (paper, envelope, writing implements)... social networks, landline phone calls, visiting in person all have additional costs to them.

And these don't address the geo-tagging of my personal photos or location by my phone. Or the fact that lawyers for car insurance companies can get access to your car's records, including speed, mileage, location, engine data, etc. from OnStar to keep from paying on your insurance claim when they prove you were going 1mph over the speed limit when the accident occurred. Or what about someone you don't even know filming you do something embarrassing at a party or social event, posting it without your approval or consent, tagging you on it, and then it comes up on a standard web search when your prospective employer does a background check on your name before hiring you?

What's next, HR Block or Intuit's tax software keeping track and sending meta data showing how you "played with the numbers" (completely within legal limits, and even supportable with documentation) before finalizing and sending in your electronic tax forms so that the IRS can "better determine" if you should be audited? Doesn't matter that you did nothing illegal, but do you want that hassle?

I just want to reconnect with family and friends, and take pictures with my cell phone. I don't want to give advertisers/companies an extra window into my habits or personal information or the gov't a deeper look than is necessary into my life. Is that too much to ask?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hurts So (Not) Good

Sometimes, being me hurts more than other times. Today is one of those days. I woke up to a splitting, pounding headache. Within an hour it had turned into a low-level migraine, which caused me to wear my sunglasses in the house and avoid too loud of noises (I wasn't sound sensitive, but I didn't want to push it either). Then a spot on my lower back, on my right side, suddenly decided to swell and cause excruciating pain whenever I moved around.

All this on a day where it snows 5 inches over night and we have to go out and do some shoveling. There is, simply, no way to avoid bright lights when you are in a winter wonderland. The snow reflects and redirects any light like a mirror. The shoveling hurt like hell on my back. By the time we were done, I was easing toward medium strength migraine, my back hurt worse than ever, and I was having hot/cold flashes, was sweaty, and disgruntled.

The migraine eased back with some more Advil and with the darkening of the skies and sunset. The back, however, wasn't touched by the Advil at all and continues to be an issue.

All of this is on top of the slight cough I've had for two weeks now, the stiffness and soreness in my hands, hips, and knees from a general non-flare arthritis issue, and the bloody noses I can't seem to avoid. Oh, and don't forget the upset stomach. Nothing like waking up every day for close to a month with the strong feeling like I'm going to throw up that only gets worse with breathing and talking.

So, all those general symptoms that have plagued me for a couple weeks or long added to the sudden issues of today made for one crappy last day of vacation.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Paying the (Court) Costs

I think that the easiest way to cut down the plethora of frivolous lawsuits is to pass a federal statute that says that the loser and the law firm of any lawsuit, be it federal, civil, class-action, or any other type, must pay all the legal fees and court costs of BOTH SIDES of the lawsuit.

Recently, a fan at a Jets game in 2008 sued a player who threw a gigantic snowball at him. If you watch the video (here), you see that the fan is excited to have been the recipient of the snowball, sort of dances around and waves the big ball of snow around in celebration. Yet, two years later, he is suing the player for lost wages, emotional damages, future lost earnings, and a whole host of other issues.

If he had been injured enough to be out of work due to this incident, he would not be reacting as he did to it. He would have gone down in a heap and not gotten up. Paramedics would have been called to the stadium and he would have left on a gurney and been in the hospital in traction.

The man is suing because the economy sucked (and continues to be weaker than expected), he's out of work, and he has this tenuous link to someone with a lot of money who might settle out of court for a nice lump sum to help the man make his ends meet. Now, imagine if the (scum-sucking) lawyer who thought this was a good idea had to think for a moment and decide if it was worth the risk of having to help pay the fees for the defendant should they lose. A lot of these marginal, ambulance-chasing lawyers couldn't afford to stay in business if they had to help pay the thousands of dollars the other side charged. And most individuals would think twice about suing in the first place if they were worried about paying 50% of the court costs and legal fees of the other side in the litigation.

However, I don't think this would be so bad a negative that it would stop those who feel they have a legitimate claim to make against someone or a business. There would be more calculation and risk involved, sure. And more cases would likely go to where they belong: small claims court.

Something needs to be done to clean up, streamline, and assist the overburdened legal system in America. I think this one step could do all three, but virtually eliminating frivolous lawsuits from the system.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How to Fix DC Comics: Kryptonians

DC Comics has a nice panoply of heroes and an interesting and long history. However, it constantly struggles with the interconnectedness of its far-flung characters and the hierarchy of the characters as they related to one another within the fictional universe. The following idea came to me as a way in which to resolve some of these issues.

Kryptonians and their powers are one of the toughest aspects of the DC Universe. Through Kal-El/Superman, we know that the Kryptonians are god-like in their abilities when given a strong enough power source (our yellow star). Overall, however, the Kryptonian's history has been varied and subject to change. I suggest DC Comics codifies it (within reason) using the following history.
~~~~~~~
Sometime in the far distant past, the Kryptonians were a proud and strong race of bipedal humanoids. They were a scientifically advanced species, curious about the universe in general. There arose within their ranks a leader who was charismatic and persuasive. He first got the youth on his side, and then slowly inculcated the military to his way of thinking. Before anyone realized it, he had made himself into their dictator.

This Hitler-esque leader (the obvious choice would be to make him a distant House of El person, or related to Zod, but I wouldn't go either route if I was DC), espousing genetic superiority, then turns his eyes to two goals -- conquering nearby species/planets and making the Kryptonian race genetically superior to all others.

Scientist work feverishly for him. They make huge strides in genetics, getting improvements in speed, durability, and, especially, longevity out of the existing Kryptonian DNA. As the military advances through the galaxy, they encounter and conquer other planets, including Czarnians (which, as an infant race, already has strong regenerative abilities, which the scientists take and splice into Kryptonian DNA), the Daxamites (which are extremely hardy and powerful), etc. (DC Comics would need to determine which specific races the Kryptonians affected and/or conquered-- I don't have a comprehensive list of all the races, as they do.) Pretty soon, the "modern" Kryptonian is starting to be seen; one with vast strength, speed, and durability, various other abilities, but especially long life.

And, because they took abilities from these races and added them to their own genetic makeup, this shows why Kryptonians are superior to Czarnians and Daxamites, among others, on the hierarchy of powers and abilities. Any one race may be superior in one area (like the Czarnian's ability to regenerate, or maybe Daxamites are actually inherently a bit tougher or stronger), but no one race has the whole array of powers at the same levels.

This also allows the DC creators to decide which races the Kryptonians met and could not conquer, putting those races' abilities on par with Kryptonians. For example, I suggest the Martians, due to having similar overall powers, but also mental abilities and shapeshifting. Maybe the Kryptonians ran into the New Gods, and they were repulsed by the combined might and ingenuity of Highfather and Darkseid (explaining even more why Darkseid hates "the Kryptonian" so much).

Other races could owe their existence and abilities to the meddling of the Kryptonian scientists. During this phase of the Kryptonian evolution, the scientists also play god a bit with uninhabited planets, seeding them with the potential for humanoid life. Also, on each planet they conquer, some amount of interbreeding occurs as certain Kryptonians are intrigued by, and fall in love with, the native populations. On others, they simply experiment with the existing population to see what they can get out of them. They are ruthless in the goals and heedless of the wake of fear, envy, and anger they are leaving in their wake.

Over a vast amount of time, the Kryptonians are successful in their goal. They evolve their DNA so that every member of the race has great strength, durability, and many other powers and abilities, with some variation due to genetic combinations. Some can fly, while others can heal more rapidly, and still others can shoot energy from their bodies. Their bodies are vast solar cells and batteries, and the more powerful the solar radiation they can absorb, the more powerful they become. These changes are at a genetic level, so their offspring (fewer and fewer with each generation) inherits these abilities, distilling them and making them even stronger with the combinations. The Kryptonians are feared, hated, and envied by most other races, but especially those who are conquered.

As they reach the goal of genetic superiority, the longevity they create has the side effect of fewer children being born and a longer perspective. The long-dead first leader has been, over time, replaced with leaders who question Krypton's role as universal conqueror and slowly turn the race toward science and law and peace.

Determining that they have become too powerful, but also realizing that they have made a lot of enemies out of the races and planets they have conquered and manipulated, the Kryptonians move to a planet near an older red sun. This allows them to retain about half of their formidable powers, which, along with their scientific might, will dissuade most races from attacking them, but also lowers their power level to a point where other races will actually believe that the Kryptonians are not the conquering race to be feared and envied any more.

During the next millenia, the Kryptonians further look like the race we know from the comics-- cold, sterile, scientific. A race that is, for the most part, apart from the rest of the universe, and okay with that. Because of their longevity, they have very few children and the race is dying out. Very few of the Kryptonians are worried or care about this. It is during this period where Jor-El begins watching the planet Earth and marveling at the newly formed human beings and their zest for life. They serve law and anyone who breaks the law is punished severely. The highest crimes that are punishable by removal to the phantom zone are those relating to insurrection, rebellion, and sedition.
~~~~~~
This history change to the DC Comics universe helps explain much of the universe as they have always written it, once codified and expanded by the appropriate Editors at the company:
  • Why the Kryptonians are so powerful, and how they got that way.
  • Why there are so few Kryptonians when their planet explodes.
  • Why there are so few children.
  • Why they keep out of the universe's issues.
  • Why so many other races are in awe of, and fearful of, Superman when they learn he is Kryptonian.
  • Where the other races fit into the hierarchy of powers and abilities. Basically, Martians, Kryptonians, New Gods, (and others that the DC editors deem necessary).
  • Why and how other races and powersets came to be, through manipulation of the early Kryptonians.
  • Allows DC Comics to then flow this information into a "powers hierarchy" so that readers have a better understanding of where someone fits into the power level scale, with Superman at the top.
  • Allows them to clean up Power Girl and Supergirl's back story. Both can now be a Kryptonian with slightly different powers, as defined by the genetic anomalies that provide variation in the Kryptonians. Or, maybe one is the result of the seeding of the planets that the Kryptonians did, which included Earth and creates Kryptonian-like genetic mutations once every thousand years or so.
  • Helps to explain why there is such power diversity on Earth, as opposed to most other planets in the DC Universe.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Anonymous Gifts

When I give to a charity or cause, I prefer to do it low-key and behind the scenes. I don't like people to know, I don't share how much or when or what causes I give to with my friends or family, and I support what I support because I want to at that moment, and for no deeper meaning.

I get irritated when charities then use their ways and means to continue to ply me for money. I gave what I gave when I gave it... leave me alone. If you leave me alone, you are much more likely to get me to donate again in the future.

Most, however, hammer me to the point where I ask them to remove my name from their rolls and to never contact me again. Which they rarely do.

I have given to a host of causes in the past: AIDS, breast cancer, the homeless, food at holiday times, liver research, cancer research, ALS, arthritis. I've given my stuff to shelters and Good Will and churches.

But, and here's the catch, I do it all anonymously and simply because I feel like it that day and for no other reason. Yes, I have liver disease and arthritis, so those two causes tend to get slightly more money from me than others, but it still happens spur of the moment and because I feel like it, not because I have the diseases. Sometimes a friend is feeling strongly about a cause and, if they catch me on the right day or in the right frame of mind, $50 or $100 goes their way. If they catch me at a time I don't feel like giving, then they get nothing, friend or not.

One of my favorite causes is to donate money or food to shelters or food banks during the Thanksgiving to Christmas holiday season. These places use the money directly to buy, prepare, and serve food for those who don't have any, so I feel safe in giving them my dollars. In Irvine, I even helped push work-place food drives and donated money to one cause, but then it started hounding me and asking for more, more, more, so I cut them off and stopped doing it (it didn't help that my company didn't help out with the food drives much, no matter how many posters and what type of competitions I tried to get going).

Susan J. Komen is another one that simply wouldn't leave me alone. I donated to your cause, now stop emailing, mailing, and calling me! I've been away for closing on three years now, and I still get an email from it at least 4 times a year, even though I have unsubscribed. I think that's rude... no money for you any more.

I have found a new food bank in Maine that seems, so far, willing to keep my desire to be anonymous intact. So I donated another $100 this year. Supposedly, that will help feed 488 people on Christmas. That makes me feel good. My wife and I will find somewhere here in Canada to donate to, as well. Hopefully each place will continue to ignore me for the rest of the year, sending only the gentle reminder at Thanksgiving that the holiday season is here. If they do, then they get more money.

And, for me at least, it is that simple.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Movie Frustration

I am an avid movie watcher. It is one of my most favorite things to do. I feel that movies are America's "oral tradition," the way in which it hands down its values and stories to the next generation, and presents itself to other cultures.

Lately, however, I have been very disappointed in the movies in general. Hollywood has gone soft, preferring to rehash the same old story rather than finding the gem in the submission file. While it is true that remakes and sequels can be good (see Toy Story 3 for one example), it most often is not.

Most recently, my wife and I went to see Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It, like so many movies, is based on an existing story which has lasted and has been beloved for years (decades in this particular case). Yet, outside of a decent opening scene, using the names, and the general theme being the same, the producers, writers, and director decided to completely change the story for the screen. They took an exciting action/adventure story, with pirates, a sea serpent, a dragon, slave traders, storms and becalmed oceans, and turned it into a ... much less exciting action/adventure story that barely paid homage to the original story. Why?

If I were the producer on this series, I would note that each movie has taken more liberties with each subsequent story, and each movie has opened smaller and done less business than the last. I would then look at the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies and note that they stayed much closer to the source material, and the changes made were to focus the story on (a) specific character(s). Outside of those changes, the rest was, for the most part, directly from the books, just reinterpreted for the screen.

I would look also at the current spate of comic book character movies and which were highly touted and made money and which did not. Iron Man, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, and Spider-Man 2 all stayed very close to the source material, not taking undue liberties with it, and told exciting, interesting stories. Each made boatloads of cash and are rated very highly on IMDB.com. Now look at, say, the two Fantastic Four movies. Both took a lot of liberties, did not stay true to the characters as they have existing in the comic books for some 50 years now, did not play to their audience, and dumbed down all of the villains... and did rather poorly in box office and with the critics and audiences. One of the worst cinematic catastrophes occurred when someone decided to bring Catwoman to the screen and then totally ignored the character's 70 years of comic book history and spat in the faces of the millions of fans of the character. Halle Berry could have been a dynamic, sexy Catwoman, but the movie they made was a travesty.

Another excellent example would be the recent attempt to take Susan Cooper's excellent "The Dark Is Rising" series to the big screen as a movie series. Ignoring the book almost entirely, they changed so much in bringing it to the screen that it was unrecognizable to fans of the books. It tanked horribly at the box office and with critics/audiences, dooming chances of this very film-able series ever making it to the big screen.

My point being that those films that stay true to the source material, taking it and the audience for it seriously, tend to do very well at the theater. Those that don't, do not.

It really boils down to something simple: if you make something true to the original, the fans of the original story will like it and want to see it multiple times, bringing friends and family along with them. Those who don't know the original story will still be getting a strong story, one that is well rounded and easy to identify. So it is a win-win for the movie makers. But those who choose to go too far afield with their production lose the original, core audience. That core audience poisons the well for other audiences, do not see it multiple times, and do not bring it to a wider audience of their friends and family. Those movie have just halved or worse their potential paying audience.

My hope is that a film like Inception, doing so well both financially and with critics/audiences, will show studios that taking the chance on the unique and interesting can pay off. I also hope that the relative failures of Robin Hood, The Last Airbender, Prince of Persia, A-Team, and The Wolf Man show that you can't just remake something without making it good and being true to the original.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sick Again

Since I take medications that lower my immune system responses, I get sick a lot. If you are a frequent reader to my blog, you already know this from many past blogs on the subject. However, since moving to my present location, I have been much healthier than ever for a few reasons: my wife helps me to eat better; I work from home, so I don't constantly get hit by sick people and people's sick children in an office environment; with the weather here, I don't go out as much so, again, I'm not around as many other people who are carrying their own germs.

My wife goes out of her way to avoid sick people at her office, to keep herself healthy, and to try not to bring anything home. Most of our friends know about my health, so they try to limit exposing me to stuff if they are sick, too. So, overall, I'm better than ever these days.

However, I still get sick. The cold swings, the wet weather, the fact it is unavoidable to go out sometimes, seeing friends (many of whom have children) regularly all do add up and I still get sick. Maybe not as often, but it still happens.

Today the temperature is over 15 degrees Celsius warmer (13) than it was on Saturday (-4). Saturday was cold/snowy, and about 2 inches of snow accumulated. Today it is rainy and much warmer. Those kind of shifts are hard for a body to take so suddenly. On Saturday, I was also out, first seeing friends during the day and then to a Christmas party in the evening, so I was around a total of around 30 people (plus strangers, servers, etc. at the Christmas party). Today, I am headachy, upset stomach, hot/cold swings, congested nasal passages, and just vomited. Go figure. And this is all after I loaded up on Advil Cold/Sinus and was sucking a Halls Defense with Vitamin C.

I'm heading back to bed now for a bit more sleep so that, hopefully, I can get some more work done on my contract today. I've had my PM reschedule the usual Monday meeting until I'm feeling better. Hopefully this will turn out to be something "minor" that I can get over and get back working quickly.

Friday, December 10, 2010

DCUO Revisited

I guess the big problem I have with DCU Online is that it is a massively multiplayer online game. If it was a simple first-person style action game, without being online (or, like Diablo 1 and 2 were, possible to play online with friends but not a requirement), it would be worth the $50 for the game just for the action and the graphics, both of which are well-done.

However, they want you to play with others online, and plan to charge $15 a month to do so. The problem I have is that the stories are not immersive enough, there is nearly zero replayability in the game, and the action feels just about the same regardless of the character type and style you select. I guess you could play it twice-- once as a hero and once as a villain. However, Sony will likely find the same thing is true for their eventual audience that they found in City of Heroes/Villains and Champions Online-- in general, the people who want to play these games want to be, well, heroes. COV never had more than about a quarter of the audience of COH, so they very quickly merged both games into one, and now have a system by which you can change your faction (so you can start with a villain archetype and make them a hero and vice versa).

It literally makes absolutely no difference if you want to be a more support-type character, healing and buffing your comrades or debuffing your enemies, you will have to attack using the same sets of clicks and holds of your mouse buttons as everyone else, with pretty much the same results. Not bad for those who like action/fight games on their console, but certainly not what the PC MMORPG crowd is seeking in a game.

In the end, I think DCU Online will be fairly successful with the game on the PS3. But I think they will see their PC market shrivel up and die (or go Free 2 Play, which they already seem to be programming for) very quickly. The lack of power sets, the awkward character generator, the fact that you are expected to make a generic hero and play the game to get the costume pieces you want, and the poor interface for PC players will be enough to counter the very nice graphics and fighting action.

My hope, as I want the game to succeed, is that they have enough there to hold onto enough audience paying the subscription fee that they will have time to make a ton more stories, add at least four more power sets (Might/Super Strength, Electricity, Earth, and Hard Light (which should be coming, as a tie-in to Green Lantern movie)), clean up and better explain the character generator and how you'll be gaining features in-game to help make your character look how you want (a tough sell for the crowds coming from COX and CO), and fix the clunky in-game interfaces to make more sense and be more useful. In six months time, granting updates every month and bug fixes every week, they might have enough to lure enough of us back to make a difference to the PC side.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

DC Universe Online

The Nondisclosure Agreement (NDA) for the new game DC Universe Online (DCUO), currently in Closed Beta, was lifted yesterday. It is now safe to talk about the game. Unfortunately for Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), this means that many of us in the closed beta can warn people away from this game.

When creating a game in a genre that already exists, most manufacturers look at their competition, do some data mining on what works and what doesn't work, and try to “one up” their predecessors by keeping what works and by fixing what doesn't work. Sony did not choose to do this in any noticeable way. So instead of a game that is incrementally better than either City of Heroes/Villains (COX) or Champions Online (CO), you have a game that has all of their faults and a few new ones of its own.

Ostensibly, DCUO was made as both a PC game and a game for the PS3 console system. However, those two clients will run entirely separately at launch. This means that PC users of the game will never play with or against PS3 players. What I find strange and interesting is that the programmers have forced a PS3-like interface on the PC users which, when using a mouse and a keyboard, makes for a really awkward, hard to manage, and non-intuitive interface for PC users. Due to lag during closed beta, I could rarely get the “combos” of taps and holds of the mouse key to work correctly to give me the bonus maneuvers that the game promises. Matter of fact, I usually got the same ineffectual maneuver rather than either of the two I wanted, because the game either read my attempt at “tap-hold-tap” as “tap-tap-tap” or as “tap-hold-hold”. I can only imagine how hard it is to get the rare five and seven combos to initiate.

COX has a large number of both player and villain archetypes you can choose from. Even at release, it had a decent collection of archetypes and powers, and each power set had both a primary and a secondary tree from which you could take powers. It had/has a strong story element that runs through all levels of the game. The character builder started as one of its strongest elements and has gotten stronger over the years... you can pretty much make any character concept you can think of in terms of costume and powers. Some of the negatives are that you have an Endurance bar that limits how often you can use your powers, you are locked into a specific archetype for the career of your character, you can only select limited abilities outside of the tree of Primary and Secondary powers listed for you. Many players who find such things important feel that the end game content is lacking (although the designers have continued to add more). Balance was decent, but still needed constant tweaking as the game started as City of Tankers, then became City of Blasters, then City of Scrappers. Now, with the exception of a few builds which most think are a bit overpowered, you can play pretty much any archetype or power set and a have a fair chance at completing the game.

CO was built by some of the same people who made COX, so many of the best aspects of that game were ported over. CO has a similarly strong character builder, allows for duplicate names, has Endurance/Power generation inherent in a character's first power, so you actually are able to gain power while fighting (as opposed to COX's way of only losing power/endurance during combat, unless you or an ally has some way of providing endurance). CO's combat also managed to feel faster than COX's (although when timing combats in both games, I found the actual result was roughly equivalent, it felt faster in CO). CO also introduced a system by which you could take any power available in the game and could inhabit just about any of the roles or archetypes of an MMO (Tank, Blaster, Scrapper, Support, Control). The graphics used new elements, so were a bit fresher than COX and the environment was semi-destructible. Balance during both closed and open beta, and then especially at launch, was non-existent. Because you can take any power in the game, you can build really interesting combos of powers that mean you can do hellacious damage AND be virtually invulnerable to incoming damage. Lastly, the story elements were much slicker and shallower than in COX, which meant, in addition to building your icon as able to withstand nearly any effort by the game elements to defeat you, that you could breeze through the game without ever teaming if you chose to.

After reading the above, and knowing that DCUO is a new entry in the same genre, you would expect them to resolve some of the issues and keep some of the positives from each of those games, and then throw their own twist or cool new thing into the mix. They didn't.
  1. Interface. DCUO for the PC is very hard to control with non-intuitive mouse and keyboard setups. MMOs have existed for two decades+ now, and PC users have a rote way of doing things. You can tweak that a bit, but should stay close to that standard setup in order to make your game easy to manage and use for those who are used to the genre. This game did not, instead forcing the PC users to mimic a PS3 controller interface. This includes combos that often don't work due to lag or hiccups in the internet, menus that are hard to open, use, and close, an incredibly difficult chat screen, and menus that involve more clicking than is needed for one using a mouse or a keyboard.
  2. Character Builder. DCUO made a horrible, non-intuitive, and difficult to use character builder. The Next button pretty much only takes you to the save and start game screen, while the Back button is used after you've made a selection to return to the previous screen and make a new selection (usually Back means ignore what you've done and return, not accept what you've done and go back).
  3. Costumes. Related to the Character Builder issue, there are not a lot of costume options available when creating your character. This is because, although it is not stated anywhere in the game as you begin (at this time), you are expected to “flesh out” your character with costume drops from enemy defeats. This should be spelled out and made very clear to the user, so they aren't horribly disappointed in the minimal selections available.
  4. Mentors. This is a new concept in DCUO, and should be very cool. In reality, it falls flat. Your Mentor is the hero or villain you want to emulate and “be like.” So, for example, if you want to be a Tank-type of character and a hero, you would pick Superman. This will set you up with his general costume design and colors (red, blue, yellow), give you the Fire power set (Fire and Ice are the two tanking power sets), and set up your fighting style as Hand/Boxing. You then have him give you your starting missions and you start in his starting area (Metropolis).
  5. Powers. DCUO has chosen to partially do away with archetypes (Tanker, Blaster, Controller, etc.). They assume everyone is a “damage dealer” type, so they only have three roles from which you can choose: Tanker, Controller, Buffer/healer. However, as you gain levels and purchase new abilities, you can open up other roles and can switch your archetype to some degree. This is a good concept in theory, but the limited number of powers and the poor to non-existent explanation of what those powers do and how they work, mean that you don't necessarily know how your character will play in the actual game. For example, you cannot and will not be able to make the classic “flying brick” superhero that created the comic books. So if you want to be a “Superman-type” or a “Hulk-type” of character, you are out of luck. Or, let me correct that, you CAN do it, you just have to completely ignore your powers, and only use your fighting styles, for about 10 levels of play until you can start selecting Iconic Powers, which you can then use to very poorly mimic some of those abilities. The incredibly limited selection of powers, and the fact that you can augment these later in the game using the points you earn from defeating enemies and finishing quests is poorly explained, may turn off a lot of people coming from COX and CO and expecting to build their own character.
  6. Story. The story here is decent, not as immersive as the COX story lines and not as light and breezy as the CO story. However, the content itself is so minimal that regardless of the mentor you pick during character creation, you have to run through pretty much all of the content in order to level to 30. This limits replay-ability as if you pick Superman with your first character, you have to run through Wonder Woman's and Batman's story arcs to reach then end. If you then start a new character with WW or Bats as your mentor, the only difference is that you run the missions in a slightly different order.
  7. Endurance/Power. COX had an endurance bar that limited your play. A vast majority of players found that taking one tertiary power set that improved endurance regeneration pretty much mandatory in order to play their characters the way they wanted to. In the latest update to the game, they have given all characters that tertiary power set for free at level 2. CO allowed you to build endurance using one of your attacks, so actually being in a fight improved your ability to stay in a fight. DCUO has struck right down the middle. You have an endurance/power bar that only goes down, like in COX. However, the regeneration on the bar is incredibly high and some of the powers can return endurance to you during combat, sort of like CO.
  8. Combat. This is one are where DCUO shines. Combat is fast and furious, the graphics are incredible and, if you can actually get the combos to work, you can do some amazing things with your character. If you use a gamepad or a PS3, I think you'll really enjoy the game. On a PC, the combat feels a bit out of your control and hard to maneuver. One thing I found particularly annoying was the auto target feature-- it rarely jumps to the combatant I am expecting or trying to hit and frequent targets someone off-screen or behind my icon, causing the screen to whirl around to face him and get me all confused. Manual targeting wasn't much better.
  9. Destructible Environment. DCUO does have semi-destructible environments, allowing you to pick up cars, trash cans, light poles, etc. and throw or swing them at opponents. You can also damage buildings and the ground with powers and effects via a skinning effect layered over the actual environment. After a few moments, the skin disappears and the environment is back to normal.
  10. Teaming/Player Interaction. People play MMOs for a reason. They want to play with other people. They many not always want to team up, but that is certainly an aspect of the game genre that is strongly held. DCUO has made a game where, for the most part, you can solo the entire game. There are a few quests and raids that require at least a duo and a few that require more people, but you can go from 1 to 30 without ever teaming and without missing much if you choose to. And you can do it pretty quickly, even with stopping and reading all the missions and paying attention to the story. And the chat system on the PC side is so hard to use that you pretty much cannot use it while traveling or for quick comments during combat or such, so you can't really interact easily with your fellow players. This leads the game to feel like a single-player action game that just happens to be online and the other heroes and villains are played by other people. There are few ways to build a community or create a “super-group” feeling in the game (including no way to create super-groups/teams/kinships/etc. or to have a house/base).
  11. End Game. There really isn't much right now. You can quickly get to 30 and there there are only a couple of things to do, including re-doing missions you've already done on a harder setting. There are a couple of raids, but nothing great and nothing you want to do more than once.

It has been said often, “You only get one launch.” I think that SOE is counting on people ignoring all of these flaws at launch and sticking it out for six months or a year while they fix the issues, get new power sets in, and update and expand the stories and missions. But, I fear, by that point the majority will have found the game flawed and will have moved on to whatever the new game is (or back to CO and COX).

All in all, unless I see some major shifts in design, interface, and replay-ability, I will give this game a pass upon release and instead continue playing COX mainly, and maybe a little CO when it goes F2P.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Giving 'Til it Hurts

I hate the double-standard to which America is held. Most nations deplore American's "meddling ways." They publicly denounce anything that the country does that may be construed as tampering with their country. They hate American businesses coming in and driving out the local businesses. They curse our politics and our "war mongering" ways.

That is, they hate it all until a disaster strikes, whether man-made or natural. No nation gives more money, food, or personnel to a disaster than America. If America decided not to give to the next big disaster, the world would suddenly shoulder so much responsibility, both financial and other, that the other nations would come crying back to us for our assistance.

Most of those Arab nations that hate us and from which it seems the vast majority of anti-Western terrorist seem to spring would cease to exist without American business, American imports/exports, American tourism, and American financial and military assistance. North Korea, spouting hate speech and threatening war with its southern neighbor, found out when America stopped shipping it food a few years ago in response to some of their aggressions that about 90% of their food comes from America. It was incredible how fast the leadership in North Korea backed down and changed their tune when they were starving and their people were threatening revolt due to the shortages.

When the tsunami hit at Christmas a few years ago, America sent so much money and man-power to the region that the next closest supporting nation was about half the amount  of American time, money, and resources. People have complained about America's lack of response in Haiti, yet the country is still the #1 contributor in money and food to the stricken nation. The Army Corps of Engineers, Red Cross, American military, and other groups are frequently the only thing standing between a disaster area and the people being wiped out entirely. There are drought-, war-, and genocide-plagued regions of Africa where the people would have been wiped out long ago if not for constant food and medicine shipments, and even military efforts, from America.

Is (or has been) America been a bit too "uppity" lately? Maybe. Has the country tampered in places where tampering wasn't necessary? Likely. Is the country a bit full of itself, at a time when its people are hurting, its educational system is in dire need, and the leadership is in turmoil? Yes. However, if you take America's time, money, and resources out of any disaster's recovery effort, you have problems of Biblical proportions that the rest of the world just isn't ready to tackle. I just wish the rest of the world would realize this and stop, or at least modify, its complain whining about America and its people.

Friday, December 03, 2010

TMI

The Information Age, indeed. I am drowning in information. Everywhere I go there is something new, something probative, something radical, something obscene, something political, or something religious screaming at me. The news cycle is twenty-four hours a day, which means that reports and news providers have to keep hitting it (whatever it happens to be) until you are unconscious and don't care any more.

The first signs of this apocalypse should have been one of these:
  • The first war in Iraq, where CNN came into its own and had people glued to their TV sets watching minute by minute updates on what was happening. At least during this one, people still cared through the hours and days of the war.
  • The OJ trial, where people were glued to their TV sets watching a sports figure trying to put skin-tight gloves over plastic gloves. People couldn't get enough and were turned into news junkies looking for their next fix of OJ info during the day and flipped on the TV as soon as they got home.
  • The 9/11 attacks, where people were stunned and couldn't escape the information. Every channel had it on, ad infinitum, until people became completely numb to it. They couldn't turn away, escape, or find release from the horror of it. This is where people went from junkies to zombies, drooling at the altar of TV.
What irritates me the most is that I have been suckered into it as well. I find myself constantly seeking out the least detail about the new Superman movie, the next in the Batman franchise, waiting for the least word on my favorite fiction series (Dresden Files), and following any tidbits on my favorite sports teams. If something serious happens in the world, I'm flipping between right and left wing news gatherers trying to piece together what must be what really happened, since neither side gives an accurate or fair view.

When I was growing up, the news was something you got at 5pm until 6pm, at which time the half-hour national news came on. They had 22.5 hours to probe, question, dig, and write the news stories before that hour and a half of news came on and presented the story to you. People from both sides of the political debate worked fairly equally at each station, so you had less bias as a left-wing reporter may have to get editorial approval from a right-wing editor (or vice versa). This meant the stories were checked and double-checked from both sides before airing. The newscasters had integrity and were the voice for the people. The old-school newscaster would never think of putting themselves in front of or into the story, because they knew that once they did that, they were no longer objective. Now, the poster boy for the current crop of newscasters is Anderson Cooper, who can't seem to stay out of the story, and often becomes the story, blowing any credibility he had and losing all objectivity while he does it.

We have now entered into a very dangerous area for news, where newscasters are making the news. We've had FOX News personnel hosting political rallies. We've had reporters attacked by people and attacking others. We have Anderson Cooper going out to any disaster so we can get the "hero shot" of him crying while carrying a dead body or severely injured person to safety.

Now, with the 24/7 news cycle, it is all about being the first and most sensationalistic getting a story out. Fact checking? That's for people who have time to do it, not for me! Balance and integrity? If I stop to check my facts, make sure they are accurate and beyond reproach, and rewrite the story I will lose audience, readers, and money. As soon as news became entertainment, most notably with those three examples provided above, the end of news as we knew it was at hand, we just didn't recognize it.

News shouldn't be about ratings, entertainment, or sensationalism. It is supposed to be about facts and figures, provable allegations and assertions, and about integrity and responsibility. Tell that to CNN or MSNBC or FOX News -- do any of those owners know what those words mean without a dictionary and examples? The 24/7 cycle has destroyed this notion in favor of "get it out now, we'll apologize later (or just spin it so we look good anyway)."

It is no wonder the American public is so confused on so many issues. No one is telling them, honestly and with integrity, what is going on, why, and how it impacts them. I fear for the future.