A second try at In-Home Streaming…

While I had previously mentioned that it’s looking more and more like the Playstation 4 will be my next (this?) generation console of choice, I have to admit that I’ve still been considering my PC to be a viable alternative. That hasn’t been helped by the fact that at least one game I want, Gauntlet is going to be PC-only. While I wouldn’t mind playing my PC games on my 24″ monitor, I’d personally rather play them on my 32″ HDTV. The first thought I had was to get something akin to the Alienware Alpha, which is a PC meant for gaming on a home theater or TV. However, at a price point starting at $550, it was more than I was willing to pay.

However, something occurred to me: I could try Steam In-Home Streaming.

I’ve posted about In-Home Streaming in the past, specifically in regards to streaming Mortal Kombat. I had mostly done it on a lark, but now I thought it might be a valid option for me, gaming-wise. In addition, I thought it might be useful for letting Jennifer play her LEGO games on the main TV. I checked the laptop, and as I suspected, it had an HDMI output. Hooking it up to my TV went without incident, and I was able to connect the laptop to Steam on my main PC without a problem.

The main hurdle I felt I had to overcome, however, was the network bandwidth. Before, I had been using an older Linksys router, and thus lag was definitely a problem. However, I had replaced it with a new Netgear router with 5 GHz Wireless-N capability, and gigabit ethernet ports. The 5 GHz Wireless-N was faster than standard 2.4 GHz Wireless-N, so I figured at the very least I would get a speed boost from the wireless.

Unfortunately, that turned out to not be the case. As it so happened, my laptop only connected to the router using the 2.4 GHz Wireless-N, so I ended up getting network lag anyway like I had before. That essentially ruled out its use for the living room, as I wasn’t going to run a network cable through the walls. As the laptop was right next to the router anyway, I grabbed a network cable and connected the laptop into one of the gigabit ethernet ports.

Fortunately, the performance of the In-Home Streaming increased dramatically, but not to a point where a game was actually playable without a hell of a lot of lag. Curious, I noted a message on the lower left corner of the laptop’s screen: “SLOW ENCODE”. It was then that I realized the problem wasn’t on the laptop’s side, but on the desktop PC’s side. Essentially, the PC’s CPU wasn’t powerful enough to play the game and do the encode at the same time without lagging. Upgrading that would require me to purchase a new motherboard and new memory as well, and I’m not sure I can justify the cost of that just to play games on my TV… especially if I’m planning on getting a dedicated game console anyway.

Don’t get me wrong. Steam’s In-Home Streaming service is fairly useful, but you need a fairly modern and powerful CPU and a fast network connection (5 GHz Wireless-N or Wireless-AC minimum) to run it. As my desktop PC can’t handle the encoding portion for now, I’ll just keep with playing directly on the main PC, and deal with getting a console for the TV in the future. :-)

Sony may just have won me over.

Last night, two of the big three console manufacturers had their E3 press conferences. Microsoft was first, followed by Sony. I ended up watching both, and had to admit that Sony had the more impressive showing.

It should be noted that while I had owned a Sony Playstation 2 during the generation-before-last, it wasn’t because I really liked Sony more than the others. My original console of choice for that generation was the Nintendo GameCube; I had purchased a Playstation 2 because Mortal Kombat: Deception was originally not going to be on the GameCube. The Playstation 2 seemed to have more games than I wanted than the Xbox, so I went that route.

The usual deciding factor for me in regards to getting a console is a “must have” game. For the Playstation/Nintendo 64 generation, no game caught my interest so I stayed pretty much PC-only. For the Playstation 2/Xbox/GameCube generation, the game that sold me on a console was Metroid Prime for GameCube. For the Playstation 3/Xbox 360/Wii generation, the game that sold me on a choice was Gears of War for 360.

Up until now, there hadn’t been a game that really SOLD me on a console. Microsoft’s press conference yesterday didn’t sell me on any games, either; while Halo 5: Guardians looked interesting, for example, I only had a raised eyebrow for Sunset Overdrive. Sony, on the other hand, got my attention with one game: No Man’s Sky. There was little in the way of introduction; the gameplay video was shown to us without context.

Wow. Just… wow. I honestly didn’t know what to make of it when the character was exploring the presumably alien world. I raised an eyebrow when the character jumped into his fighter, and started flying away. I was sold when the ship left the atmosphere into space, and a fleet of capital ships jumped in nearby. I knew I wanted the game when the fighter flew into the atmosphere of another, different planet. The transitions were seamless and the graphics wonderful.

Later on, Sony discussed a piece of hardware that only solidified my decision: the Playstation TV. The Playstation TV is a small device that fits in the palm of your hand. With it, you can actually play games from your Playstation 4 on a second TV via Remote Play (similar to Steam’s In-Home Streaming). This might solve a problem Jennifer and I are currently having, in that Jennifer LOVES the LEGO games, but her console is a Nintendo Wii. WB Games has not released any LEGO games for Wii since LEGO The Lord of the Rings, and she’s been a bit bummed about not being able to play LEGO Marvel Super Heroes. While we could get them for my 360, I would feel bad about making her have to isolate herself in my office to play, especially when she’s used to playing on our home theater. (My 32″ LCD HDTV is fine for me.) This way, Jennifer could play her LEGO games via the home theater. :-)

I admit to surprise, really, because this past generation actually made me rather antipathic towards Sony. I actually had three major problems with Sony during the Playstation 3 era. The first was that the console was too expensive. The second was the absolutely horrid security model for Playstation Network that allowed it to be so thoroughly compromised that it was shut down for several months in 2011 for repair. The third was the forced removal of OtherOS, which allowed Playstation 3 owners to run Linux on their consoles. This removal was forced via firmware updates, even while the official website still touted OtherOS support. I simply felt Sony didn’t care about their customers.

That appears to have changed, however. Not only is the Playstation 4 in a reasonable price point, they’re doing a fairly decent job of making game functionality available to players. I’d been hearing from friends that they’d been better this generation, and it seems to me like this is the case. I’m not sure when I would pick up a Playstation 4 (and a Playstation TV), but it’d be closer to the end of the year. As it stands, the two games I could see getting for it (other than No Man’s Sky) are Mortal Kombat X and Batman: Arkham Knight, both of which will come out in 2015.

Until then, I’m fine with my Xbox 360 and PC. While an Xbox One isn’t definitely out, Microsoft’s going to have to show a hell of a lot more than they have to convince me to get one over a Playstation 4. :-)

Not feeling the buzz from the Buzztime upgrade.

I admit to a little bit of disappointment and annoyance. These are rare emotions in me when it comes to a tech upgrade.

The other day, Jennifer and I went to one of our old haunts to get some dinner. This particular location has Buzztime, which is a gaming system designed for bars. If you’ve ever been to a bar and some of their televisions were showing trivia and/or poker, that’s Buzztime. (I’ve written about them before.) This location we were going to had undergone some renovation; among these renovations was an upgrade to the Buzztime system.

Before, Buzztime could be played by either a clunky plastic Playmaker unit with an LCD screen that would as often as not be broken or stop working during gameplay, or via a smartphone app on iOS or Android. As you might imagine, I preferred the latter. Now at post-upgrade locations, Buzztime is played using special tablets running what appear to be a custom version of Android, and with several single-player games in addition to the trivia and poker games. I even noted that the unit had a credit/debit card reader on it, for a reason that was not at all clear.

The thing that threw us at first, however, was that absolutely none of the televisions were showing Buzztime content. We kind of raised our eyebrows at that, as we began to wonder if they were actually using the Buzztime stuff. I had thought they were, as I had received an email regarding their having it. When the waitress walked by, we requested two Playmakers and for one of the televisions to be switched to Buzztime. The waitress informed us that the Buzztime content was entirely on the tablets.

She turned out to be right. When we received the tablets and signed on, we found that the trivia screens et al that would normally have appeared on the televisions were now on the tablet, and that you just pressed on the choice on the screen to indicate your answer.

That left it with two major problems, in my opinion. The first problem was that the mobile apps were now pretty much useless at these locations. I prefer playing using my own device, and while I had briefly launched the app when I arrived at the restaurant to see if our location was still listed, I didn’t check to see if the questions would appear on the screen on my phone as well. I decided to ask Buzztime’s Twitter account about it yesterday, and got this answer:

So, unless I’m at a location that hasn’t upgraded, I can’t use my phone anymore. That’s a bummer, considering my experiences with the previous generation of Playmakers.

The other problem is that it reduces the social aspect of the games. To use us as an example, before we would be looking up at either each other or at the televisions. We could even “share” while we were on separate games; Jennifer would be playing trivia, and I would be playing poker, and I could give her answer suggestions while she could get an idea of what was happening with the poker game. Now, though, our eyes are down on the tablets, concentrating entirely on our own games. If we were not playing the same game, she would need to show her screen to me if she wanted help or if I wanted to see how she was doing.

It’s a shame, really. I had wanted to like the upgrade, but now Buzztime seems a little less fun. I may give it another try or two, especially if they update their mobile apps to allow for playing in upgraded locations. Until then, I’m not as much in a hurry to get back and play as I used to be.

A return to the Gauntlet

I’m a happy nostalgic gamer right now. :-)

A few months ago, WB Games announced that they were rebooting one of my favorite arcade games from the 80’s: Gauntlet. If you’re not familiar with Gauntlet, it’s a top-down dungeon crawler game, with adventurers in search of treasure while trying to stay alive. The latter part was difficult, as enemies of all kinds were plentiful, and your health constantly diminished even without taking damage. There is a reason the game is known for the saying, “Elf needs food badly!”

I used to love playing Gauntlet in arcades. The graphics were wonderful for the time, and all four characters (warrior, valkyrie, wizard, and elf) were actually unique and had different strengths and weaknesses. For example, the warrior was the best brawler but was very weak in magic, while the elf was very fast and great at ranged attacks, but couldn’t melee worth crap. :-) The game had a sequel and another reboot in the 90’s which I admittedly rarely played. I even got the NES port by Tengen that gave an actual story to the game (well before Gauntlet Legends). I ALMOST finished the game, but got stuck on a level in the last section and ended up giving up. To be fair, I’ve since seen the ending and it wasn’t worth the time I had put in. ;-)

Today, WB Games released another trailer for their reboot of the game.

I have to say, I really like this.

The addition of different gear with different effects brings the game in line with modern dungeon crawlers, yet the game definitely keeps the feel of the original four characters. If anything, it reminds me of Gauntlet by way of Diablo III (which is not a bad thing for me). The game also retains some of the original sound effects (if the trailer is to be believed), and game mechanics such as keys opening walls still remain.

It’s not surprising that it looks as good as it does, though. I’ve also played another game by Arrowhead Game Studios called Magicka, which was a quirky and enjoyable dungeon crawler in its own right. Based on time with Magicka and what I’ve seen so far, I’ve pretty much considered the game a definite buy. It’s available for preorder via Steam, and should be out on September 3rd. Normally I would buy it for my Xbox 360 instead of PC, but while Arrowhead/WB Games have hinted at a console version, one has not been officially announced.

Still, I’m excited for this game, no matter what platform I’ll be playing it on. Here’s hoping Arrowhead does as good a job with this as they did with Magicka.

I tried to make site changes, but they didn’t work too well.

Well, that last post about Mortal Kombat X didn’t work out nearly as well as I wanted it to.

The biggest reason was because after the announcement from Ed Boon and the posting of the teaser trailer, I was focusing more on the function of my own site than reading the press release or looking at the new website. I was having trouble with the comment system, and wanted to get that fixed first.

My site currently uses Disqus for its comment system, just like a lot of other sites. I didn’t have a problem with it; it’s worked pretty well for what I wanted to use it for. However, a couple of days ago I learned of an add-on for WordPress called Jetpack, which supplements a self-hosted WordPress install with functionality from WordPress.com. Among the additions given was an improved comment system over the original one WordPress comes with, so I decided to go ahead and give it a try, installing it on Saturday and deactivating Disqus.

Part of my thinking was that with the new Jetpack features, including the comment system and the better cross-post to social media functionality, I could start using my site more for posts that I would normally keep on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Google+. I also wanted to make it easier for people to comment on my posts.

Unfortunately, the Jetpack comment system failed to appear. The comment system remained just like the old default WordPress comment system, no matter what I tried.

I finally did some research this morning, and found the answer: my theme is too out of date. With version 3.0, WordPress changed the internals of the comment system, and themes needed to be updated in order to take advantage of the new features. I had no idea at the time, as I had already migrated to Disqus by that point. Changing it by myself was not something I could do, as I’m practically worthless when it comes to CSS and PHP coding. I tried switching to the Twenty Fourteen theme, but was not happy with it. For a bit, I was unsure what to do.

The answer, as it was, came via a simple question: “Who comments on my site, anyway?” :-)

In the end, I decided to keep Jetpack installed, along with several of its add-ons. I went ahead and disabled the comment add-on, and went back to using Disqus. For what I need, it works pretty well and I never had a real complaint with how it works. In fact, when looking closer at Disqus, it already did everything I wanted the Jetpack comment system to do anyway.

As for the site itself, I’m going to go ahead and try to post more to it. The Mortal Kombat X post kind of deflated my sails a bit, but I’d like to use this site for a bit more than the occasional post that is longer than what I would put on Facebook/Twitter/Google+. It looks a bit lost and abandoned when I don’t keep it up-to-date.

We’ll see what happens.

A minor confession regarding single-player games…

I’ve been taking some time to deal with the games in my Pile of Shame recently.

So far, I’ve finished off Diablo III, Duke Nukem Forever, and Homefront, all of which I had stopped when I had gotten to certain points which I just couldn’t get past. In such cases, I normally find that if I step away for a while (even if it’s months and/or years), I’ll find myself getting past the area that had previously stumped me with much less difficulty. That was what happened here, as I ended up getting through all three games once I picked up where I left off.

The next two games on the Pile of Shame are ones based on the same pen-and-paper RPG: Vampire: The Masquerade. As I’ve said in a previous post, Vampire: The Masquerade was the first tabletop RPG I actually got into, so it has a bit of a special place in my heart. These two games, Redemption and Bloodlines were both day one purchases for me, but I only ever completed Redemption. Every time I tried to complete Bloodlines, something would happen to my PC and I would end up forgetting to backup my save game before doing a wipe/reload. As a result, I’d be stuck back at the beginning.

Now, while I finished Redemption, there’s a reason I’ve added it to the Pile of Shame (after Bloodlines): up until recently, I’d use god mode when playing these games.

It’s a matter of self-confidence, really. I didn’t think I could do anywhere close to a decent job when playing these games and I really would want to get to the end, so I would always enable god mode whenever possible, and/or use cheats to get all weapons or stats needed. I was doing this as far back as when playing DOOM II on my very first PC.

What made me change was starting to play first and third person shooters on my Xbox 360. Up until then (with the exception of Metroid Prime), I had played them exclusively on my PC. With both Gears of War and Halo 3, there was no god mode available, so I had to get through the games on my own merit. What sealed the deal was when I played DOOM 3 BFG Edition on 360; while I had played through it before on PC, this time I did it without god mode and found it was nowhere near as hard as I thought it would be.

Silly me.

So, now, I’m going to play Bloodlines and Redemption the way I should have played them the first time. Given how extensive Bloodlines is, it should be a while before I’m done with it. In fact, I may end up having to take a break from it early on as Wolfenstein: The New Order is coming out next week. Once those are done, I’ll hit Redemption. Hopefully I’ll have as easy a time with those now as I did back in the day when I was doing it the wrong way. :-)

Looking nostalgically at getting two games…

As if I didn’t have enough games in pile of shame, I’ve been looking at a few classics from the bygone age of gaming… namely, the pre-Windows XP era.

There’s a game store site out there called GOG.com (GOG stands for Good Old Games) which sells DRM-free copies of older games from the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Fortunately, the games are either bundled with DOSBox (a DOS emulator) or recoded to work with newer versions of Windows. I had looked through the site, and came across two games that had piqued my interest back when they came out.

The first game, BloodNet, is an odd little adventure game that came out around 1993. I couldn’t get it at the time, as I wouldn’t have a game capable of running any sort of normal game for the time for another couple of years. BloodNet combined two genres I was (and still am) very interested in: vampires and cyberpunk. The story is that the main character (a hacker/private detective) is bitten by a vampire who runs one of the top megacorporations, but is only saved from being turned into a vampire himself by the neural implant he has. The player then has to defeat the vampire leader and his megacorporation and find a cure for his condition before he becomes a vampire himself.

There are two things that would turn me off getting this game. The first is that I’m frankly no good at adventure games without any sort of hint book, though I’m hoping that the fact that the game has RPG elements might make it slightly more tolerable and easier to go through. The second is that twenty years later, the game looks a little hokey, especially when it comes to the “cyberspace” sections. There have been more than one times where I’ve seen gameplay screenshots and videos and wanted to facepalm. Still, I may get it at some point.

The second game is an adaptation of a White Wolf RPG: Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption. Vampire: The Masquerade was the first tabletop RPG I had really been able to get into, and as such holds a special place in my heart. Redemption came out in 2000, well after my core RPG troupes had disbanded, and offered me a chance to play in that universe again. The player plays as a Crusader in the Middle Ages who falls in love with a nun who helped heal him after battling a vampire, but soon finds himself turned into a vampire himself to fight in the political battles between vampire clans. Through the game, he fights to save his humanity and the woman who he fell in love with, while contending with a the plots of an evil vampire lord craving dominion.

Admittedly, there’s a pretty good reason why I wouldn’t buy this game: I already have it. I got it when it first came out. However, I’d like to play through it again, and my current PC won’t play it. The game was written before Windows 2000 or XP came out, and while it kind of worked under XP, it won’t work at all under Vista or 7 64-bit. The version on GOG.com has been rewritten to be able to play on 64 bit machines, so I would have a version that’s not a coaster anymore. :-)

Fortunately, the prices for both games are reasonable ($5.99 per game) and even if something happened to GOG.com, I would still have the games downloaded and playable. It’s more likely I’ll get Redemption before BloodNet, but that’s simply because I feel I have a better chance of finishing that game. Either way, it’ll be an extra two games in my to-finish queue. :-)

Without a main PC, and not entirely bothered yet.

I’m really glad I keep up-to-date backups.

A few weeks ago, I was doing some work on my desktop PC, and found that I needed to update some software. (I don’t even remember what it was now.) I tried to install the update, and it began failing miserably. I figured at first that maybe my system needed a reboot to clear some stuff up, as I generally go weeks between reboots (I put it into sleep mode when not using it). Unfortunately, the first thing that the system did when Windows started to load was run a disk check. I ended up downloading a utility from Western Digital to check the drive, and it came back as bad and required a warranty replacement.

Normally, my first order of business would be to get the data off as quickly as possible, but the system threw errors whenever I tried to image the disk or run backups locally. Fortunately, I have offsite backups via Backblaze, so I checked to make sure they were up to date. They were, so I went ahead and sent the disk off for RMA.

As I was going to be offline for a while, I decided to go ahead and spend the money to get a new video card for the PC. The one I had was an ATI Radeon HD 5450, which was a budget video card. It worked fine when I first got it, but I quickly found that for some games like Infinite Crisis and Mortal Kombat: Komplete Edition, it wasn’t cutting it. After asking for recommendations at Micro Center and doing some research online, I settled on the nVIDIA GeForce GTX 650 Ti. After buying it, I realized that it required a PCI Express auxiliary power plug, which my current power supply did not have. I ended up buying a new power supply as well, which should hopefully be here next week.

In the interim, without a desktop PC, I’ve been using my iPad Air for the most part. Almost everything I do online can be done on the iPad; I can use Palaver for IRC, Prompt for SSH, Trillian for instant messaging, etc. In addition, I have plenty of games installed on it to keep me entertained. About the only time I’ve found myself pulling out the personal laptop has been if I needed to provide support for someone, or when I decided to download the backup data from Backblaze. The only concerns I’ve had have been that I can’t add media to my iDevices, and I can’t back them up until the desktop PC is back up and running. Otherwise, it’s just a waiting game.

While I’m looking forward to playing the aforementioned games onto my desktop PC, I’m okay with just using my tablet for now. As it stands, when the replacement power supply arrives from Newegg (the video card and hard drive are already here), I’ll still have to load Windows, reinstall all of my old software, and copy my backed up data onto the new system, so I have a bit of work to do yet. Still, I’m definitely at the point where my tablet is a decent replacement for my desktop, and it may end up that other than backing up the tablets, the desktop PC may just be relegated into a gaming machine.

We’ll see.

A different way of doing IRC…

This is going to be an especially geeky post. Feel free to skip if you’re not into such things. :-)

I’ve been using IRC (short for Internet Relay Chat) for over twenty years now. I first got into it when I was in college, and I want to say it was my friend Chris who got me into it. Since he introduced it to me one summer, I got on via my college’s VAX cluster, and later the college’s Digital UNIX server. I made a number of friends on there, and from my early days on the EFNet channel #Vampire, I went to other networks and other channels as well. I even became the admin of the IRC channel for Mortal Kombat Online, #mortalkombat on Webchat (now on Chat-Solutions). It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s also been very helpful; my time on #Vampire got me into learning Linux, which in turn essentially jumpstarted my IT career. #mortalkombat was used to host many celebrity chats, including several with the developers of Mortal Kombat. I even hang out on the official support channel for the webmail software I use.

While I had used Windows-based IRC clients in the late 90’s, I had started on console-based ones like ircII, and found those to be more to my liking. What I REALLY liked about the console-based clients, though, was that I could use a program called screen to keep an IRC client running and be able to connect to it whenever I wished. I had been running IRC that way until recently, and it worked out pretty well for me.

However, I recently realized that I wanted to have a decent IRC experience when on my phone or tablet, too. The problem there is that while there are SSH clients available for iOS, running IRC on them tends to be a bit of a pain in the ass. I learned that there was a proxy function on irssi (the IRC software I was using at the time) that could allow other clients to access the existing session, so I ended up downloading an iOS client called Palaver. The big problem there, though, was that it wouldn’t provide any sort of history on connect, so I would jump into conversations not knowing what was going on. That was more than a little annoying.

I ended up scrapping the screen method entirely, and went with an IRC bouncer called ZNC. It connects to the IRC servers like an actual client, but otherwise all it does is sit in the background and wait for clients to connect to it like they would a real IRC server. Any client that connects automatically joins the channels the bouncer is in, plus gets a history playback so that one isn’t jumping blind into a conversation. The biggest advantage I found, though, is that there’s a module for ZNC called znc-palaver that sends push notifications to configured devices running Palaver; whenever someone says the user’s nickname on channel or sends him a private message, a notification is sent to the user’s mobile devices.

So far, I’ve been really happy. About the only downside I’ve found is that I would like to run irssi locally, but the Windows clients available on their website are not of the most up-to-date release and as such don’t handle my ZNC session very well. I’ve since switched to KVIrc on my Windows boxes, and am using Palaver on my iPhone and iPad. It’s taking a little getting used to seeing as I used the console method for so long, but for now, I can’t complain. We’ll see if this becomes a long-term system. :-)

Cutting back on the social networking posts…

Those who follow me on the three social networking platforms I’m on (Facebook, Twitter, and Google+) have probably realized that I’ve been posting a lot less often than usual. There’s a reason for that.

A good chunk of my social network postings have been done during work hours, when I was between tasks and/or not engaged in anything that needed doing. I don’t believe it interfered with my work and my supervisors never had an issue with it. Still, I was discussing the issue with Jennifer recently, and she helped me come to the realization that I probably was spending too much time on it. I then decided to cut my usage drastically.

Instead of keeping the feeds open on a regular basis, I’ve restricted myself to only checking them on scheduled breaks. I don’t see as much (especially on Twitter) and I’m less inclined to post. I’d considered simply deleting the accounts altogether, but I’m not quite ready to go to that step.

In any event, I’ve been finding the changes work out pretty well for me. I’m taking social networking less seriously, and don’t feel as disconnected when away from it. I’ll still read and post every so often, but for now, I don’t mind being quieter.