How to be a Hacker

So you've played Watch Dogs and thought to yourself "that don't look too hard," and now you want to learn how to be a hacker. Well, you should know that there is more to hacking than just staring at your phone all day, which we all do anyway, and you have a long way to go if you want to give DEDSEC a run for their money.

DEDSEC

Before we begin I should say up front that I am not a security expert and I may misrepresent certain details or skip over information as I oversimplify this topic for the sake of brevity. Feel free to chime in if I'm wrong about anything, or if I've glossed over something important.

To get a better insight into what it entails to be a hacker, you need to know what hacking is and what it isn't. "Hacking" is often used by the media as a catch-all term for any computer-related crime, but the crimes that can be committed using a computer are many and varied, so just calling everything "hacking" is a gross misunderstanding of how computers play a part in our connected world.

Real computer hacking is, at heart, exploiting the weaknesses in a computer system to gain access to protected data or features. It could mean probing a corporate network to get to company secrets or circumventing the software block on a console to make it run homebrew games. Whether this is done with malicious/criminal intent isn't exactly important, but die-hard hackers tend to prefer that the term "hacking" is reserved for exploiting weaknesses whereas "cracking" is the definition of hacking with the intent to steal, destroy, manipulate or commit some other crime (such as bypassing the DRM on a game, which is illegal under the DMCA).

Wearing these hats do NOT make you a hacker

Despite this distinction between innocuous and criminal hacking, there is still a separation in the hacking community between "good" and "bad" hacking, with the "white hat" and "black hat" monikers referring to the respective types. White hat hacking is hacking done for the sake of research or to test the security of a system, usually at the behest of the systems administrators, who are interested in how robust their system is in case they are targeted by others hackers (this is called penetration testing). Black hat hacking, on the other hand, is hacking done for selfish reasons, either to prove that you could, or because you have something to gain by exploiting the system. There are the obvious monetary gains, but some hackers are solely looking for a challenge or the infamy gained by breaking into heavily protected systems. They may notify the administrators of the system which they broke into to make them aware of the security hole, but unless actually invited to test the security of the system then this type of hacking isn't always appreciated (or legal). Where the line between this and "cracking" lies is subjective and the source of endless arguments, as is tradition in computer culture.

On a related side-note, it is impossible to talk about hacking without making a mention of phone phreaking. Phreaking was the 1960-1970s era phenomena of exploiting telephone systems by using specific frequencies of sound to trick the electronic switchboards into doing what you want. Most commonly it was to let you call long-distance for free, but it was also accompanied by a practice called "war dialling", which is a brute-force way of finding if there are any exploitable computer systems connected to the telephone network. Phreakers would gather in conference calls (for free), on unprotected corporate networks to trade stories, share techniques, and just hang out.

Despite all this talk about computer systems and program flaws, there is a much more analogue aspect to hacking which is important to mention. Most often, especially in this world of advanced firewalls and paranoid sysadmins, the weakest point in a system are the users. Hacking has always involved aspects of social engineering, where a hacker would convince another person to give them access to a private area or system, sometimes without doing anything more complicated than asking. We're naive and trusting creatures and our desire to help usually wins over any suspicions, especially if the person you're talking to seems legit.

The nmap program making an apperance in The Matrix: Reloaded - an example of Hollywood hacking done right

So you want to be a hacker? Meaning you want to exploit weaknesses in a computer system, and the humans using it, to gain access to information not meant for your eyes. Hacking itself is very difficult and involves a lot of research and experimentation which can take a lot of time to accomplish, especially when you're trying to exploit programming flaws or penetrate a well-constructed network. However, you can also find a lot of programs on the internet which exploit already-known flaws, giving you the powers to intrude into systems without all that hard work. But then you would be just a "script kiddie", and nobody likes script kiddies.

In the Watch Dogs game, Aiden Pierce is referred to as a great hacker but all he does is run programs on his phone which do the work for him. The game doesn't feature any of the poking and prodding that goes into actually finding weaknesses in secure systems and Aiden relies on the apps to do the heavy lifting. If you'd like a better example of hacking in a video game you should check out Uplink: Hacker Elite, which features a lot of techniques that real hackers use to exploit computer system. That way you can feel like the righteous hacker that you always wanted to be... but don't do any real hacking, though; that stuff is illegal.

Sources

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Has the Xbox One Already Lost in Europe?

Microsoft's Xbox One was released on November 22nd, 2013, little over a week after its direct competitor Sony's PlayStation 4. These are two systems with comparable technical specifications (barring any non sequitur arguments about FPS) and will feature much of the same games, along with a few exclusives. They differ from Nintendo's Wii U by being technical powerhouses that push us into the next generation of video games and, despite some major gaffs on Microsoft's side early in the game, will probably be neck and neck for the duration of the console generation. Or they would be, if the Xbox One was even in the game.

I live in Norway, which isn't a part of the United States or Asia, but in the minds of some publishers it seems like it's not even part of Europe when it comes to release dates. This isn't a phenomenon isolated to the northern kingdom, as we are lumped in with our scandinavian neighbors as countries big enough to warrant localization of titles. This results in an odd phenomenon where games and systems which are released in "Europe" don't come to the scandinavian countries until the manuals and interfaces have been translated to our respective languages. Nevermind that English is a mandatory second language for all citizens, there is a defiant insistence that we need things translated to our native languages before they are permitted to grace our frost-covered lands. This, in my mind somewhat myopic, adherence to guidelines results in a strange blend of languages where the back-of-the-box has a campy and cringe-worthy translation of blurbs for a game that is entirely in English, or when a game filled with American characters speaking English to each other in America using computers with a Norwegian interface.

It's strange and somewhat immersion-breaking, but being a native of this country it's something I've come to expect and you get used to ignoring the disjointed mishmash of languages and the fact that a "European release" may not mean "released across Europe", with some titles never even making it out of the United Kingdom or the big four (Germany, France, Spain and Italy). It's frustrating, but the cost of living in one of the happiest countries in the world.

But then there's this.

I'm in the mood for a new console. It's been sufficiently long since the release that games I want to play are available on next current generation consoles, so I feel that I can justify the purchase of a new console. I was a little surprised to see that on the website of a local electronics store it said that the Xbox One was coming in September, but I assumed that it was their way of saying "we ain't got nothing for you if you didn't preorder". Imagine my surprise when I saw the above text on the official Xbox website. In case you don't speak Norwegian, it roughly translates to "Xbox One is coming September 2014". September 2014. September. Six months from now and TEN months after the official release date. Not to say ten months after the release of their direct competitor, a console which is in the broadest terms indistinguishable from the Xbox One.

Delayed distribution aside, this is an amazing oversight on Microsoft's side, to delay the Xbox One's rest-of-Europe release by almost a year. I'm not entirely sure what is the reason for this, but either the European market (excluding the UK and big four) is too small to release a console in or Microsoft are underestimating the impact this will have on their fanbase. In September, after the hype from Titanfall is all but forgotten and gamers have been bombarded with next current generation advertisements, reviews and banter about leaderboards and plot points, I wonder how many people will still be waiting patiently for the Xbox One to become available, especially when the PlayStation 4 is right there, available right now as a comparable alternative for less money.

Maybe Norway just isn't a big enough market for Microsoft to really care about, but as of this writing the Xbox One is only available in 13 countries, leaving a lot of holes for Sony to fill. In the coming months, gamers all over Europe will hear about great new games being released and will just have to wait patiently for Microsoft to get their shit together. Or pick up the other console. You know, the one that's already here.

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Unreal Engine 4 is Now Subscription-Based and Open-Source*

With the official launch of Unreal Engine 4, Epic Games has mentioned on the UE blog that anyone who pays the subscription fee will get access to the newest iteration of the engine as well as the full majority of C++ source on GitHub. This is a dramatically different from how things have worked in the past, where the license to use the complete engine was given out to developers based on specific deals with Epic and where hobbyists and indie developers would only get access to a stripped-down version of the game engine called the Unreal Development Kit.

This move to a subscription model available for everyone is a bold and somewhat unprecedented move by Epic. Large-scale game engines aren't customarily available to the proletariat, which is part of the reason Unity has flourished in a market starved for AAA-quality engines. However, the $19/month subscription plan isn't the complete piece of the pie that Epic wants for giving people access to their engine, as the registration page explains that they'll require a 5% cut of the gross revenue for any game built using UE4. This may be a brave new world for Epic, but they're not letting go of lucrative licensing deals just yet. It'll be interesting to see how this pans out for indie developers whose use of small and obscure distribution channels may make it difficult for Epic to enforce their licensing fee, or the mere existence of a percentage cut may put off indie developers who don't face the same restrictions when using Unity.

On the open-source side of things, anyone who has a registered subscription and a GitHub account will be able to check out the engine's code on GitHub. However, Epic haven't been very clear about whether this will simply be a means for advanced developers to tweak the game engine to suit their own needs or if they will be open to code contributions from the public. This is not the first time a non-free game engine has provided the source code alongside the complete product as the source to Torque 3D was available for paying customers for a while before going completely open-source. The code for exporting games to consoles isn't available to everyone however, as they state on their FAQ page there are legal restrictions to providing console-specific code as open-source, and anyone interested in publishing games for Xbox One or PlayStation 4 need to sign a custom licensing deal with Epic.

Despite being open to everyone, the engine is still being provided with the caveat that it's for early adopters only, with the complete polished engine coming in another 6 months time. The move to a subscription model is surprising and puts them in direct competition with Unity, who recently announced Unity 5 which features advanced shaders, a much-needed GUI update and support for exporting to WebGL (meaning games can be played in the browser without the Unity plug-in). Nevertheless, the new Unreal Engine is available right now for daring souls who want access to the technology behind massive AAA-titles like Gears of War and Bulletstorm.

Update

Crytek have revealed that their CRYENGINE will also be available to indie developers using a subscription-based distribution model. It seems that this is the direction the industry is going, I just wonder how this will effect Unity.

*For paid members.

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Game Engines: How do they work?

Game engines are great things, able to take the weight off developing a game idea to let you focus on the idea itself. Powerful engines like the Unreal Engine, Source Engine and indie-darling Unity3D are examples of great tools built by people who want to make games bigger and better. Game engines provide developers with a slew of components and helpers they can use to build their games faster and with less hassle, but the most important factor games engine provide are interoperability between the various gaming systems available. Game engines are amazing, awesome things, but how do they work?

Note that this article will focus on 3D game engines as they are the most proliferated and technically impressive. 2D game engines are for indie game hipsters who don't know how to use orthographic projection.*

*That was a joke, albeit a terrible one.

Computers: How do they work?

Disclaimer: this is not a technical diagram

To understand how game engines work, we first need to look at how computers in general work as a set of systems. Computers work on a principle which can be described as "layers of abstracted complexity", which just means that everything in a computer is built atop something complicated which has been abstracted to be easy to work with. In its barest sense, a computer is a machine which uses patterns of fluctuating voltages in an electrical signal to do arithmetic, but it would be impossible to get anything done on a computer if you needed to think about this every time you wanted to build something.

To give you an example of how stupidly complex a computer is, I'll try to describe the various layers in the most basic terms: Down in the depths of a computer's hardware is a powered circuit which is manipulated so that the voltage in the circuit changes. This circuit passes through transistors which interpret the changing voltages into a predictable signal of either off or on (0 or 1). This way the voltage, which would look more like a wave if measured directly, turns into a pattern of 0s and 1s which are interpreted in the layer above as binary patterns. These binary values can be strung together in "words" to form commands that the computer needs to understand. In turn, those commands are then bunched together in processes which can do even more complicated things like manipulating memory storage and sending/receiving signals from peripherals connected to the computer system. Combine enough processes and you have an operating system capable of being programmed to perform wondrous tasks to entertain and educate, illuminate or obliterate.

These layers are the foundation of computer science, with each layer having its own fields of specialization (and archetype of geek), each building on top of each other and working together to make the modern all-purpose computer function. Standing atop this pillar of complexity are the high-level languages, the easy to read and write scripting languages which power the likes of web browsers and game engines. Thanks to the layers of abstractions you can tell the game engine to draw a 3D character inside a room without having to worry about what electrical signal you need to send to the screen to draw the correct pixels.

If you want to know more, the people over at Computerphile post regular videos on how computers work: Computerphile on YouTube

Components of the Modern Game Engine

Game engines are complicated sets of components which provide a lot of useful features for making games. Unlike general development frameworks, like Cocoa Touch (for building iOS applications) or .NET (for building Windows applications), game engines are made specifically for creating games and have all of their components organized to do just that, to the detriment of other forms of applications. To compensate for lacking easy tools for building menu bars and widgets, game engines have graphics engines optimized to be as fast as possible and instead of using default popup windows and system sounds they contain sound engines which place sounds in 3D space.

Input

One of the most important aspects of a game is the means to play it, so game engines usually support an array of input types: keyboard, mouse, gamepad and touch are the mains ones and any less-common input methods (joystick, steering wheel, rollerball, multi-touch) being subsets thereof. There are many different ways to handle input, but there are two common means: events and polling.

Input events work by the computer listening for some form of input (mouse button pressed, keyboard key released, joystick axis changed, touch pressed) and triggering your custom code. This can be combined with a "mapping table" which will connect keyboard/controller/mouse buttons to named actions, such as "jump" or "shoot", so that you can build your code without having to worry about the user wanting to play using a different layout than the one you build your game around.

Polling is usually done when it comes to position values, such as the x/y coordinates of the mouse or the amount of tilt of a gamepad's analog stick. The game engine provides the means to retrieve these values whenever the developer wants to and it's up to the developer to react to changes in these values, whether it be moving a character or changing the position of the custom mouse cursor.

Graphics

An example of what the Unreal Engine 3 is capable of

Also, what would a game be without cutting edge graphics? A major selling point of game engines (especially high-profile ones like the CryEngine) is the impressive graphics that they can power, usually combined with the ease of production. 3D games are built around 3D assets which are usually created in an external 3D rendering program, like Maya or Blender, and imported into the game engine. Game engines which support a lot of import formats wear the fact proudly, allowing game developers to work in the program they are familiar with and import it to a functioning game without having to jump through hoops.

Once the asset has been imported, you can add it to the game you're building together with bump maps, specular/translucent materials and shadows to create a believable object. Game engines also feature a slew of lighting technologies and effects, which give life to the assets you've added, as well as handling the animation of said assets, including crazy things like blending animations to transition between running/jumping/shooting in a believable manner.

Describing all the graphical features that game engines provide would take thousands of words, but in essence game engines are all there to make your task as simple and straightforward as possible. Developers don't want to deal with converting their carefully crafted 3D models to cryptic formats, or manually building meta-data to show them properly. Game engines do their best work when they take your creative output and spits it out on the screen without (too much) hassle. This, combined with post-processing effects, terrain building and particle effects means that you can create an entire game world inside the game engine by combining assets from various sources.

Sound

Sound is also an integral part of games, despite being overlooked most of the time (unless the sound is terrible, in which case it's game-breaking). Adding sound effects to games isn't as straightforward as one would think, especially with the advent of 3D games.

Sound effects usually don't just come out of your speakers as they were recorded, but most game engines have the means to place sounds inside the 3D world which will modify the volume depending on where your character is relative to the sound. There are also a lot of ways to improve a sound's realism by adding pitch modulation and reverberation to make it seem like the sound is bouncing off the walls of its surroundings. Take for example the sound of clashing swords out in an open field versus down in the depths of a dungeon and how it adds to the atmosphere if the sounds reflect the world around them.

Music and GUI sounds work differently, as they are added without respect to a 3D position, but rather are played as if the sound comes from inside the players head. Obviously, the engine needs to provide the means to adjust the music to fit the mood of the game, rather than just blaring it out on full volume.

Networking

It has been decades since games started featuring online multiplayer and in we are in the midst of a social gaming phenomenon which wants to connect all your gaming adventures with your friends. This requires as lot of logic revolving around communicating with different servers or even other client computers, which is a complete nightmare to handle manually. Thankfully, most modern game engines provides a lot of pre-built components and helper scripts which do most of the heavy lifting, allowing you to work on the responsiveness and fun of the multiplayer rather than worry about the intricacies of TCP/UDP traffic.

Physics

Valve Software's Source Engine had "realistic physics" as one of its major selling points when it was first released. Now all modern game engines come with some means to simulate real-world physics.

It wasn't long ago that realistic physics wasn't really a selling point of games, with most of them relying on their own crazy interpretation on how the laws of physics works (anybody remember rocket-jumping?). Now there are more physics engines than you can shake a stick at, the biggest ones being Havok, Box2D and PhysX, which are interwoven into game engine to handle the complicated math needed to realistically simulate the real world.

One thing that needs to be understood is that physics isn't an integral part of rendering 3D game worlds, despite modern game engines combining the two so that the end-user doesn't have to be aware of the distinction. When you render a cube in a game, it's just a visual effect, perhaps combined with light refraction and bump maps to give it a sense that it really existed in the world, but there is nothing inherent in the cube which says that it has to adhere to physical laws. Physics needs to be added to the cube for it to react to gravity or being pushed/shot by the user. The cube is given a physical shape, which may not be the same as the visual shape, as well as mass, friction, bounciness and other properties to create an object which can interact with the world around it.

Handling physics is a costly process ("costly" in this case referring to the amount of processing power needed) and only adding physical bodies to the objects that need to react, as well as making their physical shape less complicated than the visual one, is a simple way to make games run faster. This is the reason why you can slide along a row of trees as if they were a flat wall, because the computation needed to determine your collision with every single tree trunk is a waste of time for the game when you should just be following the corridor rather than exploring anyway.

Graphical User Interfaces

The GUI isn't just the main menu.

Despite not really being capable of building the typical user-interface of a Windows program, with a menu bar and floating windows, game engines tend to feature at least rudimentary GUI capabilities. Games tend to have their own custom GUI to fit with the style of the game, so providing a standard UI isn't really as important as giving developers the means to build their own custom buttons, drop-downs, sliders and such by combining textures, colors and events.

Different game engines handle the problem of GUI differently, with some ignoring the issue altogether, requiring the developers to build the functions manually. This isn't exactly the hardest thing to do, as a GUI is pretty much just a list of text/images which can be clicked on or selected using the keyboard/gamepad.

Scripts

Another huge part of game engines is pre-build scripts which can be attached to objects in the game world. The terminology differs from engine to engine, some using the term "behaviors" while others talking about "game objects" differing from "visual objects", but in the end it boils down to one simple thing: someone else did the work for you.

Most game engines come with scrips for initiating a game with the player in a specific position, adding and moving cameras, starting/stopping particle generators, manipulating lights, triggering events when a player moves into an area and a whole slew of other features. Some cases it can be as simple as adding a 3D model in the game world and designating it as a 3rd-person player character, and the game engine will have pre-build scripts for moving and animating the character, rotating the camera and having the world react to the player's position.

The Unity Engine is built around the idea of attaching components to objects in the world to adjust their behavior, whether it be giving the player control over them to adding complicated AI

Artificial intelligence is a big part of the scripts/modules/behaviors/whatever that game engines provide, with the most complicated ones giving you the means to dictate how characters react by building a tree of behavior nodes rather than having to write hundreds of lines of code. The "scripts" that a game engine provides comes down to how much it does for you, which can be a great help to get a game finished quickly, but can also create a problem if you want to do something outside the provided functions.

Benefits and Drawbacks

One of the biggest benefits of game engines is how they provide developers with tools for building games so that they don't have to reinvent the wheel. From handling the low-level graphical optimizations necessary to get a good FPS rate to importing common asset formats, game engines essentially do the "grunt work" of game developing so developers can focus on the atmosphere, story and other factors important to creating a good game.

This is also one of the biggest drawbacks of game engines, as they homogenize the games which are built. A game engine built for first-person shooters may not be the best to use for a racing RPG and your choice of engine may in the end hamper your creative expression. One typical example is how all Unreal Engine 3 games have the same visual "feel", despite wildly different styles and they all struggle with texture pop and a style of sound effects due to the technical limitations of the engine itself.

However, in the end this may not matter because game engines provide something that is an absolute necessity in the modern world of desktop/mobile/console gaming: platform interoperability. The idea is that you build the game atop an engine and can export your game to a variety of platforms, depending of how many the game engine supports. The benefit to developers is hard to down-play, as you'll be building a game once and then having them available on multiple platforms with the press of a button. Whether the game is optimized for that platform (touch vs controller vs keyboard) is another question, so ubiquitous interoperability is a double-edged sword which can result in terrible ports if left in uncaring hands.

Conclusion

Game engines are great! They give developers tools to build games quickly and efficiently while hiding the hard parts involved in building games for the various platforms. Even if you're only aiming to build a game for one specific platform, game engines can give you a boost which will get your game out faster and with more features than if you were to build the whole thing from scratch.

There are a whole myriad of game engines available for the picky game dev nowadays, with more being added every time someone decides that the ones provided just doesn't scratch their particular itch, so there is no chance of running out of options. They differ in quality, feature set and price, so it's just a matter of picking your preference and getting to work on your game.

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The Viking Myth

This article was originally posted on BnBGaming on March 7th, 2011.

"Carry your head always high in battle, where swords seek to shatter the skulls of doomed warriors"
— Harald Hardrada, viking king of Norway (1047-1066)

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has been announced, set to be released in November, and it features the last of the Dragonborn fighting the true dragons in the realm of Skyrim, home to the Nord race. With the trailer featuring a fighter carrying a round shield and horned helmet, along with being set in the northern part of Tamriel and featuring a race of light-skinned people with blond hair called the Nord, it's very obvious that the game takes heavy inspirations from Viking history.

It is not the first game to do so, as many games have featured Vikings in the past, whether directly referencing historical details or set in a fantasy setting where certain traits or equipment are based on what we know about the Vikings. The norse people, who are most widely known for their brutal and successful raids, lived from the 8th to 11th century and have had their history distorted by hearsay and misconceptions, all of which have been replicated in videogames. Historical pedantry aside, it's interesting to see what videogame designers have extracted from historical accounts and where they have taken liberties with the facts.

Note: This article will focus on the aspects of Vikings that have been featured in videogames and is not an in-depth study of Viking history. For more information about Vikings, I suggest you check out the sources as the bottom of this article.

Weaponry and Armor

First of all, it's important to note that Vikings didn't have horns on their helmets. Sure, this iconic idea of horned helmets is the first thing people think about, but it comes from a fantastical description of Vikings several hundred years after they had faded away. Viking helmets were simple, had a domed or peaked cap with nose or eye guards and were most likely not made of metal very often, the Vikings favoring leather due to its cheap and durable nature. Leather was used heavily in the creation of body armor as well, and mail was worn only by the rich and important members of society. Wearing lots of armor was heavy, slowed you down and made it harder to move during combat, factors which made using armor quite unattractive to the dapper young Viking. Leather was the name of the game and if you got stabbed you just worked through the pain.

The shields, however, were as round as they come. Before the invention and widespread adoption of kite shields, whose main benefit was protecting the legs, the round shield was a favorite amongst Viking warriors. These were usually sparsely decorated, but important individuals could have intricate designs painted on them and have gold or silver trimmings. The shields were crafted out of linden wood, favored for its light but dense properties, meaning that a cleave would dig into the shield but would not penetrate it without a second, much harder, attempt. As a combat tactic, the Vikings would interlock their shields much like the Romans did, creating a wall of protection against enemy blades and arrows.

For weapons, the Vikings preferred a spear or an axe, both of which could be thrown with impressive accuracy. The axes were single bladed, sometimes attached to long handles like a crude polearm, and had a head with an easily recognizable L shape. Swords were also used, but were very expensive to make and as such would be pointless for the common Viking, who could use his axe as a tool as well as a weapon.

The 2000 game Rune by Human Head Studios is filled to the brim with Viking weaponry and epitomizes the view of the Viking warrior, clad in mail armor with a horned helmet branding a massive double sided axe. Despite the glaring inaccuracies, there is a definite "Viking feel" to the design of the clothing and weaponry, especially the swords that look very similar to the ones that have been uncovered with its broad blade and large pommel. Of course, the round shield is present and is an iconic representation of the Viking age.

Viking: Battle for Asgard, in contrast, is a little more frugal with the varying weapon types and the heavy armor, focusing rather on a few distinct bladed weapons including the axe with its very typical shape. The player character is wearing very little armor and the use of two weapons rather than carrying a shield seems more dangerous than anything else, but at least he looks significantly bad ass.

Architecture and Construction

Vikings lived as other people did in those years, in simple homes constructed with stone and wood. The most common of these houses was the longhouse, which could be as small as five by fifteen meters and typically housed a single family. The beds were along the walls and in the middle was the common area, where people would gather around a fire to eat or converse. The houses were very simple, without any windows and held few possessions, but more complicated buildings were made for important families or important functions, such as gathering halls or places of worship. These buildings may have been decorated with carvings or paintings, but there were no dragon heads on Viking buildings, which were strictly functional rather than impressive.

Viking longships, however, usually had a dragon or serpent carved into the prows, which were there to protect the sailors on the voyage ahead. The longships were very adaptable to various types of traveling, whether across open oceans or down winding rivers, and could be built in just over a month by a capable crew of Vikings, overseen by a head shipbuilder. The ships were symmetrical, with no defined front or back, which allowed them to be reversed very quickly when navigating difficult waters or during combat. Most longships were equipped with sails for longer journeys, but all of them could be rowed, with the Vikings sitting on chests containing their possessions (or loot) rather than having any benches. Also, the longships had places to attach shields on the sides for protection against the elements or arrows if the threat arose.

Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings featured the ability to play as the Vikings, but the buildings and units weren't necessarily accurate or distinct from other factions. Of the Viking-specific units they did have the only one that was really accurate was the Viking longship, as is customary. However, they also featured stave churches, which were massive wooden places of worship adorned with Christian symbols, which were built after the decline of Viking culture in the 12th century. Perhaps the association between Vikings and stave churches is the distinct art style of the decoration, which was deceptively similar to the early Viking decorations, but also the locations of these churches, as they were built primarily in Scandinavian countries and were never adopted in other countries.

The 1998 adventure/edutainment game Vikings is more accurate in its portrayal of Viking villages but prominently features the Viking longship and is littered with Viking-era drawing and decorations, perhaps to a greater degree than was common in the era it is emulating, simply to reassure the player that he is, in fact, playing a game about Vikings. The bland and dreary truth of simple, functional housing and clothes isn't really good material for a videogame.

Mythology

Viking mythology is filled with fornicating gods and bloody combat, but the only gods that have reached popular fiction are Odin, Thor, and to some degree, Loki. Odin is the king of the gods, the ruler of Asgard and is associated with war, wisdom, magic and poetry. Thor is the god that most people know of, he who carries Mjöllnir, the hammer forged by Odin which grants him dominion over thunder and lightning. He is the son of Odin and is connected to storms, destruction, fertility and the protection of mankind. Finally, there's Loki, the trickster. Much like Hermes, the god of Greek mythology, Loki is the sometimes-helpful sometimes-hindering mischievous and malevolent trickster god. He is a shapeshifter and is the father (and mother, in one odd tale) to many gods including Hel, she who guards the underworld.

Microsoft Game Studio's Age of Mythology encapsulated the general view of these Norse gods. It allowed you to choose one of the three gods: Odin, Thor or Loki when using the Norse civilization, and you unlocked a different set of powers depending on which god you chose. The powers were associated with the respective god's themes, Odin's being strength and resilience, Thor's being directly destructive and Loki's being strange and magical (you could summon a dragon or cause trees to walk around). Other gods, such as Freya the Norse goddess of beauty, are mentioned briefly but do not feature as primary gods possibly due to their relative obscurity.

Counter to the gods of Viking lore are the Jötunn, a race of nature spirits with superhuman strengths. These giants would battle the gods as well as intermarry and have later evolved into the Norse folklore creatures called Trolls. Trolls in videogames are grotesque monstrous beings that consume the flesh of men and attack with enough force to cause the mountains to shudder and ground to split. They are notoriously difficult to kill, to the degree that the Neverwinter Nights series (and other games based on Dungeons and Dragons) require a weapon or spell imbued with fire or acid to kill it.

The Jötunn reside in their titular home of Jötunheimr, the gods reside in Asgard and the mortal men live out their lives in Midgard; three of the nine worlds in Viking mythology, which are all connected by Yggdrassil, the world tree. Yggdrassil is a massive ash tree whose branches extend far into the heaves and roots extend far into distant places. It sustains and holds the worlds together and is often the meeting place of the gods when they hold their courts, as well as home to a wyrm who gnaws at its roots and has done so since the beginning of time.

The world tree, or life tree as it is sometimes known, is featured in many Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPG), most prominently in the Final Fantasy series. In Final Fantasy IX, for example, there is a massive tree called the "Iifa Tree" which is a sentient creature that acts as a location for a difficult battle, but also as a plot point later in the story. Despite being a great deal smaller than the Yggdrasil of legend, the Iifa Tree has roots that extend deep into the earth, and is a conduit for the souls of the dead. Also, in Final Fantasy VII, the player starts off in a city called Midgar, whose technological advances have given people the ability to tap into the lifestream of the planet by extracting it from the earth as a liquid source of power.

Finally, it is important to mention Ragnarök, the doomsday legend. Ragnarök can be translated to "final destiny of the gods" and is a set of future events that brings about a cleansing rebirth of the worlds. Natural disasters and great battles will tear through the world tree and in the end there will be a single man and woman who will repopulate the human race. The battle of Ragnarök is between all who reside in the nine worlds and on the side of the gods are the Einherjar, warriors who have died in battle and who reside in Valhalla, a great hall in Asgard, as they await their time of glory. The Einherjar are chosen by the Valkyries, a host of female figures who decide who shall die in battle and tend to the warriors once they enter the great hall.

Valkyries are to be found in a whole slew of videogames as either playable characters or powers to unleash when the time is right. One such game is Valkyrie Profile, a JRPG/side-scroller hybrid by Square Enix wherein you play as a Valkyrie tasked with recruiting warriors for the coming Ragnarök. You must not only recruit warriors, but also train them in dungeons to ensure that when Ragnarök comes, which is inevitable, they are prepared.

Dwarves and Elves

When J.R.R. Tolkien was writing The Book of Lost Tales, a series of stories which would eventually become The Silmarillion, he looked to the Viking legends of the dwarves as inspiration for his own race of mountain men. These legends were superimposed with legends surrounding Vikings to become the modern view of the dwarven race, which are heavily based on J.R.R. Tolkien's initial descriptions. These short, ugly and hairy people were excellent miners and smiths who predated the race of men and reside in the world of Svartálfaheimr.

You don't have to look far to find a videogame containing some form of dwarven race and the world's most popular Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft, is a good example of the modern interpretation of what a dwarf is supposed to be. Stout fighters with little time for fancy words whose society is deeply rooted in tradition and honor and who specialize in heavy-handed melee combat and weaponsmithing.

The elves of Tolkien's Middle Earth are also inspired by the elves in Norse mythology, specifically the Ljósálfar, or light elves, who dwell in the world of Álfheimr. They look mistakably similar to normal humans, but have god-like powers and are said to glow with unearthly radiance and are "fairer to look upon than the sun".

Like the dwarves, the elves are a predominant feature of most fantasy games and are seen as the antithetic race to the dwarves, great scholars and thinkers, well-versed in the ways of magic and who find great esteem in elegance and intelligence, which is reflected in the ways they deal with foes during combat. The "great debate" amongst fantasy fans is whether the race of dwarves or the race of elves is to be revered as the greatest addition to popular myth.

Runes

Runes were an early form of written language and were the predominant alphabet for Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet. Runes are considered to be symbols of power, and although there are vague accounts that runes were used for some magical or divinary purpose, usually to create magical objects, nowhere does it say that the words of power had to be written with runes, it could just as well have been any set of glyphs if those were known by the writer.

Runes were used when crafting runestones, massive stones erected at various locations that were inscribed with a band of runes, usually in the shape of a serpent, that spoke of historical events, legends or poems written as memorials to dead men. There are about 3,000 runestones left in Scandinavia, but the stones were erected wherever the Vikings had landed, and some have been found as far as England and Ireland.

Runes and runestones are often used as magically charged objects which can be attached to weapons and armor to bestow the specific magical property onto the item. Dragon Age: Origins had an enchantment feature where you would embed runes into slots on weapons and armor to power them up. This could only be accomplished if you had found or purchased the runes beforehand and was able to get to an enchanter who could perform the task for you. The runes used in Dragon Age don't look similar to actual Viking runes, but portray the idea that the runes themselves were magical and carving them in stone or onto steel would provide a magical effect. However, if one were to be able to read the runic alphabet, the whole premise would perhaps be seen as silly since carving the letter "B" into a gem and then attaching that to a sword doesn't seem like it would do much to improve the sword's capacity to kill people.

The Viking Army

Much of the world views Vikings as bloodthirsty barbarians, who recklessly raid civilized villages in a desperate grab for treasures. They leave none alive to tell the tale as they slay whom they cannot abduct and burn what they cannot steal. Although this is partially true, as Vikings were known to commit bloody raids, this description is based mostly on the eye-witness accounts of surviving victims, who saw their attackers as mindless heathen brutes whose only aims were riches and chaos. Vikings were organized and tactful and committed horrible acts in a deliberate attempt to strike fear into the hearts of all who knew of them; it looks like it worked.

Before the Christianization of Viking society, Viking life was based on living in villages, all of which had their own king and leadership. Due to the decentralized society, there were many fights between the various villages, and in the end the Vikings grew tired of fighting each other and set their sights on the lands across the seas, each village setting out by themselves to steal what could be found on distant soil. Once Christianity had firmly taken root, it was the Viking kings who commanded the raids, gathering scores of warriors in large scale raiding parties and using the same tactics that had worked for years.

The Vikings would land ashore, kill everyone, steal everything that wasn't bolted down and burn the rest. They would also hang surrendering enemies as a display of terror to all who saw it. This was a form of shock tactics which worked well in their favor and the evidence of this is seen in the massive amounts of treasure and slaves they would capture. People feared the Vikings; they could arrive at any time and would kill without mercy, exactly the effect that they wanted, as the Vikings weren't barbarous murderers but ruthless strategists.

Vikings in strategy games have always been expert seafarers and raiders, with little other skills. The first Medieval: Total War game featured an expansion called Viking Invasion, which added the Vikings as a playable faction. Specific to this faction were the special naval units that could travel faster and further than other naval units, and they received extra cash for destroying buildings but would go bankrupt if no raids were made, considering their lack of any internal economic force. The game also had a humorous addition with the idea that the heathen Vikings could be converted to Christianity, which greatly diminished their potency in raids. Considering how the adoption of Christianity led to the end of the Vikings, this is not only factually respectable but also just a little cheeky.

Berserkers

Most notorious of all the Viking warriors was the berserker, whose history is muddled by legend and misconceptions. What archeologists have determined is that they most likely existed and were hardened warriors who fought in a trance-like fury which bestowed upon them great resilience in battle. The legends speak of them eating fire and being immune to edged weapons, which might be a gross exaggeration as they are described in sagas and poems simply as ravenous men who loot, plunder and kill indiscriminately. They were a great asset as shock troops to a Viking army whose main tactic was to surprise and overpower the enemy before they had time to react. Their trance-like state could be the result of the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms or alcohol, but can also be explained as an adrenalin rush caused by working themselves up before a battle akin to playing rock music while sitting in a transport helicopter.

"I'll ask of the berserks, you tasters of blood,
Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated,
Those who wade out into battle?
Wolf-skinned they are called. In battle
They bear bloody shields.
Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.
They form a closed group.
The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men
Who hack through enemy shields."
— Hrafnsmál (9th century skaldic poem)

The use of the berserker legend in videogames is always tied to the idea of a short-term boost to attack and defense, but sometimes with a diminished control capacity. The Doom series featured a berserk pack which, when activated, would cause the player to scream like a madman while running around hitting everything with his overpowered fists, an odd addition to a first-person shooter. Other games, from God of War to SpongeBob Squarepants: Creature from the Krusty Krab, feature this type of berserk/fury mode, relating the increase in strength to an out-of-control experience.

Conclusion

The use of Vikings in videogames is based on the common idea of what a Viking was: bloodthirsty brutes who loved nothing more than battle and fire. There is little regard to their actual history, such as the importance of women, their early democratic societies or anything other than the misguided descriptions made by the survivors of their many, many raids. Their heavy use of shock tactics was reinterpreted to represent their barbarism and their later economic prowess due to an amassing of wealth is generally overlooked. Vikings were voracious sexual predators who killed anyone who stood in their way and stole your riches and your women, burning down what was left. In other words, great source material for a violent videogame.

However, the Viking weaponry and art style found in games isn't too far off from reality. It is easy to spot a Viking due to the style of weapons he uses, the round shield, the broad swords, the L-shaped axe and the longboat, so I guess the glaring flaw of having horns on their helmets is forgivable. Perhaps having the Viking "flip out" and haplessly kill everyone around him may not be the most historically accurate, but damn it if it isn't fun.

So there it is, the reality of Viking history compared to how videogame designers see them. If you can't get enough of Vikings, you could look at the various sources I cited below, as I touched upon just a small fraction of the daily life of a Viking, which was more about running a farm than burning down buildings. Also, you can explore how the Vikings have influenced other media including Viking metal and crazy trip-tastic movies with lots and lots of blood. And remember; í vísdómi er dýrð.

Sources

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What is "Nintendo Hard"?

This article was originally posted on BnBGamingon February 8th, 2011.

Fifteen years ago, the Nintendo Entertainment System was released upon the world, signifying a new generation of console gaming and revitalizing the industry that had been devastated by the arrival of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It was the most sold console in the world, up until the PlayStation came along, and for a lot of modern gamers it was their first taste of a digital world of entertainment. It also had some crazy hard games.

The 8-bit era of home consoles was initiated amidst the arcade craze of the mid-80s, and a lot of games were ported over from popular arcade machines. Arcade machines, which fed on our coins to survive, were always playing a balance game between making a game fun enough to play and hard enough to keep us dying, forcing us to keep pumping currency into its ever-hungry maw. When the games were ported to home consoles there was little effort done to make the games easier, and a generation of young gamers would slam their heads against the wall out of sheer frustration when facing the instant-death attacks, bottomless pits, disappearing platforms and swarms of enemies tearing down on you from some unknown hellscape.

A game genre that exploded in the 8-bit era was the 2D platformer, whose popularity is still going strong with recent HD remakes and retro-esque sequels. It's also a genre featuring games that are notoriously difficult, but somehow still loved by gamers everywhere. Games such as Ninja Gaiden and Ghosts 'n Goblins are considered good even by modern gamers, but are also incredibly hard, filled to the brim with enemies, spike-pits and cheap deaths.

Essentially, "Nintendo Hard" just means games that were released for the Nintendo Entertainment System that were hard to beat, which sounds silly, but they signify a certain trend in videogames during the 8-bit explosion. Sure the Wind Tunnel level in Battletoads makes you want to punch a wall and nobody could beat Mike Tyson's Punch Out due to the titular character being near-invincible, but these games were good. Legendary good. "Nintendo Hard" games aren't the ones that were hard to play due to shoddy gameplay or stupid levels, but games that were genuinely good and kept you coming back despite the constant stream of punishment it subjected you to.

Although the "Nintenod Hard" trend of hard-but-good games fell out of style during the 16-bit era of gaming, it never really went away. Modern iterations of such games go under the banner of "masocore", but follow the same basic formula. The gameplay is nigh-perfect for the platforming challenges ahead, but the level design is brutal in its expectations of your performance. Instant-death traps and enemies litter the landscape and only speed and perfect timing will allow you to progress. Games like I Wanna be the Guy and Super Meat Boy are great examples of this, both games created by indie studios and full of references to other games; an obvious homage to the "Nintendo Hard" games of yore.

The Nintendo Entertainment System was released after the videogames industry had suffered its worst crash in history and is considered to be one of the major factors in its recovery. The Nintendo is remembered fondly for its great lineup of games, which included a subset of insanely hard but incredibly good games that are referred to in modern times as "Nintendo Hard". The phrase is used to describe those retro games, but also modern iterations of the same concept and a compliment for those games that had you tearing out your hair in frustration, just to try again.

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Simple Rewards

This article was originally posted on BnBGaming on November 8th, 2010.

Why does World of Warcraft (WoW) feel like crack-cocaine to those who play it? Hours upon hours are sucked into a game that essentially rewards time and not effort, but the players can't get enough and the amount of WoW players is steadily increasing, much to the pleasure of Blizzard.How does it all work? Tom Chatfield, an author from the UK who wrote the book Fun, Inc., where he talks about the effect of games on the player, had a presentation at TED, where he gave a brief explanation on why we keep playing.

Essentially, the reason why WoW works so well in keeping you engrossed is because it constantly provides you with short and long-term goals with rewards around every corner. You are given small tasks to do, tasks that take a few minutes to complete, but every little thing that you are told to do, from killing eight boars to picking up a specific plant from the middle of a camp of hostile owl/bear/moose hybrids goes towards the bigger goal of leveling up. Killing an enemy rewards you experience points (XP) and loot, which can be sold or used to make your avatar better equipped for the challenges ahead. You're constantly being tugged along by flashing XP bonuses and mountains of loot, all the while synapses in your head are firing like crazy, giving you a tingly feeling you can't quite explain.

Is this ethical? WoW designers have put thousands of hours into tweaking the gameplay experience to provide the most rewarding, and essentially the most addictive, experience that is possible within the limitations of the world. People spend lots of time and money on WoW, completely unaware that it's pushing all the right buttons in their head to keep them playing. Who is to blame when a player disregards their health over the benefit of a game, resulting in illness or, in extreme cases, death? It's a tough question to ask due to the little amount of research on the subject, but the sheer amount of WoW players who aren't experiencing any problems with addiction does provide some evidence that there is little danger in letting yourself get lost in the sea of numbers and particle explosions that comes with the constant grind towards the next level.

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Indie Developers Should Embrace Cross-Platform Development

With the announcement, and subsequent release, of the Steam for Linux Beta, Valve Software have taken a hefty stand on the subject of cross-platform PC gaming. Their forays into developing their Source engine for the Linux ecosystem (specifically the Debian-based Ubuntu variant) has yielded surprisingly good results, as mentioned by the Valve Linux blog, and they have been working closely with nVidia to improve gaming on Linux for everyone.

It’s not very long ago that Valve Software released a Mac OSX port of their Steam software and the availability of Mac software as well as the adoption rate of Mac users has steadily grown since then, broadening the amount of gamers overall. Valve software has clearly decided that it wants to unify the PC platform into a single entity, spanning across various operating systems and bridging the gap between users, something I think is just peachy.

The schism that exists between computer users, based solely on their choice of operating system, is detrimental to the growth of the PC games industry, especially now that Mac computers have exploded in popularity. Whether you want a high-end laptop, build your own rig with multiple graphics cards or demand that all your software be open-source, we should all be able to get along and stop the pointless bickering on what visual interface we prefer to stare at all day. We should rather be focusing our energy on the real enemy: the filthy casual console players*.

Developing games takes a staggering amount of time and money and I have nothing but respect for those who endeavour to entertain us, doubly so if you take upon yourself the task without the backing of a publisher or established studio. However, despite this respect I am adamant that the indie games scene needs to move away from the idea that Windows is the only platform to develop for. The amount of times I’ve found an interesting game on IndieDB only to be disappointed at the lack of a Mac download is often enough to discourage any real exploration of the offerings from “garage-developers”. I choose to use a Mac for a myriad of purposes and the end result is that I feel rejected (and downright mocked) by gamers and game developers for that choice. I understand that Windows being the established gaming platform is a strong incentive to go Windows-only for your game project, but it is in our best interest to detach PC gaming from being Windows-exclusive.

Considering the extreme reactions to Microsoft’s latest operating system and the dangers, not to mention frustrations, that arise from giving a single company control over a medium, I believe that the future in PC gaming lies in true platform-agnosticism, where the choice of OS isn’t decided by the availability of a whole type of software but is instead based on the strengths of the system and his/her own priorities. Before you take a stand against this utopian idea by claiming that gaming is best on Windows, I ask you to consider what Microsoft has done to improve or embrace gaming on their operating system contra any of the other available options. Games for Windows – Live was probably the most abysmal and half-hearted insult to gamers that I have ever had the misfortune of experiencing and was probably done to entice developers to adopt Microsoft’s XNA tools by allowing Xbox 360 features (achievements, save game encryption and DLC) to be used in PC ports. Also, I cannot remember Microsoft ever toting their major games marketshare in any advertisement or as one of the strengths of their operating systems, it is simply a status quo that has arisen despite no encouragement or assistance from Microsoft themselves. Seeing as the creators of the operating system don’t particularly care about maintaining a strong grip on the PC games market, which is arguably contra to their interests considering their interest in moving gamers (and non-gamers) towards the Xbox platform, there is no reason why gamers themselves should work at maintaining this exclusive hold on their interests.

This complain and call to action wouldn’t be of any use if I couldn’t pose any solutions to the problem. The easiest way to ensure cross-platform-development is to use one of the many tools out there who will do a large chunk of the work for you. There are many cross-platform game engines out there, each with its own strengths and demographics, so it is only a matter of deciding to support all PC platforms from the get-go and making your choice of game engine based on that. To that end I will describe a few of the engines I have discovered in my time as a novice game developer, ones that deserve the attention for what they offer indie developers.

Unity (3D)

Unity, which recently released a new version of its editor, is one of the better engines I have experienced and deserves recognition for that fact. It’s built around game objects which consist of visual components and scripts that dictate how it behaves, a concept which is surprisingly easy to wrap your head around and results in building modular projects consisting of your own assets or ones purchased from the integrated Asset Store. The most impressive thing about the engine isn’t just it’s ease of use, but the plethora of platforms that you can export your game to, including smartphones and consoles as well as all the major desktop operating systems. Unity is poised to be the best choice for indie developers who want a powerful and flexible game engine that runs just about everywhere.

Notable examples: Pid, Slender: The Eight Pages

LÖVE (2D)

Be advised that I was involved in the development of LÖVE at its early stages, so my recommendation may be a tad biased. Also, one of the examples was built by me.

LÖVE is a programmers engine, in which I mean that there is no visual editor and virtually no built-in features. Instead, the engine is comprised mostly of a very basic API which does the heavy lifting for you, but requires you to build everything else (like the GUI system and game entities) yourself. Thankfully, the “lövers” (as the forum members are referred to) have build a large amount of libraries that help you accomplish a lot of the menial tasks that are necessary when building a game. LÖVE is a very bare-bones engine, but it makes up for its shortcomings by being very versatile and fast, and if you’re willing to work through the difficulty curve you can accomplish a lot of crazy things.

Notable examples: Mari0, Ninja vs Samurai

OpenGL/C++ (2D, 3D)

If you insist on building your own engine, you can’t go wrong with OpenGL and C++. Almost every platform built since the 70s has been able to run some variant of C and C++ has become the language of choice for most low-level development. Most game engines are build using C++ and the ones that are cross-platform are built to handle OpenGL, which is supported on all desktop operating systems and, to a certain degree on smartphones with the OpenGL ES subset.

Notable examples: pretty much everything ever

Hopefully I’ve made a valid point to the indie developers (or would-be indie developers) out there to embrace platform agnosticism as a means to reach as many gamers as possible. This argument makes a lot of sense to me, being a Mac user who also likes games, but I'd love to hear any counter arguments that I haven't thought of.

* Note: I own an Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and MacBook Pro – I do not seriously endorse hate or any form of gaming-related-snobbery

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Video Game Limerick 6

The task laid before me, it fills me with gloom

If I am bested, then I'm sure to be doom'd

Putting leaves on a shoe

Does that make sense to you

I combine all my items with those in the room

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