StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Global Invasion

I haven't posted in a while. I have been jumping between different games in the past nine months, but throughout that time, I've kept playing StarCraft II.

When I found out that Heart of the Swarm was going to come out in March, I decided that I needed to finish the single-player campaign before then. Also, since I live in Southern California, I thought it would be fun to go to the launch event in Irvine, CA. It's close to my work, and I figured I might as well.

In the meantime, I kept trying to play StarCraft II and get better at it. I did have a beta key, but every time I played, I never had any idea what was going on, and I kept getting crushed. I didn't want to play the beta and just be Terran, either. I had more fun in Wings of Liberty when I was playing random, so I decided that when Heart of the Swarm came out, I'd try to play random as well. In my final season, using filtersc's builds (which I posted about a while ago), I managed to make 1st place in Gold division. I know it's not much by StarCraft II standards, but it was an accomplishment for me. I just don't have enough time to play, let alone to get really good at the game. I'm lucky if I get to play a game every night.

The launch event was crazy, nerdy, and a lot of fun. There were actually more girls there than I thought there'd be. There were also kids a lot younger (and a lot older) than I was. (I'm in my late thirties. There was a guy in the crowd holding up a sign that said "All-Star Silver player." I think he was old than I was.) Some of the attendees actually brought their kids.

The crowd was really crazy. The Irvine Spectrum, an outdoor mall, had a stage with a huge projector and a concert sound system. There were probably a couple thousand people there, if not more, that stayed until midnight. They were giving out raffle prizes, and throwing prizes into the audience (like SSD drives, mouse pads, and mice). No one was hurt, as far as I could tell.

I thought that there were be more cosplay or crazy or weird things like that, but it just looked like Gen-Xers and millenials, and a bunch of gamers. No one really smelled. :)

They had some show matches to pass the time. They also showed off some of the new features of the game, like the ability to start a game from a replay. Basically, two pros would play a 1v1 that was projected on a large screen for the audience. After the game ended, the commentators would ask the loser when they thought they lost the game. They then had the option to replay the same game from that point in time.

I think this feature is great for a few reasons:

  1. If there's a disconnect or a network problem during a televised match, they can just resume the game from a replay and continue the match from there. They don't need to start the game over.
  2. It allows the pro players to look at a situation and figure out what could be an effective counter or response to a given army composition. I expect high-level play to get even better as a result of this feature.
  3. Finally, it lets us "normal" people play a game from a "fair" starting point, without having to create a custom map or anything like that. I think this could help you learn unit control. Instead of needing to learn the correct build order to get to mutalisks in a timely manner, you can load a replay where you already have a flock of them and can practice harassing the other player's economy.

While I was walking around at the event, I bumped into JP McDaniel. He's the host of the State of the Game podcast. He was really nice. We chatted for a bit about the podcast and about the game. I had the foresight to bring a silver pen and my copy of Wings of Liberty, so he signed an autograph for me. I also got autographs from MC (a Korean pro player), ViBE (an American pro), Husky (a commentator/YouTube star) and a number of Blizzard employees.

It was also neat to get a chance to talk to the Blizzard employees. There are a lot of people that worked on the game, and it was great to get a chance to talk to them and to thank them for their hard work. One of them that I did recognize was Samwise. (I thought it was a pen name, but later I found out that it is his real name.) I think he drew a lot of concept art in the WarCraft and WarCraft II instruction manuals.

It was a lot more fun that I thought it would be, and I'm glad I went. I suppose I might be back for the Legacy of the Void launch, if I'm still in Southern California.

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I'm addicted to Minecraft

I started hearing about it on the Weekend Confirmed podcast when Jeff Cannata tried it out, and it had me intrigued. I love indie games, and the fact that this one had done so well made me want to check it out. None of my friends actually played it. Some friends' kids have played it, but it was usually in the "creative" mode - where there wasn't really any danger, and I really didn't see the point.

Anyway, since I was about to take a vacation and head to Dallas, I thought it was a good time to try it out and see what I thought. I downloaded it a couple nights before I left. I already knew a little about how to play the game, mostly from watching the YouTube videos on the Minecraft website and hearing the stories from the podcast. I also heard them talking about playing the beta of the Xbox 360 version on the Major Nelson Radio podcast. I decided that I wanted to play the PC version, partially because it was further along in development, and partially because I knew I'd have a computer with me (and not have an Xbox with me) on the trip.

I managed to chop down a tree and make a small shelter relatively quickly. I was able to survive my first night right off the bat, but I think it's more because I knew what to expect from the videos and from the podcasts I listened to. Soon, I carved away more an more of the side of the mountain, until I actually had something that looked like a house. I was being really cautious - I didn't know what to expect and I was deathly afraid of all of the monsters that were in the world.

After a couple of nights, I had a stone house, carved into the side of a mountain, and a nice patio out in front. I had dirt "stairs" that you had to jump up to get to the front of the house. I had torches that lit the area so no monsters would show up. I thought it was rather neat. I didn't look at the wiki to figure anything out. I sort of enjoyed figuring out how to do stuff on my own.

I actually posted in the Minecraft forums here: people on the forums were really nice, and I got lots of good advice. Some of the other players also made a few jokes, and I started to understand the Minecraft jokes, too.

The jist of the post is that I wanted to figure out the game on my own. I thought I was doing pretty good. I figured out a lot of the stuff on my own:

  • How to make a hoe - while crafting a pick, I saw the picture change.
  • How to make a furnace - by looking at the achievements
  • How to make glass - I knew glass existed in the game by listening to the Major Nelson Radio podcast, but I figured out how to make it on my own.
  • How to make a door and a fence. I was really excited when I figured out how to make a gate for my fence, too.

My house started shaping up. I had a fence around the patio so I wouldn't fall off the ledge, and the fence plus the stone wall around the patio kept most monsters out.Some things were spoiled, and some things I had to look up. I didn't know how to heal - I was waiting around forever thinking that I'd just regenerate health eventually.

Around this time, I showed the game to my girlfriend's daughter. We took turns playing, and were having a lot of fun. She didn't have a good handle on the WASD keys, since we didn't really play any other PC games (other than StarCraft II vs. the computer). She also would get too excited when she saw a new mineral or stone and recklessly run towards the resources and jump off cliffs.Regardless, we were still having a blast. It was another game we could do together, even though we weren't really playing at the same time. We spent our vacation taking turns on the computer, and just having fun seeing what the other was doing.

After I got back from my trip, I went out to eat lunch with a coworker. I told him about the fun that A. and I had playing Minecraft, and he said that it sounded interesting. He was intrigued that there was a Unix client. He tried it out after work, and he said that he didn't really get it. Oh well.

Around this time, I started getting more feedback from my forum post. Besides some hints about the game, (and besides everyone saying that everyone uses the wiki) I heard a lot of people saying that I should create my own server. I started figuring out how to do this, but we were also starting to be invested in our own worlds. We did get to start a multiplayer game while my girlfriend was working on a weekend, so we did get to play (for about an hour) on the same world. It was a lot of fun, even though we didn't get a lot done. We make a shelter in the side of a cliff, found some coal, and made stairs down the river. We had some fun stories, like how A. made a dirt house (but didn't leave any room for me) and how she killed me while trying to fend off a skeleton.

When we got back from vacation, A. went to science camp with her school. When she got back, she said that there were a lot of classmates that actually played Minecraft, too. Some of the girls in her class played, but gave up when a creeper came and blew up her house. Some of the boys actually had their own server and invited her to play. I thought it was great.

In the meantime, I was playing Minecraft on my own, late at night. I realized that I needed to play with sound (and not while I was on the phone) because I needed to hear when the creepers snuck up on me and tried to blow me up. I also started trying to dig deeper, and figure out what I could do besides build my house.

I really didn't like nighttime. I heard the monsters in and around my house, but I really didn't like the fact that I couldn't see them. It was especially freaky when they'd show up and bang on the door to my house. I think I jumped out of my chair the first time I heard that.

Since I figured out how to make glass, I started putting in windows so I could see out at night time. When I saw that the monsters were just outside my house, I started digging around the house so they they wouldn't be right on the other side of the wall. The windows got bigger, until my house was made entirely of glass. (I guess it's a good thing that zombies don't know how to break glass. Or maybe they just don't want to throw the first stone.) I started finding more rare materials, and didn't really have a good idea want to do with them.

I also started to make my own skin for my guy. I gave him a white patch of hair, so it looks like me. I also changed him so he's wearing a pair of shorts. It's still a work in progress.

One of the funniest moments I had was after I started to get the hang of the game. I could hear the different sounds in my headphones, and I could tell what type of monster it was, and about where it was located. Anyway, I was playing late at night, and I could hear that there was a spider somewhere above me in the trees. I had adequate armor and weaponry, so that I wasn't too worry if it were to suddenly attack me. As I was meandering around my house, a spider dropped from the ceiling and landed on my hand and ran across the keyboard. I freaked out. I think I might have actually screamed out loud. As soon as the shock passed, though, I realized how funny it was.

Now that I've figured out more of the game, I switched my world over so that it's actually playing in a Minecraft server on my laptop. A. can join my world if she's around, or we can go back to the world that we were working on together. My latest project is to use up all the materials I collected. I started making a tower, and building it to see how high it can go. I thought it was rather neat - it encloses a small area with a workbench, a bed, and a chest, and it has a spiraling staircase to the top of the tower. Basically, I was looking for something to do with the cobblestone after I dug up all that rock.

I also started listening to The Shaft - a Minecraft podcast. I started at episode 1, at the end of 2010, when the game was still in alpha. So far, it's been good, since they haven't spoiled anything I hadn't already known. I also heard them talk about Minecraftchick, a girl who started playing and knew nothing about video games when she started. It's actually really entertaining to watch. I heard that she works for Mojang (the creators of Minecraft) now.

Another thing I heard on the podcast, after several episodes, is that they have their own public server. I sort of want to check it out, but at the same time, I'm not sure that I want to actually build anything there. They started griping about some of the building that people made, and one of their grips was about how everyone seems to want to build a super-high tower made out of cobblestone, and how they are such an eyesore. Oops. I guess I won't be visiting, other than as a tourist.

Finally, I ended up talking to my coworker yesterday. Even though he said that he really didn't get the game, he ended up buying it and going home and playing it. He actually figured out things like obsidian and how to use a hoe. He also told me how to make a ladder, before I got a chance to tell him that I didn't want any spoilers. Regardless, I think it's great that there's someone else at work that I can talk to about Minecraft.

I hope that A. and I have more free time together in the future. I'm looking forward to building more stuff with her.


Season 8

Because I've been playing Minecraft, I sort of took a break from trying to be so serious in StarCraft II.I have still been practicing the Silver build from filterstarcraft, but I stopped worrying about the timings and whether or not I hit the benchmarks or not. I don't think hit the benchmarks, but soon after Season 8 started, I made Gold division.

I lost my placement match, but then won my next four games after that. It was really weird, because I jumped from 7th place in Silver to 4th place in Gold. I'm 6-5 in Gold division, so I think it's about right. I haven't studied the Gold division build that filterstarcraft wrote, so I probably need to do that at some point. I'm still doing well, regardless, in Gold division. I cobbled together a build by adding an engineering bay and just adding barracks when I have money, but I'm sure that with a tighter build, I probably could do even better.

Here's his Gold division build:

I'm happy for now, though.


More StarCraft II builds and problems with my laptop

I haven't been playing StarCraft as much. I haven't been home much. However, I knew that I was going to be away a lot, so I had invested in a gaming laptop. However, when I tried to play StarCraft this weekend, it was awful. Not my play, which is normally awful, but the performance of the laptop. By the time I got to the 10-minute mark in the game (the time when I'm supposed to attack using the filterstarcraft builds), it was unplayable. It wasn't responsive, and the screen started looking like a slideshow. I lost a ton of matches. It also pissed me off, and that also wouldn't help in my ladder matches even if the computer didn't exhibit problems.

I gave up on ladder matches and decided to use a game vs. the AI as a benchmark. I would play against the CPU on Daybreak LE. I would use Ctrl+Alt+F to see what the framerate was when I was playing, and try and do the same build each time. It would start out at a normal framerate, but then it would drop as the game went on. By the 10-minute mark when I would attack the frame rate had dropped to 15 fps or slower.

Was it a patch? A bad video driver update? Something else? I did the typical tech stuff - update all the drivers, make sure there wasn't any other programs running on the machine (I had a APM counter and some other utilities running, so maybe a Java update or something else could affect the performance of the laptop.) It was weird, because the laptop and my desktop have similar specs, but StarCraft II runs great on my desktop and it was doggedly slow on my laptop.

I thought I might have screwed up or reset the graphics settings, so I started there. I kept fiddling with them, trying different options, disabling some graphics settings. It would seem like it would work for a while, but then it would start stuttering in-game.

I bought my Alienware laptop a couple years ago, so it was already out of warranty. I didn't buy a warranty because I figured if things got bad enough, I'd junk the pieces that I couldn't reuse and upgrade anyway. I was still able to play at home on my desktop, but it was annoying me since I pretty much bought this laptop to play StarCraft II on it. It worked fine with the StarCraft II beta, and it worked fine for the past year or so, but I don't think I played much on it in the past month or so.

I started reading up on it more, and found that even though my laptop had an i7 CPU and the desktop had an i5 CPU, the desktop actually had a better processor. The desktop version had more cache and ran marginally faster. I didn't think it would have made that big of a difference, though. The graphics chip in the laptop was better, but I was beginning to think that it wasn't a graphics problem. When I ran the game on low graphics settings, the computer would still slow down, but later on in the game. It was starting to sound like the CPU was the bottleneck.

This got me wishing that I had bought a higher-end computer, because the laptop model I had didn't have the fastest CPU that was available. I also started window shopping on the gaming laptop sites to see what I could buy that would be faster. It would be another $2000 that I'd have to save up though, and I was sure that I had other things that I really needed that money for besides a StarCraft machine.

I used to build PCs and work as a help desk tech back in the day, so I thought I'd try my hand at troubleshooting. I checked for malware, just in case. None, but I didn't expect any - I'm pretty careful with my computers. I updated the video drivers and looked for known issues with StarCraft II, but since the game's been out for so long, all the issues with graphics cards that they knew about have been fixed with either video driver updates or StarCraft II patches.

Using some tips from the stickied notes in the StarCraft II technical support forum on, I did the following:

  1. Downloaded CPUID Hardware Monitor to monitor the temperatures of the cores in my i7 CPU.
  2. Downloaded the Intel Processor Identification Utility to see what my CPU frequency was.

I tried my benchmark games vs. the AI, and then would exit StarCraft and look at my utilities. The hardware monitor showed that the CPU was hot, around 85 degrees Celsius, but that was still within the specs of the CPU.

I still had a hunch that it was a CPU problem, so I looked for a way to test the CPU. I found a utility that calculates Mersenne prime numbers, and that it was a good CPU test. It runs a mathematical formula which is supposed to heavily tax the CPU. I downloaded a utility called Prime 95. I ran it, and I saw the same symptoms - the temperature of the CPU would rise to 85 deg Celsius.

While I was surfing tech support forums and computer hardware web sites, I started reading up on CPUs. I had run across stuff while I was reading, including "turbo mode" for my Core i7 CPU and Intel SpeedStep.

"Turbo Mode" is where the CPU shuts down some of the internal cores (it's a four-core CPU that runs at 1.73 GHz, but if you only need two of them, it'll run with those two cores faster than the stock 1.73 GHz).

The second function, Intel SpeedStep, is a power-saving function. It changes the frequency of the CPU based on load. If you are running applications that need a lot of horsepower, it'll ramp up the CPU speed, but then bring it back down when you don't need it. The part I realized, though, was that it also would slow down the CPU when it got too hot. It prevents you from damaging your hardware, but at the expense of system performance. "Aha!" I thought. This was my smoking gun.

I kept the prime number utility running and kept re-running the CPU frequency utility. The CPU speed was actually going down. It was originally running at 1.86 GHz (overclocked more than the 1.73 GHz that's stock) but then when taxed by the prime number calculations, it would drop to 0.9 GHz or 0.5 GHz.

I was actually able to recreate this by running StarCraft II with my example game. I switched from StarCraft to the utilities via Ctrl+Esc and saw it when the CPU was still hot. I found that my CPU would max out around 85 deg Celsius. That seemed within the specs of the CPU, but then I saw something else: the CPU frequency dropped from 1.86 GHz to 0.5 GHz. I think Intel SpeedStep was slowing down my CPU because it was running so hot, preventing from damaging it.

I think this is also part of why I didn't find the problem right away. I would play a game. It wouldn't crash, but then it would slow down. I'd exit to the menu, maybe watch the replay to see if it was slow, and then give up. By the time I got back to the Windows desktop, the CPU was cooled down and the CPU was probably running at 1.73 GHz again. I did see it at 1.86 GHz once. (At the time, I thought it was a fluke, because I hadn't read up on SpeedStep yet. I similarly dismissed the 0.5 GHz reading that I got one time as well.)

I also noticed that the CPU was hot, but the graphics card heat sink was not. I think that also made sense - the CPU was probably the bottleneck, and the graphics card wasn't taxed, even if StarCraft II was set to Ultra.

I ended up taking apart my PC. I blew out the CPU heat sink, but it wasn't that dusty. I did notice, though, that the thermal compound didn't look like it was contacting between the CPU and the heat sink that well.

I went to the local computer store and picked up a can of compressed air, and a tube of thermal compound. I got Antec Formula 7, but I heard that Arctic Silver 5 is also good.

After applying the compound and reassembling the PC, I started it up again. After it started, the computer still idled around 54 deg Celsius. When I ran the Mersenne Prime search, it shot up to 85 degrees again, but the CPU speed stayed at 1.86 GHz. This looked promising.

I ran StarCraft II, set up my single-player game against the CPU, and then started off. The framerate started around 40 fps on Ultra settings. I started the build, and played for about 10 minutes. The computer seemed to stay responsive. At the end of the game, when I looked up, it was still at 40 fps!

Anyway, I think my problem is fixed. I've only played a couple of games, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I'll probably know more after the weekend.

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filterstarcraft's builds, part 2

Well, I didn't make it to Gold division by the end of season 7, but I did get a lot better at his build. His builds are based off a one-barracks expand, so you take your natural expansion at 3:45. In his videos, he tells you to concentrate on constantly making SCVs. You should have 50 SCVs by the 10-minute mark. He actually played some games and found that it was possible to make 52 SCVs by the 10-minute mark. Even though I though I was descent at remembering to make SCVs, it wasn't until I actually used the 10-minute mark benchmark to see how I was doing.

For one thing, I was expanding a lot later than he does. Instead of expanding at 3:45, I wouldn't take my expansion until 8 minutes into the game or later. Obviously, you won't have as many SCVs if you can only make one at a time. Expanded earlier ended up making more SCVs a lot earlier.

After I got the gasless expansion timing down, I was regularly making 45-47 SCVs by the 10-minute mark. I still was three short of 50, though. What I found was that I had to make sure that I was checking my command center and queuing the next SCV before the last one finished. I was making them right when I heard that the SCV was done (via a hotkey) but even then, that wasn't fast enough.

Since I was getting the hang of the all-marine build, I started the build that he showed on the next set of videos. You still expand at 3:45, and you still constantly make SCVs, but this time, you make three add-ons for your barracks, a factory, and a starport. Because your SCV production should still be constant, you should still have 50 SCVs after 10 minutes of play.

This is the part of the build that I'm having the most problems with. I can remember to make SCVs, but then I'm slow to remember what building comes next. I can remember what building comes next, but then I sometimes forget to check my supply and I get supply blocked. I might remember the supply depots, but because I'm not monitoring them in the upper right, I make too many, and then I'm starved for minerals and need to wait to make a building.

In short, this is exactly the practice I need. I'm not doing a build order, per se, but instead I'm looking at the upper right, figuring out I have enough supply, and then using what I have left to make the next building(s) on the list. It's actually getting me to look around more, and I think I'm getting supply blocked a lot less often. I'm still 30 seconds slow and 5 SCVs short of where I should be, but I really feel like my macro game is improving.

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Macroeconomics vs. Micromanagement

I'm still playing Terran this season, but I just can't seem to get out of the Silver division. I have been using the builds that LGRipper had taught me, along with the ThorZaIN build from Day[9]'s video. Last night, after I lost a number of Terran vs. Terran matches, one of my opponents suggested that I look at this Team Liquid forum thread by filter: didn't have time to look at it that night, but I did take a look later the next day. I read the thread and watched the first few of his YouTube videos.

The thread stresses that macroeconomics ("macro" for short) is more important than micromanaging your units ("micro") in StarCraft. The idea is that groups of well-controlled units might perform marginally better than a like number of units, but overall, it's more important to have a bigger army. Ignoring the battles to create a stronger economy can actually end up winning more games than really good micro.

The build he shows isn't hard - basically you build as many marines as you can, and you do a basic 1 barracks fast expand. You should start building your expansion by 3:45 in the game. After the game, you need to look at when you expansion was started and check how many SCVs you have at the 10-minute mark. Sounds easy, right?

Then he showed his build. He's a Master division player, and was able to make 52 SCVs and 49 marines by the 10-minute mark. He was actually attack-moving directly into his opponents base without micromanaging his units, and managing to win against most Bronze and Silver opponents.

Since I already had 20 replays from Season 7, I started by looking at my old replays to see what units I had and how many SCVs I had built by the 10-minute mark. I also listed what my opponents had at that point.

The results were surprising. For my "best" 1/1/1 build, I was able to make 17 marines, a hellion, 4 siege tanks (without siege researched), a banshee, and a raven. My "ThorZaIN build" got 11 marines, 4 siege tanks, and 2 medivacs. The best Protoss opponent I played has 7 zealots, 4 stalkers, 3 sentries, and an immortal. An army of 48 marines looks a lot more impressive than any of these.

I also looked at my SCV count. Apparently, I'm forgetting to keep building SCVs. I don't know when I start to forget, but when I looked at my replays, I usually only had 28 SCVs at the 10-minute mark. I didn't think I had awful macro, but I thought it was a lot better than it was. The 50-SCV benchmark 10 minutes into the game started looking really difficult.

Instead of playing against the computer like filter suggested, I went straight into the ladder games. By ignoring the other building types and building a command center much earlier than I was used to, I managed to make 43 SCVs by the 10-minute mark on my first try. I had 32 marines as well, but I might have lost some to banelings earlier in the game. I played six more games after that. I would regularly get more than 40 SCVs by the 10-minute mark, but getting to 50 proved to be sort of difficult. I managed to do so on my seventh try. (Note that, according to filter, you are supposed to be able to get 50 SCVs every game.

Of the seven games that I played, I won four games and lost three. I lost one to a quick baneling/zergling bust. I lost another when I sacrificed a lot of guys to cannons as my marines attack-moved into his base. He eventually built enough collosus to be able to counterattack and kill my entire army. I lost another game because my army kept moving into siege tank fire. (I gave up on the no-micromanagement thing. I'll move my marines around to avoid photon cannons and siege tank fire, but I'll still concentrate on macroeconomics over micromanagement.)

Some of my opponents quit the game without a polite "gg" ("good game") and some raged that Terrans are overpowered. I have to say that I found it hard to defend against mass marines, but there are good counters - banelings, infestors, collosus, and siege tanks. It's possible that it's just hard to get enough of those units by the 10-minute mark to mount a good defense.

We'll have to see how this build does in the long term, but at least for right now, it seems like it's working. I'm playing (and beating) more Gold division players. Maybe this will be enough to promote me before the end of the season.


End of Season 6

Sometimes, life gets in the way of gaming.

I just had too much stuff to do, so I didn't get the chance to make a final push at the end of season 6. I ended up placing 11th in Silver division.

Even though it doesn't show it in the end-of-season rankings, I do think that I improved from playing one race, and now I think I have a decent shot of breaking into the Gold division. I think I learned how much a tighter build (and attacking more quickly) can help you win games. I noticed that if I was building fast and well, I needed to attack early to take advantage of my lead. It's much harder to hold onto a lead if you have to keep macroing to stay ahead.

The other big problem was that I didn't have a Terran vs. Terran build for most of the season. I was losing *all* of the TvT matches. One of LGRipper's friends suggested that I look at Day[9]'s TvT week, and specifically at the ThorZaIN build. While I didn't have much success playing with it, my style got a lot better when I learned how to play TvT. I also had to be more patient when trying to march my army across the map. Another tip that I learned? Don't march the whole army - hotkey a marine and send him ahead. Losing a 50-mineral marine to siege tanks that you didn't see is a lot less painful than losing half your army (and mostly likely, the game.)

I also think I have a better understanding of the race, and at least an idea of what I should do in the middle game. I still don't use enough ghosts.

Finally, I found that I started to be better at countering cheese builds and their followups. I used to hold off a cannon rush, only to die later. Now I know to expect a void ray followup, so siege tanks and marines are a good counter after you hold off the initial cannon rush.

I'm going to stick with Terran for another season and see how I do. I'll probably change to Zerg next.

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My PlayStation Vita - First Impressions

I bought the US 3G/WiFi launch bundle, so I've only had the device for a day so far. I don't feel that's enough time to give a full review, but I think it's enough to give my first impressions.

The first thing you notice when you take it out of the box, is that the Vita is huge. The unit looks monstrous. I compared it to the original PSP, and it's not much bigger, but in today's slate smartphone era, the Vita looks huge.

The second thing you notice after you turn it on is that it has a bright, crisp display. The OLED screen is gorgeous, and the press photos you were drooling over just don't do it justice.

The layout of the controls is about what you'd expect. The dual analog joysticks feel better than the analog control pad on the earlier models. The buttons feel clickier than the ones on my PSP, but that could be because the Vita is new and my PSP has been through a lot.

I only see one possible flaw in the hardware design: the slot covers. The covers for the SIM card, the Vita game cards, and memory cards all have a plastic or rubber hinge. I guess only time will tell if they break with repeated use.

The new memory card has a surprisingly small form factor. It's about the size of my thumbnail. It's small enough that I wouldn't want to be switching between cards for fear of losing one of them. I sort of wish that they'd have one memory format and stick with it. However, I have seen some videos on YouTube, and the loading times for PSP games seem to be significantly faster. I suspect that has more to do with the memory bus speed than the Vita's faster CPU, so perhaps getting an I/O boost is worth upgrading to a new format.

I also wish that they'd stick to one format for the USB connection to a PC or PlayStation 3. The Vita has yet another cable - it's not a standard mini or micro USB port. It also uses a different cable than the PSPgo. I heard reports saying that the cable could be plugged in upside down, and that the PSP wouldn't charge that way. The cable is keyed, so I don't see how someone could plug it in backwards without jamming it in. I guess a kid might do that, but I can't picture anyone responsible accidentally plugging the cable in backwards. (I'll eat my words and edit my review if I run out of battery because I didn't plug in my Vita correctly the night before. :-)

In the box, there is just the Vita and a charger. No headphones or case are included. The headphones that came with other PSPs weren't that great (and the cable was too short, as I recall) so I don't really miss them. I am going to buy a hard case, though. I don't want to worry about scratching the touchscreen or breaking a joystick when I jump up and down on my suitcase to close it. :-)

The GUI and the touchscreen on the Vita work really well. Apps and games appear like little bubbles on app screens. You can organize games and swipe up and down to go between the app screens. I currently have 7 app screens. I don't know what the maximum number of screens is.

When you open an app or a game, it goes to a LiveArea screen. These screens have things like links to the store for DLC, a list of notifications for the particular game, and other things like that. When you pause a game, you exit to this screen. You still can have only one game paused at a time, though. it's seems pretty responsive, and it looks quick enough to jump out of a game, change some settings, and get back into the game without too much hassle. When you are done with one of the applications, you peel off the upper righthand corner of the LiveArea (kinda like a sticker) and the app closes.

My first gripe is that the WiFi setup wasn't great. Because I am trying to support a wide range of hardware, I use WPA Personal with TKIP. It's not the best encryption, but it's supported by my home computers, Nintendo DSes, iPads, and a host of other devices. My PlayStation 3, my PSPgo, and my non-Sony products do not have any problems connecting to my home WiFi connection, but I was unable to set up my Vita to connect to the same WiFi. When I used the WiFi setup screen, it didn't like the length of the password and wouldn't let me enter it to connect to WiFi. I connected to other WiFi hotspots that use other encryption types, but I can't connect at home. I seem to remember there was a patch to the PSP or the PSPgo to support other WiFi encryption types, so maybe it'll be supported in the future. I didn't feel like troubleshooting it much further, since I wanted to play games instead.

Since I had the 3G version, and since I couldn't connect to my home WiFi, I tried to activate the AT&T 3G. Registering was an exercise in frustration, to say the least. It uses a 3G connection to register on AT&T's web site. I couldn't figure out how to tell if the web page was encrypted on the Vita, but I held my breath and went ahead and entered my credit card information anyway.

Entering in information using the Vita web browser leaves much to be desired. The touchscreen is a lot easier than previous PSP or PS3 input methods using a joystick, but it's still not great. The virtual keyboard takes up too much of the screen to be able to tell what exactly you are entering. It also is hard to tell if the return key will move you to the next input field or submit the incomplete form and force you to start over. The default 1-minute power savings setting also turned off the Vita while I was still trying to input information (or find my credit card) and then I'd have to start the whole process over again. I don't know if it's AT&T's fault for a bad web page design, or Sony's for not giving enough information on how to make a Vita-compatible site, but it was a time-consuming and frustrating experience. Only after reading the fine print did I figure out that I wouldn't be getting my "free game" until 30 days after I activated the 3G service. I wanted to play Super Stardust Delta this week. :-( To top it off, AT&T e-mailed me my password to make sure I had it. That's really great. With the debacle Sony had last year, you'd think AT&T would better protect my password, right after I registered with a credit card on their web site.

Getting content onto the Vita wasn't too bad. I wanted to download games ahead of time, so that when I received my Vita, I could copy the games from my PS3 and start playing right away. Before I had the Vita in hand, though, I couldn't figure out a way to buy and download the games on the PS3. They weren't anywhere on the store. I thought that since the First Edition bundle had already shipped, the PlayStation Store would already have Vita games. I ended up connecting my Vita to WiFi at work and downloading a couple of games directly onto the Vita. By the time I got home from work, the Vita games in the store.

I tried to copy my PSP games from my PS3 to my Vita, but they weren't showing up in the Content Manager app. I'm not sure if it's because of one of the PS3 firmware updates, because the games were organized into folders, or what, but I ended up having to re-download all my PSP games so I could copy them onto the Vita. The Sony web site states that the Vita will support hundreds of PSP games. Games that aren't on that list still seem to work. Patchwork Heroes, Beats, Echochrome, and Numblast all work when I copied them from my PS3 to my Vita. Even the PSP version of LittleBigPlanet worked on the Vita. The PSP version of ModNation Racers did not, though. It doesn't even show up in the app so I can copy it to the Vita. (The conspiracy theorist in me thinks that it's because ModNation Racers: Road Trip has already been released, but the Vita version of LIttleBigPlanet has not. If so, does that mean that I won't be able to copy LittleBigPlanet PSP to my Vita when the new game comes out? I hope not. It is possible, though.) PSP demos do not appear to work, though.

I've only played with the Vita for an hour and a half - a little Escape Plan and one game of Lumines. I'll post more about the battery life and the general usability after I play with it more over the weekend.


End of Season 5

I haven't posted in a while. It's the end of Season 5. This past weekend, I went a bad losing streak. I was 3-13. One of the games, my opponent just left. I had one legitimate win, and one where I beat a failed cannon rush. It was pathetic. I lost to a 6-pool, and I also lost to a proxy gateway build. The whole weekend was frustrating. My girlfriend said that it was because work was so hectic (and as a result, I've been getting about 4 hours of sleep a night on average) but to be honest, I think I hit a wall. I could tell that my opponents had crisper builds, and just more units when they'd come to attack. I was starting to be outclassed.

Last night, I went online to try and get a few games in and try and get promoted to Gold division before the ladder lock. The games weren't out of the ordinary. I was starting to see a lot more bronze players, though, but I figured in part it was due to my losing streak from the weekend. After my third loss in a row, I played against a bronze-level Terran opponent. I played random, and happened to be Protoss that game.

I tried to scout his base after I started warping in my gateway, only to be denied by him right when I got to his ramp. He built a supply depot and walled off before I could get the probe inside his base. "Noob," he messaged me. I kept with my build, adding a couple gateways and a robotics factor. I had a couple probes at the Xel' Naga watch towers in the middle of the map. I could see that he was pushing out, right as I started mining from my expansion. I was in trouble. He had a complement of tanks, marines, and a banshee. There were also some SCVs at the front of his army. I retreated my probes to my main base, tried to throw down a couple of cannons, and started warping in more units. I also just finished colossus tech, but my single colossus looked naked against his army. I probably should have had more sentries. He pushed up my ramp, and then his raven launched a point-defense drone. The drone was absorbing the lasers from my stalkers. I wasn't able to target his banshees! I was in trouble. I retreated to my nexus and started warping in a couple of cannons. I did enough damage with my zealots that he retreated to gather reinforcements. He started a second attack. My second colossus had warped in, so the fight was a little more fair. I was having trouble holding off those banshees, though. He was able to come up the ramp and took out one of the pylons that powered the robotics factory. After that, he took out another pylon that powered the gateways. Again I pushed him back. I warped in a pylon, as well as more gateways at the rear of my base. I wasn't spending my money fast enough.

When he attacked the next time, it mopped of the rest of my forces. I had lost. "Noob," he messaged again. When I saw the score screen, he was only a bronze level player. I congratulated him for winning, but I said that it didn't amount to much. He beat a silver player, so what? On top of that, he was still a bronze level player. It didn't matter.

When I started another game, he messaged me that he wanted a rematch. I was still playing, so I told him I would later. I lost sort of quickly in an unremarkable TvT game. We created a party and rematched - this time with his real account. He was diamond level. (I sort of figured, since he was playing so well, that he was a higher level player.) I couldn't figure out why he'd want to have a smurf account, though. It turned out that he was using a friend's account while to try and help him get promoted to silver divsion before the ladder locked at midnight.

We played again, and, as expected, he beat me. However, instead of trash talking, he was wondering why I played random. He also said that I was the toughest game that he had played that night. (I was surprised, since I thought he had rolled over me, but apparently it was closer than I had thought.) He also offerred to give me tips on how to play Terran, but only if I promised to stop playing random. I told him that I'd play next season as Terran.

We then spend the next hour and a half to learn builds. He showed me the 1/1/1 build, where you build a barracks, factory, and a starport as you build an army. Apparently, I was doing it wrong. I was building the barracks before I built a refinery. I was also adding the add-on buildings and researching upgrades instead of pushing out more units. When he helped me tweak the build, I was actually decent at it after a try or two. I did have to write down the timings on a piece of paper, though. I don't have them memorized yet.

He also showed me a two-factory build that pumps out hellions, for use against Zerg opponents. After seeing that build, I could tell that it could get in trouble with roaches or mutalisks. However, since the attack hits around the 7:30 mark, it's unlikely that mutalisks would be in any number before the attack.

After I had seen both builds, I tried them out on the ladder. I wasn't playing random anymore - I was playing as Terran. The two-factory build rolled over my Zerg opponents - most of them didn't know what hit them. There was a speedling/baneling attack that I easily held off. He attempted to hold off my counterattack by building roaches and blocking his ramp with queens, but I was able to kill the queens before his spine crawlers finsihed. He resigned right afterward. I played another Zerg opponent, but it wasn't a good test of the build - he didn't morph any buildings until he had 600 minerals, and he only built one zergling during the game.

I had a lot more problems with the 1/1/1 build. My new "coach" had warned me that a 4-gate would destroy this build, and I had to scout it out. I did scout it out, but I don't think I responded correctly. The attack came around 7:30, but I only had a few marines and a hellion. When he took out my supply depot, it was game over. The wall crumbled, and his army marched in and made short work of my base. My second game, against a Terran opponent, the 1/1/1 build seemed to fare much better. I held off an attack with marines and marauders at my base, and then my counterattack rolled over his forces and went into his base. I won. The third game, against a Protoss opponent, I was again crushed by the 4-gate. Something was wrong with my build. When I played a Terran opponent next, the 1/1/1 build worked fine. I had three banshees, and managed to pick off a large number of SCVs before he was able to bring his marines back to his orbital command to protect them. Since I saw he had mostly marines and hellions, I switched the tech at my base. I started building marauders and researched siege tech for my siege tanks. By the time he attacked my base, I was well-defended. I won. I think this is the strength of the build - it's flexible when you know what your opponent's army composition.

I still had no idea what to do with the 1/1/1 build against the Protoss. I decided that building a bunker by my ramp might be a good way to hold off an attack. I built two of them by my ramp. They held, but the zealots managed to take out a supply depot and one of the bunkers before I was able to repel the attack. I think, in this case, the ramp was too far from my command center, so I couldn't get the SCVs to the ramp in time to repair the bunkers. It probably would have helped to scout more to see the attack coming. (I did put down the bunkers as soon as he had killed off my scouting SCV, since I had a pretty good idea that an attack was coming.) After I held off the second attack. it wasn't too hard to march to his base and mop up the remnants of his army. I started experimenting with my bunker placement (closer to the SCVs helps). My "coach" also said that I really only needed one bunker. It seemed to work out. My 1/1/1 build works, but I don't think it's tight enough, yet.

Even so, after I started playing Terrran and concentrating on one build, I ended up 6-2. I'm still under .500 because of the losing streak, but these games with the new builds were definitely easier and quicker than my games in the past. My macro also seems to have improved with these builds. It'll be an interesting week. I can't get promoted to Gold division since the ladder's locked, but I think in this coming week, I'll be able to refine these builds and be able to start off next season with a winning streak.

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Haven't posted in a while

I've been struggling on the ladder for StarCraft II for the past season. I'm still playing random, but I'm having a heck of a time trying to make it into the top 8 in the Silver division. I'm not sure if the competition is just getting better, or if I'm falling behind because I'm not putting any effort into practicing. I seem to do better when I limit the number of games I play a night - I seem to play really badly after 2 AM or so. I don't think the beer is helping my game, either.

With the passing of my birthday, I have more gift cards to spend on games, but I haven't gotten around to buying any games and playing them. I used $1 of an iTunes gift card to the iPhone version of Scrabble, but other than that, I haven't made any purchases yet.

With the holidays, though, A. has had more time to play video games. She found Sim City Deluxe HD on my iPad (I purchased it a long time ago for $1) and gave it a shot. I really forgot how fun this game was. She was playing on easy, and ended up running out of money. She was building way too much, take out loans, and then try and build more. Her budget was being killed by the monthly expenses of all the infrastructure she was building. I ended up helping her balance the budget and get the cities back in the black. It's intersting, because I've always had money problems, and I was the same way growing up. After having fun playing with her, I ended up making my own city (on hard, where you start $10,000 in debt). My city managed with low-density industrial and residential zones, but limited infrastructure. I didn't even have a water tower for quite some time. The saving grace was that a company wanted to build a mini-mall in my town, and the added income offset the loan payments. I spent some money to start building a water infrastructure. I'm back in the black each month. I'm currently saving up to start building a school and a hospital. I wish that the online help would give more information - it's hard to know how much they would cost to maintain each month.

Finally, I started playing Riven. I had purchased the game on Steam when it was on sale, but I found that I wanted another game to relax and play when I wasn't up to it (mentally) to ladder in StarCraft. I love the art direction, but I had to read up on Wikipedia to remember how Myst ended. I'm not that far into it, but I really like playing it. It's replaced Civ V as my alternate PC game for the time being. I started a war, and my heart just wasn't in it, and it wasn't that fun to play the game anymore. Maybe I'll come back to that later.

There are still a number of games that I want to try out, but I just haven't gotten around to it. I wanted to buy Dance Central 2, but it seems like one of those games that are more for parties. I have a list of shame that I need to go through, too. I want to play Bioshock, Child of Eden, GTA IV, God of War II, and a bunch of others that I haven't gotten around to. I guess I should pick one and go for it.

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