i made a thing related to steam that people here would probably be interested in, but when i told my story about what it is and why i made it, it got deleted as "commercial advertising for personal gain." i've asked for an explanation of how that has anything to do with what i posted, so we'll see if it was just a misunderstanding or if maybe i should limit my contributions to the indie bundle pages where i don't typically get responses from people but do get wiki points.


the steam recommendation feature is mostly useless

(originally posted on my personal website track7 on november 9, 2011: http://www.track7.org/bln/steam-recommendation-useless)

the steam gaming service for windows and mac allows users to recommend games to their friends, and write a very short review to go with it. this seems handy but it’s actually a lot less useful than it could be.

the useful part of the recommendations is when one of your friends recommends a game. this of course requires you to have friends on steam as well as those friends being the type who like to write out their opinions on games. it also helps if your friends’ opinions are useful in determining if you’re going to like a game. finally, they have to be skilled at saying something useful in the limited space steam allows for recommendations.

if you want to know what the steam community as a whole thinks, too bad because all you get is a number of people who recommended the game. that number is almost completely useless. it completely ignores how well-known a game is (a game like team fortress 2 has a much larger pool of possible recommenders than one like doc clock: the toasted sandwich of time). even worse is it provides no method for someone who played the game but didn’t like it to warn everyone else not to waste their money. one of my steam friends has actually posted recommendations where the text essentially says not to buy the game, but anti-recommendations like that actually get counted along with the recommendations from players who did like the game, pushing the number in the wrong direction.

a couple simple changes could make steam recommendations considerably more useful. the first, which i see as the most important, is to add a simple for / against choice when someone posts a recommendation. that way if someone plays a game and doesn’t like it, they can recommend against it and explain why. instead of just showing X players recommend this game, steam could show Y of X (Z%) players recommend this game where the first number is only the recommendations for and the second is total recommendations for and against. the percent then helps to normalize across games with different-sized player bases.

while that change would allow the dissatisfied to be heard, it doesn’t tell potential buyers about the number of people who didn’t have a strong opinion either way. those people aren’t likely to post any sort of recommendation for or against the game, so they’re a little trickier to count. really though what you want is the total number of people who reasonably could have had an opinion, including those who posted a recommendation. it’s probably easiest to get the number of people who own the game, but that’s going to include everyone for free games as well as people who bought or otherwise obtained the game but haven’t played it yet. from what i’ve heard about some people’s buying habits during steam sales, and my own habit of buying all the humble bundles even though they come out with new ones before i’ve had time to try out all the games i got with the previous bundles, games that sit on an account waiting for their owner to have time to play them are common enough. instead i would get the count by how many accounts have some playtime logged to the game. you could maybe go with at least an hour of playtime, but i’ve actually completed some games in less than a half hour and still had an opinion.

with those two changes, steam could show a percentage bar with green on one end, red on the other, and yellow in the middle. the green end would show the percentage of recommendations for while red would show recommendations against. it could list those two percentage numbers along with the total number of players, but we probably don’t actually need the total number of recommendations.


trying out windows 8 developer preview

(originally posted on my personal website track7 on november 4, 2011: http://www.track7.org/bln/win-8-dev-prev)

i was having some problems with my recently-reinstalled windows 7 not being able to map my network drives on startup (though it actually sort of did), so i decided to fix it by installing the windows 8 developer preview which is currently available from microsoft for free download to anybody who wants to check it out. while the network drive problem appears to be gone, as expected i now have some new problems. there are also some other improvements, as well as things that are just plain different.

the installation process was similar to windows 7. it didn’t ask me what time zone i’m in though, choosing pacific time for me (which is interesting considering the weather gadget defaulted to new york). they seem to be working on location services so maybe it’s either not plugged in here yet or isn’t working yet. setting up my first account and network connection happen in the new metro style, which mostly stands out due to its flat solid colors and green backgrounds. just like windows 7, if you enter a password (not required), you’re forced to enter a password hint. i had always assumed that was unintentional in windows 7, especially since if you didn’t set a password at install but instead added it later through the control panel, the hint wasn’t required. windows 8 appears to always require a hint if you set a password, though i haven’t tried the desktop control panel.

it seems that if you set your network connection to public (as opposed to home or work) you can’t connect to a network file share. i’m not entirely sure about that though as all of the descriptions only reference whether anything your computer is sharing will be accessible. i don’t want to share anything from my computer — i just want to access stuff shared from a linux machine running samba. overall it felt more difficult to connect to network drives than in previous versions. part of that came from not having a map network drive button in windows explorer when viewing my computer (i found it in the context menu). once i got it connected though it works the same as always.

i had heard that you need to let windows 8 update itself because there are some very useful fixes out. while doing that i noticed that windows update actually got me the latest video drivers from nvidia automatically, which is nice for people who aren’t as comfortable downloading and installing drivers as i am (it’s also convenient for me). it’s possible windows update already did that on windows 7 but i wouldn’t know since i don’t usually use windows update. i set it to just tell me when there are updates so i can see the list, but it didn’t actually tell me. maybe i just hadn’t waited long enough, but when i used the start screen to get to windows update it said there were a handful of updates. then it said i had to go to the desktop windows update to actually install them. it feels like microsoft has converted parts of the control panel to metro but still has all the desktop versions available, possibly because they haven’t finished rewriting in metro yet. i expect this to change before release.

the metro part of windows 8 in general doesn’t feel like it belongs on a desktop computer. instead it feels like a stripped-down interface aimed at making the best of a small touchscreen. it also feels very separate from normal windows, which it calls desktop, acting more like a gateway to what most people will probably see as the real windows. of course if metro apps become more common than desktop applications then maybe whatever desktop applications remain might become the annoying ones that don’t seem to fit.

i can understand why there are popular tweaks out there that get rid of the metro start screen and replace it with a windows 7 style start menu. with everything i use running on the desktop, it’s overly jarring to have the desktop slide away when i push the super key to bring in the start screen and then slide back in once i pick an application to launch. that probably works fine on a small screen, but you could get dizzy sitting in front of a 20″ monitor showing all that motion.

it’s also unnecessarily difficult to shut down or restart. the start screen doesn’t have these options at all. of course it never really made any sense to go to start to shut down, but at least that was easy to get to. now you can log out, move the mouse to the bottom left and click settings on the mini menu that pops up, or press ctrl-alt-del to get a screen (or sidebar in the settings case) with a power icon you can click to bring up a menu with options to shut down or restart. i’m not sure how to shut down using the keyboard.

i also couldn’t find a way to set the icon spacing the way i like it. in windows 7 i could do the somewhat awkward personalization → window color → advanced to get to the classic display settings dialog where i could change vertical icon spacing (i like mine closer together), but the advanced link is gone in windows 8. i think that value is stored in the registry somewhere so i could probably track it down, but why was the dialog removed?

when i started installing software i had two specific issues. the first affected was firefox, which had some messy display artifacts in the menu, tabs, toolbar area. it’s kind of annoying but doesn’t get in the way all that bad. thunderbird as you might expect had the same problem, and then so did a desktop gadget i use. the other problem happened with the pidgin installer. it needs to download and install gtk in order to work (and the same for aspell if you want it to check your spelling), but it can’t. i assume this is because it ran the installer without internet access, but it’s also possible the servers it tried to download from were inaccessible at the time. one final point about installing software is all that crap they typically throw in their start menu folder (documentation and uninstall links, for example) now shows up with everything else on the start screen. it's entirely possible to get a dozen or so “uninstall” entries all with the same icon but for different applications with no way for you to tell which is which without launching one. i don’t think installers should put uninstall links in the menu anyway — that’s what the programs and features control panel is for.

by now i’ve used most of the applications i regularly run. a partial list includes 3 steam games (osmos, penumbra black plague, and team fortress 2), firefox, thunderbird, ultraedit, 7-zip, gimp, and libreoffice. pidgin won’t run until i get gtk installed where it can see it (apparently there’s an offline installer that may help), but besides the firefox / thunderbird display issues everything has worked just fine.

for the most part i’ve only done things in windows 8 that i used to do in windows 7, so it’s entirely possible there’s cool new stuff i just haven’t come across yet. i did try setting a picture password but got hit with an error. a little later i tried the metro sudoku, which was ridiculously easy for anyone who’s ever heard of sudoku before, didn’t notice when i filled in the last empty space, and didn’t appear to have a way to start a new game.

i of course used windows explorer as well, which now has an up button next to the back and forward buttons and a ribbon replacing the smart toolbar. i find the up button a waste of space that would have better gone to the address bar (much like how i feel about the search box that was added in vista). the things i used from the smart toolbar (mainly the map network drives button) aren’t even in the ribbon, so i just collapsed the ribbon and decided to ignore it. thankfully it doesn’t take up any more space than the toolbar did. i also brought up the task manager, which looks a lot better than before and seems fully functional. i will probably still download process explorer to use instead, but it’s nice to see some improvements here.

overall the windows 8 developer preview is like windows 7 with a few important things removed and a bunch of half-working new stuff added. oh and the new stuff is just jammed in next to the old stuff in an annoying, in-your-way sort of fashion. if they manage to integrate metro and desktop and get the new stuff fully working, then it may be worth upgrading from windows 7 to get the new stuff. i also think if they don’t make the metro start screen work better with the desktop it’s likely people will prefer windows 7 and new computers will continue to sell with 7 much like xp was still available after vista was out.


civilization v throwbacks

(originally posted on my personal website track7 on september 17, 2010:  http://www.track7.org/bln/civ5-throwbacks keep in mind civ5 hadn’t come out yet when i wrote this)

i’ve been excitedly awaiting the release of civilization v, which means i’ve also been watching for news related to it.  most interesting so far has been 2 hours of gameplay video.  it was broadcast live with chat while i was at work, so i watched it later.  while there’s certainly a lot of cool new stuff coming (i’m particularly interested in city states), a lot of concepts from previous civilization games also make comebacks.

i have been playing the civilization series since i discovered the original game some time before civilization ii came out, and i actually remember the original civilization pretty well.  i have been mildly disappointed that parts of civ i were missing in later games, even though they had certainly added new features to make up for it.  some things, like sending caravan units to other cities to establish trade routes i didn’t miss at all.  i don’t expect to miss religions from civilization iv either — it seemed to mostly just make everyone else hate me for having a different religion.

one thing i didn’t miss is that if i had multiple units on the same tile and was attacked and defeated, everyone on that tile was lost (unless that tile was a city).  it felt unfair that if my enemy got lucky and defeated just one of 20 units on a tile i’d lose all 20.  a concept that resulted from this though was that it was unwise to station your entire invading force on one tile, since you risk losing your whole force in one lucky attack.  civilization v brings in a similar concept by only allowing one military unit on a tile at a time.  this brings the game back to one successful, lethal attack clears a tile without the unfairness of a huge loss.  it also makes it impossible (where before it was just risky) to put your entire force on one tile.

another rule that makes a return is zone of control.  i don’t know for sure if this works the same way in civilization v as it used to, but this used to work so that a unit that was adjacent to a unit not belonging to the same civ could not move to another tile adjacent to a unit not from the same civ.  i actually used this to my advantage:  if a neighbor had a settler headed into territory i wanted to claim and i had a couple horsemen around, i could use zone of control to basically herd the settler away from the area.  it’s one of those ways you can be a jerk to a neighbor with no negative effects, which i find very entertaining.  when zone of control got in the way of what i was trying to do though it got a little annoying — hopefully i’m over that by now.

one of my favorite things from the original civilization was exploring with a naval unit and finding a barbarian ground unit on the coast.  back then, the naval unit could attack that ground unit just as it would another naval unit.  my battleship against a barbarian horseman was always a decisive victory!  while civilization v doesn’t allow that type of direct combat, you can at least once again attack ground units using naval units, which is sure to make my navy more interesting again.

in civilization iii the artillery units couldn’t attack directly but instead could bombard.  with advanced enough artillery you could even bombard units two tiles away, which was loads of fun!  this ranged attack idea is back in civilization v and i’m very glad to see it:  hello again, old friend.  i don’t remember for sure, but i think civilization iii’s artillery units could not defend themselves and could be captured and used by the enemy if left without a unit to protect them.  that was cool since someone without the technology to build their own could capture advanced artillery and then use it against the enemy they captured it from.  i’m pretty sure in civilization v they have hit points like the other units and get destroyed instead of captured.  artillery bombardments (also an ability for units like archers in civilization v), are like a free attack since the bombarding unit doesn’t take any damage.  it does a lot to make combat more interesting.

from what i’ve read and watched so far, that’s everything i know that was in previous civilization games and is coming back in some way in civilization v.  if only they would bring back my favorite feature of all — multiple parallel maps from civilization ii:  test of time!


used games

(originally posted on my personal website track7 on september 1, 2010:  http://www.track7.org/bln/used-games)

i recently read some thoughts about buying used games on penny arcade, so i figured i’d write up my own.  some game developers would have you think that buying a game used is stealing, because they don’t get your money.  i doubt anyone actually thinks buying a used game is stealing, but i can see where a game developer might prefer that every player pays them.  of course copyright law still allows the right of first sale, which means a player who buys a game new, plays it a while, and then no longer wants it can sell it to someone else.

i think one viewpoint that gets neglected in this conversation is that of the player who bought the game new, but has finished with it.  reasons for being finished could be not liking the game after all, having played through to the end, or anything really.  i personally play games that are largely an interactive story to me (for example, the assassin’s creed, zelda, or grand theft auto series).  once i’ve reached the ending i know i’m not going to touch it again, so my options are to put it on a shelf or in a box in the basement and just let it sit, throw it away (even though it still works just fine), or give / sell it to somebody else who will use it.  all but the last seem wasteful to me, even if recycling is an option.  in order to sell it though, someone has to be willing to buy it used.

this also factors into my decision whether to buy a game.  it may cost $60 now, but i’ll probably be done with it in a month and could get $20 - $40 back selling it on half.com, which is $20 - $40 for a month of entertainment.  of course some methods of drm make it difficult to sell a game when i’m done with it.  for example, if i were to sell my copy of assassin’s creed ii, the buyer would not be able to play it since the disc key is registered to my ubisoft account.  hopefully there’s a way for me to unregister it so i can sell it, but i haven’t looked into that.  so ubisoft may be successfully forcing everyone who wants to play that game to buy it new, which players have a right to get angry about since we’re supposed to have the right of first sale.  of course that’s straying into a drm discussion, which i don’t mean to do just now.  the point here is that if i can’t sell a game once i no longer want to play it, it’s worth less to me than it would have been otherwise.

when looking to obtain a game, a potential player has these options:  buy it new, buy it used from a store that deals in used games, buy it used from another player either directly or through a service like ebay / half.com, or download an unauthorized copy for free.  the only illegal option is the last one, so i definitely don’t recommend going that route.  buying a game new has advantages in that you can be pretty sure the discs and manuals will be in good condition, and new copies are available sooner than used.  also your money counts toward the numbers making the game look well-received.  the downside is you pay more for it.  buying used from a place like gamestop is the next most expensive, but you give up everything good other than it still being legal.  personally i don’t want my money going to gamestop since they’re going to slap a price tag on it that’s at least twice as much as they paid for it and then just toss it in a jumbled bin with all the other used games.  some used game stores do better than that of course.  it’s more convenient for the player who’s done with a game though because the store buys it right away and hangs onto it until someone else wants to buy it from them.

next is my favorite way to buy games: used through a site like half.com or ebay.  you can find older, less popular games on half for dirt cheap so it’s a great way to save money.  it’s legal, it keeps games out of the landfill, and you can usually find what you’re looking for.  the major downside is you’re not going to find used copies of a game on its release date, so you have to be willing to wait to play it.  the longer you wait, the lower the price tends to go.  you also have to wait a few days while it ships to you.  if a game came out a couple years ago, this is often the most reliable way to find a legal copy.  buying directly from another player means from friends or at garage sales, which is the same except much harder to find what you want.

the other option is downloading an illegal copy of the game for free.  this is obviously the best price you can get (unless you have generous friends or find games in the free box at a garage sale), but the obvious downside is it’s illegal.  not only that, but the penalties for copyright infringement (often called piracy by those who want to make it sound more harmful) are disproportionately harsh.  you also have a chance of downloading a virus someone labeled as a popular game, or a version of the game with the copy protection removed in a way that makes the game unstable.  if you’re lucky though, you might get a version of the game with the copy protection removed in a way that actually makes it more stable, which is disappointing for people who buy the game new.

the way i tend to buy games is to get them new near the release date if i want to start playing right away.  if i can wait, or i’m looking for a classic title, i usually hit up half.com.  once i’ve played all the way through a game and know i won’t touch it again, i put it up for sale on half.com.  if i bought it new on the release date and finished it quickly, i can often get back a good portion of what i paid.  if i got a good enough deal i might even make a little extra money — a benefit of being able to play through a game in 5 nights.