Sunday, October 27, 2013

Plants vs Zombies 2 not loading in Android - fixed for Samsung S2

Plants vs zombies 2 is great fun, not sold on the microtransactions but then you don't have to be. Not so much fun when it won't load. Thankfully a little tinkering allowed a install that fixed the problem for me. Note this may not hold for all devices, especially if it never worked to start with.


Battery low, crazy amount of peas on screen with multiple 'Threpeaters'. Doing first challenge star on level 7. Have 13 stars plus all base levels of pirates complete. Game freezes. Have to restart phone. Load game, PopCap loading screen for a good minute, then drop to home screen. Never progresses to EA loading screen or music. Continues to fail to home screen after PopCap loading screen.


  • Tried reinstalling from google play, no joy. But noticed not actually downloading as too fast.
  • Searched on internet, few things on syncing for iOS and lots of nexus 7 and S2 on android having similar problems with no fix.
  • Decided to search for any spare files by hooking up to PC.
  • Location of two folders with likely suspects:
    1. Phone\Android\data\
    2. Phone\Android\obb\
  • Uninstalled pvz2 app again then deleted both of those folders above on the phone via PC.
  • Reinstalled pvz2 app via google play
  • Loaded game - it works!
  • Clicked on 'google+' sign in bottom left - all achievements intact
  • Loaded up profile, no loss of save data.
So there you go, hope that helps some of you out there. Let me know in the comments if any ideas why this happens. I suspect you would need to have set up your google+ account to keep your saves intact but unconfirmed.

Safe Journey


Grumblings continue...

Saturday, October 12, 2013

SSD failure... rules to live by.

The Solid State drive (SSD) has been the most cost effective and performance enhancing upgrade I've ever seen in my years building PC's. When I upgraded 3yrs ago on an early second generation SSD I never looked back... until it failed me.

The Symptom

Heres how it happened:

Watching a you tube vid, sound cut out. Reloaded page, video froze then sound cut out. Reloaded page, computer froze. No BSoD. Hard reboot PC, loaded fine, watched vid, 10mins in computer froze; hard reboot. Rinse and repeat with progressively shorter up time, computer freezing now doing anything, browsing windows explorer speeded up the freeze.
My set up is SSD (OCZ Vertex2 120GB) for the OS (Win7 inc. chrome, avast, adobe, office and drivers etc.) and HDD for storage and most non-critical programs. My HDD failed for another reason last year and fixing it was 'simple' because the OS still worked fine (minus the potential data loss that was saved with a new second drive and an image transfer using testdisk). This fail was very different from that and seemed system critical, leaving me to suspect the SSD as the culprit.

Unfortunately I couldn't run my PC long enough to establish for sure, but a scheduled disc check kept failing on file verification in the same place for the SSD, and the fail took longer in safe mode (where there is essentially much less disc access).

The Saving

So tool up and dismantle to remove the SSD, then test it on another PC with a sata-USB bridge (very handy and bought for back-up and data recovery on the HDD fail last year). Interestingly I could access the drive and even save some of the core documents, but certain files (those created most recently), would cause the drive to lock up and the other pc forced to reset windows explorer. A few restarts of the bridge allowed saving most of my files, but the tricks I learnt last year with testdisk would not allow me to create an image, although I did learn the partitions were fine.

The Fixing

The web is full of suggestions. Some programs to check the life of your SSD, others to plan for the failure with regular image creation. While the first could be helpful in planning when to get a replacement and the latter avoiding data loss, neither fixed the problem. However the OCZ forum covered two bits of advice for rescuing a drive: 1. Try a firmware update or 2. Try a secure erase. The the first option is related to power management issues with earlier firmware that can cause partial fails and data loss(as far as I can tell) and the second to reset all the NANDs to 'factory default' giving it a clean slate.

Now SSDs if you didn't know fail because the NANDs (tiny semiconductor switches) which store the information can only switch on and off a certain number of times before they break, same as a light bulb really just on a smaller scale. There are various firmware, motherboard, OS and technology improvements that reduce the impact of this, but ultimately those switches in the SSD will fail; it will wear out just like everything else. If enough fail the SSD will die simply because it cannot access what it needs to function. This said most 'fails' for SSDs are catastrophic, in that you simply cannot recover your data, because the systems in place to prolong its life (cycle through the switches so they are used evenly) mean most of the drive fails around the same time. Some data from this excellent website:

Fortunate for me then that I could still access my drive, but more of this later.

To do either of the OCZ fixes I would need to access the drive with their toolbox. Unfortunately this does not work on a bridge connection, it has to be a direct SATA connection, so I had to hook up the SSD back to my PC, use a linux boot disc to access the tool box and then update the firmware. The tool box also told me how unhealthy my drive was. The results were not reassuring with 3 pre-fail paramenters.

The process is actually quite easy, but the firmware upgrade can wipe parts of the drive. Unsurprisingly after rebooting my PC I'm left me with a 'no system disk, please insert system disk and try again' message... Sigh.

Option 2 it was then secure erase from the linux boot, and then a full reinstall of the OS...

...3+hrs later the OS is installed, drivers updated, core programs downloaded/installed, steam (on my HDD) was reunited with an OS (this takes time but as my set up hasn't changed so I just ran the exe WITHOUT deleting anything and after 20mins everything was working again with no further downloads necessary) and everything is working fine!

The prevention

Finally I was back in business, feeling good but also pretty warey, this drive is going to fail again, how could I get the most out of it with the least pain before it fails again.

From the groundwork in fixing the problem, it is clear my motherboard (8yrs old) sucks and was never designed for SSDs. Also there are definitely some settings that need to be changed in the OS to prolong SSD life (essentially avoid unnecessary disk access eg. never defragment an SSD) so following the OCZ forum is helpful in this again as I had done some but not all of them when first setting it up. Saying that, my drive probably only partially failed because those systems to prolong the life were imperfect to begin with, allowing the recovery process to include saving the drive this time.

Prevention long term for me will include, planning a purchase of a new SSD (3rd gen probably), motherboard, CPU, RAM, case (as they are all woefully old or not really designed for use with SSD), regular back up of SSD data and storing important stuff elsewhere.

The lessons

  • Your SSD will fail.
  • Set up your SSD to ensure it's life is maximised.
  • The more you do to extend the life of the drive, the more catastrophic the failure will be. (speculation)
  • Because of the above have a good back up system.
  • You can check the degree of wear and tear with certain SSD software, have a look at your respective brand.

    I also learnt that as of present the OCZ SSDs have some of the best performance but are known to fail more often while the current market giant Samsung has some of the most reliable tech and is a close second in performance. Price is a factor in choosing an SSD but performance and reliability need to be considered too. Also if a HDD fails there is more you can do to recover your data.

    Well thats the end of that journey for now. Hope this is useful for someone out there. Links to all the resources I used to fix the problem all within the text.

    Safe Journey

    Solar out

  • Grumblings continue...

    Saturday, May 9, 2009

    Like a thief in the night, twice as shy

    The Thief series has a special place in hearts of many, many fans. Not only has no game really embraced stealth and spatial exploration with quite the same flair (quick comparisons are Metal Gear solid and Portal respectively), but its humble little dark engine created notable counterparts in System Shock 2 and Deus Ex; not to mention the constantly growing and excellent community missions. Old news of course but it's a pedigree family.

    A while back, when vista x64 first found my hard drive, I decided to test if Thief 2 would run, it would (EDIT: Smarter solution here). For a long time Thief 2 has been calling, quietly beckoning. The game had never been finished, the hard mechanist angle seemed stifling, other games would often overshadow the desire to play. But every now and then I would pop back into that noctropolis to explore some more. Just like the other day...

    After rejigging my key bindings, having been reprogrammed to TF2/L4D in my gamer memory recently, I was all set to continue my current mission Blackmail and familiarised myself with the objectives:

    • Sneak into mansion, check. Currently hiding outside a kitchen with some servants talking about the drunk guards, good for me. A vague memory of sneaking thorough a series of houses and then a hole in a wall to get there. No idea why I'm here though.
    • Sneak into Sheriff's bedroom. Hmm.. don't remember why, but it don't sound like a healthy goal. I do have some gripe with that fella and I'm not sure the bedroom is the best place to duke it out, people might get ideas. Bah what am I talking about, no-one will find out, heh.
    • Confront Sheriff with recording. Ah yes that was the one I took in the last mission. He's in deep trouble, and I'm set to put him over a barrel, heh heh... oh dear.
    • Steal 1,100G loot, nope. Quick purse check shows the tinkling of around 700 and not even inside the mansion yet. Nice.
    • Escape and don't kill anyone, yep expert all the way buddy.

    The typical sneakathon ensued, nabbin loot, clobbering guards and dragging them to the shadows, stealing servants keys, finding secrets, nabbin loot, picking locks, plot twist, nabbin loot, sneaking through attics, nabbin loot, popping invisibility and slowfall potions to escape. Unfortunately my hole-in-the-wall entrance would not pay out as an exit and so my escape plans needed to be rethunk. Sitting with the map I perused the options. There was this whole chapel I seemed to have missed in the east of the map. I was betting my mechanical eye it would have a nice secret exit being close to the main entrance.

    Honed by my stealthy exploits earlier it was a quick affair to find the chapel door and pick the lock. Then the chapel bell started to toll and quiet, eerie choir music echoed from within. Out of game it was getting dark, I'd been sneaking around for the best part of an hour or two. Instinctively I froze and listened. There was a jingling of keys coming from outside my room... nope it was in game. Well that was unsettling. The chapel was empty, save for a large hammer, an arrow on the wall and a hammer shaped hole near the ceiling. The jingling was coming from underground somewhere and I knew what it was, the memories came flooding back: a haunt.

    For the uninitiated I need to explain. Haunts are undead Hammerites, that is: soldiers devoted to a religion centred on the doctorine of cold iron, that and making you eat it. Meh I hear you say, nothing scary about that. Well, you see in Thief right you can knock people out right and well in expert right you pretty much have to and these haunts you see, they're like impervious, you know and can't be knocked out. Meh, I hear you say so just avoid them. Well yeah but what if you can't. Kill them. I can't, it's expert, and they're already dead. Run away... Sigh.

    But what makes these enemies scary, is not just the mechanic. These zombies are insane. They walk around muttering insensible scripture, with the jangling invisible chains like some Dickensian ghost. If you hide in the shadows they can't see you, but you can see their blood red armour and if you're unlucky a hideous skull mask. Then when you get close they start to laugh. In your face, and I don't mean a little giggle, or a slapstick gaffaw. This laugh is a deep evil manic cackle designed to crawl under your skin. They can't see you , they don't know you're there but they laugh, mocking any attempt to move, daring you to come out of the shadows, thinking of all the atrocities they've done in their lives that they just can't wait to inflict on the next living thing they find, haunting their home and your thoughts. 'Join us, Join us now' 'Your soul cannot be saved, hsssss'

    Damn I thought, but that's why I play this game. There is so much richness in the levels, so many secret areas to search for, so many ways to get to your goal and escape. The haunt meant several things. There was something under the chapel, it was probably guarding something, that something may well be a secret exit from the mansion.

    Using my newly aquired arrow I shot into the Hammer shaped hole. 'Secret found!' - a huge hammer idol moves to the side to reveal a ladder to the potential catacombs beneath. The jangling grew louder and there he was stalking through the darkness. Shivering in the sanctuary of the dark I waited for him to leave and sneaked in the direction he left. The laughs echoed as I turned the corner, it was bright, and the haunt was charging at me down a long brightly lit corridor, How did he see me, block, stay back, miss, arrggh..... Dead.

    I sat paralyzed in the dark with the flickering of the mission screen in front of me. That, I thought to myself, that was some scary excrement. No way was I beaten though, this was Garrett, master thief. Loading up the quick save at the chapel door I opened the hatch and was as patient as possible, timing the route of the haunt. I also pocketed myself the invisibility potion that he was conveniently carrying. The thing was, I couldn't be sure if there were two of them or not and had no idea how big the place was. I decided to brave another run, but found it was not just dark but pitch black in some areas. From this cursory run around I discovered corridor formed a square returning back to the ladder but the dark areas meant there may have been other corridors I missed. A haunt appeared, prompting me to run away in panic to the relative safety of the latter (climbing up to be doubly sure). This was getting silly. Braving the dark one more time I waited for the haunts to continue their patrol. Then I did a silly thing, I ran in the opposite direction to the jingling into the darkest place I could find. Now you see you can cheat in thief, you can raise the gamma up (as I did for these pictures) and see all the wall textures. Alternatively you can adjust the gamma to make dark mean dark, then rely on flares when you can't see. I opt for the latter and so shivering in the cold undercroft I lit a flare. Dead end, and I could hear the haunt returning! Turning around I saw a hole in the wall indicating an equally dark room the other side. Running away from the haunt I found another darkened portal in to a dark corridor. The flare was still guiding my way so I was hoping my damnedest it would be a way out. Rounding another corner it was a dead end, but a nice dead end as follows:

    A'la Indiana Jones, there was sweet golden skull, to which I promptly helped myself. However the haunts mutterings were getting closer and as I turned, I was greeted by this friendly face.

    This time I couldn't take it. ARRRfurrfrrrrrrrraagghghhrrghghgshhhiifarraaaaahh. Without waiting for the hammer to strike I was off, nipping past and into the dark! No flare! I must have floundered against so many walls trying to find my flares whilst the haunt was charging after me. Some light drew me back into the main corridor and then we ran Benny Hill style around in a circle till I managed find the ladder. Thankfully NPCs don't have the ladder climbing ability so I sat in the chapel and reviewed the madness I'd just experienced.

    I'd scared the crap out of myself. What was I thinking? There wasn't even an exit. Turning the gold skull and unused invisibility potion in my hand I knew my thieving skills were intact but now it was time to leave. The exit was laughably close and there was no need to go into that damnable chapel.

    Afterwards I couldn't help thinking how awesome this game experience was. The thing is this game is OLD, but it still works incredibly well at atmosphere. The voiced narration cuts in perfectly with the gameplay, never taking away control. Even better are the random conversations you can eavesdrop on, giving extra layers to the plot and the level, indicating places to look for secrets or how to get past certain barriers. Yeah that's cool, along with the exploration and using rope arrows and mantling (some FPS games still don't have this!). But to top all this off it could still make me quake like a little girl, me a grown man well aware of the pixelated nature of this adventure. The music also cuts in perfectly to your location and for my many plays with Thief 1+2 I never paid much attention to that until now. I know few games that do this stuff as added extras as well. The whole chapel and undercroft could have been left well alone, but no I had to explore. Testament to the fantastic level design it was one of the scariest moments I've had in game for a long time. Here's my 'Garrett rendition' of the chapel map:

    The first thing you'll notice is the undercroft is incredibly small. Yet I somehow managed to get completely lost in the pitch dark sections and freak myself out more than should be healthy. That just impresses me even more.

    Amusingly this is sketch doesn't match up to the actual level design when I went to investigate again to get the pictures for this blog. Actually, taking these pictures was a bit of a perverse thing to do. The setting was none-the-less scary but this time I actually intended to get caught, just for you to see the haunt. It was brutal and I am a little scarred. The only grace was I did get a full idea of the actual map. That and there was only one bloody haunt with numerous places to hide from him. Lmao.

    My hat goes off to Mike Chrzanowski, designer of this level and orchestrator of my bedroom horror. But the thief series has generally amazing atmosphere and some special moments in almost every level. I'll always remember my trip into the the lost city in Thief 1, with it's atlantis type feel that beat the socks of any Tomb Raider experience, while the haunted cathedral and catacombs were just brilliant. The zombie levels in Thief were cut down for Thief 2 but actually I think they're some of my favourite parts. The great thing is there are just as many Thief experiences to come. I still have the rest of Thief 2 and all of the fan missions to spend some love on. There is even hint at Thief 4... (EDIT: now a reality)

    Safe Journey

    Solar out

    Grumblings continue...

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009

    Competition Victory!

    I can't believe I won! But thanks to a bit of number crunching and the blessing of John Walker, I'm now the proud owner of Zeno Clash!

    Mighty fine game it is too, linear but visually unique, combined with equally special melee combat.

    See my entry after the jump.

    Verbatim entry:

    Who would win in a fist fight between Jim, John, Kieren and Alec?

    This sort of puzzle is inherently difficult to solve. I have no experience of your persons or fighting abilities, I've never met any of you and hardly know you. All I really know about each of you is that you write about games on a blog I like to read.

    That in mind I shall solve this conundrum by reading the blogs you write and making a game out of it. Ha! Take that chilli.

    Here's how my version the duel works:

    • Each fighter is made up of their last 5 posts. (joint posts not included. Starting from 5 posts before the competition post up to the respective post before the competition)
    • A fighters HP is based on the total word count of the last five postings for each of you. Clearly verbosity = Stamina.
    • Punches are thrown using 'and' and 'the' scoring 5 damage each.
    • Uppercuts are performed using the key words 'RPS', 'Shotgun' or shouting the name of your opponent resulting in 50 damage.
    • Block, dodges and feints are rare in this unpractised arena and only occur with the actual words: Block, feint or dodge are mentioned. Each mention serves to negate 5 points, however, as your opponent is off guard your next punch does double damage. (so right I take 5 points off the dodger and put in on the dodged)
    • Similarly if 'slips', falls' or 'banana' are mentioned, the fighter loses 5 points and allows their opponent a free hit.
    • If any fighter mentions the word KO or Knockout (no exceptions) their opponent is down and out and that fighter wins. Clearly the sooner the better.
    • Similarly if a fighter is 'unconscious' they suffer a loss.
    • Otherwise the winner of a fight is the writer with the most HP left.

    OK lets begin.

    I've had to tabulate this on a spreadsheet which I can email if desired. Phew did it take a long time too!

    Anyway here are the results:
    THE fights!

    Damage 1155785
    Remaining HP1104156

    Damage 11552100
    Remaining HP-2111845

    HP1889 437
    Damage 1160240
    Remaining HP1649-723

    Damage 840295
    Remaining HP-7482160

    Damage 840240
    Remaining HP1071-403

    Damage 2402095
    Remaining HP-16582760

    As you can see the undefeated champion here is John! Congratulations! Of course he did have a bit of an unfair disadvantage when his Mafia II preview contained nothing less than 2400 words; an insane amount of stamina! You other boys take note, this John Walker really takes advantage of his blog space.

    Interestingly the fight between Alec and Kieren was pretty close. But Alec came in a respectable second on this clash of the verbiage.

    Lets spare a moment to commiserate poor Jim, who's small but relevant articles just don't pack the verbal punch to cut the proverbial mustard. Sorry Jim, if it's an consolation I wanted you to win.

    Some points not mentioned in the data.

    • Both Kieren and John had several falls during their fights but it made little impact on their overall performance.
    • There were two possible knockouts by Kieren and Jim, one mentioning KOTOR and the other mentioning Korea! Ah so close boys, just need to pump some more iron.
    • There was a secret battle for the ratio of and's to the's. In this fight Jim wins with a 0.25 and's to every 'the'! Go Jim! Also Kieren lost this battle with a ratio of 0.52. Ha ha Kieren, Fail.
    So there you go I now declare the RPS fisticuffs fight over in the only way I know how! What fun we all had.

    Safe Journey

    Solar out

    Grumblings continue...

    Thursday, November 13, 2008

    Left 4 Dead? I'm going to find myself a witch!

    This is the last post from my old blog just new posts after this.

    Been enjoying the Left 4 Dead demo quite a bit. So much so that I really feel like waiting for the full game before I devote more free time to it.

    I won't bother going into details of the gameplay, but what strikes me about the latest valve offering is the amount of love spent on the aesthetics, from control to visuals. Their blog goes into some of the visual touches I had only experienced, let alone analysed. The contrast black and white visuals of being almost dead followed by the flash of crisp colour after popping some pain pills really enhances that sense of a pick-me-up. I think my fave dramatic effect has to be the lament of the choir invisible when you're waiting to be rescued. All the sound effects cut out and you're left with a silent movie of you and your companions being mobbed as they run for their little lives. Just epic.

    Controls are worth mentioning too, particularly after my disappointment with Bioshock. While they are no different to playing Team Fortress 2, your choices seem more obvious and immediate. Primary for most things, pistols to compensate for primary weaknesses (accuracy, or rate of fire), grenade for barrier or lure, etc. For some reason though I keep pressing H to bring up my health pack, only to see the server window. Weird and frustrating (trying to fix my bad habit rather than change my bindings, but I really have no idea where I picked this up from).

    My two concerns for L4D before playing were that the levels would be too linear and the bot AI would make single player a waste of time. I was right on both accounts but my reaction was not as negative as I expected. Firstly the levels are pretty much as straight as an arrow, with no real alternative routes (in the first two levels in the demo that is). I was expecting the city to feel more freeform with a choice of safe houses and things, but instead it's really a gauntlet (more on this later :P ) to the finishing line. Yes it winds a bit and there are natural barriers that you can use in alternate ways, from alternate sides etc. but narrow none-the-less. Now I thought this would be a problem, and initially I was disappointed to be proved right, but actually the linear level design just highlights how effective the Director is at adding replayability. You learn the levels fast but reacting to all circumstances is pretty challenging. That said there are a finite number of tricks up the director's sleeves and once ready for them it does threaten to get repetitive. Good thing your sense of satisfaction just rises a notch when you can deal with the hordes more effectively.

    Second the AI bots for single player (and multi without a full compliment) are actually better than most human players at the moment. This was a surprise till I realised they know just what to do in each situation (EDIT: they just don't, really the bots have let me down so much, I'm starting to wish they responded to voice commands), reacting with computer efficiency which is understandably fast. Of course they don't always do everything right but then who would (EDIT: heh). The trouble with this surprise for me was that as long as I played reasonably well I could best single player in Expert mode, simply because the bots were so good. Bit of a shame, but then that's one of the reasons that multiplayer is just fantastic.

    I do want to mention difficulty level, since I brought it up twice now. All the previews I read went on and on about how hard normal mode was. Now again I'm experiencing just the first two levels but it was surprisingly easy on normal, even with 3 other players. We got to the end without sweating much, the time we did see a tank meant no deaths etc. I was sad by this. Ramping the difficulty up to advanced posed more of a challenge and deaths started to occur with alarming frequency. Then the joy of dying started to appear. All the ways you can be taken out, the mad situations the boss zombies create as hordes swamp you, the atmosphere is just so right. And putting the difficulty up also made it feel like a real achievement to get to the end. Nothing felt quite so good as getting to the end of expert mode alive, hobbling through the door with just one remaining team mate. It took significantly more practice to finish expert with all of us alive, and every attempt was just as fun as the one where we survived. Really dying hasn't been so fun in a long time.

    This brings me to my most amusing evening with the demo so far. Not the experimenting with the split screen that caused my vista to go to a blue screen of death and do a crash dump, no that was just horrible and simply unbelievable. No the most amusing thing was joining an expert game with some TF2 buddies. I arrived to have a shotgun to the face and watched dumbstruck as the remaining team took each other out. The last man standing then leaped into the zombie horde shouting 'I'm going to find myself a witch!'. He got to the second subway train before being devoured by an truly epic hoard of zombies. At the respawn things went all John Woo in the safe room, the winner finishing off those on the floor before facing off the zombies, only to be taking from their grasp by a waiting smoker. This must have happened a few times, with each of us managing to have a go at a witch hunt. Then an odd thing started to happen. We formed temporary alliances, preferring to take the horde as a duo, helping up one team mate we thought least like likely to shoot us back. Bizarre and hilarious and so out of the spirit of the game it was truly liberating. It got a bit messing at the vote kick wars though :P As I sit recalling the fun I can only imagine how satisfying verses mode will be, when the griefing becomes part of the game and not just some adhoc experience that evolved from late night shenanigans.

    Following this I feel I've had my fill of the demo, my fill only because I've had a taste of the full game and I want the whole menu, not just this cheeky starter. I can afford to be hungry a little longer before the real banquet begins.

    Safe journey


    PS: I mentioned gauntlet earlier and it reminded me of what I was thinking about this co-op experience. It's just like Gauntlet! Four players, working against a horde of monsters, sometimes bosses, trying to get from point A to point B, covering each others backs, searching for treasure (i.e. achievements or weapons/grenades etc). Of course this is gauntlet in the age of the FPS and internet multiplayer options. Fast, slick, adrenalin fuelled gauntlet but gauntlet non-the-less. I know that Left 4 Dead is so much more than this aging classic, a magnificent evolution. Thank you Valve for this truly great gaming experience, I can wait to see what the delights you have lined up for the full version.

    Grumblings continue...

    Wednesday, May 28, 2008

    Sweet sweet level design

    I couldn't leave a blog on gaming experiences without without a mention of how wonderful the Half Life 2 mod Minerva is. I'm not joking when I say it felt like a better game than HL2 or the episodes. The level design is just fantastic and the lack of gravity gun or vehicle just oozes the feel of an old school FPS, and doing so exceptionally well. The pace of play is just great too, I just felt sucked in and spat out. Thank you Adam Forster. Loved it.

    Also, I finished HL2: Episode 2 the other day. It was better than Episode 1 and more dramatic than HL2. I'm not a believer in spoilers so this was more of the same, with more plot and a citrus squeeze of emotion. Again it was set-piece orientated but dealt with the linking of them well. While I was not driven to purchase Episode 1 after HL2 I am definitely considering Episode 3 as a future purchase.

    However, that next privileged slot goes to Left 4 Dead. Damn it's looking better all the time. Roll on November (+X months for Valve readiness).

    Safe Journey,


    EDIT: Since this post Adam Forster has been employed by the wondrous Valve, gratz my good man, thoroughly deserved.

    Grumblings continue...

    Warcraft: Know your enemy

    This is a personal response to World of Warcraft (WoW) and the risk of addiction it poses.

    Addiction, loosely the need to pursue a behaviour despite the detriment to the self and/or others, is not generally a positive thing. However, its precursor, the ability to focus on a task whilst ignoring distractions, is a necessary tool for learning, development and often success. For any activity there is the risk of a simple interest becoming a consuming addiction. 'Good' business involves cultivating interests to become addictive but, much like a successful parasite, the aim is not to kill the host, only drain it. When a product is dangerous it becomes good business to limit exposure to reduce mortality (with little thought to morbidity). Cigarettes, alcohol, even chocolate, bear warnings that only serve to mitigate abuse not stop it. Games are no different. My aim in this blog is to pin down some of the main features of WoW that make it addictive. Sun Tzu as usual has good advice on this front:

    It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

    Unfortunately I cant help you with yourself but I'll give the enemy a thorough going over.

    1. It's accessible. WoW is not difficult to get hold of. You can download the whole game and try it for free (the first one's always free) and, relative to many other current games, it's inexpensive to buy. Luckily the impatient among you have extra protection as the download and/or latest patches can often take 1-2 days to install successfully. There is of course more. Because your account is stored on a separate server you can access it from any machine with the game installed and an internet connection. The evil of this is twofold. Not only does this give 'wowers' the convenience of playing without being linked to a dedicated machine but it can also turn many 'wowers' who travel (those not so afflicted the see no need of course) into viral vectors of the game. It becomes all to easy when visiting friends or family to crack under the desire to continue the adventure by a surreptitious install or the 'look at this' premise. Then once the game is sitting there it could easily make others curious because...

    2. It looks like a cartoon. The trouble is that WoW can be as fun to watch as it is to play. The graphics are flamboyant and detailed, the characters and their expressions are emotive, while the world can be equally appealing. This may put off some who crave a more realistic 'iron and blood' experience, but it seems the cartoon nature of the graphics widens appeal in general. Why this is true is open to debate. Perhaps it is easier to suspend disbelief in a cartoon environment or it may tap into certain populations (perhaps the younger and female players) who find it more satisfying for a game. Furthermore, despite the cartoon theme, there is often something 'cool looking' for most people, be it effects, abilities, gear, or the environment. If you don't believe it go and watch a friend and see if you don't feel the pull. If you don't the reason may well be that it looks complicated (so many bags, so many items and buttons) but what you don't know is...

    3. It's simple to play. Once you've installed it (or had it installed), set up your account and logged in, the most difficult thing about getting entering your world is choosing your name. Sure you have choices of class, race and features but most first time players will go for looks first anyway. Then after a brief intro of your race your first objective is to work out how to talk to people and kill something. Those unfamiliar with the 'WASD' form of movement and game interfaces (which is incredibly usable by-the-way) may find this a bit tricky but the the hint system is very succinct, getting you familiar with anything new happening (including of moving). Things start light on abilities too, usually with 3 main ones (including attack) and one or two racial ones. Within minutes you'll be 'levelling up', which brings both the feeling and actuality of becoming more powerful. Quests get steadily more complicated to teach you to be creative with your class, while others get taught as you go. This trend continues till around lv10 (~3hrs of play) where you'll be heading to your race's capital city, effectively opening up your character class and the world proper. By level 20 (~8-12hrs of play) I'm expecting you to feel you have a good handle on everything the game offers. Time to get bored as you do one repetitive task to the next right? Unfortunately...

    4. It's not that simple. There are complexities in WoW gameplay designed to keep players of every inclination interested. The character's abilities can be tuned by gear (the items you wear and use) which you have to adventure for and a finite number of talent points (which you attribute to your style of play to complement your current abilities). Then there are professions that allow you to gather and craft items to give more abilities. The challenge of improving your character, either in powers or looks also becomes more difficult as you level. Improving your skill with a character is also important, none moreso than in plaver vs. player (PvP) situations. Every 10 levels or so builds in new challenges to manage with your character. If that wasn't enough, reaching the level cap then puts you in the 'endgame' which offers a whole multitude of ways to keep improving with the bar pretty much as high as you want to set it. Depth a' plenty for most avid players. Once this finite content is done however the end should be in sight. Unfortunately...

    5. It is endless. With an end you might be able to curb your enthusiasm. What Blizzard kindly do instead is keep adding to the game. Regular patches and hotfixes refine the interface, remove bugs, add seasonal events, put in new quests, new items, new dungeons, new areas, new or altered abilities. And it happens on almost a monthly basis. Surely this is a great thing? Well not for those trying to get closure it isn't. One of the big driving forces for any game is to get to an end, any end to sit back and go, look what I've done, look how I grow. Don't get me wrong, WoW has this in bucket loads. Every achievement in the game is goal based, and there is always some goal your haven't done. Cruelly, the balance of this is just right as well. Getting that item you've been playing for hours for is a closure. But then you want to head off and use it or find another item to complement it. And lets not forget the game expansions... so much extra content, you're never going to finish this one baby. The only real limit is...

    6. You pay for it. Surely paying for something works against addiction? Well this is rarely true for anything perceived as good, regardless of it's value. In WoW's case, paying encourages some level of 'getting your money's worth' feeling. Of course you could just subscribe and forget about it but the very fact you pay for something usually encourages you to use it. Arguments in favour of subscription are based on promises of regular support, maintenance and on-going development of a persistent virtual world. Unfortunately even these ultimately result in you playing more often. So at this stumbling point lets say you decide you don't want to pay for it all the time, that should make it easier right? Well not really. Taking a break can be harder than subscribing and playing when you feel like it. First of all you have the end date of your paid use. This may result in playing harder to fit as much in as possible before the end. Second, Blizzard currently give no penalty for 'freezing' your account. Great, I've stopped playing for good but that option to return is always there, when you're ready, no pressure. Parental controls are just another manifestation of this. Worried parents restricting a kids WoW time are just going to nurture an urge to play. And if if they are not exploring the world, gamers have another aspect of play...

    7. You can play by not playing. Meta-gaming is what I'm talking about. The game content is huge, the complexity hidden behind interfaces is made as accessible as possible. However, if you want the most out of a game like that you need some help, help of those who've adventured before, a bit of wisdom to save you time. Sure you can ask someone in-game but most will be as clueless as you, or simply not want to waste time with a 'noob'. Thankfully the Information Age provides, in the form of searchable databases, guild websites, guides, maps and more. Players do so much outside of wow, and it's not even limited to working on stuff you can do in game. There is a huge amount of fan art, comics, machinma, cosplay; pretty much any interest can and has been catered for. The worst bit about this meta-gaming is that you can do it over lunch or when you're meant to be working, even daydreaming about what you'll do when you get back online counts. Of course every game that captures someone's interest involves some level of meta-gaming. We're also social creatures whose nature is to talk about things we are interested in, sitting in a forum or even me writing this is a form of meta-gaming. Not that I want to defend WoW on this point but it's not as bad as some of the others. For WoW the main reasons for meta-gaming are to plan what items or abilities you want to hunt down, perhaps discuss a boss encounter or arrange a guild event; you don't need to do it. Others games (I'm thinking EVE or even Urban Dead) often provide their greatest successes by meta-gaming and involve a lot of planning out of game to co-ordinate bursts of intense in-game action. That said, the level of meta-gaming in WoW merely continues to add to the risk of addiction.

    These points about WoW raise one question for me, is WoW a bad thing? I've been dry of playing online for almost 3 months and still meta-game to a small extent, always planning to return. I play for the escapism, the fun of exploring and experiencing the game with so many others. But within that multifaceted joy is a draining game, one that will make continuous demands of the player. The risk of the game consuming someone's time to the extent that it their life is affected is very real, those jokes about loosing wives, jobs and homes are not far off the mark in some cases. When that happens however the game stops being fun and begins to become work.

    My reaction to that is that I need a life to escape from in the first place. Not that my life is that bad, but games form a welcome relief from the current stresses of the world, not an excuse to ignore them. Finding that balance in most games is easy but Blizzard have made this difficult for all the reasons listed above. Despite that I honestly feel WoW is one of the best games I've ever played. However, anything that good, particularly this good, should be indulged in moderation. Trouble is there is very little way of successfully moderating yourself in WoW if you're having fun. Perhaps the best way to stop it is to burn out, or loose something that means more to you. So to all you still interested I write this as a warning really. The portal to a fantastic game awaits but you should know that it for what it is, a very entertaining enemy.

    Safe Journey


    Grumblings continue...