Forgot your password?
User Journal

Journal: A self-proving identification card:

Journal by davidwr

A self-proving identification card:

Display in human-readable and computer-readable form:
Identifying information such as name, card number, issuer/certifying agent, expiration date, face or thumbprint, signature, etc.

Display the same in a computer-readable form. For easy-to-scan things like letters and numbers that are on the card in a pre-defined layout, the human-readable form and computer-readable form may be identical.

For things like a photo, the computer-readable form may be a simpler version, such as an 8- or 16-color 64x64 bitmap.

Have the comptuter-readable form be digitally signed by the issuer/certifying agent and have the signature on the card in both a computer- and human-readable form.

Have the scanning device display the computer-read data in a human-readable form so that a human being can compare what is on the screen with what is on the card.

The same human being would compare what is on the card with either another form of ID or, if the card had a picture or thumbprint, with that of the person presenting the card.

Some information on the card could be encrypted and require a password or other authentication token to decrypt.

Other than this optional part, the card would be "self proving" provided that the public key of the issuer/certifying agent was available to the authentication terminal.

User Journal

Journal: Games of the year 2013 1

Journal by RogueyWon
And it's that time of year again...

I haven't actually played quite as many games this year; busy time at work and the financial constraints imposed by a brand new mortgage. I also don't yet own an XBOne (may pick one up in the new year) and while I do own a PS4, I haven't had it for long enough to do much with it, thanks to delivery delays. So my listings this year may be a little less comprehensive than they have been in the past.

The big trend this year has been an almost total cessation of use of my 360. While, for most of the cycle, this has been my main gaming platform, it has felt pretty much dead this year. I've spent almost all of my time on the PC, with a few detours over to the PS3 for some late exclusives that landed there. The Vita has also had substantially more use this year than last. Anyway, let's start with the top 10.

10) Killzone: Mercenary (Vita) - I've never liked the Killzone series much, so this was a bit of a shock. Not only is it a genuinely good Vita fps, it's also a genuinely good fps, with a well put together campaign and decent, flowing shooter mechanics. Hopefully we'll see more Vita games of this callibre in 2014.

9) Crysis 3 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Still not a patch on the original Crysis in gameplay terms, but much better than the second game (and one hell of a tech demo on the PC). A few more open sections near the end of the game hint at the more ambitious game that could have been.

8) Metro: Last Light (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Tense and atmospheric first person shooter with some role playing games. Has a notably low-key approach to storytelling that makes a pleasant contrast with the usual more bombastic offerings in the genre.

7) Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm (PC) - Apparently some people play this for the multiplayer. I don't - but it doesn't matter for me as the main campaign was excellent, with plenty of replay value and lots of nice new additions over Wings of Liberty.

6) Bioshock Infinite (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Solid and thought provoking shooter, albeit one that isn't quite as clever as it thinks it is. Has perhaps the most striking visual aesthetic of any game this year. Might have done better if it didn't try to cram in quite so many different themes within a single game.

5) Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3) - One of those late exclusives that kept the PS3 alive this year. Wonderfully put together (and very traditional JRPG), showing that there's life still left in the genre on the home consoles. Would have placed higher on the list if it wasn't quite so grindy.

4) Tomb Raider (PC, also 360 and PS3) - A startlingly good reboot of a franchise that many (including me!) had given up on years ago. I'm happy for them to give the franchise another milking, provided they can maintain this quality.

3) XCom: Enemy Within (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Ridiculously comprehensive expansion for last year's successful XCom reboot. Even after several playthroughs, I'm still finding new bits and pieces that were added.

2) Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (PC, also PS3) - I can't believe they actually did this. FF14 was, when it first launched, so utterly and horribly broken that I thought it was beyond redemption. However, I guess the prospect of a "failed" main-series Final Fantasy game was more than Square-Enix could stomach, because they've invested a vast amount into rebuilding it from the ground up. The result is the most exciting MMO launch since World of Warcraft.

1) Rayman Legends (PC, also 360, PS3, Wii-U and Vita) - Wonderfully imaginative and inventive platform game. Rayman seems to have gone from one of those unloved also-ran corporate mascots to being the most exciting franchise around. There's a degree of fun in Rayman Legends that puts anything we've ever seen from a Mario or Sonic game to shame. The musical levels have to be seen to be believed. Absolutely stunning stuff.

And now the also-pretty-good-but-not-quite-top-10-material games, in alphabetical order:

Bad Piggies (iPad) - I know that admitting to liking a Rovio game is hardly fashionable, but I really enjoyed this invention/puzzler. It's also refreshing to see that it sticks to the traditional buy-to-own mechanic, which is becoming increasingly rare on iOS.

Battlefield 4 (PC, also 360, PS3, XBOne and PS4) - As a game, it's entirely forgettable, but as a next-gen tech demo and PC-benchmark, it's very impressive.

Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep (PC, also 360 and PS3) - I couldn't quite justify putting a DLC pack (as opposed to a full expansion) in the top 10, but on every other metric this would deserve a slot there. Simply put, the best piece of DLC I've ever seen for a game. Startlingly good writing and some novel twists to the core Borderlands 2 gameplay.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Coming back to Counter-Strike after many years away was a bit of a shock to the system, but I actually quite enjoyed messing around with this very well-executed technological uplift.

Dead Space 3 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Probably the winner of the award for "game most crippled by pointless pre-launch controversies". The microtransactions are unnecessary (I beat the game on normal without them and never broke a sweat) and the pace and atmopshere are very similar to the second game. It did feel a bit of a rehash this time around, but the core of the game is still fun.

Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness (PS3) - The core Disgaea gameplay is seriously in need of a revamp these days. However, the joy of going back to the original (and best) cast for a new Disgaea game is enough to compensate on this occasion.

DMC: Devil May Cry (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Leaving aside the obnoxious naming conventions, I found this third person brawler a lot of fun. Slightly surprised at the levels of community-hatred it seems to have generated.

Dragon's Crown (Vita) - It was quite fashionable to criticise this over its art style. But I didn't mind the art style at all and, once I was past the slightly dull introductory levels, really enjoyed the gameplay. Only just sits outside my top 10.

Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS) - Nothing particularly new or innovative, but still a superbly well executed handheld JRPG. Gran Turismo 6 (PS3) - A finely honed game in many respects, but some curiously obsolete elements (sound, AI and the lack of a rewind button) continue to hold the series back from greatness.

Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory (PS3) - I know, I've always hated this series. However, an anime adaptation which managed - against all the odds - to be genuinely amusing tipped me over into playing the third game in the series. And... while not great, it is certainly a lot more polished and playable than the earlier installments.

Killzone: Shadow Fall (PS4) - I actually thought this was slightly less good than Mercenary on the Vita. However, it's still far better than Killzones 1-3 and a very good demonstration of the PS4's capabilities.

Kingdom Hearts 1.5 (PS3) - A very well-done remake of Kingdom Hearts and Chain of Memories. Unfortunately, the quality of the face-lift can't disguise the fact that the first Kingdom Hearts is a rather rough game compared to its sequel and that Chain of Memories is, to be frank, a slightly boring grind-fest. Still decent, though.

Outlast (PC) - In many ways a very flawed game. But also one of the scariest games I've ever played.

Papers Please (PC) - Absolutely, definitely no fun at all. But a perfect demonstration of the fact that a game doesn't have to be fun to be really good.

Pikmin 3 (Wii-U) - Fun, if somewhat short lived, console RTS/action game. As with other Nintendo first-party titles, the production values feel a bit thin (PLEASE stop with the silly twerblenerping pseudo-speech), but there are enough inventive flourishes to make the game worthwhile.

Resogun (PS4) - The Geomety Wars of the new console generation. A lot of fun, but once again, it feels slightly odd to be using brand new console hardware to play a 2d twin-stick shooter.

Saint's Row 4 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Completely nuts and extremely funny. Occasionally, you get the sense that the humour is covering up a few rather untidy game mechanics, but I can live with that. Soul Sacrifice (Vita) - Decent Monster Hunter and Dark Souls inspired action title, slightly let down by an overly-obscure mission structure.

Xenonauts (PC) - Perhaps slightly unfair to include this as it's still in beta, but I've been playing via Steam early-access and have been impressed by what I've seen. It's a very, very traditional technical-remaster of the "old" X-Com (not a reimagining like the Firaxis version). The core gameplay is as compelling as ever. In the most recent version I played, a couple of months ago, the tactical side of the game felt close to launch-ready, while the Geoscape clearly still needed a lot of tuning. However, things look good for a decent launch in early 2014.

Next up, the games which, while not actively bad, were nevertheless not as good as I was expecting:

Aliens: Colonial Marines (PC, also PS3 and 360) - I didn't hate this as much as most people seemed to. The day 2 patch fixed a lot of the technical issues and decent multiplayer saved it from being a total waste of money. Still far less than what it should have been, however.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (PC) - Don't get me wrong, it's actually a good game. It's just that every substantial change from the original feels like it's actually made things worse rather than better. Baldur's Gate Enhnaced Edition (iPad) - The PC version of this remaster is reasonably good (if slightly unnecessary given the existing third-party facelift suites for the game). Unfortunately, the iPad version remains a mess, with barely function controls and interface.

Final Fantasy VII/VIII remasters (PC) - The games are great. Unfortunately, the PC remasters released earlier this year are pretty dreadful, being quick and dirty ports of the old (inferior) PC versions. The best way to play these games remains either the PSN versions (available on PSP, PS3 and Vita with a single purchase covering all 3 platforms) or the PS1 version emulated on PC.

Grand Theft Auto 5 (PS3, also 360) - Ok, ok, I know. It's a brilliant technical achievement. Unfortunately, as with every previous GTA game, I find it easier to admire than to like. I loathe the characters and the setting and a lot of the humour fell flat for me. Plus the world has that curiously sterile feel that goes with every open-world Rockstar game (except Bully).

Killer is Dead (PS3, also 360) - I liked Suda 51's previous game - Lolipop Chainsaw - quite a lot, which apparently put me in a pretty small minority. For Killer is Dead, however, I struggled to find much in the way of redeeming featues. I'm not upset about the lack of political correctness (see above remarks on Dragon's Crown), but the boring gameplay is not worth tolerating.

Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (Wii-U) - I got quite excited about having something decent to play on the Wii-U. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that Wind Waker bored me to tears the first time around. It's no better this time (and the ludicrous price for an HD remake just added insult to injury).

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (Wii-U) - I almost demoted this to the ranks of the "outright bad", but will acknowledge that it does seem to (eventually) reward perseverence. Unfortunately, poor graphics, poor controls, terrible UI, dull combat and an utterly unintuitive introduction all serve to make this game into an absolute chore.

Spelunky (PC, also pretty much every other platform) - Everybody else seems to love it and I'm sure this is just a sign that there must be something wrong with me, but I couldn't see the attraction in this platforming Roguelike.

Time and Eternity (PS3) - This one makes me a bit sad. The idea and some of the early art for this game looked really good. Unfortunately, the execution of this anime-RPG falls on its face and, despite some occasional amusing moments, the game fails to take off.

The Last of Us (PS3) - Yes, I must be dead inside. Seriously, this seems to be the year when I found myself seriously out of whack with critical consensus. However, I found the story and characters in this to be fair to middling and the gameplay to be actively painful. Both combat and stealth felt utterly broken and particularly unsuited to controller play. It might have been a substantially better game with mouse and keyboard, but sadly, we shall never know for sure.

Total War: Rome 2 (PC) - There's the core of an excellent game here, but unfortunately a huge mass of bugs means that drilling down to it is almost impossible. I'll come back to this in six months to see if they ever fix it.

And now - the genuinely bad. The rare games which lack any redeeming features and make you wonder how on earth they ever passed certification:

Rise of the Triad (PC) - A spectacularly bad remake of an old shooter which, to be frank, wasn't all that great to begin with. Even if you can overlook the crap graphics and gunplay, the autosave system is a crime against humanity.

All that Free-To-Play-Pay-To-Win Garbage (most platforms, but especially the mobile ones) - This needs to die. Now. There's only one thing worse:

All that Not-Even-Free-To-Play-But-You-Still-Have-To-Pay-To-Win Garbage - You know which titles I mean here.
User Journal

Journal: Well, that about wraps it up for e-trade. 2

Journal by jcr

E-mail to Neal Martin, E-trade's vice president of customer service:

Well Neal,

I doubt that this message will actually get to you personally, but what the hell.

After the fracas over the last few weeks in which e-trade failed to issue me a second ATM card, I finally got around to transferring the bulk of my shares to a competent broker.

The automatic mail from e-trade notifying me of the transfer included this paragraph:

E*TRADE strives to achieve best in class service and is focused on meeting all of your financial needs. We would like to understand your reason for your transfer out and see if there are any improvements we can make to serve you better in the future. If you have the time to discuss, please call us at 1-800-ETRADE -1 (1-800-387-2331).

The fact is, after going around with your underlings a few times on my requirement for a second card, and having told each of them several times that this was a deal breaker, I know that the claim that youâ(TM)re âoestriving to achieve best in class serviceâ is nothing but marketing drivel. Indeed, my direct, personal experience has shown me that my business isnâ(TM)t important enough to get on the radar of anyone who would actually solve the problem.

I had already planned to find another broker, but the thing that made me hurry up and do so was receiving your oh-so-thoughtful gift of an e-trade gym bag. So, after refusing my very simple request, you apparently assumed that Iâ(TM)d be satisfied if I just got a bag to advertise an incompetent financial institution to my friends.

Looking at the transaction log, I see that e-trade has charged me $25 for the privilege of taking my property elsewhere. Now, Iâ(TM)m sure you have something in your fine print that allows you to do that, but itâ(TM)s still kind of shitty on your part. Given that youâ(TM)re not even capable of issuing two cards on one account (as you had done for the previous decade or so), waiving that fee is probably entirely beyond the capabilities of the fifth-rate keyboard monkeys in your so-called âoeIT departmentâ, so you can go ahead and keep it. Iâ(TM)m getting a nice welcome gift from your competition, which I didnâ(TM)t even ask for.

Would you like the gym bag back?


User Journal

Journal: Even less impressed with E-Trade. 3

Journal by jcr

Got this from some minion at E-trade, since the VP I wrote to was apparently too busy to answer a customer personally:

Good Morning Mr. Randolph,

We received your email inquiry to our VP of Customer Service, Neal Martin on 8/5/13. We regret that we are unable to accommodate your request for two ATM cards for your account. We appreciate your feedback and it has been shared with management and our product teams for review. If you have any additional questions or concerns feel free to contact me at [phone number deleted]

Thank You,

[Name redacted]
Corporate Support Manager
Alpharetta GA
E*TRADE Securities LLC
[phone number redacted]

Manager? Yeah, right. In a functioning company, a manager is someone who takes the initiative to solve a problem.

I left the VP's name because he fully deserves to have this come up when someone googles him in the future.

My response:


You might mention to Neal Martin that when a customer responds to an email message that has his name on it, itâ(TM)s rather poor form to pass the buck to someone else unless that other person is capable of solving the problem.

I was a more-or-less satisfied customer of E-trade for over a decade. I will be transferring my assets to another broker in the near future, as soon as I determine which of your competitors can demonstrate the competence that E-trade has abandoned.


User Journal

Journal: Rather unimpressed with E-Trade today.

Journal by jcr

I've been a customer of theirs for over a decade, and I've had two ATM cards for the same account for many years. Recently, I needed to cancel one of the cards and instead of just replacing that card, they cancelled both of my cards. I just sent the following message to Neal Martin, VP of customer service at E-trade.


I got a call from one of your employees this morning, Meagan something, who told me that after looking into it she wasnâ(TM)t able to find a way to issue a second card for my account. Her suggested workaround was that I should open another account, and get an ATM card for that account.

So, because of your IT departmentâ(TM)s refusal to fulfill a very simple request, E-tradeâ(TM)s âoesolutionâ is that I should give you MORE of my business, and incur whatever additional costs are associated with having a second account. Not to mention that using a second account means that if I lose a card while traveling, Iâ(TM)ll either be dead in the water for a day while funds get transferred to that second account, or Iâ(TM)d have to have money parked in that second account already.

Now, Iâ(TM)m a software engineer myself with a fair bit of experience in financial systems. In my Wall Street days, I worked at JP Morgan, Salomon Brothers, and UBS/Warburg. I know that there is indeed a way to solve the problem at hand, even if it requires manually editing a database to make it happen. If my business is important enough to you, youâ(TM)ll direct your IT department to do so.

In the meantime, I suggest your inform all of your employees in customer-facing roles that âoesecurity policy" is not an excuse for incompetence.


The message above was a follow-up to this one:

Hello Neal,

I have been an E-Trade customer since 2002 or thereabouts, and I currently have about [redacted] in assets on deposit with e-trade.

Iâ(TM)ve got to say, Iâ(TM)m on the verge of taking my business elsewhere and itâ(TM)s because of something that should be trivial for you to solve.

Iâ(TM)ve had two debit cards for my account for a decade or more, and Iâ(TM)ve just been told that I can only have one now. This doesnâ(TM)t work for me, because I travel quite a bit, and I like to keep one card in the safe in my hotel room, and have the other one on me. If I lose a card while traveling, I do not want to be stranded without a way to access my funds.

Yesterday, I spoke with a representative who told me that he had figured it out and was sending me an additional card, but this morning he called me back and told me that he couldnâ(TM)t do it after all. Just now, I spoke with another representative from your âoeCorporate Relationship Managementâ team, and heâ(TM)s looking into it.

Iâ(TM)ve generally been happy with E-trade up to this point, but if you canâ(TM)t issue me two cards as before, itâ(TM)s a deal breaker. I hope you get this figured out.

Also, donâ(TM)t put your name on an e-mail address that doesnâ(TM)t go to you directly. Itâ(TM)s insulting.


The upshot is I did some shopping around and found that Scottrade's fees are lower than E-trade's. The first brokerage company I find that can issue two cards on one account will get my business.

User Journal

Journal: Another interesting stint at Apple. 5

Journal by jcr

For the last two years (almost), I was back at Apple working on the UI frameworks that the ProApps and the iApps use to give them their distinctive look. Interesting work, nice people to work with, and now I can say that there's some of my code in most of Apple's Pro and consumer apps on the Mac.

To everyone in PhotoApps, ProApps, Frameworks, and Dev Tools, thanks much! I enjoyed working with you.


User Journal

Journal: Quickly Mirandize arrested people no matter how serious the crime. 1

Journal by davidwr

The surviving Boston Bombing suspect has not read his rights and as of Monday April 22, 2013, it's been several days since his arrest. Law enforcement has already said they believe the two bombers were acting alone. It would be one thing to press a suspect for information if you catch a guy and think an accomplice is about to set off another one within hours but anything after that is trampling on the Constitution. Therefore we petition the White House to only use the "imminent threat" exception to the Miranda warning when the threat really is imminent and getting information now is more important than preserving the Constitution.

White House Petition URL:

PlayStation (Games)

Journal: Games of the year 2012 4

Journal by RogueyWon
This year's list is perhaps a bit more limited than some of the ones I've put up in the past. There are two real reasons for this; first of all, I moved home in April, buying a place for the first time and getting on the property ladder - complete with the inevitable mortgage. This has curtailed my disposable income a bit, so I've had to be slightly more selective in my purchases (though this hasn't stopped me from accidentally picking up a couple of absolute stinkers).

Second, there's a console out there that I don't have access to. I own it, but I haven't yet been able to lay my hands on the thing. See, Nintendo released the Wii-U in the UK on the exact day that I was due to fly out to the USA for a fortnight. I went through all manner of possible options for getting my hands on one, but couldn't find one that actually worked. Nervous (wrongly) at the prospect of stock-shortages, I ordered from Amazon and got it delivered to the parents, who live 200 miles away. I won't be able to pick it up until I visit them at New Year, so no Wii-U games got a chance at inclusion on my list.

Anyway, with no further ado... let's start with the top 10:

10) Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy (3DS) - The first really compelling 3DS game I've found. It's hard to escape a slight sense of missed opportunity at some of the lightweight RPG mechanics, but this is a lot of fun and an absolute nostalgia trip. It's been many years since I last played Final Fantasy XI, but I was shocked at just how vividly the Ronfaure theme stirred up memories.

9) Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3, also 360) - Square-Enix have clearly addressed the key problem that undermined its predecessor; the lack of decent game mechanics. This is a quirky, well designed game with some clever stuff going on beneath the surface. Now if only they could find some people who could actually write plots and dialogue...

8) Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Vita) - A Vita launch title and, slightly irritatingly, there's yet to be another game which makes such good use of the Vita's features as Uncharted. The Vita's hardware limitations compared to the PS3 actually work in the game's benefit to an extent, forcing the focus away from cinematics and back onto the gameplay, giving the most "fun" Uncharted game since the original. Oh, and the campaign is a pretty generous length to boot.

7) Binary Domain (360, also PC) - This console generation has seen some truly awful attempts by Japanese developers at aping Western gameplay styles. Binary Domain, however, doesn't suck. More than that, it's actually bloody good, with tightly tuned shooting mechanics, a clever squad system and some neat plot and character development.>

6) Forza Horizon (360) - I was worried this game would be awful - but it isn't! The first hour or so has some cringe-inducing dudebro moments, but there's a solid, hardcore racing engine at work under the arcade trappings. If, as rumoured, Forza 5 is a next-gen project, then Horizon is a damned good way to pass the time until it appears.

5) FarCry 3 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Pretty and fun open-world shooter with more brains than most entries in the fps genre. The storyline loses focus a bit, but there's plenty here to keep you interested. Might have ranked higher if the PC version didn't force me through that uPlay shitpipe.

4) Spec Ops: The Line (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Mediocre shooting mechanics don't really matter much in the face of a plot as good and as intelligently written as this one. I kind of hoped that this would make it more difficult to churn out endless, hateful "play it straight" modern warfare games. Sadly, I was wrong. Be warned that the PC version is a really, really crap port.

3) Lolipop Chainsaw (360, also PS3) - Ok, ok, it's a guilty pleasure. But it's also a hilariously written and surprisingly deep game. About a cheerleader killing zombies with a chainsaw. I mean, what's not to like?

2) XCom: Enemy Unknown (PC, also 360) - Fantastic updating of a classic franchise, which streamlines where it makes sense to do so, but isn't afraid to be seriously cruel to the player when the situation demands. My only complaint is that (whisper it softly) the campaign is over just a bit too soon.

1) Borderlands 2 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Well tuned gunplay, an interesting loot system and dialogue so funny that at times *cough* Tiny Tina *cough* it had me laughing so hard I couldn't even aim properly. Add into the mix a campaign so long that you could fit a dozen Call of Duties inside it (not that you'd want to) and you've got my pick for the bext game of the year.

And now, in alphabetical order, the "also pretty good" games, which didn't quite make the top-10 list:

Angry Birds Space (iPad, probably also on every other platform under the sun) - And there goes my credibility... actually, no, this is a clever and fun update on the Angry Birds franchise, with some interesting gravity mechanics thrown into the mix.

Atelier Meruru: The Adventurer of Arland (PS3) - Cute and sometimes-amusing conclusion to this particular 3-game arc of the Atelier series. A bit on the grindy side, but then, it's a JRPG so what do you expect?

Bad Piggies (iPad) Less random than angry birds. Endure the first few stages and it opens out into a clever and fun mad-inventor game. Plus the theme music is awesome.

Corpse Party (PSP) - Fantastic, scary-as-hell adventure game/visual novel hybrid. Also noteworthy for having a Japanese voice cast which is pretty much a who's-who of the anime voice acting scene.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition (PC) - I kept this out of the top 10, as it's essentially a rerelease. However, this is the definitive version of one of the best games around, particularly with the 3rd-party resolution patch.

Darksiders 2 (PC, also 360 and PS3) - Basically a retread of the original, but that's by no means a bad thing in this case.

Dragon's Dogma (360, also PS3) - It's nice to see a Japanese developer trying something different, ambitious and outside of its comfort zone. Sadly, it doesn't entirely work and the game never entirely gelled with me. Still, a promising effort.

Guild Wars 2 (PC, also Mac) - I haven't really had the time to do it justice, but this is a clever game which takes risks by unpicking some well-established MMO tropes. Not everything about it works, but it's a good sign that the industry is finally starting to move away from its obsession with cloning World of Warcraft.

Halo 4 (360) - I've never really liked the Halo series, but I can admit that this is definitely one of the better entries in it. The new developers seem to be rather better than Bungie at actually telling a story.

Kingdom Hearts 3d (3ds) - Yes, it's pretty fun. But can we PLEASE have Kingdom Hearts 3 now? On a proper console? Pretty please?

Persona 4: Golden (Vita) - Top-notch remake of one of the best JRPGs of the last generation. Fantastic game, but it does make me wish they'd get on with Persona 5 already.

Littlebigplanet Vita (Vita) - Sony's platforming series finally finds its natural home. The game's a damned good fit for the Vita, even if some of the mechanics are starting to feel a little stale.

Rayman Origins (Vita, also on pretty much everything else under the sun) - Beautifully drawn and animated platformer. Takes a while to get going properly, but a lot of fun once it does.

Resistance: Burning Skies (Vita) - And here I go massively against the consensus. Most people seem to have hated this game. Personally, I quite enjoyed it. Then again, I'm a sucker for fpses which don't observe stupid 2 weapon limits. They Bleed Pixels (PC) - Clever, somewhat disturbing Lovecraftian indie platformer. Not everybody's cup of tea, but I liked it. Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier - Probably the best "straightforward" modern military shooter of the year. Definitely less hateful than its competition.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (360, also PS3 and PC) - Lacks a bit of the wow-factor of its predecessor (and the early chapters drag a bit), but still a solid, enjoyable third person shooter.

And now the disappointments. The games which might not have been outright bad, but which either didn't live up to expectations, or else could only just about scale the dizzy heights of mediocrity:

Assassin's Creed 3 (360, also PC and PS3) - The ingredients for a really good game are all present and correct. Unfortunately, the game desperately needed a few more months in development to add some polish and kill some of its many, many bugs. Annualisation works for some franchises, but is killing this one.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (PC, also 360, PS3 and Wii-U) - Actually slightly less hateful than the last couple of installments in the series, with the odd neat idea floating around. If it had focussed more on the RTS-lite style side-missions I might have quite liked this. As it is, it still drowns under the weight of a pompous, badly written campaign.

Mass Effect 3 (PC, also 360, PS3 and Wii-U) - Despite some good scenes here and there, poor quality writing trips this game up. Incredibly disappointing given the strength of its predecessors. It also lacks the robust shooter mechanics needed to support the gameplay, now that it's essentially become a shooter with dialogue. Look at Binary Domain to see how it can be done better.

Max Payne 3 (360, also PC and PS3) - Not a bad game, but consistently fails to shine. Neither its gameplay nor its storyline are quite as good as it thinks they are.

Resident Evil 6 (360, also PS3) - In most respects a truly dreadful game, with an incomprehensible plot, dull combat and atrocious hit detection. Just about saved from the "awful" list by two factors; the generous length of the campaign and those occasional moments where it slows down a bit and tries its hand at suspense. The first 30 minutes of Leon's campaign are some of the best Resident Evil we've seen in years. It's just a pity it degenerates so fast.

SSX (360, also PS3) - I wanted to like this, I really did. Unfortunately, there's only a certain level of dudebro I can bring myself to tolerate, even if it is covering a solid game. SSX goes way, way beyond that level.

Star Wars: The Old Republic (PC) - Technically released last year, but hey, MMOs are a bit funny. There were some good ideas here, but buried under outdated ideas and a lack of confidence in taking its own direction. I did sort-of like this for a while, so it was heartbreaking to see the painful death of its community over the first few months of the year.

Tales of Graces F (PS3) - An utterly by-the-numbers uninspired JRPG, several years after the point where this sort of thing ceased to be acceptable.

Touch my Katamari (Vita) - Oh, it's not bad as such, but seriously, the whole Katamari thing is beyond stale now.Assassin's Creed 3 (360, also PC and PS3) - Could have done with another few months of development time to give it a bit more polish (and kill some of those damned bugs), but there's a highly impressive game here.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria (PC) - Mists of Dailyquestia. Actually, there's some neat content in this expansion. Too bad the daily quest grind kills it.

And finally, the awful games. The catastrophes. The absolute bottom of the barrel:

Carrier Command: Gaea Mission (PC, also 360) - I wanted to like this game. It could have been great - just look at the XCom remake. Sadly, it was released in a condition which barely counts as playable, and the game itself lacks a coherent structure. Also, worst fps sequences EVER.

Diablo 3 (PC, also Mac) - There are the bones of a decent game buried in here somewhere. Sadly, they are ground into dust by Blizzard's blatant attempts to drive players onto the real-money auction house, regardless of the impacts on the quality of the game.

Mugen Souls (PS3) - Hideous aborted mutant JRPG that manages to bring the PS3 chugging to a sub-10 framerate despite moving PS1-era graphics. Incomprehensible game mechanics and hateful characters. Seriously, who buys this shit? Oh, wait, I did.

Persona 4 Arena (PS3, also 360) - I've not played it! But when you introduce region locking to a previously region-free console, you go on my shitlist. End of story.

Journal: Handling older juveniles accused of serious crimes

Journal by davidwr

Handling older juveniles accused of serious crimes

Most states try to certify older juveniles arrested for serious crimes as adults. "You do an adult crime, you do adult time," as the saying goes.

The human brain's moral centers don't reach full adult maturity until the early or mid-20s. This is reflected in our law and legal history.

Until the Vietnam era, some states would not let you vote until you turned 21. The logic was that young adults were too immature or ill-informed to vote responsibly.

While we now give anyone old enough to serve in the military without his parent's consent the right to vote, we have taken away the right to buy or consume alcohol without parental supervision. We did this because we saw that way too many people under 21 were using alcohol irresponsibly and killing or maiming themselves and others as a result. Prior to the laws being changed, people over 21 drank irresponsibly and killed people at a significantly lower rate than those under 21.

Knowing this, we need to change our court system so those convicted of crimes done before age 18 are at least offered a path to rehabilitation and, once their complete sentence, parole, and a possible short period after parole is complete without any new crimes committed as an adult, the assurance that their records will be sealed.

At least one state has implimented the option of a "determinate sentence" for youth over a certain age but young enough to be tried as a juvenile. Here is how it works:

* The prosecutor decides not to ask for an adult trial OR a judge turns him down
* The youth pleads guilty or is convicted and given either a "determinate sentence" of a stated number of years or decades, an "indeterminate" (traditional) youth sentence which means he gets out by a certain age or sooner, or a non-prison sentence such as home confinement or youth probation.

Assuming he gets a "determinate sentence" and is not yet old enough to be transfered to an adult prison:
* The youth goes to a youth correctional facility with a focus on rehabilitation
* If the youth serves enough time to be paroled before becoming a young adult, he MAY be paroled
* Under some situations, the youth may be paroled or discharged when he becomes a young adult
* If the youth is not paroled or discharged at this time, he is transferred to adult prison
* The now-adult inmate will eventually become eligible for parole if he his not already
* The inmate or parolee eventually serves his stated sentence and parole and is discharged
* The juvenile record is sealed

That last item is key. It's the "you can start your life over now, the mistakes of your immature-brained youth are forgiven" element that any society with a moral compass will have as part of its juvenile justice law.


Journal: Reforming Criminal Statutes of Limitations: A Phased-In Approach 1

Journal by davidwr

Reforming Statutes of Limitations: A Phased-In Approach

Current statute of limitation laws are "all or nothing."

If the prosecution decides to file charges 1 day before the time limit expires, you can get the full sentence, even if you've been a responsible citizen for years after the crime.

But if they wait one day later, you are off the hook.

This is unfair to the guilty party and to society.

The purposes of statutes of limitations include:
* encourage swift justice, discourage prosecution laziness
* give people who have committed long-ago crimes some certainty that it really is behind them, at least with respect to criminal charges

A phased-in approach would be better.

Set an initial time period based on the minimum sentence, within a range of 1-10 years. Any charges brought before this time expires would not be affected by statutes of limitations.

Set a maximum time period based on the maximum possible sentence PLUS the initial time period. Any charges brought after this time period could be tried but there would be no prison term.

If charges are filed between these times, the trial and sentencing would be carried out as normal, but the newly-convicted criminal would be given day-for-day credit for time served for each day of delay after the initial period expired. The fact that he would be given such credit could not be used against him during sentencing or parole-eligibility or mandatory-release determination. However, the parole board can decide he hasn't spent enough time behind bars and deny parole up to but not past his mandatory-release date, if any.

Some examples:

A person committed second-degree murder 12 years before charges were filed. The law says the judge can sentence him from 2 years on the low end to 20 on the high end. The judge sentences him to 15 years. He gets 12-2=10 years of credit, so his effective sentence is only 5 years even though his criminal record will show a 15-year sentence.

A person stole a car 25 years ago. The police found the car with DNA but "John Doe DNA" indictments aren't allowed for property crimes in that state. 25 years later the same guy is arrested on a relatively minor felony. He is convicted and gets 1 year on the new felony. He could get 2-20 on the old car theft charge. He's charged and pleads guilty but no matter what the judge sentences him to, since 25-2=23 is more than the maximum sentence he will not serve any prison time for the car theft. He will, however, have a second criminal conviction on his record. If he later commits a third felony he may face serious prison time under "3-strikes" laws.

Some special considerations:

Tolling the statute of limitations:

Current rules on tolling would not be changed. Most states toll the statute of limitations for:
* Fleeing the jurisdiction
* Legal incapacity of a key witness, such as being a minor or medically unable to testify
* Intimidation or perceived intimidation of a witness, such as if the victim is financially or otherwise dependent on the alleged criminal
* An ongoing criminal enterprise
* Judicially granted extensions for an ongoing investigation
* "John Doe" indictments against the person matching a DNA sample, photograph, or other evidence that is presumed unique to the alleged criminal
* Any pending charge, once an indictment or equivalent is made

Reduction of charges by the prosecutor:

The prosecutor would be allowed offer reduced charges before conviction while allowing an effective sentence up to the same as if the original charges were filed (but no more than the maximum actual sentence on the reduced charge). Take the murder case above: The prosecution could offer a plea of manslaughter, which carries a 2-10 year sentence, on the condition that the person accept a 10 year sentence but serve the same 5-year effective sentence he would serve on the more serious charge. If it was to his advantage, the newly-convicted murderer could ask the parole board to treat him as if he had served 75% of a 20-year sentence.

To prevent abuse by prosecutorial bullying, if the effective sentence on the lesser charge under this rule is more than the effective sentence if the lesser charge had been the original charge, the actual plea would be the legal equivalent of pleading guilty or no contest to both charges with a judge acting on the prosecutor's motion to dismiss the higher charge. Since all pleas are under oath, a prosecutor encouraging a false plea is suborning perjury.

Reduction in charges by routine clemency:

A modified version of this would reduce the charge to match the maximum effective sentence, or to some "minimal" charge if the maximum effective sentence was zero as in the car-theft example above.

For example, if routine clemency were offered, the murderer would still be stuck with his original charge since 5 years is within the sentencing range for his crime. But the car theif would have his charged administratively reduced to the highest felony theft charge that allowed probation of 1 day or less, or to a special charge created by lawmakers for this purpose.

Effective dates of discharge and release when considering post-release and post-discharge conditions:

The date of discharge is no later than what the date of discharge would have been if the person had started serving the maximum sentence on the day the initial time period expired, plus extensions for tolls of the statute of limitations.

For example, if a person committed 2nd degree murder in 1970 and could have received 2-20 years, any conviction today will be considered to have been discharged in 1992.

If there are any post-discharge conditions or legal disabilities that are based on time, he will be given credit for all time since 1992 towards fulfilling these conditions and towards the eventual expiration of these legal disabilities.

Ultimate expiration of the statute of limitations

Allow only a specific period of time, such as 5 years for felonies or 1 year for misdemeanors - after the time where all legally-imposed time-based post-discharge penalties will have expired to file charges.

This allows prosecutors a short additional window to gain a "symbolic" conviction or to brand someone a criminal years or decades after a crime, while giving society a "date certain" beyond which they won't have to interrupt their lives to face possibly-false allegations of long-ago alleged crimes in criminal court.

Effect on fines

This plan is not designed to change the fine schedule.

The bottom line: The practical effect

Some example crimes and the effect of this change on them:

Petty crimes: Maximum sentence of 1 year or less:
1 year to bring charges to get the full maximum sentence.
2 years and a day to bring charges at all.
Latest discharge date after back-dating applied: 2 years after crime committed.

Higher-jail-time crimes: Minimum sentence 1 year or less, maximum sentence 2 years, no post-discharge conditions
1 year to bring charges to get the full maximum sentence.
3 years and a day to bring charges to get any jail time.
This is also the latest release date and the latest discharge date if the discharge date is back-dated.
4 years and a day to bring charges at all.

Low-prison-time crimes: Minimum sentence 2 years, maximum sentence 10 years, 5 years of post-discharge conditions
2 years to bring charges to get full maximum sentence.
12 years to bring charges to get any prison time.
This is also the latest release date and the latest discharge date if the discharge date is back-dated.
17 years to bring charges to get any post-discharge conditions.
22 years to bring charges at all.

Medium-time prison crimes: Minimum sentence 5 years, maximum sentence 40 years, 10 years of post-discharge conditions
5 years to bring charges to get full maximum sentence.
45 years to bring charges to get any prison time.
This is also the latest release date and the latest discharge date if the discharge date is back-dated.
55 years to bring charges to get any post-discharge conditions.
60 years to bring charges at all.

Very serious felonies less than life: Minimum sentence 10 years, maximum sentence 99 years, up to 25 years of post-discharge conditions
10 years to bring charges to get full maximum sentence
109 years to bring charges to get any prison time
This is also the latest release date and the latest discharge date if the discharge date is back-dated.
134 years to get any post-discharge conditions
139 years to bring charges at all

In practical terms:

If the person COULD have received a sentence that would have had him in prison for the rest of his life if he'd been charged by the end of the initial period, there is no statute of limitations.

If the person COULD have received a long sentence that would've had him under post-discharge conditions for the rest of his life if he'd been charged by the end of the initial period, he'll live to see daylight but there is no statue of limitations.


Journal: Don't write off criminals when it comes to hiring and housing

Journal by davidwr

Don't write off criminals when it comes to hiring and housing

In some states a felony record is a de facto bar from renting decent apartments or getting decent jobs for life.

A more reasonable approach would be to limit how employers and those providing routine services to the public could treat you based on how long it has been since you were in prison, on parole, or on a parole-like supervised release.

Absent special situations such as those listed below, I recommend the following as a STARTING point for how to treat ex-cons when it comes to housing and employment:

Anyone on probation or parole: Positive, neutral, or negative recommendaiton from probation or parole officer should override time-since-discharge.

Anyone who has made himself accountable to another person or group in a legally-binding way that is accredited by the state: Positive, neutral, or negative recommendaiton from probation or parole officer should override time-since-discharge.

Anyone who has made himself accountable to another trustworthy person or group other than above: If the person or group can be trusted, their positive, neutral, or negative recommendaiton from probation or parole officer should override time-since-discharge.

Anyone discharged person not on parole or probation and not under legally-binding accountability who had at least 3 years of such supervision, whose last 3 years showed consistent positive recommendations, and who has had no negative indicators during those 3 years or since: Treat as a positive recommendation.

Anyone discharged person not on parole or probation and not under legally-binding accountability who had at least 3 years of such supervision, whose last 3 years showed consistent positive recommendations, and who has had no negative indicators during those 3 years or since AND who has been discharged from the legal system for 3 years for a misdemeanor or 5 years for a felony: Consider rehabilitated.

Anyone discharged from the legal system for 5 years for a misdemeanor or 10 years for a felony and no negative information during that time: Consider rehabilitated.

Anything in between: Treat it on a case-by-case basis. While summarily denying housing or employment based only on criminal activity may be efficient from the landlord's or employer's point of view, it is very inefficient from society's point of view. Although they may not be able to measure it, the landlord and employer pay "their share" of this inefficiency every time they turn down someone just because of a criminal record. If every landlord and every employer would do "their part" and not automatically disqualify criminals except where required by law, society would be better.

Special situations that might require special handling:

* Parole and probation officers and others who are known to "grade high" or "grade low" or who are not willing or able to justify their assessments
* Anyone with a recent history of gang involvement
* Anyone with an offense against another person can't demonstrate he is a low risk of hurting people again
* Anyone with a recent history of lack of self control that is likely to lead to criminal acts affecting housing or employment
* Anyone whose specific criminal history legally disqualifies him from a particular job or for promotion opportunities expected to be earned by those holding the job
* Anyone whose specific criminal history legally prevents him from residing in a particular location
* Anyone with a current or only-recently-resolved emotional issues which this job or housing situation may re-trigger, but only if such issues are likely to impact the housing or employment in question or are more likely to result in a parole or probation violation, or result in a new criminal offense than denying the employment or housing in question. For example, expected absenteeism due to violating probation is grounds for denying employment.

Some legal changes that should be made to make this happen

Landlords and employers should have general immunity from civil lawsuits if they rent to or hire a person with a criminal record, provided that they make a good faith effort in all of these areas:
* The employer or landlord checks the employee or tenant's recent (last 7-10 years for felonies, less for misdemeanors) public criminal record.
* If the employer takes risks that are ALREADY considered by applicable law to be "high risk," he either provides risk mitigation or alerts affected parties so they can manage their own risk. For example, a white-collar crook with access to a company's books requires either checks and balances to prevent fraud or notification to all stockholders so they can sell or vote to fire the management if they choose. A landlord renting to a person with recent criminal convictions for gang activity or any such convictions and any known recent gang-related behavior should forward this information to local police so they can step up patrols.
* If a landlord or employer has a significant concentration of criminal tenants or employees AND as a group the total tenant base of the property or the total employment at any one location during any one shift represents a significantly higher risk to anyone as compared to a property or location of employment with a randomly-selected group of individuals, the employer or tenant either mitigates the risk or alerts those put at risk that they need to watch their back.

Landlords and employers should be financially encouraged to house and hire those straight out of prison.

All inmates approaching a possible release date and all recently-released convicts should be given free access to credentialed rehabilitation specialists who are funded well enough to do their job right. These specialists will be in a position to provide positive, neutral, or negative recommendations regarding the suitability of a particular individual for a particular housing or employment situation from a public-risk perspective. Such individuals should have legal immunity for making a recommendation that later turns out to be incorrect.

PC Games (Games)

Journal: Early thoughts on Diablo 3

Journal by RogueyWon
Diablo 3 is now released and TEH INTERWEBS DRAMA is in full flow. I posted some early thoughts specifically on the controversial "always on" feature in a discission thread here and here. From what I've seen, connection and login issues are continuing to occur, though compared to Asia and the US, those of in Europe appear to be getting a fairly mild dose of them.

However, I don't want to dwell too long on the DRM/always-on issues here. Objectionable though they may be, the lesson of WoW shows that login issues will diminish over time. Ever since the launch of Wrath of the Lich King (the second WoW expansion), I've believed that Blizzard deliberately provides less capacity than it knows is needed for new game and expansion releases. After all, its choices are:

1) Buy expensive server capacity that won't be needed once the game has been out a fortnight.

2) Lease short-term capacity and worry about leaving valuable server-side intellectual property on somebody else's machines.

3) Accept that launch is going to get a bit FUBAR but that it will settle down quickly enough and mostly be forgotten within a week or two.

From a business point of view, 3) makes a lot of sense. In all likelihood, most of those complaining loudest about the login issues at the moment will have forgotten them in a week or two. I thought, therefore, that I'd actually talk about some early thoughts on the game itself.

I'm not actually what you'd call a hardcore Diablo fan. I didn't like the first game in the series. It came out at a time when Bioware and Squaresoft were starting to do really interesting things with the RPG genre and, to be honest, I couldn't get all that excited about what was, by comparison, a shallow click-fest. I got into Diablo 2 a bit more; I preferred its more open world design and played a bit of co-op with friends. But it didn't hold my interest for all that long. Baldur's Gate 2 came out a few months later and, when it did, I largely forgot about Diablo 2.

Since then, the action-RPG genre that Diablo pioneered has evolved apace, with various companies offering different takes on it. The Dungeon Siege series spent its first two installments pitching itself as the "thinking man's Diablo", with full party control and a semblance of tactics (though this was abandoned for a badly dumbed down third installment). The PS2 got some highly-polished Diablo-inspired games, such as the Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance titles and Champions of Norrath. And the genre continued to be developed in its spiritual home on the PC, perhaps most notably through the highly-polished Torchlight. Against this backdrop, I had to wonder whether, barring its huge brand-recognition, Diablo 3 would manage to remain at the cutting edge, or even remain relevant.

After a few hours of gameplay, I'm still undecided. Being firmly outside of the series's hardcore fanbase, I was able to shrug off many of the changes to tradition that caused such shrill outcry. I was never wedded to Diablo 2's talent system or class balance. I regard having visible outlines around enemies and gold that gets automatically picked up as welcome developments, rather than betrayals of trust. And I don't much care about whether the game looks sufficiently dark and gritty. My impression is that Blizzard have, over recent years, developed a cartoony style for their in-game graphics, as evidenced by World of Warcraft and Starcraft 3. It's a distinctive style, I associate it with Blizzard and if they want to carry it over into the Diablo series (which it seems they have) then that's fine with me. This particular stylistic choice has two direct consequences - a relative lack of detail and relatively high performance.

I'll start with the second of those. I have what is, by any standards, a high end gaming PC; a water-cooled i7 3.4ghz, with 24 gigs of RAM and an Nvidia 590. It runs anything I've thrown at it in 1080p full detail quite happily, but the margin by which it does so varies. In Diablo 3, I was able to lock the framerate at 140fps without it even flickering in big fights with lots of spell effects flying around. Testing it on a much lower end laptop (a 2ghz Core 2 Duo with 3 gigs of RAM and a fairly basic graphics card) still yielded highly acceptable performance. Both machines managed substantially higher and (perhaps critically) more stable framerates than they do running version 4.3 of World of Warcraft, despite the fact that the venerable MMO is running on what is, at heart, an old engine. It's clear that Diablo 3 has been optimised to provide as smooth and (in framerate terms) stable an experience as possible. It's the same philosophy that has seen the Call of Duty series, with its locked 60fps norm, become the preferred fps platform on the consoles.

But there's inevitably a price to be paid in terms of detail. And there's no denying that Diablo 3 makes sacrifices in terms of visual impact. While the cutscenes are every bit as pretty as we've come to expect from Blizzard, in game graphics tend more towards the "smooth and functional" than the "impressive and atmospheric". Enemies are well designed, but environments tend towards the spartan. Spell effects tend to underwhelm and to be over very quickly. There are undoubtedly some benefits to this in terms of accessibility, but at times, even Torchlight has more visual impact. What's particularly noticable is that the slight vagueness that added to the sense of dread in Diablo 2 is absent now. The game looks a little bit too clinical.

In gameplay terms, the basic Diablo formula hasn't changed much. Areas perhaps seem to channel the player more directly towards his goal than those in earlier installments. There's been a welcome retilting of the balance between randomly generated areas and pre-designed ones, with the latter getting more prominence, allowing for some occasionally clever level design. In terms of character building, things are clearly highly simplified - perhaps too much so. Despite being around 4 hours in, I don't feel like I've yet had to make an actual choice about how to develop my character. Beyond that, this is a game that is altering its basic formula very little.

And therein, for me, lies the biggest problem. It feels like Blizzard have ignored much of what's happened in this busy genre since Diablo 2 was released. Most of the new features are imported from WoW, such as the auction house (the real money version of which just feels exploitative). Other than that, this lacks the tactical depth of the first two Dungeon Siege games, the visual flights of fancy of the Dark Alliance series and the slightly crazy sense of fun of Torchlight, with its myriad side-quests and optional dungeons.

Starcraft 2 still felt relevant when its first installment, Wings of Liberty, was released in 2010. The RTS genre was by no means dead, but it was a genre which had largely fragmented to the extremes, with Dawn of War 2 and its ilk focussing on small-scale squad tactics while Supreme Commander pursued a more macro-strategic game. Starcraft 2 managed to advance the genre by returning defiantly to a middle ground and driving it forward with an extra degree of polish and small-scale innovation around mission design and storytelling (as well as through its highly polished multiplayer and skirmish modes). Starcraft 2's only real direct competitors were the Command & Conquer games, which it was able to defeat on a straight up fight on quality.

By contrast, while I'm still relatively early in Diablo 3, I can't help but feel that it's failed to establish itself decisively within its own genre against fresher, hungrier (and often cheaper) competitors.
User Journal

Journal: Signature line update 2012-04-23

Journal by davidwr

Signature line starting 2012-04-23:

Base 13 math: "What do you get if you multiply six by nine?" / "Six by nine. Forty two." / "That's it. That's all there is."

Previous journal entry containing historical sig lines:


Journal: GAME in administration - thoughts on consumer issues

Journal by RogueyWon
I made a journal post a few weeks ago on the woes of Game Group, the UK's largest specialist high street games retailer. Yesterday, what looked like a strong possibility when I made that earlier entry became reality; Game Group went into administration. The administrators moved quickly to close about 40% of stores (sensibly focussing on stores which were located close to other branches) and several thousand people lost their jobs. Other stores remain open, but with very limited stock. Vouchers, loyalty cards and trade-in credit have all been suspended.

There's been a lot of online reaction, particularly focussed on Eurogamer and MCV-UK. However, I wanted to take a little space to set down some more detailed thoughts. I'll leave aside the reasons for the entry into administration for the moment; I don't have much to add to my earlier post. Eurogamer does have an interesting piece which quotes extensively from the administrators. There's some good analysis in that, though I think it is too narrow in its focus. Anyway, leaving aside the causes of the entry into administration, some wider thoughts on what this all means...

First of all, the staff deserve sympathy

A large portion of the company's workforce was made redundant yesterday. It appears that they will receive their wages for March, but may need to rely on statutory Government schemes for redundancy payments - the payouts from which will be low. The situation on this isn't entirely clear yet, though.

This is an awful time to find yourself thrown back into the job-market, particularly if, like many GAME staff, you don't have many qualifications and most or all of your work experience is in retail. As a sector, retail is not in the business of doing much hiring at the moment (other major UK retail chains have gone under in recent months/years and still more are at risk).

It's a common piety to absolve front line staff of all blame when a company goes under. I don't subscribe to that and there were undoubtedly some staff who were awful. There's certainly one particular branch of GAME that I avoid due to the staff - though I note with some dismay that it survived yesterday while others, with decent staff, didn't. However, aside from a minority of poor branches, most of the GAME staff I dealt with over the years were helpful, friendly and well-informed. I was particularly sad to note that the small branch in London's Victoria Station closed yesterday; its staff were consistently excellent (and perhaps somewhat wasted in such a small branch) and I hope that they are able to find new jobs swiftly.

Meanwhile, the staff in the branches that remain open are going to be dealing with a lot of unhappy customers over the next few days. The suspension of vouchers, loyalty cards and trade in credit will not go down well. Nor will the inability to refund pre-order deposits. Already, there are anecdotal but highly credible reports of angry scenes in some branches.

This all throws an interesting light on our relationship with major retailers

I was entertained (in a slightly bleak way) by the reaction on various sites (particularly Eurogamer) to the news about loyalty/trade-in/deposit credit yesterday. There were lots of complaints along the lines of "but they owe me money, surely this can't be legal?".

The reality of course is that not only is it entirely legal for GAME to refuse to honour credit to its customers while it's in administration, it is a legal requirement. A company in administration is required to deal with its creditors in a certain order. Secured creditors come first - essentially the banks who loaned the company money. After this come preferential creditors - basically staff with unpaid wages or other contractual requirements. Only after these have been paid off can the company make good on its obligations to unsecured creditors. Now, unsecured creditors is a large pool that includes the company's trade partners (such as suppliers), as well as customers who hold store-credit or who have loaned the company money in the form of a pre-order deposit.

As consumers, we are generally inclined to believe that the regulatory regime around retail exists to protect our interests. However, when it comes to a company in administration "our" interests are not at the top of the list. This isn't actually a bad thing - if secured creditors didn't get preferential treatment, then banks would be much more averse to providing businesses with credit and starting up a new business would be even harder than it is at the moment. But it clearly came as a bit of a shock to people yesterday to find that the consumer protections they are used to do not apply in cases of administration.

Smart consumers worry about credit as well as debt

We all know that getting into debt can be risky. This doesn't mean you should never do it - very few people would ever own a home if they didn't take out a mortgage. But most of us will think carefully before taking on debt (and those who don't usually get exactly what they deserve).

We're much less inclined to consider the risks associated with credit - at least when we're engaging in a proper commercial transaction. If a friend asks to borrow £20 from you, you might pause to consider whether you're likely to get the money back (what happened last time he did this?). But when it comes to going into credit with a large commercial organisation, we don't often even think of it in those terms. A lot of people seem to think that when they deposit money in their bank account, the bank goes and puts it in a box somewhere. In reality, the bank takes the money and invests it elsewhere - just giving you a promise to pay the money back when you require it. When a bank goes bust, it is no longer able to honour this promise - which is why banking collapses tend to be preceded by a "run" on the bank in question, as creditors belatedly realise this. The consequences of a bank collapsing are such that many Governments opted to bail them out in recent years, rather than allowing the market to run its course.

Now, in GAME's case, the credit owed to members of the public is much smaller - even in the largest cases, we will be talking about a few hundred pounds. If I were to guess, I would say that most people held less than £20 in credit with GAME at any one time. That said, it's quite plausible that there are still people out there sitting on a pile of vouchers they got for Christmas - after all, GAME hasn't been able to put out many of the big releases since then.

A common conversation on forums over the last few days has gone (random obscenities deleted):

Person A - I'm sure glad I saw this coming and used up all of my loyalty/trade in points. I don't see how anybody could have failed to do the same after all the news we've seen since the start of February.

Person B - That's great for you, but a lot of people don't follow the news, or would have assumed that they'd get compensated for their credit if the company went bust. In fact, staff in stores were telling people that there was no hurry to spend their points.

The thing with that discussion is - both participants are correct. The writing has been on the wall for GAME for at least 2 months now. First its insurance was withdrawn, then suppliers stopped dealing with it, then its share price fell to junk levels. Put yourself in the shoes of a credit rating agency and ask yourself how you'd rate the company. Would you advise people to lend it money? Of course not.

If you held credit with GAME, then the course of action to take was clear - claim it while you can. Convert it into a tangible asset by buying a game. Or if there's nothing you want, trade it for credit with another, more secure company, by buying an XBL/PSN/Nintendo Network points card. Neither MS, Sony nor Nintendo is in imminent danger of going bust (though it never hurts to keep an eye on them if they owe you money).

But at the same time, it's true that an awful lot of people don't seem to think like this. They should - but the gap between "should" and "do" remains huge. As mentioned before, they assume that the "little guy" will be looked after, and don't understand that when a company has no money left, it really does have no money left. It's also true that staff have, in some cases, given misleading advice on this issue (I overheard it myself in that particular branch of Game that I mentioned before as NOT having good staff). Frontline staff are not experts on corporate insolvency. They shouldn't be giving advice on this issue (unless they have been issued with a factually correct line), but even if they are, people should understand not to take it as gospel.

Of course, cashing in your credit is only going to make the collapse of the company more likely - but once the writing is on the wall, I think it's fair that people act to protect their own interests.

So what might this mean for store credit going forwards?

First of all, I would hope - though probably in vain - that this might help to spell the end for store vouchers. I have never understood the point of these. You take a £20 note, backed by the Bank of England and exchange it for a piece of paper or plastic backed to the value of £20 by a single company. And yet people continue to buy them - GAME vouchers, in particular, tend to be big business around Christmas. I would hope that this might be a very public signal that vouchers are not only pointless, they are also risky.

For trade-in credit, I think the implications are more complicated. I have long maintained that GAME offered horrible value for both buyers and sellers on used games - and that a savvy consumer would use eBay instead. This is true - but I was also missing part of the wider picture.

What I hadn't appreciated was the extent to which GAME was committed to paying for pretty much any stock for current-gen consoles people threw at them, regardless of whether they're ever likely to sell it. See, if GAME can pay some kid £5 for a nearly-new copy of FIFA and then sell it on for £30 a few days later, they're laughing all the way to the bank. That kid could probably have sold his game for £15 on eBay - he'd have got more money for the game and somebody else would have got it cheaper. Instead, he gave GAME a huge cut on it.

On the other hand, when I took my old UMD PSP games in a few days before the release of the Vita, I got, on average, £2 of store credit each for them. Most of these games were many years old and the PSP had been, to all intents and purposes, a dead platform in the UK for more than a year (probably closer to two). If I'd stuck those games on eBay - they wouldn't have sold. I got credit (and consequently a very cheap Vita) and GAME got a stack of games that ultimately, they'd have to send to landfill.

If GAME comes out of administration as a going concern, then I think the new owners need to implement a much smarter pre-owned policy. Ideally, I think they'd maintain an "approved list" of games that they accept - and turn away all others. This would require a bit of head office time and resource (or could alternatively be delegated to individual stores), but I think it would be a huge cost saving in the longer term.

From the customer's point of view, I think that people may be less likely to "sit on" trade-in credit for a substantial time. That's a bad thing for retailers - it hurts their cash-flow and interest.

I nearly got stung on this myself (well, maybe not "nearly", but still closer than I would have liked). The Vita launched on a Wednesday, if I remember. On the Sunday before its launch, I took my old PSP, a stack of UMD games and a few obsolete 360 games (such as Forza 2 and 3, which were rendered obsolete by Forza 4) into the store and traded them in. I thought it would be better to do it then, rather than in a busy store on launch day. From the Sunday to the Wednesday, I had £180 of credit on my trade-in card. During that period, the news broke that GAME wouldn't be able to carry all of the Vita launch titles. It was clear that the company's end was not far off. As it happens, it was still some way from administration at that point in time, but I still got to sweat for a few days. I won't be doing that again.

Pre-orders might also be affected. GAME doesn't require a deposit for a pre-order on every title, but for hardware and collectors' editions of games, it would require deposits anywhere from £5 through to £20. GAME had already cancelled a lot of its pre-orders and refunded deposits before it went into administration, but there will still be lots outstanding. This one is really going to rankle. In all honesty, if customers end up out of pocket over this one, then I suspect this means the end of deposit-backed pre-orders for games in the UK (not that many other retailers insist on deposits anyway).

Pre-orders are extremely useful for a high-street specialist retailer. They make ordering and managing stock much easier and help avoid expensive overstock and understock incidents. This is why the staff are instructed to give a push on them - and why GAME used to reward them with extra loyalty card points. I've generally been happy to pre-order, particularly around collectors' editions or obscure niche titles which may be in short supply. That GAME shifted to requiring deposits for many pre-orders probably indicates that they were suffering from a poor pick-up rate on at least some portion of their pre-orders. Losing the ability to firm this up via deposits would be painful.

Finally, there are loyalty cards. I don't see these being affected much. There is an element of "money for nothing" attached to these. You are, in essence, being rewarded for paying GAME's slightly higher prices - but there are other benefits to shopping at GAME (at least in theory), such as a better range of stock than the supermarkets and the lack of a delay while you wait for your postal delivery. I don't honestly think people could feel too aggrieved about the loss of this - though GAME may choose to be less generous with points in future if it comes out of administration.

And finally - a more optimistic note

A lot of the above - and a lot of the discussion on forums - is predicated on a total collapse of GAME. That isn't the current situation; a lot of stores have closed, but others remain open for business. The administrators seem to be confident of finding a buyer. Indeed, while there are challenges, there's no reason to believe that, without some of GAME's more obvious lunacy, there can't be a future for specialist high street games retail in the UK.

If a buyer does move in and take over the company, it will be in the buyer's interests to get the company performing well as quickly as possible. The administrators have already shed many of the uncommercial stores, which is perhaps the biggest single issue resolved. Pre-owned policies can be changed. Prices can be tweaked. Marketing and branding can all be changed. A lot that was wrong about the pre-administration company can be fixed.

The new owners will also need to ensure that they have the support of customers. While they might not be obliged to (IANAL), one of the biggest ways they could do this would be by choosing to honour all previous committments around vouchers, loyalty cards, trade-in cards and pre-order deposits. If they didn't do this, they'd lose a lot of customer credibility and make recovering the company all the more difficult.

It's quite possible, therefore, that customers who are currently owed credit by GAME will end up getting away with only the mild inconvenience of being locked out of their balance for a couple of weeks. For the moment, therefore, the key words might be "DON'T PANIC".
Role Playing (Games)

Journal: Mass Effect 3 is badly written (with as few spoilers as possible) 2

Journal by RogueyWon
As indicated in the title of this post, I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum. That said, avoiding spoilers completely is not going to be possible, particularly for events in the game's first 60-90 minutes - so if you are intending to start playing it soon, you may wish to stop reading in a little while. Don't worry, I'll warn you when you get to the point where spoilers become inevitable.

Before I go any further, a few broader reflections on the game. As a game, ME3 is mostly competent. Its mix of exploration, combat and conversation remains as compelling as ever. The streamlining of planet scanning (which was tedious beyond belief in ME2) is welcome. The return to a greater degree of complexity around weapon upgrades is a step in the right direction. The multiplayer is fun, although the lack of variety in maps and game modes ultimately limits how long its appeal will last.

Combat is more of a mixed bag; it's nicely paced, but it lacks the polish of more dedicated 3rd person shooters; you can tell that Bioware lack experience in action games. Before starting ME3, I'd played through Sega's excellent Binary Domain. ME3's combat is highly reminiscent of Binary Domain's - there are even similar robotic enemies. But at every level, Binary Domain feels slicker; the cover system works better, controls are more intuitive and locational damage is massively more sophisticated.

But anyway - the writing. As stated in the title, having played through ME3, I cannot avoid the conclusion that ME3's writing is poor. But that's a statement that needs a lot more context. There are lots of instances of good writing in ME3 and a few instances of excellent writing. Bioware can "do" dialogue like nobody else in the industry. Bethesda can build beautiful looking worlds, but the moment characters open their mouths, the illusion falls apart. Some Japanese RPGs, particularly the Persona series, manage to have brilliantly constructed storylines, but stilted dialogue remains a constant problem (probably not helped by the fact it all has to be run through translation for the West). Bioware, on the other hand, can write conversations that don't just convince, but positively sparkle.

There are individual scenes in ME3 that make the player feel genuine anger, grief or shock - or make him laugh out loud. There are set-piece scenes - particularly some of the battle scenes around the game's mid-point - that are masterfully executed. There are incidental background conversations that contain more emotional depth than some entire games manage (the old woman at the counter in the Citadel embassies being perhaps the best example). And yet... I still maintain this is a badly written game.

Why? Because the plot does not hang together, does not fit with the rest of the series and comes to perhaps the most underwhelming ending I've seen from any major game. There are plenty of people out there dissecting the many plot-holes in ME3. Rather than doing that, I'm going to focus on three big flaws in the plot that really stood out to me and dissect them.

Stop reading now if you object to spoilers (though I'll keep them to a minimum).

1) We need to reconfigure the sensor dish

The Reapers were introduced properly as the original Mass Effect game moved towards its final arc. The first game's finale established the extent of the threat they posed, as a single Reaper inflicted massive damage on the Citadel fleets (and, if the player chose the Paragon ending, on humanity's fleets).

The question of how the Reapers could be defeated has hung over the series ever since their introduction. Tantalising hints have been dangled. Could fragments of Reaper technology be incorporated into human, Turian, Asari and Salarian weapons, putting the galaxy's civilised races onto an even footing with the Reapers? Were there secrets locked away in the Collector base from ME2 that would provide the tools needed? Did the secret to defeating them lie with the dangerous "fringe" species that Shepard had dealt with - the Geth, the Krogan or the Rachni?

As it happens... no. Instead, within its first hour, ME3 reveals that the secret is - a giant Prothean weapon that hasn't had the slightest mention in either of the first two games. All the player needs to do is find the resources needed to build it and the fleets to protect it - which is the focus of the rest of the game.

Well that's just great.

Remember Star Trek? I'm thinking here particularly of The Next Generation. Some weeks, there would be a clever resolution to the plots. Other weeks, you could tell the writers were just dialing it in, because after whatever perfunctory character scenes were required, they'd just spout some techno-babble and reconfigure the Enterprise's sensor dish to do something that would magically make whatever the problem-of-the-week was go away.

ME3 is one of those sensor dish episodes.

2) Did we go a bit too far with the whole moral ambiguity thing?

ME2 does moral ambiguity in spades, whether the player likes it or not. There's no option to be squeaky clean in ME2. You're working for Cerberus - an extremist right-wing organisation which preaches human-supremacy and is happy to engage in all kinds of dodgy activities around eugenics and slavery. In ME1, Cerberus had been outright bad guys (albeit ones who didn't get much development).

In ME2, the player has some scope to determine his relationship to Cerberus. He can choose whether to keep his distance so far as possible, or to be a more active participant in their agenda. At the end of the game, he makes a decision which has potentially massively ramifications, in which the most relevant factor is "do you trust Cerberus?"

In fairness, the organisation gets a lot of development along the way. Some of the more unpleasant actions seen in ME1 are ascribed to rogue factions (which the player comes into conflict with in the course of ME2). Broadly speaking, the impression the player takes of Cerberus in ME2 is that it holds some extremist views and believes that the end justifies the means - but also that it is passionate about ensuring the survival of humanity and that it is the only credible force in the galaxy willing to prepare for the arrival of the Reapers. On this basis, at the end of ME2, I decided that I did indeed trust Cerberus enough to hand over the Collector base to them.

And then, within the first hour of ME3, all of the development that was done in ME2 is thrown away. Cerberus are pure evil again and whatever decisions the player made in ME2, he is in conflict with them again. Flipping Cerberus from "pure evil" to "grey area" between ME1 and ME2 was a bold move. I was initially unconvinced. But by the time I was a third of the way through ME2, Bioware had me on side. But then flipping back to "pure evil"? With no credible explanation along the way? No option to side with Cerberus anyway? My suspension of disbelief was shattered.

Why did this happen? If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that Bioware lost their nerve. Plenty of games allow the player to join morally ambiguous - or even outright evil - factions. Command & Conquer was a potent early example, with its Brotherhood of Nod - part religious cult, part terrorist network. Deus Ex offered the player a choice of factional alliances which all included some dubious ethical choices. Syndicate put the player in the role of a ruthless corporate killing machine. Grand Theft Auto's protagonists may (on occasion) have their heart in the right place, but they have an odd way of expressing it. And the Manhunt games? The less said the better.

However, with the exception of a few dry historical sims, the far-right has remained a taboo. And there's little doubt that Cerberus was modelled on modern far-right nationalist movements - albeit a far better resourced, equipped and educated version of them (there are precious few shaved heads and tattoos on show in Cerberus). ME2 dabbled in the area - but I think Bioware just didn't quite have the courage to go through with leaving Cerberus-alignment open as an option in ME3, as the series moved to its conclusion.

It's partly understandable. We know how the media like to whip up a frenzy whenever video games try something even vaguely daring. Remember the furore over the (extremely tame) same-sex romance scenes in ME1? I felt at the time that Bioware were lucky to get away without wider attention for the semi-sympathetic portrayal of a a far-right group in ME2.

But that just poses the question - if Bioware didn't dare to see this plot strand through to its conclusion, why did they even go there? Why open that door in the earlier games, only to slam it shut in ME3? There were plenty of other ways that Cerberus could have been portrayed. They could have been an anarchist group rebelling against the "authoritarian" Citadel government. They could have been a religious movement. They could have been a network promoting shadowy corporate interests. None of those would have had the same potential for controversy. They might have given ME2 slightly less of a frisson of genuinely uncomfortable moral uncertainty, but they wouldn't have necessitated the horrible damage to suspension of disbelief that results from the plot-whiplash at the start of ME3.

3) Worst. Ending. Ever.

Bioware have taken, over the last few days, to describing ME3's ending as "controversial". A more appropriate word would be "crap". A more detailed explanation would be "really, really crap".

I won't go into detail about what the ending is. I will just say that despite the potential for some minor varation (and a "bad end"), there is, in essence, just one ending. Singular. If you are expecting said ending to grant even the slightest degree of closure, then you will be disappointed.

The ending is very "undergraduate". It's something you'd expect to see in an essay in a freshman creative writing class at a middle-of-the-road university. In those circumstances, it would get a C plus - maybe a B minus. It thinks it is a lot cleverer than it is; like the writer has just discovered Clarke and Asimov and is convinced that he can lift a few of their ideas with nobody noticing, oblivious to the fact that god knows how many others have already done this over the years. Gabe at Penny Arcade has posted a spirited defence of it. I like Penny Arcade a lot - but I note that Gabe is the guy who doesn't do the writing and whose posts occasionally tend (and god, I'm being so harsh here that it is almost painful to write this - I really am a big Penny Arcade fan) to reveal a fairly deep rooted sense of intellectual inferiority.

Let me put it this way - if you are the kind of person who reads or watches something you don't really like, but spend a lot of time worrying that you're missing something and everybody is about to start laughing at you - then you will probably feel compelled to defend the ME3 ending. Just so that you can make it clear that you didn't miss the point - that you got it. That you're smart.

The rest of us recognise crap writing and a cop-out ending when we see one. This isn't intellectual - it's fake, faux, phoney (pick your preferred term).

The problem is that one of the biggest assets of the earlier ME games was the sense of potential they carried. They gave the impression of telling part of a story which was hurtling towards some colossal, epic climax. But it's not. We know now that it ends in a huge great tide of bathos. When ME3 was about to be released, my plan was to play it through, using a Shepard I'd imported from my ME1 and ME2 playthroughs from some time ago - then go back to the start and begin again with an entirely fresh character, running through all three games back-to-back. I won't be doing that now. The earlier games are tainted by the failures of ME3's ending. I know that whatever choices my character might make along the way, we'll still end up with a near-identical ending.

It's not as if Bioware don't know how to end games. ME1 and ME2 took a slightly different approach to ending choices, but both of them were perfectly respectable. All ME3 needed to do was give a few (3 or so) diverging endings and then show some of the consequences of them. Bioware couldn't even deliver that.

In conclusion

Mass Effect 3 is not an outright bad game. If I were to sit down and review it, I'd probably come out with a score of 6 or 7 out of 10. There are a few moments of genuine brilliance in there. But as a conclusion to what had been an epic space opera, it is a failure.

There's a campaign to get Bioware to change the ending. I don't see the point. I've finished Mass Effect 3. It has the ending that Bioware chose to gave it. That's the ending now, for better or worse. At some point in the development process, some person or people at Bioware looked at the options for endings, pointed at the one they went with and said "we want that one". I see no reason to believe why forcing them to revisit that decision would make things any better.

When Neon Genesis Evangelion went out with its infamous episodes 25 and 26, there was a huge campaign for a "proper ending". In the case of NGE, the TV series's ending was driven by budgetary concerns (they'd run out of money) and mental health issues on the part of the director - neither of which considerations applied to Bioware. Regardless, Hideaki Anno's response to this campaign was End of Evangelion - perhaps the most epic example of fanbase-trolling in the history of fiction. While sumptuously animated, it presented an ending which was even more confusing and contradictory than the original. I've no idea how the currently running movie series will end - but if I were a betting man, I would lay money Hideaki Anno spending a lot of time thinking how he can come up with an even more nonsensical ending for the fourth and final movie.

So let's accept that ME3 has the ending it does. We don't have the right to demand that the artist changes his work. But we do have the right to consider how we spend our money in the future.

Bioware games have always been guaranteed day-one purchases for me - ever since Baldur's Gate 2. When Jade Empire was released, I had just moved to London, just started a new job and was living on a shoestring budget. In the two weeks before Jade Empire hit the shelves, I lived on supermarket discount-brand pot noodle clones. I got stomach cramps and strange blotches on my skin - but by launch day, I'd put aside the money I needed to buy it and I loved the game. Bioware never disappointed.

That changed last year, with Dragon Age 2; the first turkey to have come out of the company. But every company stumbles from time to time and one underwhelming game does not make a pattern. Unfortunately, following ME3, my trust in Bioware is more seriously dented. Moreover, the ecstatic critical reception the game has receiced (which is far out of alignment with the fan reception) has made me even more cynical about "proper" reviews. For Bioware's next title, I'll be waiting for both reviews and community reaction before I make a purchase - even though I'm pretty much rolling in disposable income these days.

"I'm not afraid of dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens." -- Woody Allen