Saturday, March 29, 2008

AOL & Compuserve

It occurred to me this morning that the Google universe has now become, by growth and stealthy usefulness, an ecosystem rather like AOL and Compuserve once viewed themselves.

AOL and Compuserve were gateways to online content. You connected to their servers, through their browser, and spent most of your time reading their content, providing eyeballs for their advertisers, and contributing to their forums (or email lists). Eventually both providers opened up access to more of that new fangled 'internet'-thingy... and gradually their own content whithered away, so that they're little more than search and portal services.

On the other hand, as we all know, Google started as a search engine with a friendly logo, (Rather remeniscent of the "Don't Panic!" of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) but has gradually grown to provide all sorts of services, and a portal homepage to boot.

Specifically it struck me that I use (in no particular order):
  • Google Mail
  • Google Search
  • Google Homepage
  • Google Reader (RSS feed reader)
  • Google Analytics
  • Google Documents
  • Google Checkout
  • Google Maps
  • Google Earth
  • Google Finance
  • Google Notebook
  • Google Images
  • YouTube
  • ... and ...
  • Blogger (did you know that?)
Check out this list for yourself... you might be surprised just how involved in your life Google has become.

I'm not sure at this point whether this is a good thing or not, mostly because it's never caused me any problem to be so entangled with Google, but that, in its own right, causes me anxiety ... what about resilience, and availability? And can I really trust the big cuddly, cool, fluffy corporation that is Google never to anything evil with my data?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Financial reasons

Something a little unusual for me: my boss sent me a link today to a blog from an analyst in the UK financial sector, and the content is actually interesting. Everyone is complaining about the so-called 'credit crunch'. That self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling prophecy that financial doom is going to cause another global recession.

Whilst Chris Skinner (the blogger in question) isn't actually saying the crisis isn't upon us, but he is at least writing about the real causes: machines being given too much unchecked freedom, people not recognising and managing risks, and the regulators being too divided and ignorant of their own markets to due a proper job.

I especially like the "young pups every 7-10 years" cycle in the second post, and the details of the Northern Rock situation (about half-way down the third post) - Northern Rock's business model was to be carrying over 3 times more debt (as client mortgages & similar) over the deposits of their clients. So for every £1 in the bank, there was £3.25 in debt! On top of that, they only had £1.5 billion in insurance, against that £90 billion debt! No wonder there were problems when they couldn't keep the wheels oiled with inter-bank loans.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Competing with 'free'

Dealing with the fact that music now fits into the category of 'infinite goods' is proving mentally challenging for many in the music publishing business. Not so Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame.

His recent album distribution plan has a number of options for the 'purchaser':

1. download the basic album for free
2. ...
3. various packages of extras and DRM-free file formats: small costs from $5 - $75.
4. ...
5. the exclusive limited edition (only 2,500 copies) primo version at $300 a pop.

Despite the fact that option 1 is widely executed, gross sales in the first week alone are $1.6 million.

Now that's what I call competing with free and still making a living!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Internet is not Especially Dangerous to Kids!

This news from Techdirt needs to be pushed out there as much as possible. All to often the Internet is portrayed as the most dangerous place for kids in the world. It simply isn't true because, well, kids just aren't as stupid and unaware of simple stranger-danger as the more nanny-ish of adults out there would like to think.

Is this a control issue? The adults don't understand what the kids are doing, so get all over-protective?

Come on parents, grow up, and learn to judge risk online like you do in your own lives, not just by using the standards of the circulation-whoring headline-grabbers in the old media industries (newspapers, magazines, television and radio, in case you're confused over whom I'm blaming).

Update: has this disclaimer on their site that also makes the point rather nicely.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Fairy Tale

Originally posted at GameBoomers:

What is it?
"Fairy Tale", or "Fairy Tale About Father Frost, Ivan and Nastya" to give it its complete title, is another point and click adventure from Eastern Europe. The developers, Bohemia Interactive Studio, are a Czech outfit, based in Prague. The eponymous Tale is inspired by Russian folklore, and focuses on the story of a young girl, Nastienka (Nastya), and a hero, Ivan.
The game is described by the publisher, Cenega, as being suitable for 'Any child able to switch on a computer' with parental assistance, but 'ideal for children aged 6 years'. This seems to be reasonably accurate. The game is not difficult to operate, nor overly complex in it's puzzles, but I'd be very impressed by a child of 6 who can play the entire game.
Because this game is aimed at people so much younger than me, I'll once more be asking Purple Bear (my 10-year old daughter) for some comments, in an effort to overcome the old fogey effect. Her comments are in bold italic text.

Is there a plot?
Yes. The Fairy Tale is the stories of Nastienka and Ivan. Nastienka is a young girl who has a new stepmother and stepsister to use and abuse her in classic fairy story ways. Ivan is a young hero, leaving home in search of a bride, learning humility along the way.
The two story threads are nicely interleaved; we begin with Nastya before switching to Ivan. They eventually meet, before diverging again to continue their stories. The player must help Nastya to overcome her overbearing stepmother, weak father, and annoying stepsister, and help Ivan learn some degree of humility - he's a particularly obnoxious character to begin with. I don't want to give away any more of the plot because it is about the only element in the game that is surprising. I will say, though, that Father Frost doesn't appear until very late in the game - in retrospect, his inclusion in the title is rather surprising!
I found the game fairly easy. The story was interesting and different from other games I've played. The game was not scary at all, and I think the story turned out right in the end.

How do you play?
When you start the game, you're dropped straight into the beginning of the story; a grandmother is telling a bedtime story to her grandchildren - this element returns from time to time in the game as a break between the four acts. Even to load an existing game, you have to hit the Escape key to get to the menus. The menus are simple - New, save and load, options, credits and exit - what need is there for more? Options are limited to subtitles, colour depth, special effects and sound volumes.
As I've already said, we're dealing with a point-n-click adventure. It is played in a full screen playing area, from the third person perspective, with the mouse only. There is an extensive inventory of objects to use to solve the puzzles in the game. Inventory items are changed by activities; some puzzles require the combination of items. Puzzles vary from knitting socks to extracting bears from fallen tree stumps, from defeating robbers to escaping a fiery dragon. The majority of puzzles are inventory based, but not exclusively.
The inventory is shown on a pop-down, translucent bar across the top of the screen. Most of the time, the inventory doesn't get in the way, but there were times it popped down when I didn't want to see it.
It was fun to play two different people at different times in the game.
I like the bits where Squeaky the Bat was talking and the words were upside down. The names of the characters were very unusual. But my favourite parts were Baba Yaga's dancing, and the .
Human Misery was my favourite character because she was so different from the other characters.

Notable Features
Unusually, in my experience, the manual for Fairy Tale is surprisingly informative! It is a slim affair - a mere 6 pages of information, plus credits and space for notes. However, once the author gets past the installation instructions and the detailed description of the user interface, there is a useful set of hints on adventure game playing strategy, for example, "Think 'game-like.' Improvise. You don't necessarily use all the items you find for their primary purpose. For example, a horseshoe can be used in various ways, such as throwing."
Now the game doesn't actually require you to throw a horseshoe, but if granny just gave an 8-year old child this game (it is suitable for 6 year olds, remember), and the parents have no adventure game experience, consider how useful strategy hints are going to be for all concerned! The same goes for the detailed description of the user interface.
Okay, I've covered some of the nicer features... now the downsides. The graphics and the voice acting.
I know we all say in those polls on the game factors, that the story is king, well that may well be the case, but why are we still dealing with animated games with characters that could have been drawn by a high-school student, rather than a professional artist - and if they weren't drawn by a professional artist, but by a programmer in his spare time, why didn't the developers hire a professional artist?
Now the worst factor: the voice acting. This was a real area of weakness. Most of the characters sounded like they'd been instructed to impart the opposite emotion into the lines than what was needed - or at best that any old reading of the lines would do! I only hope that the characters come over better in the original Czech. That's a do-over, guys - especially Nastya's stepmother.
There is also a key that Ivan has to retrieve early in his story, but there seemed to be bug around this as a couple of times through the game, we couldn't find the key, despite solving the relevant puzzle.
I think that the menus were quite simple to use. The key bug was the only really annoying bit.
The pictures were all quite flat, and even though they were quite colourful the game looked boring. If I could change anything, I'd change the graphics from 2D to 3D. .
I didn't need much help to play the game, except with the missing key problem and when I couldn't find the pub in the town.

Any other novelties?
The biggest novelty in this game is the use of Russian folklore as inspiration. How many times have we been to Atlantis, Egypt, a medieval land of fantasy, or Outer Space? Too many to count. But how often have we seen a game set in rural Eastern Europe? It doesn't sound an exciting prospect, but in the context of this story, it works well.
This game shows some promise. It has a novel (apart from the troublesome stepmother) story, given the current state of the art of adventure game writing. The interface is reasonably solid - though it did hang a few times. But, and this is a big but in my opinion, the game is severely let down by the voice acting. I feel it is especially important to get this right with games aimed at children because of the story telling aspect of the game.
The worst offence against gaming, however, was the dire execution of the voice acting. I know an evil stepmother is supposed to sound bad, but this one sounded like she'd had a stroke.
This is not really a keeper, for me. I would never replay it.
I'd say that some of most of the girls in my class would like the game, but not the boys. Even though I finished the game, I think it was a bit boring. I don't want to play it again.

Grade: C+

What do you need to play it?
Minimum Requirements
• Pentium(r) III 733 MHz or Athlon(tm) 733 MHz
• 32MB nVidia GeForce2 / ATI Radeon video card
• 256 MB RAM
• 400 MB Hard Drive
• CD-ROM or CD/DVD-ROM drive 8x
• Mouse
• DirectX certified sound card
• Windows 98/2000/XP with DirectX 8.1
Recommended Requirements
• Pentium(r) IV 1.5 GHz or Athlon(tm) 1.5 GHz
• 64 MB nVidia GeForce 4 / ATI Radeon 9600 PRO video card
• 512 MB RAM
• Sound card with 3D sound support
• Windows XP
(We used Win XP, AMD XP 2400+, 512 MB RAM, and ATI Radeon 9000 Pro 128 AGP)