New stuff

Last Edited – March 15, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Uncategorized

I will be putting up some new stuff soon. For the maybe 3 of you following: I will be posting reviews of Mass Effect 2 and Assassin’s Creed II since I finished both over spring break, and I will also be posting my final work from my 3D animation class sometime soon. Keep your eyes out for new stuff.

Mass Effect Review

Last Edited – March 1, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Gaming, Review

“So what is this with you reviewing old games?”, I hear you cry (not really, I am just making that up). Well, I am a college student, so I do have time to play games, but I am also somewhat short on cash, so I cannot always get new games, so I get older ones cheap. I got Mass Effect earlier this week, and it was very good. Good enough for me to play all the way through in five days. I looked in to getting Mass Effect back when it originally came out for the PC, but I am not a huge RPG gamer, so I decided to get something else instead. I picked it up since it was pretty cheap, and I have heard really good things about it from people I know.

Splash screen for the PC version of Mass Effect

Mass Effect is an RPG by the EA subsidiary, BioWare. BioWare has made a few other big RPGs, namely Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, another game I have heard good things about, but have not played. As I said, I am usually not an RPG person, liking my fast paced first person shooters and other more action based games. The only real RPGs I have really played up until now have been 2D handheld games like the Golden Sun series for the GameBoy.

Mass Effect really live up the the expectations I had for its story and gameplay. RPGs really ride on their story, and Mass Effect’s writers really came through with an intriguing and immersive story and universe to play in. You play Commander _______ Shepard (you get to pick your first name), a human officer in the Alliance Fleet. Humanity has recently bounded on to the Galactic scene, and is angling for a position on the Galactic Council, currently composed of three of the oldest races in the galaxy. The plot revolves around an ancient evil, and a cycle of genocide and destruction that is your destiny to break. I won’t go in too deep to avoid spoilers, but the story will keep you coming back to see what happens next, and wait twists and turns await along the way.

Going along with the story is the conversation options that BioWare has integrated into driving it forward. Like many newer games, Mass Effect has a moral choice system, allowing you to make decisions on a Paragon / Renegade scale, where good actions get you paragon points, and selfish or “bad” actions give you renegade points. This affects interactions with NPCs, but not so much the story as a whole, which was somewhat disappointing. My first playthrough I played as a paragon, and I am planning do to a renegade character the next time I play. BioWare’s choice system is also intersting since it is one of the few that allows for a sliding scale of how good or evil your character is. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really affect the main plot very much, only your interactions with NPCs. I hope more is put on this in ME2, which I plan to play in the next couple months.

The one big complaint I have about Mass Effect is that the inventory system is not very well designed. It is great that I have 150 item slots, and I only ran close to that cap twice, but they are poorly organized. Each item has a name and a level, but they are shown to you in the order you picked them up, rather than by level or by name, and this cannot be changed. Also, the purchasing system is great, but again, no sorting is really done on your options so it can be a task just to buy new equipment from a merchant.

In all, Mass Effect easily makes it in to my top ten games, possibly even my top 5, and is an excellent game, even for those who are used to faster paced games. It takes a little getting used to, but the pacing is well worth the excellent story and you eventually get very immersed in the game and want to continue playing to see where it goes.

Graphics Tablets and Tablet PCs

Last Edited – February 20, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Graphic Design, Technology

As I mentioned in my post on Apple’s new iPad, I was hoping that it would be more like a tablet PC or slate computer rather than an oversized iPhone. I was disappointed that it didn’t come with a tablet pen, partly because it would have been super awesome to use the iPad as a graphics tablet similar to the Wacom Cintiq. If you want my full opinion on the iPad you can read that post here. This post will be more about graphics tablets and tablet PCs where pen input is key.

I have been using tablet PCs for the last 4 years, and I have been very impressed with how versatile they are and how useful they can be. In high school, my class had tablets for three years, and I was one of only a few to heavily use the tablet features. I did my math homework on my computer, I took all my notes in ink, but I didn’t really use it very much for any graphic design or other artistic work. I decided that I like the tablet PC features enough to get my own tablet for college, and it has proven to be an excellent investment. In high school, we used the HP TC4200 and TC4400 business class tablets, and I now have a Lenovo ThinkPad X61 Tablet which is even better.

The Intuos4 Series tablets from Wacom

The main draw of tablet PCs is that you have a pen, sometimes called a stylus, which you can use to draw right on the screen in digital ink, or use as a mouse and keyboard with an on-screen input panel. Tablet PCs are in use in many industries from healthcare to education to construction to engineering to art. Tablets are a very versatile tool and very natural and intuitive to work with. Writing on a computer screen is no different than writing with a normal pen and paper, which makes it easy to transition between the two. Using the pen as a mouse is also very easy since you simply point it at where you want the cursor, and it moves the cursor accordingly.

For professional artists and designers, one of the downsides to tablet PCs as opposed to a professional graphics tablet is the precision of the pen. For example, many tablet PCs have precision in the pen at 1000 lines per inch (lpi), whereas the new Intuos4 series of graphics tablets from Wacom have over 5000 lpi of precision to work with. Tablet PCs also tend to be smaller and more compact for portability, around 12-13 inches diagonal, and many designers use very large tablets with an active area diagonal of 17-22 inches. However, tablet PCs provide a key feature many traditional graphics tablets don’t: the ability to see what you are doing underneath the pen. The Intuos series of tablets give you great precision, but it takes much more time to get used to drawing where the image appears elsewhere. Wacom’s Cintiq series of tablets do provide this feature of integrating the display, but are very costly at $1000 for the 12″ model and $2000 for the 21″ model. I would love to have a Cintiq, but I will give up the extra precision for a tablet PC which gives me the same features plus being a full computer.

Tablet PCs do tend to be more expensive than other laptop options, but recently the prices have been dropping significantly. Tablets are becoming more competitive with the small laptop crowd, rather than the desktop replacement variety mainly because they are priced competitively, but don’t have the power to really replace a desktop machine. Most tablets don’t have good graphics, simply using a low-end integrated type graphics chipset, but a few have gone with higher end chipsets to support better graphics. Tablet PCs also tend to have slower processors and memory, so running multiple huge programs on them at the same time can slow it down. This isn’t necessarily a problem for all tablets though. My tablet has a lot more power than most, but only struggles when I try to run more than 3 Adobe products at once (Acrobat Pro, Photoshop, Illustrator) alongside Outlook and whatever music I happen to be playing.

The Dell Latitude XT Tablet PC

If you are in the market for a new laptop, I would highly recommend some kind of tablet PC, but look into the business class models like the X61 or Dell Latitude XT series. They will cost a bit more, but they are worth the extra durability and features. Many tablet PCs geared toward home users don’t have the longevity or durability of the business class machines, and break much more easily. If you are in the market for a graphics tablet for your desktop or workstation, you have a few options, mainly from Wacom. If you have the dough, go for the Cintiq series with the integrated display. They have the same precision as the Intuos3 series (about 3000 lpi), and you get the benefit of working on the image. If you sill want the professional level precision and features, go for the Intuos4 or an older Intuos3. They are a little harder to get used to, but are still awesome for graphic design and 3D modeling and animation. If you are on the budget end of the spectrum, the Wacom Bamboo series of tablets are great. They are small, portable, and the new ones even have multitouch input. I keep going on about Wacom because they dominate the industry, but there are other professional options out there at lower prices. VisTablet and a few other companies make products competing with both the Intuos and Cintiq series tablets, but I have not used their products.

Fractal Programs

Last Edited – February 12, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Personal, Programming, Technology

So in the last couple days, I have gone off on a programming binge and spent close to 20 hours working on personal projects. Those projects happen to be ones I have picked at every so often regarding fractals. I first rebuilt some of my console (command line) tools for fractal generation, then decided to provide a full-fledged graphical interface for creating them.

Once that was done, I moved on to a relate project where a user could pan, zoom, and move through different fractals, and save any of the views along the way. A friend and I built one which worked back in high school but it was lost somewhere in between, and so I started from scratch. I took the framework from my console and other graphic applications and turned it into a simple fractal explorer.

All these programs target the new .NET 4 platform (Windows only, sorry) which is still technically in Beta. The reason I targeted .NET 4 was because it adds native support for parallelization. This is really nice for work with fractals since they are processor intensive, and parallelization allows for more thorough use of your processor if you have multiple cores.

I will be making all these applications and their source public, so anyone who wants to can download them, change them, and play with them. Until .NET 4 is officially released, they will lightly supported beta versions, and once .NET 4 launches, I will support them through some kind of other platform.

Until I get the apps up (I am still doing testing to make sure they won’t utterly break) have fun over on my Fractals page!

3D Animation

Last Edited – February 7, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Personal, Technology

So this term I am taking AR2001 – The Art of Animation. I thought we would start with simple 2-d animation, creating GIFs and such, but instead the first day of class we are doing full-blown Maya animation. Autodesk Maya is the leading contender in the 3D animation market. Pixar uses it, Dreamworks uses it, and many other animation studios use it for their work. It is renowned for the photorealistic images you can create with it. It is also one of the buggiest pieces of software I have ever used.

It seems to react differently every time I use it. Sometimes it works just fine until I try to combine two polygons, when it just does it wrong and crashes. Other times I have to restart it withing 5 minutes of working because it is behaving wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I am coming to love it for a lot of reasons, but it could be cleaned up and made to run better. It is really awesome that I can create a ploygonal model, then bind it to a skeleton and make the skeleton react the way I want in under ten minutes. It is also really cool that you can add realistic fur and hair to objects simply by setting a couple sliders and brushing it on. I am having a blast in this class, but it is occupying a ton of my time.

I now have a greater appreciation for many of the animated films out there simply because I am seeing how much work goes into making animations work the way you want and still look good. Today, I spent 5 hours in the lab and got 20 seconds of animation for my time. I am working with simple skeletons and animating only one object. Professionals are spending hundreds of hours to get seconds of video, and that is just the animation, then you have to wait for the render. Granted, most big studios use a render farm, a cluster of computers where they send files to be rendered and a managing program splits it up so it takes less time, but rendering my 20 seconds of video at draft quality (320×240, 24fps, low quality shadows and lighting) still took 15 minutes. When I do my full render, it is going to take me several hours just to get output!

I am also thinking that I could get by doing 3D animation professionally, and so I may add it to my set of skills. It is fun to sit and jiggle the sliders back and forth, moving your creation around and watching it do what you have told it. Animating is a lot like programming, only it is way easier to see exactly where your time is going and what you get out of it. The satisfaction of getting my figure to move the way I wanted was the same as finishing a programming project and publishing it. It is a really great feeling to watch your character jump and dance around the stage you have created for it.

Psychonauts Review

Last Edited – February 1, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Gaming, Review

Preface: this is my first review of a game, and we’ll see how it goes. I play a lot of video games, and just want to put in my input on the whole thing. I have also done some game development work, so I may also comment on any particularly interesting programming things as well

Psychonauts is the first game by Double Fine Productions and was launched for the PC, Xbox, and PS2. The story revolves around Razputin, know as Raz, and his desire to become a Psychic agent or Psychonaut. In the opening cutscene, Raz is discovered when he sneaks into a summer camp for psychics and is discovered. He is allowed to stay only until his parents come to pick him up, and isn’t allowed to participate in any training. When Coach Oleander allows Raz to complete Basic Braining, Raz is allowed to participate and uncovers a heinous scheme to take over the world.

Each level is based on the mind of a different character, with the environments varying from a battlefield, to a party, to a theater stage. Great care was taken in making each level unique, with each having a different quirk to game play and new challenges and obstacles. In one level, you help a man play a board game with his mental image of Napoleon Bonaparte to help him regain his sanity while in another, you have to impersonate government spies to locate the Milkman. Double Fine did an excellent job mixing up themes and challenges throughout the game. I was hooked as soon as I started each level, and each level was long enough, but not too long as to make it monotonous.

The first few levels are geared around getting Raz his merit badges, which allow him to use new psychic powers such as levitation, pyrokinesis, telekinesis, and invisibility. Let me tell you, it is endless fun setting squirrels on fire with your mind and beating up cats which can light you on fire. Each power has a use, and you will end up using all the skills, but more care could have been put into balancing them. I pretty much used the same 4 or 5 out of the 9 skills throughout the game. There would occasionally be a section where you had to use one particular skill, and sometimes you wouldn’t use it again for a few levels.

The story as a whole is very dark and not kid friendly despite the setting and art style. Some of the concepts they touch on are very heavy topics and very dark topics. The mood is lightened by some comedic lines, but this is certainly not a children’s game, which is also reflected in the T rating. I quite enjoyed the mix up to the usual game story elements of “bad guys over there, kill them,” and it was executed superbly.

Great care was also taken in creating each character and their relationships, giving them all a unique personality and quirks. Even the quick throwaway characters were given their own style and mannerisms.

Overall Psychonauts was an excellent game which drew me in with interesting graphics, gameplay, story, and all the the elements which make a game great. I finished it in less than 2 days, but spent 10 hours playing through. I didn’t spend as much time as I could collecting everything, but the story was too intriguing to let just sit around. I would highly recommend it as something to break up the usual games anyone plays.

Apple iPad – Revolutionary?

Last Edited – January 29, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Technology

I, like every other tech blogger out there will now put my two cents in on the new iPad. I have been loosely following the rumors, looking forward to a new device from Apple. I have always been a Windows PC kind of guy, sticking with my Zune and Vista, but I was intrigued with what Apple could do with their new tablet. My thoughts about what they would do stemmed from my experience with other tablet PCs. In high school, I used the HP TC4200/4400 for three years, and really liked the convertible tablet. I eventually got a Lenovo X61 tablet for myself for college, and I really like the touch features integrated into it. I figured Apple would go for something along the lines of the old HP TC1000, a slate type device with detachable keyboard and a stylus so you could still use pen input. The absence of a stylus on the new iPad was a disappointment, as well as not having USB ports.

The lack of a stylus really bothers me, because what I like most about my tablet is the ability to take notes on it, but still have them be hand written. I realize they were trying to keep the device thickness down, but why not offer a model with has a stylus? You are already offering 6 different versions, what’s one or two more? The stylus is a key part of the tablet PC market, so I don’t think that is what Apple was going for with the iPad.

Closer to the release speculation was that the new device, if it existed, was simply an over-sized iPhone / iPod touch, and it turns out they were correct. This is disappointing because the iPad could have been so much more. As I see it, it is more of a contender with the eBook market than with the tablet PC market. The Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble nook are certainly looking at some stiff competition; with cellular on the iPad to rival the kindle, and a full color screen to go against the nook Amazon and B&N are looking at the new contender. Unfortunately, since the new iPad doesn’t have an e-ink display, it will fall a little short in the eBook region. That’s ok though, since Steve has put it forward as a netbook replacement.

People I know who have netbooks bought them because they were cheap, light, and had excellent battery life. They are great for surfing the web, basic Flash video, and email. The iPad falls flat in a few of these areas. My friends with iPhones hate typing long messages on them, the iPad costs more than a gold-dipped diamond, and there is still no Flash support. This last one perplexes me; in three generations of iPhone, and ump-teen years working with Adobe, Apple hasn’t caught on to developing a Flash port for the iPhone despite the enormous demand for it. The new iPad doesn’t support Flash either, since it runs a modified version of the iPhone OS.

I honestly would have seriously thought about getting an iPad if it ran a stripped down version of Mac OS X, and that is significant coming from me. My stance is that most Apple products are overpriced, overhyped average computers, but before I saw that the iPad didn’t run Mac OS, I was really thinking about it. I have been looking at getting an eBook reader or netbook recently, and this would have fit the bill perfectly. Would it have been too hard to integrate the touch features into Mac OS? There is already support for tablets from Wacom, so it shouldn’t be that hard to port from the iPhone and Wacom to come up with a working system, This is speaking as a programmer who has worked on other cross-platform software; it would still be a giant pain in the ass, but not impossible for Apple to have done in a reasonable amount of time.

Finally, to Apple marketing: you usually come up with great names for things, even if they do infringe copyright, so iPad? Really? Really?? You could have done so much better. iPod has become synonymous with digital media player, iPhone with smartphone, and Apple was one of the first innovates of the Personal Computer way back in the day. I will reserve final judgement for when I get to play with one, but for now, I’ll keep looking into my Kindle or Eee PC.

New England Weather

Last Edited – January 25, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Outdoors, Personal

Ok, so I am from Colorado where we get some weird-ass weather. It regularly snows in June in the mountains, and I have personally seen every type of precipitation in the same day. I have been in days where it has gone from 70 degrees and sunny to snowing in twenty minutes. So what the hell is with rain in January? I thought New England was supposed to be wicked cold in the winter! It certainly was last year, so what is up with this? It should be cold, windy, and snowy at the end of January, not 50 degrees and raining. Also, it is supposed to go back to being wicked cold later this week! This just seems weirdly anomalous for somewhere that is supposed to have a fairly predictable climate. What the hell?

The Internets!

Last Edited – January 25, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Personal, Technology

Being in college, I will occasionally have free time to kill (HA!), and unsurprisingly, I spend quite a lot of that time on the internet. I read almost all of the icanhascheezburger picture blogs, and spend a lot of time surfing YouTube. I also watch quite a few sketch comedy groups like LoadingReadyRun, and of course Zero Punctuation. What is it that draws the current college generation toward these things? Most of my friends watch the same videos, and read the same blogs, albeit to a more or lesser extent.

Are today’s fads and trends similar to poodle skirts and rock’n’roll from the 50s? Are younger people more attracted to technology? I have a slight view bias on this since I attend a tech school where the entire population are self-described “geeks” or “nerds.” Even here, there are people involved in non-computer fields who are very internet savvy, and spend as much time as I do online. Is there something physically or psychologically different about the younger generations which draws them toward the internet and online interactions?

I have heard various theories on how younger generations are more “A.D.D.” and switch their attention between topics more frequently than older people. I have not seen the statistics on this, but I don’t think it is actually a rise in ADD, but a difference in how we think, based on the technology we had growing up. I think young people are predisposed to new technology, and that it isn’t just for what we had growing up. The tech changed so rapidly that we had to deal with new game consoles every few years, computer upgrades more frequently, and toys becoming more electronic every year. I think this allows for young people to adapt to new tech better, and use it as thoroughly as it can be used.

Of course, I am merely speculating, as I have no formal experience or training in psychology. Viewing it from the perspective of a twenty-something college student it seems interesting that each subsequent generation since the 70’s has been more tech-oriented, and it has been accelerating at a rate equal to that at which computers have been developing. I wonder if my generation will end up where our parents are with current technology when we have children of our own. Will I be calling my son weekly to have him fix my holographic mail?

Web Standards

Last Edited – January 20, 2010 by Randall Crock
Filed under: Graphic Design, Personal, Technology

Putting together a web site can be quite challenging, especially when you are trying to make everything work in as many browsers as you can think of. People are constantly complaining about Internet Explorer not supporting Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) properly, and I can’t understand why Microsoft doesn’t just develop the standards-based browser they keep claiming they have. Now, I used to be a real die-hard IE person; I loved the way bookmarks were handled, I didn’t really use any extensions, and I had no problems developing since I just ignored CSS and a lot of the other W3C standards in use now.

So long as you only use the simple style elements and keep everything in tables, IE is easy to work with, and renders everything the same way. As soon as you try to float things, or want to dynamically change the background of a cell, it starts doing weird things, and the really odd thing is that it does different things every time, and does different things on different computers. The biggest problem is getting IE to repeat the problem enough to fix it.

I did all the development for my site in Google Chrome, which I have moved to since it is is more stable than when it was first released, and everything just works perfectly with it. I didn’t even think about how Firefox or IE would handle it until the end, and as usual, IE had some problems rendering the tabs. Interestingly, Firefox also had some problems with the tabs, but a couple fixes in my CSS and it worked beautifully. IE however, was not as pleasant and I ended up having to make a unique stylesheet for it, which was made possible by Microsoft who added a neat feature called Dynamic Comments, where you can do some checking in comments and change the HTML depending on what conditions you set.

To summarize my rant better, Microsoft needs to get on the ball with the W3C standards, and move farther toward passing the Acid3 test. Even Firefox doesn’t get 100 percent, but IE9 (which is still in beta) is still only running in the low 30 percent range. For claiming to be a “standards based browser” IE is way behind the times as far as standards go. Is there a valid reason, or does holding 70% of the market share mean they can just sit back and let other people do more work to make their websites work with everyone?

Getting a little off topic, but in the same vein, I don’t understand why the EU is requiring Microsoft to stop packaging IE with copies of Windows sold in Europe, but not requiring Apple to stop selling Mac OS without Safari. Their basic argument is that Microsoft doesn’t give you to option of using another browser from the beginning, but to be honest, why should they? It’s called good business practice. It isn’t like you can’t get to and download Firefox and start using that. If the EU is telling Microsoft that they cannot package their products, they should be doing the same to everyone else to make the playing field more fair.

Anyway, I just like ranting about this stuff, though it may have no impact whatsoever on anything.

Acid3 Test – The newest test for W3C compliance in browsers.
W3C on Wikipedia – The organization responsible for web standards