Review: Torchlight (PC)

Atmosphere:  B.  Smooth and appealing graphics and sound.  Not wholly original in many ways, but well done.

Intelligence:  B+.  Overall structure and interface are vastly improved over Diablo II (the obvious forefather).

Involvement:  B.  Short, highly addictive and only slightly annoying.  No crashes over hours of play.

What will annoy you:

Treasure hunting.  This is definitely one of those Platemail-and-a-bag-of-treasure-under-every-rock kind of games.  Personally I can’t stand this and it’s one thing I hated about Diablo II (which must be directly compared, as the game is clearly selling to that crowd).  It really takes the joy out of finding important items when magical ones are lying around all over the place.  Why would I want to imagine a reality where I’ll spend half of my time finding, sorting, identifying, and selling trinkets?

Bosses.  Diablo II made it very clear when you were about to face a quest boss, both in location or circumstance, and also graphically or musically.  This game basically leaves it up to you to figure out when you’re fighting a boss.  Many of them really don’t look different at all from other large enemies wandering around.

Targeting.  As with Diablo II, it can be difficult to have your hero attack an enemy instead of run past them (or run up to them when trying to attack at range).  It really seems more difficult than it needs to be.  This also includes problems with overlap, such as large doors, treasure items, and enemies all covering the same space, and often preventing you from getting the result you desire.

Character model.  While three isn’t bad, it would have been great to see more control over your statistics.  These are permanent features of your avatar, so why not fill them out instead of adding more item management to the game?

Price.  $19.99 on Steam.  I’m on the fence over this.  The game is high quality but just doesn’t quite have the “feel” of a game that should command more than $10 for a download.  It is only 10-20 hours of gameplay depending on your style, and the storyline is not as compelling as the environment, so I don’t expect a lot of replay value.

Living in Chaos? Nerp.

Just in case you ever hear this word, you’ll know that I coined it. It’s my empirical recomposition of the twitting/texting acronym for “no problem” and means the same thing. It’s no less ridiculous, but language, like all things, changes and grows.  Let the words change themselves.

Attempting to maintain a perfect form is stagnating and protectionist.  Life is liquid and things can only be maintained in a liquid state.  Government can operate by the same standards, but its structure is different from one day to the next.  A language is constantly evolving to suit the need of speakers (assuming of course, it is still spoken).

We live in a chaos system, full of infinitely many possibilities of infinitesimal probability.  That’s a fun sentence, isn’t it…  Better to say such a system contains an infinite number of things that could change, and each one of them is changing from moment to moment, but only so slightly as to be unnoticeable.  Change becomes evident only over time and over large spaces; you can see a car moving down a street, but you cannot see the interactions of the trillions of molecules it comprises, or how fast it can move in 0.000000003384 milliseconds.  The smaller the scale of change whether in time or space, the more impossible control becomes.  The smaller the time used to measure, the less evident motion exists; the smaller the physical scale used to measure, the harder an object is to locate.  This is basically the Uncertainty Principle in layman’s terms.

So, of all the interactions in the world that allow me to say the word “nerp”, most of them work at a given time, but not all.  I can’t expect every molecule in my brain and throat and in the air to be cooperative at any given time.  I can however, expect that most of them will cooperate, and that is enough to get the job done.  Once in a while enough will fail that I will be unable to perform the task with minimal effectiveness to really be considered “talking”.  Once in an aeon perhaps, all those molecules will align perfectly and I will say the word perfectly (curiously I wonder if anyone would even notice).

What I mean to convey here, is that control can be exerted only on a general level, and should perform mainly as a loose guideline.  It is a prospect of diminishing returns, where less is gained proportionally as more effort is exerted, like a long-distance runner training to break a world record by a fraction of a second.  I could train for a year solid and possibly run a mile 50% faster than I currently do, but then my gains will decrease and I will need to train harder to make progress.

To paraphrase the author Steinbeck, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.  Von Moltke’s famous statement comes to mind also: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”.  This is wisdom we should all retain in our daily lives.  No attempt to control a situation will have 100% of the desired consequences 100% of the time.  It is up to us to evaluate the extent of the influence we are trying to have and assess its probability of majority success.

Failure on some level is a guarantee in every endeavor, so learn to live with it.  Give up the ghost and never let fear be your master.

Favorite PC games of all time

I’ve always loved games with a great atmosphere and intelligent writing.  The more immersive the better, and if it also has a great interface (that didn’t annoy me completely) and gameplay, I’ll never forget my experience with it.  The great thing for you is, many of these games can be found freely on the web as abandonware.  I urge you not to underestimate any of these greats.  To this day, I could pick up and play any one of them.

Counting down to number 1 (that being the best)…

Multi-Player:

10. Starcraft

9. Rainbow Six

8. Shogun: Total War

7. Conquest: Frontier Wars

6. Total Annihilation

5. Viet Cong

4. Dawn of War

3. Ghost Recon

2. Unreal Tournament (with my custom voice packs and skins)

1. Serious Sam: Second Encounter

Single Player:

20. Commandos 2

19. Darwinia

18. Master of Orion

17. Warcraft 3

16. Majesty

15. Tron 2.0

14. Final Liberation

13. Planescape: Torment

12. Mechcommander

11. Axis & Allies (1998 and 2006)

10. The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

9. Bionic Commando: Rearmed

8. Dark Omen (best interface EVER)

7. Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate

6. Master of Magic

5. Space Hulk (1993)

4. Outwars

3. Homeworld

2. X-com

1. Fallout 2

Honorable mentions:

Postal (1997), for intensely satisfying my anger issues.  The sequel was too malevolent for me to be interested but the first game felt very direct and focused on anger at stupid people, of which I had a lot.

Dune 2 (1991), for bringing me into computer games, and being just about the best $40 I ever spent.  It doesn’t make this list because it just isn’t playable compared to newer games anymore.  Head over to Dune 2: The Golden Path to find the remake I am developing.

On File and Music “Sharing”

(Note: if at any point in this article I allude to having engaged in illegal activity, it is both purely hypothetical and a dirty lie)

I have to admit that at one time, I hid behind the rationalization that sharing files and songs didn’t hurt anyone, as long as I wouldn’t have paid money for them in the first place.  I thought myself very smart in this observation.  But, there are many fine lines here.

Let me announce that I am fully aware of the disparity between a typical supply-demand marketplace and the way digital media works.  It is true that the physical act of making a copy of software costs only a negligible amount of money.  However, it is simply false and shortsighted to extrapolate from this that no damage is done in the process.

I knew what I was doing when I “copied” software.  I was having financial problems, wouldn’t be in a position to make a purchase for quite some time, and I wanted some things to make my life a bit better.  So, I let my selfishness get the better of me and I “found” some software that did indeed improve the quality of my idle time incrementally.  I allowed myself to be convinced that this situation in total could cause no harm to the companies responsible for producing the works. I could forgive myself for these acts now, especially as I have gone back and purchased (or made plans to purchase) most of the software I “evaluated”.  But that’s really a further rationalization, just another trick to avoid thinking deeper.  So here are some deeper thoughts on the issue.

First of all, I may be paying for software now, but I didn’t pay for it when it was first released.  That meant companies who devoted thousands of hours of productive time and paying salaries and licenses and all those costs of doing business didn’t get what they expected when they expected it.  This is a subtle point:  it’s the expectations that I am most concerned with here, because without being able to expect people to legally pay for what you produce, you will most likely not be fully motivated to produce the finest product available and release it to the market.

Now, there may be those of you who are altruistic or otherwise a member of the “free culture movement” and are willing to spend five years of your own time to produce something worth selling and then give it away for nothing.  If that is your wish, feel free to do so, as long as you do not infringe on the right of others to make a profit.  But, I will maintain the argument that a group of similar people can be motivated to do the same thing more efficiently, productively and effectively by giving them deadlines and promise of living a better life.

Such groups will form larger groups to manage themselves and the work they do better, and before anyone knows it, they will be a “big corporation”.  Any one of us could be part or owner of such a corporation; all you need is the opportunity and you will soon find that you need the same basic things as every other company in the world, and will be not only compelled but hoping to grow as large as next larger corporation in your industry.

That is the nature of the effects of competition in the marketplace; products get better over time and companies get bigger as projects get more ambitious.  That is why free markets improve quality of offerings at a fantastic pace.  Our own system here in the US is arguably the most successful example of this fact in the world.

So, when I think of a corporation, I don’t think of a machine.  I think of a group of people, which does tend to act in ways distinctly different than a single person.  Nevertheless though, a group of people is still just people, and their actions are based on the sum total of all the desires each person has been able or willing to express inside that group, with a more limited sense of liability.  They are people at the heart and it’s only logical to accept that any of us would act similarly in their respective shoes.

But I digress.  So how much did I actually “hurt” the makers of certain software?  First, I paid them late if I paid them at all.  Second, I most likely did not pay what was considered full price due to the length of time since release.  Third, I may have proliferated the idea that my actions were appropriate, which though harmless they might have been, could still be interpreted differently or abused in concept.  Ultimately then, I did them harm by affecting the original investment they made under a reasonable expectation of profit based on the total number of possible buyers.  It does not matter whether I am in bad times or not; the harm is still done to them.  If a recession hits (again) and half of their expected buyers become thieves after the product was completed, the company stands to be in dire straights.

The simple fact is, we live in a world of “haves” and “have-nots”.  Some can afford to buy food and some cannot; which class one falls in is determined only slightly less by luck than by effort.  If someone says an item is a product and it has a cost of money, then that is that item’s value to that person.  Likewise with an entire market: if virtually the entire world says an item costs $10, then that item is worth $10 universally as far as you are concerned.  If you cannot afford it, you will need to look to charity.  Even basic needs like food and medicine require a trade in value of some sort.  It doesn’t matter what you want or how badly you need something; if you cannot make the trade in value, you go without, and if you take the item regardless, you are stealing.  It would be wonderful if software companies could offer charitable copies of their software to the needy, but management of such a process is not feasible except on a large scale (as with Microsoft offering less expensive versions of software to developing countries).

So I stole.  The honorably way to have stolen, if it can be said to exist, would have been to admit I was stealing, and make every effort to repay the lost value as soon as possible, while trying to limit anyone else’s knowledge of the act in order to minimize the damage.  Not ideal for anyone, but that would have been most appropriate, if I was determined to go forward with it.  I regret not having been diligent enough to do this at least.

It can be said I have new perspective now after having created several pieces of software on my own, both for personal and professional reasons.  I suppose it would be difficult for anyone who has not created in an art medium to understand what it is like, but everyone should be able to relate to the idea that no one wants to be forgotten; we all want some form of credit, and it so happens that most people in the world happily translate “credit” to mean “money”.

I realize there are many cases where free software has been produced and has been quite good.  In fact I can immediately think of two types of software that have largely been superceded by superior open-source or free alternatives: CD/DVD authoring software and compression software (Zip files).  However, in each case, these alternatives were developed after years of refinement and development in the original product, compounded by the reality that each year makes software development more accessible and efficient.  No matter how you look at it, profiteering organizations paved the way in sweat and blood by using aggressive business and meritocracy.  They have a shared goal that motivates them very strongly, and it is these goals that create the magnetism that forms companies.  Without the attraction of group benefit, any alliance deteriorates.

What would happen to the economy if everyone spent a great deal of time producing something for free and gave it away freely?  I can tell you easily that it would be a disaster.  Potential working hours would decrease, fewer taxes would be collected, and quality of product would universally suffer due to lack of strong competition.  Finding a job or work that pays you enough to stay alive would eventually become impossible, because more companies would lose all potential for profit and would disintegrate.  The poor would become more destitute as their skills would be relegated from minimum-wage to wage-less.  Ironically enough, this would hamper free trade with other countries and would thus have negative effects on the sharing of culture.  This is just a demonstration of a larger rule in economics: if no money changes hands, everyone loses.  GDP goes down and everything snowballs from there.  This is why we stimulate our economy in times of recession.

So friend, I leave you with some final considerations that should keep you thinking for a while.  How exactly is making a pirated copy harmless?  How can any group, clan, corporation, sect, government, or any form of organization survive without a shared goal of reward?  Why would you ever think it was a good thing not to charge money for your efforts?

Greed, like many other attractive and simplistic urges, can be abused and can wreck families.  But, this is not sufficient to make it a source of evil.  The truth is, you are doing all of us a favor when you ask for money for your work.  Get out there and make something great to sell us, and we’ll be happy to buy it.