Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Colonizing Planets (part 3)

Yet despite all the buzz about a colony on Mars, NASA is also very seriously considering a colony on, believe it or not, Venus! Before you scoff and declare that impossible, don't worry, NASA has thought this one through a bit. There are insanely harsh surface conditions on our neighboring planet--it's almost 860 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface with over 92 times Earth's sea level pressure, with an unbreathable atmosphere of CO2 and nitrogen, not to mention the corrosive clouds of sulfuric acid! NASA isn't actually considering a colony on the planet of Venus—that would be ludicrous—but instead, they are talking about a colony above the planet, floating above the clouds! The gravity above cloud level is only slightly lower than Earth's, and the atmospheric pressure is similar. Plus, the aerospace provides adequate protection against solar radiation. NASA has proposed designing floating airships that could later become more permanent floating cities. Venus has even been considered as a pre-Mars mission, to be used as “practice” for sustaining a colony beyond Earth. Venus is, after all, a little closer than Mars, 16.6 million kilometers closer, in fact! I'm still not sure 38 million kilometers should be considered “close to home,” however. If we need to practice colonization, how about we try the moon first, guys?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Colonizing Planets (part 2)

The Mars One colony mission was announced in May 2012, with the goal of sending humans to Mars in 2023. However, there is no plan for the these pioneers to return to Earth—they are meant to be permanent colonists. The colonists will be sent in groups of four, the first group with two men and two women, originating from different continents. Anyone over the age of 18 is a viable candidate. The response has been astounding—over 200,000 people have applied for the one-way trip to Mars! Several questions arise from all this: What would we gain from a colony on Mars? Like so many other (expensive) space endeavors, are we doing this just to say we did? And why are people so eager to die on Mars? Are they thrill seekers, or do they expect they will be honored as courageous pioneers and that they will make history? While all that may be the case, it often seems to be our nature to explore and try to test our endurance in harsh conditions. Without people willing to take these risks, it might be impossible to develop the technology and techniques necessary to support an off-world colony.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Colonizing Planets (part 1)

For many years now, NASA has been looking at other planets in our solar system for potential colonization. Why is the space organization so interested in this venture? We've never tried to colonize the moon, and it is the closest, most realistic endeavor considering the low cost when compared with the distance of Mars, for example. Yet NASA continues to eye planets like Mars and Venus (yes, Venus! More on that later this week) for setting up a human colony. The argument can be made that we will eventually deplete the resources of this planet, or that we might destroy ourselves someday in any number of ways, so starting a colony on another planet would serve as a way to preserve the human race. As astronomers are continually searching the cosmos for other earth-like planets, NASA's endeavor to colonize begins to make a little more sense—colonizing a planet in our own solar system might just be practice—preparation for the day we may actually discover another earth out there, just waiting for us!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Future of Privacy (part 5)

Though there has been some outrage and opposition to government and corporate information gathering practices, are we becoming too complacent with our right to privacy? Social media and other technologies have resulted in a gradual unraveling of our privacy, and we're collectively beginning to accept it as the “norm.” Government, corporations, and hackers alike have all been seizing upon the opportunity afforded to them to invade our privacy—we are far too open and trusting with technology these days. Computers, smart phones, game consoles, tablets, etc. are all programmed to jump on the nearest internet signal they can find, which means that anyone that wants your information has an open door to it. The current system isn't sustainable if we continue to place ourselves out in the open as targets for information gatherers. In Solar Echoes, I envision a future where the internet has become far less connected—many “intra-nets” of separated systems—all designed to protect the public against a powerful foe that uses digital information to subjugate and control. Perhaps we might eventually have to follow the same path?

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Future of Privacy (part 4)

If you're concerned about your privacy, what can you do? We all want to protect ourselves from hackers, so there are a few simple methods we can use to minimize problems, though keep in mind, these solutions are about as effective as car alarms—they might deter total amateurs, but they won't guarantee much beyond that. Expensive security products like McAfee or Norton are solid programs and are recommended if you don't mind constant updates and notifications. AVG Antivirus has a free product that is decent, and I'd also recommend a script blocker, like the free NoScript, which gives you the option to allow or forbid certain scripts from running with each webpage you visit. If you don't want your searches online to be in Google's archives, there are other alternatives. DuckDuckGo is a search engine that claims no records of your searches are kept. Other things you can do: regularly clear your browser's cookies and change your passwords, and never click any links or download any attachments from emails unless you trust the source. Even then, I've seen emails sent to me with odd links from family members who didn't even know their account had been hacked. Do your best to be careful, but there's no guarantee. The only surefire way to maintain privacy is to keep what you want private away from technology!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Future of Privacy (part 3)

While you may think that your online activity is private, Google is watching. With just about every site you visit, a script is running in the background called googleanalytics or googletagservices. It's a process similar to when you visit Amazon, look up Dr. Who DVD's, and then see suggestions from Amazon about other various Dr. Who items that you also might be interested in. Though this is nothing new (little programs called “cookies” that record this information, in addition to your login info, can be cleared manually or automatically, depending on your browser's security settings), are you comfortable with Google analyzing everywhere you visit online? I admit, I've sometimes been a little nervous about some of the online research for Solar Echoes that I've done, looking at info for various weapons and explosives so that I could accurately detail them in the game—after all, players play the game as “Union Guard” agents, which are sort of like interstellar CIA agents. It wouldn't surprise me if my online activity has been more closely looked at considering some of the searches I've done!

The Future of Privacy (part 2)

Not only are we at risk from rogue hackers, but our own government has been exposed by Edward Snowden—the NSA has been listening. The government required Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to hand over information on all telephone calls in its systems in the US. The communications of millions of US citizens were being collected indiscriminately, regardless of whether they were suspected of any wrong doing. Other private information, such as a government list of gun owners, was published in a New York newspaper—this database was legally obtained from the county clerks' offices through the Freedom of Information Act. Mysterious fake cell phone towers have been discovered across the country, intercepting calls all over the US. Whether the government or a private group is behind this, it is a safe bet that your phone conversations are not just between you and the other person on the line!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Future of Privacy (part 1)

Last year on Black Friday, shoppers innocently used their credit cards at Target, only to discover later that Target had been hacked and those credit card numbers were stolen. I was one of them. Thankfully, I managed to cancel my card before anyone used it, but others were not so lucky. From August through September this year, the same thing happened at Staples. Where can we shop safely these days with our credit cards? Must we begin to carry around wads of cash again? Our way of life is being frequently threatened by hackers. They steal our credit card numbers, they can get into our email, and they can destroy our computers. Security is not keeping up with this growing threat—for every security measure taken to protect against hackers, the hackers work tirelessly to thwart it. Prevention is almost always achieved in response to an incident, rarely in anticipation of one. What does the future hold for us?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Extending Our Existence (part 5)

Cloning is another avenue towards extending our existence. Already, the option to have your pet cloned exists, and people are paying to have it done. Although human cloning is still an ethical concern, it almost seems inevitable considering the current state of ethical decline in our societies. If these clones could be infused with our digital AI alter-egos, then we really might be able to essentially “live forever.” In Solar Echoes, cloning is our answer to character death, with DNA and “neural mapping” samples providing the information necessary to replicate a deceased character. However, with each successive clone (copies made from copies), the clone begins to degenerate. Abilities and skills may be lost or altered, and eventually, entirely new personalities will take form. By the 9th generation of cloning your character, you will be certifiably insane, and no further cloning is permitted. Though it may seem like your character has “9 lives,” it is highly recommended that you avoid death to avoid the cumulative cloning penalties!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Extending Our Existence (part 4)

It is not a stretch to imagine what the next step might be to having left an AI representation of ourselves behind. Loved ones, or possibly even someone new that meets our digital-self online, may become so involved with the AI that they look to a physical manifestation of the AI. Most businesses are built around serving a popular need, and if such a need is expressed, we may one day see robots that bear our digital personalities, performing with the AI we originally seeded with our information. A new generation of robotic avatars may come into existence, where loved ones are now back, “in the flesh.” What rights will we afford these robotic mirrors of our former selves? Humanity will most certainly one day have to decide where AI fits within our society, especially considering that the singularity (the moment when computer AI exceeds collective human intelligence) is predicted to occur well within the next 50 years, with some saying it may happen as early as 2027.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Extending Our Existence (part 3)

If you've seen the movie “Her,” the implications of a digital version of yourself start to become slightly clearer. In the movie (no spoilers—this is just from the plot description of the movie) a man falls in love with his computer's AI. Now imagine what would happen if we left a digital version of ourselves behind that acted just like us? Not only would it be difficult for loved ones to move on from their grief, but some might be so attached that they go to extremes. Marriage to computer AI might sound ridiculous now, but feelings run deep and it is likely that some may move this direction. In the movie “Strange Days,” a “drug dealer” sold digital experiences—the memories of others. The drug dealer himself was incredibly addicted to his own product, spending hours every day replaying memories of a former girlfriend. With technology like this, will we ever be able to heal and move on, or will we become prisoners of our past?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Extending Our Existence (part 2)

If you decide to sign up at, the system aggregates digital data that you have spread across the internet about yourself through sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and even through your emails, location history, and photos. All of this data will then be coalesced into an artificial intelligence, which results in a digital version of your personality. This AI personality will be able to interact with and offer information and advice to your family and friends, after you've passed away. The AI personality will use an online avatar, designed to emulate your looks and replicate your personality. Imagine, a digital version of yourself on the internet that looks and acts just like you! (Am I the only one that is totally creeped out by this?)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Extending Our Existence (part 1)

Medicine has advanced to prolong our life expectancies, but physical immortality seems something of fantasy more than science fiction. It is still very unrealistic to hope that, in our lifetimes, a discovery will be made that would allow us to live hundreds of years long. Faced with this knowledge, many people are looking to leave something of themselves behind that might live on long after they are gone. A new tech company is currently working on creating a 3D “digital alter ego” of yourself who will talk to your family and friends long after you've died. It seems that the concept has won quite a crowd because so far, over 25,000 people have signed up on the website,, hoping to immortalize themselves.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Discovering Alien Life in an Unexpected Form (part 5)

The concept of aliens uploading their consciousness to a computer isn't a new one. In fact, back when we wrote Solar Echoes from 2010 to 2012, I designed one of the game's main villains, and they have done just that. Without divulging too much about this terrifying foe (you can read more in the Mission Controller's Guide if you'd like—we prefer to let players be surprised as they discover information about them in the game), suffice it to say that they are a race of machines. The aliens saw the benefits of existing in a digital form and the entire race has been uploaded. The history surrounding this event is something for players to discover, as are the aliens' methods and goals. If we consider the path that we are already on with technology these days, it is easy to conclude that we may one day extend our lives by integrating ourselves with computers and robotics. If there is an advanced alien civilization out there in space somewhere, it is even more likely that they have already done so!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Discovering Alien Life in an Unexpected Form (part 4)

One of the advantages an alien race might have integrating their minds with computers is that a machine is much more durable than a biological form. Space travel is currently limited by distance, as we have not achieved the speeds to make travel to other galaxies possible within someone's lifetime. Suspended animation is currently being considered for people to make the long journey more plausible. However, if an alien race was essentially uploaded as a computer intelligence into a machine, the physical limitations of a biological body no longer need to be considered. This would be an advantage not only for space travel, but for surviving harsh conditions on a planet that may be otherwise uninhabitable due to pollution or natural causes. Perhaps the UFO's that people claim to have sighted around the world are not piloted by biological aliens at all, but by an alien artificial intelligence. If that is the case, calling it “artificial” doesn't quite seem appropriate!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Discovering Alien Life in an Unexpected Form (part 3)

Technology has been progressing forward at tremendous speed over the last 50 years. We have moved from radios to thinking machines in this short time, so consider where we might be in another 50 years! If this trend is representative of the path an advanced alien race might follow, then it is safe for us to assume that alien culture may have already developed into a non-biological state, or at the very least, into something that could be considered  a bio-machine. The limitations of our brains are their size and vulnerability—our brain is limited by the size of our skull, but a computer can be the size of a city or an entire world. It may be a logical step to upload our consciousness to a computer to bypass the detriments and limitations of an aging physical body.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Discovering Alien Life in an Unexpected Form (part 2)

Perhaps we are already moving down the same path with our technology, as we are developing advanced Artificial Intelligence to handle many aspects of our lives. We have been integrating our daily lives with computer usage and the internet so much that it is not a stretch to imagine humanity looking for a quicker, and more permanent, way to connect with an information and communication network. Advanced robotics are constantly in stages of development, and we've not only seen robotic prosthetic arms and legs in use, but robotic exo-suits are emerging as attractive tools for a variety of jobs and for the military. Silicon is faster than the human brain, and research has been proving that neuro-prosthetics can make us smarter. Consider all this when looking to the future—it is likely that humanity may someday become “more machine than man.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

Discovering Alien Life in an Unexpected Form (part 1)

It has been suggested that we are most likely to discover alien life by finding either microbes in our solar system, signals from an alien intelligence, or organisms in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. The most profound impact would likely be discovering evidence of an alien intelligence, but our current expectations might not be aligned with how advanced that intelligence might be. We often assume things based on what we are familiar with, but consider how the human race is currently advancing with technology. Some speculate that we may soon wire our brains to the internet, and many are predicting that Artificial Intelligence might surpass our own within the next fifty years. A new theory about discovering alien life suggests that we'll find something far different from little green men--we may discover aliens have advanced themselves to exist as a form of artificial intelligence.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Space Opera and Science-Fiction (part 5)

So which do you prefer? Space Opera, Hard sci-fi, or a mixture of both? Hard sci-fi can fall into the trap of becoming too realistic, where much of the time is spent detailing things in order to give them realistic legitimacy. A similar problem in Space Opera is the tendency to spend time explaining things to justify the absurdities. However, with Space Opera, it is easier to let things go and let the imagination run wild, as long as a fair level of consistency is maintained throughout. Hard sci-fi is less forgiving, for fans of the genre may have extreme difficulty getting past even a small inconsistency. While we tried to maintain realistic consistency in some areas of Solar Echoes (weapon damage, wounds penalties from suffered damage, armor, vehicle and robot degradation when damaged, etc.) we also took a few liberties in other areas that we felt balanced the game more towards fun (healing nanites can remove some wound penalties, cloning can give your character another chance if your character dies, etc.) In the end, we wanted Solar Echoes to feel realistic and fair, but to encourage fun adventures and creative tactical choices.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Space Opera and Science-Fiction (part 4)

Though Solar Echoes certainly does fall into the space opera genre, it is interesting to note that much of the game was designed with realism in mind—we even have an Astronomy appendix entry in the Mission Controller's Guide with details on actual science and how it compares with the universe we created. We detail the various types of worlds that exist in the universe, the types of stars, and what current science indicates about the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life. To quote, “Since we have yet to find a habitable world around another star, all we can do at this point is base our game world upon the best knowledge we have at the current time. Someday, hopefully we will be able to find another Earth-like world out there, and what we learn from that experience will change our understanding of the whole universe.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Space Opera and Science-Fiction (part 3)

What is “hard sci-fi,” then? If Solar Echoes is considered to be a space opera, what about it prevents classification as hard science fiction? Hard sci-fi involves an emphasis on scientific accuracy and technical detail, but there is some flexibility in how much the story can stray from established science. For instance, faster-than-light travel (FTL) is something many hard sci-fi authors avoid, though sometimes it has been used as a necessary plot device. In such cases, the story must be rigorously consistent and detailed with regard to how an FTL society would be realistically depicted. The “hardness” of the genre is often measured by how practical and theoretically plausible the scenarios are.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Space Opera and Science-Fiction (part 2)

Another defining characteristic of space opera is its almost cinematic feel, with starship dogfights, laser gun battles, and dramatic adventure. Colorful characters are central and heroic in a space opera, and the plots usually involve large-scale action with war, piracy, and the military. Commonly, the setting has an optimistic tone and is written with characters that are sympathetic. The stakes in the plots of space operas are often very large, and quite often involve “saving the universe.” All of these characteristics can certainly be applied to Solar Echoes, just as they are obviously applicable to Star Wars. Though we didn't set out to write in a specific sci-fi sub-genre, Solar Echoes fits quite well into the category of space opera!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Space Opera and Science-Fiction (part 1)

I had an interesting discussion this weekend with a friend after we watched the new Star Wars trailer. Cheesy and impractical light-saber hand-guards aside, we talked about how Star Wars falls squarely in the “Space Opera” genre. Then I asked my friend if Solar Echoes should be considered a space opera, and I wondered what defined the genre and set it apart from “hard sci-fi.” I had thought that Solar Echoes was kind of a mix of the two, but it turns out, it really does fall into the genre. I had mistakenly believed that one of the main factors that qualified Star Wars as a space opera was the presence of the magical ability known as “the force.” I thought that space operas involved fantasy elements, so whether we label the force as psychic powers or as something derived from intelligent, microscopic midichlorians that live in our cells, to me it all seemed to be fantasy and not science fiction. It turns out that fantasy elements are not the defining element of a space opera at all!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Societal Implications of Alien Contact (part 5)

One of the biggest effects alien contact would have on humanity is religious. Many believe that discovering alien life would throw some religions into chaos, with people questioning their origins and wondering if the aliens themselves might have created them. This would also lead to new religions forming, with people worshiping the aliens. We've already seen a number of cults, including Scientologists and Raelists, who believe aliens are a form of angel or supernatural being deserving of worship, so imagine what would happen if alien contact was established! However, to those that think the existence of alien life challenges belief in God, the question remains: who, then, created the aliens?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Societal Implications of Alien Contact (part 4)

Alien science may be light-years ahead of ours, literally—it is likely that if we encounter intelligent alien life, they have traveled the stars at faster-than-light (FTL) speeds. If this knowledge was shared, the immense shift in our space programs would be staggering to imagine. Planetary colonization on distant worlds would no longer be out of reach, mining operations on asteroids and other planets might yield more abundant resources, and a new age of exploration would begin. Alien science might also improve our understanding of energy, and hopefully clean energy could replace fossil fuels. Medical science might extend our lifespans, eradicate disease, and possibly even eradicate genetic disorders. Yet with all of this new information, we might also head down a path that would challenge our morals and ethics. Aliens may not regard life as we do, and their views may not align with ours!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Societal Implications of Alien Contact (part 3)

Another situation that is very likely to develop if we establish contact with aliens is related to disease. Consider how people from one nation migrating to another have brought with them foreign diseases that natives are unprepared for. While the carriers might have built up an immunity to the disease, others might become deathly ill from the same pathogen. Aliens from another world are likely to bring with them new diseases, and could potentially endanger the entire human race. However, alien medical technology might also be so far advanced that humanity could benefit. Perhaps the aliens have discovered a cure for cancer, or a way to prevent infections from viruses. Ultimately, though, we might be exchanging one problem for another—Ebola and cancer might be no match for alien medical technology, but what about diseases they haven't been able to cure, and have brought with them?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Societal Implications of Alien Contact (part 2)

If we discovered that we were not alone in the universe, the military implications of this knowledge would be tremendous. Even if intelligent alien life communicated friendly intent, there would be a great amount of distrust as we tried to discern their motives. The military would have to be ready for the worst case scenario and remain prepared in case a benevolent introduction to the aliens was just a ruse. If aliens did evidence intentions of aggressive conquest, the military might be the only hope we have of standing against an alien attack. On the other end of the spectrum, the military might also be necessary to protect the aliens from us—fear of the unknown might cause some of us to exhibit hate and racism against the aliens, and the military might be necessary to keep order. The introduction of alien beings might also create mass panic, considering the results of the 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Wells's “The War of the Worlds,” an alien invasion story produced in a manner to seem realistic, with unexpected results—people panicked, thinking the earth was really being invaded by aliens. Some even jumped off buildings to their deaths in fear of the alien invasion!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Societal Implications of Alien Contact (part 1)

Lately, there have been more apparent sightings of UFO activity than ever before, and it seems that almost every week there is a new claim on some website that a rock on Mars is something significant: a skull, a statue, or even a rat! What if there really is intelligent life out there--are we prepared for the changes contact with aliens would bring? If contact was made, it is likely (considering all the UFO sightings) that aliens have technology superior to our own. If this technology was shared, imagine how our society would change! Consider the change that the internet brought about in society, or the development of the smart phone—we can communicate anywhere in the world instantly, we have access to a wealth of information on any topic, people can share videos in moments with millions of people, the list goes on. There have been staggering changes in our society in the last twenty years alone with these technologies, but what impact would even more advanced alien technology have upon our lives? We may be teleporting instantly to any place on the globe, communicating with our thoughts, or possibly uploading our consciousnesses to an advanced form of the internet. And that's just what we can currently conceive within our own paradigm of reality! History has shown—when an advanced culture meets with a simpler culture, the advanced culture eventually overrides the other.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Solar Echoes Comics (part 11)

 (click to enlarge)
This is the last of our comics for now. I hope you enjoyed them over the past two weeks! Think of this last one as a "Happy Thanksgiving" comic!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Solar Echoes Comics (part 7)

I have a few more comics to share this week. We're actually in talks with an artist right now who is interested in doing a comic series for Solar Echoes! I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, enjoy today's comic (click to enlarge)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Solar Echoes Comics (part 1)

I made a few comics a while ago, using artwork designed to look like it was done by a 5 year-old. (I think the artist did a nice job of capturing that look!) The backdrop space art was done by Matthew Hannum. I'll put up a few more comics this week. Enjoy!

(click to enlarge)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Developing Technology (part 5)

Though there are concerns that robots might someday take over the world, we can at least enjoy some of the benefits of a robot-integrated society until they do. Robots can perform jobs we aren't willing to do, and do jobs that are extremely dangerous. Already, robots are being considered for the medical work, and not just surgery or medicine delivery: robots could deal with Ebola patients. They could run diagnostic tests on infected patients, clean hospital rooms, and even bury the dead. As long as we don't plug robots with advanced artificial intelligence into our defense systems, maybe we can co-exist with them. They may even help the human race survive!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Developing Technology (part 4)

3D-printing is set to totally change the way we live in the future. We thought that Amazon delivering packages by drones flying to our doorsteps was the wave of the future, but 3D printing may make many drone deliveries entirely unnecessary. Imagine logging into Amazon and placing your order, paying, and then clicking “print.” Your 3D printer hums to life and prints out the object you just paid for! This is not at all far-fetched, or even that far away—we can already scan objects with 3D scanners and send the digital information to a 3D printer on the other side of the world to be printed out. However, what are the implications of this technology upon our society? Some items that are not so easily attained (such as weapons) might be available through illicit websites. Already, people have been experimenting with printing 3D guns, and although police say that firing a 3D gun is more dangerous to the user than the person he's aiming at, people are finding ways around this...

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Developing Technology (part 3)

Are we finally entering the age of laser guns? The Navy has high-powere laser technology, known as LaWS (Laser Weapons System), which it has successfully used to take down airborne targets. China also has laser weapons, which it has tested with a 100% hit rate in shooting down drones. The U.S. Army is testing the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) and has successfully shot down 150 mortar shells and small UAVs during tests. Both the HEL MD and the Chinese laser currently uses a 10kW laser, though Army has plans to upgrade to more powerful lasers in the future. Are we going to be seeing portable laser guns next? They won't look like the laser blasters in Star Wars, however—lasers fire at the speed of light, which is too fast for the human eye to see.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Developing Technology (part 2)

In the recent sci-fi movie, “Edge of Tomorrow,” soldiers wear robotic suits that give them enhanced strength and mobility, not to mention integrated weaponry. South Korean shipyard workers are already using “exo-suits” that allow them increased strength, though these suits are still in their very early stages. Imagine what we could do with this technology if developed further! Risks to workers could be reduced with the use of exo-suits, new athletic events could emerge, and of course the military will find ways for exo-suits to enhance our soldiers . Instead of handing over all of our jobs to robots in the future, we can utilize exo-suit technology to perform some of the same tasks, but with human operators making human decisions. Exo-suits could potentially save countless jobs, plus, producing the exo-suits themselves would create even more jobs. A lot of doomsayers are predicting that robots will take over 1/3 of our jobs in the future, but perhaps we can cut that number down significantly with exo-suits?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Developing Technology (part 1)

Check out the article (and video) below, this is an interesting device! It wasn't mentioned, but I was thinking about the implications of something like this being developed further along in the future.
This motion capture glove device transfers the movements of your hand into computer language that can move a robotic hand, and it even provides haptic feedback so you can physically sense virtual objects you "touch" with the hand in virtual reality. Think about how this could be used further: we could record the precise hand movements of, say, a surgeon or musician. Then, someone could put on the glove, and "play" the recording so that it moves their hand in the same way. This device could be used to teach hand movements and help refine them. A guitarist could play a tremelo on the guitar with one on, and record that movement. Then, the device could put it on a student and play the movement back, allowing the student to learn the movements through repetitive sensation. This concept could be applied on a larger scale, too--if we can do this with a glove, we can do the same thing with a larger, robotic body suit. Dancing, martial arts, and other physical disciplines could be taught through such a device.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Which Solar Echoes alien race are you most like? (part 4)

What do you typically do when something breaks? An Erwani would of course study it carefully, and then try to fix it himself, but some of us (myself included), like the Krissethi, would rather pay someone else to deal with it. The Chiraktis would immediately set to work, convinced that he could fix it by himself without any help. Omuls would jump at the chance to replace it with something new, excited by another opportunity for change. Find out what alien race you have the most in common with by answering five questions from Monday's Solar Echoes quiz:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Which Solar Echoes alien race are you most like? (part 3)

If one of the Solar Echoes aliens was invited to play a sport or a game, the competitive Krissethi would be the first to jump in, eager to show off. Erwani love strategic games involving many hours of thought (they consider chess to be too slow!) while Omuls love the chaos of games based on pure chance. Reln and humans both enjoy gambling to a degree, but Archaeloids are ready to try anything to prove themselves. The stoic Chiraktis drones, however, consider games to be a complete waste of time—after all, there's work to be done!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Which Solar Echoes alien race are you most like? (part 2)

The second quiz question asks how you would respond to a situation where you have to talk to someone you don't know. Some of us are confident that we can keep a conversation going, just like the very social Reln, but like the Chiraktis, some of us might feel that we'd prefer to let our actions speak for us instead. Omuls are the absolute worst at social encounters, so they will probably try to get out of this situation and get someone else to talk for them (of course, it's entirely possible that the uncouth Omul might not be aware of his lack of social graces and communication skills, which can make for a comical character!) Despite the intimidating appearance of the mighty Archaeloids, they actually are quite shy and nervous in social situations.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Which Solar Echoes alien race are you most like? (part 1)

Our first quiz question asked what you do when presented with a job or task. A Chiraktis immediately focuses on a task with intensity and does not look up until it is complete—it is the nature of insect drones to behave this way. The reptilian Krissethi will likely achieve the same results of the Chiraktis, but their motivations are entirely different, because Krissethi are extremely competitive and live in a society where status is everything. The analytical Erwani might take a while before starting—they are information-gatherers and want to be certain they fully understand something before attempting to work at it.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Friday, October 24, 2014

Writing a Mission for Solar Echoes (part 5)

A final consideration for mission design involves player rewards. If players have put themselves at risk and worked hard to achieve mission goals, they need to know how well they did. At the end of every mission, I review all the challenges and decide if any of them are significant enough to deserve an experience (XP) point. Usually, an average mission will yield 10 to 15 XP. In Solar Echoes, characters level up every 20 XP, so these points aren't given out for every single thing that is done. We usually don't award XP for killing anything, unless the mission was an assassination mission. XP rewards are sometimes in the negative, too. For instance, if the players' characters didn't bother to question an important non-player character (NPC) and just killed him outright, then they will earn -1 or -2 XP points! In other situations, if players managed to avoid a fight with a dangerous foe and bypassed or defeated him in another way, there might be an extra XP point or two awarded for their creative approach. Another important consideration with player rewards is loot—players should find interesting items, weapons, and armor during the course of the mission. Also, at the end of the mission, players should be awarded with several thousand credits for doing their job. The UG typically awards 2,000 to 5,000 credits per mission at beginning character levels. I want the players to be excited about the things they find during a mission, and to have enough money to start making long-term plans for their characters—buying better equipment, cyberware prosthetics, or even their very own starship!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Writing a Mission for Solar Echoes (part 4)

I've written my basic plot, I know generally how I want things to proceed, but the problem is one I'm faced with every time I sit down to start working on a new mission. That problem is that this game is so open-ended: the players can do anything. That is the strength of table-top role-playing games, because there are no pre-programmed parameters (like in a video game) that restrict a player from choices. However, it is also one of the biggest challenges I face, because I have a story I want told and yet I don't want to railroad the players along. Giving players specific mission goals helps, and the experience point system revolves around objectives completed, so that does make things easier. Yet it is difficult to avoid trying to anticipate every player choice and write if/then scenarios for every imagined instance. The thing that has worked best for me is to set forth how each person they encounter will function according to preset motivations. If a bad-guy is fanatically committed to his cause, I'll indicate in the mission that no amount of persuasion will deter him, and that he will do whatever he must to achieve his goals. Then, I leave the rest to the MC—he'll just have to play out that personality in every situation the players generate.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Writing a Mission for Solar Echoes (part 3)

An important aspect of designing a mission is making sure that there is a variety of challenges within each of the challenge types (squad combat, vehicle combat, hacking and dialogue.) For instance, rather than just another gunfight, throw in some environmental changes that would make the fight more interesting--low gravity could allow for long distance jumps, and extreme weather could make it difficult to see and hear. Another way to vary combat is to introduce unusual weapons that the characters don't see every day, or combos of weapons that might be more challenging when used together, such as the stun gun and tormenter (a gun that does cumulative damage, the longer it is aimed at you. If you're stunned and not moving...) New enemy abilities are also an exciting challenge, and even specialized combinations of talents can be thrilling, though remember, clever players can turn all this around eventually and use the same tactics themselves!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Writing a Mission for Solar Echoes (part 2)

The second thing I try to consider for a mission is still related to the plot—what types of gameplay will characters experience? I like to have a good balance between squad combat, vehicle combat, dialogue encounters, and hacking. I've found that missions that are almost exclusively combat-oriented aren't as fun for some players, because it doesn't give them much of an opportunity to role-play their characters and feel like they are part of developing the story. Players really want to feel like their decisions made a difference in the larger scheme of things, so giving them options to steer the story in different directions really creates a memorable experience where they can say that they affected the course of history. Combat is essential too, because without it, players will walk away feeling unskilled and the lack of action results in less exciting stories of heroism to be told later. Players like to feel the danger of risk for their characters, and the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from surviving against extreme odds.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Writing a Mission for Solar Echoes (part 1)

Designing a mission is an involved process, but that is because it requires several elements to work well. This week, I plan to spend some time putting together a new mission, and I thought I'd walk through my process a little as I do it. The starting point should be the plot, though that also has to be considered within the context of the character levels you're aiming for. This is important because you don't want to send low level characters into a plot that involves some of the deadliest aliens in the game, for instance. Some things are better saved for later levels, not just because of difficulty, but because of realism—a low level team would not be sent on a mission requiring high levels of security clearance.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Mission Recap (part 5)

Kray and Kashyr traveled aboard the Starliner for 15 days, and during their trip, they talked to various people aboard the ship. One of the people they talked to was a Krissethi loan shark looking for an Erwani with a bad gambling habit that owed him a lot of money. The characters later bumped into this Erwani, and tricked him to follow them to have drinks with "a friend." They promptly turned the Erwani over to the loan shark and in doing so, gained a contact they hoped to use later for information. What happened to the poor Erwani, though, seemed to not concern the players...

When the starliner finally arrived at Ourea, the characters noticed that the Starshine Foods crates were being unloaded and transferred to a Starshine Foods truck. They spoke with the workers and decided to follow them on their delivery route, using a car they borrowed from an Ourea Security officer. During the route, the truck broke down, and it was discovered that the recently-replaced drive belt had broken. The workers called in and a second truck was sent to pick up the goods and continue the route to keep the delivery schedule. The characters decided to set up an ambush inside the truck, suspecting that the second truck would be smugglers.

Yet when the truck arrived, the people unloading the truck appeared to simply be more Starshine Foods employees. The characters were getting frustrated, but were suspicious. Despite questioning the workers, nothing seemed suspicious--the workers were on a schedule to deliver the food, including the Kethsa eggs crates that the players knew contained the illegal Chiraktis eggs. The characters decided to follow the second delivery truck on its route. After only a few minutes on the road, however, they noticed two skimcars fast approaching from behind, and these cars were decked out with weapons!

The two skimcars closed quickly on the characters' skimcar and began shooting. The characters sped up to get closer to the Starshine Foods truck, but suddenly the truck's passengers--the supposed Starshine Foods employees--were leaning out the windows firing automatic weapons at the characters. When one of the skimcars fired a nano-flak canon, which created an obstacle right in front of the characters' car, the characters skidded and stopped their already badly-damaged vehicle and watched the truck speed away with one of the skimcars. The other skimcar stopped a distance away, waiting to see if the characters were going to try following. When they didn't, it eventually left them standing alone in the road with their smoking car.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mission Recap (part 4)

The characters went back to their starship and waited for the Krissethi smuggler to arrive. He was the next link in the smuggling ring, and the characters were supposed to hand over the cargo of their ship, posing as smugglers themselves. The characters were undercover, hoping to learn where the contraband was headed by leaving things in play. The Krissethi and his crew arrived and began unloading the cargo from the starship.

Everything was going smoothly, and the characters noticed that some of the Starshine foods crates, labeled "Kethsa Eggs" (a favorite Krissethi delicacy), were being scanned with a bioscanner by the Krissethi's crew. The players' suspicions were correct--the Chiraktis eggs were hidden among the Kethsa eggs. After moving the crates from the starship onto his loading vehicles, the Krissethi pulled out his MPC to transfer payment. All would have gone well if Kray had thought to bring along the smuggler captain's MPC for the transfer, but instead, he pulled out his own--a UG-issued MPC!

The Krissethi immediately recognized the UG protocol on Kray's MPC and attacked--the characters' cover was blown! The Krissethi pulled out a customized energy blade with the fire augment, and his flaming sword cut through Kray's armor, seriously injuring him and lighting him on fire! Kashyr, however, was quick to fire his rifle at the Krissethi, and the smuggler went down. His crew fired a few shots as they jumped in the loading vehicles and sped away with the cargo.

Kray was able to put out the fire, and Kashyr injected Kray with some healing nanites to stabilize him. The team turned their attention to the critically wounded Krissethi, and demanded to know where the cargo--specifically the Chiraktis eggs--was headed. The Krissethi told them the shipment was going to the Epsilus 54 Starliner, headed for the Ourea colony. Kray and Kashyr notified starport security about the captured smuggler, and the Krissethi was arrested. The team had to find out where those eggs were heading in Ourea, so they could shut down that end of the smuggling operation. It was time for Kray and Kashyr to do a little traveling, on a 15-day flight aboard a civilian Starliner!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mission Recap (part 3)

We left off yesterday with the characters, Kray and Kashyr, confused about how to meet the smuggler contact, since the smuggler captain had lied to them about the secret conversational exchange they needed to have with the bartender at the Star Wrangler Bar. They left the bar and called up the crew on the UG ship that was flying the captured smuggler captain back to UG headquarters. The smuggler captain was smug, but finally gave them another set of exchanges to say to the bartender.

The second attempt was met with confusion by the bartender again, so the characters angrily stepped out of the bar and called their crew back. This time (after yelling at the indignant smuggler), they asked their crew to look at the smuggler's MPC (micro-personal computer). After a little hacking, they managed to access the smuggler's emails. There was the answer--the exact exchange that needed to be spoken with the bartender. With the new information, the characters went back to the bartender to try a third time...

The exchange worked, and the bartender finally pointed them to a Krissethi sitting in the back of the bar. At this point, the Krissethi was a little suspicious, considering how many attempts the characters made, but he still conducted his business with them. They made an arrangement to meet at a dock later to transfer the cargo to the Krissethi. With a little free time, the characters checked out the shops on the Starport, and even met with a black-market salesman, though they decided not to buy any of the mysterious items he was selling for fear of being ripped off. Plus, it was almost time to meet the Krissethi smuggler at the dock...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Mission Recap (part 2)

We left off yesterday with our Union Guard characters hacking the smuggler's communications under the guise of repair techs. Once they had shut down communications to stop the smuggler's from sending out an alert, the team sprang to action. Even though they were outnumbered on the ship's bridge, 3 to 2, they had the element of surprise!

Kraykalon, the Union Guard Archaeloid, first attacked the human female, and knocked her out cold using his steel staff (which he'd brought on board, passing it off as a walking stick.) Kashyr, the Union Guard Reln, attacked the smuggler near him (green) and the battle continued. In the end, although Kray was seriously wounded, the smuggler captain's crew was defeated and the captain himself was critically wounded.

Kray and Kashyr then interrogated the captain, asking him to reveal who his contact was. The captain confessed that he didn't even know his contact--the Chiraktis kept their operation very compartmentalized--and all he knew was that he was supposed to meet his contact in the Star Wrangler Bar at the Hemera Starport. He handed over his MPC (micro-personal computer) and the characters transferred him to the brig on their ship, then took the smuggler's ship and flew to Hemera.

When they arrived at the bar, Kray spoke the code phrase given to him by the smuggler captain: "The weather sure is nice in Hemera, this time of year." The bartender, however, looked puzzled, and replied differently than they'd been told he would, saying, "Weather? What are you talking about, we're on a space station!" Kray was perplexed, and leaned over to Kashyr and whispered, "It's not worrrrking!" It was then that they realized the smuggler captain had lied to them!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Mission Recap (part 1)

I have a few snapshots of a recent Solar Echoes game, where we ran the “Egg Drop” Mission for the players. The goal was to stop a criminal operation that involved smuggling the insectoid Chiraktis eggs into various colonies, where the Chiraktis could establish a strong foothold and influence colony governments by increasing the Chiraktis population. Find out more...

The first part of the mission involved the player's characters intercepting the smuggling ship that had recently left Chiraktis space. The characters had to conceal their identities and avoid revealing that they were Union Guard agents, or the smugglers might have sent a transmission ahead to warn their contacts that the UG was on to them. 

The players managed to convince the smugglers to allow them to board their ship, indicating that they were an emergency maintenance crew that had been dispatched to contact the smugglers. The characters succeeded at their persuasion check, and the smugglers allowed the characters to board their ship to “fix” a problem that had supposedly been detected when the smugglers passed the last starship checkpoint, though the smugglers were still a little suspicious and the characters were told, at gunpoint, to leave behind any weapons they had.

The characters had to make sure that the smugglers couldn't transmit a warning, so they continued their ruse and logged in to the smugglers' communications array, explaining that they had to run a diagnostics test. The smugglers waited patiently for the characters to "fix" the problem, but the characters proceeded to hack the array while in cyberspace, shutting down security nodes so they could take control of the system. Once they had crippled communications on the smugglers' starship, they were ready to move to the next phase of their plan...

Friday, October 10, 2014

Uplifting Neuro Enhancement (part 5)

Neuro-prosthetics may be a new stage for humankind, and incredible advancements are on the horizon. Greater memory capacity could be achieved, and new information could be learned quickly, such as in the movie, “The Matrix” and through “Talent Chips” in Solar Echoes. Eyesight could be restored in some cases, as well as hearing, motor-control, and other physical functions. Beyond restoration, such physical functions could also be potentially enhanced far above normal human capacity. Neural implants could also allow for the control of complex machinery with a mere thought, producing greater accuracy and also providing safety for the users by allowing them to remotely operate machinery in hazardous environments. Implants could assist the user in focusing, stabilize mood, and allow for other mental functions that might not be normally possible for brain-damaged patients. We could even potentially communicate telepathically through neural implants! Of course, potential downsides exist for neural implants as well—imagine the problems that could arise if these implants could be hacked, monitored, or even used as a mechanism to influence or control the user!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Uplifting Neuro Enhancement (part 4)

It is considered to be inevitable that we will need to deal with the prospect of uplifting animal intelligence, as uplifting will result from our studies to cure degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer's. Bio-ethicists like George Dvorsky believe it is our “ethical imperative to uplift” animals with our technology to “free them from the anguish of survival of the fittest.” Yet others, such as Paul Graham Raven (a researcher at the University of Sheffield), see this view as human arrogance—a belief in human superiority over nature. Raven questions why we believe we have the moral authority to make this decision for the animals without their consent, and states, “It assumes we know what's best for species other than ourselves. Given we show little evidence of knowing what's best for our own species, I'm inclined to mistrust that assumption, however well intended."

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Uplifting Neuro Enhancement (part 3)

Have you ever heard of “neural prosthetics?” Normally, we consider prosthetics to be replacements for lost arms or legs, but neural prosthetics are brain implants designed to monitor and correct the function of neurons in the brain. An experiment was done in 2011 where five monkeys were used to study the factors that influence people with mentally degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. The monkeys were trained to identify images and symbols in a learning test, were tested and scored, and then were given doses of cocaine. As a result, their dulled intelligence produced poor results when the test was repeated (don't do drugs!) However, the same monkeys were then surgically implanted with neural prosthetics. These implants successfully restored brain functions to the monkeys. Even more impressive, however, was that when different monkeys (after having undergone the same training and then taking the test) were given the implants without ever being drugged, the monkeys' performance was beyond the original test results! Even though the intention of these implants was to restore brain function, it was proven that neural prosthetics can make monkeys smarter!

Uplifting Neuro Enhancement (part 2)

If we haven't learned anything from stories like "The Rats if NIMH" or the recent "Planet of the Apes," we ought to. In the NIMH series, lab rats at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have had their intelligence enhanced, and as a result, the rats escape and formulate plans to end their dependence on human society and to form their own. In "Planet of the Apes," researches improved the intelligence of apes in their attempts to find a cure for Alzheimer's. The apes quickly decide humans are a threat and an enemy, and begin an aggressive revolt against humanity. Yet despite the fairly logical conclusions these movies suggest will occur when "uplifting" animal intelligence, there are people like George Dvorsky (of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) who state that it is our "ethical imperative to uplift," and that "As the stewards of this planet, it is our moral imperative to not just remove ourselves from the Darwinian paradigm, but all the creatures on Earth as well. Our journey to a post-biological, post-Darwinian state will be a mutual one."

Monday, October 6, 2014

Uplifting Neuro Enhancement (part 1)

We humans are quite accustomed to being the highest form of intelligent life on planet Earth. Human intellect rivals other intelligent creatures on this planet, such as monkeys, dolphins, whales, and octopi. However, scientists at MIT are discovering methods to increase the intelligence of animals. Mice have been genetically engineered, using a human gene known to be associated with learning capacity and speech in humans. These mentally enhanced mice distinctly out-performed normal mice when placed in mazes with rewards at the end. The process of improving mental function and capacity in animals is known as "uplifting," and the looming question is: Can we engineer sentient animals with intelligence that could possibly rival our own? In my opinion, the bigger question the science community needs to answer first is: Should we?

Friday, October 3, 2014

Notes from a Mission Controller (part 5)

In some of the games I've played, the players were all bent on proving to the GM that he couldn't stop them or hurt them, and the GM was bent on proving otherwise, with the game rules being the only arbiter. However, I am convinced that the role of the GM (the MC in Solar Echoes) is to try to keep the players' characters alive—to create a challenging and exciting experience where the players end up feeling like heroes, with stories they'll be talking about for weeks, possibly years later. The MC, in my opinion, should strive to provide the characters with the means to survive and not place them in an impossible situation. However, I think the MC is absolved of this responsibility if players deliberately do something deserving a serious consequence, like throwing a grenade to land near an ally, or walking out into the open when they know several thugs with machine guns are waiting in ambush. In cases like those, well, the rules are the rules, right?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Notes from a Mission Controller (part 4)

It is really the MC's responsibility to actively adjust the difficulty level of the game. If the players are having too easy of a time at everything, though they might be having fun at it for a while, they will start to feel like their success is coming to them for free, without cost. We tend to not value things we get for free as much as those that we paid for in some way. Games without a challenge lose their reward, and players are likely to move on to something else that feels more difficult. Yet overwhelming difficulty is discouraging, too, so an MC should keep a healthy balance running throughout the game. As an example, in a recent game I ran, the enemies the players faced were generally level 1, but the players were level 2, which gave them a solid advantage over most of the enemies. However, by using terrain, advanced tactics and outnumbering the players, I was able to make the encounters difficult for the players--there were certainly moments when things looked very dire for them! Still, while I was conducting these encounters, I was careful not to overdo it. I know how it feels to have a Game Master out to kill you, and this just builds resentment between the players and the GM.

Notes from a Mission Controller (part 3)

A feeling of utter helplessness can be extremely discouraging, especially in an RPG. It is easy to question the decisions you've made when developing your character, and to worry that perhaps you may have invested in the “wrong build” for your character. In Solar Echoes, sometimes there are moments where a team will realize that they are missing a vital skill to move forward. Or so it seems—it is the MC's job to make sure that there are always other options, though perhaps some of those options won't be so desirable. As with the situation I mentioned yesterday involving the enemy sniper team, the players finally had to choose an option they weren't very happy with—they realized they had to allow their devoted NPC ally to serve as a decoy (he was willing to make that sacrifice), knowing that their new friend might not survive. It was a tough choice, but thankfully, their ally survived (barely) and the players' characters managed to take out the sniper team.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Notes from a Mission Controller (part 2)

When confronted with an experience in a game that seems almost impossible to surmount, I realize that for me, it really depends whether I'm going to enjoy the challenge or not. I'm not too into puzzle games, because I have very limited time to play games in the first place, so I need to feel like I'm making progress. Challenging puzzles sometimes require many long minutes or even a few hours to solve, and though some people feel incredible elation at finally solving a puzzle and consider their time well-spent, I become annoyed and irritated, feeling like I wasted my time. Most video games and table-top RPG's like Solar Echoes are designed to feed the player a continually developing experience—we players love to see our character's skills and appearance develop and feel the story progress. Yet sometimes, if we are met with a challenge that halts this momentum, it can potentially spoil the experience for us...

Monday, September 29, 2014

Notes from a Mission Controller (part 1)

I've run countless Solar Echoes games, and each time I run another one, I notice new things. It is difficult to predict the mileage each person will get out of different experiences in the game. There is an aspect of these experiences that needs to be carefully measured: difficulty. This is managed by the MC, and there are several approaches one can take. It is easy to strictly follow the mission as written, regardless of the circumstances the players might have placed themselves in, but in my opinion, it is the job of the MC to keep things challenging, sometimes even right at the edge of seemingly impossible, but to still make sure the players have a chance to succeed. It's much more fun for players to feel like almost all hope is lost but then emerge later with success—this is what makes them feel heroic. Yet one recent scenario in Solar Echoes was received differently by two players. The situation was that the two had taken cover inside a dark cave because somewhere outside, hidden among the rocks, were two very accurate and deadly snipers that had already managed to critically injure one of the team with a single shot. There was a point where the players felt helpless and trapped—they knew that poking their head outside was suicide. Yet through discussion and a plan of desperation, they managed to use a distraction, run quickly for cover, and locate the snipers during the process as they were shot at. The team was able to kill the sniper team, and, though the players' characters were injured from the encounter, they survived. The reaction to this experience from the players was very informative: one loved it, but the other felt it was too difficult, perhaps even unbalanced.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Battle Tactics (part 5)

Planning a strategy is crucial for success in Solar Echoes. Unlike other RPG's, walking straight into a battle without taking advantage of tactical opportunities can get you and your team killed fast. Solar Echoes is designed for you to care about your team member's injuries, and your own, because with each injury after the first, you start to suffer penalties. These penalties not only affect you, but the effectiveness of your entire team as a whole. An injured teammate can give your opponents a distinct advantage. This goes the other way, too, of course—injuring an enemy can bring down the overall effectiveness of their team as well. In a recent game of Solar Echoes, a group of smugglers were trying to escape the players' characters at a Starport. One of the characters managed to shoot one of the smugglers just before he boarded his starship. The players' team had to board a UG starship to chase after them, but they were more successful in the starship battle because the smuggler that they had wounded earlier was the smuggler team's pilot! The smuggler pilot's wound penalties affected his piloting checks, giving the players' team the advantage. Protecting your team members is one of the most vital strategies in Solar Echoes—think of your team as one big character, with each player performing different functions for the entire unit to function effectively.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Battle Tactics (part 4)

Sometimes well-laid plans can go awry, and tactics collapse into utter hilarity. During last weekend's game, it was all I could do to keep a straight face as the players prepared for their next mission. One of the players decided to spend his money on tear gas grenades, reasoning with his teammate that during their previous mission, they had only encountered one robot and many “organics” that would have been affected by tear gas. As soon as they began their next mission and were informed that they needed to stop a bunch of malfunctioning, rampaging robots, the other player smiled and looked at his friend smugly, saying sarcastically, “Tear Gas Grenades!” Later in the same mission, a player's character was attacked by an alien dog, which locked its jaws onto his leg before being killed. Removing the dog from his leg would be impossible without causing damage, and the player's character was already critically wounded-—it would have killed him to take the dead dog off. So, the player limped around for the next few hours with a dog attached to his leg, even during a tense interrogation where the target finally had the courage to ask, “What's the deal with your dog?”

Battle Tactics (part 3)

Great planning and foresight can go a long way in Solar Echoes. One of our players had served in the Navy, and his careful planning and excellent tactics resulted in zero injuries to his team and a complete capture of all the enemies. This player utilized almost every resource available to him, and one of his most effective tactics was positioning his team's squad car near the garage of the warehouse, aiming the car's rotary canon at the door. When one of the criminals attempted to speed away in his car, the rotary canon made short work of the vehicle and the criminal was brought to a screeching halt. Just this last weekend, another team of players had the idea to sprinkle magnetic caltrops around the waiting skimcar of their target. They first studied the four cars in the parking lot and noticed that one was facing out, positioned so that it would be ready to drive away quickly. They reasoned that this must be their target, and judged correctly, because when some of the criminals managed to get past the players' characters and jump into their skimcar, the magnetic caltrops the team had sprinkled around it were suddenly sucked into the anti-grav system when the car was started. Though the team jumped into their own car to pursue the criminals, it was a very short chase—after only two rounds, the anti-grav system malfunctioned and the skimcar crashed into the ground. The criminals were quickly captured.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Battle Tactics (part 2)

Sometimes players make tactical errors, or the situation unfolds unexpectedly and they have to improvise. Just last week in the warehouse scenario, a team of players realized that their Archaeloid character—who was attempting to crawl through an air duct--wasn't stealthy enough. The enemies heard him and were suspicious, but just as his location was about to be filled with bullets, another team member burst in the side door, pretending to be a confused drunk. It was just enough distraction for the Archaeloid to get out of the ductwork and drop down to attack. I've seen another scenario where a player decided to send his female Reln (an alien race that excels at word-play) right into the warehouse to the criminals to flirt and distract them while a second team member moved into flanking position. In yet another situation, the team was supposed to apprehend a gang leader but he managed to get into his car and began to race away. Before he could pull away, though, one quick-thinking player threw a smoke grenade through the window of the car. Even though the gang leader managed to race away, it wasn't long before his car filled with smoke and he crashed, enabling the players' characters to catch up to him and apprehend him.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Battle Tactics (part 1)

I've seen quite a variety of strategies in Solar Echoes games, and the different tactics that were used to carry out these strategies ranged from impressive to comical. I usually refrain from detailing these approaches until after people have experienced a scenario themselves and come up with their own ideas, since it's easy to borrow from others. However, much like in football, military strategies are often reviewed to develop them even further. Consider this scenario, taken from a Solar Echoes mission: your team needs to get inside a warehouse occupied by enemies and there are several options. There is a closed garage, a door on the side of the warehouse, and an opening into an air duct system on the roof. With just these three options, I've seen people open the garage door and start attacking right away, but I've also seen people use stealth to slip inside the warehouse, unseen, through the side door. Sometimes, brave players will even send their character into the air duct system, though this is one of the riskiest approaches if they are heard moving around. One team of teenage players decided to drive their car through the garage door, breaking through with guns blazing. Another time, a team decided to use a fork lift they found nearby, hoist up a shipping container, and ram it into the garage while storming in through the side door during the distraction. I can honestly say, the same scenario has never played out the same way, not even once in the countless times I've run the demo!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Will humans be different by 2050? (part 5)

Military applications in the future may also see a change in humanity. As robot soldiers become an increasingly viable option, human soldiers may need to integrate their bodies with technology to both keep up with robots and to coordinate with them. Smartphones and tablet computers may be fully integrated into the body, with subcutaneous phones and ocular overlays. Targeting, nightvision, visual analysis, and other options may become available to a soldier in the future. Quicker reflexes, faster running speed, and possibly even greater strength and jumping distances could all be the results of implanted technology. Direct interface and coordination with remote, flying drones through thought alone could produce enormous differences with future military tactics. In Solar Echoes, players have the option to spend money on upgrading their characters with “cyberware” that affords the very same options. However, there are limits to the amount of cyberware a person can have installed without adverse effects. The question is, how much is too much, and when are we no longer human?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Will humans be different by 2050? (part 4)

Technology is advancing so quickly and being embraced so immediately that we humans are generally rather unaware of how it is changing us. Technological integration with our physical bodies is predicted to become a standard form of self-advancement in the future. The competition for work with robots and AI may result in humans choosing to have implants surgically grafted into our brains for increased mental processing power. We may even seek other biological upgrades so that we can better compete with robots, such as bionic implants in our hands or legs that enable us to perform as quickly as a robot. Ocular implants may not only be chosen to improve eyesight, but may also project menus and videos into our vision, and allow us to take pictures or record videos just by looking. This technology already exists with “Google Glass,” and though it is undergoing a challenge with social acceptance, we may see this same technology re-emerge in other ways. If technological implants enable us to do our jobs better and to compete with the growing robot work-force, human cyborgs may not be as uncommon in the future as we might think right now. Becoming a cyborg may even be a necessity to survive the demands of future society, and we may see that the biggest earners in the future are those that have decided to invest in “upgrading” their bodies.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Will humans be different by 2050? (part 3)

Humans may spend far less time in contact with each other in the future, if current trends continue. There is some speculation that we may live out much of our lives in virtual reality environments. Already, people are working from home more and more--telecommuting has already allowed for an incredibly wide range of jobs to be conducted remotely. When was the last time you had a lengthy conversation over the phone? We are already preferring quick texts to email, email to voicemail, and voicemal to actual conversation. As we continue to separate ourselves from other humans, we may turn to other sources for interaction. Virtual reality environments may afford us leisurely “getaways” and pseudo-social interaction with artificially intelligent people. The Japanese are already developing programs for the VR headset—the Oculus Rift--that involve an animated woman who wants to talk with you while your head rests on her lap. The movie “Her” suggests that a man can form an emotional bond with an AI program. We are becoming increasingly disconnected from reality and genuine human interaction and experience!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Will humans be different by 2050? (part 2)

Changes in society may affect us physiologically. Researchers are already suggesting that humans will demonstrate delayed sexual maturation as a result of societal changes. As technology continues to improve and robots begin to replace menial tasks, we will have more free time. Robots will dominate unskilled jobs, making it more difficult to find work without an education, thus necessitating a delay in having children. Brain size is expected to increase as well, and as a result, we will need more energy and time, resulting in less reproduction. Medical technology may allow for changes to the “biological clock,” and possibly an elimination of it altogether. It may be entirely feasible for couples over 60 to have children in the future, and we may also have longer lives, living until 120 by the year 2050.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Will humans be different by 2050? (part 1)

Where are we heading, and what will humans be like in 2050? One change that is already taking place is when we choose to have children. Today, the average age a British woman has her first child is late in her 29th year. In the United States, compare the change from 1970, where one percent of first children were born to women over the age of 35, but by 2012, that rose to 15 percent! It is becoming increasingly common to put off child-rearing until later years, as both men and women are focusing on finishing advanced college degrees and getting settled in a job. This is also reflected by the median age of first marriage, where the average age of males marrying in 1950 was 22.8, and the average age for women during that time was 20.3. By 2010, that had changed to 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women. As countries become increasingly advanced socioeconomically, people are choosing to focus on extending their child-free years for leisure time or career development. Studies have also found that trends in business are showing decreasing job security and increasing demands upon workers to work during unsociable hours. With educational “inflation,” more and more degrees and certifications are being required of people, resulting in extended years in school and larger loans to pay off.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Artificial Intelligence already creeping into our society (part 5)

It may seem that I am simply focusing on examples of computer errors in all this, and not actual AI. Yet Artificial Intelligence is a conglomeration of complex algorithms that allow a computer to make conclusions based on data sampled through various means. What we might call a computer error is really a matter of perspective—to us, it is an error because it violated our intent for the computer. But in the cases mentioned this week, the computer arrived at that “error” through a logical application of its programming. The AI on the International Space Station had a task to complete—the launching of satellites on a specific schedule—but when the AI realized it could not maintain its objective if it was delayed any further, it simply resumed its task, regardless of the fact that it had been told to stop. The peak-rewards situation was a mere application of programming to a situation: it was hot, everyone was using their AC, and the computers decided to shut down the AC of everyone on “peak rewards” because too much electricity was being used. I've even heard a story of a hospital situation where orders for medicine suddenly stopped being printed out, and pharmacists did not realize that the queue was building internally in the computer system. Patients no doubt suffered for the delay in their medication, but because of a computer program re-routing the notifications to a computer instead of a the usual printers, the pharmacists were delayed as they tried to figure out what was going on. Why are we even considering developing AI for any system that could profoundly affect our lives? Smart phones, smart homes, and Google's smart car...does AI make you feel safe?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Artificial Intelligence already creeping into our society (part 4)

Even in our everyday lives, we encounter small forms of AI. If you've used a word processor on your computer, or have been typing a text on your smartphone, you've probably encountered what I call “predictive technology.” The program tries to assume what you are trying to type and auto-completes it for you. We all have funny stories about how our intended message has been mangled, and unless you've figured out how to turn off the auto-complete process on your computer or phone, you are probably very annoyed and frustrated at having a computer finishing your sentences for you. Voice-recognition technology is another example of how far computer recognition of human intent still has to go. Perhaps you have tried Siri on iphones, the Kinect on Microsoft's Xbox, or Sony's PS4 voice-recognition “feature”--all of these fail far more often than they succeed. Computers are far from understanding what we really want, yet we are placing them in some very important positions in our lives.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Artificial Intelligence already creeping into our society (part 3)

On May 6, 2010, the stock market plunged 4%, and then in mere minutes, sharply fell another 6%, before mysteriously rebounding almost as quickly. A reactive, computer execution system had caused roughly $2 billion worth of shares to be sold in just seven minutes in reaction to someone's trade, and the ensuing panic exposed the fragility of our stock market. After review, the The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) determined that a computer algorithm was to blame for the incident, and measures have been put in place to prevent computers from causing such sudden, volatile swings in the market. Today, markets depend on the volume generated by high-speed traders and their computers, but the computers don't have a sense of when to intervene during a crisis—they are entirely oblivious to the catastrophic effects that may be caused by certain actions. While it is obvious that computers are an integral part of the stock market, have we allowed them too much of a role in our fragile economy? What kind of oversight is there? What are the failsafes? In the end, the computers were only following their programming, regardless of the possible outcome. As computers have been integrated into vital components of our civilization's infrastructure, it is chilling to consider how far-reaching a computer error can be upon our way of life.