Thursday, April 30, 2015

Predictive Technology (part 4)

If you think that predictive technology sounds like something out of Minority Report, it's far less supernatural, but no less scary in its accuracy. A program called Blue PALMS is being used to solve cold cases, using a database of every documented crime ever recorded in the state. Detectives can enter an old crime report and in one minute, get a list of 20 suspects. Actual crime prevention is a great benefit of predictive technology, but questions of profiling do arise. They say past behavior is a great predictor of future behavior, and the data from these programs seems to be based on reasonable models. But predictive algorithms can be altered by a single person, and programming is far less transparent than an officer with an obvious racial profiling record. Who will hold the programming accountable and keep it in check? With the growing complexity of and reliance upon artificial intelligence, are we really comfortable with how it might influence and direct our law enforcement in the future? This scenario has already been imagined in a sci-fi TV series called “Person of Interest.” Like most sci-fi, we should consider it a warning.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Predictive Technology (part 3)

Law enforcement has turned to predictive technology in several states already, and Florida recently adopted a system called HunchLab that produces maps showing small areas where specific crimes are likely to be committed during certain times of day or night. These algorithm-based programs have already lowered crime around the country, and smart-policing in response to the predictions has lowered crime by as much as 10% so far in some areas. HunchLab, for instance, is intended for use in stopping robbery, auto theft and home burglary. Officers will be able to focus on areas that the software tells them have higher probabilities of such crimes. Instead of just indicating where lots of crime has occurred, these programs are telling law enforcement where crimes will occur, based on a wide range of variables, such as time of day, current weather, visibility, traffic patterns, school calendars, and social media. Yes, social media—these programs are listening in.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Predictive Technology (part 2)

Google tracks everything you do on the internet, including what you type in those gmails you send. Many other companies do the same, and it is all supposedly intended for "market research." Yet considering that the NSA and other government organizations have a history of listening in on our conversations and monitoring our online activity, it is even more disconcerting to realize that, because of the sheer volume of information, these organizations rely on complex computer programs that sort through and decipher the data. Predictive technology is a part of this--patterns are analyzed and certain online behaviors or word usages bring up red flags that warrant closer monitoring. Mention the word "militia" and you'll be flagged (though supposedly, "jihad" is not on the word watch-list and gains no such attention.) A computer program is watching and listening, telling authorities whether or not you look like you could be a threat. Oops, I just used one of those blacklisted words...*waves*

Monday, April 27, 2015

Predictive Technology (part 1)

Predictive technology/analytics is slowly infiltrating our lives and has been for years. How many times have you been typing in a word processor, an email, or even on your smart phone when the word you were typing auto-completes? Sometimes this can be helpful, but most often, it becomes extremely annoying and you have to try to mess with the program you're using to turn auto-correct off. Some interfaces are rather slow, so when a list of likely words appears, it can be more efficient to pick the intended word instead of finishing the input process. But after selecting that word, new words suddenly appear to choose from, and often, the next word the user was going to type is among them. Entire sentences can be inputted this way, and the more you use that program, the better it gets at "learning" what you want to say. It is disturbing to consider that these programs are not nearly as developed as the far more robust versions that are already being used by our government and the military. What will we be seeing as commonplace in the next five to ten years? Imagine a form of short-hand writing where you only need to type in a couple words and your sentence will be finished for you!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Life of a Game (part 5)

So, the next time you come across a game you like, especially if it's a bargain bin game or something by a small indie game company, do your best to shout out about it and let people know. Of course, if it's a major game studio, they need the same, because even though we're all influenced by big marketing campaigns, gamers usually buy based on what other gamers are doing and saying. As an indie game designer myself, I try to make an extra effort to go the extra mile when remembering my role as a gamer and how my feedback can help a small company. On that note, if you've tried Solar Echoes and liked it, we'd love to hear from you and for others to know what you thought, whether it's here, where we sell our products, or anywhere else online and in social media. Help us spread the word!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Life of a Game (part 4)

Another problem that prevents great games from doing well is marketing. Indie developers and publishers often pour all of their funds into creating the best game they can—if they don't, gamers will write off a great game for a single weak-spot, and give it a poor rating that it might not deserve. Indie game designers want to see their game do well so much that they will often quickly respond to gamer criticism by patching a problem in the game, but often it is too late, the bad review is out there. When it comes to marketing, indie publishers can't even begin to compete with the huge game companies and their juggernaut, multi-million dollar marketing campaigns. It's easy to be overshadowed and forgotten, especially if released near or on the same release date as a game released by a well-known studio. The sad truth is that even if the indie game is an amazing product (even better than some of the major studio games), it rarely sells on merit alone. Often, the only way to help it find success is for the gaming community to get behind it and talk about it, a lot, all over social media. That's advertising that can only be purchased by winning the hearts of the gamers.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Life of a Game (part 3)

One of the problems is that there is a lot of “shovel-ware” (hastily made, poor quality software) inundating the market. The ease of putting something online for sale has caused gamers to exercise much more caution and to value every dollar they spend—most of us have been burned by a bad game purchase at some point and we resent being conned out of our money, even if it’s just a couple dollars. Thankfully, some online vendors like Sony have quality-control that prevents shovelware from being sold on their storefront. Often, screenshots or even video previews of the game are included on the storefront to get a glimpse of the game beyond its sensationalized text description. Despite all this, however, we gamers usually look for user feedback. How many stars was it rated? Any comments about the game? Unfortunately, most people never return to rate the game, review it, or comment unless there was something about it they really didn’t like—then they feel they ought to warn other gamers. I finally remembered to go back to the game page and rate the game I bought this weekend (5 stars) when I had to end my game session. I was honestly too busy having fun to think about letting other people know!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Life of a Game (part 2)

When I think about all the work that must have gone into these games, I wonder about the developers and how they must feel when they see their game hit the bargain bin after only a few short weeks or months. YEARS of time is invested in developing a game, involving concept design, art design, music, story/script writing, voice acting, programming, animation, balance testing, searching for bugs, fixing those bugs, etc. etc. etc. There is a lot of money involved, of course, and much of it is paid based on a gamble—the hope that the game will earn back the investment and enter profitability in the first week or two of its release. If not profitable within the first week or two, the game is likely to fade to obscurity in the shadow of all the other new games that are constantly hitting the shelves (more so, the online market). The industry is crowded, and now that the indie scene is exploding, we gamers are turning to reviews and youtube videos to decide whether or not to part with $3 to give something a try.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Life of a Game (part 1)

There was an unexpected online sale for a few video games this weekend, and I found myself browsing through them to see if I saw anything interesting. I had a few hours free on Saturday, so when I saw a list of about 30 or so games, I figured I might be able to find something entertaining and not regret a blind buy. Still, I found myself spending time on youtube watching the gameplay of a few of those I was considering, priced at $3. THREE dollars, and I was obsessing over reviews. Well, I finally took the plunge and purchased “How to Survive” (a zombie survival game), and wow, was I surprised! I couldn’t put the game down! The hours slipped by and I found myself fully immersed in a game that had personality, good voice-acting, above-average graphics, the perfect carrot-and-stick achievement balance, customization options, action, crafting, exploration, and just enough story to keep me going. I never got lost and had to wander because the in-game map was solid, the quests all related to the story, and I found myself making all kinds of side-goals for myself as I moved towards the larger objectives of the game. After realizing it was way past dinner time, I wanted to know how this little gem of a game had been reduced to selling for only $3. I checked, and originally it had been released for $15—still quite a steal in my opinion—and not that long ago. The sad reality of a video game’s lifespan was staring me in the face. Very few survive beyond a few weeks.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Solar Echoes Games at JohnCon (part 5)

A combination of tactics is likely to produce the best results on a mission, and last weekend, Hopkins players mixed things up effectively. In one situation, the team was trying to stop smugglers from escaping a starport with military contraband. The team hacked into the starport to access useful records like the shipping manifests and passenger data. Once they had a strong suspicion as to the smugglers' location, two of the team were dispatched to a Union Guard starship to prep it for use. Others on the team approached the location, where the smugglers were loading their ship. The human on the players' team managed to convince one of the smugglers that he'd heard about the weapons they were moving and wanted in on the deal. While he kept the smuggler distracted (and exchanged contact info), the two Krissethi snipers on the team managed to sneak onto the ship without being seen. When the smugglers noticed another one of the team who had failed her Stealth check to hide her firearm, they shouted “UG!” and ran aboard their ship, closing the door and preparing to launch. However, by this time, the first two UG agents had arrived with their ship and fired a warning shot, with the Chiraktis on the team hailing the smugglers. When they were informed that operatives were already aboard their ship waiting to attack, the smugglers realized they were in an impossible position—UG outside the door of their ship, a UG starship with weapons lock in front of them, and UG operatives somewhere inside their ship. The smugglers surrendered quickly after succumbing to the UG Chiraktis's intimidation.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Solar Echoes Games at JohnCon (part 4)

The team of Union Guard agents was sent to a shopping mall full of rampaging service robots to stop the malfunctioning drones and discover what exactly went wrong. There was a wide variety of robots at the mall, including maintenance bots, cleaning bots, and even delivery bots that had gone a little “postal.” The team had their hands full handling them, but thankfully, the Omul on the team had the “Robot ID” talent, which enabled her to discern weaknesses in the AI of each robot type. While battling the delivery bot, she communicated to her team that the robot had a high chance of being distracted if it was given a package with a mailing label. The downside was that the mailing labels were in a slot on the side of the robot, and this meant getting close to the malfunctioning machine. A Chiraktis character managed to get up close while the robot was busy spraying a fast-drying thermoplastic polymer on another character to prepare her for packaging. The Chiraktis snatched a delivery label and filled it out, then packaged an EMP grenade and handed it to the robot. The robot suddenly paused and resumed its usual programmed routine, scanning the delivery label and then storing the grenade in an internal compartment. This was just enough time for everyone to escape the blast radius!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Solar Echoes Games at JohnCon (part 3)

Another exciting situation during one of the games at the JohnCon this weekend was when a player managed to manipulate the captain of a smuggling operation. The player had chosen the insectoid Chiraktis for his character, but decided upon an unusual route and placed his extra attribute point in Influence. His mission was to capture the smugglers, transfer them to his ship and send them home with his back-up crew, while his team assumed the role of the smugglers and delivered the contraband aboard the ship so they could discover the others involved in the smuggling operation. When his team encountered the smuggler's ship, he used his EW (Electronic Warfare) ability to confuse their sensors so they'd accept his ruse that he needed help because his hyperdrive was damaged. They boarded his ship suspiciously, weapons ready, but despite their efforts to keep things under control, the player's Chiraktis managed to isolate and secretly incapacitate one of the smugglers, “assisting” him with medical help (which really ended up putting the guy to sleep.) The player slowly isolated and worked on each of the smugglers, even convincing the captain that one of his own men was a traitor. The player was finally able to get in a room alone with the captain, and after a brief skirmish, incapacitated him and bound him in security cuffs. It was masterfully executed, and he managed the entire situation with half the number of men than the smugglers had. Divide and conquer!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Solar Echoes Games at JohnCon (part 2)

Think about how would you handle this situation: a criminal with a high-powered, illegal military weapon jumps into the passenger side of a car to try to escape authorities. While I've seen quite a variation of approaches to this situation, one of the Hopkins players (playing as the amoebic Omul) reacted in an unexpected way—she chose to jump into the front seat of the car with him. While the two fought inside the car, trying to punch and shoot each-other, another one of the criminals jumped into a different car and sped away. In response to this, a Hopkins player (playing a human) decided he wasn't going to let the criminal get away, so he jumped into the driver's side of the first car. The human player drove after the escaping criminal, while his Omul partner frantically fought the criminal in the front seat. First she tried to smother him into submission and then finally used an energy pistol to shoot him repeatedly at point blank range. She finished him off by successfully kicking him out of the moving vehicle, radioing to the rest of the team that was following in another car to “make sure you run him over.” Despite the “karma” rating in Solar Echoes that is affected by benevolent or evil actions, this player was truly acting out the chaotic, relativist nature of the Omul character she was playing. (I later teased her, saying I hoped she was just “role-playing.”)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Solar Echoes Games at JohnCon (part 1)

This last weekend at the Johns Hopkins University's “JohnCon” was a ton of fun! We ran Solar Echoes games during the days and late into the evenings with a number of very creative players, and it was great seeing them have so much fun! Two of our games this weekend had 6 players on a team working together, which opened up even more excellent tactical options. Often, things would begin with people sitting down to design their character, and we guided them through the process as they used the Player's Guide to choose their favorite alien race, their skills, physiques, personalities, talents, and equipment. Then, when they were ready to go, we dropped them into a mission and they had to coordinate as a team to achieve the mission goals. Some of the players opted for our pre-made characters (though three of them returned the next day to design their own characters for another game) and one player that dropped in the middle of a mission used an NPC for her character, which she role-played quite well! Every game was an exciting event filled with all kinds of memorable moments throughout the mission. This week, I'm going to share a few of those moments as proof that Hopkins students really know how to play Solar Echoes!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Solar Echoes at JohnCon, April 10-12!

If you're in the Maryland area this weekend, join us at the Johns Hopkins University for the JohnCon​ where we'll be running Solar Echoes missions for new players!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Challenging Players: Environmental Effects

The MC has the responsibility of creating a challenging scenario for players and must keep it interesting. One method detailed in the MC Guide involves using environmental effects to add variety to the battlefield. For instance, a smoky or misty environment will affect a laser sight and cause a bloom effect, which negates the bonus provided by the laser sight and also highlights the location of the gun. Radiation, wind, darkness, ice, and fire are but of few of the other environmental effects that will have a notable impact upon combat scenarios, some of which will affect certain races more than others. For instance, Omuls take 1 additional point of damage from fire, but Reln suffer 1 less damage from radiation effects.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Inside Information

One of the reasons we decided to write the Mission Controller's Guide is because we felt there was a lot of information that should be “MC Only.” Details about several new alien races or robots that could pose a significant threat to the character races are included in the MCG. If we had included this information with the Player's Guide, there would be fewer surprises and a lot less intrigue if players could study it beforehand. Plus, what better way to establish formidable villains than to keep them shrouded in mystery? You won't learn all the secrets of the Solar Echoes universe in the MCG (we have to keep some of it up our sleeve for future releases,) but you'll learn quite a lot--far more than your unsuspecting players!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Flavor Text: What is it?

We have a lot of setting information in both books, though we kept it separate from rules text to make it easier to quickly reference our rules. Our setting info is in what we call “Flavor Text Boxes,” which are colorful, graphical boxes throughout the book with fun, informative, or even comical text relating to the chapter it is found in. Below is an example of informative flavor text:

"The Erwani tend to feel slightly out of place, being the only plant-life among the other 'animal' races. Despite this, they consider themselves almost as if they are wizened elders compared to the shortsighted, short-lived, and impulsive behavior of the others. However, the Erwani don't view the other races with contempt, but instead take it upon themselves to try and be caretakers and mediators to help everyone get along."

Friday, April 3, 2015

Is Dystopia All We Can Foresee? (part 5)

If a utopian science fiction story was to be successful, I think it would have to involve the struggles to produce such a society. It would involve the concept of equality and freedom for each individual, and the choice to pursue and achieve dreams by those working hard to achieve them. In dystopias, government is usually oppressive and controlling, but if a utopian story was written, it would probably involve a government that listens to its people and doesn't try to overstep by telling them what they can and can't buy, how much they can earn, what religion they can practice, and how they are to speak. Imagining a utopia like that might not seem too impossible to believe, especially since that was what the writers of the Constitution of The United States of America hoped we would have...and keep. Dystopia seems much more realistic to us now, though, especially since those who want to control us and deprive us of such things (because it threatens their power) are now telling us that those utopian qualities aren't good for us, after all. Maybe George Orwell was right about the future—he just got the year wrong!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Is Dystopia All We Can Foresee? (part 4)

Consider the popularity of Edward Bellamy's Utopian novel, “Looking Backwards,” published in 1888. The novel was immensely popular during its time, capturing the imaginations of people with the concepts of increased equality and reduced labor. Yet when socialism clearly failed to deliver the promised paradise but had instead resulted in stagnant wages, bad housing, the rarity of car ownership, and eroding freedoms, dystopic novels such as Orwell's “Animal Farm” and “1984” sounded with clarity the dismal future of such societies. If science fiction is a reflection of the times, maybe times were so rough in 1888 that a utopian vision was more appealing. Or, perhaps times weren't that bad at all, and a utopian vision seemed within reach?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Is Dystopia All We Can Foresee? (part 3)

Science fiction involves a number of unique factors, but one crucial part is the ability of the reader to identify with the futuristic vision that is created. If the fictional world presented to the reader is too perfect and happy, this fictional world is likely to be rejected. There is one sci-fi series (I won't name names, to avoid offending any fans of this particular show) that I was never able to get into, and the reason was that the fictional world seemed too perfect to me--too clean, too well-ordered and convenient. I'm not saying I like all my sci-fi to be gritty and harsh, but I just can't imagine a future involving humanity where they have solved all their problems. Utopia seems a naïve concept, or something imagined by the leader of a cult, not something practical or realistic in today's world.