Thursday, April 10, 2014

Humble Bundle: PC and Android 9

Humble Bundles are a great way to pick up new games. Sometimes they're computer games, sometimes they're Android games, but they're always awesome games. So what happened when there are eight games that you can download for computer and Android?

Humble Bundle: PC and Android 9, that's what.

So what's on tap? (That's an Android touchscreen pun. Doesn't work so well on the computer side of things...)
  • Broken Sword 2: The Smoking Mirror by Revolution Software: If you like things that are beautifully animated and in the vein of classic point-and-click adventure games, then you're looking for the second installment of the Broken Sword series.
  • Bridge Constructor by Merge Games: Deceivingly fun. I know it's strange to say about a bridge-building simulator - the title doesn't pull any punches - but it's oddly addicting (and macabre in a sense, depending on the bridge you build).
  • Type:Rider by BulkyPix: Typography is very cool. If you don't believe me, go watch the documentary Helvetica. Type:Rider takes that to the next level with font-inspired platforming action with a unique aesthetic.
  • Ravensword: Shadowlands by Crescent Moon Games: An epic action-adventure title that pretty much gives you anything you would want in a fantasy game. And by that I mean plenty of dragons, trolls, and other mythological creatures you can kill with your medeival weapon of choice.
  • Kingdom Rush by Ironhide Game Studio: There are a lot of tower defense games out there, but few have the cartoony charm and colorful battles of Kingdom Rush.
  • Knights of Pen and Paper +1 Edition by Paradox Interactive: There are two types of RPGs (and, I suppose RPG players) out there: the pen-and-paper type, and the video game type. "But how can you have a video game with 'Pen and Paper' in the title?!" Because you play as players playing a pen-and-paper RPG. It's all very Inception, if Inception was a 16-bit RPG.
  • The Shivah by Wadjet Eye Games: Decidedly darker than most of the other games included, you take the role of a rabbi facing a declining congregation in a point-and-click adventure that deals with some pretty heavy topics of faith.
  • Savant - Ascent by D-Pad Studios: A unique take on shoot 'em up-style games, heavy on the music thanks to the contribution of Savant.
  • Syder Arcade by Studio Evil: But what if you want your shoot 'em ups to be a little more old school? The hectic Syder Arcade might be a little more your speed.
Note that the latter five are only unlocked when you pay more than the average, but that's not a problem, because a) as of this posting, the average is a mere $3.90, and b) did you forget that a portion of the proceeds go to charity, and that c) all of the games are DRM-free and multiplatform, and that d) game soundtracks are included? Of course you didn't! There are five days left for this bundle, so go ahead and buy it and start gaming at home or on the go.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Review: 'S.' by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

It's hard to make a case (outside of nostalgia) for physical entertainment in an increasingly digital world. Books withstood this electronic assault for a longer period of time than either music or movies but with the ubiquitousness of eReader platforms and eBooks, those have started to fall, too. So what do you do to ensure that people have - want, in fact - an actual object in their hands? Do what JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst have done with S., arguably the most original reading experience in some time.

Now, S. has an eBook version, but consider this: S. is actually several stories in one. There's the novel Ship of Theseus, written by fictional novelist V.M. Straka; there are margin notes by college students Eric and Jen, whose narrative includes making their way in the world, their relationship with each other, and their quest to discover the true identity of the mysterious Straka; and there are accompanying props to flesh out that world. So, while there is an eBook version of S., I can't help but feel that it would be...sterile. There's something to be said for holding a postcard or a photograph in your hand or spinning a decoder wheel or reading a clipped newspaper article or unfolding an actual napkin with a map sketched on it. Yes, it is all very detailed and very faithfully reproduced. The main thrust of the work (I'll refrain from calling it a novel, because the whole experience involves so much more) revolves around people and world events from the beginning half of the 20th century, and having the book and everything else it includes and your hands to sift through feels appropriately analog.

That speaks to the biggest strength of S., which is its inclusiveness. If you've followed Abrams' other (film and television) work, you know it's all about going big or going home. Whether it's the multiple, multiple layers of Lost or the comprehensive in-universe background behind Cloverfield, Abrams has a way of making the things he's involved in feel very real. S. is no different; the aforementioned newspaper reproductions and photocopied papers really make you feel like you're discovering treasures. The book of Ship of Theseus itself comes complete with library checkout stamps, stained pages, and a Dewey Decimal sticker. Then there are various blogs, Tumblrs, and Twitter accounts from Eric and Jen that let you be involved in their research on an intimate level. Whatever faults people have with Abrams, making whole worlds isn't one of them; its why his shows have been so engrossing and why he's been handed the keys to two of the biggest pop culture franchises of all time.

Of course, it helps when something is good, which S. certainly is. Ship of Theseus, written by Doug Dorst, uses mystery as its main thrust, but is in turn funny and suspenseful and action-packed: it revolves around an amnesic man, S., who is kidnapped by eerie pirates and is soon set against world-changing events, all while trying to find his identity and a woman who keeps popping up in his life. The book necessarily mirrors the "real world" story of Straka, and at times the events of Eric and Jen.

Speaking of those two, they're our window into the world, where we learn about the backdrop of the events of the book thanks to their convenient academic setting, constantly annotating and explaining allusions and references. Their story is just as interesting as the others; Eric has been obsessed with the "Who is Straka?" mystery for so long that we see him have to work through his social deficiencies with Jen, who is about to graduate and going through her own metamorphosis, similarly learning how to deal with the changes happening in her life. When S. and Straka's lives revolve around so much mystery on such a grand scale, having Eric and Jen there to keep things grounded is a huge boon.

It's hard to talk about S. without the most dreaded of pop culture demons - spoilers! - and to do so would be a disservice to potential readers. If you like things that wrap up neatly by the time the last page is turned, you'll be disappointed in S.. It doesn't answer all of the questions it asks, which is part of the fun. There are message boards and blogs dedicated to the puzzles that aren't solved in the text; it truly is an experience, and how much you enjoy S. will largely depend on how much you want to invest in it. If you do pick it up, though - and I really think you should - do yourself a favor and get it in glorious hardcover. You may not have bought an actual book in a while, so now's a perfect time to start.

Whatever you do, don't get the audio book.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Former eMusic CEO Tackles Music Revenue, Pricing, and Streaming

Will the recorded music industry ever grow again? Since 1999, the industry has been in rapid decline as CDs became unbundled into downloaded singles. The digital download market never came close to the size of the physical music market. Now we are in the midst of another format transition, this time from downloaded singles to streaming.
David Pakman takes a look at recorded music revenue, and it's pretty interesting. As many people without vested interests in the contrary have realized for a while, the biggest culprit in the decline of recorded music revenue wasn't Napster or like piracy services, but Apple - or, more specifically, iTunes. It's something I've written about myself; Pakman refers to it as "unbundling": when you aren't paying $18 for an entire CD, and can buy the one or two songs you actually want, there's bound to be a decline in revenue.

Pakman also notes that "[annual] spending is slightly higher among P2P music service users." This is something that Mike Masnick at TechDirt has been saying for some time. He argues that it comes down to a service issue, because people who want your products are your biggest fans and are - or could be, if you let them - your biggest customers.

The most interesting part of the article was the numbers on streaming services. These services, such as Spotify, are simultaneously vilified and seen as saviors: people actually use them, and they are revenue streams via either advertisements or paid subscriptions, but many argue that they pay out too little to be of any use. The study looked at by Pakman shows that consumers spend, on average, between $45-65 per year on recorded music. However:

the on-demand subscription music services like Spotify, Deezer, Rdio and Beats Music are all priced the same at more than twice consumer spending on music. They largely land at $120 per year (although Beats has a family-member option for AT&T users at $15 per month.)
Streaming services are all currently priced well above what customers are willing to pay, which may be why subscriptions have taken a relatively long time to get off the ground. Pakman concludes that the solutions to this are for customers to suddenly decide they want to pay twice as much per year for music, which seems unlikely, or record labels work to lower the prices of the services - which, in my opinion, is just as unlikely.

The whole article has much more information and several graphs and charts, and is worth a full read.

via Re/code

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Project Spotlight: Quickey Multi-Tool by Trident Design, LLC

Not every inventionis going to be a world-changer. We can only have so many wheels or levers or Doritos Locos Tacos, right? But every once in a while - and more often now thanks to crowdfunding - you come across something that just seems so "duh" that you don't know why it's never been thought of before. That's how I felt about Quickey by Trident Design, LLC. Is it the next Internet? Probably not. But I can't tell you how many time I've cut, opened, or screwed something with a key, a credit card, a coin, or whatever else I had lying around, to less-than-optimal results. The Quickey looks to change all that.

The Quickey is a multi-tool that's shaped like...wait for it...a key. Full disclosure: the pun is one of the main reasons I'm so behind this project. Think of it this way: it's like a pocket knife, but one that's easier to carry around and less obtrusive. Throw it on your keychain and be done with it, until you run across one of the many, many instances in which you'll need it. So how many is multi, and what are the tools? You get a file, a flat head screwdriver, a bottle opener, a serrated edge (which is also touch-safe, meaning you won't cut yourself on it; a huge plus for a tool like this), and a scoring point for everything from taped boxes to clamshell packaging that would make Fort Knox proud. In short, you'll find yourself covered for every situation.

Getting a Quickey is as easy as pledging to their Indiegogo campaign. Nine bucks will net you one, which is a small price to pay for the value. The cool thing about the campaign is that most tiers above the single Quickey will get you a bunch (along with a t-shirt), up to a whopping 1,000, and you can get them etched with a logo to sell or give away. This has limitless marketing potential, or if you're a small business whose customers would find use in an object like the Quickey, you could find yourself with a new hit item. It's a good example of one creator looking out for other businesses and working together.

Trident looks to have their act together, and this isn't their first go around, as you can see on their site. Just like the Quickey, their campaign is straightforward but great, and as of this writing they have almost $78,000 of their $4,000 goal...with 28 days left. Suffice it to say, people love this idea, and I can't blame them. Will Quickey change the world? Probably not. But I foresee my life getting a lot easier with one in hand.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: 'About Last Night' by Sleeper Agent

Sleeper Agent has been, I suppose appropriately, a sleeper for the past few years (warning: that won't be the last time that pun is used). I saw them live a few years back opening for fun. in a small club just after Some Nights hit - y'know, back when fun. could still played small clubs. I couldn't help noticing that I was listening to something special. Sleeper Agent had just one album out, Celabrasion, but they already acted like they belonged: a strong male/female vocalist combo? Check. Infectious on-stage energy? Yep. A unique blend of fun, hard-hitting music with often deceptively deep and serious lyrics? Absolutely. Now their second album, About Last Night, is out, and like most sophomore albums it's kind of a big deal. We get to see if we get more of the same, a completely new direction, or something in between. That might be for you to decide, but one thing that can be definitively said is that it's damn good.

The contrast between vocalists Alex Kandel and Tony Smith is the strongest selling point of Sleeper Agent. From opening track "Be Brave" you're drawn in; Kandel starts out the verse before Smith kicks in with the bridge, and both together during the chorus perfectly underscore the emotion and implications behind "I've been feeling so lonesome that I could cry/But I could be brave in your bed tonight." Neither singer overpowers or overshadows the other; it's so natural that if either were removed or replaced I couldn't imagine how different the song would be.

This sort of balance really describes the entirety of About Last Night. Like the opening track, the others have Kandel and Smith in perfect proportion. They know when to lay off the instruments during "Waves" and allow a simple syncopated beat behind "New York City's up all night, coming down from 99" before kicking back in with other instruments and backup vocals. "Me On You" is almost melancholy for the first few notes before it is decidedly not, but lyrics like "Baby, don't let me waste no more time on you" are accompanied by music you just want to dance to.

The album as a whole, between tracks, keeps this balance, too. Sleeper Agent knows when to push things to their frenetic limit and when to pull back with a more mellow - but no less catchy - track. "Haunting Me" opens with a deep, sultry verse and the rest of the song ("It looks like you, it talks like you, but it won't let me through") is appropriately haunting, while the more folksy "Lorena" starts with simple guitar strumming. You could pick any one song and center the theme and sound of an entire album around it, but luckily you can find it all in one place on About Last Night.

About Last Night is everything you want from a sophomore album: a little more polish, evident growth, and proof that a fantastic first album wasn't just a fluke. With so much to offer, similarities to bands like Grouplove, and touring efforts with the likes of fun. and Fitz & The Tantrums, I have no idea how Sleeper Agent has stayed under the radar for so long. I can't imagine that lasting as people finally wake up to the great sounds Sleeper Agent has to offer.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Hiccup to the Kickstarted 'Veronica Mars' Movie? Getting the Actual Movie.

The movie came out last week to very good reviews... but leave it to Warner Bros. to totally muck it up, screw over the goodwill from all those backers and scare people off from such future collaborations. That's because one of the popular tiers promised supporters that they would get a digital download of the movie within days of it opening. But, of course, this is a major Hollywood studio, and due to their irrational fear of (oh noes!) "piracy" they had to lock things down completely. That means that backers were shunted off to a crappy and inconvenient service owned by Warner Bros called Flixster, which very few people use, and then forced to use Hollywood's super hyped up but dreadful DRM known as UltraViolet.

via Techdirt

Monday, March 10, 2014

Review: 'The Sun at Night' by Minicore Studios

Alternate-history fiction is a fairly common genre: put a twist on a well-known event or figure and your audience suddenly finds themselves in a world slightly parallel to the one they know and love. It's usually something small with massive repercussions, like a certain person did or didn't die, a battle was won instead of lost, someone didn't quite make it to where they should have...

...or a talking dog returns from outer space decked out in robotic armor to combat superpowered Soviet forces.

That's the premise of The Sun at Night from Minicore Studios, and it makes the Cold War (ALERT: bad pun) very, very cool. Many people know the real life story of the space-bound Laika who sadly died in orbit. In the world of The Sun at Night, though, the Soviets have discovered a new energy source and Laika descended back to Earth to help resistance units combat the tide of war.

That summary only just scratches the surface, which brings us to the first great thing about The Sun at Night: it builds its world so well that you can't help feeling invested in it. Taken at face value - sci-fi dog action platformer - the premise can sound absurd (but awesome), but the game embraces this absurdity and builds around it. Yes, you play as Laika, a talking dog who fights robots and soldiers and science experiments gone wrong. But there's so much more going on that this world feels like just that - an actual world.

Example: when you start out in a rebel camp, you can speak to dozens of people to get a feel for what exactly is going on in this crazy scenario. Most conversations have branching dialogue trees so you can really dig in deep and learn everything you want to know - maybe more than you ever thought you wanted to know. But even that only scratches the surface, as you can find journal entries and books and computers to learn even more. It's like a real-life history lesson, only with substantially more robots. Minicore didn't create a game with a surface-level paint job of "sci-fi Cold War"; they've built a history to the world, and it gives the game a weight that makes it stand up even in the face of "sci-fi dog action platformer."

This complexity extends past the story and into the gameplay of The Sun at Night. It's pretty straightforward - you control Laika and the gun mounted on her back independently to fight through levels - but it quickly gets more complicated. You're able to upgrade Laika's armor with offensive-, defensive-, or ability-based capabilities, letting you choose how you want to play. Maybe you're the type to supe up your gun first, or maybe you'd like Laika to be quicker and more nimble to avoid enemies. No one will judge you. Each upgrade node unlocks others, so you can really plan what shape you want the game to take. There are occasional hacking minigames, too; while those don't make up a bulk of the action, they're a nice break nonetheless.

The levels are fairly open so you're free to explore to find items, equipment, and the aforementioned world-building documents. It also makes it pretty easy to get lost, and while there is a map system, it's as complex as the rest of the game, but in an unhelpful manner. C'mon, guys. I'm not Magellan here. Still, it's easy to overlook this small flaw if you consider it under the context of "exploration" instead of "lost" and it just gives you more opportunity to uncover small details that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

You know how everyone likes those kinds of games that look and sound awful? What? No one likes games like that? Well good, because The Sun at Night is just as good on its surface as it is underneath. The game looks almost like an animated film; the characters are 2D and move fluidly, and the backgrounds are crazy detailed. More of that world-building at play: if the Cold War involved mad science, it would definitely happen in places like this.

The Sun at Night is the first in what Minicore is calling The Stray Series, so you won't get the full story just yet. Honestly that's fine, because on its own this game has enough to process. It's refreshing to see this much work put into a game on more than just the aesthetic elements. It's like the Cadbury Egg of video games: sure, the chocolatey outside is pretty and delicious and you'd probably be fine with just that, but then you get to the creamy center and you wonder why every candy isn't like this. And it does so in a manner that isn't nearly as clumsy as that analogy.

The Sun at Night is out now.

Special thanks to Minicore Studios for providing a review copy of The Sun at Night.