Saturday, 29 August 2009

StarCraft II LAN fiasco: What Blizzard should do

Among all most wanted titles of 2009-2010, one of the game that’s ranked pretty high on my list is StarCraft II. But the recent ruckus about the missing LAN feature kinda dropped the hype for me, the rage of the SCII fans and community member is utterly disheartening, and the stance of the developers on this matter is simply adding salt to the wound.

Blizzard is well known for its PC roots, and it’s great that until today, they still deliver quality games exclusively to their PC fans. The reason of the omission of LAN or local network gaming to combat piracy is fully understandable. But there are surely better ways to implement the workaround and not making an impression of ‘punishing’ the gamers.

From what we can see in the recent showing at BlizzCon ’09, it seems that Battle.Net login is becoming the main in-game gateway before gamer can access the game, and ‘Play as Guest’ is the only offline play mode available. This system awfully resembles Battlefield 2142, and it’s one of the worst case in comparison, I must say. In my first experience with BF2142, you can play offline using an ‘injected’ default player profile, but all of the achievements and statuses will be nullified. This means that you can’t progress in rank, can’t unlock new items and weapons, and what’s worse: making the game completely uninteresting to play because you can’t play the damn drool-inducing Titan Mode. Guess what? That time, I was left with no options to access the internet. My dial-up modem crapped out, and I had just moved in to the new rented house with my family so no broadband either. Curse you EA.

Does Guest Account do what I think? Better not be. If this is the case, then what Blizzard do is far from embracing its loyal userbase on the PC, it’s downright hurting them. What about gamers who doesn't have access to the Internet at all? There are third-world countries to consider as well.

Are there ways that Blizzard can do to avoid this? Sure! Look at Valve.
With Steam, my online game experience (and single-player, too) can’t be any better. Downloading bought, legal games is easy. But that’s not the point here. If Blizzard is going the DRM route, then in-game Battle.Net login should be scrapped. They should implement an external authentication software to do so. Why? Because firewalls and non-transparent proxies in home and office networks don’t favor ports other than HTTP ones.

I had severe headache when I tried to run Ragnarok Online and similar online games through FreeProxy back in 2003. But now games on Steam alleviates such login problems because, in order to run the games, all they need is a centralised login account. Even though you’re using a port redirection, Steam can still login and run the game with full LAN and campaign features (although you can’t browse for online servers, because that needs a different connection port). Heck, it can even run in offline mode, using the stored login credentials.

So, I suggest either Blizzard jump into the Valve bandwagon, which is, very unlikely, or implement an external, proxy-and-firewall-aware authentication system. Both are good for the gamers. And they should really announce that kind of update and network compatibility issues, just … stop being vague by saying ‘No LAN? No big deal’. No big deal my *ss!!

Not all people will buy the game. Some will still crack and torrent it away. Look at Stardock. Blockbuster hit Sins of Solar Empire and Demigod makes good sales figures, (also, ‘good’ pirated copy figures) and they didn’t even think of using a DRM or some bloated authentication system. Why? Because: good games will sell.

Unless if SCII turns out to be a mediocre game and Blizzard is trying hard to sell it otherwise they’ll go bankrupt. But I’ll bite myself for saying that. =P

Monday, 24 August 2009

On Carmack and the state of GPU physics

For the computer graphics geek, there’s no hotter thing to talk about this decade other than GPU Physics. Recently, John Carmack spouted his take on dedicated physics hardware a.k.a Physics Processing Unit/PPU at QuakeCon 2009 Q&A section (watch here), and suddenly, all the Internet is on rage (pun intended).

So, basically, what Carmack said was about how the multi-CPU cores would be a more suitable path for physics processing in the near future, and PPU is not a viable option. He also said that some physics-intensive stuff can be done normally on a typical GPU ‘when GPUs finally get "reasonably fine-grained context switching and scheduling”’.

Most of the response to this statement is around ‘Carmack is yapping about stuff he has no clue about’, or ‘my PhysX-enabled 8800GT works just fine, so that's not true’, and so on.
Okay, so your Physx-card can render fluffy waving cloth and makes the breaking glass look more bling-a-ling pretty, but then what? Does it do groundbreaking physics calculations that actually affect the game play?

Let’s take two games for comparison then. Half-life 2 and Mirror’s Edge. Now turn off the physics specific codepath for both games (Havok for HL2 and PhysX for ME). Half-life 2 would be downright unplayable, but not Mirror’s Edge, since the latter can run perfectly fine, sans the framerate hit. The reason that Half-life 2 is unplayable is not because of the framerate or the speed of the processing, but it’s because the physics is actually integrated into the gameplay so much that you can’t lift yourself by using the wooden plank and piles of concrete bricks to proceed to the next level. Mirror’s Edge? Oh, don’t worry, you can finish the game without all the physics just fine. Hint: ‘First-order-physics

Not to put aside the majority of PC users still use IGP or weak GPUs with fast CPUs. Havok can be executed by the CPU, while PhysX relies on dedicated graphics chip.

To sum it all, what Carmack, from a developers’ perspective, said was: hey we’re better off using the hardware that >75% of people out there already have, because in the future, the CPU will only get crazier in terms of core count and speed, and not to mention the dawn of a better GPU(s) programmability and branching (GPGPU). It’s a good thing to have a ‘current’ solution like PhysX, but it’s only becoming a niche stuff in the long run.

Is it cheaper to pay a proprietary fee to Nv than to develop a multi-threaded physics game system based on Havok? Yes. But is it the right direction for the next DirectX 11/OpenGL 3.0 generation of hardware? I don’t think so.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Despera - The next Yoshitoshi ABe's hit anime

If you ask me about anime that has the biggest impact on my life, I couldn’t pick anything better than Yoshitoshi ABe’s ‘Serial Experiments Lain’. The show was everything that a cyberpunk and tech geek can hope for. This particular anime was also the reason that I decided to take a major in Computer Science back in the days. I have to mention that it’s also one of the most psychologically challenging anime of all times. Lain is by no means suitable for everyone, it’s jam packed with computer terms, even things that go beyond common knowledge at that 1998 era, things like ‘wired’ which is a term for an all-connected computer system, similar to a cloud system on the Internet, but ABe brought it even deeper with Augmented Reality systems that’s similar to the technology found in ‘The Matrix’. While Masamune Shirow’s ‘Ghost In The Shell’ puts us in a high-tech police and military technology whiz, Lain was more of a gritty self-realization of a wired-obsessed young girl, trying to poke the boundary between real and virtual worlds.

ABe is also known for his other brilliant work that is ‘Haibane Renmei’ or otherwise known as ‘The Charcoal Feathers Federation’. A beautiful and touching story about a world, where the inhabitants have charcoal-toned wings. Despite their wings, they are NOT angels. The show elevates the values of life and death, compassion, friendship and what truly caring for each other means. The anime won lots of awards, including one of the best art direction in anime for all times by Newtype magazine Japan. I personally loved everything about it: the music (the Hanenone album gives me the chills everytime I listen to it), the art, and the story.

This 2009, something really big is coming. The three musketeers that brought Lain to realization have gathered again for the second time and it seems that they have been busy producing the next candidate-to-be-legendary title: ‘Despera’. They are Yoshitoshi ABe (art), Ryutaro Nakamura (direction), and Chiaki J. Konaka (story). The anime will tell a story about a 14 year old girl named ‘Ain’ who is able to create high-tech devices unknown to the era that she lives in. The sci-fi alternative period story is set in Tokyo during the Taishō era in 1922, one year before the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. There will be pre-WWII military references, old Japanese societies, and someone that has the premise similar to Half-Life 2’s G-Man. Quoting from Animage: “Unknown Man - A man in his 30s who is an associate of Ain's. In the prologue chapter of the novel, he claims to be able to see the future through the displays on Ain's computer monitors. His face and identity has yet to be revealed.” And judging from all those info, we can safely conclude that the anime will have thick cyberpunk theme, with the usual unpredictable deep plot written by Chiaki-sensei.

Most looked forward to anime this season? Definitely yes. Best anime of the upcoming season? Might not be, but the three big names that delivered Lain should be a great benchmark on how this anime will certainly rock most otakus in all over the world and blow a fresh wind of remarkably high quality presentation rarely found in the mainstream anime shows nowadays, like: Naruto, Pokemon, and Katekyoushi Hitman Reborn! to name a few.

note: Credit goes to Weiss for the scanned pictures.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Augmented Reality: Introduction and Concepts

This is a copy of my Augmented Reality Presentation at Research Information and Technology Expo (Ritech) 2009, Plasa Barat Senayan Jakarta, Indonesia, 9/8/2009. The event was held by CAMS Solutions and endorsed by the Indonesian Ministry of Research and Technology. Unfortunately it's in Indonesian language only, but you are welcomed to make a translation or re-distribute it as necessary under this license aggreement:

Creative Commons License
Augmented Reality: Introduction and Concepts by Niko Radityo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Please note that this material covers very basic concepts about Augmented Reality and such might not be suitable as technical reference. It's provided as is and I do not hold ownership of any products portrayed in the material.

You can download the .ppt PowerPoint/Keynote material from the Internet Archives here
(enter the HTTP link on the far left)

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Garudayana: best Indonesian comic?

"If someday a PVC figure of Kinara appears on the store shelves, I'd buy that with no second thought :D"

It has been … a while since I read comic books, or manga for that matter. Well, truthfully, I mostly read manga back then, mainly Japanese, with moé and cutesy stuff, because I’m not comfortable with looking at bulky muscular men portrayed in US comic books or hardcore local ‘indie’ comics in Indonesia which mostly have this ‘Candy Candy’ or Panji Koming look and feel to them (though Panji Koming and Sawung Kampret is awesome, hands down, but I tend to put it in low priority initially, as would any other general comic/manga readers).

Just recently I attended the launching of ‘Koloni’, a local brand initiative for new generation of Indonesian comic, held by m&c!, one of the biggest, if not the most popular, comic and manga publishing company in this country. God, how I surprised by the major improvement of the Indonesian comic makers nowadays! They are so young and very talented, but the most important thing is that, out of 8 books (and authors, respectively) launched that day, I found out that more than half of that is much suitable for my tastes. The most interesting and of course, most anticipated title is ‘Garudayana’ written and illustrated by Is Yuniarto. The question is: HOW good is that comic? Made in less than 3 months? Really?

Among all the Indonesian comic book diversity, I have a soft spot for everything Wind Rider. It’s one of the local comic which dare to strip all the indie flavouring (or self-proclaimed ‘Indonesian comic’ identities) and step into a pure, fictional direction. When it seems that everyone is going the ‘romance’ stuff, they invent a brave, new world of science-fiction, and even post-apocalyptic imagery and storytelling, most prominently found in Knights of the Apocalypse which spanned into 3 volumes/trilogy. Behind these titles are Is Yuniarto, John C. Reinhart and Aswin.

When I heard that Garudayana is launched, this piqued my interest to full throttle. A bit of it died, though, knowing that Is Yuniarto did all the illustration and storywriting without John and Aswin. But then the good news is that this comic has a huge chance of being recognized outside of Indonesia, because the primary mission of ‘Koloni’ comic initiative by m&c! is to sell the select titles overseas. Great job, I must say. Now on to the contents.

The art and style is not that much different to the usual ‘teamwork’ of Wind Rider Studio. There, I said it. I was thinking to ask about this in the press conference but I never got the chance. It seems that solo work can be as good as a teamwork in some occassions. Great, consistent artwork, and nice setting of the plot and characters swayed me into reading more. The main girl character, Kinara is a moé treasure hunter and a bit of a klutz. If that doesn’t sound typically Japan to you, I don’t know what else to refer. (replace term 'moé' with 'ca'em', if you like) She accidentally found a Garuda in a form of an unhatched egg in an old, abandoned temple. Problem is, that Garuda is on the feast menu of the legendary beast Ashura, which only Gatotkaca can deal with. Well, things got a bit more hectic when eventually the egg hatched into a tiny ‘Garu’, which can transform into many forms, including a small boy (but he still pecks the ground when eating, which is hilarious). Along the journey of Kinara to many places, we will meet the three brothers of Punakawan: Gareng, Petruk and Bagong. They are the source of many comic relief in this comic. Especially when they created a ‘Kereta Kencana’ vehicle that looks and works like a three-wheeled Harley-Davidson. Also expect to see many characters from ‘pewayangan’ such as Nakula, Sadewa, Semar, Yudhistira, Arjuna, and many more. I’m not –THAT- surprised when I saw Arjuna portrayed as a pretty boy elven archer, I swear.

If you prefer some romance and drama, you won’t find it here. There are seriously intense fighting scenes with bruises and fancy effects in this comic. Also, the amount of humor is abundant, which makes the whole book comfortable to read and not even a teeny weeny bit boring. The storyline is clearly written, and there is a nice ending to book one that makes you want to read the story even more (is that a Pancasila reference?). Don’t worry though, Is confirmed that the next volume will be even a bigger blast. Overall, this is undoubtedly one of the best Indonesian-made comic I’ve read. Not as deep as Knight of Apocalypse, in my opinion, but still has that touch of ‘Wind Rider’ style we all know and love.

Some notes: When I was working in Advance Magazine, I used to dwelve a lot into comic scene. It crossed my mind that the topic of ‘Indonesian comic style’ is always debatable. I feel that I have to reiterate what Is said about this: “A comic that was made by Indonesian is naturally an Indonesian Comic”. We might have not found our comic style yet, but as long as it’s good to read, it’s always a GOOD thing. Stop the retarded arguments about being ‘indie style’ and support these comic authors. Buy the comics!

Back then I also hoped that somebody can make a killer formula to mix Indonesian lores and legends (which I’m honestly not that interested in) into an interesting and kickass comic that I, and everyone else can enjoy. I think Garudayana is -that- dream come true. Oh, and Gunblades can go away in hell fire, Crossbow Keris FTW!!