I had heard of the website Bundle-in-a-Box before, but never really looked into it until one of my friends Robb Sherwin had one of his games added to a bundle. What Bundle-in-a-Box does is group several games together and allow their customers to pay whatever price they think the bundle is worth. The games are downloadable and DRM-free so you can install them wherever and to whatever you want.
This week’s bundle contains five games and the minimum price you can pay is $2, which works out to be 40 cents per game. If you go crazy and pay more than the average price (which is currently $5.85), you get four additional games for a total of nine in all. $5.85 for 9 games is 65 cents per game, big spender.
This is the part where I talk about what you else in this world you could get for 40 cents instead of a game. McDonald’s now charges 25 cents for additional tiny plastic cups of McNugget dipping sauce, so with 40 cents in your pocket, you could buy one additional container of sweet and sour sauce there. For 40 cents you couldn’t afford the cheapest item on Taco Bell’s menu, a “cheesy roll-up,” which is a tortilla with some melted cheese inside it that costs 79 cents. At the mall, a single gumball from the gumball machine costs fifty cents, so you couldn’t buy one of those either. The cost of a single stamp is 46 cents now, so with only 40 cents to your name you couldn’t buy enough postage to mail a latter to your next door neighbor. I suppose on iTunes you could buy 40% of a single song. I’m not sure they pro-rate them that way, but you get the idea.
One of the downfalls of digital distribution, be it games or music or movies or books, is that many consumers think digital goods should cost less than their physical counterparts. And I agree, to an extent. When I first added my book Commodork (which retails for $15 in paperback) to the Amazon digital bookstore, the initial price Amazon suggested was $9.99 which I was told by potential consumers was too high. I almost immediately lowered the price to $4.99, which I was also told was too high. Currently you can buy DRM-free PDF copies of my books Commodork and Invading Spaces for $2.99 each from my website. Each of those books represents a year’s worth of work. I wrote Commodork by waking up early and writing, staying up late and writing, and writing on weekends. For a year. If you figure I worked on Commodork 10 hours a week for an entire year, at $2.99 that means I earned a whopping .006 (six one-thousandths) cents per hour. Robb Sherwin told me last night he spent 2 1/2 years working on Necrotic Drift, his game in this week’s Bundle in a Box. A game which, again, you can own for 40 cents.
For Christmas, my son and I each got a new game for the PlayStation 3 (Call of Duty and Need for Speed). The total price of these two games combined with tax was $130. The cost for 5 games here is a minimum of $2. I won’t lie; I paid the whopping $6 to get 9 games. That’s more than “cheesy roll-up” money, but it barely covers the price of a combo meal.
Bundle-in-a-Box takes PayPal, Google Checkout, and credit cards. When I bought my Bundle it took about 8 seconds to pay and then I received the e-mail containing the download information about 4 seconds later. It will take you much less time to buy these games than it will take you to read anything I’ve ever written. Ever.
This week’s bundle contains an RPG, puzzle games, a couple of graphical adventure games, and of course my friend Robb’s text adventure. Won’t you consider buying a bundle of 40 cent games this week?
I began experiencing intermittent internet problems the first week we moved into our new home (a little over a year ago). I’d be chugging along, reading Facebook or watching a movie online, and suddenly everything would stop. I tried all the easy things like changing wireless channels, moving my router, and resetting/rebooting everything, but nothing seemed to help. To make matters worse we were only experiencing the problem a couple of times a day, which made tracking down the issue even more difficult.
I figured out the problem one day while watching a movie in the living room on Netflix with the kids. While Susan was preparing dinner in the kitchen, the movie stopped playing. Just as I was getting ready to start my normal troubleshooting routine, the microwave “dinged” and the movie started. I didn’t put two and two together until she began microwaving something else. When the microwave turned back on the movie stopped again — and when the microwave dinged again, the movie started playing again. I have repeated this multiple times and have now positively confirmed that when the microwave is on, the wireless internet is off.
Unfortunately, I don’t know what to do about it.
I have a Linksys E2000. Without loading a custom firmware onto it, I can’t boost the signal. I can’t move it from the upstairs room it’s in, and I can’t really move the microwave. I guess the best solution right now is to find something else to do while Susan’s using the microwave.
I think the most disturbing part of this post is that our microwave is probably cooking our brains.
Over the years I have set up and broken down my old gaming systems and computers many, many times. Sometimes — often times, actually — it seems like I spend more time connecting and configuring and reconnecting and reconfiguring them than I do actually playing games on them. When it comes to old hardware I have a softer spot in my heart for old computers than old console gaming systems, but the biggest problem with them is that they take up so much space. At one time in our old house I had over 20 video game consoles sitting on a relatively small set of shelves all hooked up to one single television. In that same room I had my three favorite old computers (a C64, an Amiga, and an Apple II) hooked up to three separate monitors tying up an entire 8′ table.
The other day I decided, why can’t I do that with my computers as well? Almost every flat screen television on the market now has multiple connections that would support these old computers. Last night while shopping at Sam’s Club I decided to pull the trigger and do something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while now.
For just under $350 I purchased a Sanyo 40″ flatscreen LCD television. They had bigger and smaller models with more and fewer features (actually there were few there with fewer features than this one), but it had all the right inputs for the job and the price was right.
As I said last night on Facebook, “the milk crate is temporary.” The television’s stand isn’t tall enough by itself so I needed to lift it up a bit. I’ll replace the milk crate this weekend with something else, but in the meantime it’ll do. My old trusty Commodore 64 plugged right into the television’s composite input and looks great. I did have to figure out how to set the default picture size on the television to 4:3 instead of 16:9 letterbox to keep the picture from being stretched out.
With the C64 up and running, the Amiga was next. The Amiga looks particularly crappy when connected via the composite cable. I found a couple of “VGA Flicker Fixers” in the ~$100 range that I will research and look into purchasing. So it’s not a great picture at the moment, but it’s working.
With the two Commodore products out of the way it was time to hook up the old Apple II. In a recent episode of You Don’t Know Flack I talked about the CFFA 3000, a compact flash/USB card reader for the Apple II. After reconnecting the composite cable from the Apple into the television and selecting a disk image, I was immediately greeted by the familiar sounds of Karateka. I don’t mind saying, the project took a back seat for a few minutes as I kicked and punched my way through a few enemy combatants.
That’s what they all look like now, sans any real cable management and with a milk crate in the picture. This weekend I’ll re-run all the cords and replace the milk crate with a proper stand.
This was part of a larger blog post that took a different direction so I split this little tidbit out. Did you know you can fix many scratched CDs with white toothpaste? I’ve tried it out of desperation a couple of times with success both times. Not only does the toothpaste fix scratches, it also prevents them from getting cavities in the future.
About a year ago I signed up for a free website named Failin.gs. After signing up, the service allows people around you to leave anonymous suggestions and feedback — the idea being since all comments are anonymous, your friendships won’t be affected and you can get real, true comments and suggestions on ways to improve your life. If you’ve ever wanted to secretly tell a friend that they have stinky breath or dress like a rock star from the 1980s, this would be perfect way to do so. Or so I thought.
Except for the first week I haven’t been able to get anyone to leave suggestions for me, and every single person I’ve mentioned it to has had the same comment: “nothing on the Internet is anonymous.”
And in a way they’re right. Technically speaking very little of what happens on the Internet is truly anonymous. TCP/IP, the language of the Internet, uses IP addresses to figure out what information goes where. When you visit robohara.com, your computer sends your IP address to my website, which in turn determines what information you requested (like a blog post or a picture) and sends it back to your IP address. Web servers by default log this information — for how long those logs are kept or what is done with them is up to the site’s administrator.
There are ways to hide your IP address, like using a proxy server for example. To use one of those, your computer connects to a proxy server which would in turn connect to robohara.com. My website would then send the information back to the proxy server, which would then send it back to you. The only IP address robohara.com would ever see would be the one belonging to the proxy server. This still isn’t truly anonymous as the proxy server still has your IP address. I, Rob O’Hara, wouldn’t have any way to get that IP address from the proxy server owner unless you committed some sort of crime, and even then I would be depending on the owner of the proxy server to maintain logs. The real key here is to use a proxy server in another country, or better yet, hop from one proxy to another. This is pretty safe unless you start pissing off three letter agencies, at which point you had better hope you are using proxy servers that are far away in countries that don’t like cooperating with this one. I am digressing off topic.
The point is, at least with failin.gs, they do not reveal people’s IP addresses, e-mail addresses, or any other information to its users. So while it might not be anonymous in the technical internet routing definition of the world, it was anonymous to me. Still, people are so hesitant to believe that in this day and age something online would truly be anonymous that the basic requirement for users to trust a random website and believe that it was truly anonymous was more than people were willing to do.
Over the past week I’ve been working on two different tech-related projects. The first of which was, I’ve been working on setting up a BBS. It’s telnet, not dial-up based, and it’s pretty much working although there’s still lots of little tweaks I need to do to it. The other was, last night my CFFA3000 arrived. It’s a new card that allows Apple II .DSK files to be run via a USB stick on real Apple II hardware.
While working on both projects I have run into technical issues. The BBS software I picked has limited documentation available, and the CFFA3000 card seems to work on some of my Apple computers, but not on others. Yes, I have a stack of Apple II computers lying around — doesn’t everybody?
Point is, the roadblocks I’ve run into have worked a part of my brain that doesn’t get much use these days. These days, “figuring something out” basically translates to “figuring out the right Google query to get you the information.” With both of these projects I’ve had to use a little brain power to actually get things working. It’s frustrating not to have all the answers in front of you or at your disposal online, but the challenge has been a little fun too.
I’ll write more about these two projects over the weekend.
A few years ago when I decided to build my first data storage RAID for the house, I didn’t have enough room in my server’s case to add four additional hard drives … so I went out to the garage, pulled one of my old computer cases off the shelf, and added four hard drives to it. I then bought some 3′ SATA cables, ran them out the back of my server and into the back of this tower to the drives, created a software RAID5, and began filling it with movies and music. I give you … Mr. Moonpie.
As you can see in the side here through the Plexiglas, there’s not much inside: four 2TB SATA hard drives, a power supply, a CD-Rom drive that doesn’t even work, and a few fans to move the hot air around.
Technology changes quickly. A few years ago they introduced much smaller external RAID solutions, and last year, they dropped the price on some of them. Last week from TigerDirect I ended up purchasing another StarData external RAID cube. Now I have two of them, both stuffed with 4 2TB drives running RAID5.
Setting up one of these containers is a quick no-brainer. After removing the drives from the big yellow tower, all I had to do was attach these tiny handles to the front of each drive (screws included) to assist in removing the drives in the future.
With the handles attached, the drives slide into the new enclosure and lock into place.
As you can see, the new enclosure is much, much smaller than the old giant banana one. It has a variable-speed fan included, to keep air circulating. It supports firewire, USB, and eSATA connections. I’m running eSATA and hardware RAID5 and the drives are performing just as fast as they were before.
Before I started this project, all of my virtual machines (including the one that runs robohara.com) were sitting in the big yellow box. They’re temporarily being hosted on a different drive until the new RAID5 formats; then I’ll migrate them back over and be fully back in business.
These are the inside projects I tackle when it’s 110 degrees outside.
Monday evening after hours I got a call informing me that one of our most important servers at work was offline. I’m not officially “on call” like I used to be years ago, but when something like this happens you throw your shoes back on and go see what’s up.
What was “up” — or technically, what wasn’t “up”, was the server’s RAID card. No RAID card meant no hard drives. Being a relatively old server, I didn’t have any spares of the same make or model available at my disposal, and the RAID card was attached to the motherboard so I couldn’t simply swap it out. With this server down none of our local users could log in to the network (or their own computers), and none of our external (or public) applications were working correctly. These semi-serious issues at 10pm would turn into really serious issues the following morning when users began showing up to work.
I spent a total of 11 hours working on the server and brainstorming solutions, starting at 9pm and finishing up just before 8am. Being a work machine I can’t go into too many technical details, but suffice it to say few simple ones presented themselves that night.
When Clint (our branch manager) heard that there was an outage he began texting me, wanting to know how long I was going to be at work. “Until everything’s working,” was my response. Around 1am Clint showed up on site with a sack full of energy drinks and a hot coffee from 7-11. I had already pounded one Starbucks skinny caramel macchiato on the way in, so the reserve caffeine delivery was much appreciated.
Apparently I don’t bounce back like I used to. After pulling an all-nighter Monday night, I was fairly worthless Tuesday. Tuesday night I crashed when I got home, which messed my sleep schedule up even further. Wednesday after work we replaced the barely-hobbling original server with brand new hardware. That took another three hours. This weekend, we’re having a power outage at work. By the time Saturday comes to a close, I expect to have accrued somewhere around 20 hours of comp time this week. My bones feel it.
So anyway … if you happen to walk past my desk and see a mess of papers, or a pile of food, or a pyramid of energy drinks and coffee cups, now you know why sometimes it looks that way.
In 1980 we had a TRS-80 III that used TR-DOS. We moved to an Apple compatible machine in 1982, and picked up an IBM XT a year or two after that. I learned my way around DOS at a pretty early age, as being able to change drives, navigate through directory structures and launch executables were all skills needed to play and copy games.
I don’t ever remember using DOS 1.0, but our IBM PC Jr. shipped with DOS 2.1 and I remember those diskettes vividly. It’s funny what memories stick with you. I remember using DOS 3.3 for a long time, but don’t remember 4.0 at all. I do remember using version 5, and all the different versions of 6 — 6.0, 6.2, 6.21, and 6.22.
If you ever want to hear an old school PC guy groan, mention EDLIN. EDLIN was the old DOS-based editor (EDit LINe) before EDIT was released with DOS 5.0. EDLIN was finally dropped from Vista/Win7 but was included all the way up to Windows XP. If you’re still running XP, I dare you to go to a command line and type “EDLIN FILE.TXT” and see what you can get to work. It’s like a less user-friendly version of VI, if you can imagine such a thing.
One of the major limitations of DOS was its 8.3 file name structure. This meant every file on your computer was limited to a name no longer than 8 characters with a 3 character extension. Instead of “Rob’s List of Favorite Songs.txt”, you might have “rsnglst1.txt”. Multiply that times a thousand and you can see how without good directory structures, it was often difficult to find old files. Early versions of DOS had a bug which prevented two files from having the same name even if they were in different directories. Back then you could easily hide files from other users, using the attrib +h command. DOS was full of little tricks.
DOS also came with BASIC, which is what I and probably most computer people my age first programmed in. My programs were pretty crude and horrible, but they were fun to write. Like most kids I wrote a lot of simple math programs and bad games. Probably the most advanced thing I ever programmed in BASIC was a Dungeons and Dragons character generator. It started out life as just a simple blank character sheet form, but ended up as a program that would randomly generate both playable characters (PCs) and non-playable characters (NPCs) for use in adventures.
DOS also allowed you to link commands together in batch files. 30 years later I am still using batch files — I use them every single day at work, in fact. While other Microsoft scripting solutions like VB Scripting and Powershell have since been released, there’s still something to be said for a batch file that can be slapped out in seconds and save me hours worth of work. My home backups and several other scheduled maintenance tasks are all batch files.
Those of you who were really into computers back then remember the trials and tribulations of editing your config.sys and autoexec.bat files to get everything just right. Many of us had multiple configurations to choose from, depending on if we were playing games or not. Some games needed EMS; some needed XMS. It was all a balancing act that involved deciding just how much RAM you wanted to set aside for different processes and drivers. Today’s crop of point-and-click users would have been lost. (Think “getting a wireless router to work times 100″.) When I worked at Best Buy in late 94/early 95, people would bring their machines in after purchasing a game and pay $39.95 for me to configure their machines to play it.
One of the last additions to DOS that I remember was DBLSPACE, a utility that MAGICALLY “doubled” the size of users’ hard drives’. Really what they did was compress compressible files on the fly. In 1994, Stac Electronics sued Microsoft for including DoubleSpace with DOS, claiming that the code was based on their own STACKER code (a competing product that Microsoft had at one time considered buying). According to Wikipedia Stac Electronics was awarded $120 million dollars, Microsoft was awarded $13 million in a counterclaim, and ultimately the suit was settled when Microsoft “[made] a $39.9 million investment in Stac Electronics, and additionally [paid] Stac about $43 million in royalties on their patents.”
The first version of Windows I ever used, Windows 3.1, sat literally on top of DOS. Windows 95, however, booted directly into Windows and for the first time, I didn’t get to see DOS before I saw Windows. The first time I installed Windows 95, I put a shortcut to CMD.EXE in the startup folder so that when Windows 95 launched, I would be treated to a DOS prompt. Old habits die hard.
Like I said, I still use DOS today. I wrote Batch-o-Matic specifically to work with DOS Batch files. Over the years Microsoft has tried to wean us off of DOS by incorporating fewer features with every new operating system they release, but as long as I can leverage “the little command line that could”, I’ll continue doing so.
I passed on the opportunity to have dinner with Robb Sherwin back in 2007 when the two of us were (separately) attending the Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. “He’s funny, you’re funny, come have dinner with us,” said mutual friend Jason Scott. Unfortunately I already had plans to visit the Pinball Hall of Fame with other friends of mine that evening, so I had to decline the offer. Their pack of nerds went one way, my pack of nerds went another, and fate was postponed for a couple of years.
Since then, Sherwin and I became mutual fans of each another’s work. He purchased my book Commodork and gave it glowing review. I, in turn, fell in love with Sherwin’s writing style, both in his text adventures and on his multiple websites. In June of 2010 while visiting Denver, I was able to swing by Sherwin’s place and check out his collection of arcade games; earlier this summer while visiting the Oklahoma Video Game Expo, he was able to check out mine. Along with our mutual love of classic arcade games, we also share common interests in old computers, video games, and of course, text adventures.
Summary: Robb Sherwin and I know one other. If you’re looking for a completely neutral and unbiased review of Cryptozookeeper, this may not be the one for you. (That being said, I’ll still be writing it.)
And now, on with the review.
Like most gamers, I drifted away from the world of text adventures around the time graphics, sound and joysticks were invented. I played my share of text-based games in the early 1980s, but quickly moved on to “the graphical stuff” and didn’t revisit the genre until my interest was re-piqued by Jason Scott’s documentary Get Lamp.
There’s a reason the genre tends to identify with the more modern term “Interactive Fiction” versus the classic label of “Text Adventure”: Cryptozookeeper is roughly 600 megabytes in size, mostly due to the game’s graphics and 70-song soundtrack. To put that in perspective, the entire text of the Bible is 1.2 megabytes. (For the Devil sends the Beast with wrath, because he knows his downloads are short.) The game’s interface consists of four windows: a picture of who you’re talking to, a picture of where you’re at, a status update window, and the game’s text. Each of these windows are constantly changing depending on who you’re focused on and where you are, giving you a visual glimpse into the twisted world around you. This is not your father’s text adventure, in more ways than one.
In Cryptozookeeper players become William Ezekiel Vest, a man stuck in swarthy Christmas City, a town that’s part-nightmare, part-dark comedy. Things here are a little sick, a little twisted, and a little goofy in this place where the X-Files meets Nightmare on Elm Street: Part 3. In the game’s first location, players must solve a puzzle involving a dog named Puzzle. Assuming you outwit Igor Cytserz’s killer mutt, you’ll be gifted a vial of alien marrow from which DNA can be extracted. This package sets in motion a series of events in which Vest meets, interacts, and travels with multiple NPCs, traversing the city to find and collect DNA samples, all while solving classic IF puzzles along the way.
Midway through the game, Crypto morphs into a Monster Rancher-style game in which cryptids (creatures unknown to modern science) are created by mixing and matching your previously discovered DNA samples. Players have the freedom to create whatever kind and how ever many cryptids they want. Players will then spend time pitting these cryptids against other cryptids in order to level them up in order to finally face … well, I don’t know because I’m still leveling them up. But I’ll bet it’ll be a humdinger of a battle when I get there. While the battling cryptids contain varying attributes, the battles are mostly luck-based and randomly decided (I just had my Bigfoot unceremoniously defeated by an Aardvark). Fortunately your cryptids never truly “die” — instead they end up back at the pen, where they recuperate after a bit of resting.
The dialogue system used within Crypto is interesting in that the game-related topics each NPC knows about appear in color. (“I see you brought some DNA with you.”) The Tads.org article on NPC conversations refers to this style as “hyperlinked replies”. The advantage of hyperlinked replies is, you’ll never walk away from an NPC without gaining all the knowledge you are supposed to receive. (Typing “Topics PERSON” will list any you missed.) The disadvantage of this style is, conversations quickly become a laundry list of topics to be checked off until none remain. To be honest I’ve played all the major IF conversational styles (“free form”, “menu driven”, and “hyperlinked”) and they all have advantages and disadvantages. While free form conversations feel the most interactive, they leave the most to chance (and can lead players down a slippery “guess the noun” slope).The other two don’t allow for as much freedom; then again, they don’t allow for as much floundering around, either. As an author, I can appreciate forced dialogue systems for no other fact than I would hate to waste exposition (or worse, a great joke) on dark nooks and crannies that players may never encounter. Worse yet, put a game-advancing tidbit in there and watch your players’ progress grind to a halt.
Like all of Robb Sherwin’s games, the world of and characters within Christmas City is a conglomeration of pop culture references and technobabble. Sherwin entertains as earnestly as he offends. There are jokes about baseball and stigmata and trolls who edit Wikipedia entries. Not every joke sticks and I doubt everyone will get all the references (I know I missed some), but the ones I did get made me laugh. As with his previous games, Sherwin’s strong suit continues to be his writing.
If there’s any downside to Cryptozookeeper it’s that parts of it are insanely hard. I struggled with some of the puzzles for days, which, in all honesty, could be more of a reflection on my relative inexperience and re-introduction to text-based games than on the game. Some of the puzzles took me days to solve, and at least one side-plot involving an exorcism (I can’t tell if solving it was integral to “beating” the game yet or not) I can honestly say I have would never, ever solved on my own. This particular puzzle boils down to coming up with a single word, which I ultimately came up with after pleading with the author via e-mail. Cryptozookeeper may be enjoyed by beginning gamers, but it probably won’t be defeated by one.
From the text to the puzzles, Cryptozookeeper is a challenging game. It’s a game that engages players on multiple cylinders. I’m guessing the subject matter, language, and puzzles may not strike a nerve with all IF gamers, but for the ones it does, Cryptozookeeper is a guaranteed good time.