Archive for September, 2010

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Fan Art Fun: Losing My Digital Art Virginity To A Vulcan

September 30, 2010

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m more of a traditional artist; it just doesn’t feel right if my fingers aren’t stained with paint, ink, charcoal or what-have-you by the end of the day. I’ve involved computers in my art before, but only in very limited ways — tweaking, cleaning up lines, or doing the odd coloring job, etc. — and only after I’ve completed a piece by hand and scanned it in. But last week, I had a conversation with Rowan that made me consider seriously taking the plunge into digital art.

I’ve always envied what digital illustrators can do and had wanted to try it for myself, but I’ve put it off because I am a complete moron with these art-oriented software programs and I was also always too busy. But earlier this week, I promised myself I was going to suck it up and do some research. I got a friend of mine to hook me up with Corel Painter 11 and maybe this weekend I’ll go to the bookstore to buy some tutorials on the subject.

I can’t ever hold myself back from fiddling with a new application though, so in the meantime I decided set up a small canvas to play around a bit, test things out a little on the Wacom tablet. Well, what started as just a short test resulted in this. I sometimes like to draw my MMO characters whenever I practice with a new medium, so yes, that’s T’Androma, my main from Star Trek Online.

There you go, my first ever attempt at a piece of art created 100% completely on a computer. My first small step into the world of digital drawing!

Thoughts for my Art Journal: It was pretty awkward and the results weren’t exactly as I wanted. Because I didn’t know any better, I did the entire thing on a “pencil” setting; otherwise, I hadn’t intended the lines to look so harsh in the hair, the shirt, etc. There were so many other effects and things I wanted to do to get the look I wanted, and even after several (fruitless) web searches I still had not a flipping clue where any of the myriad options were or how anything worked. I am utterly hopeless when it comes to all this technical stuff. The ironic thing is that even with all these possibilities within my grasp, I’ve never felt so powerless when doing art before. That’s where the tutorials will come in handy, I’m sure.

I was also limited by a stubborn part of me that still wanted to treat the whole thing like a traditional drawing, just putting down lines and shapes onto the blank space I was given, not bothering with layers or any other features that I’m sure would have made my life easier. Old habits die hard, I guess.

It certainly felt weird working completely on the tablet. Some things were similar, others completely different. The stylus is designed to be very sensitive to my every movement, but compared to holding an actual pencil or paintbrush, it still felt infuriatingly clumsy. The whole experience also felt “sterile” to me, something I can’t really explain. I found a lot of things I liked, though. If this were painting, digital art would save me the trouble of mixing my own colors, which always takes a lot of work to get just right when you’re doing it manually with actual paints. I also loved being able to move my hands all over the surface without worrying about smudging anything. And finally, fixing any mistakes is a cinch. Though every time I erased something, I would get this urge to blow on the surface of the tablet.

Regardless, clueless as I was, I’m glad I took the time to play with it. Being mostly self-taught, this was just another learning experience to see if I could problem-solve my way out of obstacles. I can hardly wait to get a book so I find my way around Corel Painter to access more tools, and practice with bigger canvases, wider shots, full bodies and environments.

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Hi, My Civ V Tactic Is Annihilation, What’s Yours?

September 29, 2010

Sid Meier’s Civilization V is more addicting than crack. I am shocked, considering how over the years I’ve gradually lost interest in the strategy genre and didn’t think any game was going to pull me back.  When Civ V caught my attention I wasn’t even sure I wanted to get it. I was on the fence until last Thursday evening when my husband called me on his way home from a business trip and asked if I could buy it for him off Steam. Boy, I love it when the tough decisions are made for me.

For a few nights straight, both of us sat enthralled at our computers after dinner playing the game, exchanging words only to share thoughts like “Cool, a Great General was born in my capital” or “Dammit, why is Augustus Caesar being such a dick?” Truthfully, I think a part of me already knew I was going to enjoy this game even before I installed it, probably while reading Anjin’s first Civ V post when it hit me just how much everything he described sounded like something I would like.

Anyway, what I’m writing now is not a review, but just an earnest testimonial expressing my appreciation for the game inspired by Anjin. His post also motivated me to have fun with my own game. Which is probably why after the tutorial, I thought it would be interesting to fore go war and instead try to win through “peaceful” means, like securing a cultural victory. I bumped the difficulty up a notch or two and started my game.

  • The random selection handed me the Japanese. I began to build my empire right away, and dreamed of a future of policies, world wonders, and cities inhabited by a learned and sophisticated population. That all changed when I met Darius, leader of Persia, who immediately got on my case about building my cities too close to his empire. War was not in my best interest, so I put on my diplomatic hat and suggested a compromise: you stay away from me and I’ll stay away from you. The man refused, and I knew at that moment he was going to be a problem. You are going straight onto my shit list, Mister Darius.
  • I admit I made some bad choices near the beginning. The progress was slow-going to say the least, but I stayed the course, until suddenly something inconceivable happened. Darius shows up on my doorstep again. And this time, he insults my kingdom to my face, implying that my people are a bunch of backward savages still knuckle-dragging and wallowing their way around mud huts. Right there and then, I resolved to give my life a new purpose –  to become a royal pain in Darius’ ass. A cultural victory can wait, but right now I wasn’t going to rest until I annihilated him and his empire from the map.
  • I realized then that I had a problem. All that time spent concentrating on cultural improvement meant that my empire was sorely lacking in the resources required to wage full-scale war. A shortage of iron, for example, prevented me from churning out those combat units. My attention turned to Montezuma, leader of the Atzec empire, who was my other neighbor on the continent we all shared.  Monty had two things going for him — one, he was a lot more courteous than our friend Darius, and two, he had a lot of iron. The two of us had negotiated an open borders agreement a dozen or so turns back, so I decided to solidify our friendship with an offer of trade. Before long, I had all the iron I could ever want.
  • With my new army, I made a clean sweep of the land, taking over every Persian city I came across. It was with much glee that I watched Darius squirm under my relentless attacks, begging me with offers of peace treaties. Too little, too late, Darius. Too little, too late. I watched his capital fall to my forces with satisfaction. The Persian civilization was no more, and the exultation of victory was made all the more sweeter when it was suddenly revealed that my people were the most literate in the world. Who’s uncultured now, huh, Darius? At least I have a culture.
  • Something happened to me after that. I had my first taste of war and I found it suited me. I began to ask myself questions like, “Who are all these other idiots on my continent?” and “Why can’t I have it all?” I turned my baleful gaze upon Montezuma again, whose indirect help had led me to my victory against Persia. We still had an active trade agreement, but why let that get in the way of total domination? In short, I used Montezuma’s own iron to forge the swords and pikes that destroyed him. There’s a lesson to be learned somewhere in that, I’m sure.
  • After I took over the Aztec, I went ahead and picked off the remaining independent city-states that still dotted my continent. My warmongering had not gone unnoticed, however. Around the world, other city-states were grumbling and proclaiming me as a menace that must be stopped at all costs. It only served to remind me that a whole other landmass existed somewhere out there, full of cities waiting to be conquered. My current empire wasn’t enough, I wanted more. Finally, on one fateful turn, I took some of my troops and loyal citizens across the ocean to explore a new world.
  • Almost immediately, I met Napoleon of France. To my great chagrin, he had an empire that looked almost as big as mine. Declaring war on him before I’ve barely even made landfall was obviously a bad idea, so I struck a deal with him in exchange for open borders, so I could move around unrestricted. Along with this came a trade deal, allowing my citizens access to his bounty of luxury goods — gems for their jewelry, silk for their scarves, marble for their homes! Around my empire, my people rejoiced and celebrated “We Love The King!” Day in all the cities. Napoleon has done me a great favor in this regard, so I made a promise to myself to kill him last.

  • As I made my way south, I encountered another great empire. Alexander of Greece came to greet me, but unfortunately he had no desirable luxury goods like the ones Napoleon offered, and we parted ways with only an open border agreement between us.
  • I soon came to realize that France and Greece were the only two major civilizations on this continent. These two had probably been stepping on each others’ toes for a long, long time. A part of me knew it was only a matter of time before either of them would approach me for an alliance. Sure enough, both Napoleon and Alexander eventually offered to form pacts of secrecy against the other. I accepted Napoleon’s deal, partly because of my promise to kill him last, but also because Alexander had the smaller empire. Like forming an allegiance with the stronger contestants to gang up on the weak on Survivor, there was a strategic rationale behind my decision.
  • The big day finally came. Napoleon declared war on Alexander, and we struck together. Napoleon came from the north while I steamrolled over the south, making quick work of Corinth, Athens, Knossos and Sparta. My priorities placed on war made for a pretty disgruntled population back at home, not to mention the hordes of unhappy citizens in the trail of occupied cities I left in my wake. While I waged my battles across the ocean, my cities back on the old continent worked hard at constructing “happy” buildings like circuses and theaters to raise morale. My people are mindless sheep, so of course it worked.
  • At last, only Argos remained of Greece. I went in for the kill, but Napoleon beat me to it. Reluctantly, I let him take the Greek capital. After all, this minor victory was the least I could offer to my poor, clueless French ally before I swoop in to snatch his empire from under his feet. But first, my combat units needed time to recover and I had to oversee production in my collection of newly annexed and puppet cities. War with Napoleon was going to have to wait. Instead, troublemaker that I am, I decided to provoke France first by harassing the nearby city-state of Edinburgh, knowing full well that the two were friends. As expected, le petit caporal was not happy with me after that. I told him to stuff it.
  • I descended upon France all at once, striking from all directions, by land and sea, with the goal of pushing myself into the interior of the empire where the French capital of Paris waited to be conquered. But there were a couple problems. First, Napoleon was no pushover. He probably had more combat units at his disposal than all my other opponents put together. Second, around the world my people were dying of starvation! I was so focused on the war effort, I had neglected the food shortage in my empire, especially in the older cities that had outgrown its food supply. With the raging famine and Napoleon killing so many of my combat units, there was a moment of real fear that I might actually lose.
  • It was a struggle, but in the end I took Paris and won. I won’t go into the details; you all knew this was going to be a happy ending.

So, wow, what happened there? I started the game with the noble goal of winning a cultural victory, which got completely derailed even before the first couple dozen turns.

As you can probably tell, I had a lot of fun with Civ V. Despite that, I still have mixed feelings about the game. I’m certainly not afflicted with those urges to play it every single waking moment (like the ones you get with really great games), though once I sit down to it, I’m playing for hours. I need to play more to get a better feel for it, and start exploring other avenues now that my first game is out of my system. I certainly enjoyed myself though, and I can’t deny the pleasing satisfaction I derived from covering the entire map with my empire, tile by tile. I didn’t know I had that passion for battle in me.

I blame Darius.

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STO: Keeping Things Warm In Cold Storage

September 27, 2010

What do you do when you arrive to find the Breen and the True Way beating the crap out of each other? You join in, of course.

Once again we take this lovely Monday to look at the latest Star Trek Online featured weekly episode, which by the way I had the pleasure of experiencing on Advanced Difficulty with my fleet of brave Federation News Service correspondents — Longasc, Thomas, Thumupp and Tipa (who has written a very comprehensive account of the mission this week as well).

More on how that turned out later. First, I can’t believe it’s been five weeks already. What is it they say, that time flies when you’re having fun? Anyway, what a ride this last month has been — I’ve encounter new species, new planets, and new technology. I’ve defended newfound allies, held off hostile enemies, and negotiated myself out of sticky situations. I’ve been unceremoniously blown up, knocked on my ass, and zapped by ice beams. It all came to a head on Saturday with “Cold Storage”, the final episode of the Breen story arc.

A tribute to TOS's "The Paradise Syndrome"

I knew it was coming — showdown at the lost Preserver archives! — but I still nearly fell out of my chair when I saw the giant obelisk. While this arc’s conclusion was somewhat predictable, I still have to appreciate these little homages they throw in to honor the various Star Trek episodes. I don’t think you have to be familiar with the shows to enjoy STO, but being able to spot these little touches do add to the game. Sure makes me glad I spent all those months devouring everything from the original series to Enterprise, or else I wonder how much would have gone over my head.

If we stay together, we survive.

Combat on this mission proved to be a formidable challenge. In space, I was just a sliver of health (at one point, just 2%!) away from being completely obliterated and only survived thanks to the concerted efforts of my fleetmates healing me. Still, my starship is an Escort, a flying tin can not known for being terribly sturdy, so admittedly being blown to smithereens (or close to it) isn’t so much of an irregular occurrence.

The difference was more noticeable on the ground, however. Apparently the Breen wised up, as evidenced by a new ability which appeared capable of one-shotting unsuspecting Federation officers. I’m not sure how much of it actually had to do with our group doing it on the advanced difficulty setting, since another member of or fleet doing this quest individually also noticed this happening.

Er...what tones?

In the underground passageways beneath the obelisk, we came upon a mini-game of sorts. Three consoles which supposedly would emit a tone when activated, and doing them in the right order based on sound would unlock the Archives proper.

Well, I couldn’t hear anything when I activated the first one. Granted, it could be my sound settings or the possibly the ambient noises in the room, but I know my hearing’s fine and I still wasn’t able to pick anything up even when I leaned into my speakers. I left the task to someone else who might have better luck hearing the tones, but regardless, there are only a handful of possible combinations to try, so getting into the final room shouldn’t be problem.

Anyway, you can never go wrong with a boss fight.

Wow, aren't you a big boy!

So, great episode and nice ending and all, but in the end what I loved best were the rewards — finally, a chance to be on the giving end of an ice beam for once with the CRM 200 ground weapon, and also a new Breen tactical bridge officer to call my own, whom I named “Pran”. I had to fire one of my other Boffs to make room for him, but it was worth it. High time for me to get rid of the freeloaders anyway.

Ice to see you! /lame joke

An interesting thought came to me as I was setting Pran up aboard the U.S.S. Taiga — might “special Boff” collecting become a new trend for STO players?

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There Aren’t Enough Scoundrels In My Life

September 24, 2010

Han Solo to Bioware: I think you just can't bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight.

Another Friday, another Star Wars: The Old Republic update. The Smuggler class gets its profile filled out today, receiving new entries under “Specializations”, “Known Associates” and “Starship”. This class was probably still one of the least popular as recent as two months ago, if forum polls are any indication, but I think more eyes are turning to these dashing rogues now that a steady flow of Smuggler information has started to become available.

A thought occurred to me while perusing the new entries. “Gunslinger” and “Scoundrel” for the Advanced Classes, a Wookiee named Bowdaar as one of the choices for your companion, and the very Millennium-Falcon-like XS Stock Light for a starship. Yes, all very iconic. But I can’t help but think they may have gone a little overboard with the Smuggler.

Bowdaar looks like my cousin Nimo.

Don’t get me wrong, I think being iconic is a good thing. Iconic draws fans of an IP to the game. Iconic is familiar and nostalgic. Iconic lets people live out their childhood fantasies of being like the blaster-slinging, smooth-talking, handsome, mischievous and swaggering Han Solo. But here’s the deal, you gotta take Chewie and the Millennium Falcon too. That’s just the way it is.

Ultimately, I’m sure there will be adequate customization options and multiple companions to choose from at launch, but today’s update has made me consider the “No two Smugglers are exactly alike” statement that has presented with the information. Okay, I don’t doubt any would be exactly alike and I know I don’t have to choose the Wookiee companion if I don’t want to, but what I see behind today’s update is Bioware’s intention to make the Smuggler class experience one based on pure imitation.

Starship: XS Stock Light

The truth is, every other class is also based on imitation and is an emulated experience to an extent, so I don’t know why I’m assessing this in the Smuggler specifically, though I suspect it’s because the blatant Han Solo fantasy in which the class is steeped in is so in-your-face that it’s hard to overlook. His influence is in the outfits, the weapons, the ship, and even the attitude and animations.

In this, I really can’t fault Bioware, since and Han Solo is by far one of the most recognizable Star Wars characters in the mainstream population and I’m aware there aren’t too many other prominent Smuggler archetypes in the IP to work with. However, I do hope Bioware can incorporate enough of their own ideas for a Smuggler beyond what we’ve seen in the movies, so that when I make my own Smuggler she can distinguish herself as her own character and not just another “female Han Solo”.

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My New Favorite Place In LOTRO

September 23, 2010

After all this time in Lord of the Rings Online I thought Rivendell was the pinnacle of beauty, but it seems those damn elves had been holding out on me.

Imlad Gelair

After gaining the reputation required, I finally discovered what was behind that mysterious door beside the waterfall. Before I made it to Imlad Gelair I had to make my way through the long dark caverns…for dramatic effect, I suppose. Hey, it worked. You elves are awesome, I get it.

Ever since getting this new PC, I’ve also been unable to play this game without feeling the urge to take a screenshot like every five steps I take. The habit’s gotten quite out of hand, to the point where I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve actually fallen off cliffs and bridges because I was too busy pushing the “Prnt Scrn” button to notice where I’m going. The less said about how many times I’ve been beaten to a pulp and killed by mobs because I was too busy taking pictures, the better.

For all the mishaps, at least I was able to come away with some great shots. For all that trouble, I might as well share a few of my favorites.

I think one of the most wonderful thing about LOTRO is the sky. Kind of a stupid comment, I know, but I can probably stand there like an idiot and stare at it for hours. I mean, it looks like it goes on foreeeever. And that cloud looks like a fine mushroom pie!

Sunset over the Lone-lands.

The trees in this area around the river Bruinen in the Trollshaws always reminds me of a Monet painting.

Looking Around the Riverbend.

All that swimming is a pain in Evendim, but at least it gives me plenty of time to take pretty pictures.

Morning's rising on the Lake of the Twilight.

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Happy Being A Part Of It

September 21, 2010

Some people like to avoid crowds, but not me. I love them. Maybe it’s a preference I developed from living in big cities practically all my life. From Bangkok to Hong Kong, Toronto to Shanghai, these places were always crawling with humanity no matter the time of day, and I find myself feeling a little awkward and out-of-place now in the tranquil quiet of suburbia. Not surprisingly, I am the same way with my games. There’s only one thing worse for me than having to live with the belligerent riffraff of a bad community, and that is having no community to live with at all. The thought of going out into an MMO world encountering next to nobody is a depressing thought, and I’ve stopped playing games before on the sole basis of having no one to play with.

So while some were staying away from Lord of the Rings Online hoping to wait out the flow of F2P players, I braved the server queues (which thankfully weren’t all that bad even at peak times) and couldn’t wait to jump right in to try and take advantage of the population increase.

I’ve only experienced benefits, much to my pleasant surprise. In the last week, I’ve had no problems finding groups, and not a single encounter that made me cringe. People are still spontaneously role-playing and making music and all that good stuff for no reward but the experiences’ sake. In all areas and especially the early zones, I see helpful answers in the Advice chat. In other words, nothing’s really changed. If anything, more people on the Landroval server have meant good things for my little Hobbit Minstrel, who has gained so much experience from all the group quests.

I’ve always thought of an online gaming community as a fragile thing, difficult to cultivate but extremely easy to destroy, not something you can fine-tune. Perhaps that’s why most MMO communities today are utter crap. But LOTRO has surprised me with the way its adapted to the influx of people so swimmingly. When it comes down to it, I truly believe the players shoulder the bigger responsibility. Developers can only do so much to provide the tools to encourage a good community, and maybe intervene occasionally to weed out the unwanted behaviors. The problem is, there are tons of ways to punish the bad but not enough ways to reward the good, especially when it’s those good behaviors that are the grassroots of a great community.

That’s where I think the players come in. Apathy is what erodes away a community’s foundation, people pointing fingers or counting on someone else to take care of the problem. Too many are also quick to call someone an asshole or do unsavory things, and then turn right around and wonder why the community is so piss-poor when someone else decides to call them names or act like a jackass. On the other hand, you can definitely see a difference when enough people  take the time to care. One of the reasons the community on Landroval is such a good one is because its members take such great pride in it. You can read it in the forums and you can feel it in the game. There’s a sense of personal responsibility and self-discipline without being overly prudish or stuffy, and I think it’s an awareness that spreads to everyone who comes on board.

In the end, what we have around us is what we make of it. I’m looking forward to spending more time in-game and in my new kinship, going forward with F2P LOTRO.

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STO: Cold Case Investigation

September 20, 2010

Members of the Federation News Service fleet gather around to ponder this discovery.

I got intimately familiar with the latest Star Trek Online feature episode “Cold Case” on Saturday, partly because it was one of those missions that was heavier on the story, but mostly because I had to do it twice — a consequence of getting invited into a group after the first objectives have already been initiated, though the quest log will still track your progress like you’ve completed it. Still, that meant I got to do it with my fleetmates the first run through, an experience I had been waiting for since the first weekly mission debuted. And on take two, I got to absorb the sights and sounds and enjoy the story at my own pace. Things worked out for the best.

The mission starts off with a familiar sight — the mysterious ruins on Defera with the strange puzzle that we encountered back in Episode 1: Cold Call. Back then, solving it did nothing, but doing so now reveals a star map piece, kicking off a hunt across the entire sector for more of them. This one felt like a longer mission than the others, possibly due to the many places you have to visit, not to mention all that time you spend hauling your crew from one side of the map to the other. Such as it is.


The fleet ambushed by enemy ships.

These weekly episodes are starting to become a lot of fun. At the end of every week, I find myself looking forward to my Saturday afternoons when I can log into STO again and check out what’s new. And I enjoy the conversations with my fleetmates and other players afterward, when we talk about what we liked, what we didn’t, and speculate on what STO has in store for us next.

I get what Cryptic is going for, delivering them in a manner that makes you feel like you’re experiencing an actual Star Trek episode as you play it, but what they’ve done for me is even more than that. They’ve managed to get me to anticipate these episodes the same way I actually would for a favorite TV show — clearing my schedule, settling in with a drink and getting comfy for the next hour, the whole shebang. Sure, I play STO mostly on weekends now, and while a pragmatic part of me thinks I should be putting more hours into a game I pay an active subscription for, no other MMO right now stirs me to that state of enthusiasm. Every week.

I plan on riding on this feeling for as long as possible.

It's like...Terrokar Forest in winter.


Oops, wrong turn.

Cryptic has managed to offer a good mix so far, each episode with its own unique flavor. The last two have not been quite as explosive as the first two that kicked off this story arc, even though this week’s certainly had its moments with its brief bouts of combat. That is not to say I wouldn’t welcome more of these “fact-finding” and “problem-solving” missions in the future, but I wouldn’t complain either if next week’s episode happened to have a little more kick to it. If nothing else, they have me curious as to how all this will end.

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