I love Xbox LIVE and here is why

First off, I’m not a gamer per se. The list of all the games I have every played is a pretty short one. This list is roughly in chronological order starting 1996 when my family got its first PC and ending some time in 2004/2005 when my PC was to underpowered to play any of the current titles and I had less time to waste being a full-time college student and all:

  • Myst: This was the first computer game I ever played as it came pre-installed on the first computer my family owned. This was back in the day when computers came with actually useful software instead of a bunch of crap and demos. I remember for a while spending every free minute at this game; if I had 10 minutes of free time before school I would play this. Even my parents would play and we would share notes on how to solve the puzzles. Good times.
  • Pinball: I can’t tell you how many hours I have wasted playing this game, figuring out the different missions one could do to get extra points and be promoted. The all-time high-score set by me was 14 458 500 (which isn’t that much compared to people really serious about the game as I have learned). But it’s the highest score ever reached by a member of my family and I have the screenshot to prove it.
  • Fugger II: Again, countless hours have been wasted spent playing this game. This is probably the only game ever I was actually pretty good at without resorting cheats or turning the difficulty way down. I eventually ended up achieving pretty much everything in this game: getting the maximum amount of money, opening shop in all ten towns in the game and owning castles in each of them, getting the highest office in the country, controlling all the soldiers and robbers at the same time and much more. These trading simulations were my favorite back then and a lot of fun. Seeing the intro again on YouTube brought back some memories. This was probably the single greatest game I have ever played.
  • The Settlers II: Another trading/military strategy game I played to no end. I wasn’t that good at it, though, and could complete the easier levels only before losing interest.
  • Moorhuhn: Not much to say here, just a casual game that was popular at the time.
  • The Settlers: Smack a Thief: Another casual game that wasn’t very complicated, but still entertaining for a while. I never made it past a certain level though, at which point the game starting losing its appeal for me.
  • Rainbow Six: I didn’t own this game myself, but my host-brother (I was staying in the U.S. for my junior year of high school at the time) did and I tried playing it. I pretty much sucked terribly at this game, though, and the only way to have at least some fun with it was to activate a bunch of cheats, so I wouldn’t get killed within the first minute of game play.
  • StarCraft: Again, not a game I owned, though a friend did and allowed me to borrow it for while. I think I only played a couple of levels on the easiest setting, but I remember getting to the level where one would first get the siege tank. I loved that unit and the effect a large formation of these had on ground targets, though it was frustratingly inefficient against enemy air units.
  • Age of Empires: This is probably the last game I spend hours at a time playing and again, I only played on the easiest setting. I hadn’t bought the actual game, but instead had a trial-version that came with some Microsoft product I had bought. My computer at the time was actually a bit underpowered to play this game, so in large battle scenes or whenever else there was a lot going on on the screen, the CPU fan would go into overdrive and I had to stop playing until the computer had cooled down.

There you have it, the complete list of all games I had ever played until about a year ago. That’s when I got my Windows Phone and I started playing casual games on it when I had a couple of minutes to kill.

Enter Xbox LIVE

My first phone game was the Xbox LIVE game Flowerz, which I want to say came pre-installed, though I am not sure about that. Anyway, it’s a free download from the marketplace. I didn’t have an Xbox 360 (and still don’t) or any of the Games for Windows – LIVE that connect to Xbox LIVE, so this game is what got me hooked on achievements in Xbox LIVE.

It’s just a very rewarding experience to be playing and every now and then having a note pop up telling you that you have just earned an achievement for something. And best of all, these achievements become part of your Gamerscore where they add up as you play more and earn more and more achievements (here is my profile, by the way). For the gamer, this a pretty cool way to see (and compare with others) what one has a achieved and for the game maker I would guess it’s a very effective means to keep players motivated to keep playing seeking out more achievements.

As I have already noted on Twitter, there is another game from Microsoft I have been playing recently to earn more achievements: Tinker. It’s free which goes to show that while I love the achievements, I am also too cheap frugal to actually pay for a game to get them. Luckily, Microsoft has a couple of Xbox LIVE games that are ad-supported and thus free: Sudoku and Minesweeper. Unluckily, like so may other great things, these games are U.S.-only. [2011-08-27 Update] Minesweeper is now available worldwide.


It’s not entirely true that the list above contains all games I had ever played. A few are missing. These are games I only played very briefly, like at a friend’s house. For instance, at one occasion, sometime in the early nineties I would say, I remember playing Mario on a friend’s Nintendo for an afternoon. I don’t know what exact game it was, all I remember is that I sucked at it and never made it past the first level. Also at a friend’s house (though a different friend), I used to play one of the Indiana Jones games as well as some SimCity and Microsoft Flight Simulator on the PC (this was before we had a PC at home). And again, I didn’t do very well in any of these. Same goes for a demo of Ghost Recon that I played for a brief while. But since my laptop at the time didn’t have the graphics power to run the game and I had to play on my sister’s desktop PC which had a graphics card barely powerful enough to play.


So there you have it: I am terrible at playing games, with the notable exception of Fugger II which I rocked. Still, I will play occasionally and whenever there is a free game with Xbox live integration, I will definitely play it. If only because I am a sucker for the achievements. particularly the ones that are easy to get.

To get back to what I said in the title of this post: I love Xbox LIVE, even if it had nothing more than the achievements system. And if I had a living room big enough to accommodate the Kinect, I might even get an Xbox and start playing some more. Until this happens, I will just stick to watching walkthroughs by people who are actually good at playing video games on YouTube.


Designing/Modeling a Stage Setting in 3D

As we are working on staging a play about the work and life of Heinrich von Kleist (I have written before about my Kleist research), it was upon me to create a visual representation of the ideas for the stage setting that the director came up with and basically draw up a plan/model of the stage and audience seating area.

The early days: Modeling in Microsoft Word and Excel

Truss in WordIn the early days (that is some 10+ years ago) I used to do this in Microsoft Word and Excel. While these tools are anything but ideal, money was tight back then and I had to make do with what I had. On the left is the “3D rendering” of the truss used to hang the various stage lighting instruments that I did in Microsoft Word in 2002. The picture is not that bad, if you ask me, as it does show the main points and gives one a basic idea of what the truss looks like. It is, however, far from perfect, let alone drawn to scale.

Thankfully, things have changed in the past ten years and today there are quite a number of software packages available that are supposed to make drawings like this a snap. I had heard others rage about packages such as WYSIWYG that also allow you to create an entire design in 3D on the computer before even going near an actual stage. Unfortunately, one things that hasn’t changed for me, is the fact that money is still tight and these things are quite expensive. While I am sure they are worth their cost to professionals, I cannot afford something like this.

Going 3D: Google Sketchup

Luckily, there are a couple of free solutions that looked like they could be up to the job. The first one I found after a bit of research online was Google Sketchup. It’s actually a general purpose 3D modeling tool, one that could be used to create 3D building models for Google Earth, for instance, but there are some, who seem to have used it successfully for the particular kind of modeling I wanted to do.

Platforms in SketchupHowever, after watching some of the tutorials and playing around with the software for a while I realized this software wasn’t what I needed. Here’s what bothered me. First, it is kind of difficult to create shapes of particular sizes and or positions. I have used several design tools for creating user interfaces in applications before, and a common way to build something is to drop an object onto the design surface and then set properties on it, such as its size, position, appearance etc. This is not how Sketchup works, however. Maybe I am missing something here, but as far as I could tell, once one had drawn a line or created a surface, one could find out their dimensions, but not modify them. Creating items that are of the exact size I needed proved extremely tedious this way.

Navigating the model was also considerably more complicated than I think it should have been. Because manipulating items in a very exact fashion required me to zoom into the model to make precise mouse movements and some things were easier to do in a 2D view, I would frequently switch between views, zoom levels and move around the model. Each of these steps required a couple of mouse clicks as many of the view options are in sub-menus of the application’s main menu. The user interface (see screenshot here) is quite old-fashioned that way and could really use a ribbon-style interface, if you ask me.

So no wonder that after an hour the simple drawing that you see on the right is all I could come up with. It shows the platforms the audience seats are to be placed on as simple blocks.

One excellent feature that is worth mentioning, however, is push/pull (which apparently they have a patent for). In a nutshell, it’s a really easy way to draw the outlines of an object in 2D and then grab the resulting surface and pull it up to create a three-dimensional shape. Another one is the different ways things are docked to one another automatically depending on what corner you pulled on. This is extremely helpful, even if at first I hadn’t noticed that the docking was so smart and I was frustrated when docking worked as I wanted it to in one instance (when I had dragged the correct corner) and didn’t in another (when I had dragged a different corner).

Just what I was looking for: grandMA 3D

A bit frustrated and pretty close to going back to doing my modeling in Microsoft Office I searched a bit more online and finally found grandMA 3D from MA Lighting. This software turned out to be almost everything I was looking for, especially with regards to price: it’s free.

One of the very minor negatives I noticed is the user interface, which is a bit different from what I had expected. For instance, you can’t just drag objects to move at random, but only move them in one dimension at a time. Also, I still haven’t figured out how to dock things automatically. To be fair though, I haven’t even looked at the documentation or tutorials yet, because most of what I needed to do was so intuitive.

But since there is a property editor for every item, I can get the positioning exactly right by entering values manually. The overview of all items in the model is vey helpful for checking that they are all exactly where I want them to be.

Looking at the model in different ways is also super easy. For each model there are different views on different tabs. For instance, I might position some items in a 2D top view, because it is easier to manipulate with a 2D input device such as mouse and also renders faster on my rather slow machine. Having done this, I might switch to the 3D view and make sure that everything is where it should be in the third dimension as well. It took me a while to figure this out, but once you know that  holding down the right mouse-button while moving the mouse pans the virtual camera through which you view the model, navigation within a view is also super-easy.

So in about the same time it took me in Google Sketchup to create that “thing” you see above (I don’t dare calling it a model), I did this wonderful 3D model of the same platforms complete with chairs and everything. Of course, the comparison is a bit unfair, as grandMA 3D comes with a lot of items such as platforms, chairs and tables built-in for me to use and I tried to do everything form scratch in Sketchup.

Platforms in grand MA 3D

So the next thing for me to do is probably modeling the rest of the of the stage and the truss sop I can hang some lights and check out my light design. That is, if my computer is fast enough, because upon start-up the software had already warned me that the graphics in my computer might not be up to the task. I might need to reconsider my decision to postpone any investments into newer hardware.

[2011-09-19 Update] Not to brag or anything, but after putting in a couple of more hours, this is what the model came out like


Great Kindle News: The Cloud Reader

I have said it before: I love my Kindle (and my Kindle on PC and Kindle on Windows Phone apps). And in addition to the many platform already supported by Amazon, they just announced the Kindle Cloud Reader. Right now it only runs on Chrome and Safari. So I can’t use it, although they say they will be adding support for other browsers soon.

I applaud this move. For one, having a web app instead of a native on the iOS platform saves Amazon from having to share 30% of purchases made through the app. At least in theory, this should make their books cheaper for everyone, as Apple requires in-app purchases to go for the same price as purchases made elsewhere. Moreover, I think this is the right move strategically: away from dedicated apps for every platform and towards a web-based solution that can be utilized regardless of platform and without intervention from the platform vendor.

I never really understood why so many content publishers would come out apps that were merely a simplified version of their website. Why not make a simplified website that one can view on any platform?

The only reason I could think of, why they did this, was that as web users we have gotten used to everything being free online. Case in point, the New York Times has had little success when it started charging for access to its website in 2005 (although they have started charging more frequent users again, we’ll see how that goes). On the other hand, spending a few bucks on an app or an app subscription is quite normal. So I guess it makes for content publishers to go for the app in getting people to pay for their content. Still, as a user that does not have a device running on the iOS platform, I don’t like this.

Aside: Kindle ads

I just noticed Amazon has its own YouTube channel with Kindle ads and I have watched some of them. A common theme in these seems to be how the Kindle helps you attract attention from members of the opposite sex. Unfortunately, this is false advertising, at least based on my own experience.

There have been only two instances where people have taken notice of me reading on the Kindle (or rather two instances of me taking notice of them taking notice). In both instances it has been groups of kids who recognized the device. One was actually kind of funny, when I overheard one kid saying to the others that my Kindle really looked like a dummy and I was probably not even reading but merely staring at a piece of plastic.