XCom – On the shoulders of giants

xcom-enemy-unknown-logoRemaking one of the most universally loved computer games of all time is a dream and nightmare in equal measure  Everyone has ideas on how to improve a classic, but in reality most attempts end up short of the original and often lose the magic somewhere along the way.
Enter Jake Solomon; designer at Firaxis who has always had a love for the original Xcom games. Rather than simply recreate the original in a modern engine Jake and the team distilled down the core concepts and cut out clutter. While some might see this and “dumbing down” it actually adds a lot more interesting choices.

“It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

Like its predecessor the game is splits your time between the Geoscape & Battlescape; one is focused on a strategic level and the other tactical. More than that though they act as pacing blocks giving you intensity and then refrain. The core of the modern version is the Battlescape, despite striping the points system out of the combat options you are left with are obvious and real choices.

The best choices happen when you can’t quite execute on your plan and play your A team. Being forced to go slightly off script but still giving you enough control that you feel master of your domain. This is manifested on the Geoscape with your squad almost always having some of your key members out of action forcing you to use a rookie which you cannot directly keep the class of. On the Battlescape it is quite common for you to shift your approach when two enemy types interplay causing you to fall back or fan out to avoid being flanked. Each alien has a distinct attack style which require specific tactics to defeat. Berserkers are brutal in melee if left unchecked but they can be kited between your squad members, meanwhile however you may have to also avoid moving out of cover. Knowing how to best use your soldiers, classes and talents is crucial avoiding fatalities.

Story progression is handled much in the same way as the original, plot elements are peppered in to the general missions making it feel organic. A hint of the board game Pandemic can be felt in terror missions which now make you choose one of multiple missions which will otherwise escalate. This is a template that is stamped all over the game; a set of non-perfect choices that the player must live with the consequence of.

It isn’t without its problems but they tend to be foibles that you learn to work around. Kill cams which add flare and tension but eventually you start to pick up the cues as to which outcome is about to happen. Movement can become a chore inside UFOs and bases as camera clips in and out of the ceiling, accidental clicks on the wrong layer often happen at worst time possible. Until you become more accustomed to the traits it is frustrating to cannot mouse over the icons on the Battlescape to get tool tips.

Xcom’s biggest success isn’t the game itself, more its self-contained identity, its ability to stand on its own two feet. Rather than standing on the shoulders of the giant or living in its shadow, it stands tall beside it as its own giant.

Why SteamOS?

I’ve seen quite a few people wondering what the point of SteamOS is and why you would want it.

It simply boils down to uncoupling PC gaming from its reliance on Microsoft. At the moment the PC gaming market is dependent on Windows, DirectX and more recently Xinput for controllers. Each of these places constraints on the experience for the end user which SteamOS aims to lift.

Performance
Consoles are generally considered to have better performance given their hardware compared to PCs. This is due to fewer overheads and developers being able to coded closer to the metal. DirectX is starting to look rather constrained , dated and as a result there is a move towards alternatives such as AMD’s Mantle API which work at a lower level and better leverage the parallel nature of modern technology.  If Valve’s promises are realised gamers who typically spend large amounts of money to suck out every last frame rate improvement should get better performance than they would on Windows.

Controllers
Since its introduction alongside the Xbox 360 XInput has standardised controller input for PC games. This has been somewhat of a double edged sword as although it makes it using an Xbox 360 controller seamless on a PC it makes any other controller a step more difficult to use. For example to use a generic controller on Sonic & All-Star Racing Transformed you need to either use an Xbox controller emulator in the background or edit config files for each and every game.

Cost
If you build a new PC you currently have to factor in the cost of a Windows licence, with SteamOS you just need the hardware. As more developers migrate away from Windows towards SteamOS it also opens up the doors for more Linux distributions and Mac OSX to become mainstream players rather than side attractions.

Simplicity
A typical user either doesn’t want to bother with the maintenance and complexity involved in Windows PC gaming. SteamOS promises are simpler out of the box experience which just works out of the box and requires less knowledge by the user.

Each of the aspects of Valve’s ambition require a long slow push to move the direction of the industry which should eventually be beneficial to everyone.

SBS2003 – ActiveSync Fun

I’ve had the same problem with Small Business Server 2003 and ActiveSync a few times now. Users get one of these new fangled phones, I go to set them up only to find it won’t quite work.

Exchange Connectivity Tester should be your first port of call. It runs through step by step to show you where it is failing. 9/10 times it is either a security certificate issue or….

FolderSync command test failed
Exchange Returned an HTTP 500 response

There are if you aren’t able to see any obvious problems I would recommend you save yourself some time and reset the IIS exchange virtual directories and then create a new one for Outlook Mobile Access. Its actually quite quick and simple although It does mean that no one can access OWA while you are doing it however  it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes if you read through first. The following are two sections taken from Microsoft knowledge base articles.

Reseting the default virtual directories

 http://support.microsoft.com/kb/883380

  1. Back up your IIS Metabase. To do this, follow these steps:
    1. Start IIS Manager.
    2. Right-click Default Web Site, point to All Tasks, and then click Save Configuration to a File.
  2. Delete the virtual directories for Outlook Web Access. To do this, right-click Exadmin in the left pane of IIS Manager, and then click Delete. Click Yeswhen you are prompted with the question of whether you want to delete this item.Repeat this step for the following virtual directories:Quit IIS Manager.
    • Exchange
    • ExchWeb
    • Microsoft-Server-ActiveSync
    • OMA
    • Public
  3. Click Start, click Run, type cmd, and then press ENTER.
  4. Change to the following folder. In this example, Driveis the hard disk drive where Windows is installed:
    Drive:\inetpub\adminscripts
  5. Type adsutil, and then press ENTER. Important By default, CScript is not the default scripting host for Windows Server 2003. To run the adsutil command, CScript must be configured as the default scripting host. To do this, click Yes if you are prompted to register CScript as you default host for VBscript, and then click OK.Note If you receive a list of adsutil command options, CScript is already configured as the default scripting host for VBscript.
  6. Type adsutil delete ds2mb, and then press ENTER. Note To set the default scripting host to WScript, type WScript //H:WScript at the command prompt, press ENTER, and then click OK.
  7. Click Start, point to All Programs, point to Administrative Tools, and then click Services.
  8. To restart the Microsoft Exchange System Attendant service, follow these steps:
    1. Click Start, click Run, type services.msc, and then click OK.
    2. Right-click Microsoft Exchange System Attendant, and then click Restart.
    3. When you are prompted to restart the dependant Exchange Server services, click Yes.NoteWhen you restart the Microsoft Exchange System Attendant service, the Microsoft Exchange Information Store service is also restarted. In this scenario, your Exchange Server users lose connectivity to their Exchange Server mailboxes.The virtual directories are re-created. To verify that the virtual directories are re-created, start IIS Manager, and then view the Default Web site folder.Important If the virtual directories are not re-created after 15 minutes, restart the computer.
  9. Reset the access permissions to Anonymous. To do this, follow these steps:
    1. Start IIS Manager, right-click ExchWeb, click Properties, and then click the Directory Security tab.
    2. Under Authentication and access control click Edit, and then verify that the Enable anonymous access check box is turned on.
    3. Click to select the Integrated Windows authentication check box, click OK, and then click Apply.
    4. If an Inheritance Overrides dialog box appears, click Select All, and then click OK.
    5. Under Authentication and access control, click Edit, and then click to clear the Integrated Windows authentication check box.
    6. Click OK two times, and then quit IIS Manager.

Creating a new OMA Virtual Directory

Copy Pasted from http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=817379

Disable the forms-based authentication for the Exchange virtual directory

// To create a secondary virtual directory for Exchange that is based on steps 1 through 7 of the following procedure, make sure that forms-based authentication is disabled for the Exchange virtual directory before you make the copy. Before you follow these steps, disable forms-based authentication in Exchange System Manager. Then restart Internet Information Services (IIS). To do this, follow these steps:

  1. Open Exchange Manager.
  2. Expand Administrative Groups, expand the first administrative group, and then expand Servers.
  3. Expand the server container for the Exchange Server 2003 server that you will be configuring, expand Protocols, and then expand HTTP.
  4. Under the HTTP container, right-click the Exchange Virtual Server container, and then click Properties.
  5. Click the Settings tab, clear the Enable Forms Based Authentication check box, and then click OK.
  6. Close Exchange Manager.
  7. Click Start, click Run, type IISRESET /NOFORCE, and then press ENTER to restart Internet Information Services (IIS).

Create a secondary virtual directory for Exchange server

// You must use Internet IIS Manager to create this virtual directory for Exchange ActiveSync and Outlook Mobile Access to work. If you are using Windows Server 2003, follow these steps:

  1. Start Internet Information Services (IIS) Manager.
  2. Locate the Exchange virtual directory. The default location is as follows:
    Web Sites\Default Web Site\Exchange
  3. Right-click the Exchange virtual directory, click All Tasks, and then click Save Configuration to a File.
  4. In the File name box, type a name. For example, type ExchangeVDir. Click OK.
    (If you are doing this on SBS2003 Backup then and Delete the Exchange-OMA virtual folder, you will find out why in a second)
  5. Right-click the root of this Web site. Typically, this is Default Web Site. Click New, and then click Virtual Directory (from file).
  6. In the Import Configuration dialog box, click Browse, locate the file that you created in step 4, click Open, and then click Read File.
  7. Under Select a configuration to import , click Exchange, and then click OK.A dialog box will appear that states that the “virtual directory already exists.”
  8. Select the Create a new virtual directory option. In the Alias box, type a name for the new virtual directory that you want Exchange ActiveSync and Outlook Mobile Access to use. For example, type exchange-oma. Click OK(It must be called exchange-oma on sbs2003)
  9. Right-click the new virtual directory. In this example, click exchange-oma. Click Properties.
  10. Click the Directory Security tab.
  11. Under Authentication and access control, click Edit.
  12. Make sure that only the following authentication methods are enabled, and then click OK:On the Directory Security tab, under IP address and domain name restrictions, click Edit.
    • Integrated Windows authentication
    • Basic authentication
  13. Click the option for Denied access, click Add, click Single computer and type the IP address of the server that you are configuring, and then click OK twice.
  14. Under Secure communications, click Edit. Make sure that Require secure channel (SSL) is not enabled, and then click OK.
  15. Click OK, and then close the IIS Manager.
  16. Click Start, click Run, type regedit, and then click OK.
  17. Locate the following registry subkey:
    HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\MasSync\Parameters
  18. Right-click Parameters, click to New, and then click String Value.
  19. Type ExchangeVDir, and then press ENTER. Right-click ExchangeVDir, and then click Modify.NoteExchangeVDir is case-sensitive. If you do not type ExchangeVDir exactly as it appears in this article, ActiveSync does not find the key when it locates the exchange-oma folder.
  20. In the Value data box, type the name of the new virtual directory that you created in step 8. For example, type /exchange-oma. Click OK.
  21. Quit Registry Editor.
  22. Restart the IIS Admin service. To do this, follow these steps:
    1. Click Start, click Run, type services.msc, and then click OK.
    2. In the list of services, right-click IIS Admin service, and then click Restart.
  23. If you want to reuse Forms-based Authentication on the Exchange server, follow these steps to re-enable Forms-based Authentication on the /Exchange virtual directory in Exchange System Manager.
    1. Open Exchange Manager.
    2. Expand Administrative Groups, expand the first administrative group, and then expand Servers.
    3. Expand the server container for the Exchange Server 2003 server that you will be configuring, expand Protocols, and then expand HTTP.
    4. Under the HTTP container, right-click the Exchange Virtual Server container, and then click Properties.
    5. Click the Settings tab, click to select the Enable Forms Based Authentication check box, and then click OK.
    6. Close Exchange Manager.
    7. Click Start, click Run, type IISRESET/NOFORCE, and then press ENTER to restart Internet Information Services (IIS).

Stuff wot I bought: Saitek Back catalog

Saitek are a company who have both impressed and bewildered me for many years now. I think I can honestly say I’m a fan and follow any new projects in the pipelines. They have shuffled around in to madcats recently but they seem to be in a good place at the moment. Saitek and their sub brand Cyborg and putting out some good products at the moment. Over the next few days I hope to share my thoughts on some of their newer ones with you.

Stories in my ears

After a couple of months of debating it I finally got an Audible subscription today. To put it bluntly it really does sum up why DRM just doesn’t work.
For those not in the know Audible is a subscription service for audiobooks. The basic plan gives you one audiobook a month for £8 a month and a discounted rate if you want to buy more (usually £4). Considering the cost of physical audiobooks this is fairly good value, no complaints there.
The problem is the format it comes in. Audible uses its own DRM file format which a few select players can play. Now this isn’t a problem when you have an Android or iPhone which have native Audible apps but what if you want to play it in the on a Windows Phone 7 handset?
There is a way to convert the files to MP3, the Audible website even tells you how to do half of it. Burn them to CD and rip them back to MP3.
So after downloading the files to my computer I then have to download iTunes which is the only player which is actively supported. Then you can make a playlist of the audio books and burn the to disc. That said you are best checking that you have a lot of spare CDs or a virtual ISO program as an audio book in CD audio format is going to take up half a dozen discs. Once that is done you can then rip the discs back to MP3.

OR you could download a pirate copy and save yourself a couple of hours of pain. If I wanted to I could have found a pirate copy in minutes and saved myself some time and money. When will companies learn that DRM like this doesn’t work. It punishes paying customers and does nothing to stop people who want to steal it doing so.

Audible you make me want to steal

Age of Empires: Online – Butchered

Age of Empire Online finally emerged in to the wild, boy have they hacked up the free version.

A most of the payment structure which I talked about in my last Age of Empire’s post is now wrong. Gas Powered games, what the hell are you guys doing there? You can’t play for 5 minutes without being reminded that you are on the crippled version. You guys seem to have made the best attempt possible to butcher the game up to limit the free to play players. You can’t even equip most of the drops you get it chests.

Next little annoyance I found with it was that you could only buy items from the shop using MS Points. Points which you can only buy in bulk. Bulk which is larger that a Premium Civilisation but not large enough for you to actually buy anything else with. I’ve never really had a problem with Games for Windows Live before but you guys really are a crafty bunch of jackals.

I was really hoping the AOE:O was going to be the return to form of the RTS genre. The game itself is solid, classic RTS with a spattering of RPG and gear elements. If you are willing to pay for a premium civilisation it is still well worth playing but don’t fool yourself in to thinking this is free. It’s a demo that unlocks when you feed it money.

ChromeBook Thoughts

I have recently had the chance to get my hands on a ChromeBook. I have to say I was impressed but do still have a reservation or two.

I understand the ChromeBook and its market. It is aimed at people who want to access the web, web apps and nothing more. It it is a perfect replacement for Netbooks which are something of a stopgap solution. They are aimed at your parents, they want to turn on, check ebay, upload pictures to Facebook then turn it off. They don’t have the knowledge or inclenation to do anything else.
In this respect ChromeBook’s cover all the bases and have been well designed to fill this niche. At around £350 for the Wifi only version and £400 for the 3G version they are also very attractively priced. They start up extremely quickly and provide a good browsing experience in a tightly controlled environment. There is very little for the end user to maintain, break or update. You could quite happily give this to your granmother and not have to explain how to use it. Even the battery is a integrated and sealed in to the bottom of the laptop. In one word: Focused

Being such a focused device it does have several trade offs. Offline support is still very limited, even most 1st party google apps don’t allow you to save the content to use when you can’t access the internet. I’m sure this will change as time goes on but it will cause problems for a lot of people. Printing is going to be a issue as well as most printers aren’t currently cloud enabled so if you need to print you won’t be able to use this as your only computer.

As a tool for accessing the internet Google and Samsung have nailed the concept and Chrome as an OS works well. Its a simple system for a user who doesn’t want to be concerned with anything else. It actually strikes me as a product Apple could have produced, the feature set is controlled but the trade off is a simple and slick experience. So would i buy one? No. Its a great device but I’m not the target audience.

SBS2011 – Changing default accepted domain breaking OWA

After recently installing an SBS2011 server for a customer I started setting up Exchange ActiveSync and IMAP on their iPad’s, Phones etc.
It soon became apparent that there was a problem. Although the devices would connect to the server they would come up with errors relating to not being able to download 0kb of a message, not being able to update folder lists and OWA would give you the following error if you tried to forward anything.

User host address: (Public IP Address)

User: (Username)

EX
Address: /o=First Organization/ou=Exchange Administrative Group
(FYDIBOHF23SPDLT)/cn=Recipients/cn=(Username)

SMTP
Address: mailto:Username@Domain.Com
Username@Domain.Com

OWA
version: 14.1.218.13

Mailbox
server: server.domain.local

Exception

Exception
type: System.ArgumentException

Exception
message: imceaDomain must be a valid domain name.

Call
stack

Microsoft.Exchange.Data.Storage.InboundConversionOptions.CheckImceaDomain(String
imceaDomain)

Microsoft.Exchange.Data.Storage.InboundConversionOptions..ctor(String
imceaDomain)

Microsoft.Exchange.Clients.Owa.Core.Utilities.CreateInboundConversionOptions(UserContext
userContext)

Microsoft.Exchange.Clients.Owa.Core.ReplyForwardUtilities.CreateForwardItem(BodyFormat
bodyFormat, Item item, ReplyForwardFlags flags, UserContext userContext,
StoreObjectId parentFolderId)

Microsoft.Exchange.Clients.Owa.Premium.Controls.ItemForwardPreFormAction.Execute(OwaContext
owaContext, ApplicationElement& applicationElement, String& type,
String& state, String& action)

Microsoft.Exchange.Clients.Owa.Core.RequestDispatcher.DoFinalDispatch(OwaContext
owaContext)

Microsoft.Exchange.Clients.Owa.Core.RequestDispatcher.InternalDispatchRequest(OwaContext
owaContext)

Microsoft.Exchange.Clients.Owa.Core.RequestDispatcher.DispatchRequest(OwaContext
owaContext)

Microsoft.Exchange.Clients.Owa.Core.OwaRequestEventInspector.OnPostAuthorizeRequest(Object
sender, EventArgs e)

System.Web.HttpApplication.SyncEventExecutionStep.System.Web.HttpApplication.IExecutionStep.Execute()

System.Web.HttpApplication.ExecuteStep(IExecutionStep
step, Boolean& completedSynchronously

The problem is that if you change the Default domain in Exchange the external accepted domain has spaces in the name, it is “Windows SBS External Domain. You can get around this by either changing the Default domain back to *domain*.local or if that isn’t an option do the following:

Open Exchange PowerShell and run the following cmdlet: Get-AcceptedDomain

We now wanted to ammend it to a name without spaces or special characters. Run the following commend let inserting your external domain name in at the end: Set-AcceptedDomain -Identity “Windows SBS External Domain” -Name “Domain.co.uk”

Then run the get cmdlet again: Get-AcceptedDomain

You should now see that it has updated. Close the PowerShell

Final thing you will need to is Restart IIS.