Author Archives: rbrocklehurs

How Do Games Get on Steam?

While it may seem like a strange question to ask, there is an interesting history behind the largest (online and brick and mortar) storefront for video games. The control exerted by Steam on the market it controls has wide ranging implications for both consumers and developers. The availability of indie games is a relatively recent development in Steam’s history; so are the current trends pushing the near-exponential growth of the Steam library.

Back when Steam launched, the library selection was very limited, relying on the IP (Intellectual Property) that Valve (Steam’s parent company) had built up over the past half-decade.  For the first 2 years of Steam’s life you could only find games created and published by Valve (Half Life and Counterstrike 1.6 being the most notable), but in late 2005 that changed as Steam inked a deal with Strategy First, a small Canadian publisher, and games started flowing onto the service. For the next 5 years the steam library was very limited as generally only large/influential publishers were able to get their games on Steam. This created tension in the Steam community, as many people want indie games to be featured and make their way onto the storefront. The tension broke when Steam agreed to allow indie games on the platform.

By 2010, the issues were obvious: Steam had no way to discern which indie games people wanted and which were not suitable for the platform. Two years later, in response to these concerns, Steam implemented the Green Light system, designed to get quality indie games on Steam. Initially Green Light was received positively. Black Mesa (A popular mod that ported Valve’s original Half Life to the Half Life 2 engine) and other releases of quality games inspired confidence. All seemed good. Fast forward to late 2015: Several disturbing trends had begun to emerge.

An enterprising “developer” realized that you can buy assets for the unity engine store, and with very minimal effort create a “game” that you could get on Green Light. These “games” were often just the unity assets with AI zombies that would slowly follow you around, providing little to no engaging content and which hardly could be considered a game. These games should have never made it through Green Light, but the developers got creative in getting people to vote for their games. Some would give “review” keys away pending a vote/good review on their page while others promised actual monetary profit through the Steam’s Trading Card economy.

Asset flips are just one example of how Green Light was exploited (not to mention the cartel-like behavior behind some of the asset flippers). By 2016 Steam was in full damage control, as the effects of Green Light were becoming apparent, the curated garden that once was Steam became overgrown and flooded with sub-par games. So overabundant was the flow of content that by the end of 2016, nearly 40% of Steam’s whole library was released in that year alone. 13 years of content control and managing customers’ expectations were nullified in the span of a year. (The uptick began in 2014, but 2016 was the real breaking point).

Steam, now in damage-control mode, decided to abandon content control in favor of an open marketplace that uses algorithms to recommend games to consumers. This “fix” has only hid the enormity of sub-par games that make up most of the Steam library now. And while an algorithm can recommend games, it will often end up recommending the same types of games, creating an echo chamber effect as you are only recommended the games you express interest in, and not those that would appeal to you the most.

In 2017, Steam abandoned Green Light in favor of Steam Direct, an updated method of allowing developers to publish games, this time without community interaction. Steam re-assumed the mantle of gatekeeper, taking back responsibility for quality control, albeit with standards so low, one can hardly call it vetting. (Some approved games don’t even include an .exe in the download)

 

Portability and the Effects on Device Internals

With the current trend of ever-shrinking tech devices, we have seen an explosion in the abundance of portable electronics. Fifteen years ago Apple launched the iPod, a device so foreign to people that Steve Jobs had to explain you could legally transfer your CD collection to your computer then onto your iPod. Now it is expected that the little (or big) phone in your pocket works as well as any desktop computer with fully developed applications and lasts a full day on one charge. There are many different advances that made this possible, such as the reduction in size of the fabrication nodes, increased battery storage, and much better video display options. But I think one change in design philosophy in particular has driven the current trend in tech.

Due to portability requirements phones have become a microcosm of the tech industry, specifically in the trend of increasing complexity at the cost of repairability. When the first iPhone came out there was no option to change battery or storage configuration, options both available on competitors’ devices. And yet people flocked in droves to Apple’s simpler, less-customizable devices, so much so that now Google produces its own phone, the Pixel, which has a non-removable battery and lacks a microSD slot. Logic dictates that there must be an outside pressure to force a competitor to drop a substantial differentiator from other products on the market; I would argue that factor is thinness.

The size of an SD card slot seems pretty inconsequential on a device the size of a desktop computer but when it takes up 1% of the total space of a device, there are arguments for much better uses of the space. A better cooling system, larger internal battery, or just space for a larger PCB are all uses for the extra space that may make the device better than it could have been with the SD card slot. When you look at the logic boards for the iPhone, this point is illustrated; there is just no space for any extra components.

Driven by space-saving concerns, complexity increases as smaller and smaller traces are used on the PCB and components have to shrink, shuffle or be removed. Proof of this is in the design of larger machines such as the Macbook, a 12-inch laptop with a logic board smaller than its touchpad, which features a mobile CPU and no removable storage.https://tr2.cbsistatic.com/hub/i/2015/04/23/f7db4def-28c8-4625-aa5d-effb6ff56197/c4d819ca18590fc382a2314ab705b2e2/applemacbook2015teardown025.jpg

  Demand for ultra-portability has led to devices that are so small that they are almost impossible to repair or upgrade. However, this trend cannot continue indefinitely. Moore’s law has taken a couple hits in the past couple years as Intel struggles to keep pace with it and PCB manufacturing can only get so small before it is impossible to fit all the components on it. As size becomes less of a differentiator and reaches its physical limits, tech companies will have to look to new innovations to stay relevant, such as increasing battery life or designing new functions for the devices.

Bonus Bit: Surviving the Steam Summer Sale

Ahh yes, the steam summer sale, the glorious and magical two weeks of wallet crushing sales and bundles, whether you are new or a grizzled veteran, there is always something to be found at a price you thought was impossible.  But wait, it’s dangerous out there, take a read through this before you head out into the tsunami of sales tags to make sure you get the most out of your summer sale action.  

 

Quick Details on the Summer Sale

What: Large discounts on hundreds of video games from the largest PC gaming platform
Who: Anyone who owns a computer
When: June 22nd 1pm est until July 5th 1pm est
Where: store.steampowered.com

Changes and Updates to the Summer Sale Format

Veterans of Summer Sales will remember daily deals and flash sales, which are missing from this years sale, instead Steam will curate a list of games already on sale that they think you should take a look at.  This unfortunately limits what Valve can do with the sale, instead of like previous years with games for users to play, like the monster clicker game or being split into colored teams, they have decided to release limited summer sale stickers.  What are stickers you ask?  Stickers act in a similar way to Trading Cards, but instead of dropping from time spent in game, they drop based on certain activities that Valve want to encourage (check steam each day during the sale, etc) and if you fill up your sticker book, you may get a special surprise.  Trading cards are also back this year, and seem to be dropping in the same manner as previous sales, based on how much money (currently each $10 increase gets you a card) you have spent during the sale, with a special badge that can be crafted if you collect all the cards.  

 

Tips for New Commers 

Your first Summer Sales is almost always the most memorable sale, seeing hundreds of games that you want for 60%~95% off embeds a nostalgic feeling that is hard to shake.  Many veterans will complain that the sales aren’t like they used to be, but in reality it is more likely that they’ve picked up the games that they want, and as such it seems to loose a bit of luster to them.  But to the newbie it is all brand new and very easy to get lost in the fray.  To keep you from getting burnt out from the first week of sales I suggest you check out the r/steam and r/pcmasterrace (disclaimer: PCMR is a reddit group by and for pc gaming, there are no political allegiances, mac heathens and console peasants are welcomed) subreddits and the Summer Sale megathreads to keep up the special sales and answer any questions that you have.  

Even though it is a bit outdated I suggest keeping this flow chart in mind as planning your purchases can help keep you from breaking the bank.  Another tidbit is that Steam has a refund option, as long as you have owned the game for less than 14 days and have less than 2 hours of playtime you can refund it, but be careful, Steam refunds whole purchases and not single games, so if you buy 5 games on sale and want to refund 1, you will have to refund the other 4 as well.  Once you get down to playing with your new games, don’t forget to include other people, discord/teamspeak/mumble are great ways of voice chatting with your friends if the steam VOIP service doesn’t interest you and can provide structure if you are playing squad MMO’s.

Remember to stay safe out there, it’s a big sale but with a bit of planning and some self control you and your wallet should stay intact.

 

The New Face of the FCC

With any incoming president interest swirls around cabinet nominees and appointees, many set precedent for the departments, perhaps none more so than Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.  An advocate for deregulation of the FCC and free market ideals, Pai has an unique opportunity to shape our world into something vastly new and different.

Born in 1973, Pai graduated from Havard with a BA in Social Studies in 1994 and a J.D. from the University of Chicago in 1997.  After which he clerked for the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and then working for the Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division where he specialized in mergers and acquisitions.  After which he served as an associate general counsel for Verizon where he dealt with competition matters, regulatory issues, and counseling of business units on broadband initiatives.  From there he served on several subcommittees, until 2007 when he was appointed to work for the general counsel ultimately serving as Deputy General Counsel.  In 2011 he was nominated and unanimously confirmed for the republican party position on the FCC and served until 2016.  

Pai’s controversial stances on net neutrality stem from his view that they are an overly conservative reading of the laws of the responsibilities held by the FCC, claiming that regulations may lead the FCC to regulating political speech.  He advocates for the marketplace of ideas, stating to the Washington Examiner  “I think it’s dangerous, frankly, that we don’t see more often people espousing the First Amendment view that we should have a robust marketplace of ideas where everybody should be willing and able to participate.“  While it will take time for his tenure to have an effect on regulations, he will definitely speed up the pace of work, from a 2012 speech at Carnegie Mellon “we need to start taking our other statutory and internal deadlines more seriously” and “The FCC should be as nimble as the industry we oversee”.  From corporate mergers to changing how radio spectrum is portioned out, changes will be coming.  In the speech Pai shared his view of a different FCC, where the free market is utilized to bring about change and regulations are used to increase competition.  The next 4 years will be written by free market ideals and a furious pace of work, leading to an impact that will hopefully provide better choice and coverage for consumers. 

Pai’s presence as FCC Chairman will leave a lasting change on the history of the committee, some changes will be a step in the right directions, others maybe missteps, but all of them will have the possibility of changing how you interact with the rest of the world.  

iOS 10 and Mac OS Sierra

Apple recently released its latest computer and mobile operating systems, Mac OS Sierra and iOS 10, both bring improvements and changes that are sure to please some and upset others.  

iOS 10 looks and feels very different with a new lock screen, notification center, and control center and updates to apps like Messages and Music, but as with any software updates there are bugs including a bug where trying to update the machine over the air cause it to crash and boot loop(although this has been fixed since then). This is just a reminder that day 1 software may have bugs and it is never a bad idea to hold off a week or two for all the issues to be ironed out.  

Mac OS Sierra brings along a new naming scheme, gone is OS X and in is Mac OS, some are speculating that this is a way to bring iOS and Mac OS closer, although for now they look to be separate and distinct OS’s.  Continuity however bridges the gaps between iOS and Mac OS, with a universal clipboard between apple devices, and now Siri is in Mac OS.

iOS

iOS 10 brings many small but convenient updates and changes. The slide to unlock (present since the first release of iOS) has been replaced by pressing on the home button to unlock. Many of the stock applications have received a couple of new features here and there, and a lot of focus went into tying separate applications to make for a single fluid system. One such example of this focus on context driven capabilities is transferring events, and contacts found in emails to calendar and contacts respectively. Messages also received a considerable change with the addition of new stickers, and animations to emphasize the expression of your texts.

One trade off of iOS 10 is the implementation of API’s (Application Program Interface) to help the programmers design applications. One API was removed that allowed low level access to information about hardware; such as the battery cycle count or charge voltage. But Apple implemented three new APIs allowing for more access to iMessage, Maps, and Siri which allow for integrating new tasks such as restaurant booking from maps or larger and emotive emoticons and emoji’s.  

 

macOS

macOS Sierra borrows many of its new features from iOS. From the integration of Siri to the adoption of Apple Pay online, the influences of iOS are clear.  Disk Utility has the option to setup raid arrays, a feature that was removed in 10.11. While not a widespread use case, it is nice to have the ability to set up special storage options. In stark contrast Apple has really limited the security options for Gatekeeper. Whereas before if you were trying to install a program from an unidentified developer (like Cloudpath) all you had to do was change a setting in System Preferences to accept all 3rd party apps, now you have to run the application, and then go into system preferences to give it explicit access to run, additionally you can also right-click it and hit “open” to provide the necessary permission to launch the application. In some cases it might be a few extra clicks, but the general security improvement is a interesting trade-off to consider.

iCloud also has a new trick, which affects Mac OS. Older files (such as documents/voice memos) can be moved to iCloud to save space on the machine. This allows Apple to charge for iCloud server space and use smaller storage solutions in machines, a formula popularized by Google’s Chromebooks. This optional feature is designed to free up space on machines as an alternative to using external drives.

Sudo also changed how it works, if you authenticate one tab in Terminal if will not authenticate the other tabs, meaning that you have to re-authenticate the sudo command in each tab.  

Summary 

Overall the iOS 10 and macOS upgrades do not provide any world changing features, but what they do provide is many smaller changes that should make devices easier to use and more feature rich, from the changes to apple music to the new lock screen, this update feels like a step closer to a “perfect” experience. Looking to the future, Apple released a preview of their new file system, Apple File System (APFS), which is designed to provide better support for solid state drives and implements software tools such as trim, snapshots, and cloning as well as overcoming many of the limitations of HFS+. While not an exciting visible change, this backend change will allow for new features and hopefully better performance to enable a better user experience.  

What is Fast.com and Why Does it Matter

Netflix just launched a new service, Fast.com, which allows people to check their download speed. It seems like a pretty mundane tool that only techie’s or people who love arguing with their ISP’s would care about but that belies the brilliant move that Netflix just made.

To understand why this is so important we should first look at the pre-existing services that allowed you to test your download speeds. Speedtest.net is the most ubiquitous tool for checking your download speeds online, while that gives it legitimacy, it also allows ISP’s to prioritize traffic to this site. It is technically possible that an ISP may provide prioritized traffic to Speedtest.net but slowing down or severely limiting to sites such as YouTube or Netflix in an attempt to limit how much a customer can download. This is a violation of net neutrality, a system that if in place would force ISP’s to treat all data as the same thus removing the possibility for Comcast (who is owned by NBCUniversal) to prioritize their own entertainment services over 3rd party services like Netflix. The scary thing is that, Comcast did something very similar, allowing their data to not count against their customers data caps while watching on Xbox 360’s, but counting data from services such as Netflix, HBO GO, and YouTube. Net neutrality is not a dead debate and it is important to be vigilant of how your data is processed.

Fast.com test of Eduroam

Fast.com test of Eduroam

Speedtest.net, the most popular internet speed test

Speedtest.net, the most popular internet speed test

The genius behind Netflix creating Fast.com is that they are hosting the service from the same servers that host Netflix.com. This removes the ability of ISP’s to prioritize fast.com data without prioritizing Netflix.com traffic, essentially this forces the hand of ISP’s to treat Netflix data fairly or be publicly shamed and most likely fined by the FCC. What this does not fix is data discrimination to other sites like HBO GO or YouTube, but the fix is simple, just provide a speed test function with your website to ensure no prioritization. While this is a move that strikes back at overstepping ISP’s I think it speaks more to the unfortunate environment that the internet has become, dominated by large corporations who have other interests besides providing the best internet access possible.

In conclusion, yes, this is something that techies get excited about, but this has larger implications for anyone who access the internet. Fair access to the internet is something that we need to ensure because this is a global service, we cannot be limited by corporate or national interests. For the first time in history we have a technology that binds us together as a whole, we cannot let ourselves divide it up.