Tag Archive for gift

Red Dead Redemption

Last month, being forced to buy something at Best Buy before a gift certificate reward expired and finding nothing for the both of us, the wife let me buy Red Dead Redemption.

One thing that always kept me from playing the Grand Theft Auto games is that I don’t generally like to play the bad guy.  But RDR’s John Marston is a man with a troubled past as an outlaw who has tried getting out of the life and getting on a more law abiding path.  John’s job is to track down his old gang-mates and bring them to justice, a job he only undertakes because his family is being held hostage.

This game is beautiful, not only in its graphics but also in its overall design.  The story unfolds so well that unless you are purposefully trying to break the system and color way outside the lines it all feels natural.  Well, mostly, but I won’t go into that now.  I want to talk more about this game because it was so good, so well crafted.  There were even two scenes in the game that broke my heart.  For now, let me just say that I absolutely loved playing through this game, and look forward to continuing to play the single player for challenges/achievements and the multi player aspects as well.

I’d recommend this game to just about anyone.

FarmVille

Looking at Facebook games I’m going to tackle a big one first: FarmVille.  The idea behind the game is that you build a farm, harvest crops and stuff for money which you use to build more farm.  There are two forms of money in the game, Coins and Cash.  Coins are what you get naturally just playing the game for most actions, Cash is what you can buy with real dollars.  Now, you can buy Coins with real dollars and you can get Cash through the game, but they are primarily obtained as first described.  You can also visit your neighbors’ farms and do chores to help them out.

Ring around the Character

Ring around the Character

One of the first things you are likely to notice if you go visiting other people’s farms is that the majority of them have something like pictured to the right.  A few carefully arranged objects, be they bales of hay or fences or whatever, so that your character can’t move.  See, when you click on things in your farm, like land to plow or crops to harvest or cows to milk, your character will walk over to those things and then do the work.  By restricting character movement, all actions are performed as you click on them instead of waiting for your character to walk to them.  This, of course, is preferred since the game involves lots of clicking and, if you go on long enough, big farms with lots of walking.  My farm doesn’t have this, because it looks stupid.  However, I have noticed that many of my neighbors stopped coming to do chores at my farm after the first time or two because without me putting up the barrier it just takes too long for them to do chores.

Packed in like things that are packed in tightly

Packed in like things that are packed in tightly

To the left here, you’ll see animals, the other large aspect of FarmVille.  Animals wander around if you let them, but this can lead them to finding their way into places behind things where you can’t click them, so most people just place them, click them and issue the “stay” command so they don’t move around.  As you get more animals, you need room for them and since space is scarce in this game, most people end up just packing the animals in a corner, sometimes in a pen, all lined up.  It makes for easier care, though PETA would be very displeased.  I let my animals wander, which only affects me since visitors interact with buildings (like chicken coops) and not individual animals.  Overall, like the barriers, lines of animals looks stupid, but the game doesn’t reward you for pretty, it rewards you for clicks.

The game also rewards you for spam.  I respect that FarmVille is intended to be a social game, but every time something happens in game there is a pop-up asking me if I want to post this event to my news feed.  I tend not to do these because I find them to be tacky.  Choosing that road limits my game, of course.  When I do chores, sometimes I get prizes, like special mystery eggs for feeding people’s chickens, but I don’t really get those prizes.  Instead, I get a pop-up that says I found an item to give away, and I have to post an announcement on my feed for people to click on so they can get the prize.  I never see these posts from other people because I long ago hid the FarmVille application since the constant bombardment of posts was destroying my ability to actually read real feed updates from my friends.  Facebook has evolved, and I probably could find a way to see what my friends have to say without game spam, but I’m too lazy to figure it out.  So, since I don’t see people giving away stuff, I don’t give stuff away.  Not by news feed spam anyway.

Reciprocity is the center of FarmVille.  When someone gives you a gift, you are able to send them a thank you gift, and it is really easy to do.  So in order to get gifts, you have to give some away.  In order to maximize your advancement in the game, you need items and the best way to obtain those items is to give those items away.  If, for instance, you want to build your stable for horses, you need items like nails and bricks and harnesses.  The best way to get those is to give them to other people.  It is sort of accepted in these games that if someone gives you an item, when you thank them with a return gift you should give them the same thing back.  So, give to others what you want to get for yourself.  Don’t worry about the cost, giving gifts is free, but I believe Facebook imposes a limit on the number of “invites” a game can send out per day, so make sure you only send to people who always return the love.  This is also why FarmVille is constantly asking you to post things to your news feed, because there is no limit to how often a game can post to your feed.

So, beyond the clicking and the gifting, what is there to do in FarmVille?  Design your farm!  However, very few people really do this as a good looking farm is less efficient than it can be, so most farms are just clumps of money earning with little eye for design.  I wanted to make my farm look as farmy as possible, but the game hindered me in that because a number of items, most noticeably many buildings, cannot be rotated.  This restricts the number of places I can put these items and have them make sense.  In the end, I was frustrated that I couldn’t get my farm to look the way I wanted.  All the pieces were there, I just wasn’t allowed to arrange them in the way I wanted.  This led me to not caring about my farm, which led me to playing less.  I began intentionally choosing crops that matured in 4 days so that I could return less often.  This decision restricted my choices of crops which further led me to not want to play.

Overall, the game is boring.  This parody commercial actually captures much of what I feel about the game.

Back to the beginning of this review, Coins and Cash.  FarmVille is made by Zynga and if you’ve been floating around the gaming end of the Intarweb you might have heard two things about them.  First, they have made buckets and buckets of money.  Second, they made that money, in part, by scamming people.  Games on Facebook make money in three ways if I understand it correctly.  The first is the old Internet standby of Ad impressions and clicks.  The second is direct sales (buying game cash).  The third is through partner referrals.  The third one is where the trouble pops up.  Essentially, you go into the game and click on the tab to buy game Cash and down at the bottom they have a bunch of deals.  You can buy 115 Cash for $20 direct, but they’ll give you 127 Cash if you click the Blockbuster link and sign up for an account (and pay for at least one month).  Now, from the consumer perspective, the Blockbuster link is the best deal because you can get a plan for $4.99 a month (plus some taxes and fees) and cancel after 1 month: 127 Cash for $5.  The reason they do this is Blockbuster is betting that they’ll turn enough of those first month people into subscribers (and they probably have details statistics that say something like 1 in 10 people who sign up remain subscribers for a year, 1 in 10 for 6 months, 3 in 10 for 3 months, and so on), so Blockbuster kicks back to Zynga an amount of cash per person that makes them want you to do the partner link instead of giving them a straight $20.  In fact, the values of Cash purchased direct are more than likely priced specifically to make you prefer the partner links.  $5 with Zynga only gets you 25 Cash, but $5 with Blockbuster gets you 127.  Where would you rather spend your $5?

But where does the scam come in?  It is in the other links.  You see, many people don’t want the hassle of signing up for Blockbuster, even if it is the “better” deal, so they’d rather just give cash for Cash.  Zynga directly accepts Visa, MasterCard, Discover and Paypal.  But not everyone has credit cards or use Paypal, however just about everyone has a cell phone.  Through a number of partners, Zynga accepts payment through cell phone.  You just click a link and then text a code to a number and you get your Farm Cash and the charge is just added to your next cell phone bill.  How easy is that?  Super easy!!  What is usually hard to tell, though, and is where people cry foul, is that some of these cell phone pay services charge a monthly service fee.  So while you might jump at the chance to send $20 to Zynga for FarmVille and just tack that $20 on your phone bill, the company handling all that money moving is going to require (usually in the fine print and terms of service that 99.99999999999% of people foolishly never read) that you subscribe to their service (which you do by simply authorizing the original charge with that code you text) which is often anywhere from $9.99 to $19.99 a month.  And, naturally, Zynga gets a kickback on that.  We could argue until the sun burns out about who is responsible, the consumer for not reading the terms, the service company for not making them more prominent instead of buried in legal jargon, or Zynga for not mentioning that those services charge a fee, but at the end the truth is that they are all responsible.  People should pay attention, service companies should be required by law to clearly and prominently explain their fees, and Zynga should section off those alternate payment methods under a label that says they charge a fee.

At the end of the day, FarmVille gets a “C” for being mildly amusing yet boring and annoying, but Zynga gets a giant “F” for being unapologetic money grubbing douchebags.  Making money isn’t evil, but you don’t have to be a dick about it.

Patient Zero

It has actually been a while since I finished reading Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry, but I was waiting because I didn’t want to gush about a book I was giving as a gift to someone who might actually read the blog (as unlikely as that is).  Plus, I forgot.

Patient Zero follows Joe Ledger, a cop who has recently been offered a position with the FBI.  Just days away from his move he gets involved in a multi-agency bust of some suspected terrorists, one of whom doesn’t stay dead.  He is then approached by the Department of Military Sciences and told of a possible plot to release a virus that turns people into zombies.

Most zombie novels these days start after the end of the world, or are set within the fall.  Patient Zero is about trying to stop the zombie apocalypse from happening.  Another great aspect of the story is that it follows not only the people trying to stop the zombies, but also the people trying to start it.

This book was good.  Very good.  Couldn’t put it down good.  I blew through it, and so did the wife, and she’s not a fan of horror books or movies.  I’d gladly recommend it to just about anyone.

New Toys

I’ve always wanted a Wacom tablet, and for my and the wife’s two year wedding anniversary, I bought one for myself.  I bought her one too, a larger one with more frills because February 14th through March 13th is a gangbuster gift giving season for me (Valentine’s, the anniversary, and then her birthday).   Anyway, I really love the thing.  Being left handed but having accepted the right handed orientation of all software and hardware design for PCs, I’ve never been able to draw well with a mouse unless I was willing to take hours to make images that should have taken minutes.  My right hand on the mouse works great for gaming, but never for the really fine motor work of graphical art.  But with the tablet, I’m able to move the task of drawing over to my left hand without having to fight with software and seeking out rare left handed mice.

I’m not great at drawing, but its nice to be able to doodle directly into the computer what I would normally be doodling on pieces of paper.  There are a few examples of my new digital doodling handiwork rotating through the banner images here on the weblog, and there will be more to come.

The wife also got me another gift, one I didn’t pick myself, for our anniversary: Burnout Paradise.  I’ve always been fond of the Burnout series of games, and this one is no different.  The single player game play really isn’t much different from prior games, you race, you win, you gain rewards.  Where this game really shines, however, is in the online play.  While previous entries in the series offered online racing, Burnout Paradise offers up what they call “Freeburn” which is where you get into game with up to seven other people and can explore the city together.  During this Freeburn, the host can initiate races or can pull up one of 50 challenges for everyone to do together (there are 350 challenges in all, 50 for each grouping of players from 2 to 8).  The only disadvantage to the new Burnout game is the “sandbox” style set up for the single player.  Races begin at intersections and proceed to wherever, and if you fail to win the race, you have to drive back to the start to try again.  It can be extremely frustrating if you lose a race by just a couple of seconds several times in a row.

I’m really enjoying both of my new toys.

Hell to Pay

Just finished up the latest in the Nightside series of books by Simon Green entitled Hell to Pay. Like the rest of the series, the story is about private investigator John Taylor who has a gift for finding things. In this tale, John is hired by Jeremiah Griffin, a man whose immortality is rumored to come from a deal with the devil, to find his missing granddaughter Melissa.

Of course, no tale in the Nightside is ever that simple… and yet, this book, so far, I’d call the weakest in the series. It is, for lack of a better term, a circle. One of those stories that ends where it begins, you meet the kidnapper within the first couple of chapters (to me it was painfully obvious who it was), and after taking a tour around the other suspects our hero returns to save the day in the nick of time.

It wasn’t a bad book… if you enjoy the Nightside books, this certainly keeps in line with the rest in its introduction of well-known places that everyone but you, the reader, has heard of, and characters half of which are interesting and the other half are forgettable. The mystery here is really no mystery at all, Green practically hits you over the head with most of the clues you need right at the beginning. But still, an enjoyable read… and despite it being on my “Currently Reading” box for so long, it really only took maybe a day to read if I’d done so in one sitting (doing it five minutes at a time can drag out any book). Pick it up to complete the set, but if you are looking for an introduction to the Nightside, start with the first book, not this one.

The Reviews Are In

I love to browse Amazon.com. Every since they improved the hell out of their wish lists and organizer functions, I love looking at the recommended products for both myself and for the people whom I’ve registered gift giving occasions for. (If you haven’t taken advantage of the gift lists and organizer features of Amazon, I suggest you do.) Its kinda neat to see what gets recommended to me and why it got recommended. Is it from stuff on my wish list? Is it from stuff I own? I’ve even been recommended things because of stuff I’ve rated low… it didn’t come out and say it, but basically it was showing me an item because I’d rated “opposite” items with only one star.

Once I’ve found an item that is intriguing to me, I then find myself browsing the reviews of the items. Sometimes you come across some real comedy gems in there, like the now long deleted review of the xbox 360 where it overheated setting the house on fire and killed his family but he gave it a 5 star rating because up to that point the games were really fun. But mostly, I spent my time actually reading the bad reviews of items.

Frankly, I could not care less about the opinions of someone who thinks that the product is the best thing since sliced bread, because… well… a gushing “my god this is awesome!!!!!1!1!!!!!” review just doesn’t help. So instead I sort the reviews from lowest to highest rated, and start reading in the gutter. The negative reviews are so much more helpful. Firstly, its easier to spot a negative nutjob than to spot a crazy product lover. “I bought this book and it had pages!! You mean I have to read it myself?!?!” Second, once you’ve decided the reviewer isn’t a nutjob, you can focus in on what exactly they didn’t like and decide if you also will not like it, which is often more beneficial than trying to align your tastes with someone’s positive review, mostly because people who love something tend to be willing to overlook flaws… flaws which to you might be very important.

Anyway, those are my random thoughts of the day…

The Shopping Season

Now that the holiday shopping season is pretty much over, I wanted to take a moment and share what it is that I like and don’t like about it.

One thing is fairly consistant among people I talk to is that noone seems to like going to the mall, or near the mall, or even getting on the roads at all from Thanksgiving to January 2nd. Most of this, I find kind of funny. First off, the traffic… yeah, people are stupid, but with some good Christmas tunes (or other music if you are one of those sicko people who hates Christmas songs), a watchful eye, and a zen “I’ll get there when I get there” attitude, traffic is nothing to worry about. Just always give yourself plenty of time, and know that if you are late the simple excuse of “Traffic!” is enough for just about anybody. Then there is parking… my legs ain’t broke, ’nuff said. Well, almost. Look, seriously, most of us out there are perfectly capable of walking, just don’t go shopping on rainy days and you’ll be fine. Nothing tickles me more than watching people drive around the mall looking for the perfect parking spot for an hour when they could have parked at the end, and be halfway done with shopping by now! I am literally filled with glee when I see the vultures circling the aisles. The next thing is the crowds. Now, I completely get why most people don’t like crowds… mainly it is because crowds are pushy and they get in the way. The solution here is just to not be in a rush youself.

That whole not being in a rush thing is at the center of enjoying the holiday shopping season. Number one, don’t wait until the last minute to buy high demand gifts. If you were one of those people clammoring to buy a Wii or PS3 on December 24th… you are an idiot. You should either have bought it sooner, or come up with another plan. If I ever have kids, they are going to love me or hate me, because I simply will not put up with that crazy shopper crap. If I can’t lay my hands on a high demand gift early, they’ll be getting a letter from Santa, an IOU and a substitute gift. Christmas in February! There is just no point in killing yourself for a gift. That said, this season, I had a chance to lay hands on both a Wii and a PS3, but not dying for either, I passed them on to the next person in line. I can wait (for a better bundle deal). I’m not perfect though. I mentioned previously that I was pretty sure I hit a home run in the gift giving department this year (and I did), and part of that was an in demand gift… a Nintendo DS Lite, the pink one. I didn’t act soon enough and so the pink one slid through my fingers. I had a choice to make… get another gift, or get a non-pink one. I went with the non-pink one, because the DS itself was really the gift, the pink color was just a bonus. But that was only half the home run.

See, the DS was one of those “only if” items. I had a budget, and the DS was only on the purchase list if I could manage the other gifts with enough room in the budget left for the DS. This leads to the other side of shopping, the best side: deals.

The wife, for whom the DS was for, also wanted some power tools. Now, under normal circumstances I could have only gotten two, maybe three, tools for the budget, but it was Christmas which meant package deals. ACE Hardware happened to be running one, it was a really nice 6 piece cordless toolset for about $50-60 off the regular package price. I shopped around for other deals, but ACE was the best deal, and decent quality stuff (not top of the line, because top of the line does not go on sale, ever, because it doesn’t need to, its top of the line). None of the ACEs I went to had it, and I tried to order it online, but they weren’t giving the same deal as the in-store, so I kept searching. Finally, I found one, just one, the last one. Yay! But the box was all damaged, so I asked to talk to the manager and asked him if the item had been returned. Yep, it had been. Well, I didn’t want to buy something that was broken, so I wanted to know why it had been returned. He went to pull the customer service report to see the reason stated for return, but couldn’t find it, and I didn’t want to buy it if it was potentially broken, and he didn’t want to sell it to me if there was a possibility of return since he didn’t have any more and wasn’t going to get any more… so, he gave it to me for another $40 off, a total of about $100 off the normal list price. I bought it, took it home and tested all the parts and they all worked! Yay! That left enough room in the budget for the DS and a game.

The wife managed a similar kind of deal when she got for me the Complete Calvin and Hobbes. I know the suggested retail is $150, and Amazon sells it usually for $99… but I know she got it for $68. You can’t always get these kinds of deals just filling virtual carts online.

But back to the rush… see, the most important reason to not be in a rush, is that when you do go out to the stores and malls, you are filled with the warm feeling knowing that you are not one of those crazy people who are surrounding you. I actually like to hit the mall once or twice when my shopping is done (or nearly done) just so I can sit back and watch the people. I’ve always been a people watcher, and the holidays brings out the best and worst in people. It makes for fantastic people watching.

The Spirit of Giving

I’ll admit, when it comes to gift giving occasions, like birthdays and Christmas, I usually phone it in. That’s not to say I don’t get the person something they want or something they need, or that they don’t appreciate the gifts, but… I usually play it safe. You like movies, here is a movie; you like console games, here is a console game; you have a wish list at Amazon, here is an item off your wish list at Amazon.

This year though, I think for a couple of people, I’ve finally managed to pull off “the good gift”. You know the one I mean. The thing they didn’t ask for, the thing they think no one will buy them, the thing they forgot that they wanted but that you remembered them talking about… and now I’m all full of excitement about Christmas morning on a level beyond the norm.

Damn, I should have been doing this all along. But I’ll give credit where credit is due… I couldn’t have done it without Amazon.

One of the problems you run into with giving gifts is trying to remember thing people have said they wanted. Usually, you don’t really think about it until the time to give in near and so the main thoughts in your head will be of stuff they’ve talked about recently. But Amazon introduced Gift Idea Lists this year. You can add a person, then add gifts to that person… they’ll even give your three recommendations for gifts based on the list (I do wish this was larger, three just seems to not really be enough). So now, not on some scrap of paper I can lose, whenever someone I know mentions something they want, I can go drop it on their Gift List and save it for when I need to buy them something.

It’ll even keep track of gift giving days for each person… so guys, sorry, but you’ve run out of excuses for forgetting anniversaries.

Reign of the Dead

Mmm… more zombies. Another Christmas gift this year was Len Barnhart’s Reign of the Dead. First, let me express my disappointment that this is an iUniverse published book. iUniverse is another POD publisher, though its not as bad as PublishAmerica since they are backed by Barnes & Noble it is still paying to be published and it still keeps your book out of most bookstores. That aside, this is actually a pretty good book. As usual for the genre, the dead come back to life and kill people. In this case, any dead person with an intact brain will get back up, but just the bitten. The author skips the gory details of the world being overrun and the first days of the walking dead by starting with a character who has been living in a secluded cabin for the past three weeks. After that it follows what is a fairly typical formula of survivors finding each other and banding together. He throws into the mix a government installation run by a mildly insane dictator type who actually becomes commander-in-chief after the fall of NORAD and all the major political players, at which point he decides that nuking all the cities is the answer. He doesn’t, because if he did it would be a really short story. Instead, there is a mini civil war, and dead soldiers becomes zombies, and only one scientist gets out. After a bunch of other stuff, the book actually ends happy. The zombies are gone and the remnants of humanity start putting the pieces back together.

I had one issue with the book. The first character, Jim, is described as a business man who has retreated to the wilderness to get some much needed rest. He is depicted as an avid hunter, but somewhere during the first few chapters he just sort of becomes this hardened military type that garners respect from the other characters. The thing missing is for him to have actually done something to earn that respect. Sure, in times of crisis, people often will latch on to any leader type, but Jim stumbles in with a group that already had a leader type and the trust he gets just doesn’t feel earned.

On a good note, I did very much enjoy the book’s use of a prison. To me, it has always been something that just logically made sense. A prison is like a ready made castle, and a perfect place to hunker down and try to survive a rising of zombies. Now, its true you could get trapped there, surrounded, but with the proper supplies for planting gardens and whatnot, you could easily survive there for years behind the fences and stone walls while trying to solve the being surrounded problem. So, I liked that they used a prison, especially dealing with the prisoners, guards and what happened after the zombies started prowling around.

Overall, this was a decent book. Definately worth the read. Happier, but not as well written as Brian Keene’s The Rising and City of the Dead (which I reviewed previously).

Simon Green`s Nightside

While skimming through the Fantasy & Science Fiction section at my local Books-A-Million one day, searching for new stuff to read, I stumbled across and interesting series of books. At least insteresting in their cover are and book jacket description, and by an author I hadn’t heard of, so I thought I’d give it a shot. That book was Something from the Nightside. It was a fun little noirish detective novel type tale with a bit of magic and demons thrown in to the mix. The first book was good enough that I picked up the next two (Agents of Light and Darkness and Nightingale’s Lament), both of which have been better than the first and good enough that I’m going to keep picking up the rest of the series, of which there are two or three and more on the way.

They make good short reads, and I definately recommend them. Now, stop reading unless you want spoilers…
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