Category Archives: gaming

Contract Bridge on a tablet: Funbridge vs Bridgebase vs Bridge Baron

Bridge is an ideal game for a tablet, well suited to touch control and the kind of game you can play for a few minutes or a few hours at a time, which is excellent for travellers.

So what are the choices? Here is a quick look at some favourites.

Funbridge is available for iPhone, iPad and Android. There are also versions for Windows and Mac. The Android edition is the newest but works fine, though of all of them it is the iOS release that is the nicest to use.

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The way Funbridge works is that you always play against a computer, though this is on the internet rather than running locally, but your scores are compared with other humans playing the same hands. I have not tried the “Two players game” so I am not sure how that works, except that the other player has to be a “friend” in the Funbridge community system. It looks like you play with your friend against two bots.

Funbridge has a lot to like. The user interface is excellent, much the best of all the tablet bridge software I have used and better than most desktop bridge software too. There is a good variety of game options, including one-off games, tournaments of 5 games each, and a series ladder you can climb from 1 club to 7 no trumps. You can select one of 6 conventions, including ACOL, SAYC (American Standard), and 5 card major at three levels from beginner to expert. I think this is a hint that to get the best from Funbridge you should use the 5 card major system.

Another nice feature of Funbridge is that you can go back and replay a hand to try a different line of play. You can also see all the other scores on any hand, and how they were bid and played.

Funbridge is not perfect though. The bidding is eccentric at times, and it can be hard to persuade your partner bot to play in no trumps rather than a suit. There is definitely an art to winning at Funbridge that is a different from what it takes to win at a real bridge table.

Since you are playing against a cloud-based server, you can only play if you have an internet connection. Not so good for most flights.

Funbridge is a pay per game service. Currently 50 deals costs £1.49 (about 3p each) or if you pay more the per-deal cost falls to under 2p. Unlimited deals for a year costs £69.99.

That said, you can get 10 games a week for free, though you only get the 10 free games if you have no paid games in your account; slightly unfair to the paying customers.

Bridgebase is available for iPad, iPhone, Android and Amazon Kindle. Bridgebase also offers a browser-based game based on Adobe Flash. Like Funbridge, you can only play with an internet connection. You can either play with human opponents, or solo with three bots.

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Of course human opponents are more fun, though there are advantages to playing with bots. No pressure, you can think for as long as you like, and none of the issues which afflict online bridge, such as players simply disappearing when in a bad contract, or being bad tempered if you make a mistake.

The Bridgebase user interface is OK though feels clunky compared to the smoothness of Funbridge. As in Funbridge, you can compare your score with other human players even if you play against bots. You cannot replay games, but you can undo your play which means you can easily cheat against the bots if you feel so inclined. Against humans your opponents have to approve an undo, which they will be reluctant to do other then in cases of genuine mis-taps.

The biggest problem with Bridgebase is the standard of the bots, which is much weaker than Funbridge. The play can be quite bizarre at times, sometimes excellent, sometimes daft.

A weak feature is that if your computer partner wins the auction, it also plays the contract, sometimes badly. I do not see the point of this. You may find yourself playing “hideous hog” style (Victor Mollo’s character who always tried to play the contract) as it is painful reaching a good contract but watching the bot throw it away.

Bridgebase is free to play, though there are subscription options online to get some extra features.

Bridge Baron is available for Android, iPad, iPhone, Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. It is inexpensive (£13.99 currently on the App Store) but you have to pay separately for each platform. Unlike the other two games, Bridge Baron runs entirely on your device, which is good if you are offline, but means you do not compare your score against other humans. You can set the standard from novice to advanced.

Bridge Baron plays well enough to be fun, though well short of the best computer players. You can replay games at will. You can compare your score against the Baron’s score, review the bidding and play, and undo your play at will. You can also ask for a hint from the Baron.

The Bridge Baron user interface is basic, a little worse than Bridgebase (though faster) and much worse than Funbridge. I do not know why the card icons are so small; it is like playing on a huge table.

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Still, good fun and good value.

Conclusion

All three of these games have something to commend them. Funbridge for the best user interface and a standard good enough to be enjoyable despite a few eccentricities. Bridgebase for the option to play with real people, and for free play with bots. Bridge Baron for playing offline.

On the other hand, Bridgebase is spoilt by the poor play of its bots. Bridge Baron is dull because you cannot compare your score with other humans. Funbridge is the one I choose if I have some deals available, but can get expensive if you play a lot, and you will get annoyed with your computer partner from time to time.

There is nothing on a tablet that comes close to Jack Bridge for standard of play.

Finally, note there is no bridge app for Windows RT. So if you are a bridge addict with a Surface RT, you are out of luck.

Review: Hauppauge HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition. Capture Xbox and PS3 gaming action for YouTube.

The Hauppauge HD PVR2 is a gadget for capturing video from an HDMI or component video source, such as an XBox 360 or PlayStation 3 games console, and has replaced the popular HD PVR, which was component video only. 

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The concept is simple: instead of connecting you console directly to your TV or A/V amplifier, connect it to the HD PVR2. Then connect the unit to a PC or Mac via USB, and to the original TV or amplifier via HDMI. Your PC can then capture the video (and audio) while you are playing the game using the big screen. Hauppauge says the delay between input and output is only 60 microseconds, which you will not notice.

The use of HDMI makes connecting the PVR2 simpler than with its predecessor. Instaead of a bunch of component audio connections, there is just power, USB, HDMI in and out, and an A/V input that connects to component video sources where needed. The A/V input has a special cable that gives floating sockets for component video and analogue audio. The unit is also supplied with a cable suitable for connecting to a PS3.

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You might need component input in two cases:

1. Your games console lacks HDMI – for example, Nintendo Wii.

2. The HDMI output is encrypted for copyright protection. This is the case with the PS3, but not the XBox. Since component video and analogue audio cannot be encrypted, you can capture anything this way.

Getting started

Hooking up the HD PVR2 was easy, but getting started was troublesome. We tried a succession of Windows 7 laptops, including a Pentium Dual Core 2.3Ghz, a Core 2 Duo at 2.6 Ghz Pentium, and a Core i5 at 1.6 Ghz. The pattern with all these was similar: the drivers and software installed OK, HDMI pass-through worked, the capture might work once, but then there were frustrating errors. The problems:

  • Difficult or impossible to select the HD PVR2 as the input device in the capture software
  • Capture software hanging
  • USB device error reported

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This was tedious, partly because nothing could be captured, and partly because the only way to retry was to reboot both the laptop and the HD PVR2.

Swapping to a high-spec USB cable seemed to help a little, but soon the old problems were back, even after applying the latest driver updates from Hauppauge support.

Just before giving up, we connected to another Windows 7 Core i5 laptop, speed this time 2.5Ghz. Everything worked perfectly.

It is not clear what to conclude here. Hauppauge specifies:

Laptop or desktop PC with 3.0 GHz single core or 2.0 GHz multi-core processor

and adds in the FAQ:

You can record HD PVR 2 video on pretty much any PC. Older, slow, laptop or desktop PCs can be used to record HD PVR 2 video.

But when you playback an HD PVR 2 recording on your PC screen, you need a fast CPU and at least 256MB of graphics memory.

All our machines meet the spec. Either our sample box is particularly fussy, or Hauppauge is optimistic about the minimum requirements, or there are other factors at play.

Bundled software and Mac support

Hauppauge supplies Windows drivers for the HD PVR2 along with a version of Arcsoft ShowBiz for capturing and editing video.

If you want to use a Mac, Hauppauge recommends  third-party software called HDPVRCapture which costs an additional $29.95.

ShowBiz is easy to use and provides simple editing features and output to AVCHD, AVI, MPEG1, QTMOV or WMV. You can also upload direct to YouTube with a wizard.

You don’t have to use ShowBiz if you have other capture software you prefer.

Another feature is called Personal Logo. This is a separate application which lets you specify a bitmap as a logo to appear on your captured videos, along with its position and transparency. Handy for reminding everyone who you are on YouTube, or for publications posting review footage.

Capturing video

Once your system is up and working, you can start capturing video with one of two methods. The first is to hit a large corner button on top of the HD PVR2, which automatically starts up ShowBiz in capture mode. Alternatively, you can start ShowBiz, select Capture, and click Start.

While capturing, you can see the video running on the PC. There is several seconds delay between your live gameplay and the capture stream, which is confusing to watch, so ignore it and focus on your gameplay. When you are done hit stop. Videos are saved automatically, by default to the Videos folder on your PC, named according to the date and time.

Next, you can edit the video in ShowBiz. I created the following video and uploaded it to YouTube as a demo. However, I could not get the YouTube unload in ShowBiz to work. I saved the file as an AVI and uploaded it manually.

Settings in depth

When you run the Capture module in ArcSoft ShowBiz it exposes a number of settings, which you get to by clicking Device and Format Settings.

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Device Settings lets you set brightness, contrast, Hue, Saturation and Sharpness.

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Format settings gets you a bunch of settings which gives extensive control subject to the limitations of the hardware. Here are the settings for the H264 encoder:

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Here are the video settings:

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and the audio properties:

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All this looks impressive though many users will just want to click and go. Mostly this works OK, though check that you have 16:9 specified if you use widescreen.

Note that 1080p at 60 fps (frames per second) is captured at a maximum of 30 fps, and 1080p at 50 fps is captured at a maximum of 25 fps.

Annoyances

Hauppauge says that your PC does not need to be on for HDMI pass-through to work. Despite this, we found that if you turn the system on from cold, pass-through does not work until the USB connection to a PC is made. Once up and running, you can disconnect and turn the PC off and pass-through still works.

ArcSoft ShowBiz is very basic. Fortunately you can import the captured videos into other editors.

Having to use component video for the PS3 is annoying but not the fault of Hauppauge. It is surprising in some ways that the XBox generally outputs an unencrypted HDMI stream.

Conclusion

When this device was not working I wanted to throw it out of the window; but once I got it running it was great. The bundled software is poor, documentation is thin, and it is just a little quirky, but the ability to capture your gaming output is worth a bit of hassle. 

 

Ancient game plays better in Windows 8 than Windows 7

Windows 8 runs the 1999 game Age of Empires II better than Windows 7, which curiously messes up the screen graphics unless you terminate the Windows Explorer process – a fact that I noted in December 2010. Here is the game in Windows 7:

and in Windows 8, without fiddling with Explorer:

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The fact that the game runs better in Windows 8 is probably due to some obscure bug-fix, though I like to think that somewhere in the development team is a fan of this old but excellent game (it is great multi-player) who decided to make it work.

Ninja Gaiden 3 comes to Nintendo Wii U

I had enormous fun with Ninja Gaiden on Xbox, especially the first version which was repeatedly refined until, as Ninja Gaiden Black, it came near to gaming perfection. Never mind the plot: the action was intense, challenging and deep.

Ninja Gaiden 2 was more gory but less satisfying, though it was another big game with gorgeous environments – I particularly liked the watery city which was reminiscent of Venice – and more important, tough fighting that rewarded skill rather than button-bashing.

Ninja Gaiden 3 on the other hand was a disappointment, removing most of what was enjoyable about the game. The combat system was simplified and it became just another button bash.

Now the game is among those promised for the Nintendo Wii U. Is it possible that the new version, called Razor’s Edge, fixes the problems?

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The description does seem to recognise what went wrong:

NINJA GAIDEN 3 has been reworked to bring to Wii U the truly intense, high-speed challenge and action NINJA GAIDEN fans demand. With more weapon and Ninpo types, a new character progression system, a redesigned battle system and the return of dismemberment, NINJA GAIDEN 3: Razor’s Edge improves upon the original NINJA GAIDEN 3 in every way and offers Wii U exclusive features and functionalities.

Improving on the original Ninja Gaiden 3, you might remark, will not be difficult. Even so, fans now have some reason to hope for another decent edition of Ninja Gaiden.

Microsoft announces Internet Explorer for Xbox 360, makes bid for living room

At the E3 conference in Las Vegas Microsoft has made a series of announcements focused on its Xbox 360 games console, but also relating to Windows Phone, Windows 8, and even Apple iOS and Google Android.

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Xbox SmartGlass is a free app for Windows Phone, Windows 8, iOS and Android which links communicates with the Xbox. Examples include:

  • Watching a movie on a tablet while travelling, getting half way through, and automatically resuming on the Xbox at home.
  • Seeing related content on your tablet such as team members, maps, game inventory, and so on, while the TV or game action takes place on the main Xbox screen.
  • Using the tablet to navigate web pages that are also displayed in Internet Explorer on the Xbox, tapping links and using pinch and zoom.

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Yes, IE is now promised for the Xbox “this fall”, and there will be a new web hub. No word yet about Adobe Flash, but with a strong focus on multimedia in this context, it would certainly make sense to include it, as Microsoft has done for Metro-style IE in Windows 8. In fact, the browser shown at E3 on Xbox looked reminiscent of the Windows 8 Metro version.

Other major consoles also have web browsers, so what is special about Microsoft’s late inclusion of the same feature? The company says that web browsers on other consoles are little used because they are hard to navigate, and is counting on a combination of Kinect voice control and SmartGlass to make it work better on Xbox.

Another problem though is that most web sites are simply not designed for viewing from twelve feet back. A second awkward question: if you have your tablet out, why not just use the tablet’s own web browser?

It makes little sense for general web browsing, but can work for playing videos or viewing images, which I guess is the main idea here.

Microsoft has also announced Xbox Music, which sounds like a replacement for Zune and its subscriptions. You will be able to download and/or subscribe to 30 million tracks, and the service will work seamlessly, according to Microsoft, on Windows Phone, Xbox and Windows 8.

Watching the E3 press event was an odd experience. Xbox games are still dominated by macho fighting titles like Halo, Splinter Cell, and Black Ops, all of which were demonstrated complete with bone-crunching violence, death and mayhem. At the same time, Microsoft is trying to make the console the entertainment hub for the whole family, and for movies and sport as much as for games, so we also got Dance Central 3, and exercising with Nike plus Kinect.

One thing not mentioned was Xbox vNext. The 360 was released in November 2005, an eternity ago in technology terms. The hardware has held up well, but even so, if Apple pulls out something TV-related soon (perhaps even at its WWDC event next week) then it will have the advantage of being able to release something based on up to date hardware.

A hit: Wordament on Windows 8 Consumer Preview

Games do not matter; and yet they do, for many reasons. One is that a great game makes you want to pick up a tablet, which means you will probably end up using it for other things as well. I admit, one reason I like the iPad is because it has Funbridge, endlessly entertaining for Bridge players, and not available on any other mobile device (though Funbridge has become expensive and I play it less these days).

If Microsoft is to make a success of Windows 8 then, it needs some excellent games, and Wordament is the best so far. It is not dissimilar to Boggle, a shake-and-find-the-words game which has come to iOS courtesy of EA after enduring popularity in the physical world. Wordament offers a grid of 16 letters and you have to form words by dragging your finger over adjacent letters – I presume this also works with the mouse but have not tried it.

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What makes Wordament fun though, in contrast to Boggle, is that after each 2 minute game you get to know how you did versus everyone else who played that game.

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It is the same as with Funbridge: the fact that you are competing with others, even in a fairly anonymous manner and with no prizes, transforms the game into something compelling.

Three or four exclusive games as good as this, and everyone will want a Windows 8 slate.

Currently Wordament is also available on Windows Phone 7.

An Apple iPad Christmas

The Apple iPad had a stunning Christmas – at least, it did in my part of the world.

A key factor was that EA Games decided to offer a range of classic board games adapted as iPad apps for 69p ($0.90)  each. So for less than the cost of a takeaway pizza I downloaded Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Risk.

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The games are not perfect – Scrabble accepts all sorts of odd words and US spellings, for example – but they are official licensed versions, nicely implemented, and a lot of nostalgic fun, which is the idea after all.

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Trivial Pursuit supports in-game purchases for extra questions, so that could work out more expensive eventually, but nobody could complain about the value.

It is not quite the full board game experience, with wine spilt on the pieces, junior tipping over the board in disgust, and game abandoned early because it is time to visit grandma, but the changes are mostly for the better.

One thought: this is another example of how well a tablet substitutes for physical things. A book, a board game, a photo album: the iPad is a better replacement than a PC or laptop, easily passed round, long battery life, no flapping screen, and a more natural user interface.

I am not sure what are the economics of selling games at 69p, but no doubt EA has drawn the graphs. Currently EA 69p games occupy four of the “Top Paid iPad Apps” category slots in the UK store.

Of course I am interested in the big picture. Looking at user reviews of Android equivalents like Monopoly I get the impression that there are more bugs, partly because EA has a dedicated iPad verson for these games whereas the Android versions are universal across multiple screen sizes, and partly because there are more OS versions and hardware differences to accommodate.

What about other tablets or new entrants to the market like Windows 8 in 2012? Prising users away from their Apple devices will not be easy, though I still think Microsoft has chances if it plays to its strengths in business applications.

3D games: gimmick or the next generation?

I’m attending NVIDIA’s GPU technology conference, and at the exhibition here I took the opportunity to view some 3D images on some Lenovo (and of course NVIDIA) kit.

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I was impressed; yes you have to wear the special specs, but the results are superb. The images are more immersive and more realistic, and I can see the appeal.

I am still not sure though whether 3D games will take off. The screens are substantially more expensive, the specs are inconvenient, and there are not many games.

We have also seen how Nintendo’s 3D support in the DS was insufficient to generate much momentum.

The question then is whether 3D gaming will ever be mainstream. Looking at a high quality 3D display makes you think that it must catch on eventually; but it has a lot stacked against it.

Bridge for Apple iPad and iPhone: FunBridge upgraded, no longer free

GOTO Games has updated Funbridge for iOS to version 3.0, adding many features and introducing a per-game fee.

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FunBridge is a Contract Bridge app in which the play is always online. You play against the computer but compare your score to that of others. In this new version the game engine seems little changed, but interaction with others is much greater, making it more like the web version.

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In the earlier release, you could see your ranking and which users were in the top 10 for a tournament of 10 games, but you could not discover anything about another user beyond the username. Now there are user profiles and you can see another user’s overall ranking and, if they choose to provide it, name, age, location and About me notes.

Tournaments no longer stand alone, but are grouped into series which match you with players of similar standard. Rankings are decided after each period of a week, based on the results from short 3-game tournaments, provided you play at least 5 during the period. There are 35 series, and after each period the top 25% are promoted and the bottom 25% demoted from each.

You can also play in old-style Daily Tournaments, which are now more frequent than before with a new one every two hours, but these are not grouped into series. You can also play practice hands. The Daily Tournaments and practice hands are scored with IMPs (International Match Points), whereas the Series Tournaments are scored with pairs-style percentages; if you score just slightly more then others, you get 100%, and even a good score can get you 0% if everyone else made an overtrick.

The other big change to mention is that play is no longer free, though you get an introductory 100 games.

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Games cost from 3p each falling to 1.75p if you purchase 1000 at a time. FunBridge will give you 5 games free if you reveal your birthday and another 5 for your city. Is your birthday worth more than 15p?

This makes FunBridge expensive compared to most iOS games. It is a different model to the web version, where you pay €9.90 per month (a bit less if you subscribe for a year) for unlimited games. That would buy around 400 games on the iOS version so you win or lose depending how often you play.

The game itself truly is a lot of fun, though I have found a few frustrations. The play is generally good, though eccentric occasionally. The bidding can be perplexing, especially as the bidding conventions are not described in detail, so you have to guess exactly which variant the computer is supposed to be playing. There is help for the meaning of simple bids, but this does not always match the selected convention and cannot be trusted.

Still, everyone is in the same situation so it is fair!

Hands seem to be tilted towards interesting deals; I have never seen a 10-card suit in one hand in regular bridge but I have in FunBridge.

Gameplay can be annoyingly slow even on a good connection; though perhaps when everyone has played all their free games this will improve!

A fun game; but with the new subscription model I wonder if we will see some alternatives at lower cost. It would also be good to see a version for Android and other mobile operating systems.

New Sony PlayStation Network hack: not as bad as you may have heard

Sony’s Chief Security Officer Philip Reitinger has reported a new attack on the PlayStation network leading to headlines stating Sony hacked again. Has the company not learned from the incidents earlier this year?

Actually, it probably has; the new hacking attempt does not exploit any weakness in Sony’s network unless you consider any system reliant on username/password to be weak – not an unreasonable opinion, but given that the likes of Apple and Amazon and PayPal still use it, hardly fair to single out Sony.

If you read the statement carefully, it says that somebody obtained a large list of username/password pairs and ran them against Sony’s network. Further:

given that … the overwhelming majority of the pairs resulted in failed matching attempts, it is likely the data came from another source and not from our Networks

Because of the large number of PlayStation users, there were still 93,000 successful matches, which to its credit Sony says it detected – presumably there was a pattern to the attack, such as a limited range of source IP numbers or other evidence of automated log-in attempts.

If Sony is right, and the list of passwords came from another source, there is no reason why the hacker might not try the same list against other targets and this is not evidence of a weakness in the PlayStation network itself.

As Reitinger notes:

We want to take this opportunity to remind our consumers about the increasingly common threat of fraudulent activity online, as well as the importance of having a strong password and having a username/password combination that is not associated with other online services or sites. We encourage you to choose unique, hard-to-guess passwords and always look for unusual activity in your account.

It is good advice, though can be impractical if you have a very large number of online accounts. Something like PasswordSafe or Keypass is near-essential for managing them, if you are serious about maintaining numerous different combinations.

From what we know so far though, this is not evidence of continued weakness in the PlayStation network; rather, it is evidence of the continued prevalence of hacking attempts. Kudos to Sony for its open reporting.