Come on Minnesota journos! Let’s do some good watchdog reporting for Sunshine Week!

Every year journalists are called to participate in Sunshine Week, an event in March that highlights watchdog reporting and the fact that the public, journalists and non-journalists alike, have to right to see the data and documents and things that our public bodies do.

This year I thought it would be good to see what we can find out about the private bodies that are doing more and more of the public work, and which should be just as accessible and accountable to the public as the government bodies and agencies they replace.

So our MN SPJ board of directors, in partnership with the Minnesota Newspaper Association are calling on Minnesota journalists and newsrooms to participate in #SunshineMN.

From our MN SPJ website:

swlogoSunshine Week 2015 is coming up and journalists around the nation will participate the week of March 15 through March 21. An annual event, Sunshine Week calls on journalists to shed light on issues of open government and have conversations with their readers about the importance of open and transparent government, whether that government body is a municipality or a large federal agency.

This year, the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, in collaboration with the Minnesota Newspaper Association, is reaching out to newsrooms and student journalists across the state to cover and look into the increasing amount of public work that is being done by private organizations. Private charter schools, surveying firms, even private police forces are being used more and more to conduct business that was once the purview of public officials. College campuses are not immune to this phenomenon either, increasingly relying on private foundations to raise revenue and communicate on behalf of the university or partnering with private companies to handle student services like policing, dining or financial aid.

To contribute to this year’s Sunshine Week event, which we are dubbing #SunshineMN, we are asking professional and student newsrooms around the state to produce at least one story that raises awareness in your community about public work that is being done by private organizations. Our aim is to shed a light on transparency and accountability issues that may arise as a result of these public-private partnerships.

Conducting a “transparency audit” is simple.  We are asking journalists across the state to obtain documents related to public-private partnerships. Such documents could include: contracts, audits, bids, budgets, any reports required by law, etc. – any documents that help shed light on work being done in service of the public by private organizations.

The final step is to report on what you’ve discovered. Again the aim of sunshine week is to tell the public about importance of open and transparent government. Was it easy to obtain information? Were there roadblocks? What did the information you found say about the public-private partnership? How transparent or accountable to the public is the agency/program it is serving? Your reporters can also go even further, especially if they make some interesting discoveries during their search.

We will highlight the stories that professional and student newsrooms publish as part of Sunshine Week on this website, our Facebook page and on Twitter using the #SunshineMN hashtag. We will also publish a list of participating newsrooms. To add yourself to the list email minnesota.spj@gmail.com. Also let us know if you have questions, comments or concerns.

Check back to this page, and mnspj.org for #SunshineMN updates . This page will continue to be updated with useful information including contact information for freedom of information experts, resources on open government law and making information requests, and story ideas for your newsroom.

Good luck with your information requests!

The Final Fantasy XIII Trilogy: Not a fan

I hate Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. I have given it three tries, and after a third three-hour attempt to play the game this evening, I am giving up.

And it’s a sad end to this previous console generation of Final Fantasy games. I have finally played all three PS3 Final Fantasy games, and while there were some bright spots in Final Fantasy XIII-2, for the first time in my nearly two decades of experience with Final Fantasy games, I have actually found an entrant I am not looking forward to revisiting.

So let’s take a look at Square Enix’s unlucky trilogy of Final Fantasy games.

Final Fantasy XIII:

Ah, unlucky thirteen. Story-wise, not a bad Final Fantasy. It had all the big themes you’d expect from a Final Fantasy game, love and loss, free will and fate, etc. And it had a decent science fiction world, one that strangely allowed a bunch of civilians to become superheroes, with only Sazh, the black dude actually carrying a gun (Lightning’s gunblade doesn’t count).

 

Battles weren't a lot of fun, but I enjoyed playing the story of Final Fantasy XIII.
Battles weren’t a lot of fun, but I enjoyed playing the story of Final Fantasy XIII.

I enjoyed the story of Final Fantasy XIII, even if it did require a glossary to keep the backstory and terms straight (L’Cie, Fal’Cie, focuses?) The only other Final Fantasy to delve deeper into a mythos was the Ivalice Alliance, so it was good to see a game where the mysterious ruins actually had a backstory rather than just being mysterious ruins that were destroyed in a calamity (think any ruined castle or city in Final Fantasy VI, VII, VIII, or IX).

But the combat and leveling system sucked. Battles were essentially on auto-pilot, and the only choice you really had to make was what ai script your characters should be running. Leveling was a bitch, took way too long, and the game for a first in Final Fantasy capped your growth throughout the game so that every major boss battle sucked, even if you power-leveled. That and the fact that branching out to do other stuff didn’t really unlock until the end and didn’t have anything to do with the story meant, as soon as I beat it, I put it down and ignored more than half the content.

Final Fantasy XIII-2:

Final Fantasy XIII has been compared to Final Fantasy X in terms of themes, design and structure. And there is some truth to that. Both series have been set in worlds where evil religions hold sway, where ancient technology is a threat and instead of direct leveling bonuses are unlocked in the Crystarium system.

And both games’ sequels seemed to be directed at adolescent males.

Final Fantasy X-2 had three scantily clad coeds running around the world saving things. Final Fantasy XIII-2 wasn’t an all-girl gang of heroes, but the outfit the main character Serah wore was essentially to bandages covering her lady bits and some leg warmers. And you could pay more money to put her in a thong and a bikini, while the male character’s paid outfits actually covered him up more.

Do all Final Fantasy sequels require a lingerie outfit?
Do all Final Fantasy sequels require a lingerie outfit?

But even though female clothing in Final Fantasy games may be way too revealing, I liked the story of Final Fantasy XIII-2 and thought it the best in the series. The game gave you more freedom, with episodic-style of content and a number of sidequests and diversions. A nerdy time travel story appeals to my science fiction mindset, and I thoroughly enjoyed the themes of fate, challenging fate and effecting the timeline.

Combat was much more fun, mainly because you could powerlevel and make most fights easier. Combat was just as mindless, maybe even more so since you could overpower your characters, but the monster system was cool. Most people will probably say the game stole from Pokemon, but I argue Final Fantasy had the system first with their Game Boy entrants that had you feed parts and meat to your monster or robot characters to develop them. And I’ve never played Pokemon so I don’t know how the monster taming system compares between the two.

One thing I hated the most was grinding. Potent essences, needed for much of the monster system dropped very rarely from monsters it was hard to face regularly, so things became a slog. And to get the best ending one had to while away hours in a casino that took forever for you to win anything in the slots. And that translated to the DLCs.

One involved more hours gambling away, the other involved the hardest fights in the game and required you to drop countless hours into the monster upgrading system in order to beat. And the last one, just required you to fail many, many times in order to level up character to win.

And I think that was the entire design philosophy of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

Lightning Runs Around a Lot: Final Fantasy XIII:

That’s what they should have named the game. Because that’s all I do. I run around finding shit for people. I run around fighting weak monsters to give their skin to people for very minor stat boosts. I run away from every other monster because they will kick my ass and mess up the timer in the game.

And I run around since the game is on a timer and I have to find things for everyone in order to save the world.

I have no problems with the time limit in FFXIII. I think it’s new and novel and unique. Every other game (and movie for that matter) with a central time limit to the plot never actually follows that time limit. It ticks down arbitrarily, and at most, you have some timed segments you have to get through. Not LR:FFXIII.

The game’s timer always runs and always at the same speed. Some things freeze or pause it, but it is always there. That’s cool. But what fills those thirteen hours of game time (not including battles, menus and cutscenes) is running around. And usually not fighting. And both of those are not cool.

The game also runs terribly. It was obviously built from an MMO Final Fantasy engine, and to be honest, the Final Fantasy X: HD Remix, which just upgrades the textures to a more than decade-old game, looks far prettier than a lot of the low-resolution, blocky textures. And Final Fantasy X doesn’t have the frame-rate and other hardware hiccups Lightning Returns does.

A working title for this was Lightning Returns: To an MMO world you can leave Twitter messages in the ruins of horrible textures.
A working title for this was Lightning Returns: To an MMO world you can leave Twitter messages in the ruins of horrible textures.

I’ve only gotten five hours into the game and I’m already done. The battle system is terrible. It’s all based on hidden math and formulas and only would interest a statistician, and only then as a theoretical problem. In the game world, in real time, it sucks.

Easy battles are way too easy. Most other battles, especially boss battles are ridiculously hard. Gone is the party and ATB systems. Instead is a button-mashing system like Dissidia or Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, tied to a point system that depletes as you take actions. To beat a boss I am told by the manual and game guide I own to carefully guard at the right time to avoid damage and strategically attack in order to stagger and break the defense of the boss.

Neither system works well, or sometimes at all. I can push guard, but if I am out of points, can’t do it. Even if I have points, it sometimes doesn’t want to switch from an attack to guarding and then I am dead. And if keep some points for guarding, I haven’t spammed attacks enough to stagger my enemy, which is the only way to win.

I’m on my second boss battle, with a Chocobo Eater last night. The game even nerfed it so they don’t have full hit points. I died over and over again, with only two choices, lose an hour of the timer each time, or reload my game. I threw my controller a couple of times because my last save was hours ago. When I came back today, basic enemies killed me over and over again, but I finally won, wasting all of the precious resources that the game tells me are precious and I shouldn’t be using.

Then I got to run around some more, afraid to attack anything as I figured the rest of the battles and bosses would be even more ridiculous. So after thirty minutes of running, I quit the game. And deleted my saves in case I was crazy enough to try picking it up again.

You could argue I just suck at the game. And you may be right, as Final Fantasy Tactics still eludes me. But I collected everything in Crisis Core and beat every boss without feeling this frustrated and the combat systems are similar. Vagrant Story, another Square game that had a challenging learning curve fell beneath by blades. Final Fantasy XIII just makes the game no fun to play.

I’m done. And it’s kind of sad that Final Fantasy’s last hurrah on the PS3 (or Xbox 360 for those of you out there on Microsoft’s system) sucks so bad.

Diablo III 2014-3-25-0-13-48-498Diablo III has been live for an hour here in the U.S., and so far I’m enjoying the new crusader character. It also looks like the glitches from the launch of the 2.0 patch have also been fixed. And no problems getting into or experiencing Reaper of Souls content. This is a far cry from the frustrating launch of Diablo III, and a very enjoyable expansion. I have to give it to Blizzard, they’ve really gotten good with rolling upgrades and digital launches.

Diabo III 2.0 Impressions

Diablo III’s 2.0 patch went live earlier this week, bringing in all the free updates and upgrades that base game owners will get to see that come from the new Reaper of Souls expansion. I’ve played a number of hours, and I don’t know yet whether I like the changes better than older versions of the game.

But I do have to hand it to Blizzard’s marketing department. After what’s been a pretty darn quiet media and information silence with Reaper of Souls, Blizzard has finally let out a ton of new details of just what the game with the Expansion will be like. And it doesn’t hurt that everyone playing Diablo III gets teased with the features in the expansion every time they load up and play. It’s a lot better way to convince people to preorder than spending money on advertisements and in a natural expansion of today’s free-to-play models into premium games.

The first thing you got to see when loading up DIII was an advertisement showing you the cool new stuff you get when you pre-order Reaper of Souls. Other parts of the menu also hinted at what you could get for shelling out some cash.

Like free-to-play, the Reapers of Souls features are grayed-out, but if you hover over the button, the game lets you know all you have to do to enjoy this is own the new expansion. I’m sure it will generate new pre-orders for the game, and after launch, will also work on people’s minds to get them to upgrade to the new Expansion.

It also looks like entertainments websites and publishers have also been on the Blizzard embargo. Just hours and days after 2.0 went live, PC Gamer and other websites had a blitz of new Diablo III previews and information to share, including exclusive looks at the features and content we won’t get to see until later this month when the expansion launches. I don’t know if that’s part of Blizzard’s marketing strategy or if they kept everyone in the dark until 2.0 went live and they knew all the new changes wouldn’t explode like the original Diablo III launch.

But let’s get back to my experiences with the game. I rolled a new Barbarian to play in 2.0, along with earning some paragon levels with my Demon Hunter. And to be honest, I would have to say I am having more fun with the new character than my old one.

The new Loot 2.0 system drops shiny things more often, of better quality and usually with stats you actually care about. After playing with crafting some, it seems crafting is still a slot machine and more random in terms of what you get. But in all cases, the difficulty curves are geared towards the newer, better loot, and the game was a bit of a bore until I got two or three new pieces of loot for my Demon Hunter, even in normal mode. I’m sure veteran players who had Paragon 100 characters, set items and legendary items under the old system were able to roll in the harder game modes right away, but I actually felt less powerful until I put a few hours in getting new gear for my character.

After a few hours, I had gotten plenty of cool legendaries, and even got a set plan that I used to equip my barbarian with. I got a few rare item plans in the dozens of hours I played Diablo III before 2.0, but rarely got a legendary drop, let alone a set.
After a few hours, I had gotten plenty of cool legendaries, and even got a set plan that I used to equip my barbarian with. I got a few rare item plans in the dozens of hours I played Diablo III before 2.0, but rarely got a legendary drop, let alone a set.

My barbarian, on the other hand, is having a blast. There were a couple moments when I had gained a number of levels and hadn’t gotten any magic weapons drops so my damage output was very low. But by the end of Act I, I had found a number of legendary items, and a number of new plans geared towards my character. It was pretty fun to finally get a set recipe drop, which never happened in all of dozens of hours of Diablo III before the 2.0 patch.

There are still plenty of bugs I’ve seen, or maybe just design oversights. Resetting quests didn’t work for the first few days with my Demon Hunter. You can’t play a crusader, or the Act V content, but on my version of the game, Crusader-specific cutscenes are accessible from the cinematics menu and what I think is one of the later Act V cinematics was unlocked from when I downloaded the patch. Also some gameplay and technical hiccups, but hopefully they will be hot-fixed and patched before Reaper of Souls launches near the end of the month.

Hopefully it will be a good one. Because like many gamers, I pre-ordered it even though I promised myself I would never pre-order again. Except for the F

inal Fantasy X and X-2 HD remasters, since I loved those games a decade ago when they came out. So March will be hard on me and my fiance. A workaholic, she’s resigned herself to the fact my little free time is probably going to be devoted to getting some gaming done.

Another example of today’s horrible developer culture

Another example of today’s horrible developer culture

I know, I know that back in the day, the Legend of Zelda and other Nintendo 64 titles had crazy glitches and bugs, all the way back to Atari and the original Nintendo Entertainment System.

But I don’t for a minute believe these fanboy claims that video game customers are spoiled brats who ask too much from their developers. That games are better than ever in terms of quality and value. And this story by Kotaku explains why.

The developers of the newest Batman game publicly admit that they don’t care about fixing the game for the players. The players who have problems are a minority, and it’s just too bad that they paid $60 for a piece of software that might never work for them depending on their system and hardware.

Instead, the developer feels the resources are better spend on creating new content they can sell (and probably not patch or polish either) to make money instead of providing customer support to players. The same thing pretty much happened with SimCity, and I figure the same will happen with Rome 2.

I realize that games are a luxury, and are entertainment. This isn’t a defective child safety seat or car. But how many restaurant chains or other companies that make luxury products would be able to get away telling customers that a defective iPad or a small number of salmonella cases are being brushed off to open new restaurants or create new products?

A 13GB patch? Really?

A 13GB patch? Really?

Kotaku has an interesting article on a 13GB Dead Rising 3 patch. And they bring up some valid concerns about the future of bandwidth and net neutrality.

I have a very expensive rural internet package without limits, or at least they never yelled at me for my limits. But for $60 I only get 5 MBPS, so a 13 GB patch could take a good portion of the day to download. But I remember by college days with daily limits of 1GB and a punishing dial-up level connection for days afterward.

We’re moving from a cable-based society to a completely digital one. But do we have the infrastructure and regulations in place that people can access the data they need, at the speed they need, without bankrupting all but the rich?