Putting the Undead Down with Make Up, Frilly Clothes, and the Occasional Hit in the Head With a Frying Pan

As you may have guessed from my previous article about Mighty Dungeons, I have been playing a lot of Mighty Dungeons lately. Like, a lot. 

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However, when I’m not in the mood to loot, pillage and explore maze-like dungeons, I have been obsessed with Big Fish Game’s Grave Mania: Undead Fever (note the title in the store says “Zombie Fever” possibly because someone didn’t get the memo that there are more than just zombies in the game…but I’ll get to that in a minute). It is not your standard zombie game – you’re not targeting them to blow off their heads, or trying to decide who among your tiny crew of survivors gets to live or die. You’re basically fixing them up for their eternal rest, whether they like it or not. Spoiler: they don’t. 

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Our story begins with the intro, all done as finger puppets (presumably managed by zombie fingers) that explains how tainted cake seems to have caused everyone who ate it to turn into zombies. Now our heroes, Bonnie and Johnny have figured out a potion that makes the dead stay dead. So, as any heroes would do, they set out to save the world from the undead….and make a bit of profit while they are at it. 

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The game starts with a tutorial during which Bonnie “tries out” the new cure and the player learns the gist of the game. The undead come in strapped to gurneys, and get hit on the head with an anvil. From here, the player needs to select and drag an undead to the location shown above his or her head – usually the formalin station (where they get pumped full of “cure”), though they can sometimes want to go to the X-Ray station instead, where their bones are properly aligned for their eternal rest. In the tutorial, you can also see the make up station, but its not used initially. Moving an undead to a specific station will produce either a picture of Bonnie’s head, or a picture of what must be done at that location. If it’s Bonnie’s head, you need only click on the station and Bonnie will manage the entire requirements for that undead at that station. If it shows the other picture, then a mini-game pops up, and must be played. At the forumlin station you fill a vial up to a certain level (no more or less), and at the X-Ray station you align the bones of the undead to the green map display. Then the undead goes into his grave, where Bonnie tucks him in and then he is catapulted to the graveyard to never rise again (in theory). 

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I was initially thrown by the mini-games. I, for example, love Barrr (as I’ve noted in other posts), where the point is to move the pirates through the bar (and each added station as the levels climb) as fast as you can. Grave Mania has a timed and a relaxed mode, but the mini games stop the clock until you’re done. They also break up the flow of assigning the undead to their appropriate spots and having the characters in the game move them through the “cure” as fast as possible. However, it turns out they’re kind of fun. Once I got used to the disruption and got into the flow of play, I found them kind of amusing.

As the levels progress, Bonnie and Johnny leave their small funeral parlor and go to other towns. There are additional mini-games between Bonnie’s curative undead assembly lines that feature Johnny putting the undead down, shooting them, putting them in a specific order with their preference of whom to be buried beside, etc. Bonnie occasionally shows up in these mini games, though whenever she doesn’t its primarily to get between Johnny and what he needs to do, and sometimes hit him when her antics have blocked several shots for the crime of actually hitting her instead. You know, give and take is important in a good marriage between undead slaying funeral parlor folk.

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Also as the levels progress, the number of stations that Bonnie needs to take the undead through increases. Apparently they need to be happy to rest, so they get made up at the make up station, get put in clothes that they prefer to wear for eternity, need to have their specific oddities (safety pins, rashes, stitches and small balls with smiley faces) photographed and cataloged, and occasionally have ghosts exercised from their bodies. Between each curative marathon with the undead, the money accumulated for putting them to their eternal rest is spent on upgrading the devices and machinery Bonnie uses to reduce the amount of “hands on” work the player has to do, as well as the ability to purchase “accessories” for Bonnie such as improved weapons for hitting wayward undead on the head or better high heeled shoes that make it easier for her to zip around the curative stations (and many more). Additionally you use that money to train “tame” zombies to manage the machines (and who will do the work automatically if Bonnie’s head appears above the machines they are responsible for) and who will clean stations (apparently curing the undead gets some stations very unsanitary and they have to be cleaned before the next undead comes through) and different potions become available, such as holy water that helps keep the undead stunned. In addition to zombies – for which there are multiple types, each with their own specific behaviors if they are neglected too long and wake up from being stunned by the initial anvil – vampires and werewolves also come through the factory to be put to their eternal rest.  

Just for variety – because not enough is going on in this game – Bonnie occasionally has to protect someone from the undead coming through the curative assembly line (sometimes there are just too many to keep stunned all at once) or stop undead squirrels or find potions or body parts for extra cash and to protect the machinery. 

Despite my initial misgivings about the interruption during a time management game, Grave Mania grew on me. It has a free edition – Big Fish Games is famous for their “try it for free, then get addicted, then buy it” game philosophy – and it has a paid version, which I shelled out for at my acceptable, “under $2 limit” of $1.99.

While the mini games aren’t always that explanatory (I have failed on many of Johnny’s quests simply because I had no idea what to do until half way through the game), I did find this game very addictive. It also had a lot of hours of play in it and has some good replay value, as I now want to go back through and tackle some of the items I didn’t know as well at first as I did by the end of the game. On the whole, I give Grave Mania a thumbs up. One of my thumbs, not a zombie thumb, just to be clear. 

 

 

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Spotlight: Mighty Dungeons

As you may know, I love games. I not-so-recently stumbled across Mighty Dungeons and played it a bit, bought the full game, and then promptly forgot about it because life happens while you’re trying to level your character in a tiny, tiny dungeon.

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I have recently begun obsessing over the game again, and I remembered that the coder responsible for the game had indicated in his thank you email for my purchase, that I could contact him if I had questions. I assumed he assumed they’d be questions about installing or hints on playing the game. Instead, I asked if I could interview him for the entertainment of you folks. 

The author of the game is Yohan Launay-Lee of Laylio Games, Singapore, and he was kind enough to answer several of my questions.

First, let me introduce you to Mighty Dungeons.

 

ImageMighty Dungeons is a game where you select a hero from the available choices (note, some choices are hidden, more on that in the interview later); characters have different powers. You can choose from a Warrior, LizardMan Hunter, Barbarian, Wizard, Ranger, Assassin, Bandit, Skeleton, Stone Golem, Fire Demon, or Water Demon (“hero” is a relative term). Each has their benefits and negatives from higher hit points to better defenses to speed and accuracy in going first or dodging.

Once selected, you go to the main town (pictured in the graphic above). With no cash, you go directly into the “Quest” area, and then select a dungeon. Then you move a disk with your character’s face on it through the dungeon, encountering disks of monsters, and furniture such as tables, chairs, library shelves, fireplaces, and of course, treasure chests. There are secret doors and there are traps that you must disarm or jump over. 

Combat is initiated when you end up next to a monster. You immediately are taken to the combat screen, where your weapons, potions, spells (and anything else) are available to use. Weapons operate on an “ammunition” basis, whereby if you shoot an arrow, you’re actually using the entire bow up. Never fear, however, as you’ll pick up many weapons, and you’ll acquire gold as you explore to purchase new weapons. Some weapons at higher levels – such as those made of mithril – do not degrade this way. 

As you conquer your way through the dungeons, selling things and buying things at the store, you accomplish achievements; number of monsters killed, doors opened, etc. These, in turn, provide points that you can use to level your character. 

The game is free to try and, like me, you’ll probably immediately upgrade to the full game. Launay-Lee does frequent updates that improve the game and add to gameplay. In addition to the game itself, he maintains http://www.mighty-dungeons.com/, a website that compliments the game by including maps, hints, and additional information about the game. Further, you can be in the game…for a price. If you follow the link on the page and pay Launay-Lee, a custom character with your face (or any design you like) can be made for the game.

And now for some discussion with Yohan Launay-Lee himself:

What inspired you to write the game?

I’ve always been a fan of boardgames (HeroQuest, Warhammer quests,etc.). I still go to Singapore boardgame cafes once a month. I also like old school RPG games, Diablo I and II, Baldur’s Gate, Arcanum, etc. I just bouth the whole Forgotten Realms RPG game collection for PC last week, still haven’t had time to play it yet ….

When I got some spare time end of last year, I wanted to learn a new programming language. I figured that doing it while making a game at the same time would be cool, so I chose to build a game I wanted to play first and foremost and the tools matching the language I wanted to learn and voila, 6 months later Mighty Dungeons was born.

Is Mighty Dungeons entirely your project, or have other folks contributed to the main code? I note you have some dungeons attributed to other folks, so I’d love to hear how you get people involved and what their involvement is. For example, did you do all the graphics yourself? For such an inexpensive game (in a world where games like this can and do charge a lot more), it has some awesome graphics.

Although Mighty Dungeons is my baby, coding wise, I’ve had tons of help from initial players as well as on the graphics part (i can’t draw to save my life). When MD was 90% complete (built using open images taken from Google), I got in touch with Fred (the graphics guy), to redraw all of the UIs, monsters and stuff. I also got some
help from a great guy, Stephane, a Dungeon Master based in Quebec/Canada with the initial campaigns and quests.

I launched for Android 1 month before launching on iOS. The reason behind it was that Google Play allows you to iterate very fast, come up with bug fixes and updates within hours. So i used this and openly called the first players for ideas on how to improve the gaming experience. To my surprise I got *a lot* of feedback (talking hundreds of emails a day), from people that were really glad that a game developer was listening to their pleas. So was I, a lot of the popular game features were requested by the players and implemented by me within days. Once the game was good enough I pushed it to the ITunes store. Since then i’ve been pushing new features every 2-3 weeks or so, whenever I can find the time to work on it.

Nowadays adding quests/content is a bit more difficult than it was, for the simple reason that the community helped me translate the game into 8 languages (English, French, Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian and Polish), so it takes more time to get the materials translated and integrated into the game. Also I feel bad whenever I ask too much of the people helping me…

How did you come up with the monsters for the dungeons? What is your favorite monster? (I’m only up to the third dungeon, but I think my favorite are the medusa creatures, so far).

Before I released the game to the public I launched a small crowdfunding campaign (https://www.crowdonomic.com/project/452-from-beta-to-the-store). More for PR than for the money. I got a lot of feedback as well as the first Custom Heroes and Monsters design requests (one of the crowdfunding rewards). I had some crazy requests… The medusa creatures were requests based on jellyfish pictures… The water demon was inspired by pics of Fat Bastard from Austin powers.

Assassin, bandit, devourer, grizzly, brawler, lizardman were also special requests (there are a bunch more in the pipe as well as some secret heroes that can only be unlocked via cheatcodes).

My favorite characters are spiders and golems. You can see in the game that I like golems, I created a lot of them (color swap rules :)) and they are all extremely powerful.

I’m also inspired by D&D bestiary of course :)

How did you decide on the class/type of characters players can play? What is your favorite type of character to play in the game?

I initially went with basic set of heroes from the HeroQuest board:dwarf, barbarian, elf and wizard. Then added some custom requests: bandit, assassin and later lizardman and brawler. Then I also followed players requests to play as a skeleton, golem and demons (fire and water). People love to be able to play with the character of their choice. Of course the difficulty level is directly relative to the type of hero that you choose.

I like to play wizards in games they are extremely difficult at the beginning but really powerful towards the mid-end game. That’s exactly the case here. I also like to play as a weakling like the skeleton.

I have noted there is only one female player character. Do you expect to have more as the game continues to progress?

There are actually more than that, but they are secret (enter the cheat codes stef52 or meph – special requests for female characters). I just got another request for a female character today. BTW some heroes are unlockable via code instead of being publicly available because they haven’t been redrawn yet and look like the original picture that was sent to me.

How did you decide on the combat mechanics? I am impressed with how well they work, and it amuses me that I’m not just using an arrow when I shoot a monster, I’m using an entire bow each time, too.

A lot of players do not like this actually… So I added long or infinite durability weapons in a later version of the game (crystal and mithril weapons) to keep everyone happy :) I personally don’t mind if players prefer to play the game their own way.

For the rest, we had lots of internal discussions between Fred and Stephane on what would work best. I’m hoping to have the time to implement multi-monsters fights but it’s difficult to make this happen without totally unbalancing the game.

How do the “gang up” bonuses work/when do they come into play for the monsters (I often find myself trying to intercept a monster before they can gang up on me, but I’m never entirely sure of the conditions under which the gang up bonuses work).

Basically as long as monsters are surrounding the hero, each individual monster is stronger (based on the number of monsters around). A simple way to increase the difficulty of the game without totally unbalancing it. This was actually suggested by one of the players, and as usual, when I like the suggestions I try to implement them.

You have a unique experience/leveling system. How did you come up with the idea? As just one player, I’m enjoying the heck out of it, but do you know how it is working for folks much further along than the first three quests? Is it still working well as a leveling/upgrade component in the later levels?

Lots of players have been asking for traditional XP/Levels system. I’m personally bored of it, every single game on the market have that now, even games like candy crush… I wanted to design something different. Initially there was no experience system, you would just get gold and buy whatever you want in the store. It was just too easy. After discussions with a bunch of players, I worked on an achievement system that unlocks upgrade points. Seems to be working well so far :) of course hardcore players still email me asking for traditional leveling system, but neh, I like the current system better.

What’s next for Mighty Dungeons? I see on the Google Play store that you seem to continually improve it (and thank you for that)?

I still have pages of wishlist and players are coming up with new suggestions daily. So I won’t run out of things to build, simply running out of spare time to implement them all. I would also love to build a v2. I am aware of the flaws in the code of the game that prevents me from doing everything I want with it and a good rewrite of certain portions of the code would be needed.

I also would like to see if a PC port is possible so I put the game up on steam. So far got both negative and positive feedback but the traction for it is not there so I’ll probably pass (I’ll send you another email if you are interested in trying the PC version of it, I have one packaged already).

Also would love a quest editor to make it easier for others to create quests and maps.

How did you decide to make the web page supporting the game such a good compliment to the game itself? The basic maps are there, and the ability to purchase a character, NPC, or other monster in your own image (or the image submitted) is an interesting economic model. How did you decide to allow players to become part of the game in this way, and how is it working out in terms of player retention?

I wanted the website to really complement the game. I can’t implement a proper tutorial within the game itself (it’s actually really tricky to do), so I built a supporting website around it. Added the maps for people that were lost (or simply wanted to know everything they could see or have missed out) and also explain more about the game and ourselves as well (me and the people that help me regularly).

The board games I was inspired by (HeroQuest/Warhammer Quest) were built to be extensible. So I naturally build the game the same way. It’s extremely easy for me to add a new hero, monster, weapons, armors, spells and even create new quests / campaigns and entire game boards. The difficult part will be translation and balancing the game play. I don’t have proper tools yet to create the quests but I do have a bunch of excel sheets representing the maps and missions that I send to whoever is interested in having a look (see here: http://mighty-dungeons.com/dl/Quests-1.6.4.zip).

As you can see, most of the game was built by players and thanks to players so I’m quite happy about that.

In terms of players retention, I have over 35,000 MAU, most of them playing daily or twice daily. That’s really rewarding for a hobby project :)

A big thanks to Yohan Launay-Lee for letting me interview him. As always, let me know if there is anything your interested in me reviewing!

 

 

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Pocket Casts, or how I got my Bluetooth Groove Back

I have a long commute home in the evenings. Long. On a weekend day, its 30 minutes. On a workday, its 45 minutes to an hour. 

Committing seppuku and/or quitting my job are not available options (its a great job, actually), so I’ve been filling the time with satellite radio and NPR. 

However, my husband opened my eyes to the world of podcasts. Ok, podcasts I actually wanted to listen to…several friends had tried to get me to open my ears to podcasts, but if they put you to sleep, you don’t really want to listen while you’re driving.

In any case, I am now an addict of NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and The Thrilling Adventure Hour (as previously mentioned on my blog). The problem was, I couldn’t figure out how to take them with me in my car that didn’t involve bringing the ancient iPod to the altar main computer, plugging it in, using iTunes (which I hate with the passion of a thousand dying suns and which hates me more than that with all its crashing, and “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t let you do that”-ness) or another program (I had been using Jriver Media Center, but they recently updated and they don’t have older downloads that would work with my license, and i’m not that excited about paying $20 to upgrade when I hate this whole process anyway…) and then pulling down the podcasts (or somehow figuring out how to schedule that, which, as far as I can tell, involves the sacrifice of pigeons and a full moon), and then moving them to the ancient iPod. Then the ancient iPod must be transferred back to the car, and this entire process repeated each time I run out of podcasts. 

Thus, my love for podcasts has waned. 

However, it was suggested to me that I have a smart phone and the smart phone has Bluetooth. And Bluetooth allows your phone to use your car speakers to make sound. Hmmm, says I. If there were a podcast positive app in the app store, my love of podcasts for my commute could be rekindled. 

After batting my lovely lashes at my husband to pair it with the audio, I got to work on looking for a podcast app. The first few I tried required pesky things like reading the instructions, or only being able to select the podcast I wanted to listen to from the available list they provided. 

Then I found Pocket Casts.

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It is not a free podcast application, and it is over my rule-of-thumb limit of $2 for a decent Android app. HOWEVER, it took me two seconds to figure stuff out. 

You can select podcasts it knows about from its giant list ‘o’ podcasts. Or, you can enter the URL for a podcast in that it doesn’t know about, and it will do that, too. 

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It will fetch the list of all available episodes from that podcast. Then you click the “down” arrow to download the episode (or episodes) you want. 

When it’s finished downloading, you can click where the arrow used to be and play. It will play from that podcast down to the next one (you can change the sort order in the upper right corner so that it plays most recent to oldest, or vice versa podcast by podcast or for all the episodes you have on your device).

It makes discovering new podcasts pretty easy, as well, with categories to go through and recommendations (I am now a listener of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Star Talk as a result of recommendations). 

You can pause, skip forward, skip backward and play from the interface, and it has a widget that settles into your lock screen so you don’t have to unlock the phone in order to do any of those things. You can mark episodes as played (or all episodes as played).

You can share episodes or podcasts with others through the share function, though “email” is the only default method for sharing (you need to select “other options” and then your twitter, facebook, or g+ yourself to share). 

On the whole, I don’t share podcasts (or podcast episodes) with other people, so while this was a bit awkward, I didn’t mind.

In all, I like it. There are a lot of free podcast tools out there, but this did what I wanted it to do, its pretty, its fast, and there are no ads. Well worth the price tag.

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More Gauli!

As many of you are aware, I have a Live Wallpaper habit. Further, I adore the Live Wallpaper artist, Gauli.

You know where this is going, right?

Gauli has released two wallpapers that are new to to me! For those of you who love his lusciously long limbed ladies, you’ll be slightly disappointed because this is all about things, and not pretty faces (and unusual bodies).

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The first, and newest, is called Sky Islands. In downloading this live wallpaper, Islands in the sky float around each other (much as you’d expect from the name).

It kind of amuses me that the first lines in the Amazon App Store where I got this wallpaper read “Breathe calm, now you are floating between Sky Islands…” However, like most people, I do not breathe calm when I can’t download things I wanna download when I want to download them. It doesn’t appear to be a feature of the app itself, just the persnickety nature of my phone, Grace, and the fact I was downloading other stuff shortly before it. However, I’m not really in a zen mood at this point. Note: Chrome’s spellchecker knows how to spell “persnickety” (you learn something new everyday).

In this wallpaper, Gauli is trying something a little new. If you download the free version of Sky Islands, connecting to Facebook and liking it or making a comment about it will unlock the full feature set of the wall paper. Alternately, you can spend $1.45 and get the fully unlocked wallpaper.

However you choose to unlock it, you can change the current theme’s colors, manage the transition between day and night, choose weather, select among objects available, allow for auto-panning across multiple screens, and allows you to select multiple screens against which to auto pan.

Despite its initial frustrating start, its calming influence is truth in advertising. This is the live wallpaper currently in use on my phone (goodbye lovely jellyfish, I’ll miss you).

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The second and just discovered (by me), Nautilus, takes you on an amazing underwater adventure. You’ll note the image is not actually one straight from the wallpaper (though the nautilus image is predominant in the live wallpaper itself), and that’s because for some reason when marketing this they felt the need to fill the empty space through which the vessel floats with text about the product, which looks kind of stupid and “trying too hard by their marketing department” for me.

However, if you want to watch what the wallpaper looks like in motion, I have managed to embed it here. It’s kind of delicious if you ask me.

The Nautilus live wallpaper, like many of Gauli’s extremely detailed and beautiful works (see how I’m totally sucked in?) is over my base $2 limit for Android apps. However, I feel it delivers in style, options, and overall beauty. There is no free version of this app. From the options page, you can control the depth the Nautilus goes, the speed, the ability to zoom in and out on the vessel, other objects in the wallpaper (and their availability), and the affects of interacting with the wallpaper, such as touching altering the depth control or speeding things up, straight from the wallpaper itself (and not from the options).

Of the two, Sky Islands has won me over a little more than Nautilus, but I find, like all the Gauli wallpapers, that I love them both. What can I say? I’m a sucker for an artist.  Which is weird, because I married a scientist. That’s a kind of artist I suppose.

Until next time!

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Game (?) Review: Kira Snyder’s Parish Mail Series

So I have (?) after the word “Game” in the title because unlike Gamebooks (which I’ve reviewed before here) which allow you to “stat” out your main character and then the choices of your actions affect potential combat/exploration in the game, Kira Snyder’s two installments in the Parish Mail series are less about combat and more about content.

In the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I adored as a child, the end of every page required a decision that could cause your story to end immediately, go off in a different direction, finish the current story line, or draw you back to the beginning unexpectedly to start over again.

Choices in the Parish Mail series simply do not happen that often; however, they do change the tenor of the episodes, and provide a different set of clues to the supernatural mystery, as well as information about the various characters central to the support system of the main character, through whose eyes you are viewing the story.

The first story, The Dead Letter Office, like the other episode currently available (and presumably future episodes) is from the point of view very much that of the train of thought of a teenage girl. This can seem a little disconcerting at first, but makes sense as the story progresses. Through Celia, the protagonist, you unravel a mystery from a letter seemingly from the late 19th century left for her in a very special “post box.” Ghosts, magic, and good old fashioned detective work feature prominently…as does a little romance on the part of our heroine. You get to choose major directions in the story. These choice points only crop up 4 or so times in the narrative, but they provide great re-readability to the story as, in most cases, different choices yield different clues and slightly different variants on the adventure. You also get to help Celia choose her preferred beau as one of these options. The story is G rated, for those who may wonder, as a kiss traded between a girl and a boy character is as intimate as things get. While Celia and her friends are in danger, the danger is more like what Nancy Drew once faced (if ghosts and witchcraft were real) than say, the latest SAW film.

The story continues in Post Mortem (the story mechanism in Dead Letter Office works beautifully for many future features). You need not have read Dead Letter Office to enjoy and fully immerse yourself in Post Mortem (I can only expect with the name “Parish Mail Series” that the post office and letter based puns will just keep coming with each new installment). The point of view is the same in both works, Celia. In this episode, she has received a stack of mail from the special post box, seeking her help to right wrongs in the spirit world, between modern day and the late 19th century. You get to choose major directions in the story; and like Dead Letter Office, these points only crop up 4 or so times in the narrative, but still provide great re-readability to the story. And, like the first book, you get to continue her interest in the boys vying for her affections (though in this book, difficulties arise with all the relationships she has going with the opposite sex, many in ways that relate to the plot…or throw a red herring at it). It is a teen romance, so, like the first episode, they only get so far as kissing. The magic and ghostly aspects of the story easily overwhelm the small amount of romance, though the romance is done well in the event teenage romance is not your thing.

Both episodes are more than I typically pay for an Android App. Dead Letter Office runs $4.99, while Post Mortem is $3.99. My natural inclination for an Android app that is more than $2 is that it needs to be damn good to make me pay that much, and that there should be re-usability/readability to the item in question. However, I kept viewing these episodes more like stories or novellas than as apps; a novella on Amazon can run as much as $5 or as little as $1.99. The more expensive, either a) the better it is/more popular it is or b) the more delusional the author is about how good it is. In this case, however, the author has proven chops. Kira Snyder has credits writing for Eureka and Alphas (as well as some video game writing and a single episode of an awesome vampire romance, Moonlight) and I think she’s charging an appropriate amount for her work based on the quality as well as her pedigree as a writer.

Note that when you complete each episode, the story will suggest some alternate titles for you. So far, I have found none of the suggestions to be by Kira Snyder, and they are kind of random in relation to what you just read; for example, I don’t really care fro the Georgetown series they promote which appears to be a similar type of episodic story telling, but dealing with who is popular, who is not, and all the weird romance things of college/high school/whatever. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty done with high school at this point; if I’m going to revisit, there should be dead bodies, either of the murdered or shambling variety. Other than these, there is no type of advertising at all in these paid apps (which in my mind, is how it should be). At least one of the suggestions was for another story of this nature that did involve ghosts and the dead walking, so I might check that out and let you know how it goes.

As for Kira Snyder’s work, if you like the paranormal, like detailed and sensate driven settings, and don’t mind a little teenage romance (or, in fact, kind of like it despite what havoc Twilight has wrought on the world today), I highly recommend these two apps. I, indeed, liked these two so much I actually wrote reviews on the Amazon site (they are available through both Google Play and Amazon App Store), which sound a little like this review, because I cobbled from my own writing in those reviews to give the plot synopses here (without actually giving away any of the actual story…trust me, I need all the help I can give me). 

I, personally, am looking forward to the next episode from Kira Snyder, and what brave (but thankfully not stupid), teenage Celia does next.

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Blink and You Missed It: Android 4.3 Got More Secure

While we all welcome new releases of Android with general excitement and a little bit of consternation — when will it be available for MY PHONE? — there’s more to the release of 4.3 than smart profiles, dial pad auto-complete, updated keyboard input, a new camera UI, and a variety of other features that you can view and interact with (there are a lot more than the measly list I’ve just provided, btw). 

What Google did in addition to what you can see, is what you can’t see: a universal app-scanning system. The new system watches your device for any new application, even one loaded directly onto the device (“sideloaded”) from outside of the Google Play Store, and instantly checks the app for malicious or potentially harmful code. AppBrain Store and Amazon App store, and even .apk’s you make or get from your friends. If you can get the file onto your 4.3 operating system Android phone, you get universal scanning.

Google initially launched the feature, known as Verify Apps, with Android 4.2 last November. Since then, Google has made it automatically available to every device running Android 2.3 or higher (or about 95% of all Android phones). 

Some features of this new (well, “better stronger faster” version of the verify code they’ve had before) security feature includes the addition of a security extension known as SELinux—short for Security-Enhanced Linux—to reinforce Android’s current hack-mitigation model.  Android runs apps inside a “sandbox” that restricts the data they can access and isolates code they can execute from other apps and the operating system as a whole. Linux is built and run on something called discretionary access controls, which is a fancy way of creating access levels for things that run on your phone and keeping them to their approved secure level; like a key card in an office building where people on the first floor just cannot get into the fourth floor with their key card, but can do everything they need to do on the first floor without issue. This prevents the pilfering of sensitive passwords by a rogue app a user has been tricked into installing or by a legitimate app that has been commandeered by a hacker.

Google’s new system has benefited even me, security girl, personally. Despite suspenders and a belt – Lookout Mobile Security and Sophos Naked Security installed on my phone – I received a verify alert on a live wall paper I’d updated; it had passed several checks prior, but apparently in the fourth update code had been introduced that was considered malware. Even software that you trust and have used extensively can fall prey to sloppy coding that can open holes in security that can make them seem indistinguishable from actual malware (and make you just as vulnerable). 

But back to SELinux: originally developed by the National Security Agency, SELinux allows varying levels of trust to each app and dictates what kind of data an app can access inside its confined domain. Given recent concerns about NSA privacy issues, and the fact that Google seems likely to spit blood rather than directly introduce new spying technology to its flagship operating system, I’m willing to not worry about this update and take its pedigree as originating with the NSA as a positive; ie: our best minds are working on it (rather than say, listening in on a call from Grandma in Europe). 

Another change in favor of security has been made to the Android Key Chain. The Key Chain stores digital certificates used to access Wi-Fi networks and virtual private networks, including those for major corporations or the government (or just the people next door from whom you “borrow” access now and again). A big risk with this type of storage on your phone is that if your phone is stolen or lost, those credentials are available to anyone who finds it/takes it and has the skill to root your phone and/or use available tools (out there in the wild) to make the most of your security loss. This is a huge concern if, say, you’re a Secret Service Agent. 

Effectively, Google has changed the coding for the Android Key Chain to reduce exposure if someone unfriendly gets your phone. I could go more indepth about what they did – securing encryption and security to hardware on the phone rather than as it currently exists with just the software – but I’m falling asleep here just trying to tell you about it, so go with me: its more secure. 

Enhancements to the Android Keystore, a similar resource to the Key Chain that also stores credentials, allows users to create keys that can be accessed and used exclusively by a single application–sort of like the keys that can be generated for single applications if you use 2 step Authorization for your Google Account. Under version 4.3, apps can create or store private keys that cannot be seen or used by other apps, which is good if you have one rogue app already playing in its own sandbox (through SELinux) and therefore unable to access/see any other application permissions/passwords/super secret fuzzy bunnies. 

Profiles, which are awesome if you want to hand your phone off to a kid and let them go crazy without worrying they’ll use the Chrome app to look up porn are also part of the overall security package available in 4.3. Each restricted profile offers an isolated and secure space with its own local storage, home screens, widgets, and settings – this means that in addition to Timmy not being able to access Netflix’s R rated offerings, anything that he does cannot affect anything in any other profile from a security perspective as well as from a “what the heck did you kids do to my home screen?” perspective. Note: profiles does not protect your phone from jelly covered fingers. 

Finally, 4.3 secures WiFi connections and credentials with better encryption that was used before. This means, in security speak, that Google has reduced attack surfaces into your phone or tablet, both when connecting to WiFi and when using headsets or other devices that work with your Android devices that might have, in the past, been more easily compromised by people seriously looking to rain on your Android loving parade. 

What all these changes mean to you is that on the Play Store side, if something is flagged as problematic, it won’t be published (as usual). On your device, if a red flag comes up — even just for something as seemingly innocuous as an app that might send SMS messages on your behalf without your knowledge — the security system will warn you and recommend you avoid proceeding with whatever you’re doing, from installing to granting further permissions you might not wish to grant. 

As always, to help Google keep your device secure, always lock your device (Settings -> Security), install anti-virus, use encryption (Settings -> Security -> Locations and Security, set Data encryption), never download apps from an untrusted source (even if you’re friend totally recommends it, go to the site and download there and not from a shared apk and then only from a site you know and trust), and always check app permissions (if it’s an app that makes a clown dance on your screen, it probably doesn’t need access to your passwords, contact list, internet connection, mother’s maiden name, etc.). 

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TripIt – Part 2: The Aftermath

For those of you who read TripIt – Part 1, your wait for TripIt — Part 2 is over.

Last weekend I flew to San Jose, then returned to Seattle via San Francisco. 

To start my journey, TripIt updated me with the fact that the day of my travel – last Friday – a new flight at exactly the same time had been posted on the Alaska Airlines site, and that it was expected to take 8 minutes less than my current flight. I got an email, and I saw it when I logged into TripIt at the airport in anticipation of checking in. TripIt then wanted to know which of the two flights was my actual flight for the day, and offered the option to select. 

Upon selecting a flight, TripIt kicked me completely out of the program and requested I sign in. 

Signing in led to the main screen. I could click for info on my original flight (as I could before the “new” flight info had been added), but I could still see the “conflict” at the top that it wanted me to clear up. On clicking it, I was faced with the two flights. I clicked one and…was immediately signed out. Again. 

Giving up on that, I used my flight number info with my other info to get my ticket and board my plane. I imagine that if that updated info had been anything other than an updated time in the air I would have appreciated knowing about it, but I would have appreciated it not repeatedly telling me about it and then logging me out. 

The flight home was fairly normal; I again referenced it (its nice to have all my info in one place, even if I do have to click three times to get to it, rather than having to search my email, find it, scan the email for disparate pieces of data, etc.). 

Today, to do this review, I opened it to see if I could load the screen with the two flight times for a screenshot. Instead, I received plain, blank screen that informed me I had no further flights. The top right had what looked like a drop down, and I clicked on it–and the entire application crashed. 

I clicked the application to load it again, and the screen is completely different than the screen that crashed. It is the screen I saw every day up to my flights, except that it doesn’t show any flights as “active” or “upcoming.” 

My final verdict here is that I should probably try TripIt again, but later. I need to give the team behind it more time to smooth out the bugs in the free version before I’d even contemplate the “no ads” version, let alone the Pro version. Its a decent idea: a way to grab the important data needed for trips and travel into one or two screens that are right at your fingertips, and make it easy to share or use that data. However, my experience with a printed email (with appropriate data highlighted by hand) was equivalent to the use of the application, and in terms of work needed to get to the data, clicking through TripIt was only slightly faster. Add in the crashes and the complications of duplicate flights on the same day, and the piece of paper is looking awfully good as a viable alternative to this application.

I imagine if I had hotel, car, plane, and events to manage it would, however, beat the heck out of tons of pieces of paper; my husband often prints everything and carries a folder with us when we travel, and TripIt would certainly be better than that. However, its just not making me comfortable with its overall reliability in kicking me out of the app unexpectedly and crashing in its usage. 

My recommendation: pass on TripIt. For now. I will probably try it a year from now when the developers have had some more time to kick out bugs. It’s a nice idea, but only mediocrely executed, and it has more than a few bugs to fix before I’ll feel reliable using it solo as my means of managing myself and my loved ones far from home. 

 

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