A website. With stuff on it.
November 7th, 2007 at 12:59 pm
Posted By: Jay
Posted in: Rambling

Warning: This is a rant. But it’s one that any Xbox360 owner who ever had a problem will likely identify with!

Ok, so piss poor support is, like, the norm these days for every company. Certainly any I end up having to deal with, anyway.

So my console is broke again. I think it’s been well established now that the build quality of the Xbox360 is nothing short of appalling, so probably no surprise there. This, though, is the replacement they sent me only a month or so ago because my original died with the oh-so-common ‘red ring of death’. But actually, that’s not why I was ringing them today in the first place.

When they repair your console, they send you a complimentary 1 month subscription to Xbox Live presumably to make up for the month it takes them to get the console repaired/replaced and back to you. I only just got round to redeeming it yesterday after the last console repair. And then I got an email to confirm it had been added… along with a second one to say that they’d successfully renewed my Xbox360 Live subscription starting October 2008!

Since I’d just paid for my years subscription in September, which I can ill afford anyway since I’m currently unemployed and having no luck in the job hunting department, I called to make sure that they hadn’t in fact just charged me two years in advance for Live and charged me 80 quid in two months.

So anyway, I call, I explain. She doesn’t understand. I explain again. She repeats back a completely different version of events to clarify what I’m telling her, I correct her and explain again. She goes away confused, I get put on hold for 15 minutes. She comes back, still not really understanding what the problem is. Eventually I get her to tell me that nothing has been debited from my account in the last few days and that no, they aren’t expecting to bill me again for xbox live. So it seems they just send completely incorrect emails to confuse people.

Then she asks ‘is there anything else I can do for you?’. To which I reply that yes, I need to send my xbox360 in. Again. So we go through all of that, and she’s reading from a script that insists I tell her exactly what is happening with the faulty console right now. It’s not plugged in. It’s boxed up ready to send back because it’s feckin’ DEAD. But still she wants me to unpack it, plug it all back in and set it up on the tv and stuff to verify this because it’s in her script. I manage to talk her out of this, and we eventually arrange for the pickup of my deceased hardware.

Then she asks ‘is there anything else I can do for you?’. Well, if she’s going to keep asking…

So I complain about the also well established problems that befall Xbox Live users, and particularly those that spend Microsoft Points to buy downloadable content, when they have their consoles replaced after they send them back to Microsoft (MS rarely send you back your own console… despite knowing all about the problems I’m about to describe).

I have bought lots of download content – I’ve bought over a dozen Live Arcade games, and content packs to enhance some of my existing games. Now, though I still have the original hard drive they were downloaded to, and I’m still using the same Xbox Live account duly recovered to the new console, I (and tens of thousands of other people in my situation) am now faced with a completely different set of rules when it comes to my using that content I paid for, and they’re downright annoying.

When you buy an Arcade game, for example, you are able to use the full version of that game on your or any other account on that console. And you don’t have to be connected to Live to play. Once you’ve been fobbed off with a refurbished console, suddenly that all changes… you can ONLY play the full version on your account. Ever. Any other player who has an account on that Xbox360 is now locked out of that game. You can also ONLY play on your own account that downloaded the content while logged into Xbox Live.

That’s not the annoying part, though.

Content that you downloaded for games, such as Test Drive Unlimited, for which I’ve bought all the additional car packs, fairs even worse. Now, every single solitary time I start TDU and click ‘continue’ to carry on my career, it tells me that there is downloadable content in my save game that I don’t have. Which is actually the wrong message, really. What it’s really saying is that I have the content, it’s registered to my account, it’s right there on the hard drive, but it knows this isn’t the console I originally downloaded it to. I’ve Googled this and read extensively about people with similar issues, and they’ve ended up giving up and starting again. TDU is a progressive career game. I don’t WANT to start again because MS don’t know what they’re doing.

I did find a sort of solution, but it’s a major pain in the butt. When TDU tells me I don’t have this content, it takes me to the TDU downloads section on Xbox Live Marketplace… but doesn’t give me any indication as to what it thinks is missing. In fact, if I choose ANY of the download content and redownload it, and return to the game, which then reboots because it has to load and verify the content, I can eventually continue my game. Yes, every time. Every single time I want to play TDU, I have to load the game, go to Marketplace, redownload one of the content packs, reboot the machine, THEN I can play.

Xbox Live looks very slick, generally. Downloadable content is a great way to enhance your games and get new ones. And it all works great… until you get your faulty console replaced (and mark my words, your Xbox360 WILL die eventually!). Then you’re basically scammed out of the license rights to anything you’ve ever downloaded. But despite the fact that thousands of people have highlighted this and it’s talked about all over the web, MS steadfastly refuse to address the problem or compensate the gamer.

Speaking of compensation, back to the call I was on… so I finish telling her how all the content I bought on Live now effectively has completely new and very restrictive and annoying license terms through no fault of my own, and she says that someone will have to call me back on this one. But before I go, she says ‘because you’ve had your console repaired more than once, we’d like to offer you some small gift by way of compensation. I’ll just transfer you, ok?’. Nice sentiment… if she hadn’t then just put me on hold for over half an hour until I gave up and hung up. I think an hour and a half on one phone call with most of that spent listening to elevator music because ‘their systems are slow’ (they’re probably Windows, love) is enough, even on promise of compensation.

I am not a fan of Xbox360, Xbox Live or Microsoft right now, I can tell you. It’s almost enough to make you want to defect to PS3… (I did say ALMOST)

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October 23rd, 2007 at 2:11 pm
Posted By: Jay
Posted in: Rambling

Judging by the deafening silence, I’m guessing I’m like the only person in the world who thinks this plugin is a good idea. Well, I guess I’ll be writing it myself, then.

Trouble is, whilst I think I know how I want to achieve it… I just don’t actually know how to write it.

As far as I can tell, the simplest way to do this would be to use a filter to find and replace a key word that I embed in the post content itself, and whilst I’ve found loads of examples on how to write WordPress plugins, I haven’t found one that seems to explain (at least in terms that I understand!) how to pass a variable to your function from the body of your post.

See, unless I’m going at this completely the wrong way, what I’d really like to do is be able to write, say <!– astore=cheese –> in my post, so that my function get_astore_links picks up the keyword ‘cheese’ and returns the relevant link from an associative array of links in my function – thus displaying my aStore category for cheese.

Sounds pretty simple to me, if only I knew how. Anyone know of some idiot proof documentation or a good example I can follow to achieve that?

I tried to pull apart some other plugins that did a similar thing, and all I really got out of it is that it involved regex, which I kind of knew already. But the plugins were way too complex for me to get my head round and decide which bits were or weren’t relavent to what I’m trying to do.

My brain hurts, so I’m going now.

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October 17th, 2007 at 7:51 pm
Posted By: Jay
Posted in: Rambling

Well, almost perfection. Seriously! You could be forgiven for having reasonably low expectations of a game that is being bundled merely as ‘extra content’ with Valve’s much publicised Orange Box collection, which of course stars Half Life 2, Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. However, Portal is an incredibly polished, well thought out game that leaves you open mouthed at times with it’s ingenuity. It certainly doesn’t lack a story, either. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say it’s extremely engaging and has a fantastic climax. It’s evident this project is a labour of love for Valve.

The premise itself is fairly unique, presenting the player with a series of obstacle course style levels where they must simply travel from the entrance to the exit, mostly utilising the very cool Portal gun (it’s not actually called a portal gun!). Once you get the idea after playing through the well paced introductions to the various concepts and techniques you’ll need to use in order to accomplish the task, it does indeed become fairly simple. Sometimes you’ll spend a minute scratching your head until it suddenly dawns on you what to do, but generally it isn’t particularly taxing or frustrating… just a lot of fun to play.

If there are any down sides, they are that a) it’s being distributed via Steam (bleurgh. I loathe Steam) and that b) it’s altogether too short. I mean, really short. Like, you can comfortably play through the entire game in one sitting. There are a few nice little extras to be unlocked once you have completed the game – there are three types of challenge, which variously involve trying to complete previous levels in the least time, the least footsteps, or the least portals. There are also 6 advanced levels, which introduce new twists on some of the later levels from the game. Where I had very little difficulty completing the main game, these had me sitting staring blankly at the screen most of the time.

Still, there is apparently a level editor to come very soon, which undoubtedly will be a marginally modified version of the Hammer editor for the HL2 engine. So I really hope to see some new user built levels to play through. Unfortunately, and I may of course be displaying an undeserved lack an faith in level builders here, I suspect that they won’t measure up to the sheer genius of Portal’s default game levels.

To sum up: get it. Now!

Links:

Portal Trailer on Youtube

Official Website

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October 15th, 2007 at 12:56 pm
Posted By: Jay
Posted in: Rambling

In my previous post, I talked about my wish list for a WordPress plugin that would display contextual embedded Amazon aStore chunk to follow posts and pages.

Let me tell you how I’m currently implementing the category specific (kinda!) aStore into WordPress without a plugin – at least, for pages, which is adequate for my needs at the moment. It’s a bit of a manual process, but it works. So if you wanted to implement it, you already can. You could also do this for other templates, such as ‘single posts’, but you would need to add it to your original single post template, and wouldn’t have the same customisation options since you can’t select a per post template, so it’s very much an all or nothing affair without the as yet fictional plugin.

As I said previously, I chunked up my aStore itself into categories containing 3-6 related products so that I’m not bombarding the viewer with a dozen products in a huge long scrolling page.

I made a copy of my ‘page’ template, and obviously renamed it. After the loop, which probably ends in

<?php endwhile; endif; ?>

I added the code for my astore (in DIV tags which mean I can specify a css if I want to).

<div id = “astore”>
<iframe src=”
http://astore.amazon.com/yourstore” width=100% height=1000 frameborder=0 scrolling=no></iframe>
</div>

Now, whenever you want your aStore to appear within a page, you can simply select the aStore Page template when writing a page instead of the default page template.

To take it one step further towards my original needs outlined for the plugin, I then duplicated this page a number of times and renamed them according to the products they would display, substituting the default code above with a specific permalink to a given aStore category. The format of the permalink will look like this:

http://astore.amazon.com/yourstore?%5Fencoding=UTF8&node=1

where ‘node=1‘ relates to the index of your category. As I said before, you can get the permalink to each of your categories from the category section of your aStore.

So I uploaded these new pages to my theme, one for each chunk of the aStore I want to display, appropriately named. So, for example, you might end up with aStore-Page-Cheese1, aStore-Page-Cheese2, aStore-Page-Chocolate etc.

Now, as before, you can simply choose which template you want to use when you post a page. Hey presto, a very clumsy implementation of targeted products per page! Which I think adequately demonstrates the need for the proposed plugin ;)

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October 15th, 2007 at 12:18 pm
Posted By: Jay
Posted in: Rambling

So, as the title possibly hints, I’ve been looking for a plugin for WordPress that allows you to display all or parts of your aStore along with posts or pages. The idea is for another site of mine, and what I’m looking to do is add a ‘further reading and resources’ section that’s relavent to the posts. So far, I haven’t found anything that will let me do this, which is kind of surprising, really, given that it’s a really good way to monetize your blog or site with relavent content that isn’t tacky!

So I’m thinking of writing the plugin myself. Assuming I do, I figure I may as well release it for anyone else looking to do the same. So, I’m going to kind of spew my ideas here and ask a couple of questions. If you’re looking for a plugin to do this, maybe you could contribute to the comments? If you already know of a plugin that will basically do what I outline here, please let me know! I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, especially since I’ve never written a WordPress plugin before, and will have to learn that first! :p

By the way, I am aware of various Amazon associate plugins, which for the most part seem to relate to the individual product link method of presenting your product content. I’m also aware of at least one plugin that will randomly pull in links from Amazon without any user interaction. These are great, but I want to make use of the aStore option specifically, and target my audience with my own carefully chosen products.

So here’s my thinking on the nature and features of this as yet fictitious plugin:

Firstly, whilst the Amazon aStore gives you a link to your main store when you do ‘get link’, it also shows a permalink to any given category in the category management view. You can use this link to display only a subsection of your store. Now given that you can embed an aStore right into your page/theme using their slightly awkward iframe code, this suddenly gives us some really cool options… which is precisely what I’m looking to exploit.

So as I briefly outlined above, what I initially conceptualised is that you would set up links to various categories at your aStore to tally with your categories on your blog. So that every time you post about, say, Cheese, it then lists a bunch of books about Cheese beneath the post, which neatly links to your aStore checkout etc.

That’s pretty neat, and incredibly simple, especially since it basically requires no user interaction, but it has limitations. Firstly, it only allows for one aStore category to link up with one WordPress category. Oh, sure, you could give the user space to put in more than one and randomly link them, but how many slots do you supply per category? Two? Three? Ten? I dunno! Also, it would mean that, at least with a default WordPress install where pages (as opposed to posts) don’t have categories, you couldn’t utilise it on a page.

So then I started thinking that category based is maybe not the way to go at all. Maybe the better way is to just allow people to have as many aStore categories as they wanted listed, and probably a drop down box on the post and page write/edit screen to select which bit of your aStore you wanted to display.

There are other advantages to this, too. Firstly, aStore is not all that configurable in terms of layout. As far as I can see, you can only present your aStore in a 3-across format, displaying all of your products in that category. Which kind of sucks, because you’re going to end up with a huge long page of products which entails endless scrolling at the bottom of your pages and posts. And that’s sure to annoy your visitors, if nothing else.

So my thinking is that you would divide your aStore up into more manageable pieces, utilising the categories to chunk up your content into the specific items you want to include with a post or set of posts. So if you’re still blogging about cheese, you can link directly to a subcategory that contains only 3 or 6 cheese related items, rather than spew dozens of products into every post. You will then potentially have 3 or 4 or even more Cheese related categories, and you can use these for variety and to maximise your sales potential on different posts and pages.

A further thought is that you (well, at least, I) don’t really want to display US based Amazon products to viewers in other countries. I’ve already implemented IP2Nation on my WordPress install so that I can make an educated guess at the geographic location of the user. I figure, once I sign up to be an Amazon Associate in the UK and possibly other countries, it’d be much better to present products they can actually buy! This ought to be fairly simple to do – your plugin admin page would allow you to enter alternative URLs for different countries based on the two letter country code, and display the correct link based on the viewers location.

That, I think, will certainly work for my needs, and I think is a very neat solution to easily monetizing your blog with useful products that your viewer just might be interested in, rather than spewing vaguely related Adsense ads into every page. The beauty of utilising aStore is that it’s very easily configured and set up… far, far less work than using the individual product link alternatives, and therefore the available plugins that cater for this.

So anyone have any input? Category based or not? Some hybrid of the two? With the advent of tags in WordPress 2.3, maybe tag based instead? That way you can utilise it for both pages and posts. But then how do you determine which  is more relavent? Display an aStore chunk for the first tag only? Allow user selection?

Can you think of a better implementation altogether? Or features it should have? Want to write the plugin? Comment below!




September 20th, 2007 at 12:04 pm
Posted By: Jay
Posted in: Rambling

To blog or not to blog. That is the question.

Hello! Today I am struggling with the nature of blogging… now that I’ve resurrected it, what should I actually say on my personal website blog thingy? It’s a tough decision. Ideally, I think I need three or four personal websites with no discernible links or affiliations!

Ok, now you’re probably wondering why I need multiple websites, what the hell I’m talking about, and why it’s a tough decision on what to say here. (Either that or you could not care less and have already moved on to read something that DOES make sense…)

Still here? Then I’ll try and explain!

» Read The Rest

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