Decisions, decisions

Even though I didn’t work that much on my latest project, my Ultima-inspired game reached a new milestone. I’ve added game states to the game to handle switching from the map view to the main menu and vice versa. In the future additional game states will be needed. A game state is basically what tells the program how to react on certain keypresses, what to show on the screen etc. I’ve added a screenshot of the main menu screen below.

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I also managed to get some simple animations going, but unfortunately it’s not working perfectly right now. But at least it’s a step into the right direction.

I’ve also added functions to the game which allow me to spawn enemies on the world map. They don’t do anything at this point, but I already have some ideas on how to get them to move around and eventually attack the player.

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I’ve also added a function which checks which tile the player is standing on. If it’s swamp there’s a certain chance that the player gets poisoned which means they’ll lose HP with every passing turn. Of course there’s no way to die at the moment, and curing poison is also not implemented.

What I have to do now is to make some design decisions. What stats do I want to use? What mechanics do I want to implement? Will there be multiple world maps or just one? Will combat be like in older Ultima games (on special combat maps) or more like in a roguelike? Should perma-death be a thing? To make things easier I could also throw out monsters visibly roaming the lands in favor of JRPG-style random encounters. Hmm…

I am also not sure whether I should stick to the Josh Steele tileset or not. It looks great but it also limits me in various ways. On the other hand limits can be great. I am not really an experienced computer game developer and I have to learn a lot of new tricks all the time. So limiting my design choices might help not to overwhelm myself too quickly.

If you are interested in further updates, please let me know. I also can go deeper into the coding aspects of my project if you’re interested in such things. My code probably looks horrible, but it still might help some other aspiring game designer to not repeat my mistakes. Zwinkerndes Smiley

From LUA with LÖVE

Since I got my first computer back in the mid 1980s I love writing code. I never had professional training in it, but over the years I’ve played around with several programming languages and I’ve written programs for various platforms. My big dream has always been to write my own computer game.

A while back I got GameMaker Studio from the Humble Bundle and among the projects I finished was an Asteroid clone and an application that allowed me to view the map from Ultima V using the game’s tiles. I even expanded on the latter and added an avatar which you could move around on the map. Eventually I added the ability to board a ship and sail around. But when working with GMS, I always had the feeling I had to fight it. So I started to look for alternatives.

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I had a look at Unity (which totally overwhelmed me), Pico-8 (which felt too limited) and various other engines and programming languages. In the end I decided to give LÖVE a try. It’s a framework for LUA which allows you to write 2D games. To my surprise it’s quite easy to learn and is very flexible.

So I started a new project using LÖVE: A RPG inspired by the early Ultima games. The game has no name yet, no story, it’s actually not really a game at this point, but I’m still quite proud. Currently you can run around on a tile-based map with your avatar which is centered on the map. Movement is blocked by certain tiles, while others slow your movement. The map is still hardcoded, but I plan to write my own map editor eventually.

In order to have a reliable backup of my work and to allow others to have a look at my (terribly messy) code, I uploaded the whole project to GitHub. As I said before, the game is far from being completed, let alone fun, but if you want to check it out, feel free to do so. Any advice is highly appreciated.

Playing the classics: Ultima IV

Yeah, it has been a while since my last post. But let’s not dwell on this and look to the future… or rather at the past. Today I want to write about a computer game series which influenced me a lot: Ultima. I think the first Ultima game I ever played was Ultima VI – The False Prophet. I think it was my mother’s cousin who regularly provided me with games for my PC who gave me a pirated copy of that game. Back in these days people didn’t care that much when it came to software piracy…

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I don’t remember how many hours I put into Ultima VI, but when playing it for the first time I was hooked. Later when Ultima VII came out, I was basically glued to my PC. What I liked most about the Ultima games was their freedom and the intriguing stories. Much like in the open-world games of today you could choose in which order you fulfilled quests, which areas you wanted to explore first, and there were countless ways to interact with the game world. Heck, you could bake bread, milk cows, and all that. Unfortunately Ultima VIII was a huge letdown, and don’t get me started on Ultima IX. This is a story for another day…

I eventually bought a copy of the Ultima Collection containing all Ultima games up to Ultima VIII. But even though I tried, I had a hard time getting into the older games like Ultima IV, let alone the games from the Age Of Darkness. Even though Ultima IV and V were the foundation on which the games I loved so much were built upon, I just couldn’t get myself to actually play them. It was either the outdated graphics, the lack of music or the horrible controls which drove me away.

So why is it so important to me to actually play this game? Ultima IV is the first game which featured the eight virtues and the avatar. It’s the game that set the tone for the rest of the series. It’s not a roleplaying game about slaughtering monsters and taking their stuff, but about becoming a better person. It’s a game about personal improvement and philosophy. There’s no big bad to kill, no treasure to find (ok, there are treasures to find, but its not the focus of the game). It’s a classic and a game changer.

0Lately my interest in roguelike games has increased and I played quite a few games with outdated graphics and byzantine control schemes. Since I was enjoying the gameplay, it didn’t matter that much, that the games weren’t up to par when it came to presentation and user interface. Eventually it occurred to me that I should give the old Ultima games another chance. Again, I skipped over the first three games since – in my mind – they are only losely related to the series as I see it. For me Ultima started with the Quest for the Avatar.

If you want to play Ultima IV nowadays you have several options. The easiest way is probably to get a copy from GOG.com which also included its two sequels. DOSBOX is included, so it runs fine on modern machines. Alternatively you can get a free copy from one of the other sources, but then you have to get it running with DOSBOX yourself.

But an unpatched Ultima IV still looks pretty outdated and doesn’t have the iconic Ultima music. There are several fan patches that remedy that, but I actually recommend to use XU4 instead, or if you are more a C64 person, to check out Ultima IV Remastered (see screenshot above). XU4 is a new engine for Ultima IV which not only supports music, but also higher resolution, alternative tilesets, and a couple of quality-of-life additions. It is IMHO the best way to play Ultima IV on a PC nowadays. You can download the latest build from SourceForge, but make sure you read the included documentation carefully. In my first attempt I forgot to put the original Ultima IV files into a ultima4 subfolder and the program just crashed.

XU4 is compatible with the U4 Upgrade Patch and supports digital audio, so you can add alternative music to the game. Combined with XU4’s quality-of-life features, Ultima IV is now much more playable, especially if you are already used to roguelike games. I just started the game myself, but there are already a couple of tips I can share with you thanks to the friendly and helpful members of the Ultima Dragons Internet Chapter Facebook group:

  • Travel to any city and talk to the people there
  • Write down any clue you get, especially when related to the virtues, runes, and mantras
  • Explore the lands and make use of a map
  • Prepare the Cure spell as soon as possible, the amount of poison in the game is bordering on ridiculous
  • Don’t act like a dick – you want to become the Avatar, remember?
  • Seriously, try to be virtuous

Ultima IV like many games from that era, doesn’t hold your hand, there’s no quest tracker to show the way, there’s no journal, no automap. You are thrown into the lands of Britannia, with no clues what to do and where to go. My last advice: take it easy, enter the city nearest to you and talk to everyone and their dog, and let the clues the NPCs provide you with drive you forward. It worked for me so far.

Game recommendation: Beyond – Two Souls

One of the games I picked up shortly after getting a PS3 was Beyond: Two Souls. I admit I didn’t actually know much about the game aside from the fact that it had been created by the development team behind Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream.

Heavy Rain is definitely one of must-have titles for the Playstation 3 but IMHO Beyond: Two Souls is better in almost every aspect. When it comes to graphics and sound it’s amazing how awesome games can look on this decade-old machine. Sure, there are next-gen titles with better graphics, but for a PS3 title, Beyond is just gorgeous.

Like Heavy Rain Beyond: Two Souls is more an interactive movie than what I would call a game although Beyond has a lot more “gameplay” than its predecessor. Heavy Rain was basically a long sequence of QTEs, while Beyond feels more like a traditional adventure game. But it’s pretty light on puzzles and if I am not mistaken you can’t really fail. Since I haven’t replayed the game yet, I can’t judge how much the story is influenced by the player’s decisions. But I guess there are only a few branching moments and the rest of the story is built in a way that you have the illusion of choice. But even if that’s the case, it doesn’t make Beyond: Two Souls a less great game.

What makes Beyond such a great experience is a) its story and b) the acting. As I said, it’s more like an interactive movie and I enjoyed the actors performances (Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe are starring) a lot. If someone would turn Beyond into a proper movie I would definitely pay to watch it in the cinema. The focus of the story is Jodie, a young woman who is tied to some kind of spirit called Aiden, who grants her supernatural abilities. She can ask him to perform certain task for her, but he also acts on his own. I don’t want to spoil the story too much, but it’s an exciting ride with exciting combat, drama, government conspiracies, and questions about life, death, and what awaits us after death. The story is told in a non-chronological manner, which can sometimes be a bit confusing, but overall this works pretty well.

By the way, you can also play Beyond as a two-player co-op game. One player controls Jodie, while the other plays Aidan. But I haven’t tried this gamemode yet. As far as I know there is also a version for the PS4 which includes a couple of extras. Regardless which system you own, you should try to track down a copy of Beyond: Two Souls. It’s an impressive game, which tells an intriguing story and features believable characters. Beyond is also one of the few games who managed to have such an impact on me that I found myself close to tears several times during my playthrough. If you enjoy adventure games with mystery themes, you definitely have to play Beyond: Two Souls. You will not be disappointed!

Why should you get a PS3 in 2017?

Just last week I bought a used Sony Playstation 3 on eBay. Some of you might be wondering why I got this video game console now, when the new generation has already been available for quite some time now. There are a couple of reasons.

The main reason is that the PS3 is much more affordable now than it was years ago. You can easily buy a used one for less than 100€ including controllers and perhaps even a few games. And even though it’s already about a decade old, a lot of games still look great.

The PS3 has had a slew of exclusive titles you were always interested in, but because you never got one, you weren’t able to play them? Now’s your chance! Especially the highly popular PS3-exclusives are now available for a couple of Euros. I got games like Heavy Rain, The Last of Us, etc. for under 5€ each. In general used games are extremely cheap. The PS3 is still new enough and it sold extremely well during its lifetime, so that the games are not extremely rare. Chances are good that you can get a handful of games for the price of one new PS4 game. This might eventually change in the coming years, so now it’s a great time to start collecting PS3 games.

I especially like that the PS3 is easily upgraded. Yesterday I replaced the 80GB hard drive by a 1 TB one and the whole process took me less than half an hour (including formatting and installing the latest software update). And if you don’t own a BluRay player yet, a PS3 gets even more interesting compared to other consoles of its generation.

As a plus you also get a console which plays all your venerable Playstation 1 games. Yes, every PS3 is PS1 compatible, even though they dropped PS2 compatibilty eventually.

Currently the PS3 is still somewhat supported by Sony. You can still get system updates from their website (even though this update is a couple of years old) and there are still many PS3 titles available in the Playstation Store. But of course we don’t know how long this support will last. So starting your collection now seems quite reasonable.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Please share your comments below!

 

What Am I Playing Right Now? (Part 2)

Yesterday I wrote about Star Trek Online, today I want to look at something similar but totally different. In a way Avorion has some similarities with a game like STO: you fly around in a space ship, there’s space combat, there’s exploration, you can play with other people, but that’s where the similarities end. In Avorion you start out with a simple mining drone in a remote sector of the galaxy. In the nearby asteroid field you can start mining for materials like Iron or Titanium. You’ll quickly notice that the other ships and stations you encounter look a bit blocky, but that’s because the game uses a voxel engine similar to games like Minecraft. It also uses procedular generation to populate the universe with countless space ships and stations.

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After having mined for a while you can use the material to build your own ship, block by block, much like putting together LEGO bricks. Aside from plain hull blocks, there are several functional blocks like generators, crew quarters, thrusters etc. Just bashing a few blocks together is usually not enough, you have to make sure the ship not only looks nice (which is actually optional) but also works (which is a must). Last but not least you can attach turrets to your creation. You start out with 4 turrets of which you can use up to 3 at the start. From what I’ve seen so far, you don’t get the same turrets every time you start a new game, but you always get two mining lasers and two weapon turrets. With your new ship you at first have to travel to a space station in order to hire crew. Without the crew necessary you can’t use turrets or maintain the ship. The larger the ship, the more crew members you’ll need. And these guys also want to get paid…

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So what to do now? Your ultimate goal in Avorion is to reach the center of the galaxy (much like in No Man’s Sky). But the closer you get to the core travelling using your hyperdrive engines, jumpgates, or wormholes, the more dangerous it gets. But there are also more valuable materials and technologies closer to the core. So you start out with a pretty dinky little ship, mine more materials, shoot pirates (or become a pirate yourself), trade, and so on. In the long run you can also buy additional ships which can then be commanded by captains you employ, and you can even have your own space stations. I have played the games for a couple of hours now and I am hooked. I even paused playing STO for a while because building space ships in this game is just so much fun – even though I suck at it.

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Avorion is still in early access, but it has more depth to it than many other games. If you enjoy space games like Elite: Dangerous, EVE Online, the X series, and always wished there was a way to build your own ships, Avorion might be for you. Check it out! Avorion is available on Steam and sets you back about 18€ or your regional equivalent.

What Am I Playing Right Now? (Part 1)

Hmm, it has been quite some time since my last post on this blog. Real life can really mess with such things like blogging and my first priority has always been my roleplaying games blog, so Planet Stargazer lay dormant for a while. No more! The other thing which messes with blogging is playing computer games. There are currently two games which keep me enthralled: Avorion and Star Trek Online.

Let me start with the more popular one: Star Trek Online. Star Trek Online is a MMORPG created by Cryptic Studios and published by Perfect World Entertainment. It has a free-to-play model, which means you can play it compeletely free, with some minor limitations. I actually bought the game back in the day when it was initially released (and when it still had a classic subscription model). I have to admit I wasn’t that thrilled about the game back then. I really liked the space combat, but most ground missions were boring, and the client was so badly optimized that it ran like molasses even on pretty fast PCs. When giving it another chance about a week ago, I was positively surprised. The graphics have been updated and the game runs much, much smoother. Overall missions have been improved, are a bit more diverse (even though there’s still a focus on combat). Some of the ground missions now have some simple puzzles you need to solve in order to progress.

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Apropos progress, I was able to rise from Cadet to Vice Admiral in a few days of playing. This is way faster than I remember it to be. I basically just followed the storyline missions and didn’t do much else. Up until Vice Admiral you also get a new ship everytime you get promoted. After that things slow down tremendously. I also had to use some of my hard-earned cash to buy a couple of ZEN (that’s Perfect Worlds in-game currency) in order to buy a new ship. While you can definitely progress quite far without spending real money, the temptation becomes higher as soon as you reach level 50+. The only way to get you hands on ZEN without paying real money is to exchange Dilithium for ZEN in-game. Dilithium ore is often a mission reward and you have to refine it to Dilithium before you can use it. And of course the amount of ore you can refine per day is limited. Aside from ships you can also buy cosmetic items and XP booster etc. with ZEN. But if you are patient you can definitely play the game for a long time without ever paying a penny.

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Oh, I haven’t talked much about the gameplay yet. In STO you are the commanding officer of a Starfleet vessel (or one of the other factions like Romulan Republic or Klingon Defense Force). You can either be a science officer, a tactical officer, or an engineering officer. Depending on your class you get access to different abilities, but when it comes to space battles your choice of ships and bridge officers is more important. Yes, even as a science guy, you can fly a more combat-oriented ship if that’s your desire. I have mostly played Ezekiel Aurelius Stargazer, a human science officer. You start with a small ship and – correct me if I am wrong – one bridge officer. You then get sent on various missions. You fly to those missions through “sector space” which is basically a 3D space map until you reach a system. Aside from doing your mission you can also patrol systems. In that case the game generates a mission for you. When you enter the system you usually have to fight off some enemies first. Space combat is actually quite complex. You have to use beam weapons like phasers to drain the enemies’ shields first before you can use torpedos for full effect. Your and your bridge officers’ abilities help to repair damage, hinder foes, buff allies etc. Maneuvering the starships feels like it should feel. The bigger the ships are the slower they turn. A huge dreadnought can easily be outmaneuvered by a small escort.

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After having dispatched your enemies you often have to beam down onto a planet, or onto a space station. Sometimes you even board enemy or ally vessels. Ground combat works a lot like what you know from other MMOs, but usually there are no side missions of any kind. In most cases these are all instanced affairs which means you’re on your own, if you are not joining a larger PvE or PvP battle, or if you are in a team. I only recall one area where I could watch other players doing the same missions I did, and honestly it felt a bit weird. The writing of the missions is a mixed bag. The larger storylines are actually not that bad – even if they involve way too much time travel – but sometimes things are a bit silly, and too often missions remind me of bad Star Trek – Next Generation episodes. Luckily the gameplay is intriguing enough to keep me invested.

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One thing which really works for me is the graphics. Oh boy, this game looks great. Even though the engine shows it age and still has quite a few bugs and glitches, some of the sights to behold are breathtaking. If you don’t believe me, just check out the screenshots I’ve posted. The sound effects are another highlight. Everything sounds as it should from the engines of your ship to the sound your tricorder makes when scanning something. The music is quite nice, but I’d like to hear a few of the more iconic pieces from the series. But I guess because of licensing this might not always be possible.

There’s so much more about the game which I haven’t mentioned yet, but which would also be beyond the scope of just one blog post: ship customization, uniform customization, buying and selling on the Exchange, duty officers and admirality system, just to name a few. STO has a lot of content and looks fantastic. If you are a fan of Star Trek and MMOs, you definitely should give it a try. But don’t complain if you get hooked. Zwinkerndes Smiley

Some thoughts on Euro Truck Simulator 2

This game has been in my Steam library for ages. I don’t actually remember where I got it from, but I guess it was part of a Humble Bundle or a similar bundle. Until yesterday I never played the game. Even though the game has been praised by many people (which doesn’t happen that often with games having Simulator in their titles) I didn’t even touch it with a ten foot pole.

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I don’t know what changed my mind. Perhaps it was the Youtube video I stumbled upon the night before in which two people talked about Leviathan Wakes, the first book of the Expanse series. The audio was accompanied by footage from Euro Truck Simulator 2. For some reason the video felt extremely soothing. So I decided to give the game a try.

Lo and behold, I was surprised how fun it can be driving a large truck on European highways. The developer actually made a good job to scale the world in such a way that it feels like the real deal even though you can drive from Frankfurt to Cologne in under 10 minutes. There’s not too much traffic, but just enough to not let you drive in the middle of the road all the time. Steering with the keyboard proved quite problematic, so I changed to my Steam Controller, which worked great. There’s even an official setup for the game provided by the developers.

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So what is the game actually about? It’s first and foremost about trucking. You start out as a professional truck driver with no truck of their own. You can do driving jobs for other companies first until you make enough money to buy your own truck. Or you can take the quick way and loan the money from the bank. Of course you can customize the truck to your heart’s content. Some of the modifications are available at higher levels only (I’ll talk about levels in a second). After finishing a job you not only get paid, but you also get experience based on your performance. If you have gained enough XP to level your character up, you can raise certain skills that help you get more money or drive more economically. So there are even some minor RPG elements in there. Smiley Later in the game you can hire more drivers for you company and buy more trucks, even hire managers that do all the pesky micromanagement for you, while you drive around on Europe’s highways.

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What really surprised me was the attention to detail in Euro Truck Simulator 2. I already mentioned modifications you can make to your truck. These are not only cosmetic in nature but you can also improve functional parts. Each truck has a different feel, the interiors are very detailed and it’s even possible to listen to your own MP3s or internet radio stream directly from within the game. There’s a lot I haven’t explored yet in ETS2. At the monent I am also using the simplest driving mode in which you don’t need to shift gears at all. In my current configuration, the right trigger on my controller is the gas pedal, while the left one is the brake pedal. If you want the real deal, you can of course choose from different, increasingly realistic settings.

Usually I am no fan of this kind of games, but ETS2 definitely struck a nerve. If you got interested in Euro Truck Simulator 2 yourself, I recommend checking out some gameplay videos first. You can get ETS2 for €19.99 or your regional equivalent on Steam.

Some thoughts on Firewatch

Firewatch is an indie adventure game by developer Campo Santo available on Steam and PS4. Yesterday I bought it and played through it in one four hour session. That’s not a very long playtime for a game which costs about 15€. But I am not disappointed. Firewatch is definitely one of the more impressive games I’ve played in recent weeks and I enjoyed these four hours tremendously.

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Gameplaywise Firewatch is mostly a walking simulator. There are no puzzles to speak of and no combat. But what really sets the game apart is the story and the voice-acting. You play the role of Henry, a volunteer firewatcher whose only contact is Delilah, his supervisor and fellow firewatcher who you can contact via radio only. When interacting with her you can usually choose from multiple answers and what you say influences the relationship between you and Delilah.

From what I’ve gathered, Firewatch is pretty linear, BUT the relationship between you and your supervisor is unique and changes depending on your choices. The voice-acting is among the best I’ve encountered so far, even if compared to AAA titles. The graphics are not photo-realistic but reminded me of the style used by Telltale in their adventure games. Overall Firewatch is definitely a good looking and awesome sounding game.

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But what really makes the game stand out is the fact that it tells a very personal story that’s exciting to the last minute. Even though it was way past 3 am, I just couldn’t stop playing. I wanted to know how things turn out in the end. I wholeheartedly recommend this game to you. If you are still unsure whether it’s for you, wait for a sale. But you should definitely play it.

P.S.: The artwork in this post are photos taken ingame which you can actually get developed and sent to you. This is actually a pretty interesting offer and fits well to the 1980s vibe the games’ radiating.

The Stargazer stargazes in EVE Online

Recently I decided to give EVE Online another try. When I first started playing EVE many years ago, I thought Asteroid mining would be a fun profession. I trained the necessary skills, bought a pretty huge Mining Barge and wasn’t actually bad at my job. But that was exactly the problem. It didn’t feel like fun, it felt like a job. But as long as I was in a nice corporation things weren’t that bad. At least I had interesting people to chat with. But eventually the corporation I was in got dragged into a war and later some drama ensued. If the gameplay would have been more fun, I might have stayed, but mining was as exciting as watching paint dry, so I left the game.

Over the years I returned several times to the game. For some reason I always felt drawn to it, even though I knew I would feel bored pretty much immediately. But a couple of days ago I watched some EVE videos on YouTube and learned about Exploration. And this occupation actually looked like fun! In order to explore Cosmic Signatures you needed to send out probes which allow you to triangulate a site’s location in space. And instead of just watching an automated process, you have to move your probes around manually. It’s basically a small mini game.

When you reach a Relic or Data site you usually have to do some hacking (which is another cool mini game) in order to get access to interesting (and hopefully) expensive loot. There are also Gas sites where you can mine rare gases which is obviously pretty lucrative, but at the moment I am avoiding anything which feels like mining. Last but not least you can explore Wormholes which lead to far away solar systems.

Alas this Wormhole space is pretty dangerous. Some systems are defended by NPC ships, but the real threat are other players. During the last days I lost several exploration frigates. Everytime I was shot down by another player. What angers me the most is that there was actually no good reason why these guys shot me down. I was no threat, my ship was unarmed and I had nothing of value in my cargo hold. But that’s EVE for you. This game is definitely not for the faint of heart. Luckily my ship was ensured, so I didn’t lose that much money.

If everything goes as planned I will have trained the skills necessary for my new ship next week. Hopefully this ship will then last longer than the one I lost today. Wish me luck!

P.S.: If you’re interested in reading more about my exploits in EVE Online, let me know.