Random Thoughts – Randosity!

For whom does the bell toll? Microsoft’s Xbox.

Posted in botch, business, gaming, microsoft, xbox by commorancy on March 27, 2016

xbox-1-logoIn case you haven’t been reading recent news, here’s an article that might wake you up… especially if you happen to be an Xbox platform fanboy. What is this alleged article? Microsoft has stated it will merge the PC and Xbox platforms into a single unified platform, ending the sale of dedicated console hardware. Let’s explore.

Xbox and Xbox 360

When the original Xbox arrived in 2001, it received lots of fanfare. The console market now had a competitor against the PlayStation 2. The PS2 had released only one year earlier in 2000. Though, the Sega Dreamcast had promise, Sega pulled the plug in 2000 citing lots of reasons including bad sales, competition and poor platform reception. The Xbox’s controller, architecture and speed quickly ended up competing with the PlayStation 2.

A few years later, we went through the second iteration of this console war when both Sony and Microsoft released the PS3 and the Xbox 360, respectively and near simultaneously. Once again, we had our next generation console in our hands and we gamers were happily playing with better graphics and sound quality.

The Xbox 360 took the lead in the console market over Sony’s PS3, but only by slim margins. Though, the XBox 360 managed to stay one step ahead through out the lifespan of both consoles.

Xbox One and Ps4

Unfortunately, Microsoft would not be able to maintain its fleeting lead it had won with the Xbox 360 with its blundering Xbox One E3 announcement in 2013. Here’s what they had wanted to do:

This announcement in 2013 would set the tone for all things to come including the next iteration of the Xbox platform. Within a week of their E3 announcement, after facing Sony’s harsh rebuttal at E3, Microsoft reversed all of its DRM and privacy invasion strategies after the gamers clearly spoke with their wallet, PS4 orders surged and people cancelled their Xbox One orders in droves. It’s clear, this blunder was Xbox’s first death knell and set in motion many future problems to come for the Xbox. Unfortunately, neither Microsoft nor the Xbox has been able to recover from this blunder.

Elite Console and Controller

XboxOneEliteController-smImmediately prior to this Windows platform integration announcement, Microsoft had just released the Elite Console and Elite Controller. This controller being a much more costly update to its existing hardware ($15o vs $60). This console and especially the controller is Microsoft’s nod to a more professional gamer. That is, a nod to those gamers who want to play games using higher quality contollers, button remapping, changeable controller features, more inputs and faster consoles. I’ll tell you what, though. The Elite Controller is actually quite nice, but very very pricey. Yes, some of us do want these advanced features from our systems. However, it’s entirely disingenuous for Xbox to release the Elite controller and system only to see Microsoft announce the death of future hardware systems just a few months later. Really, what does this say to would-be gamers about Microsoft’s commitment to the gaming market?

To me, this says that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing in Redmond. On the one hand, you have the Xbox engineering team trying to drum up new gaming interest by releasing high quality experiences for the gamer. On the other, Microsoft itself is trying to reduce costs by getting rid of costly hardware projects it deems a loss. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean good things for Microsoft as a whole. This ultimately means that the whole company is fractured internally and doesn’t have a proper focus on its products or its markets. Instead, it is making rash decisions without thinking through the long term ramifications of those decisions. A death knell.

Microsoft’s confusion

With this announcement of the integration of Xbox with Windows, Microsoft has likewise announced that it also intends (see article) to stop making future hardware and will instead focus on the Xbox platform as a subcomponent of Windows. Just like Windows Media Center, it will become an add-on to Windows. You might think that this is a great idea, but it isn’t. Let’s understand why.

Windows itself already offers developers a solid gaming development environment to produce native games on Windows. Most AAA game titles are made not only for consoles, but also for Windows and sometimes even Mac. The question is, would that spell the death of the Xbox platform? Yes. The reason the Xbox platform exists is as a gaming hardware platform independent of Windows. It does not exist for Netflix, Amazon or for any other non-gaming entertainment. Sure, you can play movies and music on the Xbox, but that’s not the platform’s intended purpose. Microsoft is seriously confused over the reason the Xbox platform exists and why it continues to exist. This confusion spells yet another death knell. Basically, if Microsoft thinks that the non-gaming aspects of the Xbox will survive once in Windows, it won’t. You can already use native Windows apps to get access to all of the services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon… and the native apps are usually better.

The Death of the Xbox

Because Windows is already a solid gaming platform in its own right (in addition to being an entertainment platform), integrating a second gaming environment into Windows means that only one of these gaming platforms will survive the transition. Game developers will also only choose one platform to develop. Assuming status quo for the Xbox platform, the Xbox will be the clear loser. It’s simple to understand why: high priced licensing fees. It costs developers substantial amounts of cash to license and sell games branded with the Xbox moniker. It costs far far less to develop games under Windows directly. Unless Microsoft substantially changes their Xbox licensing model, this platform is entirely dead for gaming. Game developers won’t be willing to pay the excessive licensing fees on top of producing the game twice (Xbox and Windows) for the same hardware platform. Why would any game developer produce the same game twice that is destined for the same platform? They wouldn’t. A death knell.

So, what does this mean for gaming? PC gamers win a feather in their cap. Xbox gamers lose a platform entirely. Once games stop being produced for the Xbox platform, and they will stop, the only thing left to use the Xbox platform for is Netflix, other media activities and already purchased digital content. As I said above, you can already crack open Chrome or Firefox and do video streaming and music playing better. So, the answer, there will be nothing left to use the Xbox platform for except for legacy digital content that you may have purchased on an Xbox One/360… assuming that content even remains compatible after the Windows PC migration. Another death knell.

Digital Content

So, what does this mean for already purchased digital content? It means that you better hold onto your working Xbox One and Xbox 360 if you want to continue to use this content. Though, Microsoft may eventually force users to move to the Windows integrated platform and sunset the use of Xbox hardware entirely (and cut it off from the Xbox Live service).

This means that, at some point, you may no longer be able to download your digital content to your Xbox One and you may be forced to buy a PC. Depending on how Xbox One’s content activation system works, it may even prevent you from using the digital content you’ve already downloaded depending entirely upon how far and deep that Microsoft takes it.

Of course, this is still years off yet. But, once that time arrives, your Xbox One and 360 may become paperweights. A death knell.

Why this change?

From Microsoft’s perspective, I can understand the value and cost savings that integration (and lack of hardware) brings. No longer does Microsoft have to design, build and sell hardware platforms, no longer do they have to compete with Sony, no longer do they have to support this finicky hardware (a highly expensive ongoing investment). This means they can reduce their costs for all of the above. Instead, they can push the hardware costs back onto PC manufacturers to support their new Xbox platform.

Unfortunately, expecting PC manufacturers to support the Xbox is a pipe dream fantasy. There are far too many PC manufacturers who don’t follow the rules 100%. Instead, they get about 90% there and call the system done. This means that instead of having a fully 100% reliable Xbox platform, you’ll end up with a crashing behemoth of a system that, once again, barely works. The clear benefit to designing exclusive hardware is to achieve reliability by design. Leaving it to third parties to provide that hardware support means that some PC manufacturers will flat out not support the Xbox platform and those that do will charge a hefty premium. This ultimately means that buying a PC that properly supports the Xbox platform will likely mean a significantly higher cost than older far less expensive dedicated gaming console hardware. Not to mention, the clunky and ugly tower and desktop shapes of PC manufacturers which can no longer be used as a set top box.

This means that not only will the PC-based Xbox experience falter badly, you’re likely looking at 2x, 3x or more the price of today’s Xbox One to invest in a compatible PC-based Xbox platform. This puts this platform so far out of the price range of console gamers, this is yet another death knell for the Xbox. I won’t even get into the peripheral issues. Okay, I will a little. If Microsoft stops the hardware entirely, they’re likely to stop the controllers and leave that also up to third parties.

We all know how well PC controllers work with many games. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. They are usually not wireless and when they are, they are chock full of wireless issues. The whole reason the Xbox One works well is because of the wireless controller and its close integration with the hardware.

Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater

Ultimately, Microsoft is throwing away all of their hard earned gamer loyalty. They are effectively closing the Xbox and throwing away the key. What this ultimately says is that Microsoft has no long term commitment to the gaming market, the console market or the gamers. What was formerly the green glory will fade into Microsoft’s Windows obscurity.

Overall, this is the worst of all possible fates that could befall the Xbox. A console is not a console without hardware. We all know how well gaming platforms work when they offer dedicated hardware. We also know how well they don’t work when relying on third parties. Think Steam. Perhaps Microsoft is deluded enough to think that Steam is the model of the future? I can tell you that Steam isn’t it. Steam works, but for limited purposes. Effectively, Steam is the app store for gaming. Since most app stores don’t focus on gaming, it was inevitable that someone would put one together. Hence, Steam. But, the Xbox platform, regardless of its current strength in gaming will die a quick death once there is no more console hardware to be had. Gamers aren’t likely to spend their efforts chasing down third party hardware platforms that might or might not work. The whole point of a console is that it “just works”. The Steam model simply won’t work for the Xbox unless you’re talking about $2-5 pricepoint games which could run on Facebook. That’s not the class of gaming that Xbox One is today.

We all need hardware to make our lives better, yes even in gaming. You can’t game without hardware. Relying on PC manufacturers to get you what you need isn’t the answer. Worse, Windows native games and developers will kick the Xbox platform to the curb. No developer in their right mind would consider spending extra money to develop on the Xbox platform when they already have Windows development efforts underway. Why would game developers choose to redundantly build their game twice for the same platform? That’s just stupid.

Sony, Nintendo and, yes, Apple

All of the above is actually very good news for the remaining console developers. Once the Xbox platform dies quietly inside of Windows (and it will), Sony only need worry about Nintendo for the foreseeable future. However, with Apple’s recent foray into gaming with the latest Apple TV, this could mean Apple now has an opening into the console market. What I will say about the current Apple TV for 3D gaming is that it’s still very rudimentary. The textures are low res, the environments look like something out of the Nintendo 64 and there’s not a speck of realism to be found… yet. However, Apple can up the ante a lot in the next Apple TV console iteration. Assuming they wedge in a much higher end GPU and a lot more RAM into the Apple TV, they could easily match the specs of the Nintendo Wii U, but perhaps not yet approach the PS4… it will take quite a bit more effort by Apple to match Sony. For Apple, the door for the console market is quite clearly open. For Microsoft, the door is quickly closing.

Yes folks, the Xbox is officially a dead platform. With this integration announcement, this is the Xbox’s final death knell.

If you are considering the purchase of a new gaming console, you should steer clear of the Xbox One unless you really enjoy buying into dead gaming platforms.

 

Can the Xbox One catch up to the PS4 this year?

Posted in business, video gaming by commorancy on August 21, 2015

ps4-system-imageblock-us-13jun14We all know that Sony’s PS4 has outsold the Xbox One fairly substantially. However, will moving into this holiday season help or hurt the Xbox One? Let’s explore.

Halo 5

In October, we will see the next installment of Halo 5 released. This is unusual in that this title usually releases in November. I’m assuming that Microsoft is attempting to gain an early head start in console sales. I’m also certain that Microsoft is hoping that Halo 5 (an exclusive Xbox One title) will push consoles off the shelves. The problem is, however, UltraHD 4K.

4K TVs and Consoles

With HDTVs rapidly dropping in price and especially 4K TVs (there are several sub $1000 models), this spells a big problem for console manufacturers. I’m sure it wasn’t expected to see prices of 4K TVs dropping this rapidly this soon. None of the Xbox One, PS4 or Wii U currently support 4K content or 4K TVs. This is shaping into a much bigger problem and is especially a problem for Microsoft and Sony. Without the ability to deliver 4K content to these sub $1000 4K TVs, many people are going to be hard pressed to justify the investment in a $500 console that doesn’t support 4K. So, not even Halo 5 may be able to budge many of those consoles off the shelves, at least not to existing Xbox One owners.

Personally, I’m not planning on investing in any new console systems until there’s 4K support. When Sony and Microsoft can finally get off their collective butts and release a 4K HDMI 2.0 or HDMI 2.2 console version, I will definitely consider replacing my existing consoles, but not until that happens.

Of course, I already own a PS4 and Xbox One. I got both day one, but I’ve recently bought a 4K TV. Barring Netflix and Amazon, there’s effectively no 4K content. Still, it does make my 1080p content look amazingly clear without all that annoying pixelation so common in 1080p TVs.

Console Purchasing and the Holidays

Because 4K TVs are now becoming more commonplace and because 1080p TVs will likely be mostly a distant memory in even just 2 years, it’s hard to justify a $500 expense only to replace it in 6 months or a year. It’s not worth it. Additionally, you can buy a video game at any time after it’s released, but it doesn’t have to be on day one. You can just as easily play Halo 5 in spring of 2016 as you can in the fall of 2015. Yes, there are a lot of day-oners out there (must have it the moment it’s released), but because of the deluge of titles in the fall, it’s easy to pick and choose which ones to leave for later. This means you can delay that console purchase or buying that game until the 4K version arrives.

Yes, Halo 5 will push some consoles off the shelves. But, those looking for a 4K version will likely wait. I’m definitely waiting for the console refresh from Sony and Microsoft. For whatever reason, both of these companies are taking their sweet time to provide this refresh. In fact, Sony should have pushed out this refresh as part of the fall game launch. Sony being at the forefront of the 4K revolution makes it ever more important for Sony to finally get this refresh out the door. It’s even more important to get this refresh out for holiday purchases even if we can’t take advantage of the 4K content yet. Though, I know that Sony’s video on demand services for use with the Sony 4K UltraHD Media Player already offers a very large number of 4K movies. There’s no reason not to get this technology into the PS4 and widen that audience. Not only will it widen the audience for their movie services, it also immediately widens their game playing audience. In this case, were Sony to release this 4K refresh faster than Microsoft, Sony would have tremendous advantage both in sales and in gaming.

Sales Advantage

It’s clear, which ever company gets out their 4K refresh faster, they will have a sales advantage. As I said, considering Sony’s involvement in 4K, it makes perfect sense for Sony to get this refresh out now.

I don’t believe even Halo 5 sales could argue with a Sony 4K hardware refresh. People would think twice about buying an Xbox One until Microsoft also provided a 4K Xbox One refresh themselves. Should Sony release first, it would push Sony’s PS4 much higher in sales numbers because many existing PS4 owners would immediately replace their existing PS4. I know I would. So, that means double sales. Sales to everyone who already has a PS4 and to those who don’t. Of course, this would happen with the Xbox One as well once their 4K refresh is available.

Though, should the Xbox One and PS4 4K edition release together, I would still buy the PS4 version first unless Microsoft released the Xbox One 4K version with a 4K 60Hz playable version of Halo 5. There is currently no franchise title that Sony owns that is that compelling. But, were Black Ops III or Fallout 4 to support 4K, I’d be hard pressed not to consider a 4K PS4.

I personally believe that Sony is currently more likely to release a 4K refresh sooner than Xbox One. Microsoft doesn’t embrace new technologies quickly, especially when Sony is one of the primary proponents of that new technology.

Ultra HD 4K Content

Today, there’s not much 4K content. The drought of 4K content is about as severe as California’s rainfall levels. This can all change with a console refresh. Consoles are quickly becoming the ubiquitous media outlet for the home, especially for children. With a console refresh from Sony, that immediately picks up a relatively large number of 4K movies. With the addition of developers taking advantage of 4K gaming, that opens up a huge new door (literally pixel-wise). While that number of pixels is immense, it offers a brand new immersive level of gaming that hasn’t yet been achieved. Yes, it requires producing much bigger content, but the games will be spectacular, the environments breathtaking and the realism levels achieved would be astounding.

The problem today is that most developers can’t even grasp 1080p. So, I do not expect 4K gaming any time soon. Perhaps from the Call of Duty brand and possibly from Microsoft’s Halo (if 343 can figure it out). But, smaller companies like Atlus and even larger ones like Bethesda struggle with high def gaming. If we can get one HD title out of a developer per year, I consider that a win. With Ultra HD 4K content, I’d expect it might even take 2 years per title. That would suck at not having a new game every year, but 4K is where we’re going and Sony, Microsoft, Bethesda, Ubisoft, EA, Square Enix and the rest would do best to take heed. Not only does gaming want 4K, we need it to move forward. In fact, it should have been included in the original PS4 as Sony already had a 4K TV available at the time the PS4 was released. If Sony had had the foresight to create the PS4 with 4K, I wouldn’t even be writing this article.

Ultra HD’s Time Has Come

ultra_hd_blu-ray_logo_uhd_bd_bluray_logo_6501Sony, release your 4K refresh with the Ultra HD blu-ray spec. Microsoft, release your refresh with a 4K Halo 5. Because these two consoles are on the cusp of 4K, I’m anxiously awaiting their release. I won’t consider a new console purchase until these are out. Because they are so close, I would suggest you wait also. I would love to see any 4K console refresh for this holiday season. I’d love to see Halo 5 running in 4K. In fact, I’d love to play pretty much any of this holiday’s season games including Fallout 4, Halo 5, Black Ops III, Just Cause 3 and Star Wars in 60hz 4K. That would be an amazing holiday gift this season.

Call of Duty – Advanced Warfare Review: Good, but a mixed bag

Posted in reviews, video gaming by commorancy on November 8, 2014

CallOfDutyLogoCubeMost previous Call of Duty titles were more-or-less grounded in some reality close to today. Well, Advanced Warfare finally tosses all of that aside and goes straight for a fantasy shooter. No longer are we looking at real world locations with real world weapons, we’re now firmly looking at some distant future where there are robotic suits you can strap on, flying drones with machine gun weapons, magnetic wall crawling abilities and more. This is definitely not the Call of Duty of yore.

Story

Your character, Jack Mitchell, is an ex-military war vet with a missing arm lost in a botched mission. As you’re being washed out of the military, Atlas corporation enlists you to give you a second chance with a prosthetic arm (and to become a mercenary). No sooner is the prosthetic arm strapped on than is Atlas sending you into a training simulation, to which you fail because the ‘arm isn’t ready’ (part of the story). As soon as you get the arm repaired, you are sent in a second time (yes, you do this mission twice) and you succeed the second time.

From here, you find out that the owner of Atlas, Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey), likes what you have to offer Atlas and continues to court you into their team. From here, the story begins.

Kevin Spacey as Jonathan Irons

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Kevin Spacey as Jonathan Irons

I’m mixed about this whole let’s-make-a-main-character-look-like-an-actor gimmick. In reality, the first and only thing I see each time I see this character is Kevin Spacey, not Jonathan Irons. In fact, Jonathan’s name is so not mentioned in the story that you really don’t ever know what this character’s name really is. Note, Spacey’s character name is so badly unmentioned in this game that I had to actually go Google his name to write this review. Unfortunately, that lack of namedropping doesn’t help this character to become more menacing. In fact, because he’s not in most of the game and because you don’t even know his name, what makes the writers think this character is even worthy of being a villain? I mean, one way or the other, this character had to die in the game. It was inevitable based on the way the story was set up. But, the character development around this villain is seriously lacking.

The rest of the story

Though, the story is less about Jonathan and more about you and Gideon’s (your sidekick) missions. It’s what drives the game and keeps the action interesting. The story is reasonably decent, but is centered around distinct missions that are distanced by time. So, the cohesion of the story isn’t always as good as it could have been. But, the action and lack of repetition does keep the story and environments quite interesting.

Story Choice and Player Character

10661945_932059730156581_7886592432289690474_o

Cormack and Mitchell

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Gideon and Mitchell

Let’s just bluntly say, there are none. The story is linear. There are no choices that you can make that impact the outcome of any of the segments or the final ending. So, if you want to let someone live vs die, there are no choices in this game like this. You’re dragged through the story, more or less, as a tag-along for the entire game. While your character is made to seem important by Atlas, the missions treat you as a rookie who barely knows his way around a training coarse. The game does not at all treat you like you’re the well respected and experienced soldier that you formerly were.

Linear Shooter

The downside to this game is that it is a completely linear shooter. What I mean by that is that it has absolutely no open world elements. It’s a firmly closed world kept in check mostly by Mitchell’s death. Meaning, if you stray from the mission, Mitchell is dead. If you do the wrong thing, Mitchell is dead. If you lag, Mitchell is dead. If you do anything other than what the story requires, Mitchell dies or the mission fails and ends. If it’s not your character who dies, then it’s one of your sidekicks. If they die, your mission is over. If you’re looking for more of an open world to play around in, don’t look here. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is not the game for you.

Graphics

10525368_932844880078066_7906915004664649843_oOn the other hand, this game on the PS4 is absolutely stunning visually. From the detailed suits that everyone wears to the vehicles, to the landscapes, to the buildings, the signage, everything. There’s not a detail in this world that wasn’t painstakingly made in high res. Combining all of that with near perfect naturalistic lighting, and you have some amazing scenes in the game. In fact, the cut scenes may have been produced on the PS4 and recorded. The graphics on the PS4 are so close in look to the cut scenes, it seems they likely were recorded on the PS4. Even as visually stunning as this game is, it can’t overcome the forced linear nature of the gameplay.

Gameplay

For the most part, I like the game play. The controls are simple, they work well and the button layouts are perfectly placed. However, that’s not the real problem here. The real problem is the inconsistent nature of the suit (see Exo Suit section below). This game borrows heavily from games like Killzone Shadowfall (futuristic look and feel plus some story elements), Halo 3 (vehicle, weapons and shield) and Crysis (the suit and lighting). Unfortunately, as much as they borrow, it doesn’t help the gameplay that much because of the linear nature. In fact, the gameplay is so linear, it might as well have been a rail shooter. Why even let us wander off at all? Just put up barriers. Nope, instead, they let you wander off but then give you a warning message ‘You are about to abandon your team’.  If you stray far enough for long enough, the mission fails.

This is the most problematic portion of this game. Here the artists have created an absolutely stunning world with well developed characters using amazing character models, and we’re stuck being a tag along.  Though, the character AI on the sidekicks has to be some of the worst I’ve seen in a game. Gideon’s aim is about as good as a Stormtrooper in Star Wars. That is, he couldn’t hit the side of a barn if it were 5 feet away. Seriously, the game entirely relies on your aim and your gun skills to kill anything and everything that moves. The other characters do occasionally manage to kill an enemy or two, but usually only at close range by melee. Not usually by killing them with a gun.

There are also times in the game where Gideon’s voice work is truly and utterly annoying. There’s one mission where you have to cross what amounts to a highway with continual cars and buses speeding by. At times, I felt like Frogger. Anyway, what’s most annoying about this scene is Gideon says ‘Get across the road’ every 2 seconds. Literally, every 2 seconds he’s chiming in telling you to get across the road. But, there are like 10 enemies on the median waiting to pop a cap in you. So, the first thing you need to do is sniper them all off considering Gideon’s (lack of) ability to actually shoot a gun. In among his constantly annoying chatter, you’re trying to pick off these enemies. It’s like, “Dude, shut the hell up and shoot these people first. Then, we’ll worry about getting across the damned road.”  And even worse, just a few feet away from you is a pedestrian overpass. If you try to go over to the overpass to get a higher vantage point, you can’t. The game simply won’t let you. In fact, if you try, it will warn that you’re about to abandon your mission. So, where is that ‘use whatever you can to get an advantage’ strategy that Call of Duty was so previously famous for?

Simulations and Checkpoint Saves

1956906_932045896824631_5119604728357774203_oAs with most Call of Duty games, the developers like to throw in a lot of different game modes to keep the game from becoming stale. In this case, there are flight simulators, suit jetpacks, jumping super high, a hover bike, hover tank simulator, mech suits, drone machine gun control, etc. These are some of the various additions. These are few and far between. In fact, you’ll only get one chance at each of these. For the flying simulator, that’s actually a good thing. The flight simulator in this game is probably one of the most horrible flight sims I’ve ever played. It’s so bad, in fact, that it feels like you’re flying about 2 MPH and you can’t keep yourself from running into anything and everything in the environment. Sometimes the developers just don’t get these pieces right.

On the hover bike level, I actually failed at a point where I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to finish. Because you’re supposed to be following Gideon on his bike, the save check point saved my game at a point where I was just too far away. So, every time it restarted my game, I didn’t have enough time to catch up to him. I finally found a trick that somewhat reset the fail timer and let me finally get past this level without restarting. I had this same exact problem on the hover tank level with the checkpoint save. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any tricks for the hover tank and I restarted the entire mission from the beginning. In this game, checkpoint saves aren’t always your friend.

Exo Suit

The suit itself is kind of cool, but a little too derivative of other suits like the Crysis Nanosuit. Though the initial suit was more or less a skeleton that attached to your body (rather than full body coverings), later in the game you get a full body suit that is much more reminiscent of the suit in Crysis (cloak included).

The suit has a lot of cool features, but the enemies always appear to have technologies that conveniently counter some of the most useful of the suit’s capabilities, like the cloak.  I mean, why even offer a cloak in the game when you can’t even use it most of the time? Seriously, why spend the time building the feature in the game when it cannot even be used for much of the game?

The secondary problem with the Exo Suit is that the features of the suit are turned on and off by the story and level segment. So, while you do have a drone you can use, you can only used it at specific limited times. If you want to jump high, that’s only available at limited times. If you want to use the grappling hook, that’s only available on limited levels. Instead of adding more and more to your suit, the designers chose to enable the suit features only when the gameplay warranted their use, not when the gamer chooses to use them.

Overall

1522580_932845190078035_8037699168592533202_oIn among all of the above problems, I enjoyed the game’s campaign and story. The main problem with this game, just like Killzone Shadowfall, the campaign is very very short.  You can expect to finish the entire campaign in under 3 days casually playing. If you are a hard core gamer, you can probably finish it in under 24 hours. For $60, this is far too short. This is also the exact same way I felt about Killzone Shadowfall. It also has a great campaign game, but is too short. Halo 3’s campaign is much more lengthy.  It took me at least a couple weeks or longer to get through Halo 3, not to mention all the easter eggs all over the level (i.e., the skulls).

It seems with the next generation games, short gameplay is the number one problem. To produce these visually stunning, nearly photo real and human motion accurate games, the gameplay and story are sacrificed. This leaves the story no more than 2-3 days worth of play value. It’s unfortunate, I’d rather have a less pretty experience and a much more lengthy campaign that might take a month to complete. For that $60, I want to have a long and lengthy story experience. I want to walk away feeling like I’ve just experienced the equivalent of a visual novel. I want to walk away also knowing I got my $60 worth of play.

Unless you are a really devoted fan of multiplayer games, I’d recommend that for the reason of shortness, you rent it. Though, the game does look amazing.

Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 9/10
Gameplay: 7/10 (flight sim was horrible, suit lacks consistent abilities)
Overall: 7.5/10

Sony PS4 announced.. blah blah blah

Posted in video game, video gaming by commorancy on February 24, 2013

So Sony officially announced the PS4.  But, before I say anything, let’s let their specs do the some talking:

Main processor

  • Single-chip custom processor
  • CPU: low power x86-64 AMD “Jaguar”, 8 cores
  • GPU: 1.84 TFLOPS, AMD Radeon™ Graphics Core Next engine

AV output

  • Analog-AV out
  • Digital Output (optical)

Communication

  • Ethernet (10BASE-T, 100BASE-TX, 1000BASE-T)
  • IEEE 802.11 b/g/n
  • Bluetooth® 2.1 (EDR)

Optical Drive (Read only)

  • BD 6xCAV
  • DVD 8xCAV

Super-Speed I/O USB (USB 3.0), AUX
Hard Disk Drive Built -in
Memory GDDR5 8GB

In addition to the actual console specs, Sony also announced a Dual Shock 4 controller with a touch surface on the controller.  Nothing like the Wii U controller, mind you, but a finger touch surface (like a glide pad on a notebook).

Wait.. What? Is this real?

Let me start by saying whoopee! =sarcasm off= My first thought after reading this spec sheet is, “WTF? Is this for real? This has got to be a joke, right?” And then it sank in, this wasn’t a joke and it is for real. This hardware is so 5 years ago. It’s basically a glorified PC with 8 cores and a reasonably slow one at that. I’m definitely not impressed. This is most definitely not what I expected to see from Sony. A glorified PC with a Radeon card as the new PS4?

So, why is this a problem? Let me count the ways…

1) No backwards compatibility to the PS3. The AMD chip is in no way compatible with the PS3’s cell processors. So, unless Sony has asked AMD to build in cell core backwards compatibility, the best we can hope for is emulation. And, with emulation comes slowness and games that feel sluggish, choppy and crappy. Sure, they might play, but they’re not likely to play WELL. That’s the difficulty with emulation.

B) It’s a PC.  I’ll say that again, it’s a PC… and not a particularly great one at that. The graphics card might be somewhere close to a mid to mid-high end card in today’s market, but again Sony has trapped themselves into outdated graphics before the console is even released. Unless they plan to release this ‘PC’ in the next 3-6 months, this thing will be outdated and worthless when it arrives.  Sure, it may be faster than the PS3 today, but what difference does that make in the grand scheme?  If a then $300 netbook runs rings around the PS4 in speed, it’s a DOA device. Sure, I love consoles, but I want them to be cool, sleek and unique, not mundane and something I could buy anywhere.

What Sony should have done here is ask for a modular slot for a graphics card. Then, when the card gets outdated, pop in a new updated card.  This does two things for Sony. 1) A modular slot allows the console to remain relevant independent of the processors. The processors will remain relevant far longer than the graphics processor.  In addition, the GPU can be used for game processing. 2) A modular graphics card slot would allow for many uses all across the board. Placing components into modern PCs should become easier and also allow upgrading graphics cards in such devices as netbooks and notebooks easily. This is a pioneer and innovative approach to creating a new device.

iii) Ok, so I have to concede that it will be compatible with PC games IF Sony doesn’t blunder the PC part of it. That is, if they license Windows (of any variety) from Microsoft, they can at least pull in all of the PC game titles that get released (or at least have them ported much more easily). But, that’s not necessarily going to save this turd… ahem, console.

Sony’s day is Done

Sony has been the odd man out in gaming recently and their lack of innovation in gaming is very much apparent. What Sony needs is something innovative, and the PS4 isn’t it. The Wii U is innovative.  Sure, it’s got issues due to launch immaturity, but that will be corrected through updates. Sony’s product is immature and it will clearly remain that way throughout its life. You can’t turn a Hyundai into a Tesla. That just doesn’t work. Sony’s product is clearly a crap attempt at a new console.

Sony, take this idea, rework it and make it loads better. Then come back and re-release the specs.  This is a crap first attempt at a new console.  Let’s start from here and make it better. Otherwise, your current PS3 lackluster sales will turn into no sales when the PS4 arrives.

Right now, the only thing Sony has going for their entire gaming market is the PS Vita. They better damn well hope they can get some decent games out for the Vita because the PS4 is even less attractive than the PS Vita.

Next Gen Gaming

This is definitely not what I expected to see for a next gen gaming platform. We need to move towards more realistic 3D gaming, not towards commodity hardware. The Wii-U definitely heads in the right direction with innovation. It’s not going to take much for Microsoft’s new Xbox to kick it out of the ballpark. In fact, if Microsoft can in any way integrate a Surface tablet into the gaming experience of the new Xbox, it’ll be a whole lot more innovative than this Sony console has any hope of being.  Sony, take it back to the drawing board and rethink it. I think I’ll call it now, the Playstation home console brand is now officially dead. Sony better hope the PS Vita can carry SCEA onward.

Video game designers stuck in a rut

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on March 4, 2009

Video game consoles, such as the PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 (and even PC’s) have gotten more complex and provide impressive 3D capabilities and 5.1 sound.  Yet, video games have not.  There was a time many years ago when video game designers would take chances and create unique and unusual titles.  Games that challenge the mind and challenge the video gamer’s thought processes.  Games used to be fun to play.

In recent years…

Today, most games fall into a very small subset of genres: First/Third Person Shooter, Fighting, RPG, Simulation, Sports or Music (with a few lesser genres appearing occasionally).  While the innovation in the hardware continues to progress, the video game designers are not progressing.  Sure, it takes time to get actors into a studio to record tracks.  Sure, it takes time to build and rig up 3D models.  Sure, it takes time to motion capture realistic action to plug into those 3D models.  Yes, it takes time to program all of those complex algorithms to make it all work as a whole. I understand all of that.  But that’s the process, not the innovation.  These are the tools necessary to get the job done.  They are a means to an end and not the end in itself.

Design considerations

For whatever reason, big video game executives have it in their heads that the tried-and-true model sells a video game.  That may be true to some degree, but you can also wear-out-your-welcome with overused techniques.   In other words, when a game title sucks, the word spreads FAST in the video game community.  That can stop a video game’s sales dead.

When starting a new game project, the producer and creative staff need to decide whether or not they are planning on introducing something new and innovative.  First and third person shooters (FPS/TPS) have already been done and done and done and done again ad nauseam.  That’s not to say that yet another TPS or FPS can’t be successful.  It can.. IF there’s something compelling to the game… and that’s a big IF.

Sure, there are video gamers who will play anything they can get their hands on (known as video game fanatics).  But, as a game developer, you can’t rely on these gamers to carry your title to success.  These gamers do not necessarily make up the majority of the game buying public.  As far as myself, I am an much more discriminating buyer.  I simply won’t buy every title that comes along.  I pick and choose the titles based on the styles of games I know that I like to play.  For example, I do not buy turn-based games of any sort.  I don’t care if it’s based on dice rolls or card draws whether in a fighting, FPS or RPG game.  I won’t buy them because turn-based games get in the way of actual playing.  Turn-based games also tend to be antiquated.  I understand where turn-based play came from (i.e., board games).  But, it has no place in a 3D world based video game.

Again, choosing to add turn-based play into your game is your decision as a developer.  But, by doing so, you automatically exclude gamers who won’t buy turn-based games, like myself.  There are gamers who do enjoy turn-based games, but I don’t know of any gamers who won’t buy real-time play styles and buy only turn-based.  So, you automatically limit those who purchase your game to those who buy turn based.  But, by making your game real-time, you include a much bigger audience.

These are up-front design considerations that, as a developer and producer, you need to understand about gamer buying habits.  These are decisions that can directly affect the success of your video game title.

Previous innovations

In the early days of 3D console games (mid-80s through mid-90s), game developers were willing to try new and unusual things.  Of course, these were the days when 3D was limited to flat untextured surfaces.  We’ve come a long way in the graphics arena.  But, even as far as we’ve come in producing complex and unusual 3D worlds within the games, the play styles have become firmly stagnant.  For example, most First/Third person shooters today rely on a very linear story to get from point A to point B.  Driving the game along is an invisible path.  So, while the complex 3D world is wonderfully constructed, the character can only see the world from a limited vantage point.   The cameras are usually forced to be in one spot (near or behind the character).  The character is forced to traverse the world through a specific path with invisible boundaries.   So, exploration of the world is limited to what the game designer and story allow you to do.

This style of game is very confining.  It forces the gamer to play the game on the programmer’s terms rather than on the gamer’s terms.  Worse, when this play style is combined with checkpoint saves, health meters and other confining aspects, these games can easily become tedious and frustrating.  So, what a game developer may consider to be ‘challenging’, in reality becomes frustration.

A shot of new innovation

The video game development world needs is to open is collective eyes.  Don’t rely on the tried-and-true.  Don’t relay on formulas.  Don’t assume that because a previous game worked that your next game will also work.  What works is what video gamers like.  What doesn’t work is what video gamers don’t like.  The video game community is very vocal, so listen to your audience and learn.  Most of all, try new things… and by that I don’t mean tweaking an existing formula.  I mean, take a risk.  Try something new.  Let gamers explore the world.  Produce worlds that are open and complete.  Let gamers build things.  Let gamers take the game to whole new levels.  Build in construction sets to allow gamers to create things you have never thought of.  Build in ways to save the constructions to web sites and allow gamers to monetize the things they’ve built.

These are innovations that lead to progress.  These are innovations that instill addictiveness into the game.  These are innovations that keep your game alive for years to come.  You only need to look at the popularity of Second Life, World of Warcraft and even the Elder Scrolls series to understand that an unlimited world with construction kits allow gamers to take the game into directions you’ve never even thought of.

Most games play through in only a few weeks (sometimes less than 1 week).  The gamer buys it, plays it through and then trades it in never to touch it again.  This is effectively a movie rental.  So, once the gamers have had their fill, the game is effectively dead.  This style of game does not provide your company with a continued stream of revenue from that title.  Only titles that have open ends, that offer expansion packs, and that allow gamers to construct things on their own are the games that keep a title alive for years rather than a few weeks.

 That may require a slightly bigger cash outlay in the beginning (to support a title that has a longer lifespan), but if done correctly, should also provide much more income for that game company.  This is why titles like Fallout 3, Oblivion: Elder Scrolls IV and World of Warcraft are talked about months (and even years) after the game’s initial release.  But, forgettable games like Fracture, Too Human or even Force Unleashed have no extra play value after the game ends.

Gaming elements incorrectly used

In too many game designs, programming elements are used incorrectly to ‘challenge’ the gamer.  Game challenges should come in the form of story elements, puzzles, clues and riddles.  Game challenge elements should not involve game saving, turn-based play, checkpoints, character deaths, camera movement, controller button sequences, or anything dealing with the real-world physicality of the gaming system.  In other words, challenges should not be tied to something outside of the video game or outside of the story.  So, as a designer.. you should always ask yourself:  Does this challenge progress the game story forward?  If the answer is no, the challenge is a failure.  If yes, then the story becomes better by the challenge.

Button Sequences

For example, requiring the gamer to respond to a sequence of button presses in a very specific real-world time limit is not challenging.  This is frustrating.  This means the gamer needs to trial-and-error this section until they can make it through the timed sequence of buttons.  This is a failed and incorrectly used ‘challenge’ event.  This section does not challenge.  Instead, this sequence requires the gamer to ‘get through’ that section.  Note that ‘getting through’ is not a positive gaming aspect.  Worse, if this game section comes in a FPS game, but only occasionally (only to fight a boss), this is also incorrectly used.  If this play style is used regularly and consistently throughout the game, then the gamer knows that it’s coming.  If it’s used only at certain undisclosed points rarely, then the gamer has to fumble to realize what’s going on when there is no warning.

Death Sequences

Another common, but also incorrectly used gaming element is the character death sequence.  For some reason, recent games have promoted the use of character deaths as part of the challenge element.  So, there are sections of some games where the designers specifically designed the level so the gamer has to ‘die’ his way through the level.  These trial and error sequences, again, are incorrectly used and do not aid in moving the story or the game forward.  These also tend to promote deaths as a way to solve problems.  This is not appropriate.

Games should always promote the positive aspects of life and not promote death as a means to an end.  Worse, games like Too Human take the death sequence to an extreme and make the gamer wait through an excruciatingly long cinematic each time the character dies.  This, again, is an inappropriate use of a gaming element.  The game should be designed for the GAMER and not for the game designer.  Long death sequences such as what’s in Too Human overly emphasizes death.  This is, again, not appropriate.

Health Meters

Health meters are another common gaming element that are incorrectly used, or lack thereof.  Every game that allows the character to ‘die’ needs to have a visible health meter.  Games that use the Unreal engine do not have this.  Instead, when your character takes enough ‘damage’, the screen will become red with a halo.  The problem with this system (and this is also why its incorrectly used) is that the gamer doesn’t know how far from ‘death’ the character is.  This is not a challenge.  This is annoying and frustrating.  This leaves the gamer wondering just how much health they have. 

Game Saves

Again, story elements move the game forward.  Having the gamer stop and reload a game takes the gamer OUT of the game and forces them to restart from some arbitrary point.  Checkpoint games are particularly bad about this.  When checkpoints are the only way to save a game, this means the gamer must waste their real-world time through trial-and-error gaming.  This means, the user must wait through character deaths and then the subsequent reload of the level to restart at the checkpoint.  Again, this is not a challenge… it’s simply a waste of time.   When levels are designed such that the gamer’s character will die at least once to get through the level, the level has failed.  This forces a reload of a previous save.  This element, again, is misued as a challenge element.  Taking the gamer out of the game by forcing a reload ruins the game experience and disrupts the story you, as a developer, worked so hard to make cohesive.

Future of Gaming

Even as game developers are now stuck in the genre rut, they do have the power to break out of it.  They do have the means to produce games with more compelling and addictive content.  Instead of using old formulas that used to work, designers need to look for new ways to innovate,  monetize and bring video gamers into their game worlds and keep them there.  Games shouldn’t be viewed as a short term point A to B entity.  Games need to move to open ended and free exploration worlds.  Worlds that let the gamer play on the gamer’s terms.  Sure, there can be story elements that tie the game together like Fallout 3 and Oblivion.   In fact, I’d expect that.  But, these game threads should start and end inside the game as quests.  You can play them when you want to and you can leave them hanging if you don’t want to complete it.

Game elements like checkpoints, saves and button sequences need to be rethought.   Some of these elements can be successfully used, like checkpoints if implemented thoughtfully.  However, allowing the gamer to save anywhere lets the gamer save and start at their leisure.  But, that manual save process leaves it up to the gamer to remember to save.   For this reason, checkpoints when combined with save-anywhere is the best alternative when gaming.  After all, the game was supposed to be produced for the gamer.

Designers, creators and developers need to challenge the notion of what is a video game.  They need to use the 3D worlds in creative NEW ways.  Let the users explore the worlds on their terms, not on some dictated path and story.   Designers need to take a page from Bethesda’s book on free-roaming RPGs and expand on this.  Closed ended, path based games have limited playability and definitely no replay value.  Monetarily, developers need to understand that open ended construction based games let gamers take ownership of the game and make it their own.  Closed, narrow pathed games do not.

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