Saturday, February 8, 2014

Virtual Reality and a note on Kinect

There's been a lot of talk lately about the Oculus Rift, and a few other companies (Sony, Valve) apparently working on something of their own. Some people are arguing that virtual reality (VR) is the future of gaming. On the surface, it may certainly seem like it. I've heard hands-on reports of the Oculus Rift that sound like an amazing, truly immersive experience the likes of which we can't even imagine with our little flat-panel displays.

But VR by itself can't be the next big thing. It needs something to drive it. There's going to need to be a "killer app" for the device, something truly ground-breaking, easily accessible, and (the biggest bit) affordable. Those last two also means it has to be able to run on pretty much anything, as far as a PC goes, or to run it off of existing hardware like a Playstation 4 or Xbox One. You have to make the initial investment small enough to be affordable to most people, and enough that they'll think that it's worth it.

The problem is, I don't think there is such a killer app just yet. And right now, Oculus Rift needs a pretty hefty PC to push it. Not necessarily just the VR portion, either, that's not really any more demanding than normal 3D. But in order to feel realistic, it's going to have to look realistic, too, which means using some of the latest rendering technology and the most powerful game engines out there. One of the more impressive demos I've heard about is from an upcoming title called Star Citizen, a science-fiction game using the CryEngine. CryEngine is certainly up to the task, and creates easily some of the best graphics in gaming today. But it comes at a cost of needing a pretty beefy rig to run it effectively (which is why, even though it's available on consoles, it remains a stigma of high-end PC gaming).

As it is, I think VR will be, at best, a niche item for the time being. In a few more years, maybe with the next console generation, we can see VR packaged in the box, automatically putting it into millions of homes across the world. But until then, I think VR users will remain in the minority. Maybe I'll be part of that. Maybe I won't. We'll have to wait and see.

Now, I just wanted to throw in a quick word about Kinect, based on a discussion I just saw. The question essentially boiled down to "We have the hardware, so where's the software?" With the previous generation, Kinect was an optional thing, and developers tended to shy away from it since they couldn't guarantee a large enough install base to guarantee that their game would sell enough to be profitable. With this new generation, a Kinect is included in the box with every Xbox One, and yet developers are still shying away from it. Why? I think the answer is pretty obvious, really... people still don't want to actually play the damn thing. Given the choice, I think most Xbox One owners would rather unplug it and put it in a closet. Gamers still want the same experience they had before, and it's already been proven that Kinect's control style is completely unsuited to the "hardcore" experience. So right away, any game marketed strictly to Kinect would have to be a niche title, probably one aimed at younger gamers (which isn't even the primary market for the system as a whole). Also consider that, as an exclusive piece of hardware, the concept of a multiplatform release is thrown right out the window, further limiting the potential profits from the game's release. Which, in turn, reduces the amount of money a developer is willing to invest in the title. Sort of a downward spiral, really. Developers are going where the money is, which is in the opposite direction from Kinect. They're sticking with what works... big-budget AAA titles spread across every available platform.

Sorry, Microsoft, but I think the plan has already failed. You built it, and they did not come.

On a small gaming note, I've found a cure for incontinence in the form of Red Barrels' Outlast. Because this game will make you shit yourself in fright. I don't know what in the hell I was thinking downloading it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Would you like something different? Or just the same **** as before?

So recently, there was an article about the game Beyond: Two Souls. The discussion, among other things, touched on how "risky" it was to make a game featuring a main character that's female. According to the article, creator David Cage was actually told by other developers the following statement:

“Oh, do you really think gamers want to be this young girl? They want to be guys, dudes, with big muscles and big guns.”

Short answer: No. Long answer: No.

The first thing that came to mind was THIS VIDEO by Jim Sterling, wherein he discusses the concept of what people "want" versus what they actually buy. His example uses focus groups, where a bunch of gamers say that they want games just like Call of Duty, so all of the developers make games like Call of Duty. And then no one buys them. Why? Because all those people who said they wanted Call of Duty already have Call of Duty.

In a lot of game genres, like the Modern Miliary Shooter (MMS) that I just mentioned, there's usually a clear leader, one game that stands above the rest. Everything else is just a copy, a cheap knockoff. And gamers know it. That's why they're not bothering to buy any of them. The market is flooded with a million copies of every kind of game out there. And the majority of them are a complete waste of time.

The point of all this is that I've started seeing more validity in games that break the mold, that really go outside of what we expect and don't simply copy other games. These tend to be smaller titles, perhaps "testing the waters" to see if gamers are interested. And so far, they seem to be. Sony has gone so far as to "open the doors" for independent developers to release their games on the upcoming Playstation 4, in order to allow gamers to get a taste of all the other good stuff out there, beyond just what the big AAA developers throw at us.

In regards to female protagonists, that alone certainly isn't enough to make a game interesting (nor is it enough to condemn it). It's cosmetic, really, just a different skin over the player character, if there's nothing else in the game to make her interesting. A good example would be the recently-released Remember Me, a game that caught a lot of flak before release because it had not only a female protagonist, but a black female protagonist. Unlike the majority, this actually piqued my interest. They were obviously comfortable enough in their creation to eschew gaming tradition, maybe this was going to be something really neat. But then the reviews came along, and despite an intriguing premise, it seems that the developers forgot to make a decent game to put this interesting character into. It was a by-the-numbers game like a dozen others I've played these last few years. Trying to shake things up in a mediocre game by adding just a different protagonist doesn't change the fact that it's still just a mediocre game. Before release, all the news was about the player character. After release, it was all about how the game just wasn't very good. Which is sad, because it seems like it had a lot of potential. I may still give it a chance later on when it goes on sale on Steam or PSN.

Now that Beyond: Two Souls has been released, I've seen something very interesting in its reviews; extreme levels of polarization. There's a very wide spectrum of review scores, ranging from very high to very low. Well, maybe "ranging" isn't the right word.. they're either very high OR they're very low. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground with this one. No "meh, it's okay". It's either the most amazing thing ever crafted by human hands or it's not even worth the few cents of metal and plastic that it's printed on.

Ironically, the game's predecessor, Heavy Rain, likewise a very polarizing game, was one that I said "Eh, it's not bad" about. I neither loved nor hated it. But I sure as hell gave it the chance, because it was something different. The same chance I'm giving to Beyond (and so far, it's paying off).

One statement that occasionally shows up when discussing games as different as Heavy Rain and Beyond, and any other game that doesn't quite fit genre stereotypes (like Journey, The Stanley Parable, or Dear Esther), is the old "If you didn't like it, then you didn't 'get' it" trope. In most cases, this is just bullshit spewed by fanboys, but in some cases, like Beyond, I think it actually has a small element of truth. A small element, mind you (I still think the statement in general is BS). The games aren't brilliant, they're not Game of the Year contenders, but they are different from anything else. And that's enough to scare some people off. They keep wanting to compare it to other similar games, but there simply aren't any. David Cage and the (admittedly very talented) staff at Quantic Dream seem to have created a whole new genre, and a lot of people just aren't quite sure what to make of it yet.

That's not saying that the negative reviews are wrong.. they're part of the picture. Some people just don't like this kind of game, and I'm okay with that. It doesn't lessen my enjoyment in the slightest. But I think it should be important for game reviewers to at least admit to the fact that, professional opinion aside, they just personally don't care for this particular genre of games. I think reviews would be a lot more balanced if reviewers would take things like that into account. Rather than going on and on about how bad the game is (to you), point out the good stuff, and how it may appeal to certain people, and how it may turn off certain other people. It's okay for a review to say "some people will like this, and some people won't". Dismissing something just because it's different isn't the way to push the industry forward. And we desperately need that right now.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

World War Z

I want to make one thing very clear from the get-go. I have not seen the film, nor do I have any intention of doing so. Not even waiting for rental, as I don't really want to spend any money on it, so I think I'll be waiting for Netflix. Now I'll tell you why, and it's quite simple: It's because I read the book.

Yes, it's actually based on a book. You'd never know it, though. Aside from the title, it shares absolutely nothing in common with the apparent "source material". We've seen movies like this before, of course.. film adaptations based on books that are drastically different from the source material as to piss off the fans of the books. But even then, despite the "oh, it just has the same name" argument that book fans use, those films usually have at least some elements from the book. That could be character names, the overall plot arc, or some minor details or character moments here and there, etc.

In this case, though, there's none of that. Literally, none. What little there was originally was excised when they decided to reshoot the entire last act of the film. And when all was said and done, it really was just the name that stuck around.

Well, you could argue that they both have zombies. But even that's not entirely true. In the book, we're presented with the more traditional walking dead.. the slow, rotting corpse mumbling "braaaaaaains" as it shuffles slowly after our heroes. Okay, I made that last bit up about the mumbling, but you get the idea. They're classic zombies. In the film, however, they're presented more like the victims of the rage virus from 28 Days Later, super-fast and incredibly violent, with hundreds and thousands of them flowing over the cities like a flood (while it's a cool effect, it does rather boggle the mind).

So, out of my desire to support the author of the book, I choose not to spend any of my hard-earned money to see World War Z.

Now, while we're on the subject, I do have an idea as to how the book could be successfully adapted. But not into a film. I don't think there's any way to really adapt this into a two-hour film that will make a gazillion dollars on opening weekend. It's just not that kind of book. My idea is simple: A television series.

You see, the book is written from the point of view of a survivor of the Zombie War, who has collected incredible stories of survival from around the entire world, of mankind really stretched to the ragged edge and the amazing things that these people did to make it through it. As a TV series, you could actually do each of these stories, documentary-style, with each episode of the show focused on a different story, from a different perspective, all connected by the crew putting together the documentary and the interviewer, who would take the place of the original book's fictitious "author". You could still make an amazing zombie show out of it by doing in-universe "dramatic reenactments" of the events as told, so we'd actually get to see these people's stories unfold in classic zombie style.

Seriously, if you're a fan of the genre, and you have the chance, you owe it to yourself to read the book. But be forewarned: If you've only seen the film and want to get more, the book will probably not be what you're looking for. It's far better, in my opinion, but don't expect anything of the film to be there.

Friday, May 31, 2013

So.. the new Xbox...

Not much to say here.. you've probably seen it all already. I'm not a fan.

I bought an Xbox360 a while after it was launched, and I really only enjoyed, truly enjoyed, two games. Forza 3, which tided me over until Gran Turismo 5 came along, and Fable II. And then I realized that I hadn't turned the thing on in about two years and I sold it. And, I don't really miss it much.

So far, Microsoft isn't doing anything to make me want to jump in line to get their new system (which, interestingly, has the same name as my phone.. the "One").

I've seen a lot of talk about it online, of course, and some fans that swear this new voice-control will be the true next generation of home entertainment. I'll only say this on the subject: It's not going to work half as well as you think it will, much less than you hope it will. MS has a history of making things look very good on stage to get you to buy something (like the original Kinect), but then when you actually get the thing home, it can't really do any of the things that they said it could. And those things that it does do, takes screaming at the top of your lungs and e-nun-ci-at-ing far more clearly than a normal human ever does in conversation.

And let's not even talk about privacy concerns.

As for the used game argument.. really, it doesn't bother me much, because I don't buy used games on principle. But I do think it's pretty ridiculous that gamers are going to have to enter registration codes (i.e. "CD Keys") on console games. That used to be one of the big advantages of console games over PC games. Apparently not any more.

Yes, I'll be watching both of the big press conferences in a week and a half at E3. One for excitement, the other for amusement. I'll let you decide which is which.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Daftest of Punks are Back

So, Random Access Memories, the new album from Daft Punk has hit the shelves, and here's my take. I won't be long. First off, the album overall is fantastic. Secondly (and negatively for some), this is NOT your daddy's Daft Punk.

So let's start with #1: The fantastic album. There's thirteen songs on here, eight of which I have lumped in my "best of" DP collection (which is only nineteen tracks, so RAM has more songs in there than any of their previous albums).

Notice I said "songs" and not "tracks". This is a much more mature effort than their previous albums, with a real attempt to push into full-blown mainstream song releases and not just techno/funk/dance music that highlighted their first album. It's also much "softer" sounding, without the thumping bass that we've heard before (it's still there, but much subdued). The closest thing in style from their previous albums is the track "Verdis Quo" from their second album Discovery, but imagine that woven with a full song's worth of lyrics, rather than just a repeating segment or sample.

The overall sound is something I would describe as a mix of 80s soft rock (think Toto or Asia, maybe Kansas) and jazz, with some mild electronica here and there.

So, in tone, this album is a severe departure from their previous work. But, surprisingly, it still feels like Daft Punk. You can instantly tell that this is put together by the same minds that rocked the house in 2007's Alive live album. The instant I heard "Get Lucky", I knew this was Daft Punk, despite it being so different in tone and sound.

Oddly enough, I find myself at odds with the majority of the user reviews I've read, which state that their favorite tracks are "Lose Yourself to Dance", and "Touch". These are the tracks I actually liked the least, and my favorites include the first two tracks, "Give Life Back to Music" and "The Game of Love" (actually "sang" by Daft Punk's own Thomas Bangalter instead of one of the guest artists), "Instant Crush" (which has a truly addictive chorus), the first single "Get Lucky", "Motherboard" (strongly reminiscent of their work on Tron: Legacy), "Doin' it Right", and "Contact", which is the most "old-school" track on the album.

So what's in store for Daft Punk after this? Word is that Random Access Memories was supposed to be a hell of a lot bigger. According to the Wikipedia article, they recorded enough material for four CDs. Which means there's another three hours or so of material that we haven't heard yet. Maybe they'll release it bit by bit over the next few years, maybe it'll end up in their live shows, who knows. Maybe some of that sounds different than what we finally got on the album. Maybe some of it's more "old school". Can't wait to find out.

So yeah.. it's different. But you know what?

I like it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Is Ignorance Bliss?

Sometimes I think it's not worthwhile to keep up with the ins and outs of the gaming industry. There's almost too much information, and not all of it good. And it's starting to effect how much I enjoy some titles.

A couple of recent examples: Aliens: Colonial Marines (ACM) and SimCity (SC). We'll start with ACM.

Some of you may have heard about the issues surrounding this title. Most of it has to do with a lot of drama in the development of the game. The developer went on and on about how much they loved the franchise, and how they were finally going to give the fans the "true" Aliens game that they've wanted all these years. What really happened is that they couldn't give two shits about the game, and instead farmed it out to various lower-tier third-party developers to actually make the game, and put out a game that was very different than what they promised us. So much so that people have openly accused them of lying, outright false advertisement, largely based on a "live" demo shown at E3 last year, nearly all of which did not appear in the final game.

That said, the game actually isn't bad. It's just not as good as it could have been, as it should have been. The graphics are a little "meh" most of the time (but other times downright stunning, like the exteriors of LV-426). The AI is a little bit on the stupid side. Okay, maybe more than a "little". But, really, it plays fairly well (on PC, at any rate, although it could be that my system is merely muscling it's way through), and it's not downright buggy or crashing or anything.

But I wonder how I would feel about the game if I hadn't seen those early reviews? If I didn't already know going into it that it wasn't going to be as great as I thought it was?

Which brings me to SimCity. Oh, dear.

What started out as a promising game turned into a nightmare for many, as the game was plagued with server issues at launch. Plenty of paying customers were unable to play the game that they purchased for a week or more. Thankfully, those issues have been largely resolved, but now new issues are coming to light.

That always-online requirement? EA/Maxis said it was due to heavy server-side calculations that were occurring, that most of the detailed simulations you were seeing were actually being done on their end, to offload the extreme stress from your lowly little PCs. This was, apparently, the cause of some of the server issues they were having at launch.

Turns out that was a load of bollocks. The game is, in fact, run entirely offline, and if not for their artificial 20-minute timeout, the game will run just fine indefinitely without a network connection at all. It's actually coded into the game to force itself to quit if it can't talk to the Maxis servers for twenty minutes. If you change that one line of code, the game will run forever, and perfectly fine, for any length of time.

So it turns out that the only reason the servers were there was to facilitate inter-city regional interactions between players (which makes sense for multiplayer) and to save your game, since the only copy of your city is in the cloud. Isn't it? No, actually, that's stored on your PC, too, and just uploaded to their servers at regular intervals and when you quit. And while the servers are necessary for multiplayer, if you choose to run an entire region all on your onesies, the inter-city processing is so minimal (as shown by users tracking exactly what information was sent back and forth between the servers whenever they ran multiple cities), that it could easily be run on your PC as well.

The city size limit? Artificial. It's bound only by their invisible walls, not by any limitation in processing or graphical power. Users have already broken out of those walls and affected the region around them.

One reason for all this, one that I happen to agree with, is the idea that the game was originally intended to be a browser-based game, likely integrated into Facebook or some such. Those limitations make a lot more sense when you look at it that way. But then they decided to make it a full standalone game released at $60, without removing any of those browser-based limitations. And now they're catching a ton of flak for it.

The problem is that I know all these things. I've been keeping up with the news, reading the forums and the news sites. And, frankly, it's starting to ruin the game for me. Now, when I play it, I can't help but see those invisible walls, and the ludicrously stupid traffic AI routines, and forced limitations (like game speed) because their servers can't handle the load. If I hadn't read any of that, I would probably be enjoying the game a lot more than I am.

With something like this, that you look forward to, and you initially enjoy before hearing other people complain... is it better to remain ignorant of the flaws, if you yourself don't notice them? Sometimes... maybe it is.

Microsoft's Problem: Microsoft

This one's been coming for a while, I just haven't gotten around to writing it yet, but it came up again on the NeoGAF forums today, so I figured I'd go ahead and put it into words.

This revelation occurred to me shortly after the launch of Windows 8. Like most tech-heads, I passed on Win8 because it had absolutely nothing to offer me. Worse, it would have made my system more difficult to work with and to do the things I do.

When it comes to computers, it's true that many people don't know that much about the technical side of things. But chances are, they know someone who does. So there's usually someone they can ask, besides the salesman at Best Buy, about what they should and should not purchase. This is what happened to Windows 8. Everyone knew about it thanks to Microsoft's aggressive marketing, but even the people that didn't know any better were warned off by the people that did.

Here's Microsoft's problem: They can't see beyond their own marketing. Every salesman loves to talk about how great their product is, it's part of being a salesman. But a good salesman also knows the truth about the product, even if it's something they never talk about. They know the areas to avoid discussion, they know how to downplay faults and lean the conversation over to the positives. But the important thing is that they're aware of the issues, and why their product isn't for everyone.

Except Microsoft. They appear to actually believe the shit that comes out of their mouth at trade shows like E3 or on their television commercials. In the case of Windows 8, the result is that they're genuinely baffled by the low sales figures. It's true that people aren't buying Windows 8. Microsoft blames the OEM manufacturers for "not making enticing hardware" that can easily be sold with Win8 on it (but wait, MS.. I thought that Win8 itself was reason enough?). The manufacturers have it right.. they're blaming Microsoft for forcing them to install an operating system that no one wants to buy. Microsoft can't see this side of the argument because they refuse to believe that people actually don't want to buy their amazing product.

Seriously, this is their problem... they honestly cannot understand the concept of someone not wanting to buy Windows 8. It's so incredible, it's so amazing, it's so revolutionary, everyone must want it, but why are they not buying it? They're placing the blame on everyone but themselves, refusing to acknowledge that they didn't actually make something that real people want.

This is something I've seen crop up now and again with different companies, but Microsoft is far and away the worst at it right now. They believe in their own marketing so much that they expect everyone else to do so as well, for no other reason than because they said so. Windows 8 is the second coming of the PC operating system because Microsoft said it was. Kinect is the true future of gaming because Microsoft said it was. Surface is the true tablet experience because Microsoft said it was. And they can't see beyond that "because we said so" mentality. And they're going to continue pushing crap onto the market, and they're going to continue being surprised at the lack of sales, and eventually they're going to run themselves into the mud doing it.

On the subject of Kinect, I think MS is about to create a schism in the gaming industry by packing the thing in with every Xbox Infinity (or whatever they're going to call it). They're going to push Kinect so hard (most likely demanding that all games feature some kind of Kinect functionality) that developers will stop making games for them in favor of PS4/PC games that use traditional control schemes. It's too early to tell, really, but that's my prediction, we'll see what happens.

Unfortunately, marketing can be a powerful tool. Look at the recent announcement of the Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone. Underwhelming and second-best in nearly every way to the HTC One, but destined to sell ten times more because of marketing. When it comes to computers, people ask the tech-heads around them. For some reason, they don't do this with smartphones, even though they are just computers themselves. My recommendation: Buy the HTC One. That's what I'm buying.