Always-On in the Garden of Vita

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“I am not a lean mean spitting machine…”

A couple of months ago I railed against the design of the PS Vita’s user interface, lamenting in particular the inability to organize the home screen into folders. For anyone who had more than thirty or forty applications on the Vita (hey, it could happen), navigating the system software was an exercise in hard and spiky tedium; after all, swiping from page to page and back again can really wear a finger out, so imagine my delight last week when Sony released PS Vita System Software Update 2.10, which included — you guessed it — home screen folders.

This simple addition, along with the ability to see which game card is inserted in the system, instantly made the Vita much more user-friendly. Forget for a moment the fact that the system software still only supports 100 icons on the home screen at any one time, including icons inside folders — this is a long-overdue start towards making the Vita competitive in a market packed with many other devices that already include these features. Indeed, it’s a little baffling as to why it took so long, but I’ll take what I can get when it comes to UI improvements.

The next thing that Sony might want to work on with the Vita (after increasing the number of available games, of course) is the incongruity of displaying round app icons and a round folder interface on a rectangular screen, which wastes even more visual real estate than Windows RT. If it’s not a product of function, as with a tire, a CD, a circular saw, or a Frisbee (or an intriguing combination of all of the above), roundness is inefficient. In a user interface, it’s a concession to gratuitous change and non-essential differentiation; the app icons in iOS, Android, Nintendo’s 3DS, and Windows RT are all some kind of square, but on the Vita they’re round, and as big as my face. Why? What purpose does this roundness serve, other than to be arbitrarily different for the sake of being arbitrarily different?

"Now that's Moe like it!"

“Now that’s Moe like it!”

Functionally, this doesn’t matter at all; apps still work, and with the introduction of folders they’re easier to launch than they’ve ever been before. The importance of aesthetics in a user-interface can’t be understated, though; when you first boot up the Vita and see the offset circles-within-a-square home screen, the effect is disconcerting, if only on a subconscious level. It’s an impression that lingers, one that says that things are just slightly off with everything that you do on the Vita.

This isn’t anything that couldn’t be promptly and permanently forgotten with a decent selection of games to choose from, but I can’t shake the notion that Sony will never fail to find a way to handicap themselves before they’ve even left starting gate — not with deficiencies in their hardware (which is first-rate), but with the software that connects the hardware to the player’s mind.

So yes, the introduction of folders is definitely a good thing, along with the ability to immediately determine which game card is inserted in the system by looking at the info bar at the top of the home screen. The icon for this is a bit small, making it somewhat difficult to read, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction for a company that’s been doing nothing but backpedaling lately.

Just Our Name for Bottom-Feeding Suction Eel

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“Daddy, this place smells like tinkle.”

Last week I wrote about how the rumored lack of backwards compatibility could lead to better games on Microsoft’s next-generation system. Overall, I don’t see the backwards compatibility issue hurting sales all that much, but when it comes to a mandatory internet connection for basic console functions, there is no end-user upside; I can’t recall a time when the release of a new console generated as much negative hype as the next Xbox is doing with rumors of its always-connected broadband requirement.

A pending console launch is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be a time of giddy speculation and childlike wonder at exactly what The Next Great Thing might do, what it might look like, how much it will cost, and when it will be released. Instead, the next Xbox is surrounded by a miasma of unfavorable rumors, which include:

The inability to play used games — I’ve already noted that I think this is a big mistake. If it is Microsoft’s position that the used games market is hurting new game sales, they cannot evade the possibility that the used games market is helping new console sales by providing a vast source of content that wouldn’t be easily available otherwise. If the installed base of new console owners contracts because of the inability to play used games, how will that affect the sale of new games? You don’t have to be a Keynesian mastermind to figure out that fewer systems in people’s homes must reduce the aggregate demand for new games.

A lack of backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 games — If this results in more and better games for the new hardware, it’s not such a big deal. This rumor is the least of their concerns at this point.

An always-on broadband connection is required to play any games on the next-generation Xbox — This is the killer. This is the one that has the most people saying “if it’s true, I won’t get one.”

While Steam requires a broadband connection to download games, or to register a retail version of a game purchased at a brick-and-mortar store, it does not require an always-on connection in order to play those games; all Steam games are playable in offline mode in the event that your internet connection is interrupted. As it stands now, this as-yet-unquelled rumor swirling around the new Xbox claims that the console requires a connection in order to function. If this is true, it’s a deal-breaker.

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“I’m…afraid. I’m afraid some weirdo’s got my soul and I don’t know what they’re doing to it! I just want it back. Please?”

I do not grant Microsoft (or any company, for that matter) the right to arbitrarily remove or disable any content that I have purchased from them, and that’s what the always-on requirement amounts to; it gives Microsoft the ability — if not the inclination — to deny access to something that I’ve paid for. Whether this denial is accidental, in the case of an Xbox Live service outage (which never, ever happens), or intentional, in the case of whatever sinister scenario you care to conjure, they will not receive my permission to take something of value from me, without giving something of value in return to use at my sole and irrevocable discretion. The only way to avoid granting that permission is to refrain from buying their console.

Again, these are just rumors — some, all, or none of them might be true. Thus far Microsoft’s only reaction to the issue came as a tepid apology in the wake of the Adam Orth Twitter debacle of two weeks ago, which leads me to ask a pretty simple question:

If an untrue rumor was harming the collective opinion of a product that has cost you a bundle to research, develop, manufacture, and distribute, if it was hurting potential sales before this product was even announced, and if you knew that a rival was developing a similar product for release at around the same time, wouldn’t you deny this rumor in an attempt to salvage your product’s flagging public perception?

Maybe just once?

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3 Comments

Filed under 360, Commentary, PS3

3 responses to “Always-On in the Garden of Vita

  1. Rumour now has it that the always online connection is to be used only for the heavily updated TV service they are rolling out. Maybe MS actually realised early on that people genuinely will not buy their product if they are not in control of their games, its content, its quality, the ability to play it etc etc. Either way it will be interesting to see what they come up with at E3.

    • I hope that rumor turns out to be true; I like the Xbox 360, and I’d like to like the next Xbox, but the always-on thing would kill it for me.

      Unless, of course, it’s so powerful that the neighborhood lights dim when you power it on. Then I’d at least have to give it some serious consideration, regardless of its connection requirements.

      • Ha! I’m hoping for an inbuilt George Foreman grill along with the ability to power down cities.

        Although that will probably come as an addon later and be controlled by the new kinect. Mark my words.

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