Category Archives: 360

Always-On in the Garden of Vita

Blah

“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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Filed under 360, Commentary, PS3

There’s No Need to Fear!

Holder

The secret profusion of red rings is still / A problem that Microsoft struggles to kill

Whispers and rumors of whispers continue to circulate about the new Xbox and its increasingly probable lack of compatibility with Xbox 360 games. Most industry analysts are convinced that this will hamper sales of the coming console, and with good reason; a long list of backwards (forward?)-compatible games gives fledgling hardware instant added value to potential buyers, lifting the purchase of a new system out of the arena of frugal practicality (“$500 for a machine that will only play these six lousy launch titles? Are they crazy?”), and boosting it into the aurora-rich thermosphere of spendthrift rationalization (“Not only will it play these six great launch titles, but all my current games to boot! This is the best bargain in the history of gaming! All for only $500!).

The reason for the change lies in the systems’ CPUs; the 360’s Xenon processor is based on the PowerPC instruction set architecture, and the forthcoming Xbox (and the PlayStation 4) will use the x86 architecture. This will make the newer systems simpler to write software for, but it’ll also make backwards compatibility impossible without the use of either an emulator, or — in the case of the Xbox — the inclusion of a Xenon CPU alongside its AMD Jaguar APU, a feature which would be prohibitively expensive. There’s no other way around this; trying to play a 360 game on a system without emulation software or a PowerPC-based processor would be like trying to get a chimpanzee to read Les Miserables to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The Cry Goes Up Both Far and Near

Asking people to give up eight years’ worth of 360 titles in exchange for a promise of better things to come will cause many potential early adopters to put off the decision to buy, so sure, eliminating backwards compatibility will hurt sales of the new Xbox at first. In the 26.2 of things, though, it’ll lead to better games.

Riff Raff had only moments to contemplate his faux pas.

Riff Raff had only seconds to contemplate his faux pas before discovering Underdog’s reaction to the words “now go home and get your fuckin’ shine box!”

When the original Xbox was released in November of 2001, there was no previous system for it to be backwards-compatible with; it was essentially a cold-call on the console gaming industry by a salesman with no track record in that field. As a result, the good gaming folk at Microsoft realized that they had to provide a reason for Jane and Jim Regularius to hand over their denarii in exchange for a console that competed against two other machines and essentially had nothing going for it; the PlayStation 2, which was released a year earlier, was backwards-compatible with original PlayStation games and had begun to pick up serious traction with Grand Theft Auto III. The GameCube, which was launched concurrently with the Xbox, offered no backwards compatibility, but rode the inertia of the Nintendo name for a little while before fading to third place in the sixth-generation console standings. At the beginning, and for the first time in a generation, Microsoft was the little guy in something. You might even say they were the…well, you know.

Because of this, they realized that they couldn’t skimp on content; as noted, there was no previous-generation console library to fill the gaps between new Xbox releases. They needed at least one title that would draw people away from the known entities of Nintendo and Sony, people who were hungry for something more sophisticated than the traditional cold-supper fare that consoles had offered up to that point. While Grand Theft Auto III would continue to sell trillions of PlayStation 2s exclusively for another two years, it was Halo that carved out a tenuous toehold in the industry for the Redmond rookies almost 12 years ago.

Dog and Polly

When Polly’s in trouble, he is not slow, as evidenced by the speed lines and van Gogh-esque starry splotches to the left.

Why? Because Halo was unlike anything that had ever been seen on a console before. Its production value was unparalleled in its day, its graphics were beyond PC-quality, its mechanics hold up well even today, and for two years the only way you could play it was on the Xbox. (Windows and OS X ports were released in late 2003.) There were other exclusive titles released for the Xbox at launch, including Azurik: Rise of Perathia (about a week after launch), Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, Project Gotham Racing, Fuzion Frenzy, Mad Dash Racing, Dead or Alive 3, and NFL Fever 2002, with Blood Wake coming about a month later, but nothing could touch Halo when it came to putting controllers into people’s hands, and $299 into Microsoft’s wallet; along with the launch of Xbox Live in November of 2002, it’s the reason why Microsoft is still in the industry today.

There’s not enough of a sample to cite cause on this, but when a console manufacturer is up against burly competition, when they know that they can’t rely on last-gen software to push next-gen hardware sales, good things can happen. Whether that’s Halo on the Xbox, or Rogue Leader on the GameCube, Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64, or  Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast (all except Soul Calibur were first-party publications), there’s a visible history of systems without backwards compatibility delivering launch titles that are designed to keep people coming back. That high level of quality doesn’t always hold up throughout the life of the console (see: CameCube), but I’m in favor of any factors that encourage a first-party publisher like Microsoft to hit the ground with both feet and a big-ass hammer on launch day. If Bungie had continued to develop Halo as a real-time strategy game for Mac and Windows, the gaming landscape would be very different today; indeed, fourteen people would have played Halo, Microsoft would have relied on Azurik to boost system sales, and we’d all be speaking Sony.

To Right This Wrong With Blinding Speed

There are further rumors that Microsoft will release a peripheral called the Xbox Mini that will allow 360 games previously purchased and downloaded through Xbox Live to be played on the next Xbox, but that’s not really the same, is it? The majority of my 360 games are disc-based — I can list on the fingers of one finger the number of full 360 games that I’ve downloaded through Xbox Live (BioShock), so while I don’t put much stock in the rumor’s credibility, it’s not likely to offset the adoption rate of the new system one way or another. Unless the peripheral is a pack-in with the Xbox, charging money for people to maintain the value of the games they’ve already purchased will have a negative effect on the console’s initial sales.

This won’t be an issue unless Microsoft fails to entice the reluctant adopters with attractive content, which in my world means only one thing; Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Facebook and Twitter integration, and anything what-so-fucking-ever to do with Kinect might be fine for some people, but for me they’re just another layer of ossified dinospoor that I must drill through in order to reach the only thing that truly matters; spectacular games.

Microsoft seems to have forgotten this lately, as the aforementioned non-essential applications have relegated games to a third- or fourth-tier relevance on their system. Not having the plush little cushion of backwards compatibility nestled beneath the new Xbox’s powerful gluteals might just be just the thing to remind them of why people buy gaming consoles in the first place.

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BioShock Infinite

Holder

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth”

Down the block and around the corner from here there’s a collection of buildings with the words “Center for the Medical Arts” emblazoned on a beige, waist-high sign in the parking lot. The Center for the Medical Arts contains the usual collection of medical-type establishments which no doubt provide the finest in medical-type care to those in medical-type need. From the size of the place, I’d wager that hundreds of professionals show up every morning and save gallons of lives; indeed, I have no problem with the Center itself, as they’re probably doing a great job in there. My simmering beef is with the sign. Medical arts? No thanks, Pablo; the last thing I want to discover when I go to the proctologist is that he’s just entered his Blue Period.

I suspect it’s worded that way because some marketing jackass felt that the word “art” is more accessible to a general public that is excited by art, frightened by science, and unwilling to draw a distinction between the two; after all, a lot of people think they understand art, but very few people give half a hammered eukaryote about science, and some hold it in active contempt. Here’s a very broad crash course for those who’ve never learned that words — and, as such, ideas — are not so many meaningless puffs of air to be blown about at their whim and subjective assertion; art makes life enjoyable, science makes life possible. (Though not everything that makes life enjoyable can be called art. Close to it, maybe, but not quite.)

And Danced the Skies

The debate about whether video games can be considered art is as ridiculous the debate between the merits of Coke vs. Pepsi, great taste vs. less filling, and David Lee vs. Sammy; the only people who claim that games cannot possibly be art are those who have not identified their standards regarding the definition of art, which I shall do forthwith:

Art = Applied Science (“hey, a burnt pointy stick!”) + Speculative Thought (“hmm, I think…bison.”) x Universally Applicable Abstraction (“the bison is such an integral aspect of the Paleolithic Experience that I, Thak Remington, shall strive to recreate one or several on that wall”). That’s where the debate should end, but it doesn’t; people get hung up on the “is it or isn’t it” thing when they don’t know what it is that they’re trying to define.

"I've chased the shouting wind along..."

“On laughter-silvered wings”

As an example, I’ve spent more than three hundred hours in Terraria over the course of the last year or so. It’s a spectacular game, full of everything that makes me salivate like one of Ivan’s bitches, but it’s not art by any selective definition of the word because it lacks that one crucial attribute, which is the universally applicable abstraction. Similar to a theme, the universally applicable abstraction is the thing that would make Gurk Warhol stroll into Thak Remington’s digs three generations later and exclaim, “by Jove, the bison is a fine and integral aspect of the Paleolithic Experience!” Terraria is an immense collection of very satisfying mechanics, but it does not have the elusive UAA, and that’s just fine with me; the classification of a game as “art” or “not-art” has no bearing on my enjoyment of it. Sometimes it’s fun just to dig up dirt and chop monsters into tiny bits. Or get your ass kicked over and over and yet over again by a large, laser-spitting column of ambulatory spooge.

When a video game uses artistic elements such as an appealing visual style, well-drawn textures, emotional music, and a cinematic presentation without stating a universally applicable abstraction, it is not art. It doesn’t matter how pretty it is, or how satisfying its gameplay is, or how fun it is; a well-wrought skill — like painting or writing — devoid of a deeper connection to some specific aspect of what it means to be alive, can produce a good book, or a beautiful painting, or even a video game that is a blast to play, but which cannot be art. Why? Because beauty alone is not sufficient to redeem the intellectually or emotionally mundane.

"Up the long, delirious, burning blue..."

“High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there…”

The fact that BioShock Infinite is a beautiful game is not the cause of its artistic merit. Neither is the fact that BioShock Infinite is fun to play, or that it improves on the original in every facet of its design, from its magic system (Vigors) to its combat, to its companion character. BioShock Infinite is not art because it allows you to make moral choices throughout the course of the story, or because it drops you into the action and then gets the holy blessed wonderful hell out of your way, without using any of the increasingly conventional button-mashing or intrusive cutscenes that remove you from the gameplay and bug the ever-lovin’ pee out of you. And me.

In the case of BioShock Infinite, as in the case with film, it is the story that elevates it into the realm of art; BioShock Infinite employs a masterful technical skill in telling a deep and personal tale that transcends the standard save-the-world, stride-into-the-sunset melodrama found in most games; indeed, it makes saving the world an incidental, secondary concern to the survival of the two characters about whom you come to care deeply over the course of the game — Elizabeth, the companion, and Booker, the man sent to rescue her from the floating city of Columbia. It tells a story of redemption, forgiveness, courage, and determination, without once holding any of these virtues in contempt by mocking them with exaggeration, or sneering at them through the use of undercutting humor. As a result, it’s a game that takes itself, and you, very seriously, and it does so without out an ounce of pretension (which, as everyone knows, is worth a pound of curare).

The Long, Delirious, Burning Blue

"Put out my hand, and touched the face of God"

“I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace”

It’s easy to praise a game to the bicuspids and raise expectations beyond an attainable threshold, so for the sake of parity I’ll outline some of the things that BioShock Infinite does quite horribly:

It does not stop the gameplay to show you every new enemy that you encounter, which would allow you to rest your hands, and maybe run off to the kitchen for a bag of Cool Ranch Flavored Doritos and a bottle of Code Red.

It lets you see where you’re going at all times. Every once in a while it would be nice to go completely fucking blind and then die, you know?

It doesn’t let you waggle the controller to reload your weapon. What is this, 1999?

It does not use quicktime events, which add to the verisimilitude of a game by making you as tired as the player character looks.

You can’t turn off the Vita Chambe…oh, wait. Never mind.

It tells its story primarily through audio logs and in-game events, which prevents you from honing your reading skills while playing.

The main character is named Booger Booker, but there are no books in the game. This is what’s known in the vernacular of the American Consumer as a ripoff.  (See above.)

Upon your character’s death, you don’t get to replay the entire level as punishment for your inadequacy as a gamer. This means that you’re actually getting much less game than you think, because you’re not constantly repeating sections that you’ve already cleared. (Remember when a game would punch you in the gonads when you failed? Good times…) Again, see above: ripoff.

Where Never Lark or Even Eagle Flew

It’s a rare occasion that I finish a game, then start right back over from the beginning to find everything that I missed the first time through, but that’s exactly what I did with BioShock Infinite — I’m glad to admit that it’s not the game that I thought it would be, which was “more of the same, only less of it.”

Instead, and in every aspect of consideration, BioShock Infinite is more of the same, plus so very much more.

(All captions and section titles from “High Flight,” by John Gillespie McGee, Jr.)

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Filed under 360, Commentary, PC, PS3