Category Archives: PS3

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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Filed under 360, Commentary, PS3

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

Turn the Vita ‘Round

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“Shadow dancing, baby you do it right…”

In addition to being a renowned orator, statesman, writer, army officer, artist, and historian, it’s a scarcely known fact that Winston Churchill also invented disco. Sure, it took a few years to catch on, but the British Bulldog was the first to open his shirt to the fourth button, pull on the white polyester slacks, slip into some gold chains, and Hustle his way into obscure historical lore; most people think it was Thomas Jefferson who invented disco, but that’s just revisionist twaddle; Thomas Jefferson invented Velveeta, which, unlike disco, contains almost no cheese at all.

It was August, 1940, and Mr C. was addressing the House of Commons with a speech now known as “The Few,” in which he said, more or less, “Lotta shit can happen in a year.” Of course I’m paraphrasing; what he actually uttered was closer along the lines of “Almost a year has passed since the war began, and it is natural for us, I think, to pause on our journey at this milestone and survey the dark, wide field.” Whereupon he sloughed off the frump that was his daily raiment, and stepped into his boogie shoes for a night on the town. This just goes to prove that even though he may have looked like Kuato’s bitchy twin, WC had it going on.

Take Your Time (Do It Right)

While not quite on the scale of Churchill’s raison de parler, February 15th marked the official one-year anniversary of the PS Vita’s release in North America, and if there was ever a company that had a reason to pause on its journey and survey the dark, wide whatever, it’s Sony. With their dog’s-ass handling of the Vita, and the miasma of mismanagement that surrounds the company in general, you’ve got to wonder whether the Vita might be Sony’s final foray into the arena of portable plaforms.

What do I mean by Sony’s “dog’s-ass handling” of the Vita? That’s simple; while the hardware is absolutely first-rate (with the admittedly petty exception of slightly short battery life), the Vita’s system software is the worst that I’ve seen on any handheld. Allow me to reverse-engineer my beef, if you will:

The next generation of handheld will have a steep learning curve for developers.

Sony’s next-generation handheld. Note the UMD slot.

First, every action on the Vita requires an extra input. Want to launch an app? Touch the app icon, then touch the start button in the launch window. Why not simply touch the app icon and get right to it? A similar process must be used when closing an app; press the PS button, then swipe the application window closed on the touch screen. This places an unnecessary layer of interaction between the user and the software, rendering the experience of doing anything on the Vita much more cumbersome than it needs to be. At first this might not seem like a big deal, but magnify the process by every single time that you use the Vita, and what might have seemed like a quirky little annoyance for five minutes turns into a cumulative pain in the ass until the end of time.

Second, every application  in the LiveArea (Sony’s name for the Vita’s GUI) is scattered about as though flung by uninhibited orangutans with poor coordination and unfettered access to the Milk of Magnesia. While both the PSP’s and the PS3’s GUIs (the XMB, or XrossMediaBar, and no, I don’t understand it either) are organized into categories, that is, according to the function of each particular application, the Vita’s GUI simply slings shit everywhere;  users can rearrange the icons to suit their personal preferences, but there is no option for the creation of folders, which are a conceptual approach to information storage and retrieval.

Let’s say you need three things from the supermarket; a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a wad of imitation butter-flavored hydrogenated vegetable oil product. Let’s also say for a moment that, like the LiveArea, the products in this supermarket are not organized conceptually. The bread isn’t in the aisle with the baked goods, sharing shelf space with various kinds of bread, it’s tucked beside a can of beans, which sits next to a jar of grape jelly, which in turn is hobnobbing with the bacon. The milk is in a cooler with some lightbulbs, and the imitation butter-flavored hydrogenated vegetable oil product can be found near some hot dogs. And the hot dogs, well, the hot dogs are rogues. They go where they please. Don’t turn your back on them.

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“I can’t survive, can’t stay alive, without your love…”

Instead of organizing the store in a manner that people can instinctively understand — canned goods > canned vegetables > canned beans > canned black beans > canned black beans with low sodium — this supermarket eschews conceptual organization in favor of range-of-the-moment perceptual chaos; sure, the customers can organize the shelves as they shop, just as Mr. and Mr. Loyal PS Vita Owners can organize their Vita’s icons to fit their needs, but what good will that do when as soon as a new item comes in, it’s going to be shunted off to the end of the shelf and require the complete reorganization of everything in the store? Would you shop in such a place, even if it had a great OLED screen and a second analog stick?

Forget for a moment that the selection of Vita games is thinner than a bowl of question marks; the Vita itself is just too damned expensive, and those few games that are worth playing simply do not justify the cost of admission. You might not mind paying $40 for something like Persona 4 Golden or Silent Hill: Book of Memories, and those games could very likely be worth the price, but mobile gaming (specifically, the cost structure) has changed dramatically over the last four years. The Vita’s most robust competition comes not from Nintendo’s 3DS, but from iOS and Android devices, where a premium, fully realized, high-definition, smooth-as-butta game experience can be had for as little as 99 cents, and in some cases, for free. The fact that someone, anyone, would ask $40 at the time of release for something as offal as Dungeon Hunter: Alliance (with said offal being available on the PS3 for $15), is especially laughable.

More, More, More

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Also available in Cosmic Red, Sapphire Blue, and Fingerprint Black.

It’s perfectly reasonable for a publisher or a hardware manufacturer to price its products at whatever the market will bear, but after a year of admittedly disappointing sales, it’s obvious that the market will not bear the cost of the Vita, or its games, for very much longer. Here are a few changes which might help Sony achieve better penetration sales with the Vita:

1. A price drop of almost ¥4000 was announced today in Japan. This is a good start, but it’s not going to be enough to see significant sales increases; a deeper price drop across all markets would go a long way towards doing for the Vita what Nintendo’s $80 cut did for the 3DS in 2011.

2. Provided Sony wants to compete with the likes of the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, people need to be able to find good games for the Vita that don’t cost as much as the GDP of several South Pacific nations. If they don’t want to compete with those platforms, well, they might as well pull the plug right now; the competition isn’t the device that’s closest in price to the Vita, it’s whatever people are buying instead of the Vita. If that’s the iPad and the Nexus 7, Sony needs to address that issue in order to become competitive with those platforms. Changing the development process so that it’s irresistible to make games for the Vita would at once expand the Vita’s library and sell more systems (see “expand the Vita’s library”). One way to accomplish this would be through discounts on the royalty rates that publishers pay Sony for every game sold. 

3. Stop undercutting the value of inexpensive Vita games by relegating them to the “Minis” section of the PlayStation Store. Anything that can be played on a Vita should be displayed proudly beside the $30 and $40 monstrosities like Dungeon Hunter: Alliance and ModNation Racers: Road Trip. I guarantee that this segregation isn’t hurting the sales of games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, but I’ll bet it’s killing some otherwise worthwhile titles like A Space Shooter for Two Bucks! And no, Sony, the latter is not going to cannibalize sales of the former if they’re displayed in the same category. You’ll simply sell more of what you otherwise wouldn’t sell at all.

Not as much of a pack-in as it was a fuck up.

Not as much of a pack-in as it was a fuck-up.

4. More games. For a game system, you’d think this would be kind of important. I don’t care if it’ll play movies, surf the web, and comb the cat; if there aren’t enough games, you’ve got yourself a paperweight. Where are all the downloadable PS2 games for the Vita? Where are the first-rate, Sony-published titles like War of the Monsters, Primal, Dark Clouds 1 and 2, Gran Turismos 3 and 4, Shadow of the Colossus, and the Ratchet and Clank series? Would it be prohibitively expensive to get all or some of these games working on the Vita, and make them available for purchase by people who wouldn’t mind revisiting some of these classics? (Okay, maybe not Primal.) Why do they think that people will pony up for fifteen-year-old PlayStation games like Medal of Honor (which holds up quite well, I must say), but not for God of War or Rogue Galaxy? More games. And then…more games.

Last Dance

It isn’t going to be an easy climb for Sony, regardless of how well the Vita performs from here on out. The essence of their trouble lies in their inability to balance sales volume with quality; that is, to put as many systems and games into as many hands as possible, without sacrificing the top-tier hardware experience that once was a hallmark of their brand. We first saw this suicidal disintegration in the PlayStation 3, which was priced at $599 at a time when that amount of money might have fed a family of three for a month — as such, PS3 sales suffered. (As a former firsthand witness to Sony’s ineptitude, I can attest that during 2007, Sony and the PlayStation 3’s astronomical admission price were responsible for more Xbox 360 sales than was Microsoft.) By contrast, one year after its release, and with a little help from Rockstar, the PlayStation 2 practically sold itself; not since then has a Sony product been in such high demand.

His mad improvisational skills on the dance floor notwithstanding, Winston Churchill is better remembered for yet another quote, one that is vastly applicable to Sony’s current status, which they’ll heed to their benefit, and ignore at their peril:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

It is time for Sony to survey the dark, wide field.

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