Archive for the Consoles Category

PS3 “Home”: Metaphor for everything wrong with Sony

Posted in Consoles, Online Gaming, Rants on January 6, 2009 by Kit

Oh man, where to start?

Home is Sony’s newish social networking experiment. I was invited to the public beta and so I strapped on my  pasty, lifeless, zombie-like avatar and wandered around. It’s since gone live, and I have logged in all of one time since then.

Home is sort of like Second Life, only more boring. Instead of making and sharing your own content, as in Second Life, you are stuck with the fare that Sony sees fit to dole out (or, more likely, sell you). Home itself is free to use, and I was at first bemused and then horrified to find that there are stores in Home where you can buy things like virtual lamps for your virtual living room. In Home, you can:

  • View ads for Sony content.
  • Pay (real) money to wear a new (virtual) t-shirt with a corporate logo on it.
  • Pay (real) money to decorate your sterile (virtual) living room with sterile (virtual) furniture.
  • Get cursed at by a racist 14 year old gamer d0od.
  • Fake dance terribly to shitty music. (Really, Sony?)
  • Watch your connection to the Playstation network repeatedly crash.
  • Bowl.

The only people I could ever imagine using this product are masochistic shut-ins, and they’re all busy in Second Life or posting on their blog (…)

I’m going out on a limb with a prediction: this product will never make a dime for Sony, even if they keep it online for a million years. And I hope it never does. Sony doesn’t deserve to make money off it, because it’s terrible. It’s simply not a compelling experience. There’s no content in it that I can’t get better, elsewhere. The inability to create anything, coupled with the ridiculous pay-to-play stores … it’s all just crippling. And the bowling is stupid.

The only real feature the game offers is the ability to use Home as a way to keep in touch with other people on the PS3 network, but there’s already dozens of better ways to do that… many of which are actually already part of PS3. From my PS3 I can instant message, send email, voice and video chat. Most individual games offer their own way to arrange network games. There’s just no reason to load up a giant, clunky interface so that I can do it with a stupid virtual t-shirt on.

I’d rather communicate by carrier pigeon.

This product is a picture-perfect example of what happens to social media when an old-fashioned monolithic corporation gets its grubby fingers into everything. When this happens, you get a product that nobody asked for, that does nothing anybody wants, and looks like it was designed by an octogenarian executive who once read an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2003 about this whole Facebook thing and who uses jargon like “Web 2.0” with a straight face and whose secretary has a son who’s really into Second Life.

This man thought to himself, “What if somebody had the bravery to harness the power of all this new technology to  … get this … show people advertisements!”

It’s just so cute the way Sony missed the point. The great power of social media is the ability to create your own stuff, that’s what makes it compelling to people. The platform itself (whether it be YouTube, WordPress, Second Life, or Facebook) is just a delivery mechanism. If your platform is just a static ad-delivery-service, it’s not going to attract any users. It’s particularly ironic that the same people who brought us LittleBigPlanet failed so completely at Home.

But then, I’m getting used to Sony failing. And that sucks, because despite it all I still like my PS3. But if Sony sees services like Home as the future of the platform, then the future doesn’t look all that bright.

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Won’t Get Fooled Again or Why I Haven’t Yet Played GTA IV

Posted in addiction, Consoles, PC Gaming, Rants with tags , , , , , on August 14, 2008 by Kit

I still haven’t played it. I know! I know!

There’s a series of good reasons, and they all amount to an object lesson in why proprietary software sucks and how you can be royally screwed over if a company releases a busted product when there is no community available to provide a fix.

I’ve opined on this topic a few times, and I’m aware of the hypocrisy: I’m obviously touting software freedom while supporting game companies who make the most proprietary of proprietary software (not only can you not see the source code… but you can only run it on one device made by one company).

But consoles are still simply the best way to play games, and I love games so much that I’ve traditionally made a convenient (I know! I know!) exception for them.

Here’s the story.

Probably you’ve all heard of this little game called GTA IV. The one with all the cop killing and prostitutes. The one that makes teenagers shoot up their Social Studies classroom with dad’s unsecured handgun.

Well, I’m a big fan. I think it’s smart (for a game), provides a great example of satire and anti-genre (for a game), and it doesn’t hurt that it isn’t above a bit of cute self-mockery here and there. It’s also fun as hell.

I am aware that it occupies a moral gray area, and I’m fine with that. Moral qualms are not the reason I’ve not yet played this game.

Not owning the game is also not the reason I haven’t played it yet. I actually bought it the day after it was released. For those of you keeping track… that was last April. As I type this, it is sitting on top of my entertainment center.

Not owning the correct platform is also not the reason I haven’t played it yet. I was a PS3 early adopter… in part because I was excited to hear that it supported Linux out-of-the-box. But mostly (and here is the delicious filling of the irony sandwich) — I just wanted to be sure I had a system that could play GTA IV.

That’s right, I bought the most expensive game machine on the market mostly because I like GTA that much.

I was undaunted when I heard they were giving “downloadable content” to XBox owners, despite GTA’s longstanding association with PlayStation. Whatever – I’ve always liked the PlayStation brand, and I figured the PS3 would be a quality product. I never much cared for those in-between releases (like “Liberty City Stories“) anyway, and I figured downloadable content would probably be just more of the same.

About a week before the GTA release date, my PS3 broke. It just powered itself off one day and wouldn’t turn back on. Not even to eject the Seinfeld dvd that I was watching when it died.

I dutifully called the support number on the back of the machine. Talked to several very polite and helpful people (Sony support is pretty good). Learned that my machine was (of course) out of warranty, and that it would cost some money to repair it. Ok, fine. Learned that it will take up to three weeks to repair the machine.

No!

The meaning of this was obvious: I would not be able to play GTA while all of my friends were playing it. I was going to miss out on all the stories about the various discoveries, stupid vehicular tricks and trash talk that goes with a new GTA release. I was never going to feel the pride at being the first person in my acquaintance to find something awesome in this game.

Oh well. It’s just a game. So I paid the money and shipped the system off in the nice box they sent me.

GTA’s release date came and went. I had the cash, so I bought the copy the day after. Just so I could maybe regain some lost time when my machine came back.

I was so excited when it finally returned. They even threw in a new controller! My Seinfeld DVD was in a nice jewel case, unharmed! I unboxed the whole thing, set it up, got all the system updates from the internet. And then I plugged GTA in, breathlessly waiting through the (long) install.

And then I played the game! I lied earlier when I said I haven’t played GTA IV. I have. For five minutes. I played through the intro mission. Just when was taking Niko out to explore… the whole thing locked up. Niko was frozen in mid stride and a bunch of weird angular graphic shit was all over the screen.

I began to feel a tiny bit sorry for myself.

But no need to panic… I just hit reset. Glitches are not uncommon in the current generation of games. Maybe it’ll work after a reset. And it did. For another five minutes.

The small, spoiled adolescent that lives inside my chest began to make himself heard.

Like all sensible people, I got on the internet to look for answers. I poked around on various message boards, and noticed that a respectable number of people on the Official PlayStation boards were reporting the exact same thing. All these people owned PS3s that were about the same age as mine (i.e. the early release ones).

The bad news: No fix (or even acknowledgment of the problem) was yet forthcoming from either Sony or Rockstar Games (the GTA people). My problem was that new. People online were angry — like bees.

Eventually, after a few days, Sony figured out that something was actually broken and published a lame little checklist of things to try to get the game to work. None of them worked. The word began to spread:

“Call Sony, they are replacing machines for free… even if they are out of warranty.”

If you are still reading, I hope this hits home. I had, not three weeks ago, PAID Sony to repair my broken PS3. And now, here they were, replacing them for free because they had obviously shipped machines with some kinda problem. The initial repair had cost me $150. If the machine had held on for another week or two I would’ve gotten a free repair.

The teenager that lives in my chest was locked in his room with black eyeliner on, listening to The Cure and crying with his face in a pillow.

So I dutifully called Sony support again. Once again, they were very polite and very helpful. I described my problem, told them I’d tried all their fixes and that GTA simply wouldn’t play on my machine for more than 5 minutes at a stretch. They said they’d repair it for free… and sent me out another box. No, they would not be able to refund the previous repair costs since they were unrelated to the GTA bug.

After another 3 weeks, I had my PS3 again.

Feeling pretty ambivalent about it, I stuck my GTA disc in. And it worked. I played for about thirty minutes. Enough to satisfy myself that the crashing was over. Then I put it away.

I’ve since played some older games, replayed some favorites, but I haven’t touched GTA IV again. I don’t know why. The thrill is gone somehow.

I’m not wowed by the innovative gameplay, or the graphics. Not because they aren’t great… but because they are just dismal reminders of how much shit that machine put me through and how much of a sucker I am for putting up with all of it.

The thing is, I know Sony didn’t cheat me. I know Rockstar didn’t cheat me. This is just what happens when a piece of highly coveted software gets tied to one specific platform. When that platform dies, or has trouble, you have no recourse.

I still like my PS3. Sony support was fast and courteous. The problem is that the entire business model is designed to leave the consumer helpless. When one of my home computers breaks — I can fix it myself. Usually pretty cheaply. You can’t do that with a Playstation (or an XBox or a Wii). Even if you aren’t afraid of breaking the warranty, most of the parts inside them aren’t off the shelf components.

When software on my Linux desktop has a bug, it is usually quickly addressed and repaired by the massive community of people out there who care about it. If I was smarter, I could even participate in this process (I have, to a very limited degree). Hell, if I want the software on my desktop to do something that it doesn’t currently do – there’s a good chance that I can actually email the person that wrote it and ask them to add it. And even if they can’t or won’t, there’s a good chance they’ll at least write me back.

Try getting that kind of attention from any company who produces mass market software.

I may not be able to get away from proprietary games… but the PS3 will be the last dedicated game console I purchase, so help me. I may miss out on some console exclusives, but I’m not going to be suckered by the system again. No game is worth that.

Does the arcade suck, or have I just outgrown it?

Posted in Arcade, Consoles, General, Rants on July 29, 2008 by Kit

About one million years ago, some friends and I went to an arcade in Indianapolis just to see what it was all about. It was part of a larger idea I had to pursue the idea of The Arcade as some kind of cultural watermark.

It wasn’t my first arcade, obviously. But it was my first trip to an arcade as someone who could be reasonably called an adult. I’m not sure what I took away from the experience, if anything. Just a lot of disconnected observations.

The music playing over the sound system was pitch-perfect. Our Dear Sweaty B summed it up: “It was as if the arcade had gone into full-on Mrs. Havisham mode – it forever ran the soundtrack of the time immediately prior to its irrelevance.”

The bloated corpse of the 90s loomed large not only in the choice of music, but also the game selection. The “classic games” of the earlier arcade era were limited to one of those terrible multi-game cabinets stuck in a corner. Somehow that wasn’t very much fun to play. Recent titles present were limited to the most recent iterations of the well established thoroughbred brand name fighting and shooting kinds of games.

And of course, being the awesome people that we are, my friends and I made a good stab at having fun with it. And it was fun. Ish.

But the thing is… I couldn’t help but think about how I could be playing better games on a bigger screen with better graphics at home. With the same people. In fact, every one of the friends that I brought with me are people I’ve spent at least some time playing games with in various living rooms starting with my college years up until today.

It’s difficult to blame that lousy mall arcade for the poor selection, broken machines, and general air of boredom that hung around the place. All just more evidence that the audience has moved on.

The arcade at the Circle Center Mall is well aware of its own recent mortality.

It may seem weird to think of games in such grandiose terms – but the ability to play at home really was revolutionary in a basic sense. No more could arcades hold you hostage for 5, 10 or 15 minutes a quarter. You didn’t have to wait in line for the most popular game. You didn’t have to bike across town to a dark, smelly bowling alley.

Is there a trade-off? Sure there is. But it’s an uneven trade the scale of which even a white trader stealing land from a Native American might well appreciate. The winner in this exchange is so obvious that it hardly bares repeating.

There are kids who are already almost grown up who can’t imagine scrounging quarters from couch cushions to play a game that charges them each time they play.

I still carry nostalgia for those old times. And I hear that some prisoners have fond memories of their various prisons. But it’s as hard to imagine an ex-con locking himself back up, and it’s hard to imagine video game culture moving back into the arcade.

Free as in Freedom

Posted in Consoles, Indie Games, PC Gaming with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2007 by Kit

In a previous post, I went off on PC gaming and how much it completely, totally sucks. And I stand by that position with one notable exeption: free games.

Consoles are still frightfully proprietary and will remain so for the near future. As a home Linux user and part-time Open Source evangelist, this annoys the hell out of me. Not just anybody can fire up a compiler and start producing games for the Wii, XBox 360, or the PS3. This gives the game machine manufacturers a really unprecedented level of control over the content available on their systems.

Imagine if everyone had to get the blessing of the manufacturer in order to make a CD that plays in your car stereo, or a DVD that plays in your home theater system. CDs and DVDs would be a lot more expensive, and you might occasionally have trouble finding an album that plays in your brand of CD player.

Because of this situation, there is no serious indie market for games on consoles. As long as the Big Three (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) make it expensive to produce games for their machines, there never will be. These companies don’t actually want a thriving indie game market – they believe that it’s in their best interests to make it just a little bit expensive to publish a game for their console.

Since games sell consoles, the Big Three would rather focus marketing efforts on big blockbuster titles. Games with TV commercials that make you feel as if you really have to play that game. They are banking on these marquee titles (think Halo) to help them sell consoles and don’t want to muddy the marketplace with thousands of no-names that won’t necessarily inspire people to buy a console..

What they want is a cardboard cutout of Master Chief standing on a pile of Xbox 360’s in every GameSpot. Ideally, they are shooting for a handful of new major games like that every couple of months to really put their marketing money behind.

Not so in the PC world. There are so many indie games that it’s hard to keep track of them all. And many of them are free. So in the interest of extending the olive branch to the PC world… I give you the One Good Thing about PC gaming: Free, indie games.

Below is a rundown of some greats. They are all “Open Source.” That means that they are free for anybody to use, modify, sell, or give away, so long as they also provide the source code for any changes that they make. You may have heard about the Linux operating system or the Firefox web browser – those are both examples of Open Source software.

Egoboo is a 3d arcade-action dungeon exploration game with a cute visual style reminiscent of Mario. It’s been out for a while, and has garnered an active community. The official site is mostly dead and is rarely updated, but a new community has sprung up that is producing new releases of the game.

FlightGear is a slick, professionally produced and fully open flight simulator. As a young geek, I was addicted to Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer. Obviously, this fully modern flight sim puts that experience to shame (although it lacks a poorly rendered likeness of Chuck Yeager mocking me whenever I crash). The pure joy of flying a virtual airplane is now sadly lost to me, but FlightGear itself really does it well if that’s your thing.

Armagetron Advanced. Remember how I tried to have Tron killed on the game grid? Remember how poorly that lightcycle game turned out for me? Well despite my resulting aversion to the very idea, I have to admit that Armagetron is a great game. It’s a 3D racing game where you pilot lightcycles just like the ones Tron rode to infamy on, and you can play it with friends over a network. How about that?

Frozen Bubble is a free remake of Bust’a’Move. I’ve tried to steer clear of blatant remakes in this list, but Frozen Bubble is just so damned well done. You can download and install it directly on your computer, but you can also just play the java version online right now!

Nethack is an ancient geek standby, and also extremely engaging dungeon exploration game. NetHack dates back to the days when computers didn’t have any means of displaying complex graphics – so the player, the terrain, the monsters… everything had to be represented with alphanumeric characters. Today it is quite possible to play NetHack with graphics (even in 3D!) but real geeks are only happy if their character is represented by an “@” symbol.

Neverball is a 3D arcade game that is reminiscent of that old wooden Labyrinth game… you know, the one where you guide a ball through a maze by tilting the board itself? Use the mouse to tilt the world around your Neverball as you guide it through various obstacle courses.AlephOne is an Open Source release of Marathon that is supported by its original designers: Bungie (of Halo fame). Mac users from back in the day might remember playing Marathon while their PC buddies were knee deep in Doom. Bungie has added all kinds of interesting updates (including optional updated 3d models, new scenarios, physics, network games, etc.).

Scorched 3D brings the so-called Mother of All Games into the world of 3D. Does anybody else remember the original Scorched Earth? That incredibly simple game where you had to enter velocity and angle numbers in order to get your cannon’s projectile to destroy the other player’s cannon? Anybody? Scorched 3D is exactly like that, only the action takes place on a three dimensional island with terrain. Also, your “tank” (which is really just an immovable base) can be upgraded with shields, different kinds of weapons (including nuclear bombs), etc. The game also incorporates local and network multiplayer, and is a great way to waste an afternoon.

Vega Strike is a space trading, exploration, and combat “simulator.” It’s similar in many respects to the old commercial game Privateer, but has a much larger universe to explore. You can choose from and customize many different kinds of space ships to pilot, and you can make money by trading or by accepting missions (randomly generated). I have to admit that I haven’t spent much time with Vega Stike, but it’s suprisingly deep, and very strikingly pretty.

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Oh Chuck, still you mock me in my dreams…

Playstation Network and the Rise of the $5 Game

Posted in Consoles, Indie Games on November 29, 2007 by Kit

Well, PS3s are finally selling, and there are finally some games out that really make the purchase look justified for the long term. With more users able to buy more content the new Playstation Network is finally beginning to look slightly interesting.

For the uninitiated – the Playstation Network is the “online” portion of the PS3 experience. Most consoles nowadays have something like it, and the PSN is kinda the new kid on the block. With an internet connection, it does all the things you’d expect: you can browse the web, buy games, download additional content, etc. You can even play online multiplayer for free – which is a significant selling point for people who balk at the infamous PS3 price tag. Or, it would be if online multiplayer experience didn’t suck so badly for the average (read: non-troglodytic) gamer. More on that later.

When I first bought my PS3 and plugged it in, I wandered into the Playstation Store section out of sheer curiousity, took one look at the (lame) movie previews, (crippled) game demos, and tiny smattering of (mostly bad) real games for sale… and wandered right back out again.

I didn’t return until just last week. In the post-thanksgiving week, PSN was offering some mini-games that I hadn’t played yet for about $5 a pop. It seemed like a reasonable time to take a risk on a few.

They were mostly pretty good. I’ll be playing LocoRoco for some time. Everyday Shooter was pretty cool, too. Think of it as a high-def mating of Defender and Asteroids with more guitar. Calling All Cars is good fun, but I need to play it with some friends because it really looks like it’s meant to be a party game.

Most of them were cute arcade games — which the gaming community has decided to call “casual” now, whatever that means. Aren’t all games casual? None of them sucked so much that I wanted to throw my controller at the TV — more than I can say for some $60-a-pop super-mega-action-blockbusters of late (ahem, Spiderman 3). It’s amazing what a $55 price differential will do to your attitude about a game.

When I read the game news sites, I’m hearing more and more about downloadable games, mini-games, arcade-style games, and casual games. They can be produced on-the-cheap (I hear Everyday Shooter was written by one guy). They require no expensive physical distribution channel. So they can be sold cheaply. Users don’t feel as cheated when a $5 game isn’t entirely their cup of tea.

Me, I plan on buying some more $5 games, and maybe even some $10 games on the Playstation Network. A successful ecosystem of cheap-to-make downloadable console games might be just what big game developers need to shake off their creative slump.

Console snobbery

Posted in Consoles with tags , , , , , , , on November 7, 2007 by Kit

Recently a good friend asked me for advice on what console to buy. (There are several of them out there, you know.) After much hemming and hawing, my answer ended up being along the lines of: “buy the console that has some games that you want to play.”

We’re in a golden age for games. It’s a great time to have to make that decision, because each platform really does have an amazing experience to offer. If you go to the store and come back with a Wii, a 360, or a PS3, you are guaranteed to be able to have fun.

That’s a fact that gets lost in the reporting on the so-called Console Wars. Capitalism worked this time! Competition really did create a healthy market for videogames! Now it can get on top of ending poverty and providing a safe workplace for everyone.

I play a PS3, and I love it. My friend said that he mostly plays Grand Theft Auto and some sports games. I told him that he could probably get a 360 for less money and would still be able to play any game that he wants to play for the forseeable future.

I bet those people who bought the Wii are having an awesome time with their friends.

I still maintain one form of snobbery: I don’t play many games on my PC nowadays. I don’t have the patience to endlessly upgrade my graphics card or tweak my system in order to get great framerates out of the latest games. Nowadays, a top-of-the-line 3D graphics card costs as much as a gaming console.

Consoles are a stable platform that don’t typically require upgrades over their lifetime. A game that comes out at the end of a console’s lifetime plays just as well as a game that came out when the console was first released.

Besides, I’m don’t enjoy sitting at a computer screen while I play games. I like a bowl of popcorn in my lap. I like my big screen tv. I like my couch. I like my games to feel like something I do to relax.

Right now, I’m playing Oblivion for the first time. I can’t imagine hunching over a computer keyboard to play this game. The scope is massive, the landscape is huge and sprawling. Behind every hill is a new ruin to explore. I spent all of yesterday afternoon picking flowers, for chrissake. From my couch, it’s an immersive, engaging experience. From a computer chair, it might just feel like work.

“But MCP,” you say, “What of the better image quality on a PC monitor? What of the higher degree of interactivity? What of the ability to play with mods or download new content? What of the wider number of interesting input devices?”

To which I say, “Eh.”

Appropos of nothing, here’s a few new developments I’m excited about:

Okami on the Wii. If anything would get me to buy the Wii, it’s this game. I already solved the PS2 version, but the prospect of a Nintendo version is too tasty to resist.

A new game from Keita Takahashi. Katamari Damacy kept me up late for many nights rolling items up into ever larger balls of stuff. Nobi Nobi Boy looks like it’ll be just as cute and quirky. By the way, I hold to my belief that Takahashi is actually some breed of pixie and not actually human at all. Just look at him!

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He recently freaked every one out by implying that there was more to life than video games.

Little Big Planet. Yes, it’s still supposed to be out in 2008. Yes I still really want to play it.

Racing Games. Is there a fun multi-player racing game for the PS3 yet? I bought Motorstorm because I thought it would be just that, only to find that it didn’t have multi-player. You can play it over the internet, but that’s lame. I want to race my friends in my living room. I’m not interested in competing against racist, trash-talking pre-teens on the other side of the planet. It’s a fun game, but racing by yourself is boring and sad.