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Random Black-Ops Thought: Compound Noun Hilarity!

March 21st, 2011 No comments

Call of Duty: Black Ops expanded its Create-a-Class feature by letting players customize the appearance of their righteous souljah classes. It’s a stealthy way of combining A) playing with guns with B) playing with dolls. But if you don’t ask, they won’t tell.

One unlockable player customization feature is face paint:

For a nominal fee, you can look like Dutch from Predator, an NFL linebacker, or something else that you and only you will care about, but ironically will never actually see (unless it’s on the killcam, but to want that is just plain masochistic). Regardless, unlocking features in the game is inevitable: you play, you gain XP, you level up.

Upon reaching level 31, I returned to the game lobby and was greeted with the following message:

Uh, it’s a loadout, and not your load out, right? Waaaaaat! Somebody set us up the closed compound word!

Déjà Vu

February 22nd, 2011 No comments

Back around Y2K, I had moved house and happened to find myself living right beside an Electronics Boutique. Oh, happy day! Well, not exactly.

Under normal circumstances, yes, but at the time, I was in the process of marginalizing my “gaming self” (long story, but it was in part a social experiment). In addition to adopting the maligned Nintendo 64 as my console of choice, I sold my aging Pentium 133 for a pittance and purchased a G3 Mac and its inexplicably endearing OS 9.

Want to Game Different? The Mac was the right place to be. Its user base had always been a fraction of the PC’s, and given the beating Apple’s image was taking in the late 90s, more developers and publishers were going PC-only. And of the studios that were still sticking around, the traditional hybrid PC/Mac install discs and simultaneous release dates were becoming less common: develop for PC first, then have it ported to Mac. The reality was these businesses were simply heading to where the larger audience, thus higher potential profit, happened to be.

And when I first walked into that EB store (I guess it’s a GameStop now), this story was succinctly told by the fact that the entire Mac inventory could fit on one side of a centre-floor shelf. This image attested the Mac’s dwindling gaming presence, but was evidence of its former weight. Eventually, that shelf was used for something more important to the business, such as secondhand PS1 games, or bulbous Mad Catz packages.

It’s been a number of years since I moved from that area, and I recently happened to find myself in the old neighbourhood and paid that GameStop a visit. As I browsed the shelves, I was reminded of how much can change in a decade. The mighty PC — once the bane of every Mac gamer — had now been relegated to the Mac’s former status.

PC shelf at the local Electronics Boutique

It was a pretty sorry sight: one narrow shelf “brought to you by Blizzard,” and the other crammed with whatever else was in stock, both partially hidden by the cashier’s saloon door.

Ten years ago, PC games and their oversized boxes were at the front of the store, covers facing out. As consoles came and went, this section slowly shrank. Boxes were turned, spines out. The section was continuously moved to less prominent areas. Now, it’s right beside the cash station. It is impossible to peruse that shelf without having an employee “ask” you to move out of the way as though you were some kind of nuisance.

But at least you can use a nearby cardboard box as a seat while slowly going through the lower shelves.

Diminished shopping experiences aside, there are greater issues represented by that picture. There’s been talk about the imminent death of the PC-gaming market, and no doubt its relative underperformance at retail is feeding pet theories. In this chicken-and-egg scenario, publishers are going console-only or console-first, where larger profits lie, leaving the PC to wither at retail. Retailers devote less shelf space to the PC, giving publishers less reason to invest in PC projects. How Mac-like.

But maybe not.

This is not the demise of Mac gaming Part II — the marketplace is not what it was ten years ago. GameStop has clearly made up its mind about PC games in its stores, but I think this decision says more about its own worrisome future than the PC’s. Despite being the world’s largest brick-and-mortar game store, what GameStop does right now determines whether it matters ten years from now. And until they’ve parlayed their recent acquisition of Kongregate into something self-sustaining, I can’t consider them the most reliable litmus test of platform strength. (If anything, the fact that they bank a great deal of their future on a PC-based, Flash-game portal says a lot.)

And back to the former butt of the joke: over the last year, in spite of itself, Apple has experienced a resurgence as a gaming platform — not in the traditional sense, but in the mobile realm. There’s no denying the iPhone is pretty important to publishers right now (at least the western ones). And whether the era of the 99-cent game will last any longer than the Guitar Hero era did, the distribution channels and pricing models are clearly evolving.

The PC will correspondingly evolve to exist in this future.

And GameStop? Its share of the action could potentially dwindle to, oh, say a shelf’s worth. Should that happen, whoever the jackass is that manufactures those clear, round stickers GameStop uses to re-seal those “new” games is going to have a good cry.

Random Black-Ops Thought: Treyarch… Treyarch… Treyarch…

January 4th, 2011 No comments

So Bobby Kotick was chatting with CNN during the holiday rush last month, and said this about Treyarch and previous Call of Duty games:

“I don’t think Treyarch got their due for how much they contributed in the production and polish to the multiplayer.”

Well of course you don’t, silly monkey man!

Given the dust-up between Kotick’s Activision and former Infinity Ward heads Jason West and Vince Zampella (followed by the exodus of Infinity Ward employees to West and Zampella’s new game studio), Activision wants you to know just who in hell made Call of Duty: Black Ops!

Upon starting the game, you cannot interrupt the introductory bzzzt-bzzzt-waaaah splashscreens until just after the Treyarch logo has been presented. I get it. Treyarch made this. Infinity Ward didn’t. After the 50th time, it gets pretty annoying, not because of the few seconds I have to wait, but because it’s so clearly deliberate.

Whether Treyarch or Activision made this decision, it has a stink of unhealthy rivalries. Given Activision’s internal quarrelling and related lawsuits, one would think its shareholders would be concerned at how this company manages its studios. But when Black Ops makes over a billion dollars in sales only a month after release, short-term gain will always triumph over long-term pain because, clearly, the long term is dumb.

Re-Inventing the Square Wheel

November 15th, 2010 No comments

Lately, I’ve been seeing noise on the gaming newswires about Microsoft launching a “rebooted” Games for Windows LIVE this month. The centrepiece of this revamp is the new Games for Windows Marketplace. In the press release (very generally linked at http://www.microsoft.com/games/en-us/press.aspx — is this the first and only one?) big promises are made by Kevin Unangst, senior global director of PC and Mobile Gaming:

“With Games for Windows Marketplace, we set out to create a digital store built for PC gamers end-to-end… And by integrating with our existing Xbox LIVE and Windows Live services, we’ve made it easier than ever for millions of gamers to see for themselves how easy buying PC games can be.”

Here’s a succinct translation: We want to be like Steam.

"SteAM haves black & is RLY c00l... mEbbY I SteAL?"

Once again, Microsoft is being reactive instead of proactive, trumpeting another incremental step to wherever its betters happen to be. For most of Microsoft’s endeavours, this is par for the course. In this case however, what really irks me is they’ve reduced themselves to tagalong status as a gaming distribution and community portal on their own platform, while actively damaging PC gaming. The extra kick to the teeth is, while boosting their console ventures at the expense of PC gamers over the years, Microsoft has endlessly paid shallow lip service to those who prefer the mouse and keyboard.

Making a Mess of It

The first sign of Microsoft’s imminent abandonment of the PC (not to mention the deprivation of Mac gamers of one of their greatest game studios) was what happened after the acquisition of Bungie back in 2000. Once acquired, one work-in-progress, Oni, was rushed out the door; the other project, Halo, was nurtured and eventually became a flagship title not for the PC and Mac as originally planned, but for the upstart Xbox console. Microsoft knew Halo and its sequel were the exclusive franchise the Xbox needed to avoid becoming the next 3DO. But had Halo and (later) Halo 2 been released on the PC with primary, or at least equal, focus (instead of as late ports), this franchise could have been the “killer app” that would have made a PC-based GfWL-type service successful back in 2004; this would have been a strong counter to Valve’s “killer app” — the über-amazing and mega-popular Counter-Strike — that itself was used to kickstart Valve’s Steam service around the same time. Instead, Microsoft was more intent on establishing the Xbox through exclusiveness, instead of sharing a surefire hit across platforms, and dangling it as a carrot to boost a LIVE-type service on PC.

This Xbox-first stance was made clear with the release schedule for subsequent AAA titles. The practice of releasing games on console first — many made by traditional PC development shops, no less — was insultingly transparent. Well-promoted and acclaimed titles such as Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Full Spectrum Warrior, or Fable were available only on Xbox during the first few crucial months — the window most beneficial from the marketing investment — before eventually appearing on PC.

Late releases eventually became non-releases, for what seems like dubious marketplace leverage. Oddworld Inhabitants were an early example of Microsoft’s bag-o-cash manoeuvering, as its Oddworld games, Munch’s Oddysee, and Stranger’s Wrath, were made exclusive to Xbox when previous installments were also available on PC. After the release of Fable II on 360, PC gamers waited anxiously for their later “Lost Chapters” release, only to have Lionhead quash any rumours of it happening at all. Indie titles, such as the incredibly intriguing Limbo — the kind of game that is traditionally born on PC — won’t be leaving the confines of Xbox LIVE. Probably the most painful example is Alan Wake. Its oak-barrel aging process created a lot of anticipation leading up to its release, which only amplified the anxiousness for its enhanced PC version. It was cancelled. First came disappointment due to the fact that its developers, Remedy, got their start with PC games. Then came the searing pain from the pointy-shoe groin-kick when some Microsoft exec offered everyone a little nugget of… wisdom:

“Some games are more suited for the intimacy of the PC, and others are best played from the couch in front of a larger TV screen. We ultimately realised that the most compelling way to experience Alan Wake was on the Xbox 360 platform, so we focused on making it an Xbox 360 exclusive.”

Remedy had to do a bit of damage control at the suit’s comments, saying “we’re not going out there to say that PC gamers can’t enjoy it from their own PC set-up. We’re certainly not saying that. We have a strong heritage in PC gaming as well.”

Bitch Got Served

It shouldn’t be a surprise that all this PC neglect has netted Microsoft lost positioning on the PC front; time will tell whether sacrificing it for better positioning in the console market was worth it. Because somewhere between when Microsoft was using Halo to sell Xboxes and Halo 2 to push Xbox LIVE, another company named Valve launched a service called Steam, which went through its share of growing pains — the kind that required time and continued wholehearted investment to alleviate. It has paid off:

  • presently, Microsoft claims (based on their press release) “25 million users of Xbox LIVE, Zune Marketplace and Games for Windows”
  • some time in 2009, Steam hit the 25-million active account mark
  • as of tuh-day, the number of active Steam user accounts (i.e., based on recent logins, not account registrations) has passed the 30-million mark, with daily user peaks of 6 million simultaneous users

For those who know Steam, it has grown to rather adequately represent the gamut of gaming choices, from casual to hardcore, indie to AAA, strategy to action, and from classics to current releases. What is headlining Microsoft’s revamped Games for Windows Marketplace?

“The launch roster includes blockbuster games such as Fable: The Lost Chapters (Microsoft Game Studios) and Grand Theft Auto III.”

Well please pass the fuckin’ potatoes. In the year 2010, Microsoft is headlining the launch of their revamped Marketplace with a pair of games released on PC in 2005 (originally on Xbox in 2004), and 2002 (originally on PS2 in 2001). You know when you realize you’re going to run out of peanut butter before you’ve spread enough on the toast, and start dragging the knife under the lid and along the sides of the container? Yeah…

I’m no marketing wizard, but I think it’s unfortunate that Microsoft didn’t have a current game release to pair with that Marketplace launch/reboot, something exclusively for Windows. How about that next Warhammer 40K standalone expansion, Dawn of War II: Retribution? Oh, wait. Its developers, Relic, who had released previous Dawn of War installments on Games for Windows LIVE, have recently ditched it for Steam.



“I’ll call you…”

The way it’s been summed up so far, this could just be yet another tale of woe for PC gamers, or even the poor guys and gals that work in the Windows gaming divisions at Microsoft. But it’s not. It’s a painful example of executive-level “incentivize synergistic paradigms” dung-fling that pumps a disproportionate amount of “business” into the mix of “art” and “science” that, at the purest level, make up gaming. I’ll be frank: since the release of the 360 and the Xbox LIVE service in 2005, Microsoft as a whole ceased to care about Windows gaming. Of course, they can’t just come out and say this. Instead, they’ve forced PC gamers to endure a lot of fawning:

When: Summer 2006
Who: Rich Wickham, director, Games for Windows
What: Microsoft announces two more family-friendly titles to the soon-to-be-released Vista games roster.

"We promised [PC] gamers they would experience a renaissance of gaming goodness on the most popular Microsoft game platform."
"Windows has always provided a fantastic experience for gamers, but Windows Vista and these new games really take advantage of the enhancements in Windows Vista and are just the start of our renewed commitment to Windows gamers."
When: January 2007
Who: Peter Moore, VP of Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Business
What: Microsoft launches Vista; Peter Moore makes big promises about gaming on Windows.

"For the first time in history, we’re marketing Games for Windows as a true gaming platform, starting with redefining the brand."
"At retail, we’re taking PC games out of the shadows and giving them the spotlight they deserve."
"We'll see revenues from the PC gaming market grow more than ever before, as more people find it easier to get into casual and cutting-edge games alike."
When: Summer 2007
Who: Kevin Unangst, global director, Games for Windows
What: At E3, MS launches the Games for Windows brand, and Games for Windows LIVE.

"It's about treating Windows as a first-class gaming platform in every possible way."
"As a part of our Games for Windows initiative, we've been working with retailers worldwide to improve the experience consumers have when shopping for PC games -– meaning first-class branding, better visibility for PC games in the stores, and even interactive demo stations at hundreds of storefronts."
When: Summer 2008
Who: Chris Satchell, CTO, Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Business
What: Microsoft announces a revamped, less console-like Games for Windows LIVE interface, introduces Marketplace, and says GfW LIVE will no longer be a subscription service (!!)

"The first UI was good but it was too console-centric. It wasn't really what Windows gamers wanted. We have a new UI that's consistent with the way Windows gamers want to interact."
"I believe, from hereon, Games for Windows Live is going to take off"
When: Fall 2008
What: Microsoft launches the Games for Windows LIVE Marketplace, as though the Internet has existed on PC for only a year. There are three, perhaps four games for sale.
When: January 2009
What: Microsoft does some PR/damage control after closing Ensemble Studios and ACES Games Studio.

"Moving ahead, Microsoft will continue to invest in Windows as a first–class gaming platform through great Windows out of box experiences, our online gaming services including Games for Windows – LIVE, MSN Games, and Messenger games, and through new games for Windows developed by Microsoft Games Studios."

Reaping What You Sow

As each year passes, these promises come off sounding more and more disingenuous. In fact, if you just read them all at once, you wouldn’t think they were spewed over such a long span. The fact that this song-and-dance has last this long is amazing — but it can’t hold up indefinitely. Whatever the future of Windows and PC gaming may be, any success will be in spite of Microsoft’s comparatively half-hearted efforts; in failure, Microsoft will have to shoulder its fair share of the responsibility.

Not that they’d care at that point: they’ll just mash out a press release.

A Stagnant Quarter

October 26th, 2010 No comments

Wow. No updates for three whole months. I realize this kind of thing isn’t uncommon in the world of web logs, but I just didn’t think I’d be so capable of stringing together this many consecutive weeks of inactivity. It’s gaming, ferchrissakes. It’s what I’ve done for my whole life. It’s what I like. It’s who I be.

When I realized just how much time had passed since my last entry, I was knocked into a deep state of introspection: with regards to gaming, just what had I been doing with my time? Meditate on this, I did.

After heavy number crunching and hazy memory processing, I was able to compile the following chart:


After scrutinizing the numbers, it’s clear that I spend the least amount of time writing about games. Much to my surprise, I also spend a lot of time crying. Clearly, there is a give-and-take opportunity here: less time crying means more time for writing. It’s simple math.

Onward and upward…

Cause and Effect (“All hands, abandon ship!”)

July 23rd, 2010 No comments

FIFA Soccer 09 includes play-by-play by Clive Tyldesley and commentary by Andy Gray. Where’s John Motson? Anyway, I dunno about the other versions, but on the PSP, this game’s commentary has a ridiculous glitch where after a whistle for an offside, save, or what not, Andy Gray, thinking he saw one player bumrush another, claims that someone’s been hurt and needs to be wobbled away on a stretcher. Not only that, but he has been recorded crying the same conspiracy theory in every imaginable way:

"Well I think he may have to come off. It was a brilliant slide tackle, but I think he's injured himself."Was there even a slide tackle, let alone a brilliant one? Two players bumped into each other, and neither is rolling around with his hand in the air, looking in the ref's direction with the one open eye.
"Well, it was a great tackle; you have to admire that. But, he may have to come off -- I think he's injured himself.Well, that's an interesting observation. But, you just rearranged the clauses and downgraded "brilliant" to "great." I think I'm going to sidegrade the quality of that one from "dubious" to "repetitive."
"He may have to come off. He never held back with that slide tackle. But he's come off second best."Wait. What exactly are you saying? The guy who didn't hold back on the slide tackle is hurt?
"That was a great slide tackle. You have to admire that, but he may have to come off. He may have injured himself."Hold on. The player who's hurt is the one who didn't hold back on that slide tackle? What are you saying exactly?
"Well he didn't hold anything back with that slide tackle, but I think he's hurt himself."You sure are holding everything back on the variety. By chance are you burstin' for a pee, and need to quickly mail this one in?
"Well that was a brilliant slide tackle, but I think he's come off limping. Let's see if he can go on."OK. You're starting to sound like a crazy. Let's see for how much longer you can go on before you crap yourself and start drawing pentagrams on the wall with a chunk of your own stool.
"Well it was a lovely slide tackle, but I think he's come off limping. It'll be interesting to see of he can go on."Well blabbety blabbety slide tackle... this commentary is limping. It'll be interesting if it goes on in FIFA 10.
"That was a thunderous slide tackle, but I think he's injured himself in the process."I think you've injured your brain in the process.

As you approach the end of a game and hear one of these gems for the sixteenth time, you just want to punch someone in the mouth: Andy Gray, yourself, the testers who thought this was OK, the QA manager who doesn’t listen to testers, Billy Mitchell, Tyldesley — just ’cause he’s in the same room as Andy, the guy at EB Games who always asks me if I want the used version of the game I’m buying…

What’s that? Don’t shoot the messenger? Well it’s too bad I’m not playing the PS3 version. I could then download one of the non-English-language commentary packs, and while still getting some sense of atmosphere from the general tone of the play-by-play, hopefully not realize István B. Hajú or Evert Ten Napel are reading the same stupid lines over and over. Not exactly intended use, but it can serve a good purpose.

Goed was dat een briljante diauitrusting, maar ik denk hij limping. Zie of kan hij gaan!

Gee. Thanks a lot, Babel Fish.

Welcome Back. But Not Really.

July 15th, 2010 No comments

Due to a recent bout of World Cup fever, I picked up myself a copy of FIFA Soccer 09 for my PSP. It had been a long time since I last spent any meaningful amount of time with a footie game. It goes something like this:

Five Aside Soccer (Commodore 64) – I’m actually not 100% sure whether this was the title, but that’s the name that came to mind. Whichever it was, all I really remember is just before opening kick-off, a digitized rendition of guys singing the “here we go; here we go; here we go…” song would play, which actually sounded more like “herrgghheeegooossshh herrgghheeegooossshh herrgghheeegooossshh sshhhh shhtt…”

FIFA International Soccer a.k.a. FIFA ’94 (DOS) – EA’s first soccer game. This one was so cute, you wouldn’t think it was the beginning of a menacing cash-cow franchise. Funnily enough, it was a bout of World Cup fever in 1994 that prompted me to hit the shops.

FIFA Soccer 96 (DOS) – Real player names, clubs, and leagues. Multiple camera angles in 3D stadiums. Lots of player animations (including limping!). This was head and shoulders above FIFA ’94.

International Superstar Soccer ’98 (Nintendo 64) – Allegedly the best at the time. I really loved this one, although I didn’t have the manual, so I couldn’t figure out what I should do about those animated smiley faces beside each player name.

FIFA 99 (Nintendo 64) – Yawn.

FIFA Soccer 09 (PSP) – I’m back in the club! All it took was last year’s edition, a bargain bin, and a $9.99 price sticker. ‘Nuff said.

Note that big fat ten-year gap. Given the yearly releases (even with incremental improvements), and an apparent re-invention to stack up more favourably to Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer, after a decade away I assumed I was going to be overwhelmed with the flurry of change and heaped-on complexity. I’d be just like good ol’ Brooks Hatlen in Shawshank Redemption. Minus the hanging myself part.

Odo admires FIFA 09's workmanship.
The allusions to Odo from Deep Space Nine are fitting: he tried to resemble the real thing, but couldn’t get it quite right. Just like this game.

I can’t say my prediction was wrong. Before (feigned) mastery comes learning, and I found there was plenty to learn (the perfect example being all the set-piece options, including some eight distinct actions for a free kick). And after a series of miserable attempts at scoring a goal, defending a lead, winning a freakin’ match… I’m now in the midst of a semi-respectable season with Chelsea in the Premiere League. It still has taken a while, and has been frustrating at times. But I know that given the extensive control set, time is all it takes to imprint many a button sequence to memory.

But you know, it sure would help if the manual were better. With its paltry 14 pages, about half of which consists of obligatory legal and introductory material, it doesn’t amount to much. Never mind not having proper explanations for the very cool Be A Pro mode, or information on setting up tournaments (I’m assuming I’m not permitted to set up a 32-team tournament with national squads because I’m supposed to buy 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa); when it comes to controls, a list of supposedly every control in the game is spat out over a few pages.

What’s irritating is realizing the manual only explains the core aspects of these controls. For example, it tells you which buttons to press on a free kick, but fails to tell you that pushing up on the stick applies top-spin to the ball. It explains how to have your keeper throw the ball, but not how to fake one. It explains that holding the shoot button “increases power”, but fails to specify that “power” actually means lift, not force. I’m of the opinion that mastering the subtleties of control, not learning what the controls are, is what should be putting demands on one’s time. (It makes the payoff sweeter.) And that leads to another beef: the absence of a training mode. Want to try out chip shots? Any of the four types of corner-kick shots? Dribble tricks? Tough shit. None are available to me outside of a game situation.

Before someone dials me a waaambulance, I’m pretty sure my reactions are similar to but a tiny subset of FIFA players. I’m betting the majority are those who have religiously played past iterations, and start each new title already equipped with the muscle memory and knowledge about the game’s feature set to hit the ground running. Considering this, it can’t be easy for a developer to have a hit franchise on its hands. In a world of sequels, how much does your next installment cater to the expertise of the existing, loyal playerbase that made the title a success, and how much attempts to broaden the audience and win over new potential devotees? EA Sports is the poster child for this cyclic dilemna.

Perhaps I should make the most of my slow start with FIFA Soccer 09, and treat it as a rock-solid foundation on which I can build a renewed relationship with the EA Sports soccer franchise, one that has me plying my ever-expanding skill-set on each subsequent offering!

OR, I could join a local rec league, and go outside in the fresh air, and play the real thing.

Patchouli Stink

June 23rd, 2010 No comments

Patches. They’ve been a part of PC gaming for so long, a growing number of gamers weren’t around when publishers only had narrower customer-interaction channels in the forms of letter mail, telephone, and eventually pioneering online services such as CompuServe.

Broadband certainly played its role in turning post-release patching from a “version 1.0b” exception into across-the-board convention. The reality of it truly hit me the day I waited for a fat Battlefield 1942 patch to download, only to find out its size owed much to the new, swirling, animated EA logo that was crammed in, courtesy of corporate rebranding. (“Challenge Everything,” including my patience.) I reluctantly accepted this, and have since plodded along with a pretty set pattern: install a game, check the version number in the release notes (hoping it’s actually stated), go to the publisher’s site (hoping they still exist), find the latest cumulative patch (hoping I don’t hit a broken link), download it, and run the installer.

I was surprised then, after recently installing my v1.0 retail copy of Relic’s Company of Heroes, to find a patch page full of links to torrents. I may be making something about of nothing, but, torrents? I had two off-the-cuff thoughts: aren’t torrents synonymous with piracy, and, are all of Relic’s CoH players using a torrent client?

Now, I know a BitTorrent file is not guaranteed to point to illegally distributed content. Kind of like how an unmarried man who spends a lot of time loitering near playgrounds and owns a van with an ample supply of lollipops in the glove compartment isn’t guaranteed to be a child molester. In Relic’s defence, there may be a cost-savings benefit by offloading all that traffic from their servers by using the peer-to-peer method (one of the CoH patches was 1.8 GB); nevertheless, I just find it ironic that the protocol used to distribute the patches is also what’s enabling piracy to be more pervasive than ever in PC gaming. (Case in point: coming up with a game name off the top of my head, I googled “silent storm” and “patch”, and got a torrent link on the first results page.)

The second issue, the format of the patches, assumes the person downloading them knows what a torrent is, and if so, even has a client installed. Consider two safe assumptions: BitTorrents may be the norm for a younger and/or more tech-savvy demographic, but they’re by no means universally used; people playing CoH are mainly in their 20s and 30s instead of, say, their 40s and 50s — the key word here being “mainly,” not “exclusively.” So while there might be significant overlap between the demographics of the BitTorrent sharer and the RTSing PC gamer, it’s not comprehensive. What you end up with is a subset of paying customers that a) likes to game it up, and b) doesn’t know how to torrent it up. Not only do they have to jump through a series of hoops to patch their game, but in doing so, become equipped with the means and knowledge to hop on board the casual piracy train. More irony.

(I can’t ignore the game’s auto-update feature, but this route can be awfully slow, and there are people who, having spent the time waiting for updates to download, would rather have the actual files on their own hard drives for future reinstallations.)

Given this seemingly “odd” distribution choice, I looked for examples of BitTorrents being used for “good” instead of “evil.” One application was by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which a couple of years back offered episodes of its TV show, Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister as BitTorrents. The first North American television network to do so, they drew inspiration from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (also state-owned), which distributed one of its more popular shows, Nordkalotten 365, via peer-to-peer networks as well. Aside from respectively reminding me of a couple of things — namely, young politician wannabes can be pretty annoying, and I don’t understand Norwegian — these served as uncommon examples of the potential of digital distribution, and a possible sign of good things to come.

So then why does game patching via BitTorrents seem so strange to me? The key differences are the broadcasters offered a self-contained product (i.e., a TV show episode), and consciously targetted a younger, social-networking demographic that watches more video streamed off the web than caught off the air. In other words, the broadcasters supplemented their traditional (TV) and newer (web-casting) distribution channels with BitTorrents, creating three types of audience, who can be defined by their age and technological inclinations. Now, if a AAA developer were to seed a complete game as a BitTorrent, relying on some kind of central management to ensure legitimate use, that would be quite adventurous; however, initially distributing a game through conventional channels (brick-and-mortar stores), then offering patches only through peer-to-peer networks seems almost lazy and presuming of their customer base.

Then again, I’m the one who didn’t feel like installing a torrent client and manually running 12 incremental patches, and in all honesty, I don’t really know why the patches-as-torrents method was chosen. So maybe I am the one who’s lazy and presuming.

What I do know is if, for superficial reasons, I get a hankering to watch some Band of Brothers after playing some Company of Heroes, the easiest route will be to use that little torrent client that wasn’t on my hard drive until I had to patch my game.

The Shelf of Shame

June 3rd, 2010 No comments

One of the perks of not being married to a particular game genre is having the opportunity to juggle a few titles without feeling overloaded. Textbook definitions aside, different genres tend to have their own feel, push different buttons, tickle different parts of the brain. Some put greater demands on your reflexes and instincts, while others encourage you to deliberate. Some allow you to close yourself off from the outside world, while others throw you into one occupied by others. Some entrance you with aural and visual delights, allowing you to find a rhythm amidst the chaos, while others show up in plain street clothes, eventually revealing an underlying sophistication.

The tactics RPG — my umbrella term that includes what’s more commonly known as strategy RPGs, as well as RPGs that incorporate a more ‘tactical’ battle system — has always been an important part of this gamer’s diet. And while I consider X-COM one of the greatest games ever made, I have a special place in my heart for Japanese tactics games that are crafted for consoles. Unlike many of their Western-made counterparts, these games emphasize story equally with the underlying design, and no matter how juvenile the backstory, there’s almost always a charming cast of characters and character designs woven in. They’re meaty, typically offering at least 30 hours of enjoyment, yet their mission-based structure makes them more manageable to play compared to sprawling dungeon crawlers or open-ended strategy sims. When played on a handheld, they make themselves bite-sized diversions, or miniature mental workouts that can and need to be kept close by at all times. For these reasons, my tactics games and tactics RPGs have their own place on my shelf, where they can proudly sit with distinction.

It seems strange, then — discouraging, actually — that my appetite for them seems to have waned as of late. I have repeatedly popped in a new game card into my DS, thinking each time I powered it on that it was the beginning of a long and meaningful relationship, complete with walks on the beach, Sunday two-seater bike rides, colourful flower bouquets, and wrists tied to the bedposts.

For whatever reason, the same pattern slowly takes form: I trudge through the tutorial, shut things down for the night, then a week later, realize I have not returned. The calibre of embarassment derived from this inactivity lies somewhere between that which is found from looking at your stack of half-read books, and the realization that you just unintentionally ate a large bag of chips for dinner. (It’s closer to the book end of the spectrum, though.) The number of “strikes” is growing, and I cannot come up with any good explanation.

In an attempt to make amends, the last few that haven’t made the cut deserve a little praise.

Knights in the Nightmare
There are a handful of development shops whose output will always interest me, to the point where I’m scrutinizing their latest project for any reason not to purchase it. One of these shops is Sting, particularly the team led by designer Shinichi Ito. It’s not like I know the guy or anything; I just got to know his work, first through the adorable and marvelous Riviera, then the brilliant Yggdra Union, both on GBA. Although very different from each other, each game introduced refreshing fundamental changes to turn-based battle systems, and in doing so set a precedent for subsequent titles. It’s pretty much a case now where if Shinichi Ito thought of it, Sting developed it, and Atlus localized it, on release day, I am skipping to the game store like a little girl.

Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume
I’ve never played anything from the Valkyrie Profile series. My loss, I suppose. Because I had always associated the VP franchise to straight-up console RPGs (ditto for CotP’s developer, Tri-Ace), I didn’t give it much consideration until a couple of friends recommended it, pointing out its turn-based strategy elements. It would be nice to say there was more of a lure than that, but sometimes, it’s just nice to play something that your friends have, if only for the discussions on decisions about party members and character stat building.

Infinite Space
Once upon a time, there was a Capcom studio named Clover. Clover was formed to create original games, and brought us Viewtiful Joe, God Hand, and Okami. One dark day, Capcom closed down Clover. But then key members left to form Platinum Games. They stood as an independent, answering to their creative urges instead of big fat crybaby shareholders or number-crunching suits. They announced projects for various platforms (Wii, DS, and 360/PS3), saying each had its own strengths to offer. One of those projects was called Infinite Space. I saw screenshots. I saw spaceships. Then, I saw nothing. For there were tears in my eyes. The Japanese love their sci-fi as much as their fantasy; you just wouldn’t know it based on their videogames. This title was as unquestionably noteworthy as the company itself.

Suckered Again: How I Made My Logitech MX 518 Cry

May 14th, 2010 No comments

Despite the tens of millions of netbook-toting Facebook gamers and monogamous citizens of Azeroth, there is still a large subset of PC gamers that fit the ‘hardcore’ mould. They worship the platform as much as the apps that run on it, and as a consequence, get pulled into the never ending incremental upgrade cycle.

These nameless supporters of the Taiwanese economy regularly scan their tech-store e-newsletters for scorching hot deals on hardware that wasn’t even on their radar until a thumbnail of it, accompanied by red reduced-price text, dared them to click and buy. Gigabytes become terabytes, cool ‘n’ quiet becomes solid-state, on-board becomes dedicated, 4:3 becomes widescreen, and single panels become dual displays.

My Shady Past

I like to think I’m not one of those people. I ought to know because I used to be. I am of that generation whose M.O. was best encapsulated by John Dvorak’s early-90s assertion that PC users need to upgrade every three years to the best possible system they can afford, in order to reap all that the latest advances offered. (This is when a system would run you $1,500-$2,000, not $500-$1,000.) His statement was made when the PC’s open-endedness was transforming it from a squeaking four-colour loser of a gaming platform into the undisputed king of the hill, pushing the then-more-capable Amigas, Ataris, and Macs aside.

With that open-endedness came growth: sound cards, higher resolution displays, 3D graphics cards, and CD-ROM add-on kits. Back then, when you upgraded something, whether or not it actually mattered, you could tell the difference. Suddenly, you could play Doom smoothly at full screen, listen to digitized sound, notice the realistic shading on that polygonal character’s pointy head, or jack up the resolution to something that, strangely, gamers over a decade later are calling HD.

It’s debatable whether an upgrade today has the same reality-shifting impact it did a decade or two ago; yet, although not as prevalent, being a PC gamer and a ‘hardcore’ PC enthusiast can still go hand in hand. Truth be told, it’s what makes the subculture special. Yes, it’s just rig porn, but it’s authentically geeky, and I really can’t think of a console equivalent of this behaviour. There’s console modding, but that’s more of an all-out, goal-oriented project than frivolous and finicky incremental PC upgrades. A stock PC, with its creaky mouse and on-board graphics is just crap for many games — it begs to be upgraded. A stock console setup is often all you’ll ever need.

Implausible:

Console Gamer A: Shit, yo. They’s a sale on Mad Catz controllers at Walmart.
Console Gamer B: Bustacap! This is they model with the stiffer buttons that make they thumbs ache after eight hours of UFC 2010? And the mushy start button you gotta jab with the end of a pen?
Console Gamer A: Double true. What else yo. Two words: translucent purple.
Console Gamer B: Holllaaaa…
Console Gamer A: This is authentic Mad Catz.
Console Gamer B: Paw, print!
Console Gamer A: We order a few to save on the shipping!
Console Gamer B: Now you talkin. We order from they innanet. But first, pass that bag of Doritos that’s under the couch.

Plausible:

PC Gamer A: Have a gander at these new headphones I got for only 60 bucks.
PC Gamer B: Crom’s bones!
PC Gamer A: They sport a mini-LCD that hangs right at eyebrow level, so at any time I can look up and see my RAM and CPU usage.
PC Gamer B: You’re… like a starfighter pilot.
PC Gamer A: Huzzah! And, I customized the readout to cycle among system status, and the last three tweets from Ars Technica.
PC Gamer B: Man alive! Are the cans glowing? Pulsing? Breathing?
PC Gamer A: Indeed. The ‘phone lights cycle through a customized spectrum. Right now, I have them shifting back and forth between a regal purple and a camembert jaune.
PC Gamer B: So much drooool!
PC Gamer A: If you need to wipe up, there’s a roll of toilet paper on my desk.

Cursed, Poisonous Web Sale

Even when I was putting together a new PC a few months back to replace my five-year-old machine (I said I wasn’t one of those people, didn’t I?), the thought of dropping my Logitech MX 518 had never crossed my mind. It had served me well over the years. It was worth keeping. Then, out of nowhere, my friend IMed me:

Him: are you looking for a new mouse?
Me: Churl. How *dare* you even ask. My friend, my mouse and I have a relationship. It’s *symbiotic*. We are on a first-name basis: I call him ‘Max,’ and he calls me ‘Sir.’ He knows me so well, there have been occasions where I’ve left the room to get a drink while he takes control, Kit style, and scolds my keyboard for not helping out. Asking me if I’m looking for a new mouse is like asking me if I’m looking for a new *mother*.
Him: well the logitech g5 is on sale right now at future shop for $35
Me: 16548136554654
Him: was that your cc number?
Me: ahs hit brb…

As I stared at my ‘hi you bought a mouse’ email, I wondered what had happened. This model normally goes for some $70. At half price, it was grabbed by the ankles and yanked down to impulse-purchase level. ‘Impulse purchase’ is just another way of saying ‘zero justification.’ Out of principle, I felt the need to fabricate some.

1. Braiding means no tangling — The G5 cord is wrapped in some tightly woven net that prevents it from sticking to any corners or crevices around the desktop. Never again will I have to use ‘ran out of cord’ as a reason for screwing up in-game, and can rely on ‘my mouse hit the keyboard’ like there’s no tomorrow. The only problem here is my Func mousing surface comes with a mouse cord clip that accomplishes the same thing. Redundant. Next.

2. Rich texture — Since the MX 518 has a glossy surface, there’s really nowhere for dust, dirt, and oil to go. It just accumulates on the mouse surface. After a while, you end up with this crusty layer, necessitating a thorough wipe-down. The G5’s surface is textured. All dust and dirt will be absorbed in the teeny little grooves and notches, ensuring you’ll never have to deal with residue again! Actually, this is kind of gross.

3. Higher DPI — My MX 518 can track at 1800 DPI. The G5 can do 2000 DPI. This minor improvement seems like solid boasting ground until you realize that companies like Razer are making gaming mice that do 3500 and 5600 DPI.

4. Cool lights — While the MX 518 had buttons to switch the DPI setting on the fly, you were doing this blindly. The G5 has the same three-setting switch, but improves this by including an indicator light! Unfortunately, your hand tends to cover it, negating its usefulness. (Still, bonus points since the lit-up DPI label nonsensically looks like the guy from Lode Runner. Awww!)

5. Slippery feet — The box states the feet are made from polytetrafluoroethylene. I believe that’s scientist speak for Teflon. I’m not sure if my MX 518 feet were Teflon, but I can just pretend they weren’t and claim the non-stick goodness on the G5 will help me hijack the leaderboards in the Korean StarLeagues. The down side is I’m not sure if I ever want to boast about any hardware I own and include the word ‘Teflon’ because I kind of like the fact that girls will talk to me.

6. Configurable weightsThe G5 series comes with a tray that slips in the bottom of the mouse. In this tray are eight holes where you can insert any combination of 4.5-gram and 1.7-gram weights. They even come with their own case. It’s like having an awesome little tin of lethal mints. I secretly admit that this is a nice luxury perk, but there’s no chance in hell this would be my reason for buying; I just don’t see anyone really caring about this degree of weight customization:

G5 Owner A: I like my G5 weight done ‘medium-well,’ hence, I am a 6×4.5g + 2×1.7g kind of guy. How about you?
G5 Owner B: Hmm, well until you asked, I had always fancied myself as more of an ass man, but now that you bring it up, yes, I do like that six-four-five-plus-two-one-seven config, with the one-sevens on the left side, mind you. When I’m fragging, it feels like I’m under water, and my mouse movements are being guided by the hand of god.
G5 Owner C: Were you born in your house? If you’re not using four four-point-fives in a four-corner spread, you may as well go back to using a sharp rock to cut your uncooked meat. With my config, the weight distribution is perfect for the mouse’s Teflon feet.
G5 Owner B: Why are all the girls are leaving the room?

7. Laser > Optical — I guess at some point, Laser Vs. Optical became the new USB Vs. PS2. As ignorant as it is to say, ‘laser’ just sounds cooler than ‘optical.’ Would you rather have a laser sight on your rocket launcher, or some Panzerfaustian optical sight? Aren’t laser pointers a million times neater than optical pointers? And isn’t an optical pointer just your index finger?

Without knowing the true benefits, I had to defer to various hardware forums and tech article comment threads. Based on my research, it appears that if you believe you’ll get smoother tracking and better accuracy with a laser mouse, your claims “are part of a disease called the numbnuts.” Well thank god for the interweb. I don’t want to be tagged as someone with the numbnuts, so I am putting my flag away.

8. Lean buttons — The mouse wheel, in addition to being able to be pressed like a button, also has left and right lean presses. So now this mouse wheel scrolls up and down, presses down as a button, and tilt-clicks left and right as well. (That sound you just heard was a Mac user tearing off his black turtleneck and throwing it to the ground.) It’s just unfortunate that I don’t play many games that actually have ‘lean’ as a configurable action, and since I don’t plan on installing the Logitech SetPoint configuration software, I can’t easily remap left and right lean to more useful binds, such as ‘SAY fuck you; SAY bitch; QUIT’, or ‘SAY I won’t give you the satisfaction you skilled son of a whore; KILL’.

9. Crysis > He-Man — Both mouse models have inexplicable patterns on them. The G5 can be described by ‘what the fuck is that?’ while the MX 518 can be described by ‘what, the fuck, is that?’ Owning either mouse is like owning a pair of Zubaz pants. How do I choose? Well, if I had to play the pattern association game, I’d say the MX 518 reminds me of the He-Man Battle Armor; the G5 makes me think of the cloak’s visual effects in Crysis. Since I am hetero, the outcome is obvious: the G5 wins.

10. Charitable donations — Now this seems like a win-win: there are gamers in the developing world who could use my old mouse. What better way to prove that my MX 518 is still perfectly good than to play my small part in helping some lad in Zimbabwe get onto the World Cyber Games circuit. When the Net*One Warriors win bronze in Counter-Strike at the 2012 WCG in Linz, Austria, I will be standing on a hilltop, somewhere halfway across the world, with my fist in the air, and a single tear running down my cheek. All I need to do is play my North-American role in getting this fine piece of electronics to another part of the world: throw it in the garbage.