Thursday, November 18, 2010

43. head in the clouds - directions in gaming?

hello there kids, today's word of the day is going to be cloud.  can you say cloud?  thought you could.  now this doesn't concern what you see when you look at the sky.  nor will it get into a certain spikey haired character in a squaresoft franchise.  what we're  talking about is cloud computing.

the concept of cloud computing and what the hell "the cloud" in fact is used to be a very simple and straightforward definition.  unfortunately it got caught up in the marketing machine and they've decided to pick it up and run with it, and is now a "phrase du jour," as garnter analyst ben pring would say.  and those of you that know me know that "phrases du jour" and marketing buzzwords usually serve little purpose in this world other than to anger me.  to tech civilians this new cloud lingo is just a buzzword that companies use to shill their software in television commercials.  "to the cloud!" is the battle cry microsoft uses in their latest windows advertisements to highlight people doing things that are already easily done without cloud computing and have been easily done for the last decade. well, what most geeks have been able to easily do for the past decade anyway.  and now?  hey look at that!  you can look at your photos online or stream tv waiting for a plane at the airport?  i saw it on a tv commercial so it must mean anyone can do it now!


so what is cloud computing really?  as i mentioned, it's very straightforward - instead of data processing running on your own computer or device and using its own resources, the processing is web-based using shared resources, then pushed back to you over your network connection.  in kind of an on-demand fashion.  this is becoming popular with businesses because it means they don't have to buy as much hardware for data processing, and more importantly, don't have to hire more people to support that hardware.  it's an instant increase in power without an increase in infrastructure investments - basically outsourcing computing power.  and why call it the cloud?  clouds have historically been a metaphor for the internet at large for a long time.  whenever i've ever had  to do network mapping you can rest assured that the image on the other side of my cute little firewall symbol is clip art of a cloud to represent the outside internet connection coming into our network.  just the way it's always been.

boring, i know.  but large enterprise isn't the only place where "the cloud" is taking a hold.  there are other far more entertaining uses.  ever stream a movie from your laptop or tv from netflix?  that requires a cloud stlye infrastructure.  and even gaming is moving that way, with the existence of companies like valve's steam (steam cloud, get it?), which came out in 2008, and the more recent opening of onlive.  onlive is a company that's been around since 2009 that works a lot like netflix, except that it streams PC games instead of tv episodes or movies.  so what's the advantage?  much like businesses, it gives home users the opportunity to have more gaming power without a big upgrade cost.  you can breath life back into an old laptop or last-generation computer and still be able to play new games with high graphics settings in HD.  your machine specs don't even have to be all that impressive, as long as you have a broadband connection.  this is made possible by all the processing being done through the cloud, instead of seriously taxing your processor, GPU , and other local device resources.  pay for the game, and it is instantly available for play.  no trip to the store.  and no media required.

onlive's game system, shipping dec. 2 (img: kotaku)
it may seem like i'm focusing on onlive int this and fully ignoring steam and the contributions that valve has made to this type of game delivery system.  the reason is that onlive is upping the ante a bit.  while steam is still on PC's only, and facing threats in europe, onlive is beginning to take orders for new hardware for their service (pic on the right)  tomorrow, and shipping on december 2.  that little onlive box connects to your tv and a broadband live, and works with the included controller and a revamped pricing plan.  onlive used to work on a $14.95 per month subscription in addition to the price of the games.  all that's over with the new hardware, which puts and end to the subscription fee for a one-time hardware cost of $99.

this could prove to be a viable (and affordable) alternative to pricey consoles and $60 price tags on games.  granted, onlive's library is limited right now, but it still has some decent offerings like borderlands, darksiders, and kane and lynch games.  steam definitely owns it on game availability and selection, boasting the recent hit call of duty: black ops as part of its library.  but again, limited to use on a computer.  by opening up cloud based game delivery to more tiny console-type peripherals or even building it into to services like xbox live or the playstation network, this type of game delivery method can only get bigger.

you know, once they can make it profitable.

Monday, November 15, 2010

42. living (and loving) in a fantasy world

andurus and branwen in final fantasy xi
so.  post number 42.  i actually hoped and hoped that when i went through my daily news sites this morning that i would find something that related to hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy, the answer to life, the universe and everything, or even some sort of suggestion not to panic or recommendation that i keep a towel handy.  hell i would have even settled for something on mos def, but alas, i found none.  maybe once i DO find something like that i'll renumber all of my posts to make it line up.  we'll see.  in the meantime this story will have to do as my attempt to entertain you monkeys.  it's a story about technology bringing people together and tearing them apart.  love blooming where it may seem impossible.  a torrid tale about two star-crossed lovers finding each other... and their avatars.

yes, avatars.  as in the onlines.  and the interwebs.  this whole story takes place in the virtual realms of final fantasy XI online, an MMO (massively multiplayer online) game based in the final fantasy universe.  in it, as is the case in most MMO's, players can create their own characters and specify their attributes - including race, gender and class.  you can play as anything from a heavily armored berserking beast of a warrior that takes care of things up close and personal to a intellectual giant - a robe-clad magic caster who deals with their enemies from afar and many shades in between. this is the backdrop for the story of paul turner and vicky teather of the UK, or as they're known in avatar form, andurus the hume and branwen the tarutaru.  after playing together for while, they became friends and grew close, until andurus (paul) had a job change and had to cut his daily 4-5 hour final fantasy intake from his schedule.  branwen (vicky) always had a crush on him, but didn't realize to what extent until he left. living with her boyfriend at the time, her conscience was wracked with guilt and she couldn't suppress how she felt about her hume friend. according to an interview with the london daily mail - "... i couldn’t help but feel guilty as i was living with my partner. at first i tried to forget my feelings." she went on to say "but i couldn't. fortunately, i had paul’s MSN address and nervously sent a message to him telling him how much i missed him and confessing my feelings."  paul, who also had a serious girlfriend at the time, suggested that they meet up in southampton on christmas eve.  so they did.  and the rest is history.  she broke up with her boyfriend, he dumped his girlfriend, and by new years day they were an item, visiting each other on weekends and continuing their "date nights" in virtual space, until the power vested in someone by something somewhere pronounced them mr. and mrs. turner.

so how did this attraction even begin?  according to mrs. turner, "one day, when as andurus he endangered his own character in the game to save me, i felt an incredible bond between us. it might sound strange to people who have never played an online game, but the fact he was a traditional man with values to match and was protecting me was what first drew me to him."  and i guess i can understand that on some level.  but lets face it, according to this logic, anyone playing the MMO role of a "tank" (a character that absorbs and takes damage to defend their party) should be able to instantly attract the affections of anyone else they happen to be tanking for.  and if they can't defend a clothie, then they're really not doing their job, are they?  they better be picking up those mobs and keeping them healers alive.  could this just have been a player fulfilling their class role?  and if they endanger their own character and "die," they are resurrected within minutes.  unless this was in the old diablo II hardcore ladders, in which case that kind of action would be far more moving.  back when a dead character was a dead character.

...but i digress.

the turners' nuptials
anyway, as i said i do understand it on some level.  i do have a few friends that i know only through playing world of warcraft.  a friend of a friend of a friend of mine had as his best man someone he's only met once in real life, but had been playing halo with for 6 years.  and in that sense, MMO's, as well as other online gaming, have brought about what i would call serious sociological shifts in the way people interact.    it can already be seen that people will interact in these virtual worlds more or less the same way they would in real life, with slight situational modifiers (one of my friends wrote a masters thesis on identity and communication in virtual worlds - an excellent read, let me know if you want me to hook you up).  it's an interesting evolution from just chatting online to actually doing something while talking and having fun.  some quests and objectives in these games force you to interact with others.  for example a couple of nights ago i was playing with 24 complete strangers in one of warcraft's raid encounters.  anyone has spent significant time with a geek in their life can attest that social interaction is a subject foreign and feared by most of us, and for some people, this forced social bonding over a common goal might be all the social interaction they have.  romantic couplings between people who may or may not be socially well adjusted are the next logical step.  i can understand how it can be almost be like an e-harmony or something similar, but for geeks, to get to know someone and figure out whether or not you really want to meet in real life.  the turners weren't the first couple to meet and marry this way.  a couple of years ago, again in the UK, a chance meeting in second life led to the marriage of kristen birkin and steve sweet.  and we can expect this trend to continue.  according to social psychologist dr. arthur cassidy, "cyber-dating" is becoming more common and actually a preferred method for young professionals these days.  as many professionals put in increasingly long hours at their jobs, they have less time for socializing.  so in addition to online dating, some people are logging into fantasy worlds just to meet people (on this subject, for a real social adventure log onto a "role playing" server on warcraft to see some... interesting stuff).  "intelligent people like the control they have over their character. you are not revealing your whole self straight away and if you don't want to talk to someone any more, it is easy just to click out of the fantasy world."  true words, doc.  true.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

41. remake, re-release, reboot - a go-to when all else fails

cover art, goldeneye 007 for the wii
and by current evidence, all else has failed.  we're getting to the point where the game industry is, for lack of a better phrase, enhancing their use of these three techniques in game development as much as or more than generating original intellectual property.  sometimes it's pulled of very well, and the publisher gets a big thumbs up from gamers and critics alike.  but at others, the result is a tarnished franchise, unhappy gamers, and pure rage.  2010's been a big year for all of these things, and brings with it a sort of strange shift in the industry.  and why?  my guess is the opportunity to get some revenue for a cost that is lower than new game development by millions.  so it's what we've got to work with right now.

first, re-releases.  i'm actually a fan of this.  if you've been into video games for any extended period of time i'm sure you'd be too.  they bring back stuff i miss, unchanged, in standard definition, without tampering.  it's the purest form of these techniques the industry now employs.  and there's a reason.  what we have these days is a different era of gaming, where consoles have the connectivity and capacity to deliver games from past generations for old school fans to relive and younger fans to see for the first time.  and it servers a purpose.  there are sequels and part 3's and 4's of games that are being released, where their target audience couldn't even grip a controller when the original was released!  let's look at street fighter IV as an example.  the series is a classic, and i played street fighter II on the SNES for the first time in 1992.  for those keeping score, that was 18 years ago, and i was a wee lad of 11.  now yes, i know, some of it is just a marketing ploy that plays on the nostalgia of older gamers (myself included) but it in addition to bringing in new fans it does provide gamers my age something we want.  sometimes i just don't want to have to go digging through the basement to find a PS one or SNES.  it's much easier to be able to download it online and play it through the same next-gen console you already have hooked up.  right now playstation's doing just that, and is re-releasing parasite eve and parasite eve II through digital download on the playstation network.  now granted, the next parasite eve game, the 3rd birthday, is coming out for the PSP soon and this is serving as a lead-in, but it works.  when 3rd birthday was announced my first thought was that i kind of wanted to play the first parasite eve game.  and i will indeed be downloading them when i can.

now a re-make is a little bit different.  it's where you get into a grey area, and try to find balance between quality and how true to the original the remake is.  some have been warmly received by the gaming community, but there have been some that are critically panned and anger-inducing.  as an example of the bad, let's look at metal gear solid: twin snakes, which was a remake of the original metal gear solid.  konami completely retconned play style of the newer games to the remake, completely destroying the feel of the original and removing a lot of the challenge.  it featured added cutscenes and voicework as well.  critics universally lauded the game as wonderful but destroying the original made it a failure in my eyes, and i believe there are more than a few people who would agree with me.  but there is a lot of good in remakes, and nintendo's leading the way.  recently on the wii for example, donkey kong country returns and goldeneye 007. the original DKC was a huge hit on the SNES, and goldeneye dominated shooters and local non-networked multiplayer on the n64 (that 4-way split screen made it extremely fulfilling when playing in golden guns mode, by the way).  neither of these games are identical to the originals back in the 90's, instead they're the original games reimagined.  for example, daniel craig is the model for james bond in goldeneye instead of pierce brosnan, who played him in the film and original n64 game, and most of the other models have been changed.  maps and areas are different as well.  DKC returns is pretty similar to the original too.  except the kremlings are gone and they've been replaced by new antagonists called tikis.  oh, and it's a lot harder.  it's almost like parallel universes (i must be watching too much fringe) where everything is juuuuust slightly off.  both have been graphically restyled with the power of wii's hardware, but still retain the pure fun that both of these games brought in their original releases.  they're impressive in how they keep the same feel as the originals, but give the player something a little different as well.

and then the last realm...

promo art, ninja gaiden 3
the reboot.

yikes.  it's a word loathed by people on the wrong end of helpdesk calls, windows network admins, die hard comic book fans, and of course, video game enthusiasts.  it's something usually uttered in pure rage or fear - as it pretty much represents a last ditch effort to make right something that could go horribly horribly awry.  go ahead, install an exchange server or watch x-men origins: wolverine (not x3: x-men united, thanks rob miller for catching that HOWLING typo) and take note of the disgust you feel.  i mean deadpool with cyclops' optic blasts and wolverine-style swords? it was so offensive i nearly wretched.

rebooting is the scariest one out of all of these - and again becoming more prevalent than actual new intellectual property development.  i touched on this a little bit when i talked about capcom and ninja theory's upcoming devil may cry reboot a little while ago, and made my doubts clear then on how i felt.  now team ninja (not to be confused with the aforementioned ninja theory), is planning the same to follow suit, hinting that their upcoming release of ninja gaiden 3 is going to be released as a reboot of the series.  this is a game franchise that started (for me) back on the NES in 1989, and has never failed to deliver a solid action game through every console and every iteration of ryu hyabusa's adventures.  but my opinion on this reboot is a little different than my fears for devil may cry.  a lot of that is the reasoning and presentation.  the dude on the right still looks like ryu hyabusa.  it's got the same feel as series is famous for.  and the honcho at team ninja, yousuke hayashi, says that they want to bring the franchise back to basics, and trying to start from the beginning without being hindered by the past... yeah those game studio heads definitely have a way with words over in japan.  if you want more on that story along with some other news from team ninja, check out andriasang.  check i'm really hoping for the best here - anyone who's played the reboots of classic games like rygar and golden axe will understand what i mean.

now on this topic, i have to end this with a question to square enix.  when the playstation 3 was released, a demo of the final fantasy VII animated on a ps3 engine was released to showcase the ps3's power.  that being said -

where's my damn final fantasy VII remake for the ps3?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

40. motion gaming - here for good or for short term kicks?

microsoft kinect
video game manufacturers are always looking for new ways to keep gamers interested in their products.  and by that, i mean they're always trying different ways to stay profitable.  it is a business, after all, and i can't really blame them.  using motion or control methods other than a wired brick-in-hand controller spices up the mix, and gives gamers something new and different.  of course it all started waaaaay back in the 80's, with nintendo, with world class track meet on the power pad.  that game was clutch, and something you were jealous of when your friend has the triple super mario / duck hunt / world class track meet cartridge.  there were a couple of games for it, and after that...


nothing for years.  well, nothing very memorable.

not until the power pad's descendant the dance mat made an appearance in the US in 1998, coupled with the wildly popular series dance dance revolution series.  that game was lots of fun, for anyone from a skinny cheerleader to lanky white guys to tall lumberjacks to large indians.  at least that was the make up in our particular living room in pittsburgh circa 2002.  coupled with the ps2's eye toy, it seemed that motion gaming was going to be around for a while.

well...  it didn't quite turn out that way.  again, another lull in motion gaming.  not nearly as long as the the time between the power pad and dance dance revolution, but also nothing but rehashes of the DDR franchise, and really not a whole lot with the eye toy.  there still wasn't anything to capture the gaming audience and provide something more than a simple diversion.

nintendo wii
now the next wave.  nintendo's release of the wii back in the 2006 holiday season revived the publics's interest in motion gaming and started the longest lasting active wave of motion gaming production since the 80's.  it was a game changer, quite literally.  by introducing wireless motion control (affordable wireless motion control at that) they forced their rivals to think a little bit differently.  the other two major console manufacturers had to play catch up, because while stores couldn't keep wii's on the shelves, their xbox 360's and ps3's were collecting dust.  to combat this, sony started to work on their move project, which is similar to the wii in the sense that it uses a wireless wand, but adds additional camera support.  microsoft went a different direction with their kinect peripheral, and designed it to be controlled by controller-less body movement and voice, which just came out a few days ago.  it's been four years since the wii, and motion is still kicking.

now i've played games on the wii extensively.  it's pretty damn cool.  i've also played with the move.  also pretty damn cool.  i haven't used the kinect yet, but mainly because i write this thing for free, and can't really justify just tossing money around on gaming peripherals.  so why don't you get off my back about it, eh?  until the peripheral is a full size robot, i'll stick with what i've got to work with.  then i'm down.  but after reading the reviews and watching the videos on the kinect, it looks like we may be at the point where motion gaming isn't just going to be another wave followed by another lull.  this could be the push that makes motion a mainstream mainstay.  so why now?  why are we willing to accept it this time?

sony's playstation move
it's because everyone's following the nintendo model of game production.  think about it - in every generation of game consoles, the nintendo was always a little behind at providing awe-inspiring graphics.  look at the n64 vs the dreamcast.  or the gamecube vs the ps2 and xbox.  and of course, the wii vs the ps3 and xbox 360.  don't be fooled, this was entirely by design.  while microsoft and sony were focusing on pushing high end graphics and realism to attract that all-important male 18-35 demographic, nintendo did what it has since the beginning - put the focus on family entertainment, and of course occasionally throwing out a rated-M gunslinger.  it's following this philosophy that makes this round of motion gaming popular.  the controls are easy enough for anyone to get into, and actual physical involvement makes it fun for people who aren't traditionally into gaming.  example:  god of war III, in all its dominance, graphically sweet, sufficiently violent, with an interesting enough plot is right up my alley.  my parents?  playstation move table tennis.  when the wii was scarcely able to be found on shelves, my mom's sentiment was "you know if you buy a wii i'd like to play it."  and that's the real difference.  this is something that grabs the attention of the casual gamer.  players that are interested in more social arenas, where armor points or attack power don't matter, and there's no real objective.  the only important thing is the fun factor.

but that doesn't mean that's all motion can do.  while it's tremendous for casual gaming right now, given these three formats of motion play, the potential for gamers of a more hardcore variety are huge.  the playstation move, for example, tracks motion with a camera, capturing movement in 3d space.  the kinect integrates voice control.  sounds like a great starting platform for virtual reality.  motion gaming is here to stay, and this is only the beginning.