Thursday, January 27, 2011

55. hope for final fantasy versus xiii

noctis and stella from ff versus xiii (image from
when square-enix unveiled their ultimate plan for final fantasy xiii a while ago, it was supposed to be some sort of compendium entitled fabula nova crystalis, similar to what they did for the final fantasy vii universe over the ps1 and ps2 era.  in addition to final fantasy xiii, companion games were supposed to be final fantasy versus xiii, and a mobile game called final fantasy agito xiii (i'm not counting haeresis here, so let it go).  well since it was shown at e3 in 2006, agito was renamed final fantasy type zero, and the lid on versus was kept pretty tight.  so tight that there were times i actually forgot about it.  but they did their marketing properly - leaking just enough video and screenshots to remind me and keep me interested in what they were shilling.  but now there's some real video - the fine people over at siliconera have posted leaked HD trailers for both type zero and versus (namely some gameplay), not to mention kingdom hearts 3D for those interested.

stella in a cutscene.  image from
there is one very visible point in this game that automatically makes it vastly different from every other final fantasy game in the series - and that's the very "normal," "real" design of the characters and world.  and i don't mean real as in characters looking like actual people - that's something game makers have been able to do since the playstation 2 and xbox were available.  i mean real as in they're not in some kind of crazy costume that has come to define final fantasy characters over the years.  you know the type - one sleeve / pant leg, cape coming off of one shoulder, or some kind of ridiculous tribal vest.  they don't live in a world saturated in crazy centuries-away tech.  in the screenshots i have seen, and also illustrated in the linked video above, are characters that live in a world that is far closer to ours, dressed like what we're used to seeing in the real world.  at a party scene in the trailer, the main character noctis is in an actual suit, while another character, stella, is in an actual dress.  some people may think that that's a strange reason to be looking forward to something, but it definitely is something different than what we're used to, and i'm a little bit strange to boot.  if character design, which is such a big part designing a game, is completely different, what other new stuff can we expect?  i'm sure we can expect some other twists from the final fantasy formula in store for us.

now that i've finally seen some gameplay, i can start to get a bit more excited about it.  you manage a party of 3, a lot like in kingdom hearts with sora, goofy, and donald, and the player's able to switch between characters do fill different roles - even joystiq called it "kingdom hearts for adults."  except not disney themed, and none of the characters have a speech impediment.  the world map is far more open too, like it was in the old school final fantasy games, which will be a welcome change to most after playing final fantasy xiii.  and it looks ridiculously nice too.  now let's just hope the story backs it up.

but there's still a bit of a problem with though - versus director tetsuya namura tells fans who have seen the trailer to forget about it, since they still apparently have a long way to go.  sweet.

here's another link to those trailers from siliconera.  enjoy them here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

54. facebook's latest advertising tools - their users

you can talk about technology and science all you want to, but sadly it's advertising that makes the world go 'round.  and every year market and ad folks come up with a new way to make a buck off of harassing us, the consumers, testing the waters to see how much abuse we can take on our monitors and televisions before we have a stroke from pure rage.  try to navigate to most websites without getting a pop-up (or pop-under) advertisement.  it's not commonly done.  and of course, with social networking taking up as much of our lives as it currently does, it can't be a platform that is immune to the generation of ad bucks.

now i use facebook as well as other social networking for a number of different things - keeping in touch with friends, sharing photos, and of course, shamelessly promoting myself and this stuff you're reading now.  but there's certain things i won't do.  i have no interest in geotagging pictures i take.  the concept of "checking in" with the world to where i am at all times isn't fun to me - it's downright frightening.  but i digress.  like all sites that want money, facebook relies on advertising as a fairly heavy revenue stream.  the method they use isn't direct advertising or pop-ups, it's more contextual advertising - basically using public user information to determine what ads to show you.  it works kind of like  amazon's "recommendations" section based on your user profile and purchasing history.  for example - i just logged into facebook and here's the ads that show up on my profile page:

1.  ad for certifications in project management and IT
2.  ad for duke university's engineering masters program
3.  ad for getting an online MBA in international business

image from zdnet
and all of these make total sense.  my public information states that i'm an engineer, a project manager and in the IT field, and also went to business school.  so this information gets rolled into facebook advertising to target me with what they see as relevant things.  and i really don't have any problem with that.  it's the result of information i made public, and that's how advertising works.  but given recent developments in facebook's ad strategy, it looks to me that things are taking a sharp turn for the worse.  instead of using just public information, they will use your actions - likes, check ins, and apps for what they now call "sponsored stories."    an example of this process, illustrated with starbucks, can be seen to the right.  companies taking part in this scheme hand in hand with facebook are companies like coca-cola and starbucks for obvious reasons.  but it's not completely commercial, as "for the social good" organizations like unicef, project (RED) and autism speaks have also signed up for this program.

so what's the purpose of this new method of advertising?  it gives sponsors' ads more relevance in your eyes by showing you that people you know personally recommend whatever service or good is in question.  at face value from an advertising perspective this seems fairly harmless, because in a sense it's making what you publicly do "more" public to people you're not hiding information from.  what i do have a problem with is that the advertisements directly include your name, your profile picture, and any people tagged in or associated with whatever activity you did.  and that's not all - because here comes the fun part:  there is no way to opt out of this program.  you're a part of the system regardless of how much you tweak your privacy settings.

actually, that's not completely true... if you and every person on your friends list set their privacy to hide 100% of actions from their own friends, then you should be safe.  but at that point, there's really not much of a point to having a facebook account to begin with.  part of me is waiting for this scheme to backfire - if 1000 people checked into a starbucks with the comment "this tastes like someone peed in it," is that the text that would show up in the sponsored story?  i'm sure companies saw it coming though, and have some mechanism to prevent that.  and i don't even know how this would affect users who are farmville crackheads or some sort of equivalent, who already plague me with 324876823 requests to find an animal or help them in some sort of mob war.

time will ultimately tell how annoying i will find this practice.  i'm sure my objections are really based more on principle - that there is no opt out policy for users.  given the site's history, this presents itself to me as a warning flag and a sign of times to come.

things like these makes facebook alternatives like diaspora look more and more attractive every time i look.

Monday, January 17, 2011

53. biotic gaming: gods, monsters and pac-man

biotic games, from switched
its impact on gaming in general and its firmly cemented place in video game history notwithstanding, pac-man was a fairly simple and straightforward game.  you could move in four directions - up, down, left and right, while escaping ghosts that are coming after you.  a powerpill lets you dispatch of your foes and send them back to the start point.  get all the dots, beat the level, move on. i remember seeing human pac-man re-creations in college at halloween time as well as a number of imitations and parodies.  but now, we have broken into new plane - a place where pac-man is a real game, with real biological creatures swimming through fluid as the round yellow man himself, controlled by us.

confused?  allow me to elaborate.

scientists at stanford have recreated a pac-man shaped playing field, where the creature playing the role of pac-man is actually a single-celled organism called a paramecium (come on kids, you remember your old science classes).  this has led to the title of this little game - "PAC-mecium."  illustrated in the lower-left in the picture above, the "player" directs the movement of the paramecium via joystick, same as he or she would on an arcade screen, and it moves accordingly.  this joystick is connected to a controller that shifts the polarity of an electric field that's put across the fluid, changing the direction the paramecium moves.  a video camera keeps score.  i hope you're all with me on this one in the fact that this is some serious craziness, despite the relatively basic science behind it.  other so-called "biotic games" include POND PONG, ciliaball, and biotic pinball (gizmodo).  so why do this at all?  what possible scientific gain can society garner from this sort of strange experimentation?  according to professor ingmar riedel-kruse, awareness.  all a strange ad campaign for science.  "we hope that by playing games involving biology of a scale too small to see with the naked eye, people will realize how amazing these processes are and they'll get curious and want to know more," said the good professor (the register).

and it may just work to get people paying attention to science, especially microbiology, as these experiments illustrate.  but that's not to say that all of the attention is good.  some of his testers had some ethical problems with what these "games," and because of this professor riedel-kruse thinks that it may also be a good starting point to stimulate discussion on issues of bioethics. "we are talking about microbiology with these games, very primitive life forms. we do not use any higher-level organisms," said the professor to the stanford university news.  for those of you that need to brush up on your biology, paramecia are single-celled organisms, lacking a brain and nervous system - meaning that they don't possess the capacity to feel pain.  the professor assures us that nothing with any sort of higher-level function was used for this project

this is just a sampling of what the scientific world has for research and biotic gaming. "we would argue that modern biotechnology will influence our life at an accelerating pace, most prominently in the personal biomedical choices that we will be faced with more and more often," riedel-kruse told stanford university news. "therefore everyone should have sufficient knowledge about the basics of biomedicine and biotechnology. biotic games could promote that."

i wouldn't look for a console release of anything like this for the 2011 holiday season, but it may be appearing in a lab near you.  as novel of an idea as this is, all one can really ask themselves is "what next?"

for more games that are scientifically relevant, check out fold-it and carnegie mellon university's eteRNA and help science help you.

Friday, January 14, 2011

52. are you a gaming jerk fond of the rage quit? your number's up, buddy.

original image from
anyone who has spent any significant time gaming online, be it fighters on xbox live/PSN or any MMO has probably experienced a most infuriating behavior from strangers they play with.  executed in a most cowardly fashion by warcraft tanks that can't hold aggro and others that don't get the drops they want,  starcrafters whose build order is fail, and street fighters whose chun-li just can't take your deep ryu skills - the rage quit.

this practice is literally what it sounds like - a player gets so angry at game conditions and/or their inability to win that they just quit the match before it's over.  usually it's accompanied by an absolutely vile stream of profanity and/or racial slurs (man those are just my faaaaavorite) followed by the glowing phosphor on your screen spelling out that he or she has disconnected.  allow me to illustrate this experience through world of warcraft:

ass-hat: @#%# all my gear's all broken.
me: not good to hear when pulling a boss
ass-hat: &^#$% you you !%*$ing &*$%#.  say one more thing and you can find someone else.  go ahead, say it.  $%& dps and heals are $%@ing fail.
raid lead: dude, relax, let's just get this guy down
** ass-hat has left the raid group **

this was, of course, followed by 10 minutes of dumbass whispers that reminded me how useful the ability to silence players is.  and screw him anyway, we 9-manned that noise with dps to spare.

fighters online suffer a similar story.  i don't really play a lot of fighters online, mainly because my xbox is broken and i don't have any for the ps3 yet, but i have heard horror stories from friends of mine that frequently play soul calibur or street fighter online against other players.  they have identical rage quit experiences where a player will just drop connection in mid-match - literally pulling the plug - robbing them from a win in their stats and saving themselves from a loss.  not only is it an ass-hat move, if you experience it enough it can ruin the experience of online play.

but capcom has finally come up with a solution.  in their new fighter, marvel vs. capcom 3: fate of two worlds, if you gain a reputation as a rage quitter, you will pay consequences.  there will be a stat associated to your user that tracks how often and when you disconnect from the game.  once you earn a reputation as a rage quitter, whenever you queue up for matches you will be paired with other players with rage quit status,  while players who want to enjoy the game without you can play in peace.  effectively giving players that give others grief some of their own medicine and throwing them into their own sissy bracket is a novel idea, and i hope it catches on in other platforms

i know i've had my issues with capcom over the last couple of years, but this has given them a few points back in my book.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

51. sony makes a play for the mobile market

picture from kotaku
these days when you hear anything about mobile gaming, "mobile" and "casual" seem to be used interchangeably.  some people may think of smart phones and tablets, like the iphone/ipad or any smartphone or device sporting the android OS.  makes sense - they're fresh on our minds.  granted they do have some games that are becoming increasingly popular with the casual gamer, like angry birds and infintiy blade.  but in this surge of ios and android powered mobile devices entering the market, some people somehow forget that mobile consoles still exist.  given all of the new "competition,"  the nintendo ds/dsi and sony psp/psp go pretty much have a joint stranglehold on the mobile console market.  and given recent developments, that's only going to increase.  nintendo was showing off their new 3ds unit at last year's e3, with a march release this year.  the console supports backwards compatibility with games for ds and dsi software, a number of augmented reality functions, and 3d movie playback - no goofy glasses required.

sony, of course, has no plans of simply letting their biggest mobile rival take over the market.  rumors of a playstation phone have been hovering around for a couple months, and just about a week ago the web was flooded with images of a prototype of sony xperia playstation phone.  in this flood engadget has a pre-emptive review, showing pictures of a 4" screen, 5MP camera, 512MB RAM and ROM, and running the "playstation pocket" app.  you can check them out for photos and action video.

but it gets better.  MCV is reporting that sony has an announcement tentatively scheduled for january 27th in japan, and that announcement is going to introduce the psp2.  now this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, since "generations" in mobile consoles are pretty common, but what IS surprising is the language that's backing it up.  supposedly with sources that have "direct hands-on experience,"  the psp2 is going to have the same graphical capability as the playstation 3.  now that's saying a lot.  according to 1up, the hardware on the device will run at just over half of the playstation 3's processing power.  and since the graphics only have to be displayed on a small screen and not a big HDTV, it will be enough to equally display "earlier" ps3 titles.  also rumored as part of the device are a touchpad and a slider design complete with 2 analog sticks.  even though the device hasn't even been announced yet, sony is putting this out there to try to differentiate itself from current app-driven mobile devices that run on ios or android with sweet and delicious HD media, even though it may still be able to download apps from the playstation network. in theory making this information public should attract developers as well.  it supposedly also will support physical media, which was a feature many felt was lacking from the psp go.

even disturbed fictional doctors enjoy some psp between
vicodin pills (engadget)
if they pull it off right, gamers will definitely see a direct differentiation between HD psp2 games and other consoles.  sure, the 3ds will have a glasses-free 3d display, but to me on a screen that small it just doesn't seem like such a huge selling point to me.  3d tv's are becoming all the rage now, but still, i've yet to see a breakthrough that screams "3d is where you need to live."  in my opinion this gives the psp2 an edge if it excels at bringing 2D HD gaming to the handheld arena.  if it supports games that are already out on the ps3 that i can play on the go, then i'm on board.  now the argument can be made that richer, more intensive game content goes against the casual tone that mobile gaming has picked up, but i'm sure there's a lot of people out there like me that like casual games, but would rather have some heavier stuff on the go.

because in a waiting room scenario, or a long train / flight situation, i'd much rather play god of war than angry birds.

... just make sure to add some more save points.

Monday, January 10, 2011

50. EA finally de-claws tiger

tiger '12 ps3 cover, as displayed on amazon
post number 50!  took me a while to get here, slowly but surely, and i thank everyone who reads this.  i honestly didn't think this little experiment of mine would last for more than a couple of months, but i'll be hitting the 1 year mark next month.  so as long as you keep reading, i'll keep writing.  and to the 2,200+ individual visitors from 70 countries, thank you.

now on to business.

tiger.  ohhh tiger.  the EA-tiger relationship is a constant source for material for me since i enjoy playing their golf games.  even more so since i picked up a set of clubs a couple of years ago.  remember those posts i did on that very relationship after his off-course mishaps?  sure you do.  the first one was regarding tiger woods pga tour '11, and sharing the cover with rory mcilroy for the US vs. europe ryder cup feature.  next was thinly veiled threats from EA, who basically said that tiger would be done if he didn't start performing better on the course (of course i'm paraphrasing here, they only talked about the connection between the best golf game and the best golfer but come on we all know what's up).  now it can be argued that EA has taken it a step further with tiger woods pga tour '12.  instead of the ryder cup, this one focuses on the masters, which is kind of a big deal since this tournament has never been featured in a golf video game since the dawn of golf video games.  but tiger isn't front and center here.  but now look at the cover - the sole focus is on the yellow flags of augusta and the masters logo, with "tiger woods pga tour '12" almost serving as a subtitle.

so my predictions were kind of right.  but also a lot of wrong.  is tiger off the new cover?  ehh, mostly.  but i also thought that tiger '11 would still sell fairly well, seeing as the margin between '09 and '10 was fairly slim.  well, sales for tiger '11 were down by roughly 50% since tiger '09 (reuters).  and these sales figures could have directly related to tiger's performance.  according to jesse divnih, VP of electronic entertainment design and research, "the sales issues of the tiger woods video game are much broader and deeper than tiger's personal problems and has more to do with the entire golf sport struggling in 2010." he continues, "of course, one could argue the decline in the interest of golf has to do with tiger's extended absence and returned poor performance. but even if that was true, it says a lot about the PGA Tour and their over-reliance on one person to carry the whole league. PGA exposed itself to this risk and now is facing the consequences."  he's still going to be a featured player in the game, as well as a member of team USA in the ryder cup feature, along with other big shots like bubba watson and zach johnson.

screenshot of augusta, from kotaku
which is pretty much true.  so now i feel bad for the man - in addition to his off-course problems he unofficially has the sole responsibility of carrying the PGA on his back - which i'm sure gets kind of heavy, EA is still sending mixed signals.  after a couple months have passed since the "best golf game, best golfer" statement, EA sports' president peter moore now says "if the insinuation is it's a reflection of EA sports backing away from its relationship that goes back literally 13 years with tiger, that's not the case whatsoever."

which i would wholeheartedly believe - if the ONLY cover that featured tiger prominently wasn't the playstation 3's collector's edition.

that aside i'm still looking forward to the game.  HD screens of augusta look awesome from what i've seen, there's a new feature to play with a caddy advising you, the ability to play through past masters tournament moments, and the playstation move sensitivity in 3D space is touted to be better than it was in tiger '11. jim nantz and david feherty will be the voice behind the game on commentary this year, and according to a short development story on kotaku, this is meant to be the most tour-authentic experience provided to the players of the franchise.

of course "authentic" includes what i'm sure will be many slices from my move controller in my living room, as they would invariably occur with a 3 wood were i at augusta.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

49. final fantasy's new year's resolution

naoki yoshida, from his new year's note
old squaresoft were my people.  my people.  the original final fantasy was the first game my parents ever bought me for my NES after the super mario bros./duck hunt double cartridge and we've been homies ever since.  they made a slew of other games for older systems that are fun enough to occasionally hook them up and play again.  chrono trigger and breath of fire are a couple of examples - but final fantasy topped them all.  after the first one came FF IV and VI for the SNES (II and III in the US) and those kept up that same level of quality and fun.  then came the playstation era, which added a higher graphical component and deeper gameplay.  not to mention it gave us the greatness that was final fantasy VII.  and then of course FF X for the PS2 - ambitious in depth, a "just out there enough" story, and featuring the power of the PS2.

then it died.

out of the first 10 final fantasy games, including the re-releases, i consider at least 5 of them to be "great" games. these games had good combat systems, deep and twisting storylines, and offered hours upon hours of gameplay.  and they all had one thing in common:  they had me hooked in the first 15 minutes of play.  but then square merged with enix, and somewhere around then the franchise went into decline.  i'm not saying that it happened BECAUSE of the merger, but the timing does seem relevant.  X-2, the first direct sequel to any FF game, was ok, but just didn't have that same level of depth.  the idea of final fantasy online didn't appeal to me so XI was out.  and i couldn't play XII for more than 30 minutes without getting irritated at pretty much everything.  and finally, the for first current-generation offering of final fantasy XIII, the graphics are incredible, the story's alright, the faster battle system is kind of fun (though a little dumbed down), but the game is almost completely linear.  it felt like it completely lost the open-world, visit towns, explore rooms, talk to NPC's tradition that was a big part of the franchise since its origin.  but it is visually gorgeous.  i will give it that for sure.  click the screenshot below and to the right for a full screenshot.

now square-enix makes another foray into the online realm with their latest installment, final fantasy XIV.  they released it just this past fall, to the near-universal panning from both game critics and fans alike.  convoluted gameplay.  terrible interface.  horrible economy system.  unbelievably boring grinds compared to other MMO's.  bad enough for the CEO to apologize to the fans in december and extend their trial period indefinitely, because they even feel bad taking money for this kind of horror.  and also bad enough that in october, a major square-enix stockholder (not like a majority holder, but 1%, which is a pretty sizable chunk) instructed his broker to sell every share he had.  "first thing in the morning tomorrow, i intend to instruct those who manage my precious square enix stock (however little it may be) to arrange to sell all of it," he said.  "to square, thank you for the enjoyment of your products up until now, with the exception of this last one. goodbye" [gamesradar].  pretty heavy.  heavy enough to ding square-enix's stock value by 4% by himself.

screenshot, from
i understand that a final fantasy MMO is meant to stand on its own, and their goal is to make it unique to other games on the market.  but isn't anyone on the dev team play any other MMO's?  any guild wars fans?  any of them check out competitors like world of warcraft to see how user interfaces and other features are done properly?  blizzard's stranglehold on the MMO market won't soon be broken, and whether to appease fans or use us only as streams of steady revenue, they know what they're doing, and keep their players.  we're talking 12 million subscribers strong by the time final fantasy XIV was even released, so maybe some mild emulation might have been called for.

so after a major staff restructuring, new producer/director naoki yoshida has made it his new year's resolution to make this right with the fans - using four key words in his plan: "fun," "live," "reboot," and "rebuild." and he'll need all of these, in fast order, to bring back fans that they've miffed with this sub-square offering.  while most of this flak is coming from the poor, almost unfinished quality of the game, another part of it is coming from who's producing it.  it's beneath square, a studio that's shaped how RPG's go in the last quarter century.  in the note (check the provided link above) yoshida is extremely optimistic, saying that the "last few weeks of 2010 were tumultuous times for us all" but stressing that these are new times and they are moving in new directions.  which is promising in theory, because the only direction they have left is up.

just so you can get a better idea, here are a couple of links to some "professional" reviews of final fantasy xiv from 1up and gamesradar.