Thursday, September 29, 2011

91. Documentary Mistakes Gameplay Video as Footage of Real Terrorism

[Article first published as Documentary Mistakes Gameplay Video as Footage of Real Terrorism on Blogcritics.]

I write a lot about the evolution of videogames from the primitive game we know and love as PONG to their being nothing short of a form of art.  Games now have the power to portray story, evoke emotion, and even have Grammy award eligible (and winning) soundtracks.  Aside from all of that, the biggest jump has been in-game visuals, with today’s graphic engines able to pump out those textures so smooth that you’d swear for at least a second or two that it was a real scene.  But for most of us who grew up watching the technology evolve, there’s an imaginary line hardcoded into our brains when it comes to stuff like this.  That line is the boundary between games and reality.  It’s how I know that the scourge isn’t actually coming down from Northrend to get us, and how I’m clear that Marcus Fenix and his COG forces won’t be rolling through my neighborhood anytime soon.  I doubt that there’s any videogame sequence given current technology (even those in a realistic earth-like setting) that I could watch and actually believe was reality.

I say this specifically to convey that events in my life have never unfolded in such a way that I have seen video from a game, took it as reality, then broadcasted it as part of a documentary I was working on.  You may be curious why I would bring up such a ridiculous premise, yes, this I know.

It’s because as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s something that really happened in the UK this week.  British television channel ITV (one of their big ones) aired a documentary called Exposure: Gaddafi and the IRA, promising to show the world evidence of a link between the IRA and famed Libyan nut Colonel Muammar Gaddafi concerning weapons and other military hardware.  At face value it’s pretty compelling stuff I’ll admit, but there were just a couple flaws with the footage.  One particular clip that was shown is labeled as “IRA Clip 1988,” and showed a British helicopter being shot down.  Not a lot in that clip really, well how do I put this... looks real.  The people are all pixilated and stiff, the fire doesn’t look like fire, and some of the vegetation has colors that just aren’t available in nature.  Go and watch it on YouTube while it’s still available.  The YouTube link shows the part as it was used in the documentary followed by the original fan edit.

This “footage” is actually a fan-made video from a game called Arma II, a tactical shooter by Bohemia.  Granted, Bohemia does pride itself on realistic military simulations, but the differences between the game and actual video footage are still pretty clear.  After the documentary aired, Arma fans took to the Bohemia forums, spreading the word on what they had seen.  On the topic, Bohemia’s CEO Mark Spanel told Gamasutra that his company was never contacted for permission to use the clip, and had no idea that it would be used in the documentary.  "We have no idea how this footage made it to the documentary,” he said.  “Our games are very open and allows users to freely do a lot of things, I see this is somehow a bizarre use of creative freedom." 

But how did it even make its way into the documentary to begin with?  That would mean that the game video would have had to be part of the media available to the editors after all of the interviews were taken and the piece was stitched together.  This clip not only made it into that media pool, but got by ITV’s editing staff and was given the final OK to air on national television.  Speaking to The Telegraph, an ITV spokesman said that that they actually did have footage of the authentic 1988 event but used the game material by mistake, as an “unfortunate case of human error” that was “mistakenly included in the film by producers.”

This just goes to show, in the age we live in, while things may slip by human editors and producers and other checks, the internet will catch everything.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

90. Amazon's Tablet Poised to Take a Bite out of iPad Sales?

[Article first published as Amazon's Tablet Poised to Take a Bite out of iPad sales? on Blogcritics.]

OK we’re going to do a little bit of word association.  I’m going to say a word and then you tell me what the first thing that comes to your mind is.  The word is…


So what image flashed across your mind?  The Ten Commandments? The Rosetta Stone?  Nah, chances are, for the majority of you I would think, the image you saw in your head was that of an Apple iPad.  And that makes sense.  When it comes to tablet computing the iPad is in fact the most popular device currently available on the market, with 29 million sold in just the first 15 months the device was on the shelf.   
And the masses love it for a number of reasons, whether that has to do with actual user need and functionality, cool factor, Apple fandom or simply being able to say “I have an iPad.”  So it sells.  At a $499 price point for the entry level model, it’s not really a tough sell to most folks either.  But what if you wanted a tablet but didn’t want an iPad?  What were the options that were available?  Windows 7-based slates were buggy and DOA to begin with.  Android-based units like Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and the Motorola Xoom couldn’t compete on price.  HP’s WebOS-based TouchPad tanked and triggered a fire sale.  Other cheaper models couldn’t compete on quality. 

So there the iPad sits, atop the stack of available tablets, on its golden mobile apple-shaped throne.  All of this bolstered, of course, by Apple’s ferociously loyal fanbase in the cult of Mac.  But I won’t deny the genius of Jobs.  He created a sub-market of computing that there was no real need for by introducing a product, and letting consumers create that need themselves.  Brilliance.  So now we have the current tablet market.  Out-speccing the iPad creates a disadvantage on price, outpricing it means lower quality, and no one has figured out a way to strike that balance and see the same level of success.

As my gaming roots run deep in Street Fighter, this is where I picture “here comes a new challenger!” flying across the screen at the prospect of a new tablet officially being announced this week by Amazon in a Wednesday press event.  And this fight card is shaping up to be a good one as both companies are doing well financially and have strong customer bases.  Both Apple and Amazon have first to market titles for different devices – Apple’s iPad for modern tablet, and Amazon’s Kindle as a modern e-reader.  The real difference between the two giants is tactics and content.

Apple has hardware, and that’s what brings in their dollars.  There’s a healthy amount of profit from hardware sales from the iPad, with Apple pulling down about $200 for each $499 iPad sold.  This contrasts sharply to Amazon’s Kindle strategy, who sells the WiFi model of their Kindle at a loss for $139.  They rely on sales from for their money making, which includes not only e-books, but video streams and music as well.  Logic would dictate that this is the same strategy will be used for the upcoming tablet, and with a projected $249 price tag, that seems highly plausible.

While sales tactics are at opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s going to be content that puts at least a dent in the iPad’s numbers, due in part to delivery through their Amazon Prime subscription program.  I myself am an Amazon Prime customer, and have been for a while so I could save money on 2-day shipping and get a deep discount when I need next-day air.  But over the last year, the Prime service has added a library of on-demand video streams of movies, documentaries and television programs for Prime Customers, which now makes the subscription more than worth the money in my eyes.  Recently they even inked a deal with Fox to add programs like the X-Files and Arrested Development to an already impressive lineup, making the $79/year fee a pretty good deal.  On top of that there’s a lot of potential of that kind of content paired with a mobile Android device for viewing it.  And let’s not forget that it’s sure to have a built in Kindle book reader.

Tablet users generally don’t use their devices for anything heavy or resource intensive, so after email, web, social apps and casual games, my guess is that next on the list is video and music, if my own use of my Droid X is any indication.  If that’s the case then the Kindle Tab doesn’t even have to come close to matching the iPad on specs, as long as it can deliver media content the way I think it can.  I’m not saying it will dethrone Apple on the tablet front, but it has the potential to at least pick up a decent chunk of prospective tablet buyers that were eyeing the iPad.  It’ll be priced right and have an extensive library behind it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

89. Windows 8 Hands-On: A Mobile OS that Still Has Love for the Desktop

[Article first published as Windows 8 Hands-On: A Mobile OS that Still Has Love for the Desktop on Blogcritics.]

** UPDATE: This article is on the Windows 8 Developer Preview from September 2011 - for more info on the actual release version, my series on Windows 8 RTM starts here. **

I had a lot of reservations about Windows 8 since i started seeing leaked PowerPoint slides detailing it ages ago.  From those leaks, it looked like it was going to be nothing more than some sort of mobile OS designed to compete with Google’s Chrome OS, and wouldn’t really be very useful for desktop users.  Old screenshots of the Metro interface made me think that it was just a larger size version of the Windows Phone, without a lot of additional functionality behind it.  As of Microsoft’s BUILD conference keynote just this past Tuesday, I’m glad to say I was wrong.  Microsoft released the Windows Developer Preview (I’m going to just call this WDP from here on out) Tuesday night, and after a number of tries just downloading the image, I finally got it dual booted with my Windows 7 on my laptop.  Now granted, running the preview on a laptop isn’t going to give me the complete mobile experience that I see this being great for, but it’s at least given me a taste.

One of the phrases that gets tossed around the web so much to describe the current state of computer technology is “post-PC era.”  With all due respect to proponents of this philosophy, what the hell is the matter with you and your technological world view?  I’m not saying mobile is worthless; on the contrary I think mobile is an extremely important component in today’s era of computing.  But that doesn’t mean I’m going to confine my gaming to casual games like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja while running out to replace all my users’ machines with tablets and spend insane money on peripherals. Let’s face it, most high-powered gaming and traditional applications used by gamers and business users is still going to be run on traditional desktop PC’s.  As it would appear, Microsoft agrees with me, and Windows 8 still provides what I affectionately refer to as le olde school, namely Windows Explorer.  Outside of the new Metro interface, a very familiar setting awaits those of us that primarily compute mouse-and-keyboard style.  Users still have full access to a familiar Windows desktop, where they can peruse files through Windows Explorer, add desktop shortcuts, gadgets and pin applications to the taskbar.  Working with multiple monitors has also become a little bit easier, with the frustration of being unable to stretch the taskbar across multiple screens is now gone.  Exploring files includes common window and file commands on an optional menu in-window, pulled from their Office 2007 and 2010 ribbons.  Want to go virtual?  The preview has a built-in hypervisor for Hyper-V, which currently is only available as part of a server OS package.  And as far as compatibility, nothing is going to change for users used to running a Windows 7 environment.  I ran a guildie through Stratholme in World of Warcraft from it last night with no problems whatsoever.  The one thing that may take some getting used to is the lack of a start button similar to what we’ve seen in most Windows iterations.

Now for the other side of the OS.  There’s the new mobile half of it using Microsoft’s Metro interface.   I like it, and can definitely see how this would be a very intuitive and easy interface to use on a tablet.  Right now i’m scrolling left and right with my mouse, but on touchscreen enabled devices movement would be swipes from side to side.  The Metro interface works almost like a layer on top of a Windows 7-ish OS.  In that sense it has a very similar feel to Android device manufacturers’ custom UI’s that lay on top of the operating system like Motorola’s MotoBlur and HTC’s Sense, where users have tiles for shortcuts and instant information.  The preview includes a bunch of tiled apps that come pre-loaded that make it very easy to access basic information like weather and stock reports and social media apps for facebook and twitter.  It includes “touch” versions of your control panel and the new Internet Explorer 10, which I have to say, runs pretty nice.  Also, on the touch front, they demoed 5-finger multi-touch during Tuesday’s BUILD keynote.

While there is a lot I like about it, it does have its drawbacks – little things like no way to just shut down.  If I want to turn off the machine I have to switch to desktop mode and then go through the Alt-F4 menu to get there.  Then there’s the whole tiled app thing – tiled apps mean that whatever you run in Metro (social, weather, games) will always be running in the background.  Android devices work exactly the same way, and it’s the reason why apps like Advanced Task Killer are extremely popular downloads.  The Preview does have a way around it, by dropping individual background processes to use 0% CPU when not in use, but there is still memory usage there.  On my laptop I have the power to Alt-F4 an app to kill it, but that might not be so easy on tablet and mobile devices employing the OS with a virtual keyboard (also means Alt-Tabbing through everything that’s open).  And call me a traditionalist, but I still favor the full-function start button of Windows past.  But I’m going to cut Microsoft a lot of slack here – this is a developer preview, which means beta and release candidates still yet to come.  So they have a lot of time to make tweaks.

So in the end Microsoft has made a good start in making a single OS which bridges the gap between a desktop and a mobile solution for part of their single ecosystem, even though functionality still leans in favor of mobile.  As it stands now I wouldn’t buy Windows 8 to replace Windows 7 on my laptop or desktop without a little additional power on the desktop side – even though it has native tools I would normally download 3rd party software for (I don’t need Alcohol 52% anymore for mounting ISO’s) I would at best I’d have it in a dual-boot setup.  BUT, I think slates or tablets running Windows 8 could be real winners.  The OS really seems like it would shine for casual users with its simplicity, which is one of the reasons iPads running iOS are so popular.  We'll see how they fare late next year.

I’m looking forward to what’s next.  I’d like to see how they’ll handle Xbox Live integration, since Games for Windows will be scrapped and lumped into the XBL environment.  I’m also looking forward to developers making some apps for this so we can see how the marketplace is going to flesh out.  And since this OS is targeted for both desktop and mobile, my biggest question arises:  What’s pricing and licensing going to look like?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

88. Aggresive Behavior and Video Games - More Darwin than Bloody Violence?

[Article first published as Aggresive Behavior and Videogames - More Darwin than Bloody Violence? on Blogcritics.]

The effect videogames have on the human mind has been thoroughly and widely argued for years.  And that argument rests solely on one seemingly central focus: violence. 
Countless studies have been done examining a myriad of combinations – children and violent games, prolonged exposure to violent games, long term psychological effects, aggressive behavior, and the list goes on and on indefinitely.  The findings have of course been varied, and in my lay opinion, there’s too many variables involved to get a 100% accurate read on the results.  I’m not going to venture into that here, as (I) I’m not a trained psychologist and (II) it would lengthen this article to somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 words – too much for both me to write and you to read.

I just saw a study on this topic though that piqued my interest – it seemed to be a slight twist on the common “games are violent” story.  In addition to the violence aspect, Paul J.C. Adachi, a Ph.D. candidate at Brock University in Canada added a potentially important modifier.  The experiments focused on competition in games, and whether or not it was another factor to aggressive behavior in players.  It involved hot sauce too, which I’m all about. 

Using competitiveness, difficulty, and pace of action as indicators, Adachi ran multiple experiments and observed the resulting behavior.  The method makes sense – he used FuelConanLeft 4 Dead 2Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe and Marble Blast Ultra as his field of games.  It looks simple enough.  The games on this list it do seem to cover his three categories in varying degrees.  His method on observing behavior and aggression wasn’t as straightforward, but outright genius.  In each experiment, players were asked to prepare a hot sauce sample for a “hot sauce taster” who specifically does not like spicy food using mild to very hot sauces after playing.  It’s fair enough to say that heat level equals aggression.

In the test run (42 college students: 25 men, 17 women) using only Fuel and Conan, Adachi observed that there was no real difference in hot sauce intensity between those who played one game versus the other.  By this he concluded that videogame violence alone wasn’t enough to increase aggressive behavior.  The second test (60 college students: 32 men, 28 women) is where the meat of the results come from.  The gamer guinea pigs that played games that were highly competitive like Fuel and Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe on average made much hotter hot sauce for their testers than players subjected to Left 4 Dead 2 and Marble Blast Ultra.  I’d call that pretty aggressive.  According to Adachi, based on these observations, “These findings suggest that the level of competitiveness in video games is an important factor in the relation between video games and aggressive behavior, with highly competitive games leading to greater elevations in aggression than less competitive games.”  I highly recommend you check out the full study at the American Psychological Association’s website.  It’s got all sorts of statistical models and charts and all that happy stuff for those who really want an in-depth read.

So what’s the full story then?  Well, think about the last time you saw a report of a violent crime on your local news.  Did you become aggressive watching the report?  If I show you a screenshot of the new Mortal Kombat would you become enraged?  For me the answer is no.  This study seems to line up at least with my own observation and personal experiences.  Violence has never made me (and most people i know) more aggressive on its own – it’s always been the desire to win.  In multiplayer environments that desire to win goes up tenfold.  As does the degree of trash talk and anger.  If any of you have taken part in any kind of competitive events then I would venture that you share that experience.  Whether it’s PvP play in World of Warcraft, the final table at the World Series of Poker or a title fight in the UFC, when either victory or defeat is close a competitor is going to amp it up.

Now I’m playing through Bayonetta again, and I can sit back on my couch shooting and slicing up enemies (through attacks called torture moves no less) on most enemies and my only reaction is “Wow that was fairly simple.”  It’s when the odds seem stacked and my health bar starts approaching zero that my frustration starts to rise.  I can put the controller down and walk away, but there’s always going to be that handful of people that take it too far.  If you think that’s a bad example then here’s another:  I can get just as riled up when I see my king’s inevitable demise in a game of chess.  We’re wired to want victory.  A simple will to win and survival of the fittest.