Breaking news: Microsoft shows competency (Re: Dashboard update)

Ladies and gentlemen, I will just not shut the hell up about the Xbox 360 dashboard. There was an update yesterday morning, and I feel like I have to say something about it, given that my previous statements on the subject were, to quote, " this is bad enough that it almost seems like you're deliberately sabotaging yourselves, Microsoft."
 
Somebody out there was listening. To me specifically? Probably not. But I was hardly the only voice. While the display issues with certain apps does not seem to have been corrected, yesterday's Xbox Dashboard patch has seemingly redesigned a significant portion of the Game Marketplace. 
 

 The old dash (top) vs. the new dash (bottom).
What a world of difference! One of my main complaints of the old game marketplace was the fact that icons were all a random jumble of unrelated garbage - you had some icons that were like Windows icons in green squares, you had some icons that were random unrelated clip-art, and there were too many "clicks" standing in the way of you getting to the categorization options you wanted to get to. Now, everything makes a lot more sense. We lose sorting options like "Most Popular" and sorting by Genre, but now Xbox Live Arcade, Games On Demand, and Xbox Indie games are out in the open, no longer held hostage by the weird Parkour Girl. When icons deviate from the standard Xbox "green background and white pictograph" image, they're showing the best-selling products in their section - Castle Crashers, Halo Reach, and (ugh) FortressCraft. It's smart, it's focused, and it's the way it should've been to begin with (though given Microsoft's deal with Mojang for Minecraft on Xbox Live Arcade, I have to wonder how they feel about FortressCraft getting billing like that). Similar improvements have been made across the rest of the Marketplace:
 
Holy organization, Batman.
Unlike with the games tab, where we lost sorting options in favor of exposing certain game types better, the add-ons section loses nothing but gains a ton of readability. System functions are clearly identified and grouped together, though the "subscriptions" tab is still off by its little lonesome there on the right - but I can't imagine a good place to put that myself, so it's fine. Again, this is exactly the way the dashboard should have looked when the update launched. It finally makes the whole thing feel cohesive; there's no more stopping and having to think about what might be an advertisement or a promotion - it's all properly organized and completely obvious, even at a glance. 
 
Of course, I don't have to go through every section of the game marketplace, because it's all like this now. Microsoft deserves at least a little pat on the back; they took what used to be a slight trainwreck and made it workable. It's still not quite as good as it could be, of course, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.
26 Comments

Sometimes, I really hate computers


 Believe it or not, you're looking at almost $200+ worth of PC hardware (the pen doesn't count)
So I just had a near death experience.
 
There were two major things on my list of "PC hardware I need to replace": My mouse, and my headset. I had bought a super cheap replacement mouse almost a year ago, figuring it didn't really matter if I only spent $10 or $15 on a mouse, because I didn't need extra buttons or higher resolution. It just needed to click and I'd be fine. Of course, within 11 months, the left mouse button was acting up - 50% of the time I'd click, it would register as a double click. This made editing video or doing level design in a game pretty challenging. I decided that next time around, I'd buy something more expensive, and after three weeks of bashing my head against a wall as to why Newegg wasn't letting me complete a Paypal transaction, I finally ordered a Logitech G400. In a twist of fate, the very same day, I would discover I won a Razer gaming headset from 1up.com. My old headset was starting to have connection problems - moving my head a certain way would result in my earpiece being blasted with static, and anybody hearing me speak could hear it come through on the mic, too. Winning a $130 headset not only solved that problem, but provided me with a significant upgrade over my $25 Microsoft Lifechat.
 
The mouse installed without issue, save for the fact that it's way, way, way more sensitive than my old mouse. I've been tweaking settings since installing it last night, trying to find a sweet spot that feels like my old mouse did. The downside is, of course, that I've now gotten a taste for a high resolution mouse - if this one breaks, I'll never be able to go back to a cheaper mouse ever again. I have permanently upgraded to a $50 mouse for the rest of my life.
 
I was, obviously, most excited for the headset. I've never experienced surround-sound headphones before, and I was eager to see just how clear the microphone was.Taking it out of the box, I was impressed with the look and feel of the headset. It feels very sturdy, the earphones are plush and very comfortable, and the USB cable appears to be some kind of braided fiber instead of a plastic cord. It looks expensive, it feels expensive, it even smells expensive. It even comes with a 20 page, full-color "quick start guide" manual. It also comes with a little cardboard slip, declaring:
 

Congratulations, there is no turning back.
We are the Cult of Razer, and our membership includes some of the greatest players the world has ever seen.

 It lights up! For no reason.
The note ends with a signature in neon green ink by one "RazerGuy". I'm not joking. That's not a pseudonym or some kind of nickname he goes by in addition to his "real name". The only name provided on this card is for "RazerGuy".
 
Installing the headset was the first crazy ordeal - there's no less than seven individual drivers for this thing, and I don't even know what half of them are for. I'd assume there's separate drivers for audio out (earphones) and audio in (microphone), and probably drivers for the colored lights, but beyond that, I have no idea. The second crazy ordeal is that this headset does not appear to function without the Razer Synapse 2.0 software running at all times, and, even after you install the headset drivers, Synapse has to download a whole mess of other definition files for your headset. Even crazier: Razer Synapse 2.0 requires a username and password to Razer's online service. The program starts up with Windows and logs you in over the internet just like an instant messenger client would, except it's just there to provide you with device settings. Apparently this is because Razer lets you store your peripheral config in the cloud, but it still seems absolutely bizarre to me. If I don't have a connection to the internet, can I still use my headset? The other downside to this is that if you unplug your Razer headset, a huge Synapse window will immediately pop up and whine, "TO USE RAZER SYNAPSE 2.0 PLEASE CONNECT A SYNAPSE CERTIFIED DEVICE.". The whole thing seems really unnecessary.
 
As for the headset itself, sound quality is, as to be expected, very good. Sound is so crisp it almost feels like it hurts my ears at times - which lead me to turn off the built-in equalizer in the Synapse software. Surround-sound wasn't quite as revolutionary as I expected it to be; it's practically unnoticeable in most games. Out of four or so games I tried ( Sonic Generations, Serious Sam: The First Encounter HD, Mirror's Edge and The Crysis Singleplayer Demo), the only one I noticed surround sound effects in was Sam, and those were very subtle (in a stage with a waterfall, there was a subtle change in the way the flowing water sounded depending on whether or not I was facing it). I unfortunately never got to try the microphone out, because the last game I tried - Crysis - started the circus that has become the last hour of my life, and it's all thanks to this $130 headset.
 
Once the EA logo on the Crysis demo went away, the headset completely stopped receiving sound. Closing Crysis, I discovered that all of Windows was now complaining that there was no sound devices available to receive audio. Though the Synapse software was still technically functional, the headset itself appeared to have crashed, so I unplugged the gold-plated USB connector and plugged it back in. 

TO USE RAZER SYNAPSE 2.0 PLEASE CONNECT A SYNAPSE CERTIFIED DEVICE.

I wait. And wait. And wait some more. Shouldn't you be detecting it already?

Windows has detected an unknown device connected to PORT 2. This device is not functioning properly. If reconnecting the device does not work, please replace the device.

Uh oh. Unplugging my gamepad, I put the headset in to USB Port 1. Synapse recognizes it!
 
But won't let me move the volume past 0%. I force the Synapse task to terminate, unplug and re-plug the headset back in again. At the very least, Windows isn't complaining about a lack of sound devices anymore, but there's no audio going to anything, anywhere. I pop open the Control Panel to see where Windows is sending this audio, when the next crazy ordeal starts.

Windows cannot find C:\Windows\Rundll32.exe 
Make sure you typed the name correctly and try again.

Um. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Rundll32.exe is a pretty critical part of Windows. And I know for a fact that the control panel was working just fine before installing the headset and Razer Synapse, because as I stated before: I've been fiddling with mouse sensitivity options for the last 48 hours. I know exactly what I installed between the last time I used the Control Panel earlier this afternoon and now, and it was the headset. I send Razer Tech Support a calm, reasonable email explaining my problem.

To: Razer Tech Support
Subject: WHAT THE HELL HAVE YOU GUYS DONE TO MY SYSTEM

Well, mostly reasonable.  I replaced Rundll32.exe with one located in another folder in Windows and found the control panel seemed to be working just fine again.
 
But the cavalcade of comedy doesn't stop there. Before Synapse 2.0 installed, it smartly created a System Restore Point. Whether this is because the only way to uninstall it would be a system restore (as is the case with Windows Media Player, etc.) or not I did not discover - but what I did discover is that trying to restore to the point made by Synapse simply caused Windows to freeze. I've never used Windows System Restore before, so as one could imagine, I figured my system was hosed. Thankfully, Windows booted up just fine, though it did notify me that the restore failed. 
 
Also? Rundll32.exe was missing. Again. Even though I had replaced it.
 
Thankfully, Windows makes a system restore point once a night, every night, and keeps those restore points up to 90 days. I simply restored to the point made last night, after installing my mouse. And it worked! But Rundll32.exe was STILL missing. If there was one silver lining, I copied Rundll32.exe in to the correct folder a third time, and after a couple of reboots it FINALLY seems to be staying put - but I have no idea why it wouldn't be restored with the restore point.
 
Obviously, one can imagine I'm hesitant to re-install this headset again. I'll wait and see what Razer tech support has to say about the issue, and then see what else I can do with it. It is, after all, technically brand new. It was used for maybe all of 45 minutes. The "Limited Edition Lightsaber" code for The Old Republic hasn't even been redeemed yet. 
 
Even though I technically got the headset for free, I can't help but feel a little crushed that my experience with it had to be THIS awful. Imagine if somebody actually paid the appropriate amount of money for this thing and went through all the troubles I have - I'd be furious. Instead, I simply get to be sad.
17 Comments

The Xbox 360 Youtube App is Maximum Garbage

(This could probably go on Tested, but nobody would read it if I posted it over there because I have zero followers on Tested.)
 
So I complained a lot about the new Xbox Dashboard update. I felt it emphasized advertising space too much over genuine features, and actively obscured certain functions, with a plethora of too many and often unorganized sub-categories. Some of you out there felt I was nitpicking or were otherwise incorrect, but the fact that there are still people out there who can't figure out where Xbox Originals or Indie Games went (to the point where somebody made a game about it) says it all, I think.
 

"Game Type", an Xbox Indies game by developer Mommy's Best Games
 
But I reserved my opinion for a lot of the 360's apps. I'd heard some people complain about the changes made to Netflix, but as somebody who doesn't use Netflix Instant a terribly large amount, I found the new Netflix app to be something of an improvement - it better exposes more information about what you want to watch, and brings up a lot of similar content to watch after you're finished with the current video. But what I was always excited about was the Youtube app. I spend a lot of time on Youtube - a worrying amount, infact. I'm subscribed to more than two hundred channels. When I want to watch a video while I do whatever, I can always find something on Youtube. The problem, of course, is running Youtube on the same monitor as where I'm doing everything else. I just can't do it. I'm always minimizing everything else to just watch Youtube.
 
If Youtube was on another screen in the same room, it would be a lot easier to multitask. This is technically something I already do; by way of a plugin for Firefox, I can download the MP4 source file from a Youtube video, throw it up on my network, and watch it through the Xbox 360 that way. A Youtube app would eliminate the middle man and save me some time and a little bit of HDD space. 
 
Sometimes, Youtube knows exactly what I am in to.
 
I've been using the app for over a week now... or, at least, have been trying to use the app. The first thing about it I noticed, which won't be apparent by the above image taken from my capture card, is that all of the Xbox 360 video apps (Netflix, Youtube, The Today Show, etc.) all have slightly busted aspect ratio scaling. I have my Xbox setup with a D-SUB connector over VGA and the widescreen image seems to be incorrect scaled, giving the display a weird, somewhat smudged appearance. It's especially noticeable watching GiantBomb videos for the times when they bring up the Xbox dashboard on camera and everything looks squashed. This is a problem only limited to these video apps - games display at the correct aspect ratio, as does everything else about the dashboard. It only effects apps like Netflix and Youtube. In the long run you kind of end up getting used to it, but it's still something that shouldn't be happening.
 
This is a pretty good reproduction of what happens on my screen (make sure to view full-size).

The next major issue is how the Youtube app handles subscription content. As I said earlier, I am subscribed to well over 200 Youtube channels. Not all of them update regularly, and a pretty decent percentage of them haven't updated in more than 6 months. I keep them around anyway, because one day they might start posting videos again. On the Youtube website, managing such a large number of subscriptions is easy, thanks to a page that shows all of the most recent videos from your subscriptions grouped together in an easy-to-view grid. This makes it simple to get to what's new and watch it. On the Xbox Youtube App, trying to manage your subscriptions is pretty much worthless - you're simply presented with a jumbled list of Youtube channels you're subscribed to. Nothing anywhere in the interface tells you which channels have updated recently - only how many views their channel has, and how many videos they have uploaded - it's up to you to go through and manually check each and every channel individually for new videos. It's totally useless.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the number of subscriptions its willing to list cuts off at 100. If you have more than 100 Youtube subscriptions, you're out of luck. This wouldn't be a problem if the list sorted by date, as I'd be viewing content from the 100 most active channels I'm subscribed to. But it's not. It's not alphabetically sorted, it's not chronologically sorted - I don't know what criteria is used to figure out which channels make it in to the 100 I'm allowed to view, but I do know that it's annoying that there are some Youtube channels that are essentially gone forever. 
 
How am I supposed to use this, like, even remotely?

Perhaps knowing ahead of time this would be a problem, Youtube implemented a fairly thick-headed solution in the form of the "Watch Later" playlist. "Watch Later" is like any other playlist, but it's meant to be accessible across multiple platforms and easy to get to, and I guess it is - to the point where you're given the option to add videos to the "Watch Later" list first, over other things like adding videos to favorites or other playlists. I decided to play along, and added 20-30 videos to "Watch Later" with the intent of letting them play on the Xbox. Unfortunately, this feature is a little bit broken. My first time trying to use it, for instance, was met with an error message from the Xbox that my "Watch Later" playlist was empty - when, obviously, I knew better. When the feature finally started working again, I discovered that all the videos I wanted to watch were suddenly buffering every 30 seconds, even though watching those exact same videos on my PC not even a few feet away was smooth and problem-free. Both systems are on the same router, both systems are using a wired connection, but for some reason, video constantly hitches up on the Xbox. And while not exactly a problem per-say, there is absolutely no way to manage the "Watch Later" playlist on the Xbox - even if you finish watching a given video, it'll stay on the "Watch Later" playlist indefinitely until you use a PC to manually edit and remove videos you've already seen.
 
This feature only makes sense in lieu of everything else about this app being unusable.

Perhaps the worst part of this is that you can't complain to anybody in a position of authority about it; contacting Xbox Support about these issues simply results in them redirecting you to Youtube's community support forum, which may as well not even exist - it's hidden away in a part of Youtube that nobody ever visits, and almost nobody on the Youtube staff pays any attention to anything said there. The key word here is "Community" - it's basically a place for Youtube users to complain to each other and figure out solutions to the problems they're experiencing, because Youtube themselves certainly isn't going to do anything about it. It's a poor substitute for real customer service from a company that really wants to project itself as being "hands on" with their users (and is, instead, completely deaf to the majority of their complaints).

Of course, what is Microsoft's problem is the fact that Youtube, much like Netflix and Hulu, is exclusive to Xbox Live Gold users. While you can go on about adding value to Xbox Live Gold and whatnot, it's a serious issue when I'm in the middle of watching a video on my Xbox on the other screen, boot up a Games For Windows Live game on my PC, and get kicked out of the app on the Xbox because I can't be signed in to the same account on both the PC and the Xbox simultaneously. I have to choose - do I want online connectivity on my PC ( which some games can't function without), or do I want to keep watching video on my Xbox? The answer is that I shouldn't have to choose, and I should be able to do both at the same time. The only other solution is to create a PC-specific gamertag, but then we run in to the problem of a number of GFWL games being registered under the same Gamertag I have for Xbox Live and pretty soon we're talking an unnecessary headache over the crippling ineptitude that is Microsoft's handling of these kinds of issues.

If Microsoft really wants to sell the Xbox 360 as some kind of "set top box for all your entertainment media needs", these are the kinds of issues they are going to have to address as soon as possible, because the longer they wait, the harder it's going to be to change the system.
9 Comments

My Game of the "Year" 2011 (?)

Game of the Year articles are always tough for me to write. With my rapidly growing backlog crushing down upon me, I find that I do not play very many games in the year of their release. This becomes a problem at the end of the year when everybody's gathering together their "Best of 200X" lists, because hey, news flash: I only just finished Bayonetta last month. So, as some people tend to do, I'm just going to write whatever. Sure, I'll focus on what few 2011 releases I have played, but I'm just going to sum up 2011 as a whole for me. So without further adieu...
 


Best 2011 Release I Still Need To Play But Haven't

BASTION

"The kid really needed to stop procrastinating and just play Bastion already."

So, hey, I know this is GiantBomb and all, so of course I've heard a lot about what a good game Bastion is. A lot of that was also reciprocated in other publications, who sang praise for the game almost as loudly. Even my own friends are telling me that I need to play Bastion. But here's my problem: I have this crippling disease known as "Late To The Party"-itus. For as long as I can remember, I've never played games when they are hot on everyone's lips. Perhaps it's a weird, deep-seated psychological fear that I'll be caught up in some kind of zeitgeist and will have problems forming my own opinion, instead simply parroting what others are feeling (this has actually happened, and I personally find it distressing when I realize it has). There's also the simple fact that, financially, I'm usually behind the curve on a lot of stuff. While everybody was raving about how amazing Half-Life was, I was only just discovering DooM, and to a lesser extent, Quake. I didn't own a Playstation 2 until sometime in 2006. The counter to this, of course, is that I already own Bastion on Xbox Live Arcade, and simply owning it means the most difficult hurdle in wanting to play Bastion has already been cleared. Instead of writing this list, I could be playing it right now - but I'm not. And I might not get to it for a while. Because if there's one thing worse than "Late To The Party"-itus, it's having 90 games all with save files that read "Total Play Time: 20 minutes". I'm not going to start Bastion and then forget about it in the vast ocean that is my backlog; when I sit down to play that game, I'm going to devote as much of my undivided attention to it as possible. Unfortunately, it may be awhile.


Best Game I Beat In 2011 That Wasn't Released In 2011

BAYONETTA

Bayonetta is "sexy", but that's just part of the joke.

This is actually a fairly difficult category when you consider it: Do I wuss out and list one of those timeless classics I find myself replaying annually, like Half-Life, Donkey Kong Country, or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night? Or do I pick something legitimately fresh, that I haven't been playing and replaying for the better part of a decade? Well, if you really want to read me ramble on about any of those other games, I'm sure you could probably dig up something somewhere about it. So, instead, let's talk about why it took me roughly 11 months to finish Bayonetta: It goes without saying, but Bayonetta is as amazing as it is exhausting. Everybody likes to reference back to that old Spinal Tap joke of how something can be dialed to "11" - well, Bayonetta tweaks that dial so hard it snaps clean off, and then throws it to the ground and stomps on it in those boots with the guns on the heel. After a certain point, that sustained level of completely over-the-top insanity wears out something inside of your brain and you have to go take a rest. Somewhere in the last quarter of the game Bayonetta stops having "levels" in the traditional sense and transforms in to kind of a non-stop boss rush. While frequently awe-inspiring, it also proved to be very draining in equal measure. Every few months, I'd see Bayonetta on the shelf - spend a couple hours with her, and then, completely spent, take a break to let my batteries "recharge". Rinse, repeat. Eventually, I just dug in and resolved to finish the game, frayed reflexes or not - and with a knowing tease, even then, Bayonetta pushed me to my absolute limit. It's one of those extremely rare games that can be punishingly difficult in a way that drives you to play better. Bayonetta is completely absurd, barely makes any sense, and openly basks in these facts with nary a hint of shame. And do not be put off by the game's sexualized aesthetic; like everything else in Bayonetta, the character's own sex appeal is nothing but another out-of-its-mind joke. If you haven't played Bayonetta yet, you should probably track down a copy.


Best Multiplayer

LEFT4DEAD 2

Yo, Nick

I don't play multiplayer games very often, because the dire state of so-called "pub games" is something that I think should always be avoided. I never saw the appeal of climbing to the top of a leaderboard with a bunch of strangers, especially when you run in to that 12 year old who swears you must be hacking (by, ironically, swearing at you) - or who himself must be hacking for being able to headshot you with a knife of all things from the other side of the map. Multiplayer is so much more engaging when you're doing it with people you actually know. For the vast majority of my multiplayer "career", I was fortunate enough to maybe have one or two friends interested in playing multiplayer games with me - and let me tell you: Capture the flag just doesn't work with a team of three. That all changed late last year when I started getting invited to games of Left4Dead 2 by some guys on a forum I was a part of. Before I knew it, I was playing Left4Dead 2 with these guys just about every night for days. Days turned in to weeks. Weeks turned in to months. We were still playing Left4Dead 2. Unlike something like Phantasy Star Online, which would draw in a whole community only until the "fad" wore off a short time later, Left4Dead 2 became something of a nightly routine for me. I've not only grown attached to the game itself, I've grown attached to the people I play it with, in some weird way. It doesn't hurt that the game itself is absolutely fantastic; if you haven't ever really experienced Left4Dead's Versus mode proper, you haven't actually played the game, as far as I'm concerned. For the longest time, I didn't actually like Left4Dead, and that's namely because the game has a limited appeal when all you're doing is playing the game's vanilla "campaign" mode. It's not until you've got a full server of 8 flesh and blood human beings all trying to kill each other that Left4Dead really starts to "make sense". Valve may advertise the game's singleplayer and co-op game modes, but those are like trying to play Rock Band 3 without a plastic guitar: functional, but entirely missing the point. There is absolutely nothing else like this game on the market, and I really hope that Christmas Rush 2011 hasn't killed off "the crew"s resolve to play more Left4Dead, because it's been about two weeks since we last played and I'm starting to have withdrawal shakes.


Biggest Disappointment

COSTUME QUEST

If I never see a barrel full of apples again it'll be too soon.

If none of you mind, I'm going to count this as a 2011 release due to the PC version, despite the fact it originally came out (and I played it) in 2010. Regardless, I feel like one of ten people on planet earth who did not "get" Costume Quest. Sure, aesthetically, it was charming as hell - as Double-Fine games tend to be. But dig even an inch below the surface and Costume Quest is a painfully simplistic game, even by the uncomplicated standards set by the very RPGs it is paying tribute to. I could tolerate the ultra-basic Super Mario RPG-esque interactive battle system, but what really broke Costume Quest for me is when I'd finish a "dungeon" and the game would send me to the equivalent of the next town, only to find it largely populated by the exact same NPCs with the exact same mini-games as the place I'd just come from. It was fun and endearing for maybe an hour, but then the repetition sets in and all of the cute artwork and clever writing in the world could not save me from the crushing boredom of having to go door to door for candy, trade cards with other kids, and bob for apples yet again. I actually resolved myself to finish it for Halloween this year, and could not muster the effort to even launch the game once. What's worse is they had the guts to release Costume Quest DLC that, judging by trailers and other media I've seen, once again recycles everything all over again for what must be the fifth or sixth time - except now there's snow everywhere and it's vaguely Christmas themed! Oooh! Aaah! Ugh.


The Game I Really Need To Go Back To

DEAD ISLAND

"THEY'RE COMING"

My memories of Dead Island are a blur of zombies being kicked to death by four assholes who didn't really have much of an agenda beyond "Hey, what's over there?" It was a single day of complete madness, and while some of my friends didn't seem too thrilled with the game, I thought it was cool. I think. Maybe. It's hard to tell, what with all of the zombie kicking. But, just like that, it vanished in to the aether of my towering videogame backlog, never to be heard from again. It wasn't until recently when I was called upon to co-star in some footage for Nitrobeard.com's Game Of The Year video content that it dawned on me: "Oh yeah, Dead Island! There's like, quests and stuff! There's actually a game in here beyond the zombie kicking simulator. I should really get back to that." The question is, do I try and get the band back together (coordinating a multiplayer game with the original four chuckleheads can be like pulling teeth at times), try and find some new recruits (the Steam sale holds plenty of promise in that regard), or just go it alone? I'd love to play Dead Island with more people, certainly, but I've always been more of a gets-invited than a sends-invites kind of guy. Given that I'll probably never get invited to another game of Dead Island, maybe I should just start a singleplayer character. Singleplayer characters certainly have their benefits; there's a greater opportunity to totally immerse yourself in a world, take things at your own pace and to stop and smell the... well, stopping to smell anything in Dead Island is probably a bad idea on multiple levels - but you get the point. Or maybe Dead Island can just sit on my HDD for another six months while I wallow in indecision. Hasn't hurt anything yet!


Game Of The Year 2011 Runner-Up

SONIC GENERATIONS

Gotta speed, keed.

Hey. Have you watched my Sonic Generations video review yet? You probably should, given that I spent three grueling weeks putting it together. Long story short: Sonic Generations is a great game. Better than Sonic has been in over a decade. Some of its ancillary content is pretty weak, but the core meat of the game - the part you really care about playing through - is the strongest it's ever been. Somebody at Sonic Team finally figured out how to design levels for Sonic in 3D. Actually, scratch that - somebody at Sonic Team finally figured out how to actually learn from their mistakes for a change. Long gone are the days of games like Sonic Heroes that simply rehash the worst elements of their predecessors. Sonic Generations takes all of the best ideas from Sonic 4, Sonic Unleashed, and Sonic Colors, and throws them in to a blender set to "purée". The end result is a game that does not punish you for making the choice to slow down. Rather than expect the player to perfect some amazing high-speed death gauntlet their first time through the level, Sonic Generations provides plenty of ways in its level design for psychotic speedrunners and more leisurely players to co-exist in the same space together, and as simple as something like that sounds to accomplish, it represents a major step forward for this franchise. Whether you want to rip through a stage at 100mph or take it easy, Sonic Generations has a little something for everybody to enjoy. This is the real deal, folks. No human-on-hedgehog kissing, no overly-serious plot, no werehogs, no fishing. Just blue hedgehogs and brightly colored environments as far as the eye can see. May the Sonic cycle never darken this doorstep ever again.


My 2011 Game Of The Year

PORTAL 2

Brilliant beyond words

I'm sort of in awe at just how completely and utterly perfect Portal 2 is. It nails everything with a kind of exacting, pin-point accuracy that you just don't see in very many games, if at all. Often hilarious, sometimes emotionally resonant, Portal 2's storyline is, at least to me, the single best piece of game writing ever put to paper (or otherwise). What few characters are in the game are sharply defined, totally unique, and an absolute joy to be around (relatively speaking to how much some of them want to kill you). Puzzles are just devious enough to cultivate that magical "Ah-ha," moment and the game knows exactly when to pull back and let the player explore and when to buckle down and teach you exactly what to do. Everybody can go on about how crazy Saint's Row is, how long and involved Skyrim is, but neither of those games are so perfectly and expertly executed on like Portal 2 is. There is no fat, no fluff, no filler. Portal 2 is exactly the game it wants to be with no compromises. The only real problem is how Valve follows it up - you can only raise the bar so high before you become eternally trapped in its shadow; and Portal 2 is good enough that I think there's a possibility it may be "that game" for Valve. This is their "Thriller", their "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial". At best we can hope for a Pixar-like scenario where we somehow managed to get The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up all one after another - but we eventually had to meet the crushing despair of Cars 2, and Valve's going to stumble at some point. Regardless of my crazy ramblings on the matter, I know one thing for sure: I am dying to see what these guys do next.
 

And that wraps up my Game of the Year stuff for this year, I suppose. I could probably keep going, making up awards to give out (like, say, Best Fangame, or at least the Best and Worst Xbox Live Indie games), but I've been at this for three hours already and I'm ready to call it a night. So I guess I will see you guys in 2012? Sure, why not. See you in 2012!

4 Comments

The New Xbox Dashboard is slightly a trainwreck

I've hardly been a critic of the previous iterations of the Xbox Dashboard. Sure, there have been some small complaints here or there, but never have I felt genuine offended by the way things were laid out. That all changed with the release of the 2011 Xbox Dashboard. While on the surface it's generally pretty usable, there are a lot of things about it that feel like they were constructed by unfeeling logic robots who don't really understand how human beings comprehend interface.
 

 1000/1000 in Sonic Generations and STILL playing it. Word.
Let's start at the first screen you're met with, the home screen. While an improvement over the "Spotlight" channel from the previous dashboard iteration, it's really not much better. The major complaint people had with the Spotlight channel was that it was essentially a row of unskippable ads you were met with when you first booted your console up, forcing you to manually scroll up to the "Launch Game" option. On the new 2011 Dashboard, your cursor starts on the "Launch Game" option, but they've still worked as hard as possible to flood the bulk of your screen with as many advertisements as there is room for them.
 
STOP PLAYING SO MANY VIDEOGAMES AND BUY SOMETHING ALREADY
To a certain degree, I get why they would want to do this. The best comparison would be Valve's Steam platform on the PC; if you go in to their marketplace, you're basically looking at a huge string of advertisements for everything on their site. It's how they get you to discover new content. If they can't advertise what they have, then you won't know it's available for purchase. There is, however, a pretty significant difference between the way Steam does business and the way Microsoft is trying to do business. When I open Steam to play a game, this is the first thing I see:
 
 You don't think it's too subtle, Marty, you don't think people are going to drive down and not see the sign?
That's because Steam lets me customize my view. By default it's set up to take you to the store page first thing, but with a few simple clicks you can launch Steam directly in to your game library and skip the whole "Dude check it out, Orcs Must Die is only $3 today" advertisement screen. Microsoft still doesn't let you do this, even if you're a paying Xbox Live Gold customer. This was actually the primary feature request with the Spotlight channel - there needed to be some way to let people skip all the ads and get right to playing a game. Instead, Microsoft's solution is to give you the option to play whatever is in the disc drive and the ten most recently used/downloaded games and "apps". One step in the right direction, but two steps back, given that the ads are bigger and more pervasive than ever. (this is saying nothing of the fact that Steam only advertises games on Steam, but the Xbox Dashboard has no problem trying to sell me cars and pizza and movie tickets and World of Warcraft subscriptions)
 
But all of that would be fine if it was the only transgression. But no - the new Xbox Live Dashboard commits sins far more egregious than simply bloated advertising space. Namely, what a pain in the ass it is to get to anything actually related to videogames. Sure, you have the two launch options on the Home menu - but if what you want to play isn't located in either of those options, you have to scroll through two other sections just to get to the "games" part of your game console. Again, comparisons to Steam are apt: I start with a list of every game I own and every game I have installed staring me in the face in that piece of software. On the Xbox Dashboard, I have to go on some kind of safari to find the games I have installed, braving the wilderness of the "social" and "video" categories. And while I own over $400 worth of Xbox Live content, you'd never know it because the dashboard still does not have any way of showing you a complete list of content you've purchase - you're only shown what's currently on the console at that point in time. It's completely up to you to keep track of what you own ( Backloggery has been a lifesaver in this regard), and if you want to replay any of it, you're forced to manually hunt that content down through the hellish landscape known as the "Game Marketplace".
 
 Look upon my visage, ye mighty, and despair!
For years, Microsoft has struggled to find a way to organize content on the Xbox Marketplace to allow room for growth while also organizing everything in a way that everybody can easily find it. The problem it came down to in the past is that it required too many "clicks" in order to drill down and find what you wanted. Again, not to keep going back to it, but Steam can be made to either show you a list of games you might want to buy or a list of games you might want to play as the first thing you see when you launch the software. Previous iterations of Xbox Live required you to flip through multiple sections and sub-categories just to finally get to a page that showed the most recent Xbox Live Arcade releases.
 
This, unfortunately, has not changed. Infact, given the fact that you have to scroll through the "Social" and "Video" tabs just to get to "Games" where the marketplace button is located, everything is potentially buried even deeper now than it ever has been. To make matters even worse, the actual Game Marketplace itself has been transformed in to a nearly unusable disaster. Broken out in to its own six categories, the Game Marketplace as it stands right now on the 2011 Xbox Live dashboard update is bloated and obtuse in a way that is genuinely shocking to me. It's so bad that I'm kind of at a loss for where to start, so we'll start by simply running down each category and it's function: 

  1. "Picks" - This is where games are recommended for purchase based on what the user has recently played and/or purchased.
  2. "Featured" - This is where games are recommended for purchase based on how much money Microsoft has been paid to advertise them.
  3. "Games" - This is theoretically where you are meant to discover new games for purchase.
  4. "Add-ons" - This is where downloadable content lives.
  5. "Extras" - This is where frivolous, overpriced garbage like avatar clothes and premium themes/gamerpics live, in addition to stuff like Halo Waypoint/Call of Duty Elite.
  6. "Demos" - Provided its own entire category, because, uh... well, er....

You may immediately notice that the first three categories are actually the exact same thing presented in three different ways: They are categories designed to get you to find and buy new games. Imagine logging in to Netflix and having three separate categories for recommendations instead of just one (one based on a computer algorithm, another based on how much Netflix was paid to recommend them to you, and a third category called "recommend a movie to yourself"). These three categories could be pretty easily be wrapped up in to one singular place with "Recommendations" and "Featured Games" being sub-sections in the "Games" category. 
 

It's so horrifying, and yet I can't look away!

Instead, we get the worst jumble of icons in the history of interface. This page right here is bad enough on its own that it deserves to be broken down point by point. To start: The icons they use for these features. We have a strange mish-mash of stock photos and more common pictograph-like icon artwork. The most immediate effect this had was that at first glance I seriously thought the only way to view a list of games was either by genre or alphabetically. "New Releases" and "Most Popular" didn't even register as filtering options, and even when they did, it literally took repeated visits to this category before I discovered that "Game Type" was the way I chose between Xbox Live Arcade, Xbox Indies, Games on Demand, and Xbox Originals. There was a period of about 15 minutes where I was genuinely pissed off that they had taken away the ability to sort games "by platform" because there is no way an actual human brain makes the connection between an image of a stupid asshole in a hoodie doing parkour with choosing whether or not I want to look at Xbox Indies or Xbox Live Arcade games. They all need to be green background with white text icons because that's how you let the user know they are system functions and not advertisements or temporary promotions. And you especially do not mix and match one style with another style. Either go whole-hog with your stupid unrelated stock photos or don't because this is bad enough that it almost seems like you're deliberately sabotaging yourselves, Microsoft.
 
Similarly, there's not enough immediate distinction between "Add-Ons" and "Extras". Both terms basically mean the same thing, but Microsoft has to have their gross little corner where they charge people $7 for an intangible, completely worthless Master Chief costume for their fake computer person (or $3 for what essentially equates to a few JPEG thumbnails). Another problem with this section? The "Most Popular" sorting filter makes a return appearance, but in a completely different spot than it is in other Game Marketplace categories.
 

 Consistency is not Microsoft's strongest suit

Are you deliberately trying to make users get lost? It only reinforces the idea that "Most Popular" isn't a specific system menu function, but is instead some kind of temporary promotional deal. I realize you just had to make room for the new "Subscriptions" sub-section (fits with the massive amount of Gears of War 3 branding in this category) but I'm pretty sure it would have made more sense to keep "Most Popular" in the same location and move "Subscriptions" up above "A to Z", given that's the space that was removed to make room for "Subscriptions" in the first place!
 
Which of course brings us to "Demos", another category that could've probably been rolled in to simply "Games" somehow (if only Microsoft wasn't so keen on me buying a new Volkswagen). There's simply not enough content here to justify having it's own entire category, as evident by the fact that Kinect demos get broken out in to their own unique sub-section. 
 
And the worst part is? If they simply scaled back the advertising space and really stopped to think about how to effectively use the space they've been given, there's plenty of ways to shortcut a lot of these things to make product exposure easier and more streamlined. It took me 20 minutes to come up with this idea: 
 

A bit of a rough draft, but workable

 

The most important information all on one screen. Launch the game, go straight to your game library, and most importantly, a direct link to the game marketplace without having to thumb through multiple menus to get there. Not only that, but advertising links to video content, avatar content, and the deal of the week. On one screen. It's really not very difficult. It just means you don't give the advertisements top billing - something Microsoft probably isn't willing to do.
 
But until they they, we're always going to have dashboard revisions where you constantly have some Microsoft mouthpiece telling us how they're "redesigning the dashboard to make it easier to find content" when all they really mean is "we're making the ads bigger and shuffling some buttons around". 
 
And this isn't even touching any of the other problems with the new dashboard I've heard from other folks, either! (See: Netflix) It's kind of gross!

66 Comments

"That Game" from your childhood

There was a post on NeoGAF recently about "that game" from your childhood. We all had "that game", the one that basically turned gaming from a casual hobby in to something we dedicated a significant portion of our free time to. The response I wrote on there was actually fairly long and involved, so I figured I'd transfer it over to here because it'd probably make a good blog. If you've known me long enough, I've probably told this story before, but every couple years I find myself retelling it for one reason or another...

Blue with attitude

For me, "that game" was the original Sonic the Hedgehog, to a certain extent. It was Christmas 1991, and my brother got a Model 1 Sega Genesis. I wasn't really well educated on gaming at that point in time - I grew up in my toddler years with the family having an Atari 2600, then in '89 we upgraded to a NES with Super Mario Bros. I enjoyed games, but they were an ancillary part of my life. Though at this point I've most likely played a Sega Genesis in store demo kiosks, I never put 2 and 2 together - I thought what my brother got was just a piece of stereo equipment that I wasn't allowed to touch. New Years Eve rolls around and we have some relatives in from out of town. They're watching Citizen Kane, and since I'm 8 years old at this point, I'm told that I probably won't like the movie. Since I'll only be a distraction I'm sent to my room to play. For a kid with a short attention span at 7 in the evening, that of course doesn't last long. To keep me out of their hair, I'm sent to the forbidden zone: my brother's room. My brother is a distant 14 years older than I am. In some regards, he's almost old enough to be my dad. At this point in time, he is a working adult of 22 years old. Being an adult, he largely kept to himself, and his tiny bedroom was a collection of very kid-unfriendly stuff: No toys, only a bed, a dresser, his own TV and a shelf full of pets he kept - snakes, tarantulas and other critters of that nature. You can imagine why was never allowed in there (or perhaps simply never had the guts to go in there). This, however, is a special exception, and I was sat down in front of his TV and handed a black game controller with three buttons. Sonic the Hedgehog begins to play.

To an 8 year old in 1991 who still doesn't even own Super Mario Bros. 3, Sonic the Hedgehog is just about the most amazing thing ever. Fast, unique, and absolutely gorgeous. Even though I struggle to make it past Marble Zone, I am absolutely enamored with the game, and after the movie is over and the night winds down, I can't stop talking about it to my family. I never play my brother's copy of Sonic ever again. Not only because I never go in to his room, but because within the next few months or so, my brother moves out, and with him goes the Sega Genesis. Despite this, I'm hooked. I need to play more Sonic the Hedgehog. Every opportunity I get, I sit on store demo kiosks playing Sonic. I ask for a Sega Genesis for my birthday in '92 and am rebuffed. I ask again for Christmas, and come December 25th I tear the wrapping paper off a large box to reveal... a Super Nintendo. Not even a month prior, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has landed on store shelves, and "hedgehog madness" has been rekindled in my heart... yet here I am, holding the competition. I try to do that thing where I don't want to seem ungrateful for the $200 gift I've been given, but all I can think of is that I'm missing out on the new Sonic.

This became something of a trend. I've recently come to understand that the entire reason I became such a fierce Sonic fanboy in those early days is because of this repeated cycle of need and denial. Ahab hunted his white whale, and I sought a blue hedgehog. My obsession was growing. It certainly didn't help that when I did finally get a chance to play a little bit of a Sonic game, it was never more than a few minutes - I never really had an opportunity to sit down and actually immerse myself in it. I made the best of my SNES. My Mom had bought it for me under the pretense of how much I liked Mario on the NES, and that was most definitely true of the SNES, as well. Super Mario World was a hell of a game, and sending away for Super Mario All-Stars finally provided me with the opportunity to experience both SMB2 and SMB3. The SNES was a great console - one of the best ever made. Even so, I was constantly trying to find Nintendo equivalents to Sonic. Aero the Acrobat, Bubsy, Rocky Rodent, Konami's Tiny Toons game, even tangential stuff like Alfred Chicken were under my purview. But, as I embraced the "Mascots With Attitude" fad, none of them even came close to replicating the Sonic experience.

Status of NBA Jam Poster: Unknown

I enjoyed my SNES for nearly two years. It was 1994 now, and a certain blue hedgehog catches my eye on the cover of Gamepro magazine. They proudly proclaim they have a full color "ProStrategy" guide for Sonic the Hedgehog 3. A third Sonic game?! That issue of Gamepro ended up being the first magazine I ever bought. I poured over the strategy guide, memorizing every inch of the game. By the time I go play Sonic 3 on store demo kiosks, I know every stage inside and out, backwards and forwards. In retrospect, it's actually kind of sad. My mother must've thought so too, because she finally took notice that this Sonic "thing" wasn't going away, and that year I was finally graced with a Sega Genesis to call my own, complete with my very own copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Of course, by now, Sonic & Knuckles is already on store shelves, and the mighty, Voltron-like power of Sonic 3 & Knuckles was within my grasp. Spring break 1995 was a glorious time for me and my best friend. Given that we both owned our own copies of Sonic 3, we'd take turns renting S&K from the local video store. When one of us took it back, the other would head out and rent it. We'd even coordinate over the phone so we knew the moment it would be in. That lasted for what felt like weeks. Not because we had difficulty in beating the game, mind you, but because we quite literally wanted to see everything. We'd beat the game in every configuration possible; Sonic with all Super Emeralds. Sonic with just Chaos Emeralds. Sonic with no emeralds at all. Would there be another secret level like "Doomsday Zone" for us to discover? What changed about the ending? What happened when you did this with other characters? We played it so much we practically made ourselves sick of it. It may have been the original Sonic the Hedgehog that began "hedgehog madness", but it was Sonic 3 & Knuckles where it really blossomed and came in to its own. There was no escaping it at that point.

Which is ironic, given that Sonic 3 & Knuckles marked the end of an era. Occasional spinoffs aside, it would be nearly five years before the next major Sonic game. The cycle of need and denial was beginning all over again. Despite purchasing a Sega Saturn (with my own money, too - the first game console I ever did that with), Sonic X-Treme got the can in 1996. Sonic 3D Blast, Sonic Jam, and Sonic R were decent diversions, but nothing substantial (or terribly qualitative). By the time Sonic Adventure rolled around, I'd like to think I had matured to the point where I could start evaluating the quality of these games beyond simply "Yay It's Another Sonic" (and by 2006, I was seriously considering throwing in the towel for obvious reasons). Nowadays, though, Sonic finally seems to be struggling back to his feet - starting with Sonic Unleashed, this franchise has pulled itself up by its boot straps, giving us the legitimately wonderful Sonic Colors last year. Sonic Generations, set to release in a little over a week, looks to be the best, most polished implementation of the "cinematic"-style Sonic games originally envisioned back on the Dreamcast. Only time will tell - but rest assured, I'll be there.

102 Comments

I HAVE TAKEN PART IN A "POD CAST" ABOUT "BEARDS"

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages, have you ever wanted to listen to me speak in to a microphone? I'll be you have, and today you're in luck because I've appeared on one of these new-fangled "pod casts". The "pod cast" in question is the Nitrobeard Beardcast, a podcast run by some cool dudes I know.

Actually, this can be considered my illustrious return to the podcasting arena. Those of you who have known me for long enough may remember that I was a regular on the short-lived MoogleCavern.com podcast (before the owner of that site packed his bags and called the whole website business quits). Me appearing on Nitrobeard almost didn't happen, particularly because I'm a shy little girl who runs and hides at the thought of social interaction, but figuring that would be kind of a jerk move given the subject of me being on their podcast had come up multiple times over the years, I decided to "get a grip" so to speak and do it. With the direction my life has been gradually drifting towards, I can't be a wallflower introvert forever, right?

Appearing on their podcast was fun, too, once I got over some of the initial jitters. Wouldn't mind doing it again in the future. In it, we discuss the state of Sonic the Hedgehog, the fandom that surrounds it, Sega's past, what it is I do at TSSZnews.com and how that feels, and so on. Me and Imran also discuss our recent tendency to livestream bad videogames and our tentative plans for some sort of livestream endurance race to the end of Sonic 2006 for charity or some other wacky goal. So give it a listen- who knows, you might even find a new favorite podcast. Sure, I may be buddies with the guys who produce it, but I've found it to be an essential part of my podcast lineup for quite a while now.

So, if you missed it the first two times, third time's the charm: The Nitrobeard Beardcast - Episode 57.

Start the Conversation

Dear PC Developers: How to reduce software piracy

A brief recap: June 2010, I found out I won a contest for about $2000 worth of Xbox Live Gold and Microsoft Points (a "lifetime", in their words). It took me six or seven months, but I sold most of it off and ended up buying a handful of new goodies with it, most importantly some new PC hardware that finally put me in the same generational ballpark as everyone else. I can now comfortably run Crysis, Unreal Engine 3 games, so on and so forth (see also: my last blog).

A pretty marked improvement, I'd say.
Something I've noticed now that I have new hardware is that I want to try everything.  I want to see how my system measures up. How does this run? How does that run? Crysis was obviously a big target, as even now, years after its release, it's still one of the high watermarks for computer graphics (until Battlefield 3 comes out, anyway). Eventually, I decided I wanted to see how well the PC version of Grand Theft Auto 4 ran. GTA4 has earned a pretty notorious reputation for being the kind of game that runs amazing on some system configurations and absolutely horrible on others, regardless of how powerful the hardware in question actually was.
 
Not too long ago, Team Meat's co-founder Ed McMillen said something controversial about PC game piracy to IGN. To summarize: Super Meat Boy doesn't have any anti-piracy DRM. Ed McMillen doesn't care if anybody pirates his game, because to him, anybody who plays Super Meat Boy (even if it means not paying for it) is that much more likely to buy Team Meat's next game, whatever that may be. In his opinion, malicious pirates are rare.
 

"The dinosaurs of marketing are really upset by piracy. They think it's literally stealing," he says. "They're old. That's really the reason. They're old and their ideas are old. They don't understand where we are now. They don't understand the mentality of people who are pirating things. They see them as thieves, the same people who go and shoplift. I don't f*@#ing shoplift but I have pirated sh@%-loads of stuff. Like it's just not the same, it's not the same thing at all."

"Sh@% changed," says McMillen, warming to his theme. "Deal with it. Sh@% went digital and this is how it works now. It's really easy to copy and give to other people."

I don't own a copy of Grand Theft Auto 4 for the PC. If it really is true that the game may, for no discernible reason, run absolutely awful on my system, I don't want to roll the dice and buy it. That leaves me with one of two options: Satisfy my own curiosity through the dubious medium of software piracy, or try really really hard to forget that the PC version of GTA4 even exists at all. The latter option is fine, I guess - I already own GTA4 for the Xbox 360, though that would mean missing out on all of the rad car mods and graphical patches people have been producing for the PC version (which as I've found are 90% of the fun). 
 
But going by Team Meat's example, it doesn't have to be this way. If there was a demo for Grand Theft Auto 4 on the PC, this problem simply wouldn't exist - I could download the free trial version, see how it runs, and make a decision from there. The idea here is that a large number of pirates are simply curious about a game, so they, in essence, "make their own demo" - and oh, how convenient - this "demo" just so happens to include the entire rest of the game, too. Unfortunately for a platform that defined itself by the concept of " Shareware", freebie demos for top-tier game releases these days are getting fewer and farther between. Epic Games' Cliff Bleszinski has made it clear that he believes having to take time to produce a demo eats up money and effort that could be better spent on the main game itself - and you'll notice that the only Epic-developed game in the last six years to have a demo was Unreal Tournament 3 ( Bulletstorm was developed by People Can Fly). Gears of War certainly has never had a demo, not on Xbox 360 or even on PC for the release of Gears of War 1. Another prevailing train of thought is that if your game is "important" enough, you simply don't need a demo. I'm sure everybody remembers the Silent Cartographer demo for the original Halo - but the franchise didn't see another demo release for nearly a decade. Even then, it's been implied that the demo for Halo Reach was only to test an Xbox 360 Dashboard upgrade. 
 
And then there's an even bigger problem: developers and publishers who release demos in an attempt to trick consumers in to buying the full product. Bulletstorm, despite having a playable demo, loses points for the fact that what you're allowed to play is literally 3 minutes out of a 20+ minute mission. Before you're even offered an opportunity to get a feel for the game's ebb and flow, you're pulled out of the action and told to buy the full game. In comparison, the original DooM, a game that popularized the first-person shooter, gave you practically an hour of content for free before asking you to pony up the cash back in 1993 - and I'd say that franchise made parent company iD Software very, very happy. 

So to the Cliff Bleszinskis of the world, I say this: take the money you're funneling in to SecuROM, or Starforce, or whatever "You must always be connected to the internet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, forever" anti-piracy solution you've developed, and redirect it in to creating a meaty demo for your game. Something that offers a good, long, detailed look at the work you've done, and does not try to fool the consumer in to a purchase with some sort of stupid "Gotcha!" bait-and-switch moment. This goes  back to another recent blog I wrote, about Tom Kalinske's aim to make the Sega Genesis a bigger success than Nintendo's hardware offerings: Kalinske was the man who proposed packaging copies of Sonic the Hedgehog for free with the Genesis. Sega of Japan's board of directors were genuinely offended at the idea of giving their best content away at no charge to consumers. Kalinske did it anyway, and it proved to be one of his first major successes at the company (before Sega of Japan eventually drove him away - read my blog on the matter if you haven't already).
 
The ultimate goal in all of this is to satisfy a would-be pirate's curiosity. To showcase everything from how well the game runs on a particular computer system, to what the game itself is even about. No smoke and mirrors, no teasing, just a lengthy, worthy demonstration. I guarantee piracy rates would see a decline.
85 Comments

Unreal Tournament 3 through the ages

It used to be that I was the kind of person who only updated his PC hardware once every six or seven years. That meant I was often two whole generations behind on game hardware - sometimes more. That's changed lately, as I've found myself upgrading my hardware every couple of years or less - going from seriously old and busted to pretty average hardware. This has, among other things, afforded me the ability to watch how Unreal Engine 3 games evolved as my hardware did.  Check it out:

 2007: 3.2ghz Pentium 4, GeForce 5200 FX, 512mb of RAM. 10-15fps.

 2009: 3.2ghz Pentium 4, GeForce 6600 GT, 2gb of RAM. 15-25fps.

 2011: 3.1ghz Core 2 Duo, Radeon HD5670, 2gb of RAM. 40-60fps.
Now I need a newer monitor, I guess.
Start the Conversation

Sega Japan vs. Sega America continues to be fascinating

Ever since reading Sega-16'sinterview with Tom Kalinske, I have been shown a side of Sega I never knew existed - one that I've found continually fascinating. Unfortunately, Sega-16 has completely redesigned their site and never bothered to re-publish these fantastic articles, so the best I can give you is a Google Cache link. That doesn't really matter, though, as I've stumbled upon something else that also touches on the apparent feud Sega of Japan waged on Sega of America in the 16-bit console era. 
 

 Dungeon crawling
The following comes from a (rather old) blog dedicated to a fan translation for SegaGaga. SegaGaga, for those in the dark, was a late-era Sega Dreamcast game developed by Hitmaker and published by Sega. It was an oddball sort of simulation RPG - positioned basically as Sega's last great hurrah. Imagine Game Dev Story with a rigid plot structure and a greater amount of anime/fantasy elements and you have a fuzzy picture of what the game was like. You took control of young game developer who moved through Sega's ranks in an effort not only to save the company, but to save the entire game industry itself. Offices were laid out like dungeons in a JRPG, and you fought mutated versions of irate programmers and designers in an effort to make them work harder. The game also had sort of a "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" sort of feel, as not only did you interact with physical people, but you were afforded the opportunity to speak to iconic characters like Alex Kidd (one particularly notable scene involves meeting a washed up Kidd working as a supermarket bag boy as he laments Sonic taking his place as the company's starlet). As you can imagine, the game was a little too niche to ever come stateside, and on top of that, the Dreamcast had already flat-lined in the west by the time SegaGaga hit Japanese shelves. While the game definitely did not take itself seriously, it does attempt to accurately recreate a timeline of what it was like at Sega, from their 8-bit beginnings all the way up to the eventual death of the Dreamcast. And, thanks to this blog, I've discovered SegaGaga even touches on the Sega of Japan vs. Sega of America Feud. I've deliberately truncated the following text in order to focus on the juicy parts, so you'll want to read the full blog entry to get the whole story - there's a link at the bottom of the post.
 

We’ve encountered a character in SegaGaga that might bother many long-time American Sega fans. In our present rough drafts, the character’s name is Special Task Force Director Cool. SegaGaga most likely uses him as a reference to Sega of America’s former president, Tom Kalinske.

Let’s look at some history first. At the start of the 16-bit console generation, Sega’s CEO (Nakayama) hired Kalinske to turn around the American market in Sega’s favor. Kalinske reviewed Sega’s situation, went to Japan, and told the board of directors how he thought they could remove themselves from beneath Nintendo’s foot. The board of directors hated all of Kalinske’s ideas, but Nakayama gave his approval. With this freedom, Kalinske built a legacy that rests in the memories of anyone who grew up as a gamer during the 16-bit console generation.

Material success strikes Americans as its own justification, at least in business. Sega of Japan’s board of directors hardly regarded Kalinske’s success in America as virtuous. Yes, he put money in their bank accounts, but he brought a lower branch of Sega greater success than the head could hope to achieve. To describe the corporate power relationships in feudal terms, Kalinske was a chief retainer who had brazenly proven himself more valorous than his lord.

The Japanese corporate world has been known to punish insolence without terminating the person’s career. So Sega of Japan seemingly punished Kalinske. They manipulated the company’s structure to strip him of any real authority, and they left him with all the direct power of England’s royal family. Kalinske became fed up with the whole affair, left Sega, and boosted LeapFrog, Inc., to tremendous success.

Of course, Sega began to stumble toward their present state shortly afterwards. In effect, they razed themselves by exposing Kalinske to passive Japanese corporate discipline and driving him away. Tom Kalinske’s entrance into and exit from Sega might mark the most dramatic part of the company’s history. SegaGaga, as a reflection upon the company’s history as well as the industry in general, addresses these events as a matter of course.

According to everything we’ve translated so far, however, SegaGaga renders Kalinske a villain to the point that he opposes and nearly snuffs the plan intended to save Sega along with the rest of the videogames industry. Both Kalinske and Special Task Force Director Cool are American, and both drastically increased Sega’s hold over the American market. The game’s characters–all Japanese, of course–regard him as “shrewd,” an attitude that contrasts with the other characters’ confidence in the genius of a fun-loving wunderkind. Cool intrudes upon Project SegaGaga with the CEO’s authority, just as the Japanese executives perhaps viewed Kalinske’s presence as unfairly forced upon them by Nakayama. All of this, of course, casts Kalinske (by association with Cool) and a generalized idea of “the American approach to game development” in a bad light.


 The full text, including quotes from the game's script and an exploration of what they mean in the grand scheme of SegaGaga's plot, can be found here.
9 Comments