A Wise Old Man's Valuable Lesson In Game Development

"If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion." - Spock, Star Trek 2 - The Wrath Of Khan

James Tiberius Kirk's career is an interesting one. A fictional one, yet one which we can all learn from. Let's not focus too much on that Kobyashi Maru stuff where Kirk cheated like a bastard to get by. No, let's focus instead on his Captaincy. As a Captain, Kirk did it all. He commanded a starship and explored the far reaches of space. Green lady aliens were ensnared by his charms and often frisky limbs. He punched a giant man-lizard in the neck. He got pissed on Romulan Ale and probably told the best stories to his crew-mates.

Starfleet were so impressed with Captain Kirk that they ended up making him an Admiral. Sadly, this is where it all went wrong for him. Kirk spent far too much time in meetings over Starfleet uniform redesigns. What noise should the red alert siren make? Is the current one too alarming as an alarm? That was swiftly followed by a session on Space Excel as he hastily worked out which engineer would suit that tricky warp core alignment issue. Sometimes he would look mournfully out of the porthole into space and think back. What became of that green lady alien?

This appears to be the destiny of many career professionals. You start out being an enthusiastic rebel with a brainspace full of ideas. You'll make mistakes, but those mistakes are lessons which will ultimately form you as an individual in the industry. Which industry, you say? GAMES! The games industry! Everyone's favourite industry! The strangest industry!

The Best Plans...

The games industry is indeed a strange beast; I guess that's one of the things that interested me - the numerous possibilities. I can't lie - videogames was not the plan. Before videogames, I wanted to be an animator. As a student, I religiously devoured the likes of John K and Chuck Jones. I painstakingly put together the most intricate of storyboards and animatics. I bit off more than I could chew with my final project, though the enthusiasm was hard to ignore. Sadly, after all of that dedication, the jobs were not there. The animation industry is cyclic - large numbers of animators get employed at once. I guess we missed the rush...

A phone number on a Post-It note given to me by my Scouse computer tutor gave me a lifeline and my foot in the door of a place called Jester Interactive. I started my games industry career in September 1999 and before I knew it, I was directing people in motion capture suits with tape wrapped around their knees to help give life to a gimp-suited character for an unreleased project on the original PlayStation. As I said earlier - the games industry is indeed a strange beast.

Jester did have a knack of exploiting green recruits - like myself at the time - with "job dependency deadlines" which often had us sleeping in the office to try to complete - and ultimately fail to complete - a badly-managed Dreamcast project. Peter Moore's email to other development studios no doubt ended many more Dreamcast projects. Jester continued to be a rollercoaster of redundancy and then un-redundancy following a rebirth. The variety of jobs spanned from music creation software to racing games and I adapted all opportunities with gusto.

I worked my way up the ranks of the company, though I often amused management with pleas to not promote me to higher positions. I mean... what was wrong with the job I had if I enjoyed it so much? More responsibility, more money. The money is great for paying bills, but it shouldn't be the motivating factor. Creativity does a lot for the soul. The job should be one you love and continue to love, otherwise you will be counting the days to payday.

The pattern of moving up the ranks continued - career improvement. Although I was in a variety of leadership roles, I still had the time and ability to work on what I loved - the artwork. I love creating art for videogames - even the boring stuff. I would often embrace requests for icon design and screenshot taking as I continued to become ingrained in the intricate processes of game development - food for my hungry brains. I soon specialised in UI/UX - a position which was the end result of constant discipline evolution. Animation, texture creation, environmental art creation - all of these helped flavour my UI work and it's something I would recommend to you all. Sticking to one discipline won't expand your horizons that much. These were my giant man-lizard punching years. The years which involved a lot of grimy, hands-on development work. The work I truly enjoyed.

Where It All Goes Wrong.

You'll know when they'll make you an Admiral. It starts off being a celebration of you and those around you. "You've made it!". Yes, I guess I have. I should be very proud of myself, right? Well done, me! Admiral Me! You'll take on board a lot more work than you could possibly handle, though consider it more of a challenge than a mistake of management. It'll soon dawn on you that all that cool stuff which you got into the industry for gets chucked onto the back burner. You'll have no time for all that exciting art-type stuff because you'll be busy managing a team of developers doing the work that you really would like to be doing instead of filling out Excel documents with an assortment of numbers. Oh god. Those numbers.

Is that a target painted on my back? Yes, it is. "Don't be paranoid!" mentions one of your numerous superiors. It's hard not to feel paranoid with a target painted on your back. You'll soon be criticised for your artistic ability due to the lack of time you have to actually create art. Even though you'll be giving a shedload of artistic feedback to your team members, you'll still be criticised. And before you know it...

It's been a strange couple of weeks looking for a new job. Games industry job? Of course. I can't see myself quitting now. I've been a game developer for so long. 15 years. No, no. This is still my passion. I can't quit now. It would be foolish to even consider the notion.

There was an important (and very recent) decision in my life. Do I stick to being an Admiral? Or do I go back to being a Captain? Being a Lead of such a large team of people in such a high profile project gave me an amazing amount of experience in the joys of Scrum and Agile proficiencies. What are those, you ask? You really don't want to know. Trust me. At the end of the day, you have to work out if you will truly enjoy the job. If you hate the job, get the fuck out of there. Life is too short to suffer such a fate.

I don't think I enjoyed my previous job. I loved many aspects of it, but I missed that feeling of getting dirty with pixels and textures; that hands-on part of the job which felt like I had more of a connection with the game itself. There were other unsavoury aspects which I won't dwell on too much; that painted target was far too tempting for some. ("Don't be paranoid!")

Kicked Out Of One Door, Welcomed Into Another.

So I'm back in a new job and - this is the best bit - doing what I loved doing for the vast majority of my career. During the interview for the role, it was mentioned that the job would be "all art, no management" for me. It was a lucky opportunity that I had to take over other roles in consideration. Call me an old romantic, but I miss those early days of being a developer. I'm glad that excitement is back in my heart again.

So please learn from my experiences if you want to work in videogames. You'll know when the time is right to step back. Stepping back isn't a bad thing if it's a step back to a more enjoyable job experience. Hell, all of this is probably irrelevant to you as you have dreams of becoming a famous indie developer like that Swedish bloke in the hat. You are your own Admiral at that point - maybe with enough money to buy his own goddam starship. Surely that really is living the dream.

Saying that, those giant man-lizards won't punch themselves...

4 Comments

Bioshock Infinite - When Perfect Ain't Quite [SPOILERS]

There is no such thing as a perfect game, right? Well, maybe Pac-man, Pac-man's pretty much perfect in my opinion. Space Invaders too? Yeah, I reckon. Is there a pattern developing here? Retro games. Maybe there's nostalgia playing a role here, but these games have simplicity on their side - there's not much that can go wrong due to the small amount of variables which feature in these games.

Bioshock Infinite's glut of extremely positive reviews post-release wasn't surprising for the Next Big Thing in videogaming with a reputable proven track record of the original Bioshock. Man, original Bioshock was something else. An immersive environment with truly fresh gameplay and some grim shocks. It was a gaming experience which was pretty close to faultless in my playthrough; I do not remember any issues with glitches, bugs and shaky audio mixes.

So Bioshock Infinite then. The 10/10 poster child. Like many 10/10 "perfect" games, the promise and hyperbole is more than the actual game itself. We've been suckered into game purchases via 10/10 reviews often - it's hard not to be drawn into the marketing whirlwind, the high-gloss CGI trailers, the glut of Twitter positivity. I decided to take a chance and purchase the game on release day - something I rarely do these days due to time and money (ah, those two classic excuses). I also wanted to avoid spoiler chat and experience the story myself.

A hour into the game, I'm already drawn into the sublime environment - it really is one of the game's more positive high points. Sunlight streams through cloud cover enriching the old-timey shopfronts with rich oranges and browns; nostalgic colours from a bygone time. A hovering platform roves into view while a barber shop quartet - the gayest in Columbia - sing a note-perfect rendition of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows". It seems all so perfect... which might be where the problems start.

Liberty Square at Disney. The Hall of Presidents. The Carousel of Progress. Spaceship Earth. Columbia. There's really no difference - a recreation of an environment populated by robotic automatons as they go through their programmed routines for the tourist assholes like me to enjoy.

This was my first disappointment with the environment - as beautiful as it was, its inhabitants were unbelievable. They didn't seem to belong, almost as if they had been glued into place to hide their animatronic innards. Walking to an NPC would "activate" them into a pre-determined soundbyte and then.... nothing. They would deactivate and you moved on. There no real deviation to this - like being entertained by sideshow animatronic characters in a slow-moving Disney ride queue. A steampunk robotic horse only seemed to have the audacity to move about a bit, though around a pre-determined area of effect.

Soon that racism stuff turns up - a mixed race couple tied to a fake tree are unveiled as you unwittingly win a raffle (You were warned of this win via telegram - even predicting the number of the winning raffle ticket - or, er, baseball). A binary morality choice appears - throw a baseball at them or the announcer. Admittedly I was impressed with how the mood turned sour so quickly - violence escalates and blood is spilled. Too much blood? Perhaps. One thing I soon learned at an early stage - I was in the virtual shoes of an asshole. A violent asshole.

That disconnect sown itself into my mind - normally gamers play protagonists who have some kind of honour or moral code, but this DeWitt chap thinks nothing of carving chunks of flesh out of a policeman's face. Still, at least I can control my actions so I'm not a racist, right? Thanks, game!

So far, so Bioshock. Except it isn't. Bioshock seemed claustrophobic and unrelenting in its dread - an underwater city seemed to be the perfect environment to unsettle. Columbia, on the other hand, is vast and open. There are skies above your head and generously spacious arenas. There is no dread here. No consequence.

Soon I meet up with Elizabeth in her angelic prison which overlooks the floating city of Columbia. The terrifying Songbird is introduced and we end up on the fake beach of Battleship Bay. One thing becomes clear - I enjoy poncing about the beautiful environments more than I enjoy the combat, and Battleship Bay is a place I would gladly love to visit in real life. No wonder all the robot NPC automatons enjoy being rooted to their respective sunbeds. I meet the mixed race couple who I didn't throw a baseball at. My reward? Not much.

Combat in Bioshock is a strange thing. Sometimes there is uncertainty as to when the next combat scenario will kick off - enemies hide in plain sight and will activate and start attacking you when the game determines it. "Oh, so exploring time is over now and shooting time begins?" The exploration factor is another great thing about the game - the team of environment artists have crafted believable locations - albeit inhabited by unbelievable inhabitants; the couple who secretly treat and hide the non-white inhabitants of Columbia who suddenly disappear as attack goons burst into their house. There's a firefight but those hidden NPCs still sleep in their beds. There is no running or the shudder of fear that sudden gunfire should bring.

At least the skyrail system allows a fresh element to the combat - skyline takedown moves are always satisfying and the freedom to travel at speed around the numerous arenas... the arenas. It's like when you play a game and enter a suspiciously large room. You know a boss fight is on the cards. In this respect, you should always expect combat when you see the variety of dimensional tears that Elizabeth can interact with. Also in that respect, combat is rarely surprising and often feels more like a chore to get to the next part of the game.

10/10, right? Not a single jot of that was removed for the frankly terrible audio mix - interface sound effects clash with sometimes important dialogue from my new companion. Voxaphone excerpts are reduced in volume as Elizabeth pipes up with some more dialogue - frustrating when you're trying to get into the moment of the thought processes of the Voxaphone's owner. Enemies shout at you but their volume always seems to be constant - they sound like they're in the same room but they're actually further away than you think, especially the ones which spawned below some stone stairs.

Larger enemies appear including Handymen - Bioshock Inifnite's equivalent to the Big Daddies. They are ruthlessly brutal in their attack patterns and feel like the only threat in the entire game - well, besides the ghost I was shooting with a sniper rifle. Eh? Was I using ghost bullets? There is not much consequence when you die; Elizabeth will bring you back to life and some enemy life bars reset. That's it. In comparison, Bioshock 1 felt more challenging... more consequential when your life bar was depleted. The challenge also feels removed where you can exploit arenas - and they seem begging for exploitation - especially when there's vending machines which can give you an almost endless supply of ammo to attack.

Maybe this is a design decision based on the utterly terrible save system. I've heard horror stories of hours of gameplay lost due to the fact the game will autosave when it feels like it. Quitting out of a game will give you a warning with a timestamp with the last game save which was created for you. This from a AAA game is pretty unforgivable given the norm. Have we really forgotten how to create save games on the fly? I found myself playing until my profile autosaved, though I know the vast non-linear maze leading to Comstock House has few of these autosaves, which is probably where the loss of game time is most apparent with bemused gamers.

That ending too. The ending. Beautiful as it was, it still left me confused. I think all bets are off when you introduce an infinite dimension concept. Anything can happen, right? Just because anything can happen, shouldn't mean anything should happen. My baptism-inspired death (murder?) left me hollow and unfulfilled - the complete opposite feeling I experienced at the conclusion of the original Bioshock. A post-credits nod seems like an afterthought to placate the emptiness. It doesn't.

The developer crunch behind this might explain some of the technical issues I had with the game. I've worked on games as an environment artist, and even I was taken aback by the abundance of flickering polygons between intersecting geometry - especially during one part where I was walking over these heinous illusion-breaking shapes while edging around a building balcony. It's a small thing, but something I shouldn't really be seeing in such a beautiful environment. It's jarring. Technology is behind all this, not imagination.

I've gamed long enough to not believe in the "perfect" game based on 10/10 review scores. Edge Magazine gave Halo 10/10 and yet somehow managed to not experience the dredge of The Library or the stuttering frame rate of The Maw. It saddens me that Bioshock Infinite wasn't the Bioshock Infinite I was expecting based on my time with the original Bioshock. Themes felt forced, gameplay felt almost dumbed down for a newer audience. The multiple dimensions were the perfect "get out of jail" tool for its writers.

In fact, that bit of the game. You know, the bit where you end up in Rapture. That only made me nostalgic and a bit sad. Good game franchises don't die. They just get dumbed down.

6 Comments

The ZX Spectrum Love Train Begins Here.

Angry Jeff is Angry.

I have to admit that I'm a huge fan of the Bombcasts - like you, no doubt. I hike to work with a grin as fast food restaurants are critiqued, anecdotes are exchanged regarding San Francisco's terrible amenities and even - shock - videogames are recounted by the fine folk who write for this very site. They are very entertaining folk and have the patter down to a rhythm which also compliments the very foot fall which propels me to my place of work on a typical rainy English morning. Mostly the sound waves which fill my ears are entertaining – until Giant Bomb’s very own Jeff Gerstmann started last week on some kind of unprovoked attack on the humble ZX Spectrum.

The gist of this rant caught me a little off guard; normally I would consider Jeff someone who loves videogames and videogame systems. They’re all great, right? They help us forget that one day we’ll probably leave this planet screaming in some kind of real-life fiery wreck probably brought on by too much Burnout Paradise “training”. Jeff has many systems – we’ve seen the large storage boxes to confirm this. Yet the anti-Spectrum tirade – which has continued in this week’s Bombcast – strikes me as rather unfair.

The blanket exclamation, for instance, that “all games on the ZX Spectrum are unplayable and shit” is the sort of comment you’d find on the most vitriolic of gaming forums. I learnt a long time ago to stay well away from any of that talk. I have owned many systems in the past and they’ve all been great in the ways they’ve been designed. I guess that my nostalgia of the ZX Spectrum is something I hold precious because it felt magical to go to the houses of schoolmates and have a cuppa while we waited for Trashman to load on the iconic 48k Spectrum (true story).

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a ZX Spectrum +2 – a later generation of Spectrum which not only had 48k emulation, but a built-in tape recorder and proper bloody keys too. No more having to jab at rubberised keys! Many a rainy day was spent with the +2 – I was always envious of a mate of mine who owned a +3, which had a disc drive instead of a tape recorder. Loading took seconds rather than minutes, though I think a lot of my pixel art training came from staring at loading screens to see how the artists would trick the eye with the limited 16 colour palette and attribute clash avoidance.

I have meandered down Memory Alley there. Allow me to back up and head back onto Unprovoked Attack Avenue… ah, that’s better. Now I know that Jeff is a Commodore 64 lover and I do remember there was a huge rivalry between the two systems on the school playground; maybe this is colouring his extreme opinion of the Spectrum. I need to address the commentary regarding the lack of games as well as – and this is also unfair and mentioned in this week’s Bombcast – the lack of any decent game music on the Spectrum too.

I know this blog post won’t be changing Jeff’s mind any time soon, but I do want this to be not only a voice of defence for something which gave me a lot of gaming memories and pleasure over my early formative teenage – and gaming – years, but also I want to highlight some bloody good games for the Spectrum which you really need to check out if you get the chance. It saddens me that some people who want to delve into emulation may be put off by Angry Jeff’s Angry Opinion. Please don’t be put off. Although many of these games are available on other systems, I appreciated them on the Spectrum – and the Spectrum version was just as playable as any other version.

Total Eclipse

I remember getting this for my birthday as my Dad didn’t really take me out to do fun stuff much; I think maybe my Mum somehow blackmailed him to take me on the bus to the game store and to pick it up. I think a very positive Your Sinclair review also pushed me in the right direction. Plus I bloody love Egyptian pyramids, mummies – all the good stuff.

Total Eclipse used a technology by Incentive Software called Freescape – essentially early 3D first seen in Driller. Monochromatic shaded polygons were low in detail, but gave my imagination an excuse to fill in the gaps. The game takes place in Egypt at the turn of the last century – you start the game outside a huge pyramid with a biplane parked up and an ominous slow meeting of sun and moon in the sky. You had a few hours to enter the pyramid and stop whatever was inside it from destroying the planet through a destructive total eclipse – hence the game’s name.

The pyramid itself was full of traps, mummies, secret rooms and treasure – also unusually was the fact the game couldn’t be easily mapped on paper due to the 3D nature of the pyramid itself. Mapping is a lost art-form in gaming; I used to love drawing maps on graph paper of other videogames. Heck, it kept me off the streets. Total Eclipse was a brutal game – the pyramid was silent exepct for your beating heart and sudden starling events which only made that heart beat even faster. You also had to keep an eye on your heart rate – too many encounters meant you would have to wait to calm down using a keyboard prod to speed up time. Alas, the speeding up of time gave you a foreboding feeling that you were burning through those precious two hours to the planet’s destruction.

Chase HQ

Jeff mentioned the lack of arcades in the UK in the days of the Spectrum – although not strictly true as there were arcades, but spread out vast distances. Arcade machines would also be accessible at my local swimming baths, though Ocean Software was responsible for many arcade conversions for a hungry audience. I do remember some of the beautiful box art from Mr. Bob Wakelin (You can actually buy art from his site) and one piece of artwork I loved was that on the Chase HQ box.

I think I was spurred into a purchase from – once more – another favourable Your Sinclair review. The loading screen was also a joy to examine as it recreated the super-sexy box art too – quite an achievement with the limited graphical capabilities on offer. I always thought that these limits encourage creativity. The version I had though – the +2 version – had some pretty impressive (for the time) digitised speech.

The whole game was a very impressive achievement for the Spectrum – a pretty accurate lo-fi recreation of the arcade machine, the game put you in the shoes of a cop team whose speciality was high speed pursuit of crims followed by a barrage of sideswipes and shunts as you tried to smash his car into submission. There was a lot to like about the game at the time – the handling was pretty special considering the limitations; I think this was my first “proper” driving game. It also had a lot of personality and heart too; there were likeable characters and some great presentation – I watched those CHASE HQ letters dance on the title screen for an unhealthy time, unwittingly soaking in much animation knowledge.

Head Over Heels

This was a particularly striking game which appeared quite early on in the Spectrum’s lifecycle. It was striking in that the game was presented in isometric 3D – already injecting a sense of depth and direction that early Spectrum games lacked – but also the art style was particularly beautiful in its monochromatic limits. Pixel art these days doesn’t even compare to what was being done in the past with such limitations.

In the game itself, you controlled Head and Heels, or Head or Heels. The character sprites of these guys were adorable – one being (if I remember correctly) a dog head with winged arms, the other guy was mostly feet. These visual traits lead to what could be done with them in gameplay – Head could glide distances with those crazy winged arms, while Heels could jump higher. The varied environments lent themselves to this, though I think I remember at some point in the game, you could both be combined together and get both those traits.

The killer feature of the game was the way you could swap between characters in their different locations – I often found myself getting stuck as Heels on one tricky puzzle, then swapping to Heads in another part of the world to attempt the puzzles there. Plus that chunky typeface? Beautiful.

Atic Atac

Before Rare, there was Ultimate – Play The Game. These guys were around in the very early days of the ZX Spectrum, though gave us a lot of great videogames including Jetpac – a title which Jeff dissed, but turns out it’s not a crap game after all. Ultimate gave us some great titles – all of them oozing with personality and a specific look; you could just tell you were playing an Ultimate game; Knightlore, Sabre Wulf and Trans Am come to mind, but the game I truly loved was Atic Atac.

It’s a bit of a classic, this one. It also felt in its day that it was a game which was challenging you to get it done in three lives or be invoked with the shame of failure. Essentially the game took place in a large castle with dungeons and the Atic of the title. The aim of the game was to escape – you had to collect three pieces of the ACG key and assemble this in the Great Hall of the castle. Only then could you get out.

When you begin each game, you had the choice of three different characters – Wizard, Knight or Serf. This decision was important as each character allowed you to navigate the castle through different short-cuts. As well as picking up pieces of the key, you also needed to pick up objects which could be used to kill some of the monstrous bosses which roamed the dungeons; so a spanner could easily dispatch Frankenstein, a crucifix to get rid of Dracula, etc. All the while, you were reminded of your own mortality through one of the cutest health gauges in videogames – a delicious roast chicken which slowly turned into a skeleton and the loss of one of those three precious lives.

Atic Atac was a mapper’s game, although one which was tough to map due to those staircases which you used to traverse levels. More expert gamers simply memorised the map with their own favourite character. Me? Serf. There’s something appealing about walking though large barrels of booze.

Exolon

I have particular fond memories of this game due to the appealing chunky sprites and the explosions of colour; set on a distance planetoid, you played a lone space dude who had to travel from left to right of the screen negotiating enemies with your collection of guns or rocket grenades. There was something immensely appealing about being able to destroy everything on screen with such a vast selection of multi-coloured sprites and explosive white noise.

Further on into the game, you were also offered an exo-suit armed to the teeth with more weapons to deal out more multi-coloured laser death to your intergalactic enemies. I think I vaguely remember grabbing this one time and being overtaken with emotions close to those you would expect to find with an illicit flick through your first pornographic magazine. It was bliss.

The game was coded by a chap called Raffaele Cecco – a bit of a developer rockstar of his day, as he also brought us such classics as Cybernoid 2 and Stormlord. All these games felt fun, though they were also complimented by a solid and appealing art style too. I really miss playing his games.

So there you go. The ZX Spectrum, ladies and gentlemen. It isn't the demonic electronic bastard that Jeff thinks it is. It hasn't raped any kittens as far as I can tell. It gave me a lot of joy and happy gaming memories and looking back at those YouTube videos above was a delicious tonic indeed. One more thing! Music on the ZX Spectrum is actually rather good -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIlaq_i6UmM – Robocop

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJxnoyA64TI - Trantor

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9b9XjxK2RJc – LED Storm

17 Comments

When Is A Console Not A Console?

Yesterday. I couldn't help but notice another new and exciting non-game Metro panel had somehow magically appeared on the now ghastly, abortive Xbox Dashboard. "TV Shows Now On Zune!" it screamed at me, celebrating the fact it had probably barged in the way of a perfectly decent advertising panel for a new videogame I should really hear about. But no. TV Shows! Now On Zune! I painfully navigated my way to the page in question and sure enough - there they were. Whole seasons for me to "own", if you can actually "own" a bunch of electrical data. Boxed games are so passe, right?

The onslaught of this constant attempt by Microsoft to neuter all of its videogame content from its supposed videogame-playing console is relentless. More and more non-game apps appear for you to check out, more movies to watch via Zune or Netflix or Lovefilm. More music. More non-game content. The app process, by the way, is a lesson in how not to do User Experience. Case in point - you see a new tile for a new app. Interested? Click on it and - oh. It's downloading already. No confirm, no details. There it goes. Well, I suppose I can - oh, an update? Okay. I'll get that too then. When you eventually get to the app itself, you know - the app you paid for the privilege of using if you are an Xbox Live subscriber - you'll discover that it is not only a terrible thing to navigate, it's also infested up the wazoo with advertising.

The latest Xbox 360 dash

The whole dash is infested. People complain, Microsoft shrug their big corporate shoulders. Nothing really gets done about it. I subscribe to Giant Bomb as I love the content - the removal of adverts is a nice bonus, but still - paying for a service and paying for the advertising seems somewhat... rich.

I digress. The adverts aren't the reason why I felt like venting on this blog. The games industry has had a rum old time as of late - it's been tough. We read stories of development houses imploding, falling sales, falling share prices. At one point - and I remember this turning point as it was a big deal for me working in the games industry - consoles were relegated to the slow trudge to oblivion as people turned to Facebook in their droves and played the shit out of causal wankery like Farmville. Well, I say "play". It's the loosest term considering what little actual gameplay there is in those types of games. This wasn't the only threat. Oh, no. Look out! Here comes the iPhone with its dirt-cheap games! 99p for a game? Gee, that sure beats £40, right?

Ladies and Gentlemen. We've all been fooled. You, me, your cat. The real threat to consoles isn't all of that noise. Nope. The real threat is what I outlined a mere few minutes past.

Netflix.

Xbox owners. I don't know if you have managed to see what your friends are up to these days, but half my friends (and "friends") on my list are busy watching movies. Non-game related movies. Maybe some of them are watching the joys of the Mortal Kombat movies in a fit of drunken irony. They aren't playing - or buying - games. Mr. Netflix will quite gladly deliver non-game related HD content to you as long as you keep that subscription up. Or rather, two subscriptions. Which cunt thought it was a good idea for you to have to be an Xbox Live member to also watch Netflix? Or Lovefilm? Or YouTube, for christsakes. Lunacy.

The original Xbox dash

At the moment, there is no greater threat to games than the likes of Netflix. Gaming machines have slowly become - urgh - media hubs. In the glory days of the original PlayStation, the CD Player part of the console was there as a bit of a jape really. Now the roles seem reversed - your media hub also happens to play videogames too. As more non-game apps appear, more non-game ads appear and continue to bury Xbox Live Arcade, Indie and full price games further deeper down the mess of the Kinect-cursed Xbox dashboard. I think back to the simplicity of the original Xbox dash. It was so easy to do things. So easy. Adverts seemed to be a rarity in those days, too. I knew it was too good to be true. The ad men always end up pasting their shit all over, well, everything.

I used to be an advocate of the Xbox dashboard and Xbox Live. Now? Guess what? The PS3 has squarely kicked the Xbox in the balls with its trusty, robust XMB. Although Sony's fortunes aren't so good these days, the PlayStation3 seems to be more of a comfortable place for the gamer to be a part of. The PlayStation Plus account joyfully festoons you with free games. It's almost as if it is encouraging you to play them! Sure, you can play BluRays and use the evil Netflix and Lovefilm (for free, I must add) to stream stuff, but here's a bunch of free games for you to never forget why you got into gaming in the first place. There are adverts, sure - but they sit discreetly in a bunch of slowly rotating tiles. No stupid Lynx video ads which crave your bandwidth. The latest PSN offerings also put the recent Xbox Live Summer of Arcade to shame. What happened, Microsoft?

The PS3 XMB's way of advertising - non-threateningly.

These days the PlayStation3 XMB is a no-nonsense, easily navigated experience compared to the mess which the Xbox dash has become. It'll get worse too. Kinect-enabled TV adverts are only the tip of a non-game advertising iceberg. Bring back the blades. I know you think you didn't like them, but they made navigating a shitload more easier than what we have now.

Maybe Phil Fish was right. Maybe Microsoft are a bunch of cunts.

18 Comments

Happy Birthday, Old Friend

30 years ago today, the ZX Spectrum was born unto an unwitting world. The brainchild of Sir Clive Sinclair, it heralded an age of bedroom coding which contributed to the games industry and the games you see here today. Case in point - the Oliver Twins were two such examples of what some might call "shut ins". Needless to say, these humble tikes helped catapult a pre-pubescent Codemasters to the top of sales charts with their extremely popular Dizzy games. I didn't really rate those games, to be honest. An egg with boxing gloves for hands? Maybe it was that haunting grin, constantly staring at me. I think I still have nightmares about that grin. All 32 pixels of it.
 
I tinkered with the 48k Spectrums of other people - rich schoolmates who would show off what their parents had bought them. I was a victim of poverty; any opportunity to experience the future was one I grabbed with both hands. In one case, I remember being in the living room of a schoolmate. The unmistakable, unassuming black rectangle on the carpet connected up to a teak-finished cathode ray tube. I remember waiting for a cuppa while watching the hypnotic horizontal lines dance around the screen in time to a rapid blast of bleeps and bloops. The ZX Spectrum wasn't just creating this by itself though. It had help from a humble tape cassette player. It still amazes me that games were stored in such a way. I digress though.
 
I love pixel art. I think part of that love was from studying the various loading screens which appeared before me. I'd sometimes marvel at how artists got around the Spectrum's limited colour palette. I like to think that those limitations pushed people into making better pieces of art to stare at while games loaded. I also appreciated how the screen built up from black and white before a blast of binary noise heralded a 16 colour rainbow wipe effect, pixels magically coloured in and the long haul of 3 more minutes of noise.
 
I have extremely fond memories of the ZX Spectrum, but my time came as a young teenager when I got a ZX Spectrum +2 for Christmas. Sinclair had recently been bought by Amstrad - many considered this something of a mistake - though this mistake gave me the opportunity to finally get my hands on what I had experienced when my family was more impoverished. I remember it came with a built-in tape recorder, six games (all on cassette) and a keyboard which actually behaved like a keyboard; I remember being rather put off by the 48k Spectrum's method of making a whole BASIC command appear from one rubbery key prod. It was very liberating; many a day was spent indoors playing games with the mostly-traditional set-up of "Q, A, O, P, SPACE to fire". I would try my hand to coding, typing in many a BASIC programme from magazines or the Usbourne books of the day. I think some of that code soaked in from the sheer exposure I gave to it.
 
Games were a big part of the ZX Spectrum. Even now I could rattle off some bonafide classics -
 

  • Atic Atac was a seminal moment in Ultimate- Play The Game's life. Yep, they who are now Rare. There was a lot to like about Atic Atac - big, chunky sprites and a health bar represented by a chicken reduced to a boney carcass. You could choose to be four characters trapped within a huge mansion viewed from above, each character had the ability to pass through a particular collection of short cuts while you assembled a giant key and get out of the mansion. Most games could be mapped with graph paper, though I tried to map Atic Atac before realising it did some very tricky things to prevent an easy mapping experience.
  • Chase HQ blew my mind. I never played the arcade version, but this port was stunning - especially given the limitations of the system. Being a +2 owner, I was treated to speech synth samples of "Let's go, Mr. Driver!" and an improved soundtrack. There is something great about slamming your car into a fleeing suspect, seeing pixel debris leap from the car with each successful hit.
  • Total Eclipse was such an immersive game - it used Incentive's Freescape polygon tech and although it was extremely primitive, my young and imaginative mind filled in the gaps. What I loved about the game was the premise - save the world in two hours. The view from the very start was your biplane to the left, the foreboding pyramid to the right and the beginnings of the eclipse in the sky above. It was fantastic.
 
I also added to my game collection with the magazines of the time - Your Sinclair, Crash and Sinclair User. I bought all three with hard-earned pocket money, reaping the covertapes for game demos and whole games. I remember fondly one Christmas issue of Crash having two cassettes on the cover - I think Cosmic Wartoad was a fine way to spend a bit of festive leisure time. The magazines also had their own personalities - Your Sinclair (or YS) had tons of humour... it was very Monty Python in tone; Crash was more aimed at the middle classes - like my rich schoolfriends. Sinclair User, on the other hand, was a very loutish kind of magazine. I think all three perspectives helped enrich me somewhat.
 
I owe a lot to the ZX Spectrum - it give me many years of pleasure and incentive to work in the games industry. 30 years feels like a long time ago, yet the memories are still crystal clear. If you are intrigued by all this, then let me recommend Micro Men to you - the recent(ish) BBC drama chronicaling the spectacular rise and the equally spectacular fall of Sir Clive Sinclair. I salute you, sir.
    
2 Comments

The Love Affair Is Over

The torrent of horizontal snowflakes appeared to subside with the discovery of a small settlement situated around a bay of ice-cold water. Before I have any chance to take in the view, a man in robes desperately runs towards me. Should I take out my sword? I stand my ground as he catches his breath. He explains the whole town I have just beheld has been put under a horrific curse involving the dreams of all the inhabitents becoming the most horrific nightmares. The only way to restore the town's sanity is to travel with him to an ominous tower high up on an overlooking mountain top. As I run upwards with him passing startled goats and as the winter wind rattles around my ears, little did I know that I was heading for the most deviously designed traps around.
 
This was waaay early into Skyrim. I was proud of myself discovering the advantages of a horse-drawn carriage giving me instant access to all the major settlements for a small amount of gold. In this case, I was taken to Dawnstar; the wizardy chap in question was Erandur, himself on a quest to destroy the Skull of Corruption - a Daedric staff capable of harvesting dreams of those who sleep. I was so early in the game, I hadn't even twigged about the possibility of performing acts of pure evil for Daedric favour and artifacts.
 
Now all this is well and good in hindsight. I wish I had struck down the dude when Lord Vaermina was whispering suggestive nothings into my earhole. Alas, I was a goody two-shoes in those early days of dizzying exploration. Nono, go ahead. Destroy the Skull of Corruption. Why do I care? Sounds pretty evil, right? I don't want to have the power to steal the dreams of the innocent on my conscious. As Erandur magicked away what was admittedly a pretty cool-looking staff, I thought that I had made the right decision. Major karma for this newbie adventurer - I saved an entire town from horrific dreams! With that, I pimped away from Erandur and started to explore the distant town below.
 
200 hours later, I am perusing a Skyrim achievement list on my phone. There's a sense of foreboding. A feeling that maybe I should have been too curious for my own good and researched those achievements before diving into the game with my fullest of commitment. You see, allowing that unknown wizard bloke to destroy the Skull of Corruption was not the right thing to do. Far from it. There's an achievement called "Oblivion Walker" which is given after obtaining 15 Daedric artifacts. I guess you can work out what has happened, right? Yep. That kick-ass staff was Daedric Artifact Number 15.
 
I can't get it back. There's no way to perhaps happen across an obscure questline which allows me to piece together the staff from several far-off locales in Skyrim. I already had 14 artifacts, 13 of which were obtained with no access to any strategy guides. A bunch of people in a beige meeting room somewhere in America though it was a good idea to make it impossible for some to truly S-Rank their copies of Skyrim through no fault of their own. As an almost-autistic completist, this reeks of the very putrid non-logic that some of Skyrim's designers have exercised. Skyrim was almost a religious experience - a daily delve into an almost-believable world only to be shook out of it by the cold logic of someone's spreadsheet.
 
I'm not entirely resentful of this one heinous act of stupidity on the developers' part. The game has provided me with a mind-bogglingly vast collection of experiences which I have appreciated and keep appreciating; nothing can prepare you for the moment a dragon in combat falls out of the sky and carves into the very earth you stand on, its head directed at your heavily-armoured legs; this was closely followed by a finishing move on said dragon which dragged out an "awesome!" from my jaw-dropped piehole. Climbing to the top of the world and looking around at the land below, dragons drifting across the landscape. These are all experiences rare and unique to Skyrim, and for this it should be celebrated.
 
Alas. Even though at times it is hard to believe, Skyrim is also a product of human beings. COMPLETELY FLAWED carbon-based units which - at times - miss something. Things break -  just look at my Miscellaenous quest log for proof. It is just a shame after all the adventures I have had, it all boils down to a petty, human punch to the guts.

33 Comments

Goodbye, Game.

Imagine the scene. Christmas Eve '97. The streets of Wrexham are full of panicked shoppers looking for that late last-minute purchase before they cram themselves into swelling traffic lanes and home to secretly envelop their purchases in brightly-coloured paper. I was tasked with getting hold of an original PlayStation - I had tried the local Woolworths and Argos - no dice. My last hope was to hit Game Wrexham. Sure enough, they had it in stock. I think while I was in the process of purchase, I was hypnotised by a particularly flamboyant flourish of futuristic graphic design on one of the televisions suspended from the ceiling of the store. Wipeout 2097. In those days, downloading a preview video of Wipeout 2097 via the internet was a daunting task. There was no such thing as HD video or super-speedy broadband. If you wanted to see the spectacularly vivid intro to Wipeout 2097, this was one of the few places to see it.
 
In the UK, Game had always been around. Multiple stores sprung up during the videogame boom of the late 90s - maybe, some might argue, too many stores. Speculate to accumulate though, right? Videogaming can only get more and more popular in the eyes of the suited bigwigs. I also remember that fateful exchange of money and hardware so long ago also warranted me my very own Game Reward Card. Fishing out that unassuming piece of rounded plastic card while at the checkout often felt like you were part of something bigger - a family? Maybe. Those surprise discounts of purchases was not a terrible thing at all. Things could have been sweet forever, but alas - shopping habits change.
 
The internet soon became a shopping force to be reckoned with. It's a tired stereotype, but one which rings true with many - gamers don't really want to get out and enjoy fresh air and daylight. The hardcore gamer which Game arguably catered for was getting computer-savvy to the point that purchases were supplied via phone lines from the likes of Play.com and Lik-Sang (rest their foreign souls). The sea change was a grim thud on the door of Game's party palace; soon stores became places were only the uninitiated dwelled - parents and people new to the world of videogaming wondering what system and games to get. This is where Game trailblazed - a videogame specialist store offering specialist advice to those in need. Opinions from staff often mattered while those frightened to use these "controller things" could ease into them via demo pods. Those were the days. 
 
For me though, the pre-owned part of Game was the worst thing they could have come up with. The slow transformation into a videogame-themed pawn shop was a tough thing to take in. First-hand sale items soon vanished to be replaced with second-hand deals. Pre-owned peripherals? What kind of grubby future is this where I am offered a Wii nunchuck used by God knows how many food-stained young adult hands? Is this Mad Max? Where am I again? I noticed I would be popping into Game less and less as more and more pre-owned merchanise invaded the store. I would managed to find some kind of first-hand bargain and pay for it accompanied by my "Classic" Game Reward Card. One of the staff admired this 14-year-old piece of history and I was praised for sticking around. It was getting hard though, especially when every purchase was complimented with a tired reminder that "I could trade that in once I had finished with it for another game or money".
 
I think there's a part of me that might still be living in the past. The very thought that physical media will one day disappear and I will have to access my entertainment via The Cloud is something I try to deny each and every day. I like having something physical in front of me. I love box art. I am one of the few who still appreciates a well-designed manual. If the Online Menace wasn't enough for Game with internet shopping and On Live, the Rise of the Smartphone must have scared the hell out of many. Game should have adapted, yet it almost seemed to be regressing in on itself. The thought that they could have stocked up on mobile handsets and iPads might have occurred to the wiser members of Game's management - given the massive shift in shopping habits, it should have happened.
 
It didn't. Now 2,100 people are looking for new jobs. I really hope after all the administrative dust settles that the "new company" to come out of all of this is a much more wiser one. I don't think the days of a specialist videogame store are numbered just yet.  Shopto.net want my Game Reward Card for a £3 discount, but I feel it's worth a lot more than money. It's a treasured memory.

3 Comments

"Saints Can't Lose"

The hyper-polished realism of the recent GTA V trailer may have derailed the eyes of those who were following the numerous Saints Row 3 trailers, but somehow I already knew what to expect with the forthcoming Take 2 Share Increase Assistant. It all looked depressingly real, even down to the erection of  foreclosing signs. The fucked economy appears to be the theme, but this doesn't appeal to me. I fucking hate watching the television and being reminded that "times are tough". Why would I want to play a 100% realistic recreation of the horrors around me when I can play a game which allows me to vacuum up pedestrains and fire them into the air towards chimney stacks?
 
The Saints Row series has had a quite glorious evolution from a GTA clone with interesting side missions, to a fully-blown celebration of the absurd, ridiculous and - dare I say it - fun. Games of recent years have lost the meaning of the word; the relentless chore of checkpoints and getting to the end through gritted teeth. I think that's why the vast tsunami of Saints Row 3 trailers have struck a chord with many. Games have pushed themselves so far towards the believable that they have forgotten the fantastical possibilities that videogames can be.
 
The swagger of Saints Row 3 is undeniable. It's totally unapologetic. Volition Inc. don't give a hoot if you want to play games which somehow have some kind of deeper meaning. Here. Have a purple dildo-themed baseball bat. Have an open world full of pedestrians just asking to be thrown great distances. Have fun! You remember fun, right? I play videogames - like many others - as a form of escapism. The aforementioned dreaded goings-on of real life... these are things I do not want to be reminded of. So I turn to videogames and their valuable immersive quality. They envelop my consciousness and make me forget one day I'll probably die in the most horrific way. Ah, videogames! How I love you!
 
Steelport might not have the grand vision that Liberty City invoked, but that's not the point. It's the purest form of a sandbox yet seen; impossibly huge skyscrapers beckon you to fly to the top and basejump from their heavenly headpieces, shops can be bought and acquired strongholds can be upgraded to the point of ridiculousness. The side missions from the franchise make a return, though appear to be a lot more flexible in how they can be tackled. Money actually can buy more than fancy clothes - they can buy numerous upgrades to weaponry and elements of gameplay. I must admit, I spent a great deal of time exploring and enjoying the open world even before getting to the meat of the campaign itself.
 
Two things instantly stand out to me when comparing Saints Row 3 to GTA IV. Firstly, the ability to leap into cars at will is such an insanely unrealistic yet totally invaluable ability. Niko Bellic's more sedate way to acquire a vehicle seems pedestrian in comparison. Sure, you can do the same in Saints Row 3, but why would you? The second thing which stood out for me was those inticing collectibles which are squirreled throughout the game world. Saints Row 3 makes collecting stuff not only fair, but achieveable. How so? Aha.
 
I am an obsessive completist when it comes to collectibles, but finding and shooting 200 tiny pigeons in a vast cityscape borders on un-fun. Bless you, developers of Volition Inc. Bless you for not only highlighting collectibles with a big ol' neon marker, but - what's this in my upgrade menu? Collectible Finder? Fuck, yes! Someone's done collectibles properly - at last. No more fumbling about the city on a wild goose chase looking for those bastard flying rats. Now I can grab a helicopter and survey the skies for newly-placed icons. More open world games need to do this.
 
Cars in Saints Row 3 also feel a lot more stable than the barrel-rolling vehicles of Liberty City - too many times I would take a corner at some speed and watch in dismay as my vehicle uncontrollably roll itself into an unsatisfactory inversion of which Niko would have to crawl out of. There is always things happening as you drive to destinations - respect (which is the game's equivalent of XP) is earned through near misses, driving down the wrong side of the road and grabbing some big air. My obsessive respect whoring is at maximum at time of writing, yet I'm still finishing up on the open world activities. Someone had the foresight to include upgrades which essentially makes me almost invulnerable to damage. The pacing of when this unlocks is around the point where you would actually start pissing about the open world. It's pretty smart.
 
So the Campaign Mode itself. I've not remembered a time before in my somewhat bloated videogame-playing life where I had my jaw drop with amazement and awe over the audacity of some of the missions. I get the feeling games these days have a horrendous dilution process of signing off and making sure people aren't too easily offended. Saints Row 3 gleefully dances around conventional rules, throwing its clothes off with gay abandon and streaking down the street brandishing nothing but a smile. No spoilers. I can tell you that http://deckers.die is still fresh in my mind - inventive, bat-shit insane and reminiscent of the antics Kojima-san got up to during the Psycho Mantis boss battle in Metal Gear Solid. It's like a breath of fresh air.
 
Edge Magazine recently gave the game 6/10, which makes me love the game even more. The po-faced monocle-wearing Brits who like their games with ultra-deep meaning and Japanese subtitles didn't like Saints Row 3? Good. It's not for you, sir. Move on and take your army of cloned commenters with you.  By the way, were you the same reviewer which gave GTA IV 10/10 too? You do know that the shooting sucked balls and the revolutionary animation system made movement a drunken mélange of possibilities, right?
 
You may not be a fan of Saints Row 3, but it's a game which all of us should at least play once, if only to remember that there can be games out there which unshackle themselves from the constraints of real life.

15 Comments

When Is News Not News? When It's Not News.

Games journalism. Two words which will invoke two very polar feelings from the People of the Internets; on one side, there are stalwarts of the games press who make an effort to come up with fresh copy which is intended to reward the reader with insight. Such a rare thing these days, right? The other side is the more popular opinion of games journalists - recyclers of press releases, unrelated stories about erotic doorknobs and perhaps the most henious of crimes - the "?" story.
 
That question mark is a bountiful reward to any would-be writer of videogames. It can be used to speculate rather than, I dunno, report the news? Too many times have I read stories which stroll down fanciful paths of fantasy and wishlist fanboyism. A good deal of the time, these stories are normally associated with an up-and-coming game. The ravenous hordes of gamers want any scrap of information about the game they've no doubt pre-ordered and hunted through polar-white web pages; videogame news sites want their advertisers to be happy with click-throughs, so why not post blatant speculation about videogames? No one gets hurt, the hungry gamer facepalms himself in his mind and continues his merry way.
 
This blog entry was prevoked by such a news article based on such obvious bullshit, yet the writer in question appears all too happy to go along with it. The news article? Should I post the link? If I do, you'll no doubt click it and get one more click-through for the site, which will no doubt be encouraged to post even more utter horseshit. Games Radar, I'm calling you out. " GTA V leaks: Alleged ex-Rockstar employee leaks map, man claims to know all about the game" doesn't feature the beloved "?", but it does feature an alleged image of the map of GTA V. All this allegation and no cold hard fact can only give the reader some kind of misplaced confidence in Games Radar and their ability to filter out truth from a teenage fan getting all fancy with the MSPaint.
 

 Real? Of course it isn't.
So here's that photo of the map of GTA V. Already boxes have been ticked inside the majority of our brain stems regarding the authenticity of the map - why is it that these leaks always come with out-of-focus photos and video? Maybe those ex-employees are super-nervous about being found out? Maybe this photo of the map was taken over the shoulder of Sam Houser? That ex-employee had to be quick! As maps go, it's a mess. Fan-pleasing placenames have been slapped on top of a mush of black and white pixels, roads carved out with the precision of a mouse with a defective optical laser. I wouldn't be surprised if the "REAL?" text was also drawn by that elusive ex-employee. We all know it's horseshit, right? Games Radar doesn't see it that way. To them, the map "looks plausible" and "certainly looks legit".
 
 *mind facepalm* 
 
I had a mental image of the writer of the article. I can tell you what that mental image wasn't. It wasn't that of a man in his 40s who had worked in the games industry for a considerable length of time. It wasn't that of a man who could tell you the exact POKE code he used to fix the dreaded attic bug in Jet Set Willy. It wasn't that of a man who could use some common fucking sense and not even commit finger to keyboard. Behold the wise sage - Nathan Irvine. See how young he looks in that profile photo - the playful nature of a man barely out of his gaming nappies. It has since been confirmed (note the "?"!) that the map is indeed a waste of everyone's time, yet Mr. Irvine doesn't want to taint his story with actual truth. I give Kotaku some credit - at least they [UPDATE] their horseshit stories.
 
The article continues with the other fabrication of a Future Publishing journo who claimed to have played the game for an hour at Rockstar Games in Edinburgh (or as he puts it, "Scotland") and was writing for a GTA V special which would be coming out in a few months time! He spilled a tin of Obvious Beans all over GTAForums and expected everyone to believe him. Already he was on shaky ground with his chronic use of the English language - something which I would have thought would have been a no-brainer prerequiste for any seasoned games journo pro. Further evidence from Future Publishing journos' Twitter feeds confirmed the fetid non-truth within. Doh. Let's all facepalm ourselves. We were all suckered, right? 
 
Now this map. This is 100% real, especially Cock Beach.
Remember when you were younger and this internet stuff was just a crazy Englishman's dream of what was to come? Imagination took place within our bedrooms - all the "What If"s of our dreams ended up scrawled onto the pages of a notepad, never to be shown to anyone. These days those crazy, hip kids have access to all kinds of art-based applications. Can they use them? Can they fuck. The fake GTA V map would have least gained some of my respect if it actually had artistic merit behind it. 
 
After the GamesRadar story, I loaded up MSPaint for the first time in 8 years (it actually looks like paint in Windows 7!) and came up with my own 100% official GTA V map, not forgetting to take a blurry photo. It took me 10 minutes, but the point is that anyone can come up with this. Anyone can lie on forums and get a disproportionate response of suckered fanboys and idiots passing on the lie to others. Certain news sites should know better. Measured judgement is lacking these days - editors are happy to get the "story" out there and stir up some kind of fake buzz for the sake of promotion and click-throughs.
 
I mentioned at the start of this entry of those who practice excellent games journalism, but alas - these heroes of our hearts are few and far between. That saddens me somewhat. Stop giving the MSPaint-owning wannabe-developer bedroom fantasists the oygen of publicity. They are the pixel-cancer of a written craft which needs more Klepeks and less Irvines.
4 Comments

From iPhone to Windows Phone 7 - The Wrap-Up Pt3

It's been a short while since I've told you tales of my defection from the iPhone to the Windows Phone 7 - I had my reasons, so many reasons. I think the main one was the iPhone 3G I owned just didn't cut it when it came to gaming. Infinity Blade was denied to me, Sworcery was a jittery mess and the Game Center treehouse raised its rope ladder if I even dared to look at said treehouse. I was an iPhone owner without a custom home screen background and denied the simpliest of pleasures such as the ability to stop my phone spastically jumping from horizontal to vertical configuration with the slightest of tilts. I admit there is bitterness in my heart from owning the iPhone. There has been good moments, but mostly moments of woe and frustration - especially from a gaming perspective.
 
My swtich to the HTC WP7 hasn't been entirely smooth - a free music download offer which failed to materialise due to some O2 cockery, Zune making it difficult to grab and play podcasts easily and - perhaps the most frustrating - Zune deciding to stop my album playback after the first played song, only for me to coax it to play the next one. It's a common-ish problem and one I suspect may be fixed with the new Mango update. Recently there was an incident where the volume would magically rise to maximum or lower to complete silence, the physical volume control being no use in that situation. Technology should work, right? It's as easy as pressing a button. I suspect that in this day and age, the complication of smartphones innards lead to more chance of conflicts and crossed wires; there are times when I miss my crusty old Nokia 3310.
 
This will be the last entry of my time with the Windows Phone 7 - hopefully it's given some insight behind the platform and the comparison with the older model of iPhone which I was lumbered with for what seemed like an eternity. Here's an easy-to-digest round up for your tired eyes -
 

The Good

 
  • It's a lovely phone to behold. I'm defintiely more confident using this new phone than the old one; the bigger screen makes it feel easier to navigate and use the keyboard. Oh, the keyboard. It works perfectly fine, thankyouverymuch. It works even better with the auto-correct, which gladly takes a paddle to the fetid arse of iPhone's auto-correct. I've never, never had an issue with it so far. In comparison, my iPhone's auto-correct was turned off six months into using it. I was fed up of the forced change from "ill" to "i'll" or "hell" to "he'll". The auto-correct suggestions are such a long way off from what was intended on the iPhone compared to the more proficient and confident manner in which Windows Phone will give you a passive selection of suitable words to choose from. It just works.
  • Achievements on the toilet. I am a gamerscore whore. I admit it, there's something nice about seeing a number slowly rise according on videogame progression. I think it's a primal thing which goes back to the arcades where high scores were lauded and applauded by many. Mobile gaming and toilets seem to go so well together - a quick five minutes of gameplay and the familiar sound of that achievement icon popping up at the top of the screen. Recently I grabbed Minesweeper for free and it's a perfectly fine free game with some ads - but more importantly - achievements. They still rule my gaming heart, I don't care if you think me as a superficial arse of a man. I really don't.
  • Try before you buy. This is a killer app and it's something I'm surprised that Microsoft isn't singing from the rooftops. Anything on the Windows Phone Marketplace can be downloaded and tried - much in the same way you can download trial versions of games on Xbox Live. The is also the case with the Xbox Live Windows Phone titles, but this also spreads to everything. It's a great feature and one which suddenly seems strangely absent from the iPhone's App Store. Saying this, the App Store still offers much cheaper purchases but at least this trial feature takes some of the sting out of making an informed purchasing decision.
  • The visual experience. The HTC HD7 has a much more expanded screen to play games on compared to the iPhone - this is particularly noticeable when playing games which involve virtual controls; I often found I was obscuring the action on my iPhone when I had to employ this method of controlling characters on-screen. The visuals also appear more crisp, though this isn't a comparison to the retina display of the iPhone 4 which I've yet to check out with a videogame. My jaw did drop somewhat when I saw the lush, loving visuals of Fable Coin Golf; it does 3D a lot better than my iPhone 3G, although it is a much newer handset. It also goes without saying that I'm a big fan of the simplicity of the Windows Phone Metro UI interface - let it also be known that I bloody love the ability to delete that sodding Stocks app tile. The iPhone in its Apple-y way will not let you get rid of this app from your home screen. You have to have it, even if you don't give two hoots about the Stock Exchange. If I'm brutally honest, the screen suffers in sunlight although that's on the default "automatic" Brightness setting - it fares much better when the Brightness is switched to High.
  • Xbox Live Integration. It's pretty sweet, all things considered. I had a tinker with the Xbox Live Extras app (which will become part of the whole Xbox Live experience when Mango comes along) and was amazed to see a pretty accurate representation of my 3D Xbox Live avatar on-screen. I changed some clothes, added a baby dragon I forgot I unlocked in Keflings - and said dragon flew into frame and my 3D avatar interacted with him/her/it. It is pretty mindboggling and it's definitely a plus point for the phone, although I'm not sure if I can play online with others using the phone - a curious oversight for a service which prides itself on connecting people through collected multiplayer gaming experiences.
  • Windows Phone does Facebook better than Facebook. Both my iPhone and Windows Phone 7 Facebook app experiences are basically the same - the mobile version of Facebook fucking sucks. It's bug-ridden, slow and stodgey. I have used Facebook on the new phone, but the integration of Facebook into the People and Pictures tiles is a thing to behold. You can check out a social feed in the People app of the phone and like or comment to your heart's content. It's what I use Facebook for these days anyway, so this is a great thing. I also loved how the phone used Facebook to help populate my contact list - including the mobile phone numbers of those foolish enough to include them in their profile. It would be swell if the same integration could have been achieved with birthdays too - or at least have the ability to add a birthday to the calendar from the People tab. 
  • Zune. The Zune experience which excludes the teething troubles I've had with podcasts and sporadic album brainfreezes has been a much better one when compared to iTunes. I think it's definitely a PC thing - iTunes on PC always has felt like a product which was designed for Mac first and foremost. It's not advanced much either from early incarnations - I'm sure there's 10 year old code knocking about in there somewhere. Zune, on the other hand, is a much more accessible and faster experience in not just navigating the interface, but also syncing the phone. There's been no confusing iTunes-esque error messages to speak of - you plug the phone in, sync stuff to it and unplug it again. It doesn't feel like the phone is being took over and horrible things are happening within. I'm also a Zune Pass holder - an all-you-can-eat buffet of music streaming for a monthly fee. I've amassed quite a collection of albums which I can easily sync to the phone and listen to on the go. It's great because it doesn't feel like I'm spending a fortune on music - and although I don't "own" these tunes, I would gladly rather pay for the access to a huge library of music. The only downside to the Zune Pass I can see is that newly-released titles are immune to being downloaded with the Zune Pass, instead asking for Microsoft Moon Points instead.
 

The Bad


  • Live tiles not as live as they could be. I grabbed the official Microsoft weather app a week ago - it looks functional and does the job, but there's an absence of a live temperature update on the tile itself. Even more confusing is the tile comes in a turgid brown colour and not the theme colour which the phone is set to. What I thought set the Metro UI from the iPhone is this live functionality. On the iPhone, it seems like the weather is always sunny and at 23C. The Xbox Live tile is fun but not entirely functional - while my avatar will dance and knock about the logo, there's no notifications for messages or gamerscore either. I know the live tile stuff will get more, er, lively with the Mango update, but it's a strength which MIcrosoft needs to capitalise more on to be more desired.
  • Not a stellar line-up of games or apps. I admit, the Windows Phone Marketplace is a strange place. There's the main freeway of known brands - the Xbox Live titles have those casual branded experiences you expect to find on the iPhone - Bejeweled Blitz, Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, Flight Control... the list of the total number of these games pales somewhat next to the more established App Store's selection. If you dare to navigate away from the professionally-produced app tiles of Xbox Live, you soon find yourself in a world of amateur artwork used to promote suspiciously-titled gaming experiences. These tiles never look nice on an expensive new phone screen - it kind of reminded me of the indie games part of Xbox Live. I'm sure there are games out there which could be the most amazing games ever, but I guess I've been rendered into a snob who likes his games shiny and confident. The apps selection is slowly improving and there are the usual suspects - Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare - but there are also some baffingly selections of several different apps which do the same thing. One example is the BBC News app which works perfectly well but is considered totally unofficial. 
  • Marketplace needs more pimpage. There are a vast selection of apps I'm totally unsure about on the Marketplace - when you visit there from the home screen, you will get a pretty barren selection of suggestions as to what to check out. I was informed there was a Yell app on one panel of the Marketplace - just the Yell app, mind you. No other apps. In comparison, the App Store thrives on feeding you a constant stream of possibilities and then will effortlessly give you more. I'm sure there's a fair amount of crap on the App Store to avoid too, but the fact there are more professional app choices on the iPhone makes it easy for the App Store to divert your attention from those whore-filled alleyways.
  • Feeling like a third class citizen. The Windows Phone 7 is a shiny new thing and not as established as the iPhone or Android - this is a cold, harsh fact which I often face when I see apps for iPhone and Android advertised without a care in the world for lesser mortals with less-supported phone OSs. It hurts my heart a little when I know I can't use Penny Arcade's new Decide-o-Tron on my HTC. There needs to be more exclusive Xbox-y games for the phone - I'm curious to know why Microsoft hasn't concentrated more on mobile versions of Xbox titles. Give me a mobile version of Gears of War! I don't care if it'll be lavish 2D, it'll be a nice bit of compensation for ignoring the iPhone's game library.
  • Speaker. I'm not a big fan of the external speaker of the HTC - it feels a bit more whiney when playing music compared to that of the iPhone. The headphones which came with the HTC, on the other hand, are much, much nicer than those of the iPhone. They sit in the ear more snuggly and have a much more richer sound. I have read on forums that HTC are very fond of gimping the overall sound of the headphones to avoid hearing loss of its users, some of which would rather decide themselves whether or not to speed up the degradation of their eardrums.
  • Zune. The interface of Zune (as is the rest of the phone) is rather lovely. The trendwhore in me squees with joy when artwork of the artist in question magically appears in the background as I stare intently at the album of choice. I have to admit that the Zune interface is lovely, but it lacks some functions which I have been used to with the iPhone. There's no obvious way to scrub through tracks or podcasts - there's your play button and that's that. There doesn't seem to be an easy way to skip back 30 seconds either, unless I'm missing something. iPhone may be a bit guilty of over-function - I mean, I never understood why I wanted to listen to podcasts at half speed unless I was deeply, deeply into heavy drug use.
 

Summary

 
In short then - I think I made the right decision. It'll still need a bit of getting used to and adjusting, but the phone itself is much nicer to use than my old iPhone. I do have a small issue with the official Twitter app - when I skim through the timeline in the same fashion I did with the iPhone, the app will often jerk to the lists page. Not sure if this is just me, but it's a bit of an irritation. I guess there will always be teething troubles with phones; not one phone is the perfect phone and each has its pros and cons. I think it just feels nicer to not be part of the crowd, to have a phone which feels more like my own phone than someone else's. It addresses a lot more problems than the new problems I've inherited with the new phone and I'm sure there will hopefully be a few less problems with the new forthcoming Mango update.
4 Comments
  • 25 results
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3