There is no pattern here

I haven’t written in a while, not because there is nothing to say, but because I have been busy with other stuff. So here is a post of random thoughts.

Gaming thoughts

So last month L.A. Noire, advertised as the most expensive game ever, was released for XBOX360 and PS3, but not for PC. People keep talking about a “next generation” in consoles, but that next gen already exists among us PC enthusiasts. Now I do not want to start a war between consoles and PCs, but this is something I have learned and have numerous examples to its veracity: Complex games are far better on PCs than they are on consoles. Console controllers are fine for simple games like arcade ports, 2D scrollers, racing games, simple sports sims, etc., but for FPS, or third person 3D, or RTS games, PC controls are far superior. Keyboard in one hand and mouse in the other just feels more natural than two thumb controls and a dozen awkwardly placed buttons on controllers designed for 12 year old hands.

So why do gaming companies not support PC gaming anymore? Most likely it is sales, and also copy protection, and not having to try and support 3 dozen different graphics cards, all good reasons. But games are hitting an upper limit in how complex they can be by pandering to consoles. A complex game like L.A. Noire could be a lot better on a PC, but there are no plans to port it.  Even though I own both an XBOX360 and a PS3, I will not be getting it anytime soon.  I already got Red Dead Redemption collecting dust, having never gotten past the tutorial because I hated the controls so much.  (I don’t really play game with controllers, I use my PS3 for watching videos, and my XBOX360 for playing Kinect Sports and occasionally Windows Media Center).

I tried the demo for Dragon Age 2 on my PS3, the PC version is better.  I tried console and PC versions of DC Universe Online, and the PC version is better.  They ran into a problem on DCUO in that there is a power combo that is uber powerful when played on the PC version (specifically the Transmutation power in the Sorcery line and Shuriken Storm on the Martial Arts line would, when executed in sync, do massive amounts of AoE damage).  This combo was easy to execute on the keyboard/mouse, but damn near impossible to do on the console controls for the PS3 version.  The problem was that there was no fix for the PC version that did not create a massive nerf of the PS3 version.  I do not know if they ever fixed it, I stopped playing DCUO back in February, and haven’t gone back.

WTF is going on here?

Another blogger name Cyber Trekker over at http://thegreatslexpedition.blogspot.com/ has been posting a lot that Cyberspace (aka the Metaverse, aka the 3D web) is already dead, thanks to mobile communications which are moving people back to “reality”.  (He’s not the only one, I have been seeing a lot of 3D web is dying articles lately, this was just one).  Simultaneously I see this video demonstrating Windows 8’s new interface model, which looks like Microsoft has plans to turn the PC into a big Windows phone.  Simultaneously EA announces that SimCity 5 will be a Facebook App. Meanwhile, famous game designer Richard Garriott wants to create a new “semi-3D” Virtual world portal that will tie social networks like Facebook, with mobile apps, with new virtual worlds into one big happy family.

I’m sorry but, this is insane.

Let me be clear: There is enough room on the Internet for everything and everybody.  Some may get the impression that the 3D virtual worlds are dying because their “share” of the internet is getting smaller.  In fact, the 3D Web continues to grow and it is only a matter of time before it too expands into the realm of mobile computing.  Its already making minor dents. But I have always said that the 3D web will never take over the 2D web, instead they will enhance each other.

Second: Memo to Microsoft: If I wanted to have my PC work like a tablet, I would just get a freaking tablet.  The Windows 7 interface is the greatest PC interface ever, and I already have gadgets on my desktop that show me news and weather and other stuff, and it is a lot prettier than the ugly orange-green-blue-purple mobile phone interface you are pushing for Windows 8.  Why not multiple interface models? One for traditional keyboard and mouse, one for “touch screen”, and one for Kinect?  You did not think of Kinect did you?  The bottom line is this: If you focus on merging the PC experience with the mobile experience, you are going to lose on both fronts.  Android, based off Linux, is already available for PCs that want to behave like mobile phones. There is no need to have common interfaces between devices.

Thirdly, Facebook sucks for gaming!  I know how the 300 million facebook users seems like a huge audience for gaming, especially social gaming, but every game on Facebook is a novelty at best.  SimCity might do well, as long as it is simplified to the casual user (wasn’t that what the godawful SimCity Societies try to be?)  As far as trying to interface a virtual world with Facebook, its been tried multiple times, always ending up in failure.  Facebook is a place designed for real people and real identities, virtual worlds are place for fantasy and role play make believe.  Are you really interested in letting your family, friends, and workplace know about your cosplay activities? Virtual Worlds and real life Social Networks do not belong together, ever!

Is there a pattern here? We have console game designers trying to turn console gaming into something it is not. We have advocates of mobile computing saying that mobile computing will take over everything, which is clearly not true. We have game designers tinkering with gaming on social networks, something it is clearly not designed for.  We continue to have people wanting to merge social networking and virtual worlding, which are incompatible.

The only pattern I can see is that there seems to be an ongoing battle between those that want to merge everything together, and those like me that think we are better off using the right tools for the right uses.  But this battle has been going on for a couple of decades.  In the 90’s “portal” websites like AOL and Yahoo wanted to be everything for everybody.  They wanted to make their websites so complete, there would never be any reason to go anywhere else.  They failed of course, but a lot of good came out of those attempts.  Now Facebook wants to play the “portal” role, and mobile phones and gaming consoles want to eliminate the need for PCs, and none of these objectives will succeed, but maybe some good will come out of the attempts.

Or, maybe there is no pattern here.

Kinect: Gimmick or the Future of Gaming?

Like a lot of people this Christmas, I got myself a Kinect controller for my Xbox360.  I also picked up a copy of Kinect Sports which is way better than the included demo game Kinect Adventures.  In other words, I got myself an exercise regimen for Christmas.  I guess that takes care of the new years resolution as well.

A few years ago, my sister got a Wii, and my brief visits over there got me addicted to Wii Bowling.  I thought about getting one myself, but at the time it was damn near impossible to find a store with Wiis in stock.  I eventually got an Xbox360 instead, then also got a Playstation 3 too, so there was no point to get a Wii as well.  Wii still had one gimmick that the others did not, and that was the motion sensitive Wii remote, which thanks to international patents remains the exclusive feature of Wii.

This year Sony and Microsoft answered the Wii remote with their own exclusive technology.  Sony introduced Playstation Move, which uses a remote with a colored ball on the end and a camera to track the balls movement. This is motion capture technology that has been around for a while, but never for the home.  This technology beats Wii remote tech in both speed of response and accuracy, but unlike Wii, you have to use it within the field of vision of a camera mounted to your TV.

Microsoft went with new technology that does not even need a remote. We are in the very early stages of holodeck technology here.  Kinect uses stereo cameras to create a depth of field map and recognizes a human standing up in front of the cameras.  It then tracks the movement of the humans head hands and feet in all 3 dimensions.  Its like attaching five Wii remotes to different parts of your body in order to control your on screen character.  This tech is way cool!

I love how as you move, the avatar on screen moves the same way.  Sway your body, tilt your head, pump your fists, etc. Your on screen avatar does exactly the same thing in near real time.  Your body becomes the controller, which is really cool until you realize that you have to stand up and move in order to play games.  With the Wii remote, you can lazily flick your wrist while sitting on the couch.  Kinect does not let you get away with that.  Hence the exercise regimen aspect.  Soccer matches only last 6 minutes in Kinect Sports, but I’d estimate that one match is the equivalent of jogging in place for about 2 minutes, depending on how aggressively you play.

(Side note: Games like Kinect Sports and Kinect Adventures like to take your picture as you play.  Make sure you disable the online sharing if you are playing naked.)

You will notice that I bolded the word “near”.  The current weakness of the Kinect system is that there is a noticeable lag between your movement and the onscreen movement which will affect your gaming experience.  The other is the need for free unobstructed floor space, which is not a problem for me since I don’t have lots of furniture, but is likely to be a problem for others.  The lag and accuracy problems of the Kinect is going to limit the types of games that can be played on it.  The current games available seem to all be sports or dance games, which are obvious uses of this tech.  This is why gaming sites comparing Move to Kinect seem to favor Move for hard core gaming reasons.  Meanwhile, the marketplace has spoken.  Consumers overwhelmingly have chosen Kinect.  It is now the fastest selling gadget in history.  I’m hoping some truly innovative games, stuff we have never seen before, will eventually use this technology.

Because the Kinect uses a USB interface (thank the need for compatibility with older Xboxes for that feature) it can be hooked up to a PC.  Already I have seen demos for 3D video capture, controlling web browsers using gestures, and the inevitable sex game interface.

I’d love to see motion capture to BVH files that can be imported to Second Life, among other places.  That would bring the price of animations way down.  Better yet would be real time movement of your avatar in a virtual world, tough I’m not sure how well that would work in a multi avatar environment.  It would make for much more entertaining dance parties though.

Despite the lag and lack of accuracy, I see the Kinect as the next step toward the “Holodeck” that we all dream of having some day.  On the other hand, it could just be a fleeting gimmick people will tire of as we go back to controllers.  Time will tell.