Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Micro Machines

In the span of a week, I’ve splurged on two cool new gadgets from Apple and Nintendo respectively.

The iPod Nano is my first real iPod and I’m converted to the brand having only used it for a few days. Having used previous flash based players from Creative and other manufacturers, the wealth of features Apple was able to cram into the Nano is simply amazing. That is clearly the benefit of a market leader with an infrastructure of software talent to make a great OS for the iPods and a powerful music manager for the desktop.

The real draw for me, aside from the vastly increased storage capacity (compared to the 256 MB mp3 player I was using prior to the Nano) are the color screen, the customizability of the tracks, and the features. The hard-disk function is interesting, especially the ability to import text files into the Nano. The files could then be accessed and read while music is playing. I’ve tried this feature and the text is surprisingly readable on the Nano’s tiny screen. It’s a poor man’s e-book function, but I could see myself using it.

A major problem with the Nano however is its fragility. The Nano’s screen as well as the chrome backing is quite delicate. The backing on my Nano already has a hairline scratch on it, which I assume must have happened while I was simply moving it around my computer desk when I was setting up my Nano. The chrome backing also attracts ugly thumbprints, smudges and grease. The thought of handling the Nano with sweaty palms or accidentally leaving grease on is distressing to me. I have therefore resorted to keeping the plastic skin on the front of the Nano unpeeled, and I wrapped the whole thing in Seran wrap to keep the backside from smudging up and scratching and offering an extra layer of protection for the screen.

In contrast to the Nano, my Creative flash player came with a durable leather jacket right out of the box and I’ve thrown it into my pocket with my keys and never had to worry about it. After eight months of intensive use, including dropping it a few times, the unit itself is in mint condition, well protected by the leather sleeve. It’s really puzzling why at the premium prices Apple is commanding for these Nanos that they don’t offer users some sort of cheap protection. According to one online report, it costs Apple just over $100 USD to manufacture the 2 GB iPods. Even a garment pouch that they can probably buy in bulk for less than a dollar apiece would have been better than nothing.

The next item on the list is the GameBoy Micro. At $99 apiece, Nintendo is making a killing off these 15 year old game hardware, or at least that’s what its detractors would tell you. Except 15 years ago, the GameBoy Micro would have been $350, came in at the size of a Sega GameGear and probably just as heavy with the battery life of about 2 hours on six AA batteries.

The first thing I noticed is just how small the unit is. The Micro is slighter taller than the Nano and a little over twice its thickness. The second thing I noticed was how different it looked from previous GameBoy designs. When I power it up, the Start and Select buttons either flashes blue to indicate good battery life or red to indicate low battery. It’s a cool touch that makes the Micro look really sleek and is reminiscent of a cellphone’s keypad. The Micro comes with a built in microphone jack which was a feature lacking in the GameBoy SP, and it feels metallic, which I think is a first for a portable game machine. The metallic body gives the Micro a unique tactile feel on the user’s hands. I think the Micro is really a good first step for Nintendo to move in Apple’s school of aesthetic design. But at least with Nintendo, they also care about durability of their hardware.

The Micro is clearly the more durable of the two machines by a wide margin. With changeable faceplates, which include a clear plastic window in the middle to protect the LCD screen, the Micro is not going to be prone to screen scratching. Even if the faceplate is scratched, there are two replacement plates right out of the box with new plates sold by Nintendo for $5 in its on-line store.

What the Micro is ultimately about is that it is gaming portability perfected. The screen is absolutely fantastic. It is superior to the backlit screens of the Nintendo DS and is clear and bright under all manner of lighting conditions. It also has one feature the Nano doesn’t have, five adjustable brightness levels to save battery since the screen is backlit at all times and the Micro’s Li-Ion battery is still expected to last up to 10 to 14 hours.

Since the Micro is essentially a miniaturized GameBoy Advance, it can play a whole library of AAA games right out of the box and a library of what is arguably some of the best 2-D games developed after console gaming moved to 3-D games. The only downside is, Micro does not support the older GameBoy Color and GameBoy Classic games. Playing The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap on the Micro is a real treat. The introductory cut scene looks crisp and the text is readable even when holding my micro at arms length. The viewable angle of the LCD is as good as any other LCD based unit on the market. I don’t have to be playing the Micro straight in front of me to get the full quality of the picture.

While I have some reservations about the Nano, I love both machines. Both the Nano and Micro represent evolutionary steps in successful lines of branded hardware. Neither hardware are particularly innovative or groundbreaking, nor were they intended as grand platforms for world conquest as both brands have already conquered the world. These two machines are simply great redesigns of established brands.

I’ll end my post with a funny anecdote. Nintendo packed in the Micro with a pull-string garment pouch, which I assume was a thoughtful gesture to gamers. It probably didn’t cost them much. However, it is Nintendo’s thoughtfulness that saved the day for my Nano. I’m now using the pouch for my Nano when I’m not using the Micro. The pouch also happens to be big enough to fit both the Micro and Nano with room to spare. I think the two portables are really meant to be together.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Revolution Q&A

Fresh from his trip to last weekend's Tokyo Game Show, WIRED’s Chris Kohler, known on-line as Kobun Heat, was kind enough to offer to answer questions regarding Nintendo’s Revolution(ary) controller at Gaming-Age.com. In a cynical gaming forum populated with self declared pundits and experts, Mr. Kohler stands heads and shoulders above everyone else both in his ‘real’ expertise when it comes to talking about the controller and his journalistic credentials. He may be a Nintendo fan, but he’s always a journalist first. The following are edited Questions and Answers from forum readers and Mr. Kohler’s responses.

Q: If you could change one thing about the controller, what would it be?

KH (Kobun Heat): If I could change one thing about the controller, it would be to put a Z trigger under the B trigger. The nunchuck attachment has two, so I'd like to see it balanced out.

Q: I want to know how you think Smash Brothers (Rev) would play on that remote. Intuitive? Comfortable?

KH: Are you talking about playing Super Smash Bros. Melee? If they retrofit the game design to use the controller, I guess the most obvious use of the pointer would be to do smash attacks. So you'd flick it around to choose the direction in which you want to smash.

However, I doubt that a Revolution Smash Bros. would just be the GameCube gameplay with a different controller.

Q: Did the controllers fit your hands well? Was the cord connecting them a sufficient length?

KH: The controller and attachment were definitely comfortable; the cord was of sufficient length.

Q: How does the controller feel and handle? Compared to existing technologies in the market does it handle better?

KH: I actually can't speak to the vagaries of the sensor, because it's not finalized and Nintendo was clear that we weren't discussing the nuts and bolts of the tech that day. So I really don't know. I can definitely say that you can point the thing at an angle at the TV, because that's the whole point of the device: you're not moving your whole arm around, you're just making very slight inflections with your wrist. When you hold it sideways, your fingers (or at least mine) don't slide into the slope on the back where the B-trigger sits. I didn't hold it that way for very long but I doubt it's going to make a difference.

Q: Which genre do you think will be most well suited for this type of controller (besides, perhaps somewhat obviously, FPS)? Which genre do you think will be most adversely affected by this type of controller?

KH: The Revolution controller, much like the Nintendo DS touch screen, takes away a barrier between people and machines. People loved to post that Minority Report screen as a joke, but that's pretty damn close to at least the thought pattern behind the controller -- you just reach out with your hand and start manipulating things on-screen.For some people, a DualShock controller is just that sort of extension of their person. But it takes a lot -- some would say a lifetime -- of practice to get there.

Q: Several people have mentioned the controller would be unplayable because the user's arm/hand would grow tired after brief periods of use. How long did it take you to get accustomed to using the remote?

KH: I can't really compare the controller to existing tech. I can say that the learning curve was practically nonexistent. It's light. It's comfortable. It's goddamned precise.

Q: Did you see any kind of charging cradle? How about the range?

KH: No charging cradle was shown. Battery life or controller range were not mentioned. There were many different tech demos shown, each of which was meant to show a new gameplay style, not so much an idea for a retail product. Certainly the Kuru Kuru Kururin demo could be a winner.

Q: (Reader comment) I think Nintendo may move the big A-button to the back side next to the B-button for the final build, but they're probably running a ton of tests with non-gamers right now to see how they react to different layouts.

KH: I think the big A button will definitely stay where it is. I'm not sure what the question about D-pads and buttons means.

Q: Any hints of games in development?

KH: Certainly I'm really excited about the possibilities of music games on the Revolution. Samba De Amigo would be awesome as-is, with no big, bulky controller required -- just two standard pads. Or maybe even one controller with an inexpensive attachment that could be packed in. And that's not even mentioning Ouendan, which I wasn't even the first person to bring up in our meeting.

Q: How does Metroid Prime work once your wrist can't turn any more? Specifically, how do you turn around and do 360 rotation?

KH: As far as Metroid Prime 2, the honest answer is that it was so intuitive that I wasn't even thinking about HOW the controller was doing it. All I know is that I was easily able to spin in circles. If I recall correctly: if you move it further and further towards the left or right of the screen, Samus will start to spin around, and if you bring it back to the center she stops.

Q: Does it really register "3D movement"? I mean, can it actually keep track of the cooridantes/location of the controller within a space?

KH: The 3D movement thing: this is mostly speculation on my part but yes, I believe it can keep track of where the controller is in terms of 3D space. Again, we tried a variety of gameplay demos, but there was no specific, detailed explanation of the tech inside. But you can definitely do all the things they showed in the video since everything -- location, rotation, distance -- is measured.

Q: Wasn't the Pilot Wings and "Blocky Shooting" thing both tech demos?

KH: The Pilot Wings demo was just for movement of the plane. No speed control (but of course that's not to say that it would be impossible or difficult).

Q: Several people have mentioned the controller would be unplayable because the user's arm/hand would grow tired after brief periods of use. I believe comparisons were made to current gyroscopic technologies.

KH: When you play with a Wavebird, do you stand up and hold it at arm's length towards the screen? No. And you don't have to do this with the Revolution controller. You can sit with your hands in your lap and just move your wrist a little to cover the entire screen.

Q: How did the 'sensor bar' looks like?

KH: The sensor bar shown was a prototype, so it's not really indicative of what you'll use for the final product. But the sensors were small and unobtrusive.

Nintendo actually specifically said that the sensors were not in any way finalized. So be aware that this description may not reflect the final product. There were two small sensors -- about the size of a gum eraser -- that were attached to a small metal bar maybe the size of a ruler.
They were placed under the TV but they said there are many places you could put them. On top, on the sides, on the wall even. It's all very very up in the air, though.

Q: For the "shooting blocks" demo, is that using "light-gun" technology to target the objects or is it using the 3D "mouse" to move a cursor to the objects?

KH: For the shooting blocks demo, there was a visible cursor on screen that moved when you moved the controller around. I can't say much about HOW it worked: as far as the actual tech involved, again: I don't know, and neither does anyone else. All I can say is that after a few seconds using it, all I really had to do was think of a place I wanted the cursor to be and my hand moved there.

Q: Is the B trigger analog? What about the Z1/Z2 trigger? Or was it similar to the N64's Z-trigger?

KH: I don't THINK the triggers are analog.

Q: Do you have to keep the controller pointed exactly 90 degrees from the tv set to keep still? Or can it be rested at an off angle?

KH: The cursor should be relatively centered. Take a laser pointer and shine the dot in the center of your TV screen and try moving your hand all sorts of places while still keeping the dot centered. Note that the location of your hand doesn't matter so much.

Q: Thanks a lot for your responses, btw, do you have any clue what could be the remaining surprises that Iwata mentioned?

KH: I think it's safe to say that after this I don't put anything past that guy. That 'home' button on the controller's very interesting, though, huh?

Q: What was your favorite revolution? French? American? Mexican?

KH: How much fun do you think I had playing Revolution air-hockey versus Miyamoto? I'm buying this day one, and I can't wait to see what they put out for it. If the release schedule is as balanced as the DS' -- with mass-appeal titles like Brain Training and Nintendogs going back and forth with gamers' games like Ouendan and Castlevania -- then it'll appeal to everyone.

Q: Do you have any additional info on the so-called shells for the controller?

KH: No new info on shells -- they didn't show any, but they talked about them. I'm not sure whether it makes sense to put the shell in the box, though, because that runs counter to their anyone-can-understand-this mentality. If the shells are cheap enough, they can just pack them in with any game that requires them.

Q: Is it possible to reach the lower A and B (ie X and Y) buttons with any degree of comfort when using the controller as a pointer? [I know they'll be easily reachable when the controller is held like a NES pad].

KH: You're not intended to use the A and B buttons for any sort of quick-response gameplay when the controller is vertical. So I doubt any developers will make you do that.

Q: Did the fishing demo feel natural?

KH: The fishing game was the only one that took me more than a second to grasp, because it uses depth perception. But after I got the hang of moving the rod around in a pseudo-3D space, it got easier.

Q: I'd like to hear your impressions of the analog attachment.

KH: I don't know what sort of impressions other than "Metroid Prime 2 was comfortable and intuitive" I really need to give at this point. The analog attachment was really light. The wire was long enough. Moving, aiming, shooting, and turning took no -- zero -- conscious thought. The only problem I had was remembering which shoulder button scanned and which jumped. But I can't remember that very well on the GameCube either.

Q: This is probably a given, but was the crosshairs/cursor sensitive to acceleration in a similar way a mouse-cursor moves further across the screen the faster you move it?

KH: Shine a laser pointer on your TV screen, then move it around. That's exactly what it's like. When I first saw it, they hadn't yet explained what it DID. So I was like "what the Jesus is that." Then Miyamoto was like, check this out, and he starts waving it around and shooting boxes and my stomach felt like it had done a flip-flop.

Q: Will it require more sensors for multiplayer games?

KH: I seriously doubt that you need two sensor set-ups for multiple controllers. That would not exactly go along with Nintendo's simpler-is-better strategy.

Q: Was there a particular demo, aside from the Metroid one that you were really impressed with the technology at work? What kind of TV was this playing on, and did they make a peep about HD at all?

KH: After Metroid Prime 2, I really loved the airplane demo. It was as if you were holding a toy plane in your hand, and everything you did with it in real life was reflected on the (very nice*) tv screen.* That's all I really know about the TVs they were using. And with the Metroid Prime demo, I was waving the controller all the hell over the place really really fast and the cursor was always exactly where I wanted it.

Q: Did Nintendo provide snacks for you? (This poster was probably poking fun at Mr. Kohler’s real life stature and or perhaps suggesting he was bribed by Nintendo with food.)

KH: There were no snacks. A few of us went to lunch, but that wasn't planned nor part of the day's activity.

Q: What genres do you think won't play well with this controller?

KH: We didn't play anything for six hours, so I really don't know. I'm not about to go sit on a chair and wave my wrist around for six hours to see how it feels. I think that will be a game design issue – designing software so that it's comfortable to play. That sort of issue is always important, though, no matter what sort of controller you have. You don't want to make a game that has you jerking two analog sticks in every which direction while jamming on buttons constantly...

Monkey Dew’s Final Thoughts:

Kobun’s impressions have certainly made me much more enthusiastic about the Revolution controller and Nintendo’s next generation console as a whole. I haven’t felt this kind of excitement about a gaming console for some time. I certainly didn’t feel this excited before the GameCube launched. The closest experience would be nearly ten years ago when Nintendo, Sony and Sega moved into the 3D domain for the first time and every new piece of gaming information would have me dreaming about the ‘what-ifs’ of my favorite games being played in 3D and how the visuals would look.

Ten years later, Sony and Microsoft seem more interested in ramping up graphic power for their next entry into the gaming race than exploring virgin territory. I’m glad Nintendo is trying to move gaming into new territory again. Thank you for the D-pad, L, R, X, Y buttons, Analog stick, Rumble pack, Wireless controller and now, the Revolution controller.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Revolution Revealed

When Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata showed off the empty shell for the Nintendo Revolution this past may at the Electronics Entertainment Expo, he promised the world that the real revolutionary aspect of the console hasn’t been shown to keep it secret from Nintendo’s competitors for a while longer. In due time the world will see it, he promised. Iwata has kept his word and this past weekend, in his keynote address to gamers in Japan at the Tokyo Game Show, he revealed the controller to the Nintendo Revolution. To the surprise of everyone, it was totally new, strange and unique. It is a wireless ‘pointer’ which allows for manipulation of objections in real 3-D space. Imagine a futuristic type 3-D mouse than allows the user to select objects, menus and groups of units on a screen by simply waving their hands around with the controller. Not unlike what we saw in movies like Minority Report. Held horizontally, it also doubles for a NES controller. Nintendo certainly hasn’t forgotten its promise of a virtual console with a back catalogue of old Nintendo games. This video may help you visualize what it is all about.

Industry reaction so far has been positive, and so has the gamer reaction. While hardly the arbiter of mass market tastes, oracles in Internet gaming forums have long predicted that the Nintendo controller would be so weird and self-serving (for Nintendo) that it would be a disaster for the company. When the controller was revealed on Friday, the reaction was downright jubilant and enthusiastic, the opposite of what had been predicted. After the recent DS’ triumph over its rival, people seem far more willing to believe in Nintendo’s promises of revolutionary new ways to play games. Under different circumstances, the Revolution might have already been dead in the water. Fortune is smiling on the company this time around.

The concern about third party shovelware support raised by more cautious journalists, developers and gamers is real however. While many gamers will likely not want to buy the latest version of Harry Potter on their Revolution, many casual gamers undoubtedly do want those kinds of software. Anyone who has been through a basic business strategy course can point to the ‘network effects’ that helped propel the PlayStation, VHS and the Windows operating systems to their dominant status. Put simply, each new piece of software written for the machine adds value to the consumer to purchase that particular machine over rival machines and Nintendo certainly risks alienating third parties who may find it difficult to port their games to the Revolution and that in turn may reduce Revolutions overall game library and hurt it over the long-term.

The flipside of the argument however is two fold. First, Nintendo’s GameCube is in many ways simply another indistinguishable entry in a three-horse console race. And despite having far more support than the Nintendo 64, it has floundered. The argument for simply having more third party ports on the Revolution may therefore not be very convincing. Secondly, Nintendo has promised that a controller sleeve that can be fitted around the remote control contraption and turn the Revolution ‘pointer’ into a more traditional game controller. Coupled with rising development costs on rival consoles, which a Japanese developer recently estimated to be between two to two and a half times of the current costs, Nintendo’s promise of an easy low-cost development environment may prove to be more attractive to developers wishing to develop original content and allow reprieve for shovelware developers to port ‘Revolution-ized’ versions of their games for peanuts and still be able to recoup enough money from Revolution game sales to spread the cost of their investment in game design on the Revolution. Put simply, if developers can port their games cheaply enough and still turn a profit, they’ll do it, even if it involves some tweaking of the control scheme.

The bulk of the work however remains with Nintendo. What made the Nintendo DS such a smashing success in Japan is the fact that Nintendo and select third parties actually backed up their talk with results. Nintendogs and a seemingly benign edutainment software called Brain Training have ruled the charts in Japan and beaten more traditional games in part because the DS did in fact reach out to a segment of the market that wasn’t being served and they have responded. In a frontloaded Japanese market where most games do well on their first day and quickly fade away, Brain Training has remained in the top 10 for more than three months, beating out major releases from Square-Enix, Capcom, Namco and even Nintendo itself. Furthermore, behind the Nintendo branded DS software is a slate of original and interesting games from Konami, Capcom, Namco and a slew of smaller development housing making interesting games that ranged from revivals of old adventure RPGs to unique ways of playing old genres, such as Castlevania or Trauma Center. All of this increases the network effects for the DS by making its unique features more appealing.

To repeat the same success, Revolution can’t be a bunch of hot air. One or two great games in the form of a Mario or Zelda game can’t solve the problem either. The retort would simply be that ‘Nintendo can make these kinds of games, but no one else can.’ Konami, Namco, Square-Enix and EA must also have their greats waiting in the wings for people to be truly convinced. The ball is in Nintendo’s court.

Press Start and let the revolution begin.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Beyond Shrek: Final Fantasy VII Advent Children

It has been about ten years since Pixar created the CG film genre with Toy Story. Unfortunately, in those ten years, CG films have largely retreated into a narrow genre of children’s films or a children’s film with adult humor mixed in to make the viewing tolerable for the parents who would inevitably have to accompany little Johnny into the theatre.

What many people did not notice about Toy Story and its sequel was the distinct lack of slapstick humor in the story. What ultimately made both movies so watchable and endearing were the characters and the drama behind them. Toy Story was far more mature emotionally than any CG films that have appeared since. The talking toys are superficially childish but they make people care about them as characters. It makes Andy growing up and forgetting to play with them more real, since we all have had toys in childhood that at one point in time meant to world to us but was ultimately forgotten and left out in a box somewhere. While Pixar continue to make similar films and their work remain incredibly watchable and enjoyable, it is Pixar’s niche, like it is Hayao Miyazaki’s niche to create superbly animated family friendly movies. The irony certainly cannot be lost to me that most of Miyazaki’s family friendly animations contain more drama and thought than your average GC dreck, like Madagascar.

The lack of imagination can be blamed on a number of things. First, the Hollywood system for imitating success means that once Toy Story hit it big, every studio wanted a kid friendly CG film on the market. And once Shrek and Shrek 2 made it even bigger, the studio heads concluded talking animals and slapstick was the only way to go for CG movies. The second party that needs blaming is the Sony-Squaresoft team who had an opportunity to break the cycle in 2001 with a CG Final Fantasy movie but blew the chance with an overwrought imitation of bad science fiction.

Square-Enix’s latest CG effort, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children shows some of the sparks that was missing in their first effort. Based on the highly successful Final Fantasy VII game, the movie is tailored largely to a Japanese audience and to fans of the video game. The CG work is absolutely stunning and in many cases, rivals ILM’s work on live action films. There is genuine drama in the film and Advent Children’s final dramatic scenes between Cloud Strife and his conversation with Aerith (Aeris) Gainsborough proves that CG films can be more than talking animals, slapstick and a who’s who collection of Hollywood voice actors and comedians.

It is too bad that Advent Children will confuse people who have never played Final Fantasy VII and as a film, the creators were too busy paying homage to The Matrix Revolutions and a plethora of live action science-fiction movies to take notice that they had chance at creating a truly great film but let it slip away.

Nobody Knows

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Nobody Knows (Dare mo Shiranai) was officially released on DVD on the 13th of September. It will however undoubtedly miss the watch list of your average Best Buy DVD-Tuesday movie crowd.

Nobody Knows is a film about how a group of kids who deals with abandonment for six months and was filmed as a documentary-drama with a handy cam over the period of a year where Director /Writer Kore-eda followed a group of children acting out the fictional drama based on a real story.

The resulting product is a mercilessly realistic, heart warming and detached portrayal of the lives of these kids. What I liked the most about Nobody Knows is how the narrative is never the subject of editorializing by the director and the emotions are kept real. Under the hands of a mainstream Hollywood director, the saddest scenes would have required a symphony to describe the emotion to the viewer. I make this comment not so much as a rejection of that style of film making but as a compliment to the film’s quality and the skill of the direction that Kore-eda pulls off the right emotional responses without the need to so blatantly manipulate emotions.

Nobody Knows can be purchased on DVD at Amazon.com.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Episode III: An Owl in A Thornbush

The third instalment of ROME is a bit of a hit and miss. The story picks up where Episode II left off with Caesar marching on Rome. His strategy of attacking with a single legion appeared suicidal to the senatorial faction. But it soon became apparent that he had been vastly underestimated. With only one legion, Caesar’s speed had surprised Pompey and Caesar was suddenly in a position to take Rome, a city that was essentially undefended. Pompey simply could not get his men together in time and he had no choice but to retreat south to gather his legions. The episode’s best line, which ironically was bordering on the comical, was Cato’s impassioned rebuttal of Pompey’s strategy. With fury and rage, he shouts at Pompey “You have lost Rome without unsheathing your sword… You have lost ROME!”

This episode is mostly exposition, and there is a stretch in the middle of the episode where the viewers are drawn into the world of Rome and see and feel a kind of panicked chaos that the creators certainly intended the viewers of feel. There was a sense of claustrophobia as the episode moved from shot after shot of the main characters huddled in their houses or carriages looking helplessly as chaos spreads in the streets.

The episode also feels like it is building up to something that we won’t see pay off until the later episodes. It is about ten minutes shorter than the first two instalments and lacked the electricity of episode II when there was that great electric moment near the end when Caesar gave his speech. Caesar’s march on Rome is left mainly untold in episode III. Those who know a bit more of the history can certainly fill in the blanks, but it certainly leaves the impression that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and was at the city gates over a single weekend. In reality, it took him about three months to move from Gaul into Rome itself, converting most of the towns and cities in northern Italy to his cause without a fight and gaining additional legions on the way.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

September 11

It’s been four years. It took me sometime to get out of my procrastinating to load up my world processing program so that I would write an entry about what is undoubtedly the single most important world event in my short twenty four year life.

In the past few days, I had struggled to come to terms with how I wanted to express my inner grief about this event, the deep sadness I felt and still feel for that city which has always been part of my imagination first as a child watching Ghostbusters and as an adult thinking of moving to the great metropolis at the center of the world.

In the end, I decided that all the planning and careful choosing of words would be meaningless. I would just let my thoughts flow onto the page. So here I am writing about that late summer day in 2001 when I awoke to the sounds of the radio, my mom fixing my breakfast and hearing her tell me that helicopters had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the State Department in Washington D.C. had been bombed. The reports were wrong of course, but those were the first things I heard.

I found it strange that I didn’t take the day off or I didn’t reach for the remote to watch the TV. Out here in the west coast, when I awoke at 7:00 am, it was already 10:00 am in New York, and the tragedy had already unfolded to the horror of the world. I still wonder why I finished my breakfast, said my goodbyes that morning and took the bus to campus. On the bus, as I heard whispers and my thoughts began to coalesce in my head and the magnitude of what had happened began to sink in. I began to feel a variety of emotions—Fear, anger, and sadness. When the bus pulled into the campus, I had already known that terrorists had struck at the city I had loved for most of my life.

I walked over to the library and logged into the student computers. Finally, for the first time, a sparse hastily uploaded front page on CNN.com showed the tragedy in all its horrors. I remember turning to another student next to me, he looked at me and I looked at him and we both said something to each other. I don’t recall the words, but we both understood the significance of what had just happened that morning.

The Twin Towers weren’t so important to me. In fact, I never gave them a second though before September 11th. What they stood for did matter to me. Those two steel towers were for me a symbol of modernity, global economics, peace, and the bright future of a global political and economic system that would benefit everyone. On that day when the twin towers collapsed, so did those dreams. We live in a world that is as dangerous as it was 30 years ago and will continue to be dangerous well into the rest of our lives. The cheery golden age of the 1990s, an exuberant era that saw the end of communism and promise of a global peace, is over. September 11th is the single defining event that changed my political philosophy and outlook. I was once a wishy washy a-political person who subscribed to vague ideas of liberalism and the simplistic propaganda taught in high school history classes about the greatness of western liberal democracies.

September 11th changed all that. It crystallized in my mind the utter uselessness of my youthful idealism, the need to be practical about global politics, the hypocrisy of the competing ideologues on all sides, and the failure of democratic institutions to subdue religious fanaticism. It also made me keenly aware that there are those who hate globalism and the idea of modernity so much that they would kill themselves and others for the cause. It is as if those two planes had struck at the very center of my heart. It certainly woke me up to what was happening around me.

The failure of multi-culturalism as we saw in London where cultural minorities migrate to their little enclaves, live in isolation and incite hate against their host city and host country could not be starker than the success of New York as a melting pot of cultures and of people. For me, New York remains that wonderful place at the center of the world that holds the very promise of what a truly great society this planet could become – A great cosmopolitan civilization that exists in relative peace, and a melting pot where the people living there are first citizens of their locality and second of their ethnicity and religion.

The World Trade Center is a unique entity in human history. Never has a skyscraper in all the history of building tall collapsed. And never has the world experienced a singular event, LIVE in the way the September 11th attacks created. The public deaths of those two towers were a once in a century event for the whole world. For a brief moment during that late summer day, the World Trade Center achieved its ideal. We were all New Yorkers, Americans, humans and citizens of the world. As someone has said, “they were the wonders of the world and we shall never see the likes of them again.”

Saturday, September 10, 2005

More on Age of Empires III

Real-time 3-D London

I may have spoken too soon about the Age of Empires III demo. While I gave the demo a decidedly negative first impression in my post two days ago, I’ve had some time since to invest more time in the demo, particularly in the Skirmish games where players start out in a random map against an A.I. and build out from scratch. These types of games are my favorite to play to pass the time and Age of Empires (AoE) III feels very much like AoE II but I’m speaking very generally here since I have not played AoE II for a number of years now. My final verdict is that the demo is actually good!

The interface is not as opaque as I originally commented on, but it still needs a more robust help system in the final build since quite a few things have been changed and it is often not immediately clear what players can do with certain units or buildings. A common complaint I’ve heard is also the fact that the interface is just too big and could probably use some streamlining into fewer buttons.

What is really most impressive so far is the graphics engine. It’s humming along nicely on my slightly aged circa 2003 PC with all the graphics options maxed out. I’ve had as many as upwards of 30 units on screen with no slowdown, but again, not real opportunities to really give it a test with massive armies.

The AI in the skirmish games seems to be a bit too good and very aggressive. This tends to force players down one optimal build queue, one that favors early defense, heavy investments on the military and potentially early rushes. Over time, the AI also becomes predictable and weak to the veteran players. In one of my games, I found that by buying my barracks early and trading in my cards for free troops and mounting an early rush, I was able to effectively put a pinch on the AI by invading their empire and knocking off their workers. As much as I love the conflict aspect of the game however, I was hoping for something a bit more compatible with a builder’s game.

My first few games in the skirmish mode I was slaughtered because I didn’t even have a barracks up when the AI came strolling in with their army of muskets. I was busy actually building an EMPIRE with markets, trading posts and the like. Maybe it’s just the Spanish AI being aggressive, what with the flavored AI and all. Hopefully the other AI civilizations will offer a different experience. So far, all I call say is that strategically and tactically, AoE III is barely evolved from the days of WarCraft II and Starcraft when early militaries and rushing was so prized and effective that players in Starcraft developed a particular affinity with the Zergs and their early power rushes.

Real-time strategy games have never been about subtlety, diplomatic finesses or cold wars interspersed with flashes of open conflict. Real-time strategy as a genre have been accused of being more tactical than strategic in their nature and AoE III so far shows no sign of straying for this successful formula. Maybe it’s for the better, but I was hoping for something more interesting than two civilizations hurling their economies against each other in a perpetual war until the one with better micromanagement skills and larger economy wins. And that’s another thing worth noting. If anyone from Ensemble Studios is to stumble on my post, mitigate micromanaging at all costs. It may sound good on a paper but the reason WarCraft III didn’t fare as well as Starcraft was that micromanaging became a pain in the ass for most players and most simply gave up.

There’s something to be said about the simplicity of a real-time strategy game that lets players lasso a bunch of units and randomly throw them at the enemy. AoE III certainly is more complex and a richer historical game than say Starcraft, but playing the demo, I can almost feel that it is one or two design decision away from being unfun.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Age of Empires III

Pretty Water: In-game screenshot

The Age of Empires III demo version 1.0 is out. Here’s the good news. Despite early press screens showing some absolutely stunning and obviously staged CGI scenes of armies marching in forests with reflections, foliage and the like, the final game, or at least the version Ensemble let us play, is closer to the old 2-D sprite based Age of Empires (AOE) than the non gameplay press pictures they released at E3. The second piece of good news is that if you bought a decently powerful computer in the last two years, the machine should be able to handle Age of Empires III. My Radeon 9600 Pro Pentium4 3.0 GHZ rig ran the demo just fine on 1023X768 with all the effects turned up to maximum. Granted I haven’t had a chance to really test it in a full-blown game with massed armies in full battle. The one little skirmish I had with about 20 units and burning buildings had no slowdown.

Here’s the bad news. The demo was boring. It’s not even a tease. The single player scenarios included were not very interesting. One had you playing as either Spain or Great Britain in a rush to colonize North America. It’s a kind of free form custom AOE game one might play to pass the time vs. an AI or human opponent where everyone starts out with just a small town. The one campaign scenario included in the demo puts the players in charge of an American general pushing the boundaries of the western frontier and establishing trading posts. Not, the most exciting stuff to play. All I can say is, the controls seem very responsive. The graphics are good in 3-D, but I think there menus need to be a little more intuitive. For example, jumping between the unit build menus and the main ‘home’ menu is a bit confusing. I don’t recall it being this hard to jump between menus in the old AOE games. Also, the mouse speed slider needs to be made a bit more precise. A few notches up from default will make my mouse moved too fast and it takes some careful movement to get it to land at the sweet spot.

I’m still looking forward to this game, but I’m not too impressed with the demo overall.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Episode II: How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic

And the series gets better. While not as flashy as Episode I, the second instalment of HBO’s ROME delves into the politics of the late republic. Without giving the plot away, there are several scenes in the episode that dealt with the backroom politicking of the generals and senators. The heart of this episode revolves around the two largely fictional characters Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus as the two men return to Rome; Lucius to his family and Titus to the brothels. Their return allows the episode to show Rome to the viewers. Since both men have been away for so long, they behave more like tourists than residents and that fits the narrative purpose of the show perfectly.

The middle part of the episode is pretty much a family drama revolving around Lucius’ marital problems. Lucius is suspicious his wife had cheated on him. His wife is suspicious Lucius has had other women in bed while he away fighting and is angry that her husband has been away for so long. His daughters barely know him, while the eldest is already a mother. Lucius for his part is angry that he was not consulted before his eldest daughter picked a mate and became pregnant.

Those who are expecting Sopranos with swords and sandals might be asking for something the series is not about. Like the Sopranos, there’s politics in ROME, lots and lots of it. But the politics is of a different nature. At the heart of the politics is a rivaly between Caesar and Pompey that is threatening to split Rome in two and civil war. All the characters in Rome have a trajectory based on history. This is not made up mob stories where the writers get to sit down after Season 1 to decide who they want to kill off in Season 2.

The show is absolutely brilliant and epic at its best. The scenes in the senate and Caesar’s speech to his legion before crossing the Rubicon gave me the chills. It was amazing in its dramatic scope. It doesn’t feel staged of faked. The cinematography and acting are excellent, but most importantly, the drama and scripting is brilliant. ROME is closer in spirit to Band of Brothers than it is to the Sopranos. The show is a mixture of the best of epic Hollywood filmmaking, small-scale TV drama and history.

Note: There are two TV series based on this period- The horrendous ABC six-part mini-series EMPIRE and HBO’s ROME. Both series are based around the fall of the republic and Caesar, but only HBO’s ROME is worth watching.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Microsoft wants to ‘Kill’ Google

Mark Lucovsky, a former Microsoft employee and a key Windows architect, who quit for Google in 2004 made the claim that Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer vowed to “kill Google” in a tirade against the company when the former Microsoft executive told Mr. Ballmer he was quitting for Google. This growing war between Google and Microsoft began when Google hired away a Microsoft executive in China. Microsoft claimed Google violated confidentiality agreements while Google charges Microsoft was trying to intimidate its executives by making them think twice before jumping ship.

Microsoft it seems can’t stand facing competitors who actually stand and fight dirty. Perhaps it had thought that after cutting off Netscape’s legs and steamrolling through the former Internet browser’s dominant market share that they could do the same thing with Google. The irony of the situation is that Google had stolen the search engine crown from right under Microsoft’s nose who was in the market for a longer time with its clunky MSN search engine. In recent months, MSN has looked more like Netscape and Google more like Microsoft in 1995. While Google innovated and won praise with its earth.google.com and maps.google.com satellite map services, g-mail, and a host of new features, Microsoft’s on-line services looked downright dated and clunky.

Hotmail accounts are still capped at 25 MB, while rival Yahoo already offers 1 Gigabyte free mailboxes with G-mail topping both with 2 Gigabyte + mailboxes. Microsoft’s answer to Google’s maps.google.com was nothing short of hilarious. Many users quickly pointed out how Microsoft was forced to use dated (often 30 year old) aerial photographs rather than satellite images because rival Google had bought up all the rights to use recent images for its earth.google service. This had the hilarious side effect of showing many existing houses as empty lots. Google fired the latest shot attacking the Microsoft’s messenger service with Google Talk, an on-line chat program allowing users to send e-mail, instant message and even talk anywhere in the world for free under the umbrella of a single chat program. It has been speculated that if Google decided to start an Internet service, it would be free and funded entirely by targeted local advertising.

The most important of all, Microsoft can’t take away Google’s revenue stream the way it did with Netscape. And the fact of the matter is, Google is doing everything for free and doing it better and faster than Microsoft. Microsoft’s old strong suit of slow and steady copying and pasting a rival’s features into its products seem broken and unwieldy when faced with Google. When Microsoft has copied something, Google has moved onto the next and is still doing the old thing better. Google’s plain, functional designs are superior to Microsoft’s elaborate but Byzantine and unstable programs.

If Microsoft wants to kill Google, it would have to do a lot better.

P.S. Don't forget to download Firefox.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Dog Days of Summer

Who would have thought? Nintendogs, Nintendo’s Tamagotchi, pet simulation, non-game, whatever you want to call it is probably the biggest surprise for the market this summer. Dismissed months before its release and mocked by hard-core gamers as a flop in waiting, Nintendogs has sold well over 500,000 copies in Japan. It has boosted the Nintendo DS’s fortunes as the DS continue to outsell the PSP by substantial margins on a weekly basis since late spring of this year.

When the game was preparing for launch in North America two weeks ago, the same people surfaced and made slightly revised but similar predictions. “Nintendogs was a success in Japan, but it’s a Japanese thing. It will never do well in North America.” Some predictions called for as little as 80,000 units sold in the first week. And for a while they seem to have been right. After all, the underlying assumption wasn’t completely made up. There are indeed strong cultural differences between Japan and North America. Games that do well here, mainly First Person Shooters, don’t do quite as well in Japan. And some genres, such as the PC strategy/god games don’t even show up on the radar of Japanese gaming. But the assumption is highly selective. Over the years, there have been several trans-pacific successes. The rise of the RPG as a major genre in North America, the success of Pokemon, the surprise success of Grand Theft Auto in Japan and the old stalwarts Sonic and Mario all point to underlying similarities and convergence of the gaming public in both territories.

So it might have surprised a few people when Nintendo of America announced this week that Nintendogs sold through 250,000 copies in North America in its first week on sale, selling to 15% of the Nintendo DS installed base. But this should be hardly surprising. The Nintendo DS has been cultivating an image that seems to make it appeal to female gamers and more casual gamers. This strategy did not win it many supporters in the hard-core community but it has translated into sales. Consider that hard-core community have previously supported games such as Radiant Silvergun, Phantom Brave and Psychonauts with what seemed like overwhelming praise on the Internet but none of that translated into strong sales. Even strong hard-core favorites that became sleeper hits, such as Nintendo's own Animal Crossing, took several months of steady sales to hit 300,000 units sold. Nintendogs is poised to break that mark in less than 2 weeks time. The game also sold more units in its first week than Advance Wars DS. The game was released in the same week and was a far more popular game among the hard-core DS owners.

If I can be cynical, it can be said the hard-core pundits no longer run the heart and minds of the industry and at best, they’re trendsetters for the early adopters and in a very limited capacity at that. Alternatively, we can also say that Nintendo has so successfully reached a new audience with the Nintendo DS that the hard-core pundits no longer have a good read of the industry when it comes to the DS but given our batting average with a number of games on the home consoles, it may be more appropriate to say that hard-cores no longer have a good read of the industry in general.

Lastly, I just received word that Cyan Worlds Inc., the studio famous for their Myst franchise has closed down, laying off every employee except for two people. I was never into Myst and I only have the Sega Saturn version of the game as a collectible. However, I’ve always admired the game. The game also holds a place in history as it will forever be tied up with the PC gaming scene of the early 90s and the nostalgic memories I have of gaming in general during that period. For more information, check out the Cyan FAQ as well as Grey Dragon’s blog.