Thursday, December 15, 2016

Physical vs. Digital

I created this list in response to a Reddit post once, and I thought it would be worth keeping around. If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you probably know by now that I don't have a very high opinion of "digital distribution" when it comes to video games (i.e., games that are sold without any physical medium, just downloaded over the internet via your account). But to prove that I don't think it's completely useless, I have a list of the pros and cons of each. I may update this list as new information comes to light.

Note that this list was created in the Xbox One subreddit, so some of these items may be specific to that platform.

Physical Discs

Advantages
  • You can loan, rent, share, sell, or give away discs, to anyone at any time.
  • You can return the game to the store if it doesn't work, or if the purchase was accidental. [Though Microsoft will be allowing digital returns within 14 days and under 2 hours of play soon.]
  • You can play them on any Xbox at any time, no matter who is signed in.
  • Installing is faster, since the bits are installed from the disc instead of downloaded over the internet. (Though large day-one patches that have to be downloaded may negate this advantage somewhat.)
  • If your account is stolen, hacked, or banned, you still have your games.
  • If Xbox Live goes down at any point in the future, your ability to play your games won't go with it. (The ongoing support of 360 games suggests this won't happen anytime soon; though history shows it has happened before.)
  • Prices in physical stores tend to decay over time, as retailers try to move inventory.
Disadvantages
  • If the disc is lost, broken, or stolen, your license to play is gone.
  • Can't simultaneously share a single copy with more than one person.
  • Have to change discs to change games. (While this may not seem huge when you're physically at the console, it's much bigger if you're away from the console, like with the streaming to Windows 10 feature.)
  • In order to play the game on any console (e.g., visiting a friend), you must bring the disc.

Digital Downloads

Advantages
  • No physical item to lose/maintain.
  • One copy of the game can be played on two consoles simultaneously — the one you're signed in on, and the one you've chosen as your "home console". (Although this isn't strictly endorsed by Microsoft as a way to share with someone outside of your household, they have so far turned a blind eye to this "game sharing".)
  • Not having to insert the disc to play. (The Windows 10 Xbox app feature of being able to remotely connect to your Xbox, start a game, and stream it to your PC or tablet, makes this even more convenient, as the disc doesn't have to be in the drive already.)
  • You can purchase (and in many cases, pre-purchase) games, and the console will automatically download and install them, instead of waiting for you to insert the disc before it can install.
  • If you sign in on any console, you can download and install the game and play it there (without having to bring along a physical disc).
  • Any console that has the game installed already, you can play it on when you sign in (as long as you're connected to Live).
  • Some titles you can purchase once and have the ability to download/play on multiple platforms (Xbox "Play Anywhere" titles that can be played on the Xbox and PC).
Disadvantages
  • You cannot transfer the license to another person, temporarily or permanently.
  • Officially, no refunds — all sales are final. (Some have managed to get refunds from Microsoft on some occasions, but it can be dependent upon a roll of the dice as to what customer support person you end up talking to, and whether or not you've had to ask more than once.) [Though Microsoft will be allowing digital returns within 14 days and under 2 hours of play soon.]
  • The license to play is limited to at most two consoles at any one time — your "home console", and the console on which you're signed in. It cannot be shared with someone (other than you) on a third console, unless you sign in there yourself, too.
  • If you reassign your "home console" to a friend (i.e., use this feature as a form of game sharing), you can't play your own games if your internet connection goes down.
  • If your account is stolen, hacked, or banned, you lose access to your games.
  • Microsoft can revoke your license to play at any time. (Some people got lucky enough to "buy" a digital game for a deep or complete discount from the digital store due to an error on the website, only to find the game purchase revoked when the error was corrected — even though the item was downloaded, they could no longer play it. Xbox Fitness content that was purchased, was inaccessible when Microsoft discontinued the service.)
  • Prices for digital versions do not decay over time as quickly or as frequently as their physical counterparts. (It's not unusual to see an item of downloadable content never go on sale from its original price.)

For me, it's all about simplicity and freedom — the ability to share my content with my family any way I choose, without having to manage my licenses via some external party. As it stands now, if I wanted to put an Xbox in what we call the "teen room", no one there would be able to play anything I bought digitally. (Unless I made that my "home console" — but then no one would be able to use anything I bought digitally on the main TV in the family room.) Consoles in my house are not personal devices. They are shared, family devices; and anything that restricts my ability to share content with my family across those shared devices isn't a convenience, it's a hindrance.

Updated May 2017 to include Microsoft's new policy on returns of digital games.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Extra Life, Round 2

Yep, I'm doing it again. Coming up this weekend, I'll be doing another marathon for Extra Life. This one, though, will be a 25-hour marathon, since we traditionally end at the same time Sunday as we start Saturday, and this year's event falls on the same weekend as the travesty known as Daylight Saving Time. (So much for that extra hour of sleep.)

Once again, you can donate to the cause at Extra-Life.org/participant/CyberKnight, and watch me play on Twitch at Twitch.tv/GamertagCyberKnight. This year, I'm planning on playing the entire Gears of War series from the Xbox 360. I've never played them before (besides just a couple levels of the first game), so it'll be a learning experience. The game is also heavier on language and violence than the Halo series, so viewer discretion is advised. ;)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Help the kids get a life... an Extra Life!

About six years ago, one of my boys ended up in the hospital with a "mystery disease" that kept him there for five weeks. It was a pretty traumatic experience, with all of the tests that were never 100% conclusive. (Even the disease they're pretty sure he had, and given that he responded to the treatment for that disease, the tests still didn't fully match the markers established for it.) Long story short, he's alive thanks to the work of the doctors at the Children's Hospital here in Denver.

The Extra Life foundation was established as a way for gamers to give to the community by raising money for the Children's Miracle Network hospitals. It's long been on my to-do list to get involved, and this year, I've finally made the commitment to join in.

Starting on Saturday, November 7th, I will be doing a 24-hour marathon to raise money for the Children's Hospital of Colorado. You can help by sponsoring me here: http://www.extra-life.org/participant/cyberknight. I will be streaming much of my marathon live on my Twitch channel, where you can watch me try to stay awake for 24 hours.

Please help me help the kids, and tune in on November 7th! Thank you for your support.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Building the Covenant Scarab

Two years ago, I built the Halo Mega Bloks set Forward Unto Dawn, and I documented the building process for fun. Recently, I got my hands on the Scarab building set, and I decided to do the same thing.

The set is a record 3,340 pieces — beating the previous two sets, the Mammoth and the Forward Unto Dawn by a decent margin. It comes in a roughly 15lb box that is about as tall but not quite as wide as that of the Dawn. Inside the lid is a picture of the set in an "action shot" with some special effects (laser blasts and explosions) added. Two boxes contained the parts, and the instruction manual was underneath.

The parts came in 34 numbered bags, two larger bags that themselves contained smaller bags of parts (not numbered), one variety of plates that was completely loose, and one tiny bag that had replacement parts for the Jackals' forearms. (The simple instructions included with those indicated that I was to remove the forearms that came on the Jackals, throw them away, and replace them with these. To be honest, I couldn't tell any difference between the parts I tossed and the replacements.)

All pieces, and the one that's missing (inset, left)
The first task, as always, is to open all of the bags, sort and count all the pieces, and compare the counts with the counts in the manual. I've come up with a decent system over the years, that involves taking pictures of the piece counts in the manual and importing them into OneNote. As I open a bag, I sort and count the pieces, and then scribble over the count in my OneNote picture when the counts match (or circle them with the actual count number for later). Although there's not much of a correlation between the pieces in the bags and the order the pieces appear in the manual, it is probably the easiest way I've come up with to do it. Alas, of the 3,340 pieces required, I was short one piece of one type. Although I've collected quite a few spare parts from other sets over the years, there were none that would substitute for this one. So, I put my replacement order in on the website, and then set about the monumental task of building this thing.

The instructions are divided into sections, and the first gives me a nice, quick "win": building the Prophet of Truth's hologram. The next sections constructed the legs. The nice thing about the leg construction is that each set — the front pair and the back pair — are identical; so I just had to do each step twice. On the one hand, it's a little disappointing that there isn't a little more variety in construction; but on the other hand, it was much more satisfying to build them than to build one full set of instructions for one piece, and then build a whole new set of instructions for the other piece that was simply mirrored from the first.

The following section was for the top turret, but I decided to leaf through the pages and see if my missing piece was featured in this section. Seeing a step that required that piece, I decided to skip it and move on to building the body. As I was pretty confident that I would not be able to complete the entire build in one Saturday, I preferred this order anyway — I figured I could get most of the pieces accounted for, and when I had to clean up at the end of the day, I would have to deal with fewer loose pieces to try and keep organized.

The build was long, but mostly uneventful. My biggest difficulty was this step:

Steps like these are extremely difficult to deal with, because it requires a large collection of pieces to fit precisely over another large collection of pieces, and they are never a perfect fit. This particular step took me several attempts at getting it to fit, including some shoving and slipping and causing a corner of a block to take a chunk of skin off of my hand. The Mammoth had a similar step, but that one wasn't as difficult as this. What I found particularly annoying is, it could very easily have been rewritten to build up upon the existing base instead of building the full plate and trying to attach it all at once. I know this because, when I got it almost on but had to adjust the fit on one side, I ended up ripping it apart a bit and was able to put it on in a couple pieces.

This build loses some more points for having another similar step a little later (though a smaller area made it not as difficult as this).

One thing that surprised me was the lack of a sticker sheet. I didn't feel that there were too many details missing without them, and to be honest, I wasn't too disappointed with the omission. The stickers have a tendency to curl up around the edges and tend to be more of a pain to put on than they're worth, to be honest.

The completed build stands taller than the Dawn and much larger than the Mammoth.

Overall, I'd give the Scarab a 7/10. Most of the build isn't too difficult, it's just long. The difficult build step noted above was even more disappointing in that it makes a rather large interior section almost completely inaccessible, as you can see in the pictures below (disappointing if you want to recreate the Scarab boarding scene from Halo 2). There are other details that seem wrong, such as the exclusion of turrets on the sides (that are essential for taking one of these bad boys down in Halo 3), and the power core mounted just a little higher than it should be. The knees don't bend, either -- though, to be honest, I doubt they could have realistically built those joints and have them hold the weight of the body. They are fairly limited in their range of movement, though (again, probably to maintain some semblance of structural integrity), which makes it very difficult to find a place to display the thing. With my wife's help, I did manage to find a bookshelf on top of which it could actually fit; though in my quest to find a suitable home, I did end up bumping the legs on a wall, only to hear one of the pieces of "knee armor" rattle behind the bookshelf and out of sight. I hope to find it again someday….

The Prophet on his throne

Rear view, the "inaccessible" area is at the bottom

The panel over the cockpit can be easily removed

The business end of the Scarab

Side view. Note the lack of a plasma turret on the sides.

The cover of the upper deck folds up easily, revealing weapon storage and the ramp to the inaccessible area below.

The Achilles' Heel 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Titanfall: Achievement Locked

Few things are quite as frustrating to an achievement hunter than meeting the requirements for an achievement, and having it not unlock. All too often, when it happens, there is very little you can do about it. You have to hope that the developers care enough to be bothered to fix it, or that someone, somewhere, happens to find something that you can do to trick the game code into re-analyzing the achievement's criteria and make another attempt at popping it.

Kingdoms and Lords

I've had this issue with two games very recently. One, a simple city-building game for the Windows Phone called Kingdoms and Lords, actually has several achievements that may or may not unlock. You must build armies and attack certain "bosses" in the game, and the defeat of each one unlocks an achievement. Usually. Any one of the boss achievements could completely fail to unlock. If you do not know this ahead of time and are not paying attention, you could very easily move on to the next task and save your game at a point after the boss is defeated. Because that's the only way you can get the achievement to unlock — by reverting to your previous save point and replaying the final battle. While you can replay the battle at any future time, it doesn't count it as defeating the boss again, and the game will not re-evaluate the achievement and attempt to award it. The only alternative is to completely restart the game — but, since it's a typical free-to-play game that only allows a certain number of "turns" per day, it can take quite a bit of time to rebuild back to the point of the boss in question.

Titanfall

The other game in question is a much higher-profile game, Titanfall. This pride and joy of the Xbox One has been widely viewed as the first big reason to get a next-generation Xbox console. You can earn experience points to level-up your character to level 50, at which point you can "regenerate" and start over at level 1, doing it over again until you regenerate 10 times. There are two achievements that are closely related: Maxed Out for reaching level 50, and My Generation for regenerating and starting the next cycle. I say "closely related" because reaching level 50 is the requirement for being able to regenerate, so once you earn Maxed Out, you have the ability to hit a button, regenerate, and pop My Generation.

To fuel the fire, they have added a challenge called Early Adopter, for which you must reach level 50 in the game's first month (by the end of March 2014). Ideally, reaching level 50 within that time frame would pop both the achievement and the challenge.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work out that way in practice. Some time in the last week of the month, I reached level 50, and neither the achievement nor the challenge popped. In researching this issue, I've found I'm not alone, but sometimes things can be done to have the game reevaluate the criteria and pop it. Some have said that it pops on its own after playing a few games. Some have suggested hard-rebooting the console. Still others have noticed it pop after regenerating.

I've hard-reset my console already (since the Xbox One can't seem to go a week without needing to do that for some reason or another). I also played many games since then. There is another achievement for completing all weapon challenges to unlock all accessories. Since I was very close when I hit level 50, and since regenerating resets those challenges, I decided to play until I unlocked those items first. Ultimately, I did earn that achievement — but the Maxed Out achievement and Early Adopter challenge remained locked.

I even went above and beyond the call of duty in trying to re-trigger an achievement analysis. I deleted my saved game data, deleted the game off of my hard drive, and re-installed. I was a little concerned that it would lose my level progress, but I found that I need not have worried — as soon as I started the game, it showed a message that it was syncing with the servers, and I had my level 50 and all challenge progress and item unlocks back. Unfortunately, my achievement and challenge were still locked.

It is almost insulting to pull up your achievement progress and have it say "100%" next to the word "Locked".

I played one more game at level 50, and then decided to go ahead and regenerate. The My Generation achievement unlocked like clockwork, and I was back at level 1. So now my achievement history shows that I did regenerate on March 29th, somehow, apparently, without reaching level 50.

I have read from random internet commenters that the achievement does sometimes unlock when reaching level 50 the second time around. However, I doubt that I will be able to accomplish this in the last two days of the month, and so, despite having met the requirement, the challenge will likely remain forever locked.

It's not really a big deal, since challenges are not counted with achievements and earn no gamerscore; and as long as Maxed Out does unlock when I reach level 50 again, I will still get my points and may possibly "complete" the game. But it is just generally annoying that I've done what I'm supposed to do, and I get no credit for it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Xbox Fail

March promised to be a big month for the Xbox One. The first exclusive FPS, Titanfall, was due to release. At the same time, the promised feature to stream gameplay live via Twitch.tv, a feature the PlayStation 4 had at launch, would be released for the Xbox. Additionally, a system update would bring some much-needed improvements to the party system, bringing back features taken for granted since they existed on the Xbox 360 for years; and an update for the controllers that would enable an adapter accessory for that proprietary audio port to allow for standard headsets. The Xbox One was finally going to make its mark in the new generation gaming space.

The system update was pretty well-received. Joining a party now turned on party chat by default, and parties were no longer assumed to be all for one game. Options like sending a party or game invite were introduced at the system level, instead of requiring digging into a game's menu system to find it. The Friends app starts up faster (though it still can't be snapped for some reason), and it can now show you recent players. Overall, it is much better, closer to where the 360 was and where the One should've started.

My main complaint is that I still have difficulty joining parties or connecting to party chats, because my Xbox One still thinks my NAT is "strict" — despite the fact that I can use either of my 360s and have "open" NAT on the same network, if not at the same time. Sometimes, I can run the multiplayer network test in the Settings app, and after running it two or more times, it will think my NAT is open (and my party and game connection issues disappear), but that doesn't always work.

In summary, I'm very happy with the new party system, if network issues didn't keep me from using it.

The Twitch.tv app looked cool. Industry insiders that had the opportunity to play with the new app ahead of release praised its ease of use, superior UI, and higher quality compared to the PS4's offering. It was released to the public the day before Titanfall, and since I opted not to spend my evening standing in line for a midnight launch, I decided to try out this streaming feature myself.

Ultimate Fail.

Setting it up seemed simple enough. Log in to the app and use an activation key to tie it to a Twitch account, not altogether unlike tying a device to a Netflix account. And saying "Xbox, broadcast" snaps the app in broadcast mode, ready to go.

But then it doesn't work.

The best it manages is to actually display the broadcast preview and the game title for a few seconds, though sometimes it doesn't even do that much. Selecting "Start Broadcast" brings up a message saying it is testing the network connection, and then goes right back to the previous screen. If the preview and the game title existed before, it's replaced with a blank window and the message "Unknown game" (which it would already say in the majority of the cases that it doesn't manage to show the preview and actual game title first).

The worst part about this is, the system is now in an unstable state. If you unsnap or close the broadcast tab, and then later try to run the Twitch app full-screen, it claims it is still in "broadcast mode". If you try to close the app by hitting the menu button on the tile from the Home screen, it may or may not appear to close the app — but trying to launch the Twitch app again will reveal it thinks it's still running in broadcast mode.

And then it gets worse. Trying to start any other app, including Friends or Settings, will usually simply fail (though launching games works fine). And trying to shut the system off will result in it hanging, with the power light on the console flashing on a several second delay, and the Kinect turning on and off slowly. If you have it set up to turn off your TV and/or A/V receiver, it will do this first, but you can turn your TV on and see the Xbox One's output is still very much alive, though you can't control it — any controllers will be flashing their Xbox button like they're trying to find the Xbox One, and the Kinect responds to neither voice nor gesture. The only solution is to hold the power button down for several seconds until it forces the Xbox completely off.

An Xbox Support forum post shows I am not alone with this problem, and the suggestion of uninstalling the app and its data, and reinstalling, doesn't work for everyone, including me.

The biggest fail, however, was yet to come.

Starting at about 4pm my local time, the Xbox Live service was unavailable for signing in on the Xbox One. (For some reason, this did not affect the Xbox.com website, the Windows Phone, Windows PCs, or even the Xbox 360.) The service remained down for several hours, coming back online just barely before 9pm. I was able to use the time to install my copy of Titanfall (which required an 800MB update, which the Xbox seemed to be able to get to and download despite the lack of a sign-in service), but I was struck by how much I could not do with the Xbox One without that service.

Attempting to sign in brought up the message pictured here.

What I found particularly disturbing by this is, it wouldn't let me do anything with my profile. I can understand not being able to play online, but I was not even allowed to play anything locally, at least not with my game saves or profile. I tried starting Killer Instinct, and it offered to let me play without saving any progress, but the other option of signing into a profile led straight back to that same error message. If I wanted to play Skylanders Swap Force, assuming it had the "play without a profile" option, I would be starting the game from scratch and not saving anything — certainly far less than desirable than picking up my current campaign playthrough. Attempting to start the Netflix app brought up the message "Can't connect to Netflix" — a statement provably less-than-true, since my son was watching Netflix on a laptop in another room.

I wasn't on a submarine, I wasn't in a middle-America town with shoddy internet, and my internet and electricity were still on. And yet, the Xbox One servers were unavailable and the console was virtually unplayable, despite any assurance to the contrary (unless you count having to create an all-new local-only profile (can you even do that anymore?) and starting all your games over from scratch).

I still have hope for the Xbox One, but I would be lying if I didn't admit it has been a major disappointment so far. At least Titanfall is fun to play, but the system still has a long way to go. If Titanfall is the system-seller that we expect it to be, these faults are going to be in front of a lot more eyes, and Microsoft would do well to correct them as soon as possible, before it's too late and the Xbox goes the way of the Zune.

Monday, December 9, 2013

My video channel on YouTube

For your gaming enjoyment and amusement, I have created a channel on YouTube for my videos. You can catch all the action here.