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.


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.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Xbox One

I preordered the Xbox One Day One Edition just as soon as they rolled back their completely asinine policies. I had a few options available, many that would allow me to pick up the console on midnight of launch day. However, after attending the midnight launch of Halo 4 last year, I just feel like I'm getting way too old to deal with large, loud crowds for a video game. So I decided to preorder the console on Amazon.com and let them ship it to me. While it may seem trivial to skimp on shipping costs on a $500 item, money hasn't exactly been in strong supply lately, so I just couldn't bring myself to forgo the Super Saver Shipping. Besides, I rationalized, I could wait the extra 5-8 days, see what other people get and enjoy, and then pick up those games when my console finally did arrive.

I was fairly surprised, then, when the week of the console's launch arrived, and my shipping status updated to say I would receive my package the very day after launch. Maybe the fact that I had some other items on order had something to do with it — if they were ready to ship, Amazon's shipping algorithm might have just decided to release the Xbox One with it, since it was there and ready to go as well. In any case, it's not worth over-analyzing, because that just gets in the way of enjoying the fact that my Xbox One is here.

The Pros

Setting the console up was pretty straightforward. The initial 500MB download completed a lot faster than I expected for being on the day right after launch — it was done downloading within 10 minutes. (Still, extrapolate that to a 35GB game, and that would be over 11 hours — which is why I would never go all-digital when discs are still an option.) Even setting up my family was a lot easier than I expected. The Kinect sign-in function is amazingly quick, about as good as advertised. Someone will walk into the room, and the console will very quickly greet them, no matter what else is going on at the time. (I haven't quite figured out how logging out works, though, because when said person walks out of the room, their icon still appears on the dashboard, and it doesn't re-greet them when they walk back in.) Time will tell how well the Xbox identifies who's in control and to whom it should listen, and if my boys will play nicely together or be involved in a constant power struggle over control of the system.

Snap is a very nice feature. The ability to have an app snap to the side is one I can see using quite often. In some cases, it's like having the Xbox Guide in a persistent sidebar, like when you snap party controls. You can see instantly who is talking (theoretically — more on that later) and switch in and out of party chat very easily. The console responds pretty quickly and seamlessly to voice commands. I was originally worried that it wouldn't be intuitive how to switch control from the main to the snapped screen, but the solution of double-tapping the Xbox button is pretty easy to pick up.

Besides snap, the voice commands in general react pretty snappily, though sometimes you do have to repeat a command. I've noticed that happens most often when you're talking to someone else, like the console tunes you out and needs an extra pause and insistent "Xbox" before it realizes, "Oh, you're talking to me!" It's actually a pretty good safety — I've been able to have a conversation with someone and tell them about some commands like "Xbox Turn Off" without the console mistaking that I was talking to it instead. Also, once it decides to listen, it's been really good at listening only to one speaker for that moment. I tried starting the "listening" state and having my son try to give it a command, and it won't listen to him until it "times out" listening to me.

Video recording is extremely simple. All you have to say is "Xbox, record that", and the last 30s of video are stored as a video clip for use later. (There is a snappable app that gives you more advanced control of recording, if you so choose; but I haven't played with that yet.) Right now, it seems that it is only able to upload to SkyDrive, but it's pretty trivial to go to a PC and share that out to YouTube, Facebook, or wherever. Like so:

My wife was really impressed with the Xbox's ability to control our 8-year-old stereo system. After I told my Xbox what kind of receiver I had, I could just say, "Xbox, volume up" or "Xbox, volume down", and the Xbox blasted the IR remote signal to the stereo. (Reports say it uses the Kinect to do this, which I find really impressive, since the Kinect is about five feet directly above my stereo and still has no problem controlling it.)

I only have two games for the Xbox One so far. Killer Instinct looks and plays pretty good, I suppose. I wouldn't consider myself an aficionado of fighting games, so I can't really say it looks amazing or disappointing. Forza 5, on the other hand, looks spectacular. It also plays really well, not requiring intimate knowledge of how downforce from a precisely-tuned spoiler affects handling to have fun playing. (The last Forza game I played was Forza 2, which seemed to go way over my head when it came to playing the game to its fullest potential.) The "Drivatar" system is a pretty cool idea; I've been able to race against a lot of people on my friends list. The game also really shows off the new controller features. Feeling a very specific rumble in a trigger as you accelerate around a turn or the antilock brakes kick in is very immersive.

The Cons

Reviews of the console and the dashboard abound, so I won't go into too much detail about how it looks or works. It definitely looks nice, but it feels hard to find things. I think part of the problem is that it's rather familiar to the Xbox 360 interface, so mentally, I expect to find certain things in certain places. However, there are enough differences that, when I try to look for something, it's not where I expect, and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out where things are.

The Xbox One reports my network as a "strict NAT", which typically is not a positive when it comes to online gaming. I find this rather odd, though. My router has a uPnP service running, which should allow any device to request a port be opened for external connections. This service has served the Xbox 360 well — usually, the 360 only reports a problem if the uPnP service has crashed, and all I have to do is restart it for everything to be fine again. Indeed, if I check the log files, I can see that the Xbox One does request ports be opened using the uPnP service, and I can even verify that the ports do in fact get opened as requested. So why the Xbox One would think my NAT layer is "strict" is beyond me. It may or may not also be the cause of some of the problems that follow.

Party chat has been problematic. When I have tried using a party, selecting "Start Party Chat" will either put me in party chat but unable to talk to or hear anyone, or it will say "Cannot start Party Chat, try again later." It is nice that you can be in a party without requiring a connection to party chat, but the fact that it isn't working for me makes it difficult to coordinate a match.

Skype is definitely an option to work around that, except that it only appears to be half-baked. It doesn't appear as a snappable app, which means you can only use it on the main screen. It will, at least, run in the background, so you can use it to talk while doing other things. However, it does not suppress game chat while using Skype. That could be good or bad, depending on your specific situation; but when a friend and I were chatting with Skype and managed to get in the same multiplayer lobby, we were talking to each other both on Skype and in the game, and heard each other echo — not exactly ideal. And then there was the little problem that, after failing Party Chat and wanting to go back to Skype, it refused to start up, stuck on the "Skype blue" starting screen. (Perhaps the "blue screen of death" isn't gone after all.)

Speaking of half-baked and crashing apps, the Netflix experience has been less than ideal so far. The app itself takes an abnormally long time to launch. (Once, the Xbox actually came up and said "Netflix has taken too long to launch and will be shut down." Even the Xbox lost patience with it, apparently.) As the family and I were watching a few episodes of a Disney show, after the fifth episode, I got a message saying "Netflix has encountered a problem and will be shut down." Back at the dashboard, I tried to launch the app again, but it took only a few seconds before it apparently crashed and the dashboard reloaded.

We were able to use the Party feature successfully for joining the same Forza 5 game, but Killer Instinct refused to cooperate — although the console notification said the other player was added to the game, the game never seemed to acknowledge this. How the game permits this seems to be very game-dependent (Forza 5, for instance, popped up an in-game prompt asking if I wanted to join the game that another party member got into), so whether this is a system failure or a bug in the game itself, I'm not sure. It does seem like it's a little more complicated than the old system of just finding a friend and saying "Join Game" or "Invite to Game", like they tried to automate the procedure. From my very limited experience so far, it seems like it's going to be harder to deal with.

When Party Chat was failing, I reverted to sending a standard message to my friend to try to coordinate. I was a little surprised to see that I could only send a text message — the option to send a voice message is nonexistent. I haven't yet set up my network to allow SmartGlass to work, so I couldn't use my phone as a keyboard (my phone was in another room charging anyway). Some kind of predictive text entry like they have on the Windows Phone, or even Bing-powered voice-to-text (again, like they have on the Windows Phone), would be more than welcome here. I've gotten used to having my Xbox 360 Chatpad, and that doesn't work with the One.

There were a handful of launch games, but some of them were released digitally, like LocoCycle and Crimson Dragon. If these are representative of the future of digital titles, it makes me a little concerned. The games are $20 each, more than typical of what we've come to expect from the Xbox 360 Live Arcade (although those titles seem to have been migrating towards the $15 average instead of the $5–$10 where it started). What's even more concerning, though, is that none of them seem to offer a free trial. One of the benchmarks I used to use for XBLA games is that I would download the trial version, and if I felt myself continuing to come back to it over some period of time, I'd decide to buy the full version. Can't do that with any of these titles. Maybe demos and trials will come back when developers aren't rushing to get their titles out for launch, but it's not a good sign.

The software seems to take this idea of "apps" to an extreme. When I want to view my friends list, it's not a function I just call up and get a list on the screen; I have to launch (or snap) the Friends app, which gives me full-screen-sized pages of information. It seems like overkill. What's even worse are notifications and achievements. Get the bleep-bloop and want to see what it was you just did to unlock that achievement? It suspends the game as it pulls up the full-screen view of the achievement, downloading a full picture to display with it. It's very pretty, sure, but again, when all I want is just to quickly see the description of how I just unlocked whatever it was, it feels like I have to completely step outside of what I was doing to launch this full-screen app just to do that one little thing.

The Conclusion

The Xbox One has a lot of potential. Being able to multitask and snap different apps, and a Party feature that is more aware of what game you're playing, gives just a taste of how well it can work. But it doesn't feel quite finished. Features are missing (like the ability to snap Skype or to stream gameplay), and some just don't work quite yet. Still, Microsoft has established a history with the Xbox 360 of being able to evolve and improve the console over time, and I think the majority of these complaints will just be early adopter woes long forgotten. And, to be honest, I knew I would be seeing these early issues by jumping in on day one. Still, I look forward to seeing this system evolving and getting more comfortable with it myself, and I can't wait to play Titanfall and Halo 5 on this baby next year.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

This is why EA sucks

Electronic Arts has the dubious distinction of being named the Worst Company in America for two years running by The Consumerist. The company, as The Consumerist notes on the page announcing the award, is known for "treating [their] customers like human piggy banks" and "[putting] out so many incomplete and/or broken games with the intent of getting [their] customers to pay extra for what they should have received in the first place." Their response, titled "We Can Do Better", doesn't really sound like they're terribly apologetic or inclined to change, let alone that they resort to blaming their award at least in part on anti-gay protests against their homosexual-gamer-friendly stance (simple things like allowing players to choose their gender and the gender of their in-game romantic interest). Indeed, they're still going down the same old familiar road of treating customers like piggy banks and releasing buggy code.

I've been playing their free-to-play game on my Windows Phone called Tetris Blitz. It is, quite simply, Tetris, turned into a game that is a little more touch-friendly, with some gameplay mechanics that encourage speed. You are given two minutes to play a round, with the goal of trying to attain the highest score possible in that time limit.

In order to make it work well on a touch screen and not have to precisely hit a virtual control pad to place blocks, Tetris Blitz simplifies things a bit by giving you a choice of final positions for your block. You simply tap the position where you want the block to rest, and the game does the work of sliding it down and rotating as necessary. It feels just a little cheap, as if they've "dumbed down" Tetris, but it does help enforce the idea of speed. There are ways to override the position — you can tap the "Cycle" button to show a different selection of landing positions, or you can tap and drag to move the white outline to a new position — but neither of these are terribly helpful when you're trying to race against the clock — there's no way to tell how many taps of "Cycle" will be required to get what you want, and it seems to take a bit to acknowledge that you are dragging and not just tapping for an abnormally long time.

During the game, if you clear a number of lines in quick succession, the game will start adding rows of bricks from the bottom of the screen, with one piece missing. During this "Frenzy mode", you can drop pieces into these missing holes to clear even more lines. Frenzy mode continues as long as you can keep clearing lines, giving you a chance to get some extra points. At the end of the time limit, a "Last Hurrah" play drops all bricks into any open holes on the screen, usually clearing another few lines. The game also adds power-ups to make things more interesting. Some power-ups will give you a score boost, and some will create or destroy blocks in different ways. Finishers are special abilities you can select that will automatically play when the game ends, giving you the potential to clear some extra lines or otherwise boost your score. Power-ups and Finishers are purchased using "coins", fairly standard in-game currency that you earn by playing or can purchase using real-world dollars, like most free-to-play games.

But the cost of these items are a little ridiculous.

A single game typically earns you less than 1,000 coins, depending on your score. (I usually get somewhere between 400 and 700 on the scores I get without using any power-ups or finishers.) Experience points can earn you levels, and each level can give you a coin bonus roughly, though not exactly, 100 times the level (I think I earned around 1,750 coins upon reaching level 18). A "Press Your Luck" style board (though with only prizes, no Whammies), for which you can earn a spin 4 hours after you've used them up, can earn you some extra coins as well (usually one or two thousand, though 25-, 50-, and 100-thousand scores are possible). However, a single use of a finisher (such as the one pictured to the right) can cost between 20,000 and 40,000 coins! To entice you to spend more coins, using finishers multiple games in a row gets you a discount (usually down to around 14,000 coins), but it's very easy to run out of coins if you're not paying attention. A potential hazard to this is how the buttons happen to be positioned. Again, if you look at the picture, you can see there isn't a whole lot of distance between the "Deploy" and "No Thanks" buttons, and the negative button is also substantially smaller than the positive. To the game's credit, it hasn't mistaken my tapping on "No Thanks" as a tap on the other button, and I haven't been particularly careful about it either.

Shown at the right is the store, where you can see the real craziness. The top of the list, "Bundles", are packs that contain batches of coins and a few uses of different power-ups and finishers. Then you have "Coins", containing bunches of coins from a modest $2 to a ridiculous $100. (I have to wonder how many of these large batches of currency sold for $50 and up are purchased on purpose, as opposed to an accidental tap or an errant click from a child — fortunately, on Windows Phone, purchases can be locked behind a wallet password.) Then come the "Upgrades". By default, in Tetris Blitz, you can "hold" one tetromino to play later instead of being forced to play them as they are dealt, and you get to see what the very next piece is. Here, in the store, you can alter that just a bit by buying the ability to hold up to 2 pieces, and to look ahead and see what the next 3 pieces are. They aren't major game changers, but considering the first costs $6 and the second $4, you could easily spend what I would consider more than fair price for the game just on these two little tweaks. (At least, I certainly wouldn't pay ten bucks for Tetris on the phone.) "Bonus Spins" just give you extra chances at the spin board (pictured left) without having to wait 4 hours per spin. (Each time you spin, that space is removed from the board, which resets every 48 hours; so 20 spins would guarantee you winning one of every prize on the board.) "Power-Ups" is where it gets really ridiculous. Each one costs an insane $6, except for one that is on sale for the week for half price. (Note that, for some reason, the "Sale" label is not on the power-up that is actually on sale — in the store picture, "Lucky Seven" is the one with the reduced price, even though it says "Multiplier" is on sale. A minor display glitch, I suppose.) For all ten power-ups, that would end up costing SIXTY DOLLARS. (If each power-up manages to go on sale, you could knock that down to a mere $30, spreading payment out over 10 weeks.) $60, for power-ups. And I'm not entirely sure you get to keep them. Tapping the "Power-Up of the Week" shows the screen pictured to the right, which includes the text "Add it to your collection now and use it FREE for the rest of the week!" I want to believe it means, when you buy it with cash, you don't have to use in-game coins to activate it that week, but you may have to use coins to activate it beyond that (even then, it doesn't seem like the cash purchase is all that useful, unless you really like playing that power up a lot); the cynical side of me thinks you only get to use it that week and have to pay cash again.

The final two entries are one to remove ads for only $5 (I guess ad revenue isn't worth that much to them, especially compared to the other prices listed), and an option to "Restore Previous Purchases", which, without any description available, I guess would make sure you got things you once paid for, if you had to reinstall or switch phones or something.

As far as bugs, the major one I found is that the game freezes quite often, anywhere from 2 to 15 seconds at a time, and occasionally freezing completely (and, on one occasion, freezing up the whole phone to where I had to pull the battery). I'm guessing it might have something to do with failing to tolerate network instability, as it happens much less when I'm connected to my home Wi-Fi compared to just running on the cellular network. The worst part about the freezing is, when the game recovers, the time spent frozen is deducted off the clock. Since each game is only 2 minutes long, you could easily be cheated out of a tenth of the game time. It's especially annoying when you get to the final few seconds and are trying to score points as quickly as possible, only to have the game freeze with those final seconds on the clock, and come back reading "0:00". When your game is based on time and speed, and your code is badly written to the point it takes time away in typical operating conditions, you've done something wrong.

[UPDATE 28 Oct] — A title update was published just this past weekend, and the freezing issues when running on Wi-Fi seem to have been fixed. The "macro-transactions" remain as costly as ever, though.

As-is, Tetris Blitz just proves what The Consumerist said about them: they squeeze their customers for every penny they can get, and the code isn't always worth it.

I will give Tetris Blitz some credit, though. As long as you ignore the pleas for spending money, and don't stress the inability to get the highest possible score thanks to losing out on several seconds of the timed game, it's not that bad. There are certainly worse ways to waste time on the phone. Plus, it's free, and since it's an Xbox Live game, it has achievements, almost all of them attainable fairly quickly and without an unreasonable level of effort.

[UPDATE 26 Nov] — a couple weeks ago, they updated it yet again, it looks like to fix some issues with some of the featured power ups. But the game is even more unstable than before, taking several attempts just to launch the thing, occasionally crashing on its own. Definitely not worth the download at this point. The only reason I'm keeping it around is that last stupid grinding achievement.