Saturday, July 26, 2008

Home is where the heart is

Just because I'm an Xbox fanboy doesn't mean I automatically assume anything on other consoles is junk. I take a good, hard look at the pros and cons of each feature, and then I declare it junk. ;)

I've been interested to see where the PlayStation Home feature will go (besides pushed back further and further to an unspecified date in the future). I think it's an interesting idea, trying to capitalize on the popularity of things like Second Life. But just how useful is it? If it were available today on a console that I owned, would I be dying to spend time there? Or would I just see it as getting in the way of my games?

I noticed an article on The Escapist by Susan Arendt, who was treated to a tour of Home at E3 2008. Her conclusion? "I still don't get [it]." From what she described, Home centers around these sponsor-themed areas, which seem to be focused on driving advertising to the players. It does provide a way to meet up with people, play mini-games, get together to launch full games, and so forth. Although personal spaces have been talked about before, Ms. Arendt doesn't mention it in her article. Whether they're still there or not, her report seems to indicate that the focus is on advertising-themed areas. And it all seemed open.

I have to agree with her assessment about "not getting it". I'm not sure it'd be somewhere I'd want to "hang out", either. As it is, I get plenty of "hanging out" in the in-game lobbies of Halo or Call of Duty between games — which is, after all, why I have a game console in the first place, to play games.

So anyway, I just finished a long night of Halo, jumping around from party to party of Geezers, occasionally playing by myself until I found an open party of Geezers, musing about my friends list and how it's filling up again with some new GG members, when suddenly it occurred to me. I suddenly realized exactly what Home should be.

Home should be filled with community-driven sites (houses, buildings, bars, whatever the paradigm is). Perhaps these sites could have memberships, to control the population and protect against "griefers" — how sites are created, who owns them, and who could control who is and is not a member would have to be worked out somehow. Then these spaces would have people who share more than just a passing interest in a particular brand name; they'd have a sense of community, and want to hang out there. Advertising space could still be sold, but it could be open to ads that cater to a much broader demographic than just the "Uncharted Theme House". Give these communities some control over how their house is run, and they'll be more than glad to hang out there.

From my world view: I don't spend a lot of time on the corporate page; I spend my time socializing on the forum. How useful it would be if I could log on to my console, wander into the "Geezer Gamers" house, see who's playing what and who's hanging out waiting to play, and go from there. And if there were bulletin boards where schedules could be posted, or tournament information specific to the house, with an integrated web site for when I wasn't in front of my console...

I think Sony has it backwards. Home shouldn't be advertiser-driven; it should be community-driven.

Of course, now my big hope is that Microsoft sees this, steals the Home idea from Sony and flips it right-way-around for the 360, because that's the console I own. ;)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Crosswords on a console?

Released to Xbox Live Arcade this last week was Coffeetime Crosswords. Because Arcade games have a trial option, I downloaded this to see how it would work. I usually love that feature of Xbox Live Arcade, because it gives me the chance to try out games that I would never risk my hard earned cash on. In this case, though, I'll make an exception. I wish I never even had a chance to try this one.

I already had some doubts about how a crossword puzzle would work with a controller, but it seriously seemed like they tried to make the interface as clumsy as possible.

A few things were done right. You can use the stick to move around the puzzle, or press the triggers to jump from word to word sequentially, and a quick tap of X switches between across and down. Then a tap of A (I think it was A) brings up the letter input wheel.

"Ah ha", I thought. "This is like Shadowrun. Or even that Buku Sudoku game. I just push the stick in the direction of the letter on the wheel I want and..." Bzzt. Wrong. Pushing the stick, you see, moves you around the puzzle. To input letters, you have to use the bumpers to cycle around the wheel until you get to the letter you want, and select it. Only half the letters are visible at a time, so you either cycle around to the "switch" option to switch it from A-M and N-Z, or you press and hold both bumpers for a second or two.

"Well, that's awfully inconvenient," I thought. "Fortunately, I have a chatpad attached to my controller with a full keyboard. I'll just use that to type the letters I want." Bzzt, wrong again. The chatpad is completely not supported. Nothing happens when you type letters.

The time required to enter the answer for "a Hawaiian feast", the short word "LUAU" (which requires flipping the letter wheel back and forth for each letter) — that alone was enough to make me delete this game with prejudice.

I don't think a user interface has ever before made me quite so angry so quickly. I quite nearly felt insulted.

Even if they added keyboard or chatpad support, I'm still not convinced that a console is the best place for a crossword puzzle. Buku Sudoku was, by contrast, pretty well done (although it did expose the flaw in my controller, in that it doesn't recenter itself from a slight drift left — apparently a common problem, and a big issue in navigating the sudoku board), but I still wouldn't play that on a 360 when I have a PC. Even the most basic of freeware is easier to use when you have a full keyboard and mouse. Achievements and Xbox Live can't make up for that.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wii could care less

My aunt spends a lot of time entertaining her grandkids, so she has a lot of toys at her house, and sometimes she buys (or successfully talks my mother into buying) toys she finds especially "neat" or "fun" for my mother. So while we were visiting my mom and aunt, my kids and I got to spend some time playing with the console whose name I still can't use without my inner child giggling hysterically: the Wii.

My 8-year-old son is at that stage where he wants anything, just because it is remotely "neat" or "fun" or well-advertised on TV. (Case in point: he was trying to convince us how much our lives would be improved by a certain kitchen gadget after he stayed up after his bedtime watching an infomercial the other night.) So when he says he wants one, I have to take this recommendation with a heavy dose of salt. Now, it is true that my boys are spending quite a bit of time playing it, but considering it's really the only thing they have to do while my wife and I help my mother get some of her home improvement projects done while we're here, it's pretty much the default activity.

I suppose it should be noted that my mother is not a gamer, by any stretch of the imagination. So it should come as no surprise that the only games we have available are Wii Sports and Wii Play, and by her own admission, the only reason she has Wii Play is because she wanted a second controller, and for the same price, Wii Play is a controller and a game.

So, what is my general impression of the system and these two games?


There just wasn't anything really exciting. I started to understand comments like "two GameCubes duct-taped together". Actually, I'm more reminded of that scene in Back to the Future 2, where the kids deride the arcade cabinet as being a "baby's toy". Although I did see one instance of what other people have witnessed: my mom, the non-gamer, did actually play, enjoy, and win a game of bowling against me and my son.

The system doesn't really draw me to it, though. I don't want to go and play it, and when I do, the moment is really fleeting. I don't get immersed in the gaming experience like I do playing a 360 game.

As far as the major gimmick, the "Wiimote", I didn't care for it. There is definitely something to be said for a literal "point and click", especially when it comes to aiming. But some things were more difficult. If that sensor bar wasn't right at the front edge of the TV, or if someone walked in front of it, it was rather useless. Not to mention jittery. Although on the one hand, it felt like I had more "instant" control over where I was aiming, on the other hand, it felt like I lacked precision, as I couldn't hold the stupid thing steady with a tripod. And that doesn't even get into trying to maintain precision while using the rest of the buttons (re: the tank game, where one must aim with the Wiimote while moving one's tank with the cross pad and firing with the trigger).

Motion sensing was a little better, although somewhat frustrating. I don't know if it was a function of the game or the Wiimote itself, but it seemed that small movements wouldn't register correctly, so I had to exaggerate. Also, movements had to be "set up". Case in point: I couldn't take a couple practice swings in golf in rapid succession; I had to pull my arms back, pause, wait for my Mii to wind up, and then make my swing. Also, as far as golf was concerned, I had to swing the Wiimote in an arc that was perfectly perpendicular to the ground. If I didn't bend directly over it, thus having my arc at any kind of non-90° angle, it either wouldn't register the swing, or would be extremely unpredictable in the strength it did register (instead of just rather unpredictable, which it was most of the time — why could I make the same practice swing 5 times, have it register at one strength, and make the same swing a sixth time, and have it register at something completely different?).

Although there is something to be said for actually swinging like a bat or tennis racket, those motions — and more especially the motions for bowling, pitching, and golfing — are very tiring (at least for an old guy like me — not so much for my kids at that age).

Unfortunately, neither my mom's nor my aunt's systems are connected to the internet, so I was unable to investigate how that works, which is a shame. How much is missing from the "dashboard"?

I'm sure that this experience is directly related to the discs I had available. What would I think of the Wii in the home of a gamer, where it is well-fed with a healthy diet of new, varied, immersive games, connected to a stable lifeline of internet connectivity?

I don't know, but what I did see, compared with what I already have with the 360, made it really hard for me to care.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Jump, jump, JUMP!!! -- The Fuzion Frenzy announcer explained

Probably one of the most universally hated things about Fuzion Frenzy 2 is the announcer. During the games, he chatters non-stop, saying the same things over and over again; and between games, he does a lot of extra hand-waving and unnecessary talking. Fortunately, the game has the option to turn the announcer's volume down to zero, which is absolutely essential to save one's sanity; but why does this guy exist in the first place?

While on vacation, I got a chance to see G4TV on my grandparents' satellite TV. One of the late night shows was a japanese show where contestants had to do some pretty challenging athletic feats. The host instantly reminded me of the Fuzion Frenzy announcer, with the deliberate hand gestures and overly-dramatic statements. During the competition, an announcer would chatter incessantly about what was going on (although, not being a computer program, he had a more limitless repertoire of phrases). But he did at one point say "Hop! Hop! Jump! Jump!" as a contestant attempted to hop a unicycle across some low platforms. :D

So apparently, as annoying as the Fuzion Frenzy 2 announcer is, he's actually rather authentic as far as japanese game shows go. Now I know. And knowing is half the battle.

He still gets muted, though.