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 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.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

End-game achievements

Lego Batman 2 game tileMy Hero achievement picture

I finally finished my quest to achieve 100,000 Gamerscore, well ahead of my original goal of the end of the year and even ahead of my "stretch goal" of the next Xbox's launch. I had hoped to hit the score exactly, but I decided not to stress that and just get over the score. I have to admit, though, I didn't quite expect to leap-frog it by such a large margin — the achievement that put me over the line was "My Hero" from Lego Batman 2, a 50G achievement that took me from 99,975 to 100,025. I knew I was coming close, but I admit I wasn't paying that much attention; I was going for a 35G achievement that I only expected to help by rounding out the last digit in my score (although at that point, it, too, would have put me over the mark by 10G).

What I found very interesting is how the ending achievements in Lego Batman 2 are laid out. There are the fairly standard achievements for collecting all red bricks, all gold bricks, and all characters. There are also achievements for collecting groups of characters (all heroes, all villains, etc.), which usually means you end up popping two achievements at the very end (one character that completes their subgroup as well as completing the entire list). The interesting thing about this game, though, was that there is one character that requires collecting all of the gold bricks. I suppose it's possible that you could collect all the gold bricks before collecting characters, but most of the characters are picked up quite easily (even those that are locked up behind gold brick gates, since most have a much lower gold brick threshold to buy them). It just seemed like I was encouraged to pick up that character last, so the fact that the "Girl Power" achievement (for picking up the last female character) popped along with "Team Building" (for picking up the last overall character) seemed more of an inevitability than a coincidence.

Even odder, though, was the achievement that put me over 100,000G. There is an achievement for collecting all gold bricks, but part of that requires saving all of the citizens in peril, as each one itself unlocks a gold brick — not too far off from the groups of characters. But what I find curious is that this achievement that is a stepping stone to collecting all gold bricks is worth so much. Achievements for the different groups of characters are worth 20G, and the whole collection achievement is 50G. However, the achievement for collecting the gold bricks tied to citizens in peril is worth 50G, whereas the achievement for the full collection of gold bricks is only 35G.

The End achievement picture
I admit to having mixed feelings to these group achievements that, collectively, earn another achievement. It seems a little silly sometimes to have multiple achievements pop for basically doing one thing, but it is nice to have recognition of milestones along the way that collectively combine to something larger, instead of achievements that don't relate to each other in any way. I was almost disappointed when I found no achievements for collecting all vehicles, which I had to do in order to complete the last achievement for reaching 100% completion. Fortunately, in that case, collecting vehicles was also the last thing that I did, so having that action pop the 100% achievement was, in a way, its own reward.


Friday, August 23, 2013

Another service bites the dust.

Over three years ago, Microsoft discontinued Xbox Live service support for the original Xbox. I hoped at the time that people would start to sit up and take notice about how tenuous digital content is, that whether you paid for it or not, it would take very little for a company to take it away, and you'd have no recourse. And people did, since Microsoft made the misstep of taking down some services a little early — although the matchmaking service was still operational, the content servers weren't, and people attempting to re-download some of their DLC for one last hurrah at playing them online, weren't able to.

Unfortunately, the notoriety didn't last, and people moved on, happy with their 360 service, and with the previous generation all but forgotten.

Now, it's time for another service to get shut down. Microsoft has announced that the Games for Windows Live service will be shut down in July of 2014.

The timing of this announcement was rather coincidental, as I had just decided to rebuild my laptop. I had not yet gotten around to installing all the games back on, but this notice was a good reminder.

Now, Games for Windows Live is not a terribly popular service, and there aren't a ton of games available for it, so I have to wonder if this will make too many people upset to begin with. But the thought of losing access to full, paid-for games really sours me on this idea of trusting some company to manage my game library.

It seems that the community in general has a pretty short memory as it is. If you read the comments on the announcement article I linked to above, there's one commenter that asks the same question I started asking as soon as the Xbox One was officially announced: "How long until the 360 XBox Live shuts down once the XBone is released?" The response from the site's "Community Manager" is just that it's "Different" and goes off on a tangent as to why shutting down Games for Windows Live is no big deal, like seeing the 360 get shut down is not an issue worth discussing. And yet, only three years ago, that issue very much came to life when the original Xbox service was shut down.

Indeed, I still hear arguments that the all-digital(-ish) Xbox One was a much better system when it was first announced. I just cannot understand that, how someone can actually be ok with letting a company decide when you're done playing and take away everything you've paid for. Anyone who argues that "they won't do that" are just putting their heads in the sand, because not only would they, they have and are doing that very thing. The best argument I've heard is that the promised "family sharing" feature, where you could share your library with up to 10 friends, was the best feature the Xbox One had, and everything else was worth it. I don't agree; I think the price they were asking for that feature was way too high, giving up way too many other things — let alone that I think the way they described that feature was way too good to be true.

As for me, I just have a few games that I now need to get moving on, if I ever want to play them again: Fallout 3 and all its expansions, Viva PiƱata, Batman Arkham Asylum, the Age of Empires III collection, Microsoft Flight, and Game Room.

Part of what's kept me away from playing these games a lot so far, though, is that my laptop is my most capable machine, and that's not saying much. The last time I played Batman, I had entered a point where there was so much activity on-screen that my poor laptop was pushing maybe 5 frames per second — not the kind of performance that lends well to playing an action game. I had hoped that I would be able, some day, to have a machine capable of playing these games better, but now there seems like there's no chance of that (unless someone wants to donate to me a gaming PC within the next 11 months).

Of these games that I do have, most of them are digital downloads that I bought when the price was more worth what I felt (and what is being proven) was a lesser value. The only game I have on disc is Fallout 3 (not including the expansions, which I purchased digitally). When I installed that, though, it included the Games for Windows Live client (which Windows intercepted and redirected me to an updated version online — no telling how long that will remain available), I had to enter the 25-character key printed on a sticker inside the box (and let it activate online) when I first launched it, and the update was delivered only when I signed in to Live. It makes me wonder how functional even the disc-based games will be once the service is shut down.

As for the digital downloads, the Games for Windows Live client manages those; and although you can specify the directory it uses for downloads, they are not in a format that makes it obvious for making backups (a lot of GUID-named CAB files and TMP files). It does not seem possible, at the moment, to download any of my purchased content in order to make a backup before the service goes away and takes all my content with it.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sorry kids, no Gold for you

There's a post on Major Nelson's blog that describes how Gold will work on the Xbox One. It's well worth a read, as there are some nice benefits, though it's not all sunshine and roses.

Some of it is not too surprising. If you buy a game on your home console, anyone can play that game on that console, regardless of whether or not you're signed in at the time, and regardless of that person's account status (Gold, Silver, local-only). Also, any game that you've purchased, you can go to any One console, download that game, and play it, and the full version will be available to you and anyone else on that console so long as you are signed in and connected to Live. This is exactly how things work on the 360 today.

What's new is, if you have Gold on your home console, all accounts on that console will have access to Gold features, a new feature they call "Home Gold". Also, if you sign in to Xbox Live on any One console with your Gold account, everyone on that console will have access to Gold features as well for as long as you are signed in. This is a nice new feature. Back when we had the 360 and I had the only Gold account, it meant features that are (inexplicably) locked to Gold members could only be accessed by me. My wife grew tired of having to sign in to my account just to use Netflix, and it was for that reason that we got a Netflix-capable Blu-ray player — she turns it on, presses the button for Netflix, and she's good to go, no ifs no buts no coconuts.

What's kind of disappointing is that the Gold Family plan is going away. That means I will not be able to pay a little extra and give three of my family members full access and privileges to Gold wherever they are.

For the One, this may not be that big of a deal in our house. We will only have a single One console in the house for a while, so everyone will have Gold access. However, if my son wanted to play at a friend's house who didn't have Gold, he would not be able to take his Gold privileges with him. Or, if we bought a second One for a playroom, he'd similarly be out of luck. (Major Nelson seemed to indicate on Reddit that the Home Gold feature would be available on all Ones in a house, but he quickly backtracked and said he would need to investigate to be sure.)

It is worth noting that my kids may not be all on the One right away. For one thing, $60 for a controller is a little tough to swallow. For another, we won't have a vast library of One games at launch, and there are still tons of games on the 360 that my kids love to play. (They even play original Xbox games still.) Since Home Gold is a feature exclusive to the Xbox One, Gold will not be available to my kids that will no longer have access to my Family plan. So for those who try to follow Mattrick's advice and stick to the 360, that's a feature that's going away.

I've seen comments further on this issue that I didn't even think of. Broken or separated families use the Gold Family plan to keep family members all on Gold when they are not in the same physical house and all on one console. There are other features that, as of yet, there has been no word on replacing — things like being able to transfer Points (soon to be real money) between accounts for content purchases, for example.

In any case, my kids are now being forced to decide whether they want to spend their own money to continue Gold for their own accounts on the 360, or to buy a controller for the One. Now, fortunately, they have some time to decide, as Microsoft just sent me an email saying when they convert everyone to individual accounts, everyone will have Gold until the original expiration of the Gold Family subscription, plus three months each. But still, it's sad to see them taking away features from the 360 in what seems like an effort to push people over to the One.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

If this is the future, I'll stay in the past

Microsoft's been doing a sort of "fire sale" lately by slashing prices on digital games and content. I can only speculate on the motivation, but I wouldn't doubt it's probably a combination of two, maybe three things: (1) getting people to use up their Microsoft Points before they convert everyone to cash; (2) encouraging people to buy stuff digitally, to get people more comfortable with the idea while they continue to figure out how to get rid of the physical media; and maybe (3) to make people believe the narrative that an all-digital, no-used future will result in lower prices.

In any case, I have taken advantage of some of these. I have a decent balance of Microsoft Points gathered through searching on Bing, so I don't mind using some of my "free money" on these throwaway games (and by "throwaway", I mean that once I'm done with them, I might as well virtually throw them away, because I can't do anything else with them).

But one purchase in particular only served to highlight why an all-digital world still has its problems.

I purchased the game Command & Conquer Red Alert 3, on sale for the bargain price of $5/400 MSP. But when I tried to download it, it would get to the 10% mark and then fail with the disappointingly-terse message, "Can't download C&C Red Alert 3". I tried several times, on both Xboxes in my house (the main one everyone plays on, and the one with the defective DVD drive that I keep in the office as a media streamer and XBLA console), with the same result every time. I had purchased two other full games, plus downloaded a beta and re-downloaded another XBLA game (Happy Wars had an update that required deleting and re-downloading), all without error, but yet this one game still refused to download.

I checked the Xbox Support forums and added my experience to a post I found from way back in December '12 with the same problem. Then I took to Twitter to chat with @XboxSupport. They took me down the standard script of checking everything on my side: unplug the hard drive and try downloading to a USB stick, deleting and re-downloading my profile, clearing the hard drive cache, rebooting my networking equipment, connecting my console directly to the cable modem to bypass the rest of my network, sacrificing small rodents, and sprinkling holy water on the network cable. Their final suggestion was to try a different network.

Now, I don't know about you, but an internet connection isn't something I can just swap out at-will. On a daily basis, I'm on two different broadband networks: my home ISP, and my work. I don't imagine many places of business would look too kindly at an employee bringing a game console to work with them, and I haven't been with my current employer long enough to want to risk finding out. I could conceivably ask neighbors to borrow their network, though with the virtual monopoly the big ISPs tend to have, it's a good bet even if I found someone willing, they'd probably have the same ISP anyway. Either way, the thought of having to pull my console out of the entertainment center and unthread all the cables just so I can download a single game wasn't very appealing.

One suggestion that came up in the forums from another user was to tether the Xbox to a smartphone and use that. I suppose it's fortunate that: (1) we joined the smartphone generation in recent years, (2) and that we pay for tethering (so that my wife can use her tablet without having to buy it a dedicated cellular connection), (3) and that my wireless provider doesn't implement ridiculous bandwidth caps and overage charges, (4) and that I can get a strong enough signal in my house to actually use cellular internet (many people in my neck of the woods have such issues, and I usually end up connecting my phone to my Wi-Fi because the cell signal is pretty poor), (5) and that I was unable to repair the Xbox now in the office and had to buy a newer "slim" model for the family room, with its built-in Wi-Fi adapter; because I was actually in a position to try that. If any one of these conditions weren't met, I'd be out of luck.

It does, in fact, work; and all one has to do is resume the download to get from 10% to 11% complete, then disconnect and reconnect to one's broadband connection to finish the remaining 89%.

But it does raise a few questions. Is it not enough that I'm expected to have an internet connection to use digital content, but I should have two, just in case one for some reason isn't compatible with some piece of content? Also, shouldn't Microsoft be invested in making sure I get my content, regardless of what ISP I'm on, if I'm trying to give them my money? (In other words, why am I and others being asked to jump through these hoops to get what we paid for?) And, how easy would it be to get a refund if I was completely unable to get the content (despite the fact that their purchase page says "there are no refunds"), or would I just be out that money?

If this had happened with a physical disc, where the disc was damaged and unable to "deliver" the game bits to the console, I would just have to go to the store and let them swap it with a working one. (It's happened to me before, when my mail-order copy of Halo 3 got scratched up in transit.) For troubleshooting, maybe they'd try playing it on a second console, which they'd have right there in the store. I wouldn't expect to have to go through as many hoops to try and get a working copy in my home.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What a difference a week makes

I've been meaning to write up a new blog post for a while now, once the news had settled down a bit. However, it seems that every week has brought something new, that "settling down" isn't going to happen just yet.

In our last episode, Microsoft's plan was to make your games tied to you and your console (much like Xbox Live Arcade games are today); require your Xbox One to check in via the internet once every 24 hours in order to play games; allow for the reselling of games through "participating retailers" (though publishers would have the option to enable or disable this feature from any game, or to insert their own fees); and allow you to give your game to anyone on your friends list, who has been on your friends list for at least 30 days, but that game could not then be re-given to anyone else. Loaning a game (i.e., the temporary transfer of ownership with the expectation of its return) would not be possible at launch (with a promise that they'd "look into it").

Not only were they layering restriction upon restriction on the console, their arrogance about the whole deal was inexcusable. When asked about the connectivity requirements and how it would affect people without internet, specifically military personnel, Xbox chief Don Mattrick responded by telling people to just get a 360. Not long after Adam Orth was unceremoniously dumped from Microsoft for telling a friend on Twitter to just "deal with it", out came the official statements saying pretty much the same thing.

Major Nelson, what many consider to be (or who should be) the PR voice of Xbox, was either in denial about the whole thing, confused, or just plain lying himself. When interviewed about questions found on Reddit, he was first asked about what would happen when the service went dark for the Xbox One. He said that it was too early to talk about the end of the generation when it hasn't even started yet, and that we should let the system get out there first. (Pass it so we can see what's in it?) Although the interviewer said that was a fair point, I must disagree; I'd rather know up front what's going to happen with something before I buy it, rather than commit my hard-earned dollars only to find it taken away from me with no recourse. He also said that it's not how the system was designed, which is a blatant falsehood — the system was very much designed so that it could not play any games if it could not communicate with Microsoft's servers; and if those services are shut down, it will not be able to communicate, therefore it will not be able to play games. Could they update the system when the time comes so that it would no longer need to check in with services that won't be there? Sure. But there's no reason to believe that they would, and prior history (when the Xbox Live service was shut down for the original Xbox, taking with it all access to all DLC, paid or not) suggests that they would not.

However, the one silver lining to all of this was the promise of an all new "family plan", where you could designate 10 individual accounts as a family (whether they're related to you or not), and those people could access your game library at any time — you'd always have full access, and one of your "family" at a time could play games from your library. Many people were very excited about this feature, talking about how they would be able to share games with friends all over the country, and how they could ultimately save money on games by buying one copy to share.

It's that last bit that had me really uncertain about this feature and how well it would work in real life. Everything Microsoft had revealed so far had been geared to the exact opposite of this promise, forcing people to buy more games rather than less, and keeping people from sharing games around. It didn't pass the "too good to be true" test. Maybe it's just me being bitter and jaded, but something about telling Bethesda that they'd only be selling a tenth of their copies of the next Elder Scrolls game (since each person would be able to share it with up to 10 of their friends, and the lack of multiplayer would fail to encourage the need to purchase multiple copies for multiple simultaneous play) didn't seem like something that would be implemented without publishers screaming "foul". A completely unsubstantiated rumor suggested the hidden "gotcha" would be that the "sharing" would only limit your friends to a time-limited demo of the game. This seems completely unnecessary (there are already demos of many games available without having to go through this "sharing" hoop), but my gut instinct tells me this may be closer to the actual reality.

But then, that all changed.

After another week went by and continued gamer rage led to lackluster preorder sales of the One, Microsoft issued a new press release to say that they were rolling back restrictions and policies to mirror what they are on the 360 today. Disc-based games could be played, shared, traded, loaned, resold, and everything else, just like they can today. And, just like today, even though they are installed to the hard drive, they will require the disc to be in the tray. Digital versions will still be available day one, with all the pros and cons that come with them.

And that day, I placed my pre-order for the console.

The one advantage that people were actually excited about, however, is also gone. The new family plan (which was not going to be available at launch anyway) is no longer considered a part of the plan. This has made a lot of people quite upset (especially those who claimed the DRM policies were acceptable to them). Honestly, I can't say I blame them. If you believe that it was going to be as good as they claimed, then that's a huge benefit thrown out with the rest of the bath water. Personally, I suspect they got rid of it just to make people upset enough to want everything back (though it could be something much more mundane as not being able to separate the functions out of the code doing everything else).

What's truly frustrating is the people arguing for the DRM to block used games, using the same old tired arguments about "used games killing the industry". It's at least a little comforting, though, to see articles like these from Destructoid and Wired explaining why those arguments aren't just wrong, but reveal other problems in the industry. Not to mention comments like this, posted by Solstice01 on my Facebook page:

I borrowed a game I had vaguely heard of from a friend that was getting pretty good reviews from people I knew. I played it over the weekend and ended up buying it used from Game Stop. This was years ago. The game was a obscure title called "Halo: Combat Evolved." Since buying that used game (that the developer didn't make a dime of mine on), I bought Halo 2 brand new, Halo 3 brand new, Halo Reach brand new, all the DLC for Halo 3 and Halo Reach, as well as key chains, megablock sets (because why would I ever NOT buy Lego?) Long story short, renting/borrowing/used games do not kill the market, they enhance it and give players exposure to many titles they would never normally play. It's the BEST advertising.

And now, it's been revealed that Xbox head Don Mattrick is leaving Microsoft to become the new CEO at Zynga. Is this a result of the backlash around the Xbox One? Is his departure something long-planned, and his flippant attitude during the launch a result of "short-timer syndrome"? (A little confusion around who would lead Xbox next, makes me question just how well-known and pre-planned this was.) We can only guess. My hope is that someone more gamer-friendly will take the helm. Or perhaps there will be more cross-platform possibilities by bringing Xbox and Windows under one roof.

Maybe we'll find out in another week.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What color is the sky in Redmond?

So, yes, I'm not entirely pleased with the new Xbox One, particularly in that they are locking all games to your ID and console, much like Xbox Live Arcade games today. One truly amazing thing, though, is how deluded they are in thinking there's absolutely nothing wrong with this.

Exhibit A: Xbox One pre-owned plans 'consistent with way the world works'

Let's analyze the words of Microsoft VP Phil Harrison and see just how life is different from Bizzaro Microsoft world compared to the one we all live in.

The exec said Microsoft "will always take a customer centric view" on the subject and pointed out that the planned measure will not prevent players from sharing retail games with their own household or when visiting friends.

Anything that limits the customer without giving something back is, by definition, not "customer centric". As for the sharing, we'll see how much more limited this is.

"Our plans are very consistent with the way the world works today, which is if I buy a disc I can install it on my machine, I can play it and anyone associated with my machine can play it as well," Harrison told CVG.

Mostly true (though, taking XBLA titles as an example, there are some complications if you have to replace your hardware).

"I can give that disc to somebody else - maybe my son who has his own Xbox One somewhere else in the house - and he can install and play it on his machine…"

Again, taking XBLA as an example, this did not seem exactly true. As was the case with my son and Minecraft, I could not let him play a game I bought on a console in the house besides the one I bought it on. We even share a Live Gold Family plan, but that's not good enough. Since Microsoft stopped selling the family plan, it seemed like it would never be good enough. However, new news breaking overnight (and pointed out to me today) suggests that it may actually become possible for family members to share a Gold account, and all content purchased by it, even while maintaining separate accounts. So there may be a "save" for them here. And, to be honest, this would be the majority of my personal use cases that would have been blocked by the possibility of blocking everything considered a "used game".

"I can come to your house with that disc, I can install it on your machine and we can play it and while I'm with you we can have all of the capabilities of that game. The moment I go home and notionally take that disc with me, you no longer have the ability to play that game. But the 'bits' are on your hard drive, so if you want to play that game you can buy it - you can go to the online store, buy it and it's instantly unlocked and playable on your machine. All of the privileges I just described in my house would now apply in yours as well."

Here's where he leaves the real world for a bit. Or, at least, part of it. The part where I go home, but leave my disc behind at my friend's house. What happens today, in the real world? He gets to play the game, without paying anyone any money! What happens in Microsoft fantasy world? They have to pay Microsoft full retail price to play the game I bought.

"Retail are very important partners to us and we've had a series of high level meetings with our retail partners around the world in the last few weeks, in advance of today," the exec added. "So our retail partners were disclosed of our plans and have been part of our process and planning for some time."

You know why retail partners are so excited about this? Well, first, my friend can't play the game I bought without buying his own. He does have the option of paying Microsoft for the privilege, but if he's smart, he'll prefer to go to some other retail store that actually competes on prices instead of using the retail price in their fantasy world. Retailers love this, because Microsoft is forcing people to buy more games, and their pricing history will drive people to other retailers.

He goes on to essentially confirm that the Xbox would "phone home" periodically, even if the "period" has not been defined yet, and then saying, basically, "deal with it", by asserting it's no big deal:

"I think it is pretty rare of an outage of local internet connectivity to be more than a few seconds or minutes, so I don't expect it will ever impact on somebody's ability to use the system."

The last time my internet was down was for four hours until my issues were resolved. And that doesn't even begin to address people who take their Xboxes on vacations, or the military having them on tour.

There are three fixes that, I think, could mitigate most of the used game issues:

  1. Allow sharing games within a household. If the report of the new family plan is true, this would be pretty much solved. I don't much care if it restricts you to playing one copy of the game at one time, because that's how the real world works today (if I want to play something on two boxes at the same time, I need two copies), just as long as I don't have to do anything intrusive or annoying to "get permission" to play that one copy on one Xbox vs. another, on a different account.
  2. Allow loaning or trading games. Loaning could actually be made very simple by allowing me to designate another user the rights to my disc key. Example: I take my disc to my friend's house. We install it on his Xbox (with my account, which identifies the installation as valid with my credentials). I leave, but he wants to keep playing. I log on to and say, "I am loaning my copy of this game to my friend." The Xbox servers then allow him (when signed in to his account) to play his copy of the game, and disallows me from playing mine. When I decide I want the game back, I just log in and say "take back", and his installation is automatically deactivated while mine is reactivated. Not only would this be very convenient, but it would protect against those scumbag friends you can never seem to get your stuff back from.
  3. Allow selling games. If I want to sell my game, I just need to make sure I sell the disc along with the unique authentication key I had to use to install it. (Third-party resellers like Play N Trade would just have to check to make sure they get the key with the disc.) As soon as the next person installs the game with that key, my copy is automatically invalidated. (While requiring me to log on to and relinquish my key sounds good, you know there would be scumbags that would install the game and return it to GameStop and never deactivate the key themselves.)

It would solve most of the use cases, I think, even if it did still leave the annoyance of having your rights tied up by Microsoft's authentication servers, with the threat of changing or taking those rights away from you at any time.

Of course, it also leaves open the question of what happens in the far future, if the authentication servers will always be required, and what happens when Microsoft discontinues support for the Xbox One after the Xbox Two has launched.

They need to do something, though, because as it stands now, they won't have me as a customer. Especially with statements like this:

"If you're backwards compatible, you're really backwards," [Don Mattrick] told the Wall Street Journal. (via Joystiq)

Tell that to my kids, who still play original Xbox games from time to time; or to those who spent hundreds of dollars on Rock Band content that is about to become unusable. Or just those of us who are playing libraries of dozens to hundreds of games today that don't want to limit themselves to 15 come this holiday season.

The Xbox One: Initial thoughts, not altogether positive

The new Xbox has been revealed at a big event on Microsoft's campus in Redmond. It will be called the "Xbox One", coming out later this year.

The reveal announcement demonstrated some of the new capabilities of the new system. It has the ability to watch live TV, respond to very natural voice commands, instantly switch between tasks (like flipping back and forth between a game, TV, and/or web browsing), and even "snap" two applications side-by-side (much like Windows 8 "metro" apps), with the demo of watching Star Trek on most of the screen with IE on the right quarter browsing for tickets for the next Star Trek movie. It also showed how you could view an on-screen guide, much like a modern digital cable or satellite box. Also included was watching a sporting event on ESPN, and having a notification come up when a player scored that added points to your fantasy sports league (although as a background app or simply as part of the new ESPN app, it wasn't clear).

They then made a brief run-down of the system specs on the console (nothing surprising), the controller ("40 design innovations", basically coming down to "pretty much the same, just some things a little better"), and the new Kinect (which appears to be very much improved over the original).

Then, there was an announcement about Microsoft's cash cow, Halo: Stephen Spielberg is directing a live-action TV series. Not quite the Halo movie we've been hoping for, but still a pretty good deal.

As expected and previously announced, there wasn't a huge focus on games at this event — that has been promised for E3 next month. They did announce that there were fifteen first-party games due in the first year, 8 of which from new IPs. The games they did show included a new one from Max Payne and Alan Wake developer Remedy Entertainment, a new Forza title, and the previously-announced Call of Duty: Ghosts, the last of which being a somewhat more detailed talk about all of the new tech that the Xbox One makes possible in making a much more visually-appealing game (including comparing screens and models from Modern Warfare 3 to Ghosts). Unfortunately, no real game play was shown — although they did claim we were watching videos rendered by the game engine, they were all cutscenes. While they could be real-time rendered cutscenes instead of in-game video, it would be hard to stand behind that claim.

Ultimately, it looked cool, but nothing groundbreaking. We cut the cable cord nearly five years ago, so the Xbox One's ability to watch and control live TV from your cable feed is completely useless to me. The upgraded controller could be nice (although not a reason to buy a new system). The upgraded Kinect is impressive, though again it's not something I currently use that often even when it's marginally convenient (it's still faster to shut down the 360 using the controller or the freaking power button on the box than it is to navigate the menus by voice, and much faster than trying to use gestures). And while snapping apps side-by-side is convenient, it's hardly necessary when I have a smartphone and laptop within relatively easy reach, and the SmartGlass apps that make those devices useful, even if they're not "integrated" in the same box.

What worries — and even angers — me, is the information that's coming from off-stage. This is what we've found out from the press interviewing Microsoft executives and representatives:

  • The Xbox One may require an internet connection at least as often as once every 24 hours
  • The console will support larger friends lists (up to 1,000) and external storage
  • The hard drive is built-in to the console and cannot be removed or upgraded by the user
  • Game discs transferred to another user will require some kind of transaction with Microsoft before the content is playable
Keep in mind this is now Microsoft officials responding to questions, not rumors from "unnamed" or "inside" sources.

The internet connection requirement (if true; the person making the statement didn't sound entirely sure, though it does give the impression some requirement exists) is annoying and disappointing. The last time we had a sustained internet outage, one of my kids was annoyed that he couldn't play his browser-based game on his laptop, but my younger kids were happily playing on the 360. This seems to question whether that scenario will be possible with the Xbox One.

The larger friends list is long overdue, though I do hope it comes with some management features — I want more friends, but I want to be able to categorize them somehow. External storage is pretty standard, though there hasn't been any clarification whether it is limited like it is on the 360 (you can only have 32GB of any device usable at a time). This only slightly mitigates the next point, that the internal 500GB hard drive cannot be replaced. Either they have high confidence in their hard drive's failure rate, or they just don't care. I would have liked to see the PlayStation 3 option finally implemented (put in any hard drive you want) rather than a repeat of the 360 option (buy only these limited-sized, "official" hard drives at over-inflated prices), but this just seems like a giant step backwards (the original Xbox — which I can now no longer refer to as the Xbox 1, so thanks for that — had the same fixed hard drive feature).

The game disc transference makes me the most angry. What they have said so far, is this: when you buy a game, you must install the contents to the hard drive (once games start using all 50GB of a Blu-ray disc, that 500GB storage space is going to disappear quickly), and that disc becomes locked to your ID. If you take the disc to a friend's house, you can use that disc and install the game on their hard drive and play it with your ID for free. But, they cannot play it on their ID unless they pay a "fee" (which has been explained as the retail cost of the game) to "unlock" it.

Essentially, this makes all games subject to the same restrictions as Xbox Live Arcade games and DLC — the original purchaser can play it anywhere, but they cannot share, trade, or sell it to anyone else (except anyone on the purchaser's original console, at least in the case of the 360). And we already know how I feel about that. It places unnecessary restrictions on the content that can even prevent family members in the same house from using content. And now they want to do that for all games, including the ones on disc. Essentially, the "install from disc" step becomes identical to the "download from Microsoft's servers" step.

Even if you accept that and consider letting multiple people install from one disc instead of the internet, where each additional person just pays Microsoft to unlock it, consider Microsoft's idea of "retail price" does not actually mean "what you pay in a retail store" (unless you include Microsoft's own physical stores, where game prices seem to follow the same resistance to change as they do in their Arcade).

Oh, Microsoft is promising that they have designed some way to actually trade games. If you believe this, then at best it will be a simple license transfer tool that lets you move the license with the physical disc you intend to sell/give/trade/etc. Or maybe it will be as simple as letting them have your original registration key, which, once they use, will inactivate your copy on your Xbox One. (Could be most friendly to third-party resellers like Play N Trade, who could just insist games you bring in for trade include the registration code.) Worse, they will require some payment for the privilege. At worst, their "more details to share later" will be as meaningful as "we're working on making the 360 backwards-compatible with all original Xbox games".

Funny, the 360 was "designed" to be able to play traded and resold games, too. I like how that works better.

This week, my son decided he wanted to find a copy of Star Wars: Battlefront II for the original Xbox. See, his cousin had loaned him his copy while he was staying here, and he played it and loved it. But you can't buy the game new anymore, so he's searching for a used copy. It's not easy, considering the game is long out of date, and major resellers aren't carrying games for that system anymore. But once he does find a copy, he is all but guaranteed that he'll be able to play it on our original Xbox (and the 360, where it happens to be compatible). Now I have serious questions as to whether that will still be the case for the Xbox One, either when it is the "current generation" or when it has been long past its "end of support" life.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The journey of 100,000 points starts with the first bleep-bloop

I unlocked my first achievement on the Xbox 360 way back on April 7th, 2006. Since then, I have earned a total of 89,950 Gamerscore from over 4,600 achievements across 258 games. That averages out to about 35 points per day. It also puts me pretty close to the six-digit level. While it is certainly not going to win me any awards, as there are people far beyond my number, I would still consider it something of an accomplishment.

I've therefore decided to set myself a goal. I want to reach 100,000 Gamerscore by the end of this year.

When I first decided on this goal a few days ago, I thought I was pretty close to 90,000, and with 10 months left after this one, 1,000 points a month seemed like a pretty attainable goal. So, today, I decided to make sure I started March off at 90,000, to give myself a nice, round number to track against.

Imagine my dismay when I noticed that I was over 500 points away from my starting line.

I decided to play a lot of Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing Transformed, since I hadn't earned anything from that one yet, and I hoped it would be liberal with giving out some of the early achievements. After playing most of the afternoon, I did manage to unlock half of the achievements, but my haul was only 345 points.

Worn out from hours of racing, I decided to slow things down a bit by picking up my Skylanders Giants campaign. I unlocked a few more story-related achievements along with a couple random objective achievements I stumbled upon here and there, and that's what got me to within 50 points before it was time to put the kids to bed.

I do have one potential stumbling block to my quest. Most of my prime game time comes after the little kids are in bed, when I claim the Xbox to myself and make the older boys find something else to do. However, I've committed to playing through the entire Halo campaign with my oldest son (about to turn thirteen), in chronological order according to the story. We've only just tonight started Halo 2, so we still have almost all of that plus ODST and Halos 3 and 4. Since I already have all of the achievements from all Halo games, I won't be making any achievement progress while we're on our campaign run.

It won't be a cakewalk, and I'm sure it will involve scheduling more than one achievement-hunting session via TrueAchievements, but the goal is set. The wheels are in motion. Let's see how well I do.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Building the Dawn

Towards the end of 2012, my wife was casually flipping through a Toys R Us catalog during dinner, when she says, "Boy, that's expensive."
I look across the table and see a longish, greyish object. "What is that, an aircraft carrier?"
She says, "It has over 2,000 pieces."
"A Lego aircraft carrier?"
"No, one of the Mega Blocks Halo sets."
My eyebrows start to climb up off of my face as realization sets in. "Is that the Forward Unto Dawn?!" I say, grabbing the catalog from her.

With all the Christmas shopping done, there wasn't extra money for another big present, but now that I've put the Christmas money in the bank, I saw my opportunity and ordered it.

Tuesday, my wife informed me that a very large box was waiting for me in the living room. I had heard that it was large, but I wasn't expecting a box large enough to ship a small child in.

No, seriously.

The box was deceptively large, though. There was ample packing material (upon which the kids had fun stomping and popping) protecting the contents. The actual box was much smaller — although still pretty large in its own right.

The box itself is pretty well designed. It includes a built-in handle, and the lid has side flaps that tuck back in to the box neatly. The inside lid has a graphic reminiscent of the Halo 4 "Wake Up, John" trailer, and inside, under a cardboard insert that holds the very heavy and very thick manual, are four boxes with UNSC graphics that contain the pieces.

Each of the boxes contains a card that shows what pieces are contained in that box. Theoretically, this would help if you decided to open all the bags and keep them contained in the boxes while you build.

From personal experience, it is worth the time and effort to sort each piece by type and color. Not only does it make it easier to find each individual piece, but it helps to ensure from the start that, yes, you actually do have all of the pieces included. I've had several sets that have been missing a piece or two (or one of the wrong color — I think I still have a Warthog build that has a bright purple piece from a Ghost, because there was one green piece missing and one purple extra), and by counting all the pieces first, I can get on Mega Bloks's website right away and order the missing pieces. (To their credit, this was more of a problem early on and has only gotten better with recent builds.) Unfortunately, the cards for each box didn't show how many of each piece there were. For that, I had to go to the back pages of the instruction manual; and since that had the pieces sorted by size, not by box, it meant there was no convenient way to break down the counting and sorting.

Sorting over 2800 pieces is no easy task. After the first hour, I wasn't quite finished with the first box (which contained mostly small pieces), and after the 45 minutes it took for the second box, I started to get that panicked feeling that I had gotten into something that was over my head. Fortunately, the final two boxes had mostly larger pieces, which meant fewer of them, so the sorting went a little faster. At the two-and-a-half hour mark, all pieces were sorted and counted, and every single one had at least as many as the instructions said should be there.

All pieces present and accounted for

And then I used the very big shipping box to block off this part of the basement, covered the basement door with a bed sheet to discourage kids and pets from wandering downstairs, and went to bed.

The second day, I began the building process. The manual is laid out in four stages. The first stage is primarily for building the core structure of the back half of the ship (the section where Master Chief and Cortana are left at the end of Halo 3). The second stage involves building the roof and side details for that section. The third and fourth stages repeat this process for the front half of the ship.

Again, I couldn't help but think it would've been nice if each stage corresponded to one of the four boxes, which would have contained the pieces required for that stage. I might have been able to build it at a desk instead of sprawled out across the basement floor. But alas, there was no easy way out of the fact that this is one monolithic model.

Detail of Chief and Cortana
Section 1

The first stage took a good three hours of my Wednesday night. Fortunately, I was able to finish this stage before I couldn't stay awake any longer. This section does include Master Chief's cryo pod and the special mini Cortana figure on the lighted pedestal. The build also included some "broken ship" details at the front, including disconnected hoses and pieces that seem to jut out into nowhere.

Section 2 built the roof of the rear section, including the Dawn's bridge. It kind of makes it obvious that the Dawn is not to the same scale as the rest of the models (there's no way the Pelican model would fit in it for deployment, for example), but that's rather to be expected; something approaching same-scale size would probably require its own garage to build — and display and store — it in.

There are a lot of pieces all over the side of the Dawn. As I was building it, I had to wonder, quite frequently, if the designer at some point just started putting random pieces just because it looked cool.

The wings were surprisingly difficult to attach. The bottom half is topped with a series of angled pieces that give it its shape, but trying to push two large plates into each other at an angle to secure them was a challenge — as was trying to push the wing into its locked position on the side of the ship without putting pressure on that angle. I had to reattach each wing a few times before I got it right.

The back quarter looks a bit like its own spaceship
The back half with roof and sides 

Section 2 was short enough that I was able to get a jump start on Section 3 before bed. By the end of Thursday night, the larger structural pieces of Section 3 (the main body of the front half of the ship) were in place.

I did come across two missing pieces when I was finishing Section 2 and building Section 3. I'm confident that I counted all the pieces, but I found I was missing a black claw-shaped piece and a dark grey grate-like piece. The claw piece, I was able to substitute a dark grey one in its place (even knowing it's there, it's very difficult to see anything amiss — see if you can spot it on one of the turret guns). The grate was a little harder to deal with. I had an extra black grate, but the difference would've been noticeable; a dark grey "ridged" piece from my stash of spare parts matched the color well enough, and even though it looks a little peculiar, it's not bad. I had the basement room blocked off, but I suspect either my wife may have brushed it accidentally going back to the storage area, or the cat wandered through and it snagged her hair. Or maybe my count was, in fact, off. Still, that would be my only piece problem, and out of 2800, two ain't bad.

Friday night started with the completion of Section 3. This section includes the weapon storage locker and the MAC cannon area. The front was definitely the more interesting section to build. The front is split into a top and bottom half, and the top half has a lot of pieces with studs on both sides that allowed for other pieces to hang, inverted, into the middle space. A couple clear plastic bricks hold the halves apart to give it some structural integrity.

Section 3 complete
Section 3 in front of Sections 1 & 2

A couple things were working in my favor for a timely completion of this build. One, my head start on Section 3 from Thursday night meant I was finished and ready to start Section 4 sooner. Two, with three sections done, the number of piles I had to scan through was rapidly decreasing.

One section to go, and not many pieces left

Section 4 went relatively quickly, especially since there were much fewer pieces to search through, and I was getting better at remembering which piles had which pieces after two previous days of searching through them. There were no further missing pieces, and after maybe an hour, Section 4 was done.

Attaching the back half to the front was quite easy. The builds were made to mesh together, only requiring removing the "broken hoses" from the back half before sliding them together with a satisfying click.

The roof covering the back sections is removed extremely easily, so it's no problem to pose characters and get shots like this:

It is about three feet long and quite heavy. I cleaned off a place in my office for its display. Unfortunately, it's right next to the Covenant Seraph, which makes the Seraph pretty darn huge for scale comparison.

Imagine the size of the cruiser that Seraph launched from

The final appearance of the Forward Unto Dawn is based on its appearance in Halo 4. It is quite different than Halo 3, where it had a more boxy appearance, a more pronounced gap between the front "jaws", and a very prominent cargo bay on the underside.

Probably took me about 8 hours of building time (not counting the 2½ hours sorting and counting pieces), and it was well worth the effort. This will probably be the biggest model in my collection, until Mega Bloks gets around to doing an in-scale version of the Mammoth, the Scarab, or heaven help me the Infinity (which holds multiple frigates like the Forward Unto Dawn in its launch bay).

A couple things I learned while building this model. One, if you're making an instruction manual for something like this and some of your pieces are black, use a color other than a slightly different black to outline it. There were many steps that used similar black pieces, and only by shining a flashlight directly on the manual could I make out the details that told me exactly which piece went where. And two, when you're nearly 40 years old, crawling around on the floor looking for building blocks is extremely tiring and makes for very sore aches and pains the next day.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #104


Join CyberKnight and the Geezer Gamers as we talk about all things gaming. From the Xbox, PlayStation, and Wii, to upcoming consoles like the Wii U and Ouya, to announcements and rumors of the Durango and the Orbis. Put the kids to bed and be a part of the show!


And previous episodes at