31 January 2014

Post Thoughts: Metro 2033

I finished my playthrough of Metro 2033 today and had to write up my thoughts ASAP lest it be forgotten along with a few other 'Post Thoughts' posts I've got lined up in draft form back here in the editing room. As usual - spoilers from here on out!

Story:


Don't you just love industrial decay?

Being based on a book series the story and backstory in Metro is pretty fleshed out. In fact I think that the overall story in the game, though told in a very straightforward and simplistic manner, is perfectly suitable for consumption and I would class it on the level of a Hollywood summer blockbuster in terms of quality and intricacy. 

There's not really much to discuss about the story in and of itself as it is so simplistic and an almost classic "Hero's journey" - you set out on a journey through a call to arms by a mentor figure, overcome several obstacles, receive secret information and then achieve the final goal depending on how you, the player, ultimately decide things should play out.

The morality system (which I'll discuss below in the mechanics section) gives the possibility of two endings. However, only one of the endings is considered canonical as the sequel follows on from this: the 'bad' ending. Strangely though, it's easier to get more positive moral points than negative and, as such, just being a bit curious throughout the game will net you the 'good' ending, which I quite liked as that last scene gives you some agency in the decision. I think it's a bit strange that the canonical ending is opposed to the one that I would imagine most players experienced.

As for agency, well, despite having that morality system in place, the player doesn't get much agency at all. In fact there are many plot progression points that require NPC intervention and also many fire fights that will result in the same way whether the player participates or not. This is disappointing and confusing for the player because the design is very inconsistent on these two points and I don't remember a single instance of the current requirement being communicated to you.


"This time, I'll open it for you. Next time? Maybe I expect YOU to open it for me!"

An example of this is when you're with a group of NPCs that you're working with to travel through some tunnels. You proceed through several encounters whereby it doesn't make sense for the player to even shoot any bullets as all the enemies will be taken care of in a scripted manner (either that or the NPCs are invulnerable), but then the next encounter all of your comrades can be overwhelmed and killed... then, directly following that encounter, despite you being out in front, spotting the next single enemy first and shooting it enough to kill it, the script says that it has to dramatically pounce on one of your companions and kill him. It's a real mish-mash of player agency and I feel it really damages the game because of this inconsistency.

Other times you're waiting for NPCs to help you out of situations but then very rarely (and it is the exception) the player is expected to do something with no prompting (like shoot out a beam blocking a door that had magically closed itself as you approached)...

Characters:


The character acting is the weakest part of the game - I think mainly because I would consider Metro a double A (AA) game rather than a triple A (AAA) title. Artyom doesn't speak except in the interludes between levels - which I actually think is a nice touch and allows the player to get into the head of the character they're playing - and the dialogues, motivations and lives of the other characters are largely opaque. That's not necessarily a bad thing as, travelling to a new place for a few hours won't get you that in real life either and it may be entirely on purpose to give the player a sense of being on a rollercoaster towards whatever end will occur and having no way to change the events that will occur... which actually makes the 'bad' ending make much more sense.


This guy is still trying to contact people out in the wastes! How many years has it been?

The game world is also pretty heavily fleshed-out, with the stations having a good amount of logic and character laid onto them. You see actual families, (children, women) authority and clerk-type figures as well as food production, bartering and political systems that would be needed to sustain some semblance of a society in this situation. A lot of love went into filling the spaces of the stations out and it shows.

Mechanics:


Metro 2033 has a lot of interesting design decisions in this area. The first is having the 'old world' bullets as currency is very interesting - they're also more powerful than the reconditioned ammo that the denizens of the metro stations make in their stead. Though, I have to say that I never really noticed much difference in practise... However, that might be due to the second interesting design decision: difficulty settings.

The difficulty settings are rather strange in this game - there are three normal style difficulties, with a twist, and two 'Ranger' difficulty settings.

The normal difficulties decrease the amounts of consumables in the game (i.e. bullets and filters) but also increase the amount of damage that everyone does. So, interestingly, easy might provide you with lots of ammo and let you take a lot of damage but then, so too, do the enemies. Normal and Hardcore then switch the settings around making you more vulnerable to damage whilst increasing the enemies'. The Ranger settings are completely different in game style - these make damage output very high but make everyone very fragile whilst also increasing enemy alertness and reducing the amount of consumables in the game compared to the equivalent normal setting.

I played on the Ranger Easy setting for this playthrough and found it mostly at about the right level of difficulty and gameplay preference.

Back to that 'bullets as currency' thing. It's an interesting concept but one that probably on the face of things doesn't hold up to thoughtful scrutiny. First off, there's a lot of fighting going on down in those metro tunnels. I highly doubt that using good ammo as currency would last for very long before being replaced by something else. Secondly, there really isn't a lot of reconditioned ammunition in the game. Yes, you can buy a lot from vendors but otherwise you don't pick up that much and I would think that the ratio would be much higher than it was for me. Overall, it doesn't really affect the game that much on the difficulty I chose to play on - it might on the normal difficulties due to enemies being bullet sponges

Next up is the gas mask and filters. There are areas of the game where the air is toxic (such as on the surface) and, putting aside the fact that this doesn't really make much sense as air mixes and the metro stations and tunnels are not and could not be sealed, the player must put on their gas mask lest they suffocate and die (well, it may not be suffocation but the player hears noises that are exactly like someone suffocating in a lack of oxygen so...). The gas mask muffles sounds, increases the loudness of the players laboured breathing and requires an active filter to work. Now, filters run out and need to be replaced. You can replace them manually but there's no reason to do so since Artyom will replace them when they are really necessary himself. 

The time limit on a filter is fairly short and it seems like (though I wouldn't bet on it because of the situations this would occur under) the filters are used up faster if your activity is higher - like when you are sprinting. The annoying thing is that the game has lots of Half Life 2-esque cutscenes whereby the player is trapped but wherein the countdown timer for the current filter is still going. Even more annoying were the bugs associated with filter use that I encountered on the current Steam version of the game (outlined in the Bugs section) and the fact that these short time limits never seemed to bother the other characters in the world!! So it was one of those do as I say and not as I do things that developers seem to love so much that scream of inconsistency in the game logic.

The gas masks themselves could be damaged and needed to be replaced - no longer protecting you from the harmful effects of the atmosphere. This was a good mechanic and, as long as you didn't hit an enemy wearing a gas mask in the fact and damage it you could retrieve it for yourself (as well as finding spares around the environment from time to time). The problem with this was, if you had hit the person in the head and damaged the gas mask, the filter was automatically damaged as well and, not only that, even if you didn't hit them in the face, the attached filter did not count as usable anyway. This led to several frustrating situations where I was having to restart the section of a chapter due to being unable to get a new gas mask filter.

The final mechanic was the overall removal of the traditional HUD. I liked this a lot but ultimately it was mostly useless. The first thing was that the players watch provided them with a time-frame for how long their filter would last, however, what this did was harm the player during the times when they had to switch out filters during an encounter and then had to wait out this un-interruptible sequence whereby you re-set your watch timer. I consistently thought during those moments, "I'm in a god-damned firefight - SO WHY THE HELL DO I CARE HOW MUCH TIME MY FILTER HAS REMAINING IF I CAN BE SHOT DEAD RIGHT THIS SECOND?!!". 


"What the-?" Sometimes a HUD is a useful thing!! Also, turn around once in a while!

Ahem.

Secondly, I found it a bit indecipherable and noticed no difference to the timer setting when putting in a partially used filter and a brand new one. Combined with the automatic changing of filters, this mechanic really didn't add anything to the game at all.

The other elements of this mechanic were the electric charge and the ammo amount in your clip. You had a personal charging device that you needed to flick out every now and again to see how much you had left and recharge it by furiously clicking on the mouse button. I liked that a lot as it was 'realistic' in the sense that you had this consumable that you had to manage and it encompassed things from your flashlight to your night vision goggles.

The ammo amount was less consistently handled and, for modes where the HUD is removed completely (Ranger Hardcore) I think it's quite difficult since there were no animations or ability for the player to manually check the clips on any of the weapons. For the metro-constructed weapons, they very often had open clips that had easy visibility but for the old-world weapons, most of their ammo was out of sight of the player, leaving you at the mercy of the bullet indicator in the HUD. I think that, ultimately, leaving the ammunition count HUD active was the right choice in the absence of a real system for monitoring your remaining reserves. Though, in a future game I would like to see this design principle taken to its end-point.

Technical issues/bugs:


The game was pretty bug-free though I don't know whether the following is truly a bug or just bad design:
Whenever I was using the gas mask the number of spare filters was constantly reduced (not through use - haha) but from dying and restarting from the last checkpoint again. I would find my filter amount not reset with the rest of my ammo and consumables. This made those sections that required the gas mask incredibly tricky in some instances because constant retrying would leave me with only one filter and the only other option was to quit the game and restart the whole section to get those filters back.

This 'bug' was only made worse by the way the game was designed in many areas whereby the correct way to proceed was not particularly clear and the player had to rely on trial and error.

Conclusion:


It'll all be alright in the end... A feeling of hope despite all the grim-dark reality we've experienced through the game.


I feel a bit conflicted over this game. Did I like it or not? I'm honestly not sure and it's not often I find myself in this sort of absence of overall opinion. I think the game has merits, that it's flawed and that the developers put a lot of effort of bringing the world of Metro 2033 to life in the game. I also found it to be very frustrating in parts, due to poor design and/or bugs. It was definitely worth playing through to its conclusion and I'll be certain to pick up the sequel at some point and have a bash at that. So I guess this is a tentative recommendation.

Backseat Designing:


The first thing I would do is alter the gas mask mechanic completely. I fully understand what the developers were going for: to instil a sense of danger and urgency into the outside world and to force 'interesting' choices on the player for how they interacted with those enemies they met in the overworld. However, combined with the bug I mentioned above and the propensity of the developers to have long-winded in-game cutscenes that did not stop the timer on the gas mask usage (I died in a few of them!) the mechanics just aren't fun and, IMO don't really work all that well.

My change would be to make the gas mask filters last much longer and also their timer would be suspended during cutscenes wherein the player is unable to progress naturally (since they are being artificially held in place anyway). We're talking about something of the order of a whole outside mission can be sustained on one filter... However, I would make the gas mask much more claustrophobic. It's one of the defining things that people who have had to wear those types of gas masks say about them - your perception is severely limited. So this would require having a large in game FOV, providing the player with a much better sense of their surroundings when not wearing the gas mask. Having worked in industries that use masks with filters (though not specifically a gas mask like the one they use in the game) I can also attest to this feeling of losing a portion of your senses - at least where it pertains to vision, as I never had my ears covered the sound was fine. What I would also add is that they are very heavy - those filters on the front really weigh down your head/neck and unbalance it to an unnatural degree. So, adding to the increase in length of time, I would also make it so that turning of the camera/player's head takes longer and has more of a momentum to it, making you less accurate in aiming. 
The developers already have an instance similar to this in the game when you choose to help a young boy get back to his station/family.


That kid's heavy but not as bad as the stupid filter system!

The second thing I would change is the ending. Take out that choice at the end, take out the morality system but leave in the decisions anyway since they make the game world a more interesting place. Instead I would have the positive ending in place, with the dark one saying it wants peace, but with Artyom unable to act in time to stop the act of war from occurring due to the mental struggle he's had with the dark one. Coming to the realisation that the wrong thing is about to happen because of your actions and being unable to stop it through the actions and struggles of the person/entity trying to stop you is a more powerful ending than either current finale offers.

28 November 2013

Tablets... the curse of "good enough". [Updated]

I always looked at tablets with slitted eyes. I didn't like them - I didn't really see the need for them and I really didn't think they were useful. After all I had my desktop PC for everything - big, powerful and very versatile. Big is always better, right?

Well, I then came into contact with an iPad - one that I'd rather stupidly bought for my significant other (hey, they wanted one and I don't let my petty grievances or opinions get in the way!) - and... it wasn't so bad. Only, after using the tablet for some time, I am once again veering towards disliking the platform as a user-oriented device.

It's not an Apple vs Android thing, I know this much because I also dislike my Android phone, it's the touch screen... and even the size of the screen that's such a factor in my dislike of them. Tablets and to a lesser extent phones are great for viewing the internet and video files but they're pretty much terrible for any other task that requires a keyboard and/or mouse. Writing a short comment is about as far as I can go nowadays without becoming frustrated with the interface and the shenanigans that the developers of the interface software have gotten to.

Whether it's re-inputting the text I just deleted, jumping back to the beginning of the post after entering half of the sentence at the end of the post, being unable to reliably select text to copy and/or drag the selection markers to where you want them (god forbid you want to scroll at the same time!!) or wanting to correct the spelling of a word by clicking on it and not get bogged down by trying to unselect the autocorrect box that pops up in the way without making the cursor go to another part of the screen... the whole experience is terrible! 

Of course, therein lies the problem: most people don't need to write anything other than a few words using a tablet. 

It's good enough.

More serious users use a linked keyboard that is always cheap (though not in the monetary sense) feeling and mushy - likely to give any person using them for long periods some sort of RSI. They are tiny (to go with their tiny devices) and this is where the next two problems come in.

First of all, the cradles and stands that come for these tablet devices just don't offer any sort of great angle options for tall people and if you manage to position it "just so" you're likely to suffer from a lot of glare and reflection off the screen (assuming you've wiped off all those greasy fingerprints).

Secondly, those keyboards don't work well on the lap - where you want to use the tablet most!! If I want something on the table then I'm going to have a proper sized screen with a proper stand and a proper keyboard. The tablet's use is, at least to my design sensibilities, specifically not for that scenario.

This all isn't even taking into account the quirks of the platform(s) - the constantly having to manage apps in memory by shutting them down or clearing all running programmes, for example. The last time I was regularly doing this was when I was having to write autoexec.exe and config.sys files so that I could get windows 3.11 stable enough to play the game I wanted. I thought tablets are supposed to be easy for non-techie people?
Then there's the problem that the computational power requirements are advancing so quickly that a brand new top of the line tablet will be next to useless in 2-3 years time due to slow down... This is a terrible waste. Though, I've never been one to upgrade my phone every year or two so maybe I don't appreciate this feature.

So what's the take-away from this rant? Not much, really. Tablets aren't as bad as I thought they were but they are also worse than I thought they could be. They're "good enough" devices but, inevitably, they're not good enough for me... yet.

[edit]

And I've changed my mind: there is a take-away. (I really should learn to sit on posts for longer!!)

The problem is that this radical shift towards these mobile experiences by the mass market is having a huge impact on the traditional PC hardware industry. Everyone wants SOCs and integrated devices and that means that the traditional PC will, in my worried opinion, start to send prices for hardware higher and higher. I remember when a simple 286 or 386 was above £1000 (okay, I'm not that old) but if the only customers of low-end PC parts are corporations and the only customers of mid/high-end parts are gaming enthusiasts and video/audio editing people then we have a hugely shrinking market that's going to see a contraction in the number of companies able to compete, a lower revenue and thus research and thus innovation.

It's scary to think that within 20 years time we could go back to the situation where a high end PC costs multiple thousands of (adjusted) pounds compared to today as a matter of course. It's like imagining if those Casio calculator/programmable watches were the main means of computation in the 80s compared to the vastly more powerful and capable beige desktops that were in very limited use.

In this imaginary future world, PC is no longer a dominant player in the games arena, iOS and Android rule the roost on the casual side whereas consoles (both handheld and the boxes under your TV) rule the roost on the core gamer side. All major access to gaming is controlled by the platform owner and operated out of walled gardens (also in an eerily similar nature to the 80s and early 90s!). PC gamers are suffering the same fate as Mac gamers in the 80s and 90s with very few titles supported. This gets even more fragmented and confusing if you believe that the ARM architecture will make a serious entry into the desktop market.

It's a hellish nightmare of a place (only joking, but it is a very different ecosystem from today.)...

I wonder if this is the future that Valve is seeing and if this is why they've made the move toward their "Steam Box" style of console. If it becomes popular enough then it's the only way a company like Valve can survive in a future such as the one depicted above. Similarly, if companies like those that make devices like Occulus Rift don't get on board with console platform holders (they previously said that they wouldn't even want to get the device to work on consoles) and/or work closely with Valve to ensure Steam box and Linux compatibility then they are doomed to irrelevance.

30 October 2013

Is Batman the best videogame superhero ?

Having spent a large portion of the weekend playing Batman: Arkham Origin's campaign through to completion I wondered why the superhero genre is so poorly represented in my "good games" column in the gaming medium. I guess there are several aspects to the reasons behind this so I thought I'd jot down my thoughts on the issue:
  • Emotional and social connection/understanding (relatability)
  • Variation of powers/abilities (or lack thereof)
  • World building
Many, not all, popular heroes are nothing like normal human beings. Superman, Wonder Woman, a lot of the X-Men, Iron Man and Captain America are all beings that are very powerful and, in many ways invulnerable. In comparison, they also lack much of the humanity and day-to-day personalities that we might tend to associate with ourselves and our peers.

Emotionally stronger, more "grounded" heroes like Iron Man and Batman essentially rely on a hyper intelligence and deductive reasoning (as if a mating of Einstein and Sherlock Holmes had broached them into reality) along with huge amounts of wealth. Heroes in general are overly intelligent and these guys lie at different points on that intelligence/reasoning spectrum, especially Iron Man who is a bit skewed toward omnipotence, but the two of them basically tend to lean heavily on their vast amounts of wealth in order to succeed.

None of these aspects are very relatable for the general human populace - they're great for show piece scenes in a movie but leave little to nothing backing up those scenes during the character development. It's one of the reasons why Spiderman, despite some middling cinematic appearances, continues to be popular - he's smart, young and struggles with life: as much as we all do... and yet making a good game using that character has also proven difficult to pull off with quite a few flops to the franchises' name.

Despite that popularity, Spiderman isn't that great a hero to play because he's so young (or at least is usually portrayed in that high school life). His great motivation was is his Uncle's morality system - "With great power comes great responsibility." - and that's fine, except that it doesn't really cause much of an interesting decision because he always tries to do the right thing (which usually isn't all that hard to fathom) and, as far as I've ever seen, doesn't question this stance once that initial lesson is learned. That may be why Spiderman always has a good/great origin story - because that lesson can be learned and understood by the audience... everything after that is as pulpy as a 1930s action show like Flash Gordon. Now, I enjoy Spiderman a lot so that's not to say that the content there isn't good, I just don't think it makes a good game to play through.

Ask any fan of Spiderman which game is the best and why. While the favourite game might be different (Usually Spiderman 2 or one of the more recent releases such as Web of Shadows) the reason is always "web-slinging'. Just that simple act of movement around a cityscape is very rewarding - the freedom of movement, speed and agility (despite the unreality of always having something above you! ;) ) is the primary motivator for the gameplay feel.

Spiderman isn't primarily a combatant - he's superstrong (very much so!) but he's an agile opponent who uses sneakier, less obvious tactics than a brawler. He's not out there, getting bad guys for a reason - he just gets them when he sees them because he must - with the exception of his nemeses.

Batman, in contrast, appears to be almost perfect as a hero for players to identify with: Physically powerful enough to stand his ground. Agile enough to escape. Smart enough to figure out clues and ways of escaping situations. An emotional motivation that people can relate to that characterises his response to criminals and events in the world and provides an interesting dilemma by which to hinge decent stories on.

Batman ignores the travails of his personal life (for the most part) eschewing the normality that he wishes to protect from encroachment of the criminal element. It's never questioned why he's out there doing his thing... Spiderman isn't so easily universally justified in his work/life/hero ratio. Certainly he is sometimes portrayed as more egotistical - which fits in with his fame-seeking hero antics - but this isn't always so clear cut. Is "doing the right thing" stopping crime? Or should it be using his intelligence to solve the world's problems or his neogenics/whatever origin story to improve the lot of disfigured and disabled people around the world? Spiderman is complicated in a messy way - one that ultimately, in my opinion, proves less interesting.

The character also has many strings to his bow - many of which are underutilised. His title as the Sherlock Holmes-esque "The World's Greatest Detective" is rarely justified in any game he appears in (though it's getting better since the Arkham series was born) as are his strategic and interpersonal skills that help him spawn such a network of supporters, followers and super hero entities and partnerships. His physicality and the gadgets are the defining features that most people are familiar with and, even there, we have quite a lot of variation for players to latch onto.

Spiderman has one ability - or piece of equipment, depending on his origin story - the web shooter. Batman has whatever the storyteller needs. Spiderman typically has only one costume per continuum. Batman has whatever costumes the creator wants to include (though some are not canon) because it's expected that Batman's equipment evolves over time as he improves it and he gains experience. Spiderman doesn't need this because of his lack of physical vulnerability though there are cool alternate reality versions of Spiderman.

Now, a lot of these positives (from a gameplay perspective) for Batman, also apply to heroes like Iron Man and Blue Beetle (though not as popular) but I think that the depth of these characters is shallower than Batman and they also lack the most important aspect of the Batman's arsenal: his antagonists.

The strongest Batman stories are framed against these antagonists - they tend to be reflections of some aspect of humanity that Batman himself should be tempted to partake in and yet does not. The whole Batman/Joker dichotomy revolves around this and even some antagonists are born from it (e.g. Harvey Dent). Iron Man just fights things that need fighting - they come to him (one way or another) because he is powerful. The world that spawned Batman also spawned these other personalities and the themes are parallel to our own world and that makes them, at least from my perspective, intrinsically more interesting to play in and with.

Also, coming back to that strategic network I mentioned earlier, because Batman doesn't originate from any [insert poorly understood science] accident or off-world genesis he can procreate: he can seed new characters. As a result of this Batman as a defined character arc that spans angst/anger-ridden childhood that spawns psychological issues, tearaway teenage years and early twenties to caped crusader early years through to adoptive protector and trainer later years... and, finally, to passing on the torch to the next generation (Batman Beyond).

Other heroes can't do this. Spiderman can't pass on his genetic abilities to a new Spiderman (well, maybe a baby?) any more than Superman can. In order for them to team up with other people or heroes those people have to be their own super beings - with all the baggage and expectation that entails. Since Batman isn't super-powered, he is able to generate other characters from which to interface and work with - each of which being able to have their own character and flaws independent of being a hero because they're only human and don't have to adhere to being something more than the rest of us.

If you look at something like the X-Men, it's not really about one particular mutant (yes, I know, "Wolverine"! though he's really the Superman of that universe) but about the group of them together - individually they are not that strong as characters or in powers and I tend to see them as a collective 'hero' rather than a collection of heroes. Sort of like seeing the Armed Forces in a movie as being the hero instead of the super-powered monstrosities that are generally used to manifest human superiority in the movies.

I'd like to see a next gen Arkham game that takes place in between the dereliction of City but after Origins' lone soldier where Batman takes the other Batman family of characters under his wing (so to speak) and learning to deal with that. Origins already had a very, very brief stint with another character fighting alongside you and City had you dealing with your allies. You could even call the "wards" in or send them off on missions like in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. They could level up in skill and experience based on how much you use them in combat or by sending them off on side missions. If they're not up to the task they could fail or be captured - with Batman having to rescue them. This could even lead to co-op play in the open world with a friend or two! Bagsy Batman!

There's plenty more material to explore in a Batman game that hasn't been covered yet and I hope they manage to really delve deep into this character and world.

23 October 2013

Goodbye GamesIndustry.biz...? [Updated]

I've been an avid reader and poster on GamesIndustry.biz for a good few years now but recent changes are pushing me away from the site.

First off the site content has slowly become more tabloid in nature since their joining with a US-based entity - I have forgotten the site name at the moment! It's generally not so bad and I wasn't planning on stopping being involved with the community there but today or maybe yesterday they made one further change: even though I have an account with them I am no longer able to post comments on articles.

Now, it's not like the site in question hasn't gone through some changes over the last few years. Originally you could track the posts you have participated in - which was really useful when continuing conversations with other developers on the site - but got rid of that feature right around the time they merged with the US site.

Then they blocked all pages from people without an account. They rescinded that choice once I'm sure they saw their relevance and page views death-spiral off a cliff! GI.biz then implemented a commenting rating system with "stars" which people could click on to show they liked a post (I had quite a few starred posts).

Now, finally, they're reducing the conversation to only those with "verified" accounts. Whatever that means! I mean, if I'm a freelancer - which I am - how do I verify myself? Why is my account - that was presumably in good standing - no longer verified?

The other thing that really hurts the site is that now there is no critical feedback from smaller devs or people interested in the community. It creates a walled garden composed of mostly like-minded people who echo their opinions on whatever topics are brought into view by the site itself. This is a bad thing for GI.biz and for the games industry in general.

Yes, there may be a feeling that having "outsiders" (who don't know what they're talking about!) devalues the conversation or that they have no reason or need to be there but those outside views are very important to retain balance within the industry - within any industry. It is vital to the health of any industry that they allow conversations between both those within and without otherwise mindsets will tend to stagnate and people lose touch with those of differing opinions. Like it or not, differing opinions help us challenge and grow - even if those opinions are not correct, they make us analyse the paths we are travelling on.

Hopefully, this will be another move that is rescinded or at least easily passed as I enjoyed the conversations that popped up on there from time to time. I will update here with how the "verification process" goes.

[Update] 
It appears I've been "reinstated". No communication, no nothing. I'm not a fan of these sorts of things in the first place - it's really bad in a general business sense (from experience in my current sphere of work) but also terrible from a user perspective. No reason is given - yet you somehow manage to flail through the system regardless...

[Update 2]
I received an email from James Grant (Commercial & HR Manager) explaining the decision:

Specifically, with your recent experience of re-entering the verification process, we simply wanted to get away from very generic professions on profiles.

This is fair enough and I can understand their wanting to do this - even if I disagree with them on what effect it can have on the commentary and discussions within a site. However, effectively locking a person's account to do so really did give a poor user experience which may have been better served through a user form or survey.

22 October 2013

PC was all about the hardware, now it's all about the Hardware...

I remember, if you will permit the brief reminiscing, when PC gaming was all about the hardware and, to a lesser extent, the software. Back in those heady days of the late 80s and early-mid 90s it seemed like each new game that I purchased required some new PC upgrade in order to function properly. CD-ROMs, dedicated graphics cards, new RAM, monitors (CGA/VGA etc), new, infinitely more powerful, CPUs.... SOUNDCARDS!

I used to lie there on my bed, a magazine in my hands or draped across my chest in a haze of imagining. It was a drug that I was happy to partake in; a fuel for dreams of the future. The sad thing is that this wasn't really a happy time. There was too much vendor lock-in, too many things that didn't play well together and which ended up being abandoned after a low adoption by players and/or the industry.

Luckily, we sort of got over that phase. Things calmed down in the early 2000s, tech became cheaper and, whilst upgrades were still required, a decent video card, sound card and CPU would basically cover you for everything for a couple of years (and then a GPU upgrade!). Monitors were very stable too. It got even better in the mid-2000s, with integrated sound chips on the motherboard and overall improved hardware and OSes that required less-tweaking and "expert" knowledge.

I think that, in some respects, we've been in a bit of a golden age since about 2006-2013. Tech slowed down enough that a single mid/high-range PC might last you 4-6 years as long as you weren't obsessed about ever increasing your desktop resolution or achieving perfect anti-aliasing. I myself was still using a 17" CRT until 2009 (and I still use it when I visit home!). Even now I'm on a 1600x900 LCD and the PC I have is into its third year with no sign of needing an update to play games on medium or high settings. Sure, the GPU fan is loud - I can't do anything about that and I'm not convinced that switching up to a much more expensive GPU at the same resolution will really fix that issue - but otherwise the box itself is perfect for my needs.

Things are changing though. The traditional PC sector is having a bit of trouble in driving sales, partially due to this part stability and partially due to the explosion of "good enough" tablet devices being sold to that majority of people who were previously sold cheap Dells and HPs to browse the web and send emails.

Out of this carnage and the mild associated industry panic, we are seeing an increase in commoditised Hardware. I'm putting a capital 'H' here because these new trend isn't about incremental improvements to your PC but actual sealed unit (or complete kit) improvements. I'm talking about the Oculus Rift, the G-sync monitors, NVidia shield and the steam controller.

Now, I'm not saying that there haven't been peripherals before... Of course there have! However, what I am saying is that there is a movement within the industry to innovate through new hardware experiences. These aren't particularly cheap, either and it's funny to see this parallel coming from that (for me) early period in the 90s where it feels like we may have a similar experience in a few years of not being able to get the best out of a game because we don't have the right hardware to experience it as it was conceived.

I'm also not saying that this is a bad thing either. I think things like the Oculus and Steam controller have the potential to be great additions to the landscape of PC gaming - even if I'm still sceptical of their eventual impact. Other innovations such as the G-sync monitors have more obvious improvements - at least to my mind, but unfortunately are vendor specific... which isn't good.

As lots of people have stated time and time again: History repeats itself. Let's hope these companies are taking into account the mistakes of the past...