Friday, March 28, 2014
When I reviewed The Last of Us, I complained about how very unfun it was until I finally understood the game system and how it worked. A lot of it was that the game was continuously teaching me how to play, and between me being a slow learner and the reviews I'd read prior to the game, I'd approached it completely wrong. But by the time I really got it, the game became fun. The final scene where Ellie rescues herself from her kidnapper was like a final exam in everything the game had tried to teach you. (The fight against Mr. Freeze in Batman Arkham City serves the same function) Everything was put together right and I was never tempted to even look online for help.
I bring up these examples because they illustrate so clearly how a game can be done right and the game play leading into the climax exercises all the player skills that the game has taught him. Bioshock Infinite does it completely wrong. For one thing, none of the encounters prior to the climax require the kind of tactical and strategic thinking that was required to survive. Furthermore, the power-ups prior to the encounter all had the default selection set to the worst possible choice you could have made coming into the encounter. The result was that the game felt seductively easy enough to play (on easy settings), that you got to the final encounter only to get a whammy that felt like an infinite difficulty spike.
Now, I would probably have powered through anyway if the story had a decent payoff. Now the technical differences between the Naughty Dog team and the Irrational team really shows. The cut-scenes in The Last of Us are full of human interaction and expression, with every nuance of character reflected in the facial animation, body language, and acting. Bioshock Infinite doesn't have cut-scenes, but the animated models used by Irrational aren't subtle enough to carry the story off. Elizabeth is flat, and doesn't interact with Booker anywhere close to the way Ellie interacts with Joel. The result is that the connection between Booker and Ellie feel forced and not as believable, which reduced my motivation to finish the game.
The net-result is that I watched the ending of the game on YouTube instead of playing through the climax. It's a decent ending without howlers, but definitely does not have the emotional tension and payoff from The Last of Us, or even Tomb Raider.
In any case, if you're a hard core first person shooter player I think Bioshock Infinite would be for you. For the rest of us, I'd recommend giving it a pass. The payoff just isn't worth the work, and the game play is unfun and breaks down right at the end of the game when it matters.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Enter the Sennheiser CX-200. These are relatively cheap, retailing at $18, and you can occasionally find a deal for under $15. They're twist in, and you get a little bit of sonic isolation, but not so much that you can't hear your kid (or your wife). They're light and easy to carry, and not bulky at all, though on a plane you'd still rather have the Etymotics.
The sound quality is decent, though of course if I'm at home, I'd much rather use my PortaPro or PX100s. But you can't buy the PX100s any more, and the PX200s that replace them have terrible reviews and cost a lot more. The PortaPro, meanwhile, sounds great but is really bulky, so you're not really going to carry them out of the house.
Of course, these beat the heck out of the ear buds that came with your phone, iPod, or other portable music player. So if you're still using those, I'd recommend these as an upgrade.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
The negative reaction can be explained by the principle of reciprocity. The initial kickstarter backers of Oculus Rift and game developers thereof provided a gift to Oculus Rift. The gift was intended to bring about an independent hardware platform that would be (rightly or wrongly) dominated by the requirements driven by gamers. The backers did not intend to provide venture capital for Oculus to make a quick exit, and certainly not to sell out to a big company with a history of indifference towards games, and has a platform that has historically supported games like Farmville, anathema to the hardcore gamers that comprise Oculus' demographic.
As for Facebook, this acquisition is an counter to the usual industry trends. The amount of compute power required to drive something like the Oculus Rift is enormous and power hungry. It is unlikely that the Oculus Rift can be tethered to anything less powerful than a Playstation 4 any time soon, and certainly won't be able to run on any of the laptops typically distributed to a Facebook employee, let alone the smartphones favored by the trendy. It looks geeky, is unfashionable, and looks ridiculous when worn. The only possible good it could do Facebook in the medium term is if it got them into the living room.
Corporate head-honchos at Google, Amazon, and Apple have long looked at the living room game console as the entry point to taking over the entertainment center of the home. The numbers look tempting to the corporate types. Hardcore game consoles from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have only penetrated 56% of US households. The other 44% looks ripe for disruption. However, these corporate types tend to have zero passion for gaming, and most have never so much as held a gaming controller in their hands. They tend to envision something like the Ouya or the Chromecast, neither of which provide sufficient power or quality content to get 6 year-olds excited about them, let alone the hard core gamers. They fail to understand that the quality of content (whether it be a video game or high quality blu-ray viewing or streaming) is the reason why so far, the game consoles have had a huge market share for living room usage.
The Facebook acquisition of Oculus Rift runs counter to that type of corporate thinking, and might actually succeed, if it doesn't start off by pissing off so many hard core supporters that it has poisoned the well. That disadvantage is possible to overcome, but only by Facebook doing a thorough job of winning over gamers and the developers through the kind of largesse that so far, only Sony has proven to be capable of doing. Since Sony's morpheus platform would presumably be tied to Sony's platforms, the Oculus Rift is still the best hope for mass market adoption of VR technology.
My prediction is that Facebook will screw it up with gamers (it's very unlikely given its corporate culture that it would do otherwise), and 5 years from now will look at Oculus as a poor acquisition, while Sony's morpheus project will see a very small niche similar to that the Playstation Move has been. Sony simply does not have the financial ability to take big losses in order to drive market adoption, while Facebook lacks the cultural understanding of gaming to be able to do much other than to poison the well with its ideal early adopters.
- Cyclists tend to visit small towns and rural areas. It's frequently difficult to buy SIM cards in those areas. In 2011, it took multiple days in France before we could buy more than 1 SIM card.
- Pre-paid SIM cards with internet plans aren't always cheap or easy to get.
- You end up with this big collection of SIM cards and swapping them around as well as keeping track of how much money was on each card became problematic.
- Off-line navigation and maps. Prior to travel, or any time you have WiFi, you can download maps of any and all countries onto the device. If you're familiar with Google Map's off-line modes you're probably thinking that this is useless. But this is Nokia's maps we're talking about. Nokia owns Navteq, and and it's maps are actually designed to operate off-line. What this means is that routing, address search, etc all works without access to online mode. This is FAR more useful than Google Map's off-line mode. This not only reduces your data use while traveling, it enables you to find destination even in places with no data connection. Yes, the device has a real GPS unit, so navigation while offline is accurate and reasonable.
- FM Radio. This is a very unusual feature, in that it's implemented by using your headphone's wires as an antenna. This means no need to worry about paying for Spotify, etc. Of course, in some countries, FM radio might not get you any English songs or programs, but if you're a cyclist on an independent cycle tour, getting in part of the culture is a plus, not a minus.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Sunday, March 23, 2014
Buzz spends a lot of time on the physiology and biology behind caffeine and the effects it has on your body. Caffeinated, however, spends more time on the commercial side. For instance, it covers not just coffee and tea, but the plethora of energy drinks, pick-me-ups, and military applications of caffeine, as well as various food incidents that caused the FDA to take action. For instance, it mentions that the earliest documented source of caffeine was from chocolate, which I thought was interesting, since I'd always thought that the use of Tea in China and India long predated that.
It did provide several pieces of information that I previously didn't know, such as the fact that the orange soda drink, Sunkist, contains caffeine! And a significant amount of it at that! Fanta, by contrast, does not. It never ceases to amaze me what the FDA is or is not allowed to regulate, and the book provides quite a list of kid-enticing snacks that surprised me as containing caffeine.
In any case, the book does explain why in recent years, it's been harder and harder for me to find power-gel or gu type products that don't contain caffeine. It appears to have been used as a performance enhancing drugs by professional athletes ever since it was removed from the prohibited list in 2004!
All in all, I'd say that the book's a quick read and well worth a shot, but I found myself skimming several chapters in boredom as the author never wants to say in a paragraph what he can use an entire chapter to write about. Not really recommended, but as I wrote this review, I realized I learned more from the book than I thought I had, so I can't really dismiss it either.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
I went through the book this morning looking to see if there was an easy way to convert it into a Kindle book. The truth is, it's way too graphics heavy to do well as a Kindle book, and I would feel terrible doing an automatic conversion: the results would be truly horrendous. So buy this book on PDF or on Paper. That' the way it was designed, and that's the way it should be read. I know that makes me a holdout, but when you see the book you'll understand why.
Update: The print copy of the book has been price reduced to $25.16
Sunday, March 16, 2014
The way you can tell Kostler's a poseur is that he uses terms like "source code" inappropriately through the book, as though trying to show that he has some deep insight that he is uniquely qualified to tell. No engineer or computer scientist worth his salt would use the words "source code" the way he does, and on closer inspection, it appears that Kostler did a "search-and-replace" for "source" with "source code" throughout the text.
I'm not dismissing Flow or Mindfulness in any way. Nearly every unimpoverished human has experienced flow at one point or another in his life. I've threaded harrowing descents down Italian mountains with inches to spare between my handlebars and a pick up truck coming up on a narrow winding road, and piloted boats out of ports with sidewinds where mistakes would mean disaster, but I don't claim to have any deep insight to flow that are inaccessible to others. More prosaically, nearly every video gamer that has played a perfect level of Tetris or say, Naughty Dog's sublime Among Thieves has experienced flow, since of all the genres of media, video games are the best at eliciting and enabling flow.
Kotler, however, is after the multi-billion dollar corporate contract, so writing about how video game companies engineer flow into their games wouldn't be interesting. Instead, what he has to do is to flatter corporate head-honchos into thinking that they can be compared with such luminaries as Shane McConkey, who pioneered extreme skiing. The reality is, most corporate VPs or CEOs (Richard Branson and Gary Erikson excepted) couldn't do an independent cycle tour in the alps without a supporting entourage, let alone do any of the death defying stunts described in this book. Even the late Galen Rowell would have been happy to tell you that a National Geographic expedition is anything but flow-inducing, with 300 porters toting huge amounts of camera equipment and film.
Now the stories in this book are interesting, and are the saving grace of the book. Since I'm not a big fan of Surfing, snow sports, or BASE jumping, this was my introduction to athletes such as Laird Hamilton, Shane McConkey or J. T. Holmes. Of course, note that McConkey died trying to do one of those death-defying stunts, as did several of the athletes described in this book. Any sane person would say, "Yeah, this shows that no amount of flow-hacking can eliminate the laws of physics and probablity", but of course, Kostler merely claims that McConkey's survival for so long doing so many insane stunts shows that Flow enables you to be a superman.
Kotler's attempts, then, to link the extreme athlete's in-the-moment flow to the businessman's startup, or investment, or management of a meeting, is laughable in the face of all this. Certainly, nobody's life is at risk when attempting a corporate takeover (though several livelihoods are, the members of the 1% who do this aren't risking anything except next year's bonus, if that), or investing in a startup, or doing the next performance review. As my college class mate Jonathan Blow said, "anyone conflating the risk of business with the actual risk a rescue worker has to take is either stupid or wants to take your money by flattering or impressing you."
All in all, the book is worth reading for the stories of the extreme athletes in it. That's the only reason to read it. All the other business mumbo jumbo needs to be ignored. And for heavens sake don't give Kotler any business if you can help it. Check the book out from the library or borrow it if you're an Amazon prime member. Do not buy!
Monday, March 10, 2014
These disintegration of services I used to rely on, like Google Reader are annoying and painful, but none have been irreplaceable yet, though I still have yet to find a suitable replacement for Reader. My deepest fear is that Google Voice will be discontinued, and that for me would be an irreplaceable service.
Sunday, March 09, 2014
Just as with The Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead is an old style point and click interactive adventure. It claims that the game adapts to the choices you make, and that your decisions can affect the rest of the game down stream. This is true, but only to a very limited extent. For instance, characters will remember the decisions, speeches, and actions that affected them and talk to you about them later. Sometimes, you might have to choose between rescuing one person or the other, and that decision will carry over to the next episode. However, the combinatorial explosion from providing a fully branching story-line would be too much even for the 2.5GB of storage the game consumes on your memory card, so the game cheats.
The problem with this cheating is that it robs you of the game's promise, and it's particularly obvious during emotionally tense moments of the game. For instance, episode 3 has a mystery that the player solves very quickly by meta-gaming: there's one character you're not allowed to interview or accuse, and of course, that character did it. Well, that's frustrating by itself, since there's a reveal in episode 4 and you're supposed to be surprised. But the worst thing about this set up is that the result is that one of the characters you saved previously is shot and killed instead, and another character is left behind. It's one thing to be not smart enough to solve the mystery, it's another to not be allowed to solve the mystery even when you know what happened and who to accuse.
If this was an isolated event, I'd be inclined to forgive and forget. But something extremely similar happens in the last episode, where despite your pleading to the contrary, the plot moves ahead and removes agency from you. Now, you'll note that I was more than happy to forgive and forget Uncharted 2 or The Last of Us despite both games being essentially linear with zero control over the story, but The Walking Dead kept reminding me at the start of each episode (there are 5 in total, plus a 6th collection of related short stories) that I'm constantly reminded of the failure to fulfill that promise. Furthermore, both those afore-mentioned games are primarily action games which do their jobs really well.
The Walking Dead, however, is full of technical glitches, at least on the Vita. The game frequently stutters, sometimes even loops, and has unsatisfying controls. If you use the touch screen controls, you don't get to selection actions on objects when you touch them, but at least the "action" portion of the games like shooting zombies is easily achievable. If you use the joystick controls and buttons, you have much finer control of the action, but the "action" portion of the games (like in episode 4) are virtually unachievable, taking me upwards of 6 tries. This would be fine if the game allowed you to use both interfaces at once, but no, you have to pick one or the other and can't switch during the episode.
In any case, I cannot recommend this game for anyone other than die-hard fans of the comic books or TV series. The story is decent, and many have reviewed the game as having a better story than the TV series, which saves me the time of having to ever watch the TV series. Even for those die-hard fans, I would suggest either the PS3 version or the PC version, with the PC version preferred for $8.50. If you can wait for a steam sale you can get the games for under $5. The reviews for the game online are nothing short of stellar (and Sony believes those reviews, since it created a bundle for the holidays), but for this reviewer anyway, I felt the premise of the game was not delivered because of the technical problems and the ham-fisted approach to plot. Not recommended.
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
The one possibility that could derail my predictions is if Steam boxes take off, but given that Steam boxes will run Linux, and not support much of the existing game library, I do not expect them to be a major player. Steam boxes have a bunch of issues, not least of which is that each steam box would have a different configuration, meaning that the uniform platform that game developers would get as far as consoles are concerned wouldn't exist. I expect steam machines to combine the worst defects of both PCs and consoles.
The driver for the next generation of consoles will most likely to be 4K TV. If you look at what would be acceptable for 4K gaming today, the anandtech analysis would be that no less than 4 Titan GTX video cards would be needed to drive a AAA 4K game at 60+fps. This is at max settings, however, and consoles do not need max settings to be good enough, so maybe 3 GTX video cards would be sufficient. Each of the GTX video cards is about $700 today, so 3 of them would be $2100. If we assume that the consumer part for these devices have to get down below $200 in order for them to be commercially viable, that would be four Moore's cycles to get to $132 for the compute equivalent of 3 GTX video cards.
The traditional Moore's cycle is 18 months, but in recent years, it's been more like 2-3 years, or 8-12 years. However, there are several factors. First of all, it might not be necessary to deliver games at the full 4K resolution. The 7th generation of game consoles only delivered 720p resolution to HDTVs, and it's entirely feasible that the 9th generation of consoles would deliver say, 2560x1440 resolution rather than "true" 4K. This would be particularly attractive for whoever lost the 8th generation console wars, since that vendor (currently Microsoft) would be more motivated to start the 9th generation wars earlier rather than allowing the 8th generation to be dominated by a major competitor. It's entirely feasible that Nintendo could do this as little as 4 years out, but given their recent statements, I do not expect them to try to compete on the basis of CPU or GPU horsepower with Sony or Microsoft. Secondly, it's quite possible that dedicated gaming hardware that has software written close to the metal will outperform Anandtech's benchmarks. Put all this together and I expect the next generation of consoles to be deliver within 5 years, rather than the 8 years between the PS3 and PS4. This is made much more likely now that both consoles are on the x86 architecture rather than custom hardware, enabling more frequent updates.
I have to say that I'm fairly excited about 4K, though I disagree that 4K streaming is necessarily a good thing. HD streaming already looks much worse than Blu Ray to my eyes, so my guess is that it would take a higher bandwidth delivery format than Blu Ray for 4K to truly take off.
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
The mystery becomes much less of one when you consider recent computer ownership trends. Most laptops simply do not have the GPU capable of running modern games. For instance, the highest end Apple Macbooks and iMacs have an Nvidia GT 750M inside them. This is a 722 GFlop GPU with 384 stream units. That sounds very impressive, until you consider the PS3 and PS4 each have more than 2 TFlops of performance, with the PS4 running 1152 shader units. But that's not all, the high end Apple machines are driving 2880x1800 displays or 2650x1440 displays, while the PS3 is only driving 720p output and the PS4 is only going to drive 1080p output. In other words, the game consoles have more than 3X the GPU power but are driving 1/4 the pixels of the laptops.
Tablets are even worse, as they frequently have the same resolution as the above, but have to be optimized for battery life of 10 hours or more. The iPad Air has 76 GFlops (1/10th the power of the high end Mac), while driving the same number of pixels. For reference, the PS Vita has 38.4 GFlops, but is driving a display that's 1/6th the resolution of the iPad Air, so it's got 3X the equivalent power of the iPad in terms of pushing pixels around. Note that the Vita has a battery life of 3-5 hours, as opposed to the 10 hours that you would expect from an iPad.
Gaming PCs are a different story, since they don't have to run at low power, but if you look at a typical PS4-alike PC, not only do you not manage to hit the $400 price point and end up with a much larger case and lower memory bandwidth than the PS4, you also run out of budget to buy a blu-ray drive or controller. You could buy an Alienware PC, but now you're looking at a budget well over $400, and you're locked out of Sony's exclusive games for the PS4, which judging from the track record on the PS3, would be a fairly substantial loss. This explains why my PC gamer friends were disappointed with the PS4 and XBox One announcements, while the market has proven that those consoles are selling very well. The typical PC gamer will have a $1,000+ PC that will outperform any of the consoles, but will also be an increasingly small percentage of the population compared to the number of folks toting Macbook Airs.
The problem with PC gaming recently has been the focus on lower power rather than higher performance. Intel has simply chosen to use its real estate on the chips to increase performance/watt by delivering more cores rather than deliver more GPU. While most consumers couldn't care less about reduced power consumption on their machines (most PC users still turn on and off their machines, and don't run their machines at full capacity often enough for the power bills to matter),
Intel's primary customers for high end processors are the companies running high end data centers like Google and Facebook, rather than the individual consumer looking for maximum single-threaded performance. In addition, it's hard enough for you to get others in your household to use the controller for movie streaming, let alone a mouse and keyboard that's required to manipulate a PC UI.
The net result of this set of trends is that unlike many other pundits, not only do I not think that console gaming is dead, I expect to see a console-like device in about 50% of homes for the foreseeable future. There will be a 9th generation of console, and beyond. The typical household doesn't consider PCs/Laptops anything other than work devices, and will continue to buy separate game consoles both for streaming video and for playing high-end games.