Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Microsquash Botched the Console Launch?


The common feeling among the gaming hardcore is that MS botched the "launch" of their beloved new console, the Xbox 360. After all the hype, the build up, the rumors, the out of control image leaks, and sweaty anticipation; when time came for the big E3 press conference, Microsoft screwed up. J Allard and friends got up on that crazy slanted glass stage (a marvel no one tripped up and fell on their face IMHO), and told us how they were going to take over the world with a steady march of 1 BILLION CONSOLES! Let me repeat the exclamation point... (!)

I of course, being a slight fanboy of the XBox console, was hoping to see an earth shattering demonstration of the unit's power. We wanted to see it grow legs and stomp on everyone in the auditorium, and then show a holographic display of its mighty next generational rendering of graphic gooey-ness. We wanted the skies to part, and roof of the convention center to open, and for God's finger to touch the console and say "it is good"...alas, none of this happened. In fact, Microsoft simply flat out STUNK up the game demonstrations, and I still can't figure out why. Apparently, the Xbox 360 is a very shy console, only showing its true beauty behind closed doors to select members of the press. Despite the amazing look that some decryed, it was too late to wash the lingering taste of "blah" from most everyone's mouths.

The gamer nerds that follow this convention only care about one thing: HORSEPOWER and GAMES. We don't care about faceplates or making t-shirts on Live or creating a skateboard themepark for TonyHawk addicts. We want the controller in our hands, our eyes feasting on jaw dropping graphics and sound, and amazing games to play. Microsoft must have failed Public Speaking 101, with it's first tenent being, "KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE". When the press conference was over, the gaming nerd side of me said "huh?"...I honestly did not want to believe what MS showed me was the best they had to offer. The business saavy side of me realized that the conference was OK (but I have already given that reaction). There are millions of customers who don't know what E3 is, nor do they care, and Microsoft's pitch will be a good one to "bring them into the family".

Microsoft failed to embrace the people of E3; the journalists and writers who have roots so firmly entrenched in the analls of gaming history that they can't see much more than the core of their industry: GAMES. I mean, the majority of this crowd shunned coolness all through their formative years because games were more important than finding a date to their high school prom! SO MS's super hip front left them jaded and confused. Why try to be cool now?

Sony, on the other hand, gave E3 attendees EXACTLY what they wanted. Mind blowing statistics, and fantastic "visions" of the future of gaming. Even though everything was a bloated and probably bold faced lie, they fed the crowd with everything they wanted. They made their future console look like a super-star. For some reason, everyone bought it (or at least we all wanted to buy it). Sony's hush-hush attitude to questions regarding "real-time or not" has only verified that it wasn't real time. IT is way too early for that kind of goodness folks. Fortunately for them, they stole the show anyways.

Microsoft did an amazing job with several marketing efforts leading up to the "launch", but then when the gun fired, they tripped and fell on their face at the starting line. Sony, on the other hand, took off sprinting so hard, that they probably are going to pull a muscle before the race is over. Microsoft has no where to go but up, and Sony, unfortunately, will probably go nowhere but down. They have a history of over promising and under delivering. Sony will have a great box, but their vision of next-gen gaming is still a little ahead of it's time. Microsquash will sell a lot of these things when the real launch occurs and I will be one of the first in line. We know it will be an amazing piece of hardware that great games will unfold on. Microsoft is swinging huge buckets of cash to developers and bending over backwards to ensure its success. However, big Redmond needs to make sure to re-embrace the "core" in the coming months to get that fervor building up again. Shows us the guts, the games, and send the glory our way please!

Friday, May 20, 2005

The DIRT on the RSX and ATI GPUs for PS3 and X360

This is a great read for all those willing to take a candid level-headed look under the hood of the next-gen consoles. I am a big nVidia fan, especially with their 6XXX series GPUs (I have the 6800 in my desktop), but ATI's "from the ground up" design for the 360 sounds awesome, even more so than the RSX because it has some unique stuff in the design that will take a little time to figure out. Here are some intriquing excerpts:

http://www.anandtech.com/tradeshows/showdoc.aspx?i=2423

"Unlike any of their current-gen desktop GPUs, the 360 GPU supports FP32 from start to finish...Full FP32 support puts this aspect of the 360 GPU on par with NVIDIA's RSX."

"Because of the extremely large amount of bandwidth available both between the parent and daughter die as well as between the embedded DRAM and its FPUs, multi-sample AA is essentially free at 720p and 1080p in the Xbox 360. If you're wondering why Microsoft is insisting that all games will have AA enabled, this is why."

"ATI did clarify that although Microsoft isn't targetting 1080p (1920 x 1080) as a resolution for games, their GPU would be able to handle the resolution with 4X AA enabled at no performance penalty."

So 1080P is not a PS3 exclusive! Some more:

"Given that the RSX is based off of NVIDIA's G70 architecture, you can expect to have a similar feature set later this year on the PC. In fact, NVIDIA stated that by the time PS3 ships there will be a more powerful GPU available on the desktop. This is in stark contrast to ATI's stance that a number of the features of the Xbox 360 GPU won't make it to the desktop for a matter of years (potentially unified shader architecture), while others will never be seen on the desktop (embedded DRAM?)."

So, it sounds like the RSX will be "obsolete" by the time the PS3 comes out. The article was objective, but makes it sound like the ATI solution is potentially more exciting because of all the unique customizations on board that have very special features. I am sure the RSX will be a very nice chipset, but being behind the PC hardware power-curve at launch can't be a good thing. The article does go on to state the Cell processor should do a much better job than conventional desktop CPUs at "feeding" the chip, but with multi-core processors on the horizon, this may no longer be a cell processor advantage. I guess time will tell here.

Bottom line, both consoles have powerful hardware, and sound to be on even ground GPU-wise here. Unfortunately, no matter what the real deal is, we are sure to see plenty of Sony's loyal legions spouting, "M$ sucks my A$$ and PS3 will take a crap on the Xbox 360!", and X360 fans can stop worrying, resorting to making derogatory comments about the PS3's "refridgerator" design. We can be rest assured the battle will be rage between the two camps none-the-less with the slinging of crap having no end.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Where was the PSP? Side Note...

While overweight men get more excercise this time of the year, running the floors of the huge E3 conference center, than any other time of the year, I am left idly speculating as to what is going on at E3 from my home far away. I am wondering where the talk of the PSP was in Sony's presser? Despite a quick nod of the head during the opener, there was pretty much nothing about the PSP. We are talking about a unit that was just launched a few months back! There was no rehashing of the tech, discussion of possible future hardware upgrades (extended battery pack, video out capability, firmware updates)...they spoke nothing of it, almost like it didn't exist. I guess it may have been cut due to time constraints, but Sony spent too much time trying to out-do the Xbox 360 lambasting people with specifications and tech demos. Give us the details on your newest toy please! Where are you taking it, what's the thinking of the higher-ups? I'd like to know, I own one. Enough talk about the PS3 Ghost Console (since it doesn't really exist yet). I just thought it bizarre...

SONY and Microsoft PRESS Conferences - My Reaction

As E3 is going on this week, most of my rantings and ravings will revolve around games, hardware, fanboys, marketing, hype, and why I can't focus on anything else. I really don't even play many games - I've been a one trick pony the last few months, with nothing but Halo 2 in my diet; of which I haven't even played for the last 3 weeks. So despite my desire to play more, I almost find it more interesting to be an "industry-watcher" with regards to all things gaming - and this week is always exciting.

Today kicks off with the opening of the show room floor, and being that I am no where near LA or its huge convention centers, I am relying on others to bring me the news I want to hear. I enjoyed watching the press conferences from Sony and Microsquash, but don't appreciate how late in the night Monday they took us. I guess this is how PST people feel about TV schedules being driven by EST. Here is my quick summary of the two pressers.

Microsoft said, "Hey, we are still making games for our current console!" Then went on to talk about their approach to the next gen, and how they plan on reaching "1 BILLION" customers; add your own Austin Powers "Dr Evil" tilt to that comment. Microsoft went to great lengths to ensure the hip image that is the 360 was oozing over the whole crowd, and I'd have to say they are either doing a good job connecting with a multitude of demographics or trying to create demographics that don’t exist. They also convinced me that I will indeed have to buy a Media Center PC at some point; and we all thought we would get off cheap with this unit. For some reason, most of the games demonstrated for the thing weren’t as impressive as should’ve been. I’ve been hearing that Microsoft is showing some extremely impressive demos behind closed doors today, and many are wondering why portions of these game demos weren’t seen at all during the press conference. Games like Perfect Dark Zero, Gears of War, and Call of Duty 2 are supposed to be wet-your-pants good in these lengthy demos, but didn’t pop up in the presser. I guess MS was too busy trying to talk about their console’s MOJO. I mean, they paid models to sit in the first few rows and clap ecstatically at every little thing!

Sony's presser could be summed in two words: TECH DEMO. They spent barely any time talking about their support for the waning PS2. The aging console MOST in need of replacement, but pushed onward to talk nothing but PS3. After they blasted the audience with chart after chart of specifications, I was losing interest. I took each one with a grain of finely crushed salt after they falsely listed the BlueGene/L as having only 36 TFLOPs of power (and the Japanese owned Earth Simulator at 35.9). First off, to think they can somehow compare any game console to multi-billion dollar machines is ludicrous. GIVE me a break! For those that don't know, BlueGene/L was last clocked at 135.6 TFLOPs of power, ousting every supercomputer on the planet. The 36 TFLOP number is from several months back. Perhaps the slides were prepared months in advance, and they “forgot” to update them with current information? It is like looking at last year's sales charts to determine your investment approach today! Brilliant! Eventually, Sony moved out of the chart drivel, and started giving us technical demonstrations. Some of them were jaw-droppingly good. Then again, "The Incredibles" was jaw-droppingly good. The talk of the town was KillZone 2. Honestly, the only reason we were all stunned, is that is was presented as IN-GAME, REAL TIME footage. Sony actually never said it was; I think we all just SECRETLY hoped. All this got gaming fans to wet their pants repeatedly. It's like Kutaragi got up their and said, "Last night, I dreamed future console games, and saw much good, and my minions have rendered what I dreamed for you to see. Take good look, yes?" I especially loved the Spider-Man/Vision Gran Turismo combination.

The reality is that their is no PS3. They have a concept box design, that may be the final, OR maybe NOT. Developer kits for the thing are sparse, as the GDC a few months back made blatantly obvious, and the final specs are still so far from reality that none of it is to be believed. Hell, even Xbox's specs may be bloated, but I think MS is being a little more honest here because they have to be, their console is too close to release. In one year, we will all forget the bar charts Sony put up at E3 2005, only to be replaced by much more suitable benchmarks of the cell's power. I bet money that the PS3 will be delayed a few months, maybe even to Christmas time 2006. It is a radical new technology they are putting inside the box, and with new technology always comes seemingly insurmountable problems. I don't think there is a doubt that we will have a more technically proficient box in the PS3 over the X360 - that's like saying a computer system a year from now will be more powerful than the one I am working with right now. It's a "DUH" in this industry!

I hope Sony works the kinks out of the cell, and makes a fantastic box. I think they will, and we will see some awesome visuals and great games. The last thing I want is to see a one console market. Microsoft is notorious and notoriusly good at smashing the competition, and then sitting on their hands while other people struggle to break out of niche markets. Just remember what Internet Explorer did to Netscape. Since Nintendo has no desire to battle for technical superiority with their next box, and admitted they are happy with being a distant third place, we have to rely on the two company balance of power to drive the competitive market place for consoles. I see a good bit of parrying between the two with a tie for marketplace dominance being good of us all.

Lastly, Microsoft, why can’t the rest of us see the good stuff only being shown behind closed doors on the E3 floors? Do you think all we care about is IMAGE and our GamerTags? Live looks awesome no doubt, and the improved next-gen approach to online is sounding great, but us “hard-core” still want our meat and potatoes! I’m glad to see you have a working console on the floor, even if it is alpha hardware. If ALPHA hardware impresses the people playing it, than we can be sure that the final design will be awesome! At least, we all hope so…

Friday, May 13, 2005

Confessions of a Fanboy - Xbox360 Revealed!

OK, I'll admit it, I am a current Xbox "fanboy". It's really my first console, outside of an Atari 7800 my parents bought me WAY back when. I played Pole Position 2 ALL NIGHT, the FIRST NIGHT we had the thing, and then never touched the game again, because it haunted my dreams for days thereafter.

As we break into a new era of "NEXT-GEN" console gaming, I am starting to question why I am getting excited about the Xbox360 (hereafter will be called X360). The original Xbox was purchased for one reason: HALO. I got excited about this game years ago, when it was being developed independently and headed to the PC. Microsoft then swooped in, bought Bungie, put a lid on the project, and a couple years later, WHAM, we had Halo on the new Xbox. The game, flat out, rocked, and still rocks - it's a high achievement of video gaming, and obviously, sold Xboxs like no other game could. Want to know what game has been in my Xbox for the last 6 months? Halo 2....DUH! The online component to this game has been a blast - I've enjoyed this game with so many of my friends, it's been awesome! Suprisingly, I have actually played other games on the console - but few can claim as many hours as Halo/Halo2.

So, on the cusp of another console release, I ask the same question...what will sell these consoles? I have read all the spec sheets, comparisons, seen pictures of the X360, read commentary...I've been soaking it up like a sunflower seeds steal the spit from a ball player. This console has got a ridiculous amount of horsepower. A triple-core processor? Why does a console need a triple core processor? I guess Microsoft thinks it does; this is something that we know will take over in the desktop realm within the year, but only DOUBLE core! So with THREE CORES, the X360 seems way ahead of it's time. I guess we will have to wait and see how truly advanced this processor will be, how many transistors are onboard, and how many lemmings it can put on the screen at once - it's hard to compute what it means (for lack of a better term) for gaming. We can spit terms like "tera flop", "polygon count", and "giga flop" till we want to puke binary bits out of our mouths, but what is the true value of hardware?

The nerd part of me says; "Wow, all that hardware for under $400? Give me one!". I mean, it's a great deal of power on the cheap - dual core processors WILL cost more per chip than this entire unit! But hardware means nothing if it isn't utilized. I have a GeForce 6800 GPU in my desktop rig, but hardly play games on the computer anymore, so what is the point of having spent 250 bucks on it? The value of hardware is measured by the software that utilizes it. So far, Microsoft has shown off it's sexy box (and yes, I think it looks fine!), but the games showcased so far are unimpressive (outside of a few titles). I would have to say showing off an early lame build of a "next-gen" game is actually a detrement to its future. Developers, TAKE YOUR TIME, release the good stuff only!

If you haven't heard, Microsoft actually specializes in software, so I believe there is an inherent focus on this with the X360. We all have to realize that a lot of next-gen games will probably be awful, just like games on our boxes right now can make us hate gaming in general; the best hardware in the world can't save a CRAP game! With that said, I wonder what game, or maybe even a few games, will take our experiences to the next level. I honestly HOPE it's NOT HALO 3! Let's all practice a lost art known as PATIENCE, and give the developers and studios time to produce dazzling games.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Federal Appeals Court Strikes Down Broadcast Flag!

Late last week, a federal appeals court struck down the FCC's requirement to implement a broadcast flag saying that this requirement over-stepped the bounds of the FCC's domain. For those unaware, the "Broadcast-Flag" was going to be a small piece of code attached to digital broadcasts for the purpose of controlling copyright infringement on TV. The flag could be set to determine how the end-user viewed and enjoyed TV shows and movies, whether it deemed that a recording of a certain show could "time-out" after a week or that you could only watch a recording a certain number of times - there are a lot of scenarios here, so be sure to google the term if you want to learn more!

Considering how long this piece of technology has been on the burner, I actually feel for those in the electronics industry who have been spending considerable amounts of time and money to ensure the latest devices for decoding and recording cable and broadcast TV could support the flag. It's shame to have the rug pulled out from under in last minute fashion. On the other hand, I applaud the court for clearly seeing that the FCC was over-stepping it's bounds. Of course, the reality is, the FCC was the long being courted by favor of hollywood corps who want, in ever increasing amounts, more control over what the consumer can and can't do with the material they produce. This has nothing to do with lost profits due to copyright infringment or the pirating of material via whatever means, and more a means for these industries to ensure greater profitability.

From the little I read about the flag, it really wasn't a bad gig in the end. The limitations were not going to be as great as everyone feared, and would provide some in the industry with protection over premium content offered on PPV and Premium channels. Unfortunately, I believe this was a "foot in the door" initiative for Hollywood, which hoped to continue tightening its grip slowly over time. The more people forced into un-warranted purchases of material the better for them. Honestly, I'm getting sick and tired of the archaic practices of this industry. Instead of forcing innovation within and amongst themselves to compete for the consumers buck, they would rather bludgeon us with the heavy stick of the law. As a consumer in a capitalistic society, we are supposed to be the one's with the power; after all, it is OUR dollar that buys the products and services around us! Unfortunately, companies that flourished in our economic system now wish to turn the tables and force us into totalitarian schemes of control and scare us with strong arm tactics. The problem is bigger than just what will happen if we can't share a recorded TV show with a friend, but more so when the power shifts out of the consumer's hands and into the industries'. As consumers, we would be forced into closed systems of control and fear - and in this system, creativity and innovation die. Now I am not calling for a total picture of doom and gloom - what I want is a more creative approach by Hollywood and other entertainment industries to approach the future with more open minds, finding better ways to unlock the content they produce in to consumer's hands where it will flourish in an open system. I enjoy the product, but if it gets locked down so much that I cannot enjoy it how I want it, than I will probably no longer enjoy it. You bite the hand that feeds you, and you will reap the wrong reward. Hollywood, the Recording Industry, et al., listen closely - we still have the dollar in our hand, don't srew with us!

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Why Half-Life 2 is ruining Desktop Gaming

Half Life 2 Logo 

  Writing this article makes me very sad, but I fear it is the truth.  The busier I become, the easier I want things to be.  I want gaming to be easily accessible, and instantly accessible.  See my last article to understand what I mean.  Half-Life 2 is a beautiful game, in every which way, from the graphics to the story, to the wonderful physics.  I fire it up, and can play it for hours and lose track of time completely.  All of this experience has been marred by long load times and glitchy gameplay.  I am one of the lucky HL2 players to have the "stuttering sound issue", which affects both sound and graphics to an extent that has become unbearable.  You see, I have spent countless hours reading, and searching, and tweaking under the hood to make the game work better.  I am not talking about squeezing additional FPS out of my graphics card, I am talking about eliminating the glitches that are ruining it for me.  The other day, I tried to continue my adventure after a month long hiatus from the game, only to find out that the glitches I spent so much time trying to mitigate were back in full force.  I noticed that Steam updates the game practically every time you load it, and with it, resets a bunch of the tweaks you apply to the configuration file (or at least after my cursory look at the config file).  I just wanted to play for a hour or so, not have to go back in "under the hood" to change things around again.   Thus, I just exited the program, and walked away.  

I imagine I will tweak again at some point, and finish the game, but I am wondering if this will be the last desktop computer game I will play.  I have a pretty beefed up gaming rig, with an AMD 64 processor, and GeForce 6800 graphics card, so I know the horsepower is in there!  I just can't figure this out, and I frankly don't want to.  There are other games I know play fine (Far Cry, Doom 3, etc), but HL2 has broken my heart.  Like a beautiful woman who plays "hard to get" so much so that you can't ever get her.  I do not have time and money to tweak, update drivers, update hardware, and invest money into the "box" anymore.  I bought a GeForce 6800 because of HL2, and now I feel like it was money down the drain.  I can't blame Valve for this outright; the vast numbers of unique systems they must try to make a game compatible on is a daunting task.  Like a chemist, us gamers in the PC world have to mix and match components, drivers, tweaks in a way to enjoy our games to the fullest, and there are simply too many combinations to sift through.  I just want to play!

With next-generation consoles on the horizon, and touted hardware that will eliminate the advantage PC games used to have over consoles, I have a feeling that I won't be using my desktop for gaming much anymore.  The controlled environment of the console allows developers to make glitch free games (outside of frame-rate slow downs) that I can simply just play, without tweaking and frustration (if it works on one box, it will work on all of them).  With high resolution graphics shining cleanly through my HDTV and sound pulsating through my surround sound setup, I can't see an advantage a desktop rig will have over the new machines.  There won't be any prohibitive costs either, consoles will cost $300-$400; which while sounding expensive, is far less than I invest in my PC to play the latest and greatest (nVidia's flagship graphics cards cost a VERY prohibitive $400-$500 dollars!).  I am sure a year or two after the next-gen console's release, new GPUs and CPUs will be on the horizon that will dwarf the technical specifications of these boxes, but this will again cost PC gamers a prohibitive amount of money, nor guarantee to actually improve the gameplay experience because compatibility is always in question (did you mix and match the components right?).

So while I may finish HL2 someday, I am facing a choice, and wondering if it will indeed be my last game on my desktop.  I also, with critics who have said this for many years, question the future of desktop gaming in general - will it survive the next generation of consoles?  Computer games have been on the deathwatch every year, and so far have survived...but they may have to march on without me.

I must say though, Age of Empires 3 is coming along nicely... ;-)

Instant Access to Games - Breaking Barriers to Gameplay

I am not really a hard-core gamer, but I do love games, and the gaming industry - so part of me wishes I was. I realize that I have so many things I want to do in an average day, that I generally do not spend hours and hours at a console or my PC trying to beat a game. I may want to, but I don't have the time, and the accessibility of games can be a barricade to their use. So many games require a large "investment" of time, and sometimes, you just want a quick fix. My new PSP is actually filling this role, and the compelling console like experience it offers really draws you in. I can play it for 5, 10, or 60 minutes in a sitting...a quick flip of the sleep switch and you can pick it back up later right where you left off. This feature needs to find its way into consoles. We have laptops, desktops, PDAs, and game devices that sleep at the touch of a button or switch, but our consoles are either on or off. Sure you can pause and come back later, but that wastes electricity, and wears down the life of the unit (if it's always ON), and is not the same thing. This instant access in and out of a game is a killer application for the casual gamer, and if the next gen consoles want to learn a way to draw in "casual gamers" and not just a burgeoning group of hardcore gamers, they need to make ways for people to play for shorter bursts of time, and still offer the same compelling experience. I am not talking about making "cute" little games that are ports of old classics, I want this feature in every game. I would love to be able to hit one button on my Xbox, and play a quick round of Halo 2 online, then put it back to sleep. The process should only take a few seconds more than the length of the online round. Right now, I must turn on my Xbox, let it run through it's boot sequence, load the game, then I have to sign in to XBox Live, select my character, fire up the XBLive option, and then away I go. Sure, this only takes a few minutes of time, but if you want to play a 5 minute round online, and have to wait 40-50 percent of that time for booting up, loading, and signing in, then it becomes a barricade to playing the game. My new PSP gets use because it's so easy to use; and at the flip of a switch, I can stow it away for days and pick it right back up where I left off whenever I wish. Breaking down barriers to gameplay draws in a larger customer base, and will ensure even greater success for game companies in the future.