Slow As Sunday: It's good to be a gamer

How often do we hear/read stats about the money made in videogames when it's compared to more "legitimate" forms of entertainment like movies? The truth is that the money made by videogames is becoming quite impressive; $2.9 billion in profits last year. Does that prove that games should be considered a legitimate industry? Definitely. The numbers reported by Video Games in the 21st Century: the 2010 report (first found via Ars Technica) show statistics that are far more impressive; the number of people employed in the entertainment software industry.

Over 32,000 people in 34 states work in videogames. Whether administrative, creative, or legal minded all of these folks work together to produce a product that's consumed on a global scale. The report focuses on the United States so you better believe there is certainly more than just 32,000. For the past four years the number of employees in the industry grew at an average of 8.65% annually to the current numbers for 2009. It is my belief that, while some are attracted because of the money, most of this growth is due to folks from various professions wanting to become involved with a "hobby" that they love. In other words, the majority of the folks employed in the industry sought out their jobs because it is something that they WANT to do. Just as gamers themselves are investing in their products because they WANT them to produce more and better games. Whether that means videogames can hang with the big dogs of media like movies and television is inconsequential. I'm a gamer and right now is a great time to be a gamer.


Slow As Sunday: USB Memory and Project Natal

First, let me apologize for missing more than a few weeks with this editorial. I hope you can forgive me and appreciate how the News Roundup audio edition, which I host and edit, has eaten up a lot of my free time during the weekends. With more practice and time I hope to be able to do the podcast and this editorial every weekend, giving you folks a new feature and the editorials you've come to expect.

Second, I just want to preface this Slow as Sunday by saying that most of what I'm going to say is assumed and not confirmed. In my research I haven't stumbled across anything to confirm my suspicions, yet.

On the long journey home from Boston, MA to Pickerington, OH by car, I spent a lot of time reviewing the events of last weekend. One thing that continually came up again and again was the missed opportunity of asking Major Nelson some of the burning questions I had about the compatibility between the new USB memory utilization for the Xbox 360 and Windows Phone 7 series. I'm still kicking myself about that, but a simple question came to mind that made things fall into place for me; Why would they start the USB memory usage now?

The obvious answer, for me, was that the Xbox team was using this new USB memory usage now in order to test its compatibility with the current 360 devices and how it will work with future devices that rely on flash memory. Now, there are 3 such devices that could utilize flash: 7 series phones, a new 360 form factor, and Project Natal. I immediately eliminated a new form factor as the potential cause of the testing, simply because there wasn't enough information besides a rumored motherboard. Moving on, I eliminated a 7 series phone as the primary cause, because I couldn't think of a really good reason Microsoft would use storage for save game files and DLC for a console on a mobile platform as a selling point. That left Project Natal and here are my three reasons why the current utilization of USB flash memory on the 360 relates to Microsoft's upcoming peripheral for the 360:

Reason one- a lack of internet connectivity
There are two ways Microsoft could solve the problem of integrating Natal's new functions with the current dashboard experience on a 360 without a broadband connection. They could include a disk with the device or have built in drivers in the device itself. If Microsoft is using flash to store all the drivers and software patches necessary to run a natal on a 360 built into the device itself, then testing out that functionality before launch makes a lot of sense.

Reason two- the timing of the introduction of USB memory
With a vague release date ever creeping closer, Microsoft needs to do everything it can to make sure the Natal will function properly at launch in order to avoid delays. If Natal is using flash, then the 5-8 month window between the introduction of USB memory utilization and the launch of Natal gives Microsoft plenty of time to work out any kinks. Maybe just as important, that time also allows Microsoft an opportunity to find solutions for new hacking techniques that are sure to spring up. It would stink for Microsoft if the software and drivers built into Natal are hacked and manipulated on day one.

Reason three- preemptively preventing a backlash
Imagine the response from the gaming community when the first tearing apart of a Natal hits the internet and the use of flash memory is discovered. There will be a lot of angry gamers complaining that Microsoft didn't provide that feature to owners of 360s who won't buy a Natal. By providing this function before the launch of Natal, Microsoft preemptively prevents this backlash.

I'm not saying that flash and Windows Phone 7 series don't fit into the equation but it's because of these three reasons that I have concluded that A) Natal will include built in flash memory and B) this explains the timing of the introduction of USB memory utilization on the Xbox 360.


Slow As Sunday: Cell Phones and Videogames

If you were one of the many who watched Microsoft's long development of Xbox Live anywhere from rumor to reality, you can appreciate the frustration of technologies we use on a daily basis not being fully taking advantage of. Cell phones, mp3 players, and PDAs have been able to connect with personal computers for years now, and we're just now seeing the beginnings of like devices interacting with videogame consoles.

As we move into a future of cell phones being mobile gaming platforms that interact with our dedicated consoles, there are a few features I'd like to see developed and/or improved:

1. Accessing content from anywhere
While there certainly are devices that take advantage of an internet connecting to deliver video game content on multiple platform, this is less of an "experience" and more of "feature". As cell phones become more connected with consoles, I want to see content stores that deliver a full on experience tailored to each platform, but with access to all of the content. After going to a friends house and playing a particularly fun piece of DLC, I want to be able to purchase and download that content onto my own console by using my cell phone and have the DLC waiting for me when I get home.

2. Synchronization
All kinds of data could be synced between consoles and phones. Address books, calenders, RSS and Twitter feeds, pictures, videos, etc. can and should be synced between cell phones and consoles. If I download my favorite episode of House, I want it on my cell phone and on my console without having to do anything else but plug the two into each other. Better yet, I want to be able to show off my awesome head shot kills in Battlefield 1943 to my friends on my cell phone.

3. Social experiences
Videogames are more fun with friends. It would be fantastic if I could organize tournaments while I'm out and about with a mobile app. It would be even better if I could send my friends updates of the tournament results on their cell phones on my console immediately after it's over. Forget facebook and myspace. If console makers can deliver unique social experiences without being just another social networking pretender, then I won't be visiting those sites at all.

These are the core experiences I expect from a cell phone/console interaction and if Sony or Microsoft (maybe Nintendo?) can put them together then I might drop a couple hundred dollars a year on a smart phone and a data plan. Until then I'll be fine with playing Tetris on my basic cell phone.


Slow As Sunday: The Individual in MMOs

One of the fundamental flaws of massive multiplayer role playing games is the lack of a sense of individuality. When I take on a role I want to feel that I am a hero, not just one of many cookie cutter characters populating the world. The good news is that tools are already available to increase the variety of characters and there by encourage the perception that an individual character are unique. Let's explore how the early levels of an MMORPG can increase the variety of characters and create unique experiences.

The first step in many a video game is creating a character. We can take advantage of this process to foster variety. Let's say that there are two factions, each with five different races. Now let's assume that each race has at least four different classes and one unique class based on race. Already there are 50 individual options for character creation. If each faction has five different regions, then we increase the number of options from 50 total to 125 unique character choices for each faction. That's a good start.

The second step is almost always a tutorial. Mixing player choices into the introductory levels can develop the individuality of a character even further. If each character has a tutorial based on class and each class has three or four different guilds within variety jumps from 125 per faction to at least 375. The choice of which guild doesn't even have to be in the player's control. If we disguise the guild choice as a class-wide "recruiting" mission, then the game can assign which guild the player character joins based on alignment. Alignment will be determined through the choices of the player in the tutorial. This will create a more organic process when assigning a guild and get the player in the mindset of "playing" their character's role.

The third and strongest tool we can employ to make a character feel more unique are the quest themselves. Offering quests based on race, class, region, guild status, or a mix of the four will give players different experiences as they play. By the time a player has maxed out their character they should have had hundreds of unique quests. We haven't even touched on personality or multi-classing and we already have a set up that ensures a varying mix of characters. As for creating the experience of being the hero, we've created many more options for a character to achieve greatness. They can be a bastion of their race, a leader of their guild, the paragon of their class, or a mighty warrior for their faction.

What can make or break the unique quests is the significance they have to the rest of the story. If what my dwarven war cleric of the deep vale is doing in the hidden enemy camp near his hometown doesn't feel like it has an impact on the overall story, then it was just a waste of time. Making each quest and decision have an impact on the game, however small, will go further n creating a sense of worthiness and heroism in the player than any other tool .

With just a few small differences suddenly MMOs contain millions of individuals, not just millions of subscribers. Instead of a player just taking on a singular role in their community they are now a multifaceted and colorful character. After all, it is a much greater feat of strength and unity when challenges are overcome despite our differences, and a much more rewarding.


Slow As Sunday: Commander Shepard's Journal

Shepard's Journal
Entry 47

It is over

I'm sitting in my cabin. The smell of ozone, epoxy, and paint still lingers from the recent repairs. Surprisingly all of my fish and Giggles (my space hamster) survived the trip through the Omega 4 Relay. It's strange, them being alive while two bodies sit in the cargo hold beneath my feet. I'll always regret what happened between me and Miranda. We never patched things up after I broke up the fight between her and Jack. Such a petty squabble to have before setting off on such a dangerous mission, but there's nothing to be done for it now.

Legion gave its life(?) securing our passage inside the Collectors' base. I haven't decided whether to give its body to Tali for research or try and contact the Geth to see if they want to collect its body. I doubt they hold any value for one individual, let alone the physical shell it resided in, but my heart tells me that it's the right thing to do.

After the dead have been buried and those who survived go their separate ways, I wonder who will remain. No one expected to come back alive. Now it's almost as if we've been given a second (in my case third) chance at life. I'm sure Thane will want to return to the Citadel and spend the remainder of his days with his son. Both Tali and Grunt have their own people to return to. I'm afraid of what Jack might do if I set her loose on the galaxy. Jacob might stay, but I hope he doesn't. Taylor is ready for his own responsibilities and his own team. Samara has her duty as Justicar to fulfill, but I wouldn't be surprised if she decides to stay on the Normandy for a while. After all the Normandy SR2 and Captain Shepard will be long gone before her life ends so she might as well enjoy us while we last, ha.

Joker, Dr. Chakwas, Garrus, and the rest of the crew are likely to stay on, but who knows? With no imminent threat and one deadly mission done they may want to go home. They have more than done their part. As for me, I have not finished my fight with the Reaper's. Even with this new body I can still feel and see the horrors of the Reapers given to me by the Promethian artifact. The Illusive man knows I won't quite and that he can only use me so long as our goals remain the same.

For now though, all is relatively peaceful. I haven't had much time for leisure and relaxation in a long time, but it's definitely time to relax. Besides, if I ever do get tired of resting there's always more adventures to be had, more people who need killed. I did hear a rumor that the wreckage of the original Normandy had been detected. I might just go try to find it and see if there's anything worth salvaging.

end journal entry 47
Initiating EDI sub-routine 47156...Connecting to Cerberus servers...Establishing secure connection...Transmitting...Confirmation received from Illusive Man


Slow as Sunday: 3D and motion controls

Looking into the future of video games is a past time that is more than a hobby for some. I count myself among those who look toward the coming years with optimism and hope for the increased quality and new innovations to come in the next decade. Certainly we will see new platforms, physical or otherwise, that elevate the user experience of video games but also change the how we interact with the games we play. Motion controls have become well established as the next big tool in game developers belts but there is a new and exciting technology emerging to the forefront of home entertainment; three dimensional displays.

As I have yet to experience 3D gaming first hand I am constrained largely to speculation and the promise of future technologies that have been displayed to the public. One aspect of 3D displays cannot escape my mind; the use of 3D with motion based controls. I have some trepidation concerning the period of time in which this coupling of technology will become viable. I do feel that this revelation is close at hand. With the big three already employing or making plans to utilize motion controls with their home video game consoles, its hard not to imagine how 3D would effect this type of experience. Sony is pushing big for 3D and Nintendo has not sighted high definition as a big part of their plans for the future; maybe they're looking further into the future?

Whoever manages to bridge the individual experiences of 3D and motion controls they will be the harbingers of the next revolution in gaming technology. Nintendo was on the forefront of motion controls but their technique of appeal to a larger market with affordable technology hardly seems viable given the huge leap their console would have to make in order handle 3D. Sony certainly has the console that can handle 3D, motion controls, and a huge investment in 3D technology but I'm not sure how well they can execute the combination and still create a user friendly experience. Microsoft doesn't seem to have any interest in pushing for 3D/motion controlled games, leaving the impression that they will quietly sit in the back and let someone else take the financial risk of investing in new technologies. So, Sony seems to be the company to watch for the next big leap in video game tech in the next ten years but, just as with motion controls, Nintendo can't be counted out and must also be closely watched.


Slow As Sunday: Modern Warfare 2 retold (part five)

Spoiler alert! The following feature contains story elements from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This is not a review but an analysis of the story told in Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare series. For those of you that will never play the game, skipped the “No Russian” mission, or missed the subtleties I encourage you to read on.

Shepherd is almost proud as he declares to the 141 that he has a blank check and the intelligence to capture Makarov and bring him to justice. Two location are identified as possible hideouts for Makarov and the 141 splits to engage. Along the Russian border deep in the woods there is a hunting cabin where Makarov has organized his troops. Roach Sanderson and Ghost attempt an infiltration only to be ambushed as they approach. Despite overwhelming odds both Ghost and Roach are able to locate a secure the information stored on the computers in the cabin and are rescued by Shepherd’s men. After confirming that the data is secure Shepherd executes Roach and Ghost, secures the data, and then burns the bodies. General Shepherds reasons for this betrayal are not made clear however as the semi-conscious Roach is being covered in gasoline he is told by Captain Price that Shepherd cannot be trusted. What Price learned while in the African bone yard, an airplane junkyard , is not revealed but after Soap tries to contact Roach and Ghost Captain Price assumes them KIA and contacts Nikolai for extraction. As Price and Soap are making their escape, Price contacts Makarov with a stolen enemy radio and offers to work with the terrorist to take out Shepherd; an offer Makarov refuses.

The information that Price learns is not revealed in the game but there are enough details to wager a guess at Shepherd’s true intentions.  The General secured data hidden on a computer owned by Makarov, which indicates that he had evidence of Shepherd’s plans, and it was through Makarov indirectly that Price learned of Shepherd’s plot. Shepherd also tried to secure information captured by the Russian military during its invasion of US soil, only to have what little information left fall into the hands of Private Ramirez. Thanks to the Russian attack and attempted nuclear launch, perpetrated by Price, General Shepherd has been given a blank check by the US secretary of Defense to capture and kill Makarov. All signs point to General Shepherd planting false information in order to implicate the Russian government with Makarov in order to have the United States declare open war on Russia and invade. Soap and Price see that the only way to prevent open war and the death’s of millions of Russian innocents is to kill General Shepherd before he has a chance to complete the falsified information. They go in alone to the General’s base of operations in Afghanistan with the sole purpose of General Shepherd’s assassination not expecting to survive the attempt. They manage to corner the General and kill him after a desperate struggle. Nikolai picks them up in a helicopter claiming to know somewhere they will be safe. With Makarov and soon the brunt of the US military aligned against them, Soap and Price have become the same kind of outlaw terrorists they used to hunt.


Slow As Sunday Modern Warfare 2 retold part four

Spoiler alert! The following feature contains story elements from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This is not a review but an analysis of the story told in Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare series. For those of you that will never play the game, skipped the “No Russian” mission, or missed the subtleties I encourage you to read on.

With only one lead on Makarov and no way of connecting the ultranationalist to the attack at Zakahev International, taskforce 141 is hard pressed to find credible evidence to prove the Russian attack on US soil is unwarranted. Desperately fighting a battle to clear civilians from Russian occupied territory the bulk of the United States military is engaged with the Russian invasion. Reunited with General Sheperd, the 141 hatches a plan to attack the Kamchatka Peninsula in an attempt to gain a foothold on Russian soil and prepare for a counter attack. Coincidentally, the gulag holding the mystery prisoner is close at hand. After securing oil rigs off the costs being used as surface to air missile strikes the taskforce attacks the gulag in a joint effort with US naval forces. The 141 finds the prisoner who is revealed to be Captain Price. Price has been locked away, seemingly to keep him from Makarov and the British and US governments alike. After a narrow escape from deep within the prison Price joins the 141 and the hunt for Makarov.

Captain Price doesn’t waste any time catching up with current events. Whether he was being fed information through some friends in the prison is unclear but he certainly is not surprised by current developments in the world. He immediately heads an effort by the 141 to attack a Russian military dock yard, enters a nuclear submarine armed with ICBM with nuclear warheads, and then launches one aimed squarely at the United States. The missile is detonated high in the atmosphere creating a huge magnetic pulse which knocks out all electronics and communications of the US and Russian forces fighting in the nation’s capital. Despite his intentions, the launch of the missile has one repercussion Price did not plan on. The US military may have managed to regain the high ground and the advantage against the Russian invading force but the ICBM spurs the secretary of defense to give General Sheperd more control over US military activities.


Slow As Sunday: Modern Warfare 2 retold (part three)

Spoiler alert! The following feature contains story elements from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This is not a review but an analysis of the story told in Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare series. For those of you that will never play the game, skipped the “No Russian” mission, or missed the subtleties I encourage you to read on.

part one can be found here.
part two can be read here.

Taskforce 141 returns from their mission, having successfully retrieved the ACS module, only to find that the CIA’s undercover operation has gone awry. Now the whole of Russia is crying for retribution and General Sheperd is ordering 141 to find the information that connects the bullet that killed Pvt. Allen to Makarov and the wholesale slaughter at Zakaev International Airport. The good news is that General Sheperd knows where Makarov’s favorite gun dealer is, the bad news is that so does Makarov. Just as the 141 catches up with Alejandro Rojas in Rio de Janeiro a conflict breaks out. Suddenly 141 is chasing Rojas while fending off armed militia in a chase that leads to a favela, a.k.a. a slum, just outside the city. Captain McTavish finally apprehends Rojas, but the information gained through his interrogation reveals little of the physical connections between Makarov and the Zakaev incident. What the team does discover is the location of and serial number for a prisoner in Russian custody that Makarov has expressed hatred toward.

Before the taskforce can be extracted and use this new intel, the Russian military invades United States soil. A carefully coordinated attack by air by-passes early warning systems. 141 was too late in retrieving the ACS module and now the Russians have used the encryption module to slip in undetected. Sergeant Foley and his Army Rangers, who have recently returned from Afghanistan, engage this new threat and defend civilians as they are evacuated. During there efforts, Foley is contacted by Gen. Sheperd and ordered to escort a person of importance to safety. Fighting heavy resistance, the Rangers mange to push through but find the MVP dead and an open briefcase besides his corpse. The contents are picked up by Private James Ramirez and remain and mystery for the rest of the story.  


Slow As Sunday: Modern Warfare 2 retold (part two)

Spoiler alert! The following feature contains story elements from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This is not a review but an analysis of the story told in Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare series. For those of you that will never play the game, skipped the “No Russian” mission, or missed the subtleties I encourage you to read on.

Part one of the retelling of Modern Warfare 2 can be found here.

With taskforce 141 currently busy (read “running for their lives”) General Sheperd briefs his latest recruit, Private Joseph Allen, on his plan to deal with Makarov. The CIA has gone to great lengths to obtain a cover ID, Alex Borodin, that will be used by the Private to get close to Makarov. What Allen will do once he is close to Makarov is unclear. The implication is that he will be deep under cover for the purpose of reporting Makarov’s activities and plans. What neither Allen or Sheperd realized is Makarov was prepared for the army ranger turned undercover agent. Before you know it Allen, now Borodin, is deep under cover and is participating in an attack on the Russian Zakahev International Airport. Hundreds of Russian civilians and law enforcement are killed while the Makarov, Borodin, and two Ultra-Nationalists all armed to the teeth carve a path of death and destruction through the airport. Just when it looked as if these villains were going to get away, Makarov turns and kills Borodin/Allen, sending a message to the Russian people.

The information revealed during and directly after the “No Russian” mission colors the rest of the story. First, we assume that Allen is quickly identified by Russian intelligence and the news of his identity is either leaked or deliberately given to the media. What kind of half truth the Russians fabricated is not known. Undoubtedly Allen was identified as an American, and in all likelihood as a solider, but his ties to the CIA were not verified. Even if they did release information that Allen was a CIA operative, Russian media could use that fact to call into question what involvement the Americans had in recent terrorist attacks. Maybe not all acts of violence were the doing of mad man Makarov but secret operations by the American government. Whatever the case may be, the right individuals in power were swayed, and now the Ultra-Nationalists plan was coming together. They have partial control of the military and support from those who were once on the fence. Makarov and the Ultra-Nationalists have aligned Russia and its people squarely against the United States of America.

Part 3 next week!


Slow As Sunday: Modern Warfare 2 story retold (part one)

Spoiler alert! The following feature contains story elements from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This is not a review but an analysis of the story told in Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare series. For those of you that will never play the game, skipped the “No Russian” mission, or missed the subtleties I encourage you to read on.

Five years after Imran Zakhaev was killed and a nuclear launch against the United States prevented, attitudes in Russia have shifted towards the teachings of the once radical. While not explicit, I believe that Zakhaev’s followers were more prevalent than first believed. Infiltrating the military and government at all levels, Zakhaev’s spiritual successor Makarov was able to slowly twist the Russian peoples’ attitudes to those of the Ultra-Nationalists. Like Zakhaev, Makarov has a thirst for death and destruction and uses them as tools to further his agenda of war. Attacks are made at various targets worldwide fueling the bloodlust of Makarov’s recruits and training them for the coming war.

While Makarov is seen as a threat by the United States there is little action taken to reign in this mad man. Whether Makarov is protected by the Russian government or is slippery enough to evade all nets is not revealed. There is at least one US military leader that is taking steps to put an end to the destruction and death. General Sheperd, who lead the military action against Al-Asad in Afghanistan, is now the head of a small military operation. The General's Taskforce 141 is composed of various special operations members, hand picked by General Sheperd, from the British and United States military and intelligence agencies. Their current mission is the retrieval of the encryption module from a downed US satellite from a Russian military base. At the same time General Sheperd is recruiting the latest member of his taskforce from the Army Rangers, Private Joseph Allen. While inspecting the abilities of this new recruit there is a rebel attack in the Afghani city near the military outpost Allen’s unit is stationed in. General Sheperd goes with the unit to retaliate against the attack. The counter attack is successful and the General takes Pvt. Allen with him to his new assignment.

Thus ends part one of the retelling of Modern Warfare 2. Check back next week for the second part.


The gloves that touch

I was out and about with my buddy Sean this last Saturday. We visited a local sports apparel retailer and found something quite unexpected. Tucked away in the winter wear were these nifty pairs of gloves specifically designed to work with touchscreen devices without needing to take off the gloves. The 180's touch it gloves are a winter necessity for technophiles. The little nubs on the tips of the thumb and first finger allow the use of touchscreen devices while keeping your digits toasty.

I hardly expected to find this techie winter god send in the same place where I used to buy inline skates but wonders never cease. If you want to get your hands into a pair of these iPhone friendly coverings you can order them directly from 180's.