Thursday, February 25, 2010

Grr for the N900

I'm a simple man with simple needs. The Nokia N900 is awesome. There is a huge body of people developing cool applications for Maemo 5, the N900's operating system. In fact, I only have a few problems, none of them very large problems.

For instance, there's no Shazam app for the N900. I used that program all the time on my old phone to identify music in restaurants and on the radio.

You can't have multiple ringtones on the N900, for instance giving each contact a custom ringtone. Not a big deal, but still odd that the N900 doesn't allow it. In fact, that feature is so common in all phones now, it's not even anything I thought to investigate when researching the N900.

The biggest problem for me was reading RSS feeds in Google Reader. I love Google Reader. On my pc. The interface is a little hard to use on the tiny N900 screen, and using the iPhone's mobile Google Reader interrface doesn't sort feeds by web site, nor does it act at all like I want it to.

This was a problem, and I have even been evaluating other web-based feed readers for a better mobile interface, when I read about Grr.

Grr is an app that brings your Google Reader feeds to your N900. The above link explains where to find it and how to install it. It doesn't have support for marking posts with stars or for sharing items, but I don't use those features anyway.

The best things about Grr, which I hope never change, are:

-It sorts feeds by site.
-It's easy to mark all the posts of a site as read.
-You can choose to view all feeds and entries whether they've been read or not.
-You can easily open a post in your default browser to read or view it there.

That's it. That's all I needed. I told you I was a simple man...

So thank you, developer(s) of Grr, for a simple app that's exactly what I wanted.


Viliv S10 Blade Full Line Priced

Some UMPC Portal commenter with great detective skills has done some digging and found the prices for the whole line of Viliv S10 Blades. Slashgear reports it as such:

* Atom Z530 1.6GHz/60GB HDD/Win XP – $699
* Atom Z530 1.6GHz/32GB SSD/Win 7 – $797
* Atom Z530 1.6GHz/64GB SSD/Win 7 – $857
* Atom Z530 1.6GHz/32GB SSD/Win 7/HSPA modem – $889
* Atom Z530 1.6GHz/64GB SSD/Win 7/HSPA modem – $949
* Atom Z550 2.0GHz/64GB SSD/Win 7 – $987
* Atom Z550 2.0GHz/64GB SSD/Win 7/HSPA modem – $1,079

The ceiling was lower than most people anticipated ($1,200 to 1,500), but the floor is still way too high. Decision: too expensive.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Viliv S10? I guess not.

So it looks like the Viliv S10's pricing is going to start at $699. That's according to Dynamism, anyway. I like the WXVGA display and the 7-10 hour battery life, but $699, and that's for a model with Windows XP and a 60GB hard drive. Yeah, right.

I can get Windows 7 on an Asus T91MT. True, it's got a 5 hour battery life and a weaker processor (1.33 GHz), but it's only $500. Bonus, it's got 2 SD slots, which I think is freaking awesome. And it's 9", my preferred netbook size.

Running Windows XP on a tablet is a joke--ask anyone who has the Asus T91 (the earlier, non-multitouch version). If I'm going to drop $700 on a netvertible, why not just buy a Gigabyte Touchnote? It's got worse battery life and a slower processor, but at least it's got Windows 7 and a 250 GB HDD, right? Also, it appears to have a removable battery, which is a huge bonus in my book.

I'm going to hold out a little more and see what the pricing is for the SSD models and the ones with faster CPUs. I'm 99% sure I'm going to be disappointed. That would be bad news for Viliv but great news for Asus I suppose, because in that case I'll be buying a T91MT. Judging by the comments at the bottom of this article, I'm not the only one.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fuck Ubisoft

I have, in the past, taken forum talk as "confirmation" of DRM-based restrictions. For instance, I thought Bioshock 2 wouldn't allow you to save games if you weren't connected to the internet. This turned out to be an exaggeration, as you are able to create an "offline" Games For Windows Live profile once you've activated the game. With the offline profile you can save games even if you're not connected to the internet (though, I repeat, you have to connect to the internet at least once to activate the G4WL DRM).

Ubisoft has put some ridiculous DRM into effect that I'm comfortable calling 'confirmed', as the source is the magazine PC Gamer.

The game in question? The PC version of Assassin's Creed 2. The ridiculous restriction? Even though it's a single-player game, you can't play the game unless you're connected to the internet. Yes, that's right.

If you're playing the game and your internet connection fails, you will be kicked out of the game.

Guess what? If their servers go down, that'll kick you out of the game too.

Way to alienate your fan base. Of course, the terrible sales will be chalked up to PC games being a dying market, having nothing to do with increasingly awful DRM.

Fuck that, and fuck Ubisoft.

The story has changed a bit, though Ubisoft seems to be contradicting themselves. Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a really good writeup on the whole situ.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Motorola S9-HD Review and Notes


Just bought the Motorola S9-HD, stereo bluetooth headphones. Thought I'd throw up some first impressions and notes.


How does it sound? In a word, muddy. Not $5 generic muddy, but certainly not as good as even my JVC marshmallows. They're okay for watching movies. Good for listening to well-known music while doing the dishes. I don't think I'd listen to too many new albums with these headphones.


The frame is made of hard plastic that has a little flexibility in order to "cling" to the wearer's head. Getting the proper fit takes a little getting used to.

The earbuds themselves are huge. I'm assuming they're not supposed to fit inside the ear canal like some other earbuds. I'm fine just letting them rest at my ear's opening, not trying to make any kind of seal.

Not very comfortable. As with all earbuds, it takes a while for my ears to get used to them, but after a little over an hour of continuous use, my ears are pretty sore. I may have to report back on this after some more use.


They paired with my Nokia N900 effortlessly. Pairing them with my HP Laptop took a little more work, because I've just upgraded to Windows 7 and hadn't installed the proper drivers. The headphones were recognized, I just couldn't use them until I found and installed the proper bluetooth drivers (not specific drivers for the headphones, but specific bluetooth drivers for the laptop).

The S9-HD has buttons for answering a call, skipping to the next track, skipping to the previous track, play/pause, and volume up and down. These all worked well with my N900.

Note that the volume up/down buttons affect the S9-HD's internal volume, and don't change anything on the devices it's paired to.

Windows Media Player recognized the hardware buttons on the headphones with no digging through settings.

Winamp has an option for "multimedia key support" (under "Global Hotkey" settings in "Preferences"). Turning that on allows the buttons on the headphones to control it's playback, though you can't pause music in Winamp, you can only hold the play/pause button down for a few seconds and stop the music completely.

If, like me, you don't like Windows Media Player, there is a freeware program called "Media Keyboard 2 Media Player" (MK2MP) that forwards the bluetooth button presses to VLC, XMplay, and iTunes.

Final Verdict

I haven't had these earphones long enough to test battery life, so I can't comment on that. Like I said, sound quality is a little muddy, but decent. The earphone-based controls add a little extra functionality and work pretty much as expected.

Is it worth the price? If you're after the best sound quality, no. If you're after some wireless headphones that you can use to watch videos on your laptop without the hassle of cords, maybe.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Editing with Blender's VSE

I occasionally take it upon myself to ramble about how great Blender is. As soon as the 2.5 release is finished I'm sure I'll have a lot more to talk about, though production-wise I'm locked into using 2.49 for a few more months, for safety and compatibility's sake.

I've toyed around with Blender's Video Sequence Editor (aka video editor) previously, but not much. I used it for a slide show once, I used it to put a watermark on a video, but nothing more complicated than that.

It wasn't until this week that I actually used it to do some heavy-duty editing. An 11 minute video, broken up by scenes, and I used Blender's VSE to stitch it all together and tweak the timing.

I used Blender to edit this simply so I could use it on both my Linux and Windows PCs. Had I just been working on Linux I would have used Kdenlive, which looks awesome but I haven't had a chance to use it yet. Had I edited it in Windows...well, there aren't any good open source video editors for Windows, are there? Well, there's one, Blender, and it is awesome!

I used to go back and forth between Blender and Inkscape a lot, and that is maddening. The interfaces are completely different. There's nothing wrong with Inkscape's interface, but Blender is in a class of it's own. Blender is designed for speed, and once you figure out how it works you stop thinking and start doing. That really is the best way to describe it, Blender's interface has a steep learning curve but it quickly becomes second nature.

I have similar problems when I've been using Blender for a while and move to Audacity to edit some audio. I try to scrub the timeline, when of course you can't do that in Audacity (you have no need to scrub in Audacity). Also, the mouse wheel causes panning or zooming in different directions depending on which program you're using, and it's hard to keep them straight.

The point is, going from Blender directly into another app is frustrating, partly because Blender's interface is so capable, and partly because I spend the most time in Blender so that's what I'm used to. This is one reason why the VSE is so great. The hotkeys are the same as they are in the rest of Blender.

Video and audio show up on the VSE screen as "strips". You use the same hotkeys with strips in the VSE window as you do any other objects in the 3D window. SHIFT+RMB selects multiple scrips, G "grabs" and moves them, etc.

At first, the experience is a bit different, and it's pretty intuitive to use the VSE if you're comfortable using the rest of Blender. If you're just trying Blender out for the VSE you'll have a steep learning curve, because it looks and acts nothing like any other video editor.

When you first open Blender, you see two horizontal windows. The 3d window with a cube and a light in it, and below that the Buttons window, which handles most of the object and animation properties. What's cool about Blender is, like most 3d applications, you can customize your windows. You can have four different 3d viewports, each from their own angle. In the VSE you can set up an editing workspace exactly like you want it.

For video editing, you probably want two VSE windows--one for handling strips, one that acts as a preview window--and a timeline. That's the bare minimum. You probably want a buttons window, too, in order to view and edit basic properties of audio and video clips.

Once you get some strips in the VSE, you select them with the RMB (right mouse button). If you then click the middle of the strip, you can move it around on the timeline. If you select the arrow icons on the right or left ends of the clip, you can trim the clip from whatever end you've selected. If you hit 'K', any selected clips are cut wherever the cursor is intersecting them.

I prefer to trim the clips from the ends because it leaves a transparent bar that shows how long the clip was, so if I ever have to fix something and replace an old clip with an updated version, I can see exactly what frame the clip is trimmed to.

Also, after you've trimmed a clip you can drag the arrow back to it's original position to un-trim or tweak the clip at any time. If you use 'K' to cut the clip, all you can do to restore it is undo the cut or re-import the clip.

I'll say again: The fact that the VSE acts just like the rest of Blender will be a hindrance to any outsiders trying to use it. To a Blenderhead, it's great. Probably the most comfortable I've ever been using a video editor, and I've used a lot of them over the years.

I do have a few complaints:

Blender is a 3d program so you can set the resolution to whatever you want, 100x200 or 10,000x20,000, and the VSE is no exception. This becomes a problem in the VSE because in it's preview window, there are no markings to show you where the edge of the frame is. There's just a black background behind the video. The VSE wiki entry says Blender tries to scale video clips to fit the screen. This makes me nervous, and I'd like a title safe indicator like the 3d window's camera has, or perhaps a way to easily dictate what happens to clips that are too small or too large for the chosen resolution.

There's no hotkey to start and stop playback. Out of reflex I tap the spacebar, because nearly every other video player and video editor plays/pauses videos when the spacebar is pressed. In Blender this isn't possible because the spacebar is already used to open a menu. Blender does track what window your mouse cursor is in, and the spacebar doesn't do anything in the timeline window, so perhaps they could get spacebar to to start and stop playback only when the mouse is in the timeline window. If they just bound any key to that action though, it would make editing easier.

Most video editors have a clip bank, a media library, whatever they call it, that shows all the clips you have imported, and it also makes it easy to re-use any clip just by dragging it from the bank and dropping it on the timeline. Not a big deal for me, but it would make the VSE feel a lot more like a traditional editor.

In Blender's VSE, you can't link audio and video tracks. This is a little silly to me, you'd think this would be one of the first things implemented. However, you can select both a video track and it's corresponding audio track at the same time. Cuts, trims and movements should apply to all clips that are selected..

Something that's not a complaint but is something worth mentioning is that you can perform fade in and fade outs as well as dissolves in the VSE, but it's very strange. There are two tools you need to use (that you can add just like you'd add any other strip), Cross and Color Generator. The Color Generator fills the frame with whatever color you select (via a color picker in the buttons window). You can make it black, put it in a channel over your video strip, then select both strips and add a Cross on top of them to dissolve between your strip and the Color Generator. You can also add a Cross to two stacked video clips to perform a dissolve.

NOTE: The Cross uses what order you select the strips in to determine which strip is fading in and which is fading out. The first strip you select will fade out, the second will fade in. This was quite frustrating for me until I figured out how this worked.

I know that seems like a long list of complaints, but they're all minor things and don't dissuade me from using the VSE at all. In fact, I encourage anyone out there who's comfortable with Blender or willing to take the time to learn it to try it out. The fact that it's cross-platform makes my recommendation all the more enthusiastic.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Online Video -with ads

As I said in a really old post, I'm going to start putting videos on a site like someday soon. Naturally, I've been paying extra attention to how other sites have been implementing video ads. In that last post I just talked about some video streaming sites. Now we get to the meat of my current interest, online video with ads.

This isn't meant to be seen as a comprehensive guide of all sites and different types of online ads, just a few notes and thoughts regarding the way I've seen some sites display ads. For extra fun, picture me saying it in the whiny, meandering voice of Andy Rooney.


I like Hulu. The video looks okay, I rarely have to pause it to let it buffer, and it has a huge selection.

Also, because it's big, it has a much larger pool of ads. I once watched a full episode of Bones on Fox's website, and every single commercial break had the exact same commercial. That's bad enough, but it was a pretty annoying commercial with an annoying song. It drove me crazy. I may never watch another episode on Fox's website again.

Recently, before watching a video on Hulu a message came up asking me which of two campaigns I'd like to see ads for. That's a pretty good idea, provided it doesn't lead to my viewing the same commercial over and over again. By giving potential viewers a choice, it actually invokes curiosity about the ads and makes them more likely to be viewed.


Another site doing something new to me is ABC. I've watched all the new episodes of Scrubs on it, and they've got an interesting idea. So far I've seen two different implementations of it.

The first was for some hardware store offering holiday decorating ideas. I saw an html page in the viewing window with pictures and links to ideas on how to create these decorations with the hardware store's help, and after 15 or so seconds I had to click a button in the upper left corner to continue the watching the episode. I had to click the button to proceed, if I didn't click anything the video wouldn't resume.

The second implementation also had a basic html page in the viewing window, but it had a video embedded in the page as well as text. The ad's video was 30 seconds, and this time I could click the button in the upper left corner to stop a 15-second countdown and finish watching the entire length of the ad's video. Meaning, don't click the button in 15 seconds, you go back to your show, do click the button, you watch the rest of the ad.

Both are very interesting ideas. The hardware store ad, even though it was probably much cheaper to produce than a video, gave more specific information and provided more ways to engage the audience.

The second ad, with the video longer than the break I'm sure will give sponsors valuable information as to which ads people want to see in their entirety.

Both ideas were fairly innovative and both in theory, should result in better ads.

Text ads

Then we get to my least favorite online video ads, the text ads. I'm okay with text ads in the sidebar of a blog (obviously). Sometimes a particularly relevant one jumps out at you, but they're off to the side, out of your way and easy to ignore if you don't want to see them.

On a video they're kind of obnoxious. They cover part of the screen, they're actually distracting viewers (I know, that's the point). I'll probably try them out to see how I like them on my own videos, but as a (eventual) producer and as a viewer, I'll take pre-rolls and post-rolls (text or video) over in-video text ads any day. That's not to say I won't enable text ads in my own videos, I'll certainly try them out, but I don't know if I'll stick with them.

So there you have it, a tiny little review of a few implementations of online video ads. Months late, but nobody reads this blog anyways.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

N900 as an Mp3 player

One of the reasons I bought an N900 was so I could put a 16GB microSD card in it and use it as an mp3 player. The N900 has 32GB of storage--about 26GB of that are available due to the N900 needing about 6GB for system files. Adding a 16GB SD card makes 40GB total available for files such as mp3s.

I don't even have 40GB of mp3s on this device, because I need to save space for downloaded files, photos, etc. Right now I have maybe 35GB of music on my N900, split between the internal storage and the microSD card. This, by the way, from someone who nearly ran out of space on a 120GB Zune. 110GB - all music, no videos (the Zune Pass subscription service was primarily to blame).

Right now the device has 8,465 songs on it, according to the N900's default media player.

So here's my situation: Until 64+ GB microSD cards become available, browsing by folder would be unwieldy. "Is this album on the SD card or the internal storage?" I thought about a setup with links to music folders, but even that would probably be more trouble than it's worth, if it's even possible on the N900.

So I need to browse by tag, not a big problem. Since I've owned two tag-based mp3 players in the past, a Creative Zen Touch and a Zune, most of my mp3s are properly tagged.

Now, there are three competent tag-based mp3 playing apps on the N900 that I'm aware of. Canola, MediaBox, and the N900's default media player.

Had I written this within the first few days of getting the N900, this post would be talking shit all up and down the N900's default media player. That would be mainly for one reason, that the default media player's "now playing" screen is kind of lame.

The N900 is a touch screen device. I have, from past experiences, decided how a touch-screen media player app should behave. The volume and track progress sliders should always be visible, one on the left or right side of the screen along the edge, one on the top or bottom of the screen along the edge. That way, without looking you can adjust the volume, restart a song, skip back a bit, etc.

The default media player has a progress bar in the middle of right half of the screen. Tapping on the album art (directly to the left of the progress bar) replaces the progress bar with a list of all the songs on the album/playlist so you can look ahead or easily switch tracks.

Ideally I'd like tapping the album art to pause the song. Someone calls, or you're driving and you hear a noise, you don't want to have to look away from the road for this little pause button. Perhaps this is something that could have been avoided if the N900 had a few more dedicated buttons around it's sides.

Let's get to the good: The N900's default media player is the only one in which you can search your database of music using the hardware keyboard. That's right, no scrolling. Just start typing in the name of a band and it will filter out all the bands that don't have those letters.

A few problems with this: Like most media players, you can browse all artists, all albums, or all tracks. If you browse by artist, once you've selected an artist you're shown all their albums, (or you can play all of an artist's tracks). If you browse by album, selecting an album brings you to a list of all the album's tracks. When browsing by song, all the songs are on one big list. I only browse by song if I want to shuffle all songs on the player.

There are some problems with this. You have to wait a few seconds for the list to populate itself before typing in a search or it won't find what you're looking for. Just a few seconds. Also, you can search while browsing by all artists or all songs, but now while browsing all albums. I don't know why, that's just how it is.

That said, none of the other media players on the N900 search via the keyboard at all, so it's not like I can be too picky about it.

On to Mediabox and Canola. Both have strengths and weaknesses. Both are a little odd. Both support album art, but you have to install a streaming plugin for Canola and then let it crawl your music folders for album art to get it to recognize everything properly.

Also, Canola won't let you browse to any folders and let you specify that as your music folder. It will scan all your folders for ones with music, and you can remove folders from that list, but you can't point out folders that it for some reason isn't aware of. Uninstalling Canola won't make it re-scan for media folders. I almost think it only does this once after it's first install, so if you create a new media folder it'll never see it. I copied my mp3s over after I installed Canola, so I had to go into the file system and delete all of Canola's files in order to get it to re-scan my system and actually find my mp3 folders.

Mediabox lets you choose what folders it does and doesn't look for music in. As most people have said, the Mediabox interface takes a bit of getting used to. I had to try to get it to scan certain music folders over and over again before it finally started finding my music. I was probably doing something wrong, but it wasn't terribly clear what I was supposed to be doing so I won't take too much of the blame.

Mediabox and Canola also have the odd problem of occasionally stuttering. Of course when I'm surfing with a lot of windows open it affects the smoothness of mp3 playing, but Mediabox and Canola stutter a little bit just before the screen turns off. The stock media player doesn't. I don't know if it's because the default media player has a higher priority or if it's just less resource intensive, but between letting me search for music by typing and it's much less frequent hiccups I've settled on it as my default mp3 playing app.

I know Mediabox is under constant development, I think Canola is, and there are a few other decent apps for older versions of Maemo that may end up being ported to Maemo 5 eventually.

As it is, the N900 is a great mp3 player. I was worried I'd be disappointed in a lackluster ability to handle a large amount of files, but it works fairly well. I can't wait until I can get my hands on a 32GB microSD card.


No Innovation /= A Bad Anything

I, as most regular readers of this site know, really enjoyed Uncharted 2. I've read a handful reviews by people who didn't like the game, and most of their complaints I can understand, even if I don't quite agree with them. These complaints range from: the game took to long to get going, it's difficult sometimes to know what to do or where to jump, and then you have people that were rubbed wrong by the games action-movie style and story. I can understand all these complaints. One complaint, however, constantly rubs me the wrong way, and that is that Uncharted 2 isn't innovative.

So what?

Everyone's entitled to their own opinions, and everyone is drawn to gaming by their own specific tastes. I myself much prefer transparent linear stories to those 'good or evil' games that pretend like your decisions matter--like Mass Effect. I enjoyed that game, but the decisions it imposed felt cheap and only affect how people talk to you (sometimes). No matter what you do, the game ends relatively the same way. I mean, no matter what you do in Mass Effect, you're fighting Saren. You can't become so evil you team up with him. You can't kill him halfway through and take his place.

The point is, I tell some people my preferences towards linear games and they look at me like I'm crazy. Non-linear gameplay is the best thing to happen in gaming ever! How can I hate it? You know at the end of Metroid games, when it tells you what percent you've completed? I strive for 100%. I know it's a flaw if it prevents me from enjoying other games, I just want to absorb everything. Just like with "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, I always read every possibility that was offered.

Even though I can't understand the complaints that a game isn't innovative, I don't hold it against anybody. People want what they want, and I can't hold that against them.

But why should innovation be so important? Why does a game have to be innovative?

It seems like every few years there is a new game that re-defines FPS, or RPG, or whatever. Other similar games are referred to as "'defining game' clones," such as "Doom clone." This is a term that used to be simply descriptive. Software hobbyists used to make 'Pac-Man clones' and 'Asteroids clones'. It wasn't insulting, that's what they were intended to be. It was an exercise in programming and a way for people to download popular game knock-offs for free from bulletin boards. After a while "clone" became an insult you direct at a game that's too similar to a popular game without adding anything unique.

It's funny to point out that, amidst all the cries for innovation, many things the first few FPSs brought out still haven't been improved to a degree that it's indistinguishable from that feature from the earliest games. HUDs have existed since the first FPSs, and even before, in platformers. Deathmatch? Midi Maze. Co-op? Doom. Getting keys or hitting switches to open doors, big bosses, weapons upgrades, these things have been around nearly as long as gaming itself.

So what's being innovated? Better graphics, better controls, better AI. Cover systems. Better voice acting. Cutscenes. Actual stories. Increased interactivity.

When's the last time someone's read a book and said, "This author isn't innovating anything. He's still wrapping speech in quotations! What is this, 1509? Why are all the paragraphs indented? Did my great-grandma typeset this book?"

Such talk would be missing the point. People look for all different things in a book--good storytelling, good writing, escapism, a guidebook for life, comedy, drama, whatever. This goes for music, movies, television, and even games. People will always be innovating whatever forms they work in. Good innovation should be applauded, but it shouldn't be confused with good craftsmanship. Kane and Lynch had a lot of innovation, that still left it pretty far from being 'Game of the Year', or even 'Fun Game to Play'.

When I play a videogame, I want a fun experience. I know that's very broad, let me distill that down. I like some puzzles, but I don't like wall-to-wall puzzles. I like the ability to do things I can't or won't do in real life, whether it's something in Batman Arkham Asylum or something in Grand Theft Auto 4. I like a distinct style, perhaps a mood, like you would find in Max Payne 1 or 2. I like the level of concentration and even memorization games like Wipeout and F-Zero require. Some people want a good scare, like Dead Space seems to have provided (I haven't played it yet). Some people want a good story, like Uncharted 2.

Occasionally you have games like the Half Life series where they're able to manipulate the mood and keep you guessing. The juggling act between zombies and militia men in Half Life 1 is still some of the most fun I've had in a game, something they managed to keep going in Half Life 2 and it's episodes.

It is just so foreign to me that if I asked someone what they looked for in games, they'd say 'innovation'. That's such an abstract concept removed from anything I look for in games. Is it enjoyable? Did you "lose time," as I have frequently with select games, books, movies and tv shows? Do you keep saying "one more level" until you look out your window to see hours have passed and the sun has now risen? If so then why?

I like improvement and innovation. Max Payne 2 fixed all my problems with Max Payne 1. It is the better game, in my opinion. Crysis brought with it more realistic enemy AI than I was used to and made me rise to it's level. I was used to games where, if you see someone taking cover, you can shoot the bit of their arm sticking out and they for some reason would step out of cover to shoot at you. No no no, not in Crysis. You shoot their arm in Crysis, they get deeper in cover, because that's what you would do, stupid.

Here's my pet invalid belief: After Batman: Arkham Asylum, Prototype and Infamous, there should be no more "bad" superhero games, like *ugh* Superman 64, or those terrible platformers that we've suffered through for decades. I'm sure there will still be many terrible superhero games, but there shouldn't be. There is a template now, the bar has been raised. Just drop your comic book character into "clones" of any of those three games, and at least it won't be terrible. It can be repetitious, it can be too short, too long, it can have bad acting, it can be too hard or too easy, or have a shitty story, but it should at the very least be playable. The controls are done for you. The graphics should at least be passable.

Uncharted 2 didn't innovate anything. Motion capture has been used in game cut scenes before, there have been climbing sequences in games, and puzzle-driven treasure hunting games wherein people raid tombs. Other games have used arcs to show you where thrown items would go, other games have used a run 'n gun style, hand-to-hand combat, and stealth options as well as a cover system.

What makes Uncharted 2 so fun for me is first, that it's story driven. The game doesn't get in the way of the story, and I also never found myself saying, "Yes, this cutscene is cool and all but I'd like to play now, please!" You have a story-driven objective, you reach a point where you have or haven't achieved that objective, which leads to more story and another objective. What's more, the design team seemed to work very hard on taking things that normally would be relegated to a cutscene, say moving forward on a moving train while a helicopter is firing at you, and making it playable. And fun.

They didn't need to re-write the video game. They didn't need to invent anything, all the tools they needed were in place. They did have a lot of strong writing and design. For example, now that I'm playing Crushing mode I'm starting to notice that they almost always give you a way to take out your opponents in a stealthy way. In some places it's obvious and the story relies on it, later it's just there as another option you can exercise if you choose.

We're at the point now where games can be elegant and even intuitive simply using the framework other games have established. Anything a comic book, tv show or movie can do, a video game can do, developers just need to start realizing that. Sure there will still be innovation. Uncharted 2 may some day seem horribly dated. Talk of innovation fades out in time. People born today won't care in 20 years if Uncharted, Half Life, or Dragon Age were innovative or not. They'll just care if they're good.

You can try to argue with them, 'Oh, but Half Life invented this...' and in the same way it won't matter to them, it doesn't matter now. A game isn't good based on how much it innovates. It's good based on how it made you feel as you played it. Joy or frustration? Concentration or boredom? Why would Uncharted 2's developers go out and look for new tools to aid in providing the experience they want to if it was possible with all the tools available to them from day 1? To satisfy the smattering of people who think, for some reason, that 'good /= gameplay, good = innovation'?


PS - You might have gathered by now that I include games in with all other art forms, because I do in fact think video games can be art. There's a line to draw. Solitaire isn't an art, and it's hard to say, for example, that Doom is art, but it's equally as hard to say that the earliest, clunky silent films are art, too. Just like the silent films begot the amazingly capable art form of cinema, and poems read to lyre accompaniment eventually led to songs as we know them, Doom and Rogue eventually begot current state of games. And come on, if you think any horror films are art, then why isn't Dead Space art? If you think any of the Indiana Jones movies are art, why not the Uncharted games? They're all creative re-constructions of reality that make a point or tell a story.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Quick note to posters of inking videos:

How a tablet PC "inks," or how it handles handwriting with a stylus is one of my primary concerns when looking at a new device. There are a lot of considerate individuals out there helping people who care about inking by posting videos of inking on various devices.

In fact, type the model of a tablet PC along with the term "inking" into Google and there's a pretty good chance it'll find a video for you. I don't want to demean or insult anyone who helps people out by making such videos. However, a lot of the videos are lacking a few things. I've made a list of requests, okay, rules, for making inking videos more helpful to people like myself:

    -First of all, calibrate your touchscreen.

    -Try to make sure the device's screen is in the camera's focus. I know this is hard as most people don't have camcorders that allow you to set manual focus, but if you could it would greatly help. If your camera is unable maintain a static focus on your tablet's screen, write a bit (out of focus) then hold the tablet up to the camera and let it focus so people can at least see the quality of the results in better detail.

    -Make your camera stationary. You're probably looking at the tablet, not the camera's viewfinder. I'm not a big fan of your crotch or the ceiling of your kitchen. Set the camera on a pillow if you don't have a tripod, and work out the blocking beforehand. Move the tablet to stay in the camera's range, not the other way around.

    -Be consistent. Write small and slow, then small and fast, big and slow, then big and fast.

    -Try to write as small as you can. People in inking demonstrations tend to write big text, which is great, but not how people like myself intend to use the device on a day-to-day basis.

    -I think part of the problem is that people don't know what to write, so they write things like "Hello" in big letters. If you can't think of something to write, write the first few sentences of the Gettysburg Address (Four score and seven years ago...) or something else you've probably got committed to memory. A favorite poem. The lyrics to your favorite song.

    -If you're comfortable doing it, swipe the stylus off of the screen so we can see how near you can get to the screen's bezel and still write.

    -I repeat: Please try to write as small as you can, as fast as you can, then as slow as required for the text to be legible. Then hold the tablet up to the camera for better focus and detail. This would be extremely helpful.

As I see it, most people want such videos to answer the question, "Could this device replace, say, a legal pad?"

Once again I mean no insult or offense to anyone who has taken time out of their day to post demonstration videos for the benefit of others. That said, I think that following these guidelines would help others even more in deciding whether or not to buy a certain device.