Apple Watch is the new iPod

I can understand the appeal of the Apple Watch. Throughout the day, I am constantly pulling out my phone to quickly check the time or the weather or my current location and then putting it back into my pocket. It would be more convenient to simply glance at my wrist which is not only faster but also leaves my hand free to hold something else. Yes, it is a small thing, but many consumer products are built on small conveniences.

There was no way the Apple Watch could live up to some of the hype that was building up before its unveiling. Before we feel too sorry for Apple, though, it’s worth remembering that previous product unveilings really were that good. The original iPhone turned the entire cell phone industry on its ear with a simple innovation that was startlingly obvious in hindsight: stop forcing users to deal with unintuitive and tiny buttons or pens, let them use a big touch screen instead, and let third party developers create software for it. The iPad was less clearly revolutionary, but it created the modern tablet market where only a few feeble products had existed before.

By contrast, the Apple Watch seems to be following in the footsteps of Samsung and Pebble. Is Apple still an innovator, and can the Apple Watch really succeed?

The best comparison is probably to the launch of the original iPod. At the time, MP3 players were nothing new and Apple was entering a field with a lot of competition. But the iPod had a superior interface (the click-wheel) and the backing of one of the most popular music download services at the time (the iTunes Music Store). The iPod was not obviously superior to all the others, but it had enough advantages that eventually Apple was able to rule the market. (It’s ironic that the iPod Classic line has now been discontinued).

Similarly, the Apple Watch is entering an existing product field, and it’s clear that Apple hopes to win marketshare on the strength of its industrial design and supporting software. To help solve interface issues, Apple added a rotating knob on the side called the Digital Crown and a touch screen that distinguishes light taps from firm presses. There are also modules on the side contacting the wrist which provides tactile feedback. These are all features which no other smart watch has (and which Apple has surely patented). In terms of software, the App Store is still widely considered the best and most comprehensive store available.

Of course, there are still important details we don’t know yet (like battery life). But it’s not going to become available until early 2015 anyhow. Unlike some other Apple product launches, the Apple Watch isn’t a clear runaway hit. But all in all, it has as much of a fighting chance as the original iPod did.

The Titanfall and Destiny of the FPS Genre

When Titanfall showed up at E3, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and a true innovator leading the way to the future of FPS games. Now the launch of Bungie’s new FPS franchise, Destiny, is imminent and the hype machine is working overtime to tell us it will change the FPS landscape forever.

Both Titanfall and Destiny have legitimate claims on showing true innovation in a genre that has become stagnant. But it’s interesting now to think about how differently they go about it.

Titanfall’s main contributions were in its gameplay and controls. The most obvious new feature is the Titans themselves, but there are also numerous other innovations like wall-running, jet packing, and various little tweaks that discourage practices like spawn camping. The game is a joy to play and in many ways feels like a completely new way to play a shooter online.

On the other hand, Titanfall’s campaign mode is so laughable that one wonders why they even bothered. The story is completely inconsequential since, after all, it still has to hang together somehow regardless of which side wins each match.

Destiny aspires to revolutionize the entire online aspect of the FPS genre with a persistent world that players can explore alongside other online players whom the system matches with them. The game is only just now being released as you read it, so it’s not clear exactly how this persistent world is going to interact with other online players. However, if Bungie is clever enough to take advantage of the exploration format in order to find new ways to convey the story, they will have made something truly new. It will literally be an experience that cannot be replicated in any other medium. Movies can’t tell stories this way.

On the other hand, the actual running and gunning gameplay does not appear to be anything new. Of course, I haven’t seen all the abilities that can be unlocked, so there may be something groundbreaking to be found. So far, though, Destiny appears to play pretty much like Halo with some upgradeable abilities and weapons.

On the face of it, Destiny would seem to represent a much more profound change in the FPS genre than Titanfall does. Titanfall adds some neat new tricks. Destiny could change the whole genre fundamentally. And yet, I have a feeling that Titanfall’s innovations will be more widely adapted just for plain pragmatic reasons. Implementing a jump pack, some parkour, and giant robots is relatively easy for an FPS developer to do. Doing something similar to what Bungie is attempting is much harder and even harder to do well. Ten years from now, we may find that Titanfall was the more influential game whereas Destiny was a fascinating one-of-a-kind game that nobody else replicated.

And that’s ok. But I really hope the sequel to Titanfall gets a better story.

Review: Gemini Rue

One of the encouraging trends brought on by the rise of tablet gaming is the return of the point and click adventure genre. I have fond memories of playing through Grim Fandango with my roommates, and I still think it was one of the greatest games that too few people played.

Gemini Rue is a game in that genre, but it hearkens back to an even earlier time period when characters were splotchy collections of pixels and the use of a floppy disk to represent saving still made sense. On the other hand, the game is fully voice-acted and has a full quality music score.

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Continue reading Review: Gemini Rue

Twitch Could Kill Metal Gear Solid

I didn’t know anything about Twitch until news broke that Amazon had purchased the service, but I instantly saw the appeal as soon as I read about it. Like Twitch users, I enjoy watching other people play videogames. The mainstream media has gotten a lot of mileage out of making fun of the concept, but what they don’t get is that a lot of games these days have pretty complex, involving storylines. None of them would qualify as great literature, but I would argue that many of them are at least comparable to Hollywood blockbusters. A number of YouTube channels have drawn millions of subscribers by posting complete playthroughs of various games. If I don’t feel like watching anything currently on my Netflix queue, I will often pull up a playthrough from one of my subscribed YouTube channels.

Here’s the thing, though: after watching a playthrough of many games, I have very little desire to purchase and play those games myself. The most egregious example was Metal Gear Solid 4 which I often joke about by saying, “I played MGS4 on YouTube.” There have been plenty of more recent examples, though. I was watching Lara run through a collapsing tunnel in the latest Tomb Raider game when I realized that the whole thing was almost entirely scripted. Oh sure, the player nominally had control of Lara, but really all he was doing was holding up on the analog stick and watching as stuff dramatically collapsed all around Lara. How much value would I get if I was actually playing that game instead of watching somebody else play it?

A similar phenomenon has happened with the single-player campaigns of recent Call of Duty games. The game all but forces you to walk over to certain locations and then stop and while enemies pop out of pre-determined locations for you to shoot at. Technically you are in control, but really you are just following a script that the developers have laid out for you. How much value are you really losing if you watch someone else play the game for you?

Not all games are like this, of course, and not all Twitch viewers are watching playthroughs just to see a game’s storyline. I would go so far as to say that most premium games are still worth experiencing firsthand. But there are some games which have gotten so tightly scripted that they really only offer the illusion of control on the part of the player. And as Twitch or services like it become more widespread, it’s going to be harder and harder to convince people to shell out for something they could enjoy almost as much by simply watching someone else play it.

Twitch could be the death of Metal Gear Solid as we know it.

Bowser for Mayor!

To be clear, I do not live in Washington DC and I do not endorse any particular candidate. I don’t know enough about the issues or about the candidates.

But one of them is named Muriel Bowser. What videogame blog could resist that name?! Here’s a video of her talking to the Washington Post about her home.

More Sequels We Aren’t Asking For

I understand the business reasons behind Microsoft’s decision to purchase the Gears of War franchise and begin work on a new game. But I have to wonder just how many people are really excited about it.

For one thing, the story is over. The Locust threat was ended with Gears of War 3. The next game in the series had to resort to telling a prequel story which didn’t even involve Marcus Fenix. And given that the story was a foregone conclusion (being a prequel and all), many reasonably wondered why they should care.

For another thing, if the new game comes out next year, it will be the fifth game in 8 years. The Legend of Zelda series took 14 years (over three platforms) to get to its fifth game. Don’t players want something a little new and different these days?

As I said, I understand the business reasons behind the purchase. I don’t know how much money Microsoft forked over for the Gears of War franchise, but the chances are the next game will make enough money to make the deal worthwhile. All the same, I can’t help feeling that the dead-eyed cynicism is going to generate a backlash one of these days. It may not happen with the Gears of War series. Or the Halo series. Or even the next franchise Microsoft milks out. But the trend can’t continue forever.

The Warcraft Movie is Going to Suck

Does anybody even care that the Warcraft movie supposedly started shooting today? I’m not even sure World of Warcraft is a very big deal these days any more (although I admit I’m the wrong person to make such a claim since I never played it).

I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to make this movie. Warcraft is a bog standard fantasy story with orcs, elves, dwarves, and humans in a pseudo-medieval setting. The only good thing I can see out of this is it seems the internet seems to have realistically subdued expectations about the movie.

Which won’t stop some people from complaining that the movie is unfaithful to the games. Those are times that really test my patience with geeks.

Swipe to Jump

Mike Wehner at TUAW argues that “Nintendo needs to embrace iOS as a games platform.” The idea is that since Nintendo is in trouble these days, they ought to stop trying to push the 3DS and the Wii U and just develop for iOS (and I suppose for Android, but TUAW is an Apple-oriented blog).

These kinds of posts irritate me because they always focus on business plans and financial statements. And while Nintendo certainly cares about those things, there’s one other consideration that nobody ever seems to take into account. It’s one simple question:

How are you going to control Super Mario Bros with a touch screen?

I don’t think I have to get into the difficulties of controlling a precise platformer without buttons. I like iOS. I have both an iPhone and an iPad, and I use both daily. But they don’t have physical controls, and until they do, I suspect Nintendo developing for them is a non-starter.

And when people don’t take that into consideration, they reveal themselves to be very shallow thinkers.

One Red Ring to Rule Them All

The reaction to the Xbox One seems to have been mixed. Looking at this video, I’ve gotten some idea of what seems to rile people up.

I was talking about this with my buddy Jesterspawn who offered his personal theory: the Xbox One is not offering a product to its audience. Instead, the audience it brings is the product. The best way to think of this is to look at television. NBC is not really trying to deliver content to a viewing audience. What NBC is really concerned about is delivering the viewing audience to advertisers which is how they make their money. In similar fashion, Microsoft is looking to use the Xbox One to deliver people to Netflix, the NFL sports network, HBO, and whatever other sources of media it can partner with. Microsoft can then start data mining users to find out TV and movie watching habits, internet surfing habits, game playing habits and so on. Live in-game advertising is probably not far away.

This isn’t a totally novel idea. When you put things this way, the Xbox One actually looks like a competitor not to the PS4 but to Google TV. Google TV is also a system which overlays graphics and information on top of live TV coming through your cable box, satellite dish, or whatever. The main edge of the Xbox One is its interface which combines Kinect with voice controls to switch seamlessly between movies, TV, music, internet, and other media. I’m not sure how much of a selling point that is, to be honest. I can’t say I’ve ever watched a show on TV and thought to myself, “Boy I wish I could switch instantaneously to internet surfing right now.”

Actually, when I do get that urge, I just pick up my iPad.

Which brings us to the central issue with set top boxes like the Xbox One. Every media and electronic corporation wants to sell you one. But there isn’t much evidence that we really want them. Put simply, people have shown that they are perfectly willing to have a videogame console, a Blu-Ray player, and a web browser in separate machines. It’s just not that inconvenient to have multiple machines doing one thing well, and it also avoids giving us features that we don’t need. For example, I am not going to watch TV through the Xbox One because I don’t have cable. I download or stream everything. The smart TV feature on the Xbox One is wasted money for me.

The other issue is that the Xbox One and Google TV are both heavily reliant on underlying infrastructure built by Microsoft or Google. And neither company has the best setup for everything. When it comes to web browsing, I vastly prefer Chrome to Internet Explorer. But if I have an Xbox One, I’m out of luck. If I want to play videogames, I’ll have to use the Xbox One. Google TV has no videogames other than browser-based ones. If I have to find information on the internet, you can be sure that the Xbox One is going to force you to use Bing. Let that sink in for a second.

And that’s just in North America. Netflix streaming on the Xbox One is going to be useless in Asia or many European countries. NFL Sports? Do I even need to point out how little the rest of the world will care about that? Microsoft will have to negotiate deals with media companies all over the world if it hopes to compete on the international stage, and all those separate arrangements are going to be time consuming and fragmented. Meanwhile, many TVs are already coming with built in internet streaming these days.

Microsoft certainly seems to have been smarter about the feature set for the Xbox One than Sony was for the PS3. This may be the closest thing to a set top box we’ll get today, at least in North America. But I can’t shake the feeling that the very concept of a set top box still isn’t all that compelling to consumers.

3rd-Party Wii Titles Get the Shaft Because…

It’s no secret that many popular third-party games (Call of Duty, sports games, fighting games, etc) don’t sell as well on Wii as their HD counterparts. Call of Duty, ever since World at War, has still managed to go on to sell 1 million copies or more.

It’s a wonder though, that they sell at all. Why? Let’s take a look at a recent trip to a local “large chain” game retail outlet (it’s pretty obvious who it is, exactly):

 

WTF? Spryro up front? It's available for EVERY plaform...and why is Zelda at the bottom?
Three Zelda boxes, at the bottom of the wall and out of view. "New Releases" indeed.

 

Notice the “New Releases” wall? This photo was taken yesterday, the eve of a little game called The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword launching in the US. Today, this store will launch the game with the wall looking this way- a game that has already garnered several perfect scores and a wealth of controversy. This is the game to get for that platform this holiday. In this picture, we can barely see two to three display copies of the title at the bottom-right of the wall.   Isn’t slightly odd that a Game of the Year contender is so lightly displayed?

Of course, by contrast, Skyrim, Uncharted 3, Batman: Arkham City, and Battlefield 3 are all over the walls of PS3 and 360, with little room for anything else (never mind the fact that posters for said game are also littering the store). When asked for a copy of the Wii version of Modern Warfare 3, the store employee first looked puzzled, then stared at the wall for a good two minutes.

Then, he looks up, and finds it in this shiny, out of the way spot:

 

Where is Modern Warfare 3? Shouldn't it be front and center?
Where is Modern Warfare 3? Shouldn't it be front and center?

Apparently you have to be seven feet tall as well as 17 years old to play MW3 on Wii :

 

Aha! There you are? Quite a bit different location than the front-center, eye-level PS3/360 walls...
Aha! There you are? Quite a bit different location than the front-center, eye-level PS3/360 walls...

Looking closer, here it finally is. It’s pointless to say that he knew nothing of whether or not this game worked with the Headbanger Headset that they had in-stock (which works perfectly with Black Ops and Conduit 2 on Wii).

It seems even stores are trying their best to tell you that Wii just isn’t a console for hardcore games (in this case, even GOTY nominees made by Nintendo themselves). If mature, serious games can’t even get retail space when it’s clearly available, then it’s no wonder that the average gamer that walks in these stores have no idea that they even exist for Wii.

But you have to wonder: why isn’t Nintendo PR taking care of this, and ensuring that third-parties do also since there are some 45 million potential customers in the US? Why bother making a Wii version if you’re not going to make the effort to ensure that it actually reaches the hands of the hardcore gamers owning these systems?

Do you think this is a good business practice for these stores, and is it a bad call for publishers to allow their games to be shoved out of view like this?

Who’s at fault here, the store manager for portraying a biased display, or the NOA reps that are supposed to do store visits to stop this sort of thing?