Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sony is Playing Too Much

Sony has been boneheaded about the Playstation 3. Before all you fanboys jump onto the comments board and start flaming me, hear me out. It's a clearly established fact that the PS3 contains some incredibly saucy hardware capable of curing cancer, finding aliens, and assisting you with your assination information gathering. It's also a clearly established fact that Sony has no clear hardware roadmap as everything from price to system configuration has changed more times than ever seen with any console. While it appears the PS3 is on the way to recovery, has the system screwed early adopters of the console?

Consoles in the gaming market rarely see core hardware changes due to necessity. Developers often enjoy developing for consoles as opposed to a PC because game code can be optimized for a universal hardware base, where a PC game has to be optimized for the lowest possible configuration or two listed on the box. This convenience has lead to some incredibly astounding console games in both graphics and sound, but also play, as developers do not need to spend time optimizing code for several hardware configurations.

This isn't to say that core hardware changes don't occur - they do, namely in the form of shrinking the hardware or placing the actual chips in different spots on the circuit board. But these aren't true hardware changes in the sense of chips being eliminated or more RAM being added to the board or a better graphics chip being inserted. Miniatureization is an essental non-change, as it does not split the market between older console owners and newer owners. The Xbox 360, while also in three retail configurations, sport the same basic motherboard no matter the package. The minute a manufacturer starts removing microchips, the sooner they invite new electrical and processing problems into the motherboard.

Going a step further, developers will not even start to develop games on the assumption a peripheral has penetrated the market as deeply as the console core itself, despite the sales numbers showing high attachment rate, as they begin to split the market and decrease potential sales when they do. The Wii is an example of this, as no developer has dared to optimize a game for anything but one controller and nunchuck. Every wonder why games that are based on a special peripheral always include it, or why sequels have a separate SKU for an edition that comes with hardware? It is to avoid market segmentation.

Enter Sony and the Playstation 3. After numerous console delays and even more speculation as to cost, Sony released their next-gen console with a huge loss margin and at a price that is historically not supported by the market. Desperate to recover costs on the slow selling software, Sony did whatever they could to reduce cost. Enter the first hardware change - a smaller hard drive and the removal of the actual Playstation 2 engine chip from the motherboard. Enter a second change - the removal of the low end 40GB edition and a new, differently configured model. Now the market had three different hardware configurations of the same console and developers quickly became confused, as evidenced by delayed and slow releases. Sure, the CPU was the same but what else was? Sony themselves didn't know, as several more console configurations were released around the globe in an effort to somehow "catch on" with the mainstream. Even Sony's legacy - backwards compatibility - has gone out the window in an effort to just sell consoles.

The net result? Severel confused gamers that are cheated out of their money. Sony once touted all PSOne games would play on PS2, and PS2 would play on PS3. Now they can't all play together and if you listen, you will hear the confused and angry consumer complaining about this. Consumers are screwed in another way as well, in the form of development. Developers for the PS3, while still dealing with richly powered hardware, are unable to develop for a better configuration as they now have to focus on the lowest end configuration. While this may translate into a lost cutscene that would, say, show a cameo of an older PS2 game that could utilize the PS2 hardware to save resources, the impact could be much more significant in terms of taking advantage of full console power. And software emulation of PS2 hardware versus the actual on-board hardware? I smell an Xbox 360 syndrome in which many Xbox 1 titles will never be playable again. Consoles that were based on software emulation will be ignored as Sony focuses on the current line that lacks backward compatibility. Let us not forget that any Guitar Hero fan will have to buy an all new game an guitar controller for the PS3. A net change in dropping backward compatibility support is a drop in research to create hardware that bridges older peripherals into the new hardware. A PS3 with an emotion engine in it will not allow you to use the PS2 guitar, a huge slap in the face of fans of that hugely popular series - all in the name of cutting cost, since now Sony is not about to invest in an easy-to-produce PS2 to USB adaptor.

This is just one example of how early adopter gamers were screwed by Sony. Developers now will be forced to watch the hard disk cache, consider HD limitations for non HD iterations of the console, consider gamers without DualShock 3, and how to release games onto the PSN for play, since the hardware has changed so much. Xbox Live Arcade requires "trial versions" of all games, which is something PSN could learn from, but may struggle with due to said fractured hardware SKUs. There are a number of people who refuse to download something they are unsure of because of this. The list is longer than this but I think I've made my point. If you bought the PS3 early, you were screwed. Sure, another hard drive could be added here or there but the point is you shouldn't have to. The Playstation 3 is a great console, and one I want myself, but I'm still waiting on the final configuration to be decided upon so that I can make the best investment with my gaming dollar. What do you think? Has Sony really messed up with killing hard disk space and backwards compatibility? Are you willing to pay for previously included features at a later date? Do you even care? Let me know your thoughts.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Makin' it at home

Hello everyone! I'm Luna Saisho, and thanks for reading my first article for Digital Stardust! As a bit of an introduction, here's a little bit about myself... I'm an early 30-something Japanese/American woman who's been into gaming almost all her life. Starting with a hand-me-down Commodore 64, where you could easily make your own software, I was hooked. The hook really sunk in deep for me with the Sega Genesis and what is still my favorite game, Lunar: The Silver Star. I own more consoles then any person should, including a Virtual Boy! I also have a good gaming class PC that doesn't get used as much because erm, well, I don't get any Gamerpoints on there. heehee You can look me up on XBL as Luna Saisho, if you'd like, and I have a few friend codes for some DS games that you can always ask for. I'm very glad to be part of DiS, as I always have something to say, and this format fits me well.

I'm also a big fan of Japanese music star, Ayumi Hamasaki and run a web site about her. There's just something about that voice that pulls me in...

So let's get into this, shall we? Oh, wait a second... Before I really do get into this, I should mention that Digital Stardust does not condone piracy of video games, and this article is all about getting homebrew software that you can run on your DS with the right hardware. We are also unable to assist you in setting up the programs mentioned in this article, or to act as an information resource in obtaining this software. Sorry readers, you're on your own with that. Remember, Google is your friend, and these flashcards can be used for good, and not evil.

And on we go....

There is an area of console development whose waters are only starting to be tread. This would be homemade software development for consoles. Small developers are starting to get their fantastic new projects on Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network, and WiiWare. XBLA will even have games made through their XNA home development in the future. But what about the lone person sitting in front of their PC making software that takes advantage of a security hole to make an emulator on a PSP, or that same person who makes a great game to run on the Nintendo DS? They're out there, and they're making software that the console makers would never dream of having on their systems.

So why would I write about this when there's so many illegal things that can be done with a flashcard? Freedom of programing, innovation and simply making that one app that you always wanted on your handheld. For this article, I'm concentrating on the Nintendo DS, my area of expertise. Keeping in mind, I'm only a user of these applications, and not a programmer (the programmer of me is still back with that C64). I only fall into the trap that is human creativity unleashed.

First, I mentioned how illegal things can be done. In order to run homebrew software on your DS, you need what is called a flash cartridge, or flashcard for short. These are marvelous devices, I tell you. Simply put a MicroSD card up to 2/4gb (depending on the card) into a DS shaped game card, and you've opened up a world in gray space. A few of the more popular ones are the R4DS and M3 Simply, and both of these work almost identically. Like I said above, we won't help you find one, but if you're familiar with the Internet, you might have a way to find it.

Let's get the bad out of the way, the part Nintendo wishes you didn't know. A flash card will allow you to run any DS software. Yes, any. How about a game of Mario Kart DS? Yep, if you can find it, you can put it on there and play as if that card was actually in your DS. Even more into the gray, you can also watch video. It comes with a converter to make many movie file formats into .DPG, which plays with very decent quality on your DS through a homemade app called Moonshell. No, it's not PSP or iPod quality, but you'll still find it easy to view. How about a handheld picture viewer with a better screen then an iPod (pretend the iPod Touch and iPhone don't exist for this part) and built in stereo speakers to play your MP3s?

All this is part of the homemade software scene.

Let me give you an example of why this interests me so much. While I am a gamer, there are certain devices I think work well in one. For instance, the Nintendo DS is ideal for showing pictures, video on the go, and the touch screen makes contact management a breeze. Even a well programmed MP3 player can make you happy! Let me tell you about just a few of what's made the homemade software scene so interesting for me...

DSOrganize - This is the premiere contact management system for your DS. Just like a Palm or other handheld "computer", you can put any aspect of a contact in here. It doesn't stop here, though, with a very good quality picture viewer, the ability to run your games from inside so you don't have to go to your card's main menu to do so. Combine this with the ability to edit text files, and work with the files on your card, and you have a winner. It also has a mostly text based web browser that works, but let's just say that web browsing is not the DS' strong point. Since this will run without the official browser's memory expansion, if there are many inline images, they won't all display. This software is a must have for every flashcard owner.

Moonshell - They give you a version of this with the R4 software, and is easy to install with most any flashcard. This, simply put, is your main media player. MP3s, DPG format video, and an MP3 player are all part of this simple app.

iPod DS - Moonshell does a good job, but you've always wanted an iPod, right? Well, here's the best of both worlds! Sorta. Kinda. ^_^ Your top screen is a replica of an iPod's screen, and the bottom is your touch wheel, which oddly works just like an iPod.

Pocket Physics - Simple, and entertaining. Draw anything, and tap play to let physics take over. A while of use will cause it to crash, but it's a lot of fun to get that set of dominoes to fall just right, or to fill a little bowl of shapes that are acting as if real gravity is affecting them.

Sudoky - A very recent app I've learned about not only lets you play Sudoku, but will also solve Sudoku puzzles, presenting you with the best solution if there is more then one.

Starlite - This is more of a proof of concept then anything else, especially since Blizzard asked them to cease development, and it's almost impossible to find now. Starlite is a DS version of Starcraft, and while very early in development, and hoping to get Blizzard's blessing, was impressive. You could make buildings and troops, and send them out to slaughter the enemy, which looked just like you, but red instead of blue. ^_^ Sound, graphics, perfect touch control, wow. I wish this one continued. The developer's intentions was to get this to be an official StarCraft for the DS, but alas, it won't happen.

Emulation is strong on the DS. Since, in the US and many countries, backups of console/handheld games is illegal, this runs into the grayest of areas. Own the original game of what you emulate, don't distribute it, you probably won't be bothered. But as most of this article is concerned, we're not responsible for what you run on your system. Emulators themselves are not illegal, but watch yourself with ROMs. We can't be held responsible, and would rather you buy your games. It's the only way more will come out. So, back to the subject... Some are still early in development, like the Genesis/MegaDrive emu with no sound yet. But what else is there? How about Super Nintendo and Original NES? I always wanted a portable version of those when I was a kid! Ki-ko-ken! ^_~

What I talked about here only touches the surface of what you can do, or what's in development in some parent's basements. I present these as a show to console makers that they don't have to make money off of everything on a given console, and should release a certain amount of control that will allow people to make their own software. Put homebrew into a protected area of a handheld, let people make this software, and you'll see your DS do things that will make your life happier and more fun! ^_^ The DS may not be a powerhouse under the hood compared to some, but it can hold its own very well. I would love to see the DS, and even PSP, have a part open to developers at home, wanting to make the next great concept an actual application.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Stop Challenging Everything!

"I've been around this here internet a few times" and have definitely played witness to more than a few instances of anti-Electronic Arts sentiment. Common criticisms are cookie cutter games made for cheap profit, bastardization of smaller studios upon acquisition, and inferior product being pushed out due to deadline priorities. Sounds like your typical corporate America company. EA breaks the mold and not in a good way necessarily.

Gamers have been relatively spolied by a good abundance of titles that generally sport solid back end coding. A lot of this rests with the 1980s Nintendo limiting releases from third party publishers to no more than a few per year and setting a quality bar. Not every game for the NES was deemed a critical success - but the back end code was good, as opposed to the wildly varying subject matter. Generally your character would not spontaneously fall through the floor, explode, fly into oblivion, or randomly die in any manner. With EA taking more of the market since the late 1990s, however, the term "Getting EA-ed" has been coined on Xbox Live, to indicate when some spontaneous error has occured that should not have.

It is not uncommon now to purchase an EA-published game or game by its second party developers on release day only to find that an update has been released through Xbox Live or the Playstation Network the second you pop in the disc. For $60+ a pop gamers deserve better than this. Perhaps this is where the Wii wins - Nintendo does not allow for game patches on WiiConnect24 and so developers must more ruggedly test their code.

Another common criticism of EA is their forcing of gamers to upgrade to newer editions of franchise games by limiting or completely shutting down online play once a new edition has come out. Recently this was done for some of the older Burnout games and is regularly done with EA Sports-brand titles. This is no new strategy either - EA planned this years ago when they wrested control of their titles' online components from the primary Xbox Live servers. EA again screws gamers - for $50 a year games deserve to have access to online functionality in their games as advertised. On the flipside some speculation does exist as to if Xbox 360-based EA titles can be so easily fettered with due to Microsoft's strict Live-Experience requirements and underlying console dashboard in all games. This theory is further supported by the restoration of Burnout 3's online capabilities due to the recent re-release of the game in the Live Marketplace. Only time will tell.

I'm getting so very tired of this BS coming out of the biggest American publisher. This isn't good for the industry, good for gamers, or good for other publishers. EA is setting precedents that only contribute to the lowering of game standards and the value per dollar that I dish out for games and online service.

EA, get with the program. You're starting to lose your market share from a combination of bad ideas and practices and you missed the Wii entirely. Bring back the days of Nerf Wars and get back to the industry's roots - unfettered creativity. After all, a cookie cutter is a cookie cutter and you're far better than that if you want to be.