APIMASH and Intro to Game Dev Raleigh

I’m really excited to be hosting a few events in the Microsoft Raleigh office focused on Windows 8 development.  The first on revolves around our APIMASH starter kits – a great way to get started building mashup style applications in Windows 8, with templates and examples in both C# and HTML/JS.  The other sessions are intro to gaming, developing some simple games using Construct2, and GameMaker/other frameworks as time allows.   Here are the events/times: APIMASH: Tue 6/4/2013 from 10:00am to 2:00pm and Tue 6/11/2013 from 10:00am to 2:00pm Intro to Gaming: Wed 6/5/2013 from 10:00am to 2:00pm and Wed 6/11/2013 from 10:00am to 2:00pm Here’s a more official description of each event: Game Development for Beginners In this beginner level workshop we will cover the basics of game design, programming and publication. We will build a casual game and publish it to the Windows Store. This workshop is great for students, hobbyists and professional developers who want to learn the basics of game development and publish their first app to the store as no programming skills are required! Windows 8 App Mashup Series In this workshop you will learn how to develop Windows 8 apps based on well-known web service API's such as Twitter, Meetup, ESPN, EchoNest and data from the World Health Organization WHO. Your app could entertain or even change the world. This workshop is great for students, hobbyists and professional developers who want to learn the basics of app development and publish their first app to the store. For more info, stay tuned to the MSDN Events page!

Gaming Console Round-up III

In my last few posts on the subject, I took a look at the XBOX 360 and the PS3.   This post will focus on the Nintendo Wii.I've been playing computer games since I was a wee lad.  Since the days of Zork and Baseball on the TRS-80, game development has focused primarily on graphics, audio, and gameplay ... and often in that order.  It's mind boggling to me that you can play a game like hockey or football that looks, to the casual observer, like the real deal.Not surprisingly, then, console evolution has focused around the technology that can bring the better graphics and sound -- better CPUs, better graphic processors, more RAM.  As for gameplay -- well, that formula really hasn't changed in a long time.  And that's what makes the Wii interesting.  It took the idea of gameplay in a different direction, focused primarily on the motion controller and unique input devices ranging from Wii Fit to steering wheels.The first time you play with a Wii, it's like a breath of fresh air because it is _interesting_.   When I got the console, I also picked up Tiger Woods golf, and it's unique to play a golf game by swinging your arm instead of using a controller.  Likewise, bowling is interesting because it's similar to bowling in real life -- a game without this type of motion would be too boring.  Again, this is what makes the Wii so interesting.  If you've never played one before, you've likely heard the hype and so the experience will be a bit more expected when you pick up a controller for the first time.  And just to show I'm not talking as a shill without really owning these things, the picture here is from my "media cabinet" ... all three consoles, as they exist today in my home.And this, my friends, is where the experience ends.  Play a round of golf with Tiger, bowl a 240, etc., and then you'll be done.   I'm going to sound harsh here, but I feel that while the Wii is innovative and _interesting_ (there's that word again), it is completely and utterly overhyped and I wouldn't even truly consider it a gaming console per-se -- perhaps an "game device" would be more accurate.The bottom line is that the motion sensing controls, while innovative, don't carry the system.  Here's why:First, while I agree that graphics and sound are less important when compared to gameplay, there's clearly a line somewhere otherwise we'd all still be playing Zork.  The Wii has a max output of 480p ... and it looks pretty poor most of the time.  (The best I can do, after tinkering, is run component out of the Wii into the Pioneer VSX-1018AH-K and it's upscaled via a fairly decent Faroudja scaler to a Mitsubishi 73" TV.)  While my mom/aunt/grandma may not think it looks that bad, flip over to a blu-ray concert like Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds at 1080P, mastered for hi-def in terms of both video and audio, then flip back to the Wii.  You will begin weeping.The video and graphics, at least on my equipment and to my eyes and ears, is a constant reminder of how far our technology has progressed in everything else.  While my gaming collection contains Tiger Woods and the included Wii Sports, I don't see it growing beyond that.  When the motion controller works well, it's a lot of fun.  But when it doesn't, it's frustrating and takes you out of the moment.  These factors make the experience just not that engrossing.   It reminds me of when I first tried a VR-based game, where you'd don the helmet and suit, and step into a cage. The online component is about what you'd expect, but because there is no hard drive and the Wii's DVD player cannot play DVD movies, there's not a lot of compelling roles the Wii can fill.While the game library has filled out nicely, there's pretty much no chance a cross-platform game would be better on the Wii.  When you narrow down the collection of exclusive games on the Wii and cross reference their review scores on Metacritic, I'm not really sure how anyone couldn't agree that the system isn't overhyped.  The Wii is attractively priced so that's a plus, and it's a bit better suited for kids given the Nintendo brand.  But otherwise, color me (in glorious 480p resolution) unimpressed.

Gaming Console Round-up II

In my last post on the topic (some time ago!) I talked about what I like in the various gaming consoles on the market -- Sony PS3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii.  In this post, I thought I'd share my impressions on the PS3.One of the riskier moves Sony made with the PS3 was including a blu-ray player built into the console.  If I remember correctly, this held up the launch of the console and also contributes to the console cost quite a bit, and it's a decision that I thought was a mistake.  Although opinions on this will differ, the delay of the PS3 and the higher cost compared to the Xbox 360 hurt (and continues to hurt) the PS3's market share. The inclusion of a blu-ray player as a necessity is debatable.  We're starting to see more games that consume a larger footprint than DVD-9 can hold.  Word on the street has it that games like MGS4 required a dual layer blu-ray disc (50gb!) due to the sheer size of the game.   Clearly, even on DVD-9, a game that size would be cumbersome -- I figure a reasonable cut-off point is 3 DVDs before overly-aggravating the end-user, but really more than 1 can  be irritating.  From a business perspective, was the inclusion of blu-ray, at the cost of so much time and expense, worth it?  I'll let you decide.However, because blu-ray won the high-def format wars relatively quickly, Sony caught a huge break and the PS3 was, at the time, simply one of the best blu-ray players you can get.  It used to be that it was also the cheapest, but that's no longer the case as some blu-ray players are coming in a bit cheaper.  Even so, because the PS3 is sold either at a loss and near manufacturing cost, it's a compelling player for the cost.  Indeed, I've run into a few people who bought a PS3 for home theater high-def usage alone.  And, in my case, that was what led me to purchase.  Almost a year ago, Walmart ran a special that offered $100 off any blu-ray player, including the PS3, which brought the base model price to $299.The jury is still out on whether or not a blu-ray player will find itself to the Xbox 360 as either a stand-alone player or integrated.  I personally feel it's a worthwhile add-on and certainly hope we pursue it.What may be a pro or con is the fact that everything is integrated.  No power brick, no external HD-DVD or blu-ray drive, no external wifi module.  If you need all of those things (well, the power brick is obviously non-negotiable), it's great the PS3 has them.  However, I don't need a blu-ray player in most rooms of my house, nor wireless.   Because I can pick up a 360 Arcade for under $200, it's an easy add on for media extending, movies/Netflix watching, and basic gameplay.  As for downloadable games, I didn't realize how good I had it on Xbox Live Arcade until I loaded up PSN.  First, PSN has a few wonderful games for sure -- PixelJunk Eden, Monsters, Flow, and a couple of others are outstanding.  But, the PSN UI is a bit utilitarian and few games, percentage-wise, offer demos; if I'm not mistaken, every game on Xbox Live Arcade offers a playable demo.   It's an exercise in frustration to browse around and find an interesting looking game, only to find out it's purchase only, or, at best, has only a trailer available.  Achievements on the 360 has been a tremendous success, and Sony has just recently brought that concept to the PS3 as "trophies."  The problem is that, currently, very few games support trophies, but we'll see where this ends up in another year or so.   This is a concept that Xbox Live got right out of the gate by ensuring demos and achievements are available across the board.  While better than nothing, it's a bit "too little, too late" in this area.Also, as a developer and one with some business experience, I think not having mandatory demos for downloadable games is a mistake.  Some have tried to argue that it's too much work for the developers -- if that's the case, then the SDK (which I haven't seen for the PS3) is incomplete.   Ideally, it should be very minimal effort to include demo functionality.One of the biggest pros to the online experience, however, is that it's completely free, as opposed to a silver (free) or gold (paid) membership on the Xbox.  This is a good value add to the system and one that proponents for the system often point out.  However, feature-wise, it's not as expansive as Xbox Live.   So which is better?  From a consumer point of view, it depends.  For me, personally, I'd rather pony up the $3/mo for a better service.   If you're the type who never plays online, you're not going to want to pay for a service you don't use.From a business perspective, the decision to make online play completely free is one Sony either regrets, will regret, or will change down the road.  Building a large, scalable, online ecosystem cannot be sustained by console sales alone (or without subscriber contribution).  It will either continue to fall further behind (one recent feature, called "Home," has been notoriously delayed month after month), or need to be supplemented by extensive advertising.   Because I wasn't interested in hearing how many subscribers each system claims to have, I looked at the number of online players at any given moment in Call of Duty 4, and Xbox Live typically had double or so the numbers.  Hardly scientific but a good enough for me, if I'm choosing which console to buy a game for.Media experiences is going to be equally divisive.  Both have similar features that are implemented quite differently, and I won't claim one is better than the other.  You simply have to look at them, try them, and decide for yourself.   For example, the PS3 does offer video rentals/purchases, however, I found it to be fairly expensive, and I'd never buy a movie in this fashion.  In contrast, the Xbox offers Netflix -- which won't typically have new releases, requires a monthly subscription to Netflix, and requires a Gold subscription.  Music-wise, if you have a Windows PC or event better a Windows Media Center PC, I think the 360 takes the prize for extending music.   The Media Center extender on the Xbox offers the same UI you'd get on the PC, so it's a bit richer than a folder structure.  If you have music that Windows PC can play (including DRM'd music) the extender can generally play it, which is nice especially for subscription-based services like Zune pass.As a blu-ray player, the PS3 is great.  Because the firmware is easily updatable, it's easy to handle the current formats without much problem, including DTS-MA and Dolby TrueHD over HDMI, and of course Dolby Digtial and stereo over optical.   One point of confusion I initially had was that my receiver was not reporting a TrueHD signal, despite selecting that on the disc's setup menu.  It turns out that the PS3 cannot technically send TrueHD or DTS-MA over HDMI via bitstream, however, it is capable of decoding these formats directly, and then sending the channels via PCM to the receiver.  It's the same information, so there's no loss of signal.By far, my favorite thing about the PS3 is that it is quiet.  While a standalone blu-ray player would be quieter, there's no denying that it's much quieter than the Xbox.  I like quiet.  Both the cooling fan and the drive ... it's refreshing.  At the very least, the Xbox added a new feature to do local installs for games to at least silence the disc spin noise.Now, let me get into what annoys me about the PS3.  First thing: charging controllers.   No swappable batteries, not as easy to do play and charge.   The default cables are about 3 feet.  The plug is a mini-USB: a standard, yes, but not as friendly as plugging in controllers and batteries.  The second thing that annoys me are the touch-sensitive buttons on the front of the console: a decision to favor cool technology over function.  With the unit on the side, hitting eject or even power is just a guess of sliding your finger on the panel.Moving up the ladder to extreme frustration is the lack of an IR port for remotes.  Defenders of this correctly point out the limitations of IR, "bluetooth is the future," blah, blah, blah.  Fine -- in theory, bluetooth is great -- no line of sight, etc.  But, say goodbye to support for universal remotes and the like.  Sony should have included both.  This would be like putting in Wireless N support with no backward compatibility for G and B, and justify it by saying it's the future.   So, you're stuck using either the controller as a remote, or Sony's blu-ray controller.  Neither of which is all that elegant particularly if you use a Harmony or other universal remote.  (There are some very expensive solutions our there to do IR to bluetooth conversions.)Last, and this one simply adds to the previous, the PS3 power options are frustrating.  The BD remote has no power on or off switch, but rather any button press on the remote turns on the PS3.  This sounds flexible until any magazine sitting on your coffee table happens to brush the remote... "beep!"  And of course, it doesn't need line of sight, so truly any slight button press turns it on.  This might be somewhat tolerable if there was a button on the remote to turn it off.  But there isn't.  If you want to turn off via the remote or pad, you have to navigate the on-screen menu and select it, and then confirm the action.  Or, you can hold the PS button for 3 seconds, then select X, X to power off and again to confirm.  It won't be long until people simply memorize the button sequences.  Epic fail on Sony's part.If it sounds like I'm pretty hard on the PS3, it's because I am.  While many of these hardware issues are minor, they are frustrating oversights.  However, I'd love to get my 360 this quiet.  If you're an online gamer, there's no question in my subjective viewpoint that the 360 is the better console.  If you want a blu-ray player with the occasional game play, the PS3 may be the better choice.  From a media point of view, this will be largely dependent on your home network -- if you have the capability to run a Media Center on Vista/XP, it's hard to not feel the extender capabilities of the 360 are a huge value add; and whether or not a Netflix or video rental from PSN is a better (or useful) feature will be up for each person to decide based on their preferences.Next time, I'll look at the Wii.

My Apps

Dark Skies Astrophotography Journal Vol 1 Explore The Moon
Mars Explorer Moons of Jupiter Messier Object Explorer
Brew Finder Earthquake Explorer Venus Explorer  

My Worldmap

Month List