Thursday, June 23, 2011

The iPhone Autocorrect Fail - and How You can Fix it

This is the first in a series of blogposts in which I will cover neat hacks and tweaks to fix annoying things on the iPhone and in iOS. I won't get into how to jailbreak your iPhone as that wheel has been invented and re-invented all over the web. If you wish to find out more you can use Google and do a search for iPhone jailbreak. Other good resources on the web include Redmond Pie and Official Redsn0w site.

As you've probably surmised, iPhone jailbreaking is a subject very near and dear to my heart. I'm of the opinion that when I buy something, I own it outright, and if I want to make modifications to it - and possibly break it, then it's my right to do so. But from a more practical standpoint, we make modifications to our things in order to improve them or make them work how we like. While I think that Apple does a good job with the iPhone and iOS in general, there are still a lot of niggling little things that I don't think they got right. By jailbreaking the iPhone, you gain the ability to make changes and fix those major and minor annoyances.

The first major annoyance on the iPhone is probably the autocorrect function. When it works, it's wonderful, but when it doesn't it can lead to massive fails of biblical proportions. I'm not the only one who thinks so. In fact, there is a whole website dedicated to this phenomenon located right here: Damn You Auto Correct!. Or you can check out a YouTube video that shows some real LOL moments.

Hysterically Funny Autocorrect Fails - Unless it happened to you

Ok, seriously now, the problem with the iPhone's autocorrect function is that it is literally too smart or too stupid for it's own good, depending on how you look at it. By default, iOS happily makes edits and inserts corrections as you type. In the first instance, when you mistype a word, iOS will suggest what it guesses to be the correct word. Keep in mind words that you previously used that were not in the dictionary by default will get added to the dictionary. Lesson learned - what goes in will eventually come back out; which explains some of the laugh out loud substitutions shown in the video above.

Hitting the spacebar inserts the word iOS assumes is correct, which makes it entirely all too easy to get words you didn't type substituted in for you (see the point about lesson learned in the previous paragraph). To override this behavior, you have to manually press the "x" on the balloon popup. Given the small size of the onscreen keyboard, you find yourself either constantly struggling to delete incorrect subtitutions or pressing that tiny, little "x". And you really do have to press the "x" because if you accidentally press the suggested word, it replaces your original. It's really very, very annoying.

In the second instance, even if you correctly typed something, iOS will still make a suggestion from words already in the dictionary. A good example of this is the word "ill". iOS will very happily suggest "I'll" in its place. Try typing "He fell ill" and then hit the spacebar on your iPhone and see what you get. Of course, the alternative would be to turn off the autocorrect feature altogether. Enter ManualCorrect Pro.

ManualCorrect Pro is a Cydia Tweak that you can install to alter the default autocorrect behavior on your iPhone. This tweak is not available on the iTunes Appstore, so you must jailbreak your iPhone to use it.

In essence, the tweak reverses the behavior of the iPhone's autocorrect function. Instead of automatically inserting words for you when you hit the spacebar, autocorrect will now suggest a replacment  - but you must manually tap the suggested word in order for the autocorrection replacement to be made. If you hit the spacebar and ignore the suggestion, the word will just go away. This solves the first issue with iOS autocorrection.

The tweak also allows you to build up your own list of manual corrections, in effect adding new corrections into the built-in dictionary. One useful way of using this fuction would be to build up a list of shortcuts for longer words you might often use. In the Manual Corrections section, you enter a word pair. The first word is the trigger and the second is the substitution. Typing the trigger would force the normal autocorrect function with the substitution you previously entered - and by pressing the spacebar, the full word is substituted for you saving you lots of time typing.

Conversely, you are also able to supress built-in dictionary behaviors. The Ignore Corrections section can be used along with case checking to fix the second problem mentioned above. By entering "ill" in the Ignore Corrections section and setting it to be case sensitive, when you use the lowercase "ill" the built-in autocorrection will be supressed. But if you type "Ill" using a capital "I" then the built-in autocorrection will take over and suggest the contracted form of "I'll".

ManualCorrect Pro is a powerful tweak that not only corrects the horrible way in which iOS handles autocorrection, but also allows you to add some intelligence back into how corrections are handled on your iPhone while you type. As long as you're willing to put a little work into adding in the right Manual Correction and Ignore Correction rules, you will get a faster, more enjoyable - and most importantly -  more accurate typing experience on your iPhone.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

DUST514: EVE MMO grows a shooter component

DUST514: Coming to a PS3 in your galaxy very very soon

DUST514 is a shooter title that seems to show up around E3 every year for the past few years, but otherwise keeps a fairly low profile. The game has commonality with other better known shooters such as the Battlefield, Modern Warfare or Mass Effect series, but it has a few fairly unique twists and surprises all its own. The game is being developed by CCP, the same people who develop and run the MMO EVE Online. The fact that DUST514 gets so little coverage is a shame, because the game is completely unscripted and totally unique - the engine that runs the game is the same backend that runs the EVE Online persistent universe. Missions and some interactive gameplay mechanics within DUST514 are completely generated by the EVE Online player community.

EVE Online is a game of territorial conquest out in space. Players can form or join corporations with the objective to conquer sectors of space and the resources within that sector. The game is open-ended in that the player can choose to do whatever he or she would like. They can be a trader or a pirate. They can play as fighter pilots for established corporations or they can be a mercenary selling their services out to the highest bidder. If flying spacecraft isn't your thing, you can play as a military commander or even run a corporation.

The game has a vibrant economy run on in-game currency called ISK. You earn ISK by establishing trade routes, and building up the economy of the sectors of space under your command. You spend ISK for many things including building up your military might. Space vehicles in the game range from small one man fighters all the way up to huge naval carriers. All the spacecraft can be customized with offensive and defensive upgrades you can buy when you earn ISK.

Up till now, all conquest happened in space. Massive battles were won and lost and control of planets and other resources ebbed and flowed based on the fortunes of war. Now with the announcement of DUST514, planetary conquest becomes a game in and of itself. The concept of creating a massively multiplayer shooter to resolve planetry battles as part of a larger MMO is already unique.. The really interesting part is that CCP plans to release DUST514 next summer on Sony's PS3. That's right, you console players can now get in on the fun and play with people running EVE Online on their PCs.

DUST 514 E3 2011 Trailer

What makes this bit of wizardry possible is the fact that both games can connect to CCPs servers. Despite the different gameplay focus, both games are driven off the same backend. This tight integration between DUST514 and EVE Online means that in-game currency and resources flow between both games in real time. Players can assult planetary positions as part of a mercenary contract, while massive space battles take place overhead in orbit. During battles, you can call down orbital bombardments performed by EVE Online players fighting in space overhead. And it seems it may be possible for ground-based defenses to strike at fleets in orbit as well. You can even form your own in-game corporation and have your own operations going on in addition to whatever other factions you are fighting for in EVE Online.

The financial model for the game is also quite interesting. DUST514 is a game that you pay for once when you download it and it is free to play forever. If you have the time and ambition, you can grind your way through the game earning ISK. You can then spend that ISK in any way you choose to upgrade and improve your character. For people who wish to get to the good stuff and don't mind spending some real cash, the option exists for you to buy ISK using microtransactions.

This is a smart move by CCP to keep DUST514 free. The reason is that CCPs real cash cow is still EVE Online, which requires a monthly subscription to play. They are using DUST514 as a kind of Trojan horse. CCP is hoping that people who have never played EVE Online before will become interested after playing DUST514. Further, the interactivity between DUST514 and EVE Online provides another level of strategic depth that would thrill existing EVE Online players.

DUST514 launches summer of 2012 as a PS3 exclusive. It's a shame that it won't appear on the Xbox 360, at least for the time being. It's entirely possible that Microsoft's rules for LIVE integration may have been too restrictive for CCP. We may never see the title on the Xbox 360 and that would be a shame, because I can definitely see 360 based clans and PS3 based clans forming and battling it out online. Oh well, one can always hope.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever: Press Censorship and the View from Above

Duke Nukem Forever: Probably the last outing for this iconic gaming franchise. RIP 2011.

For the past few days since the release of Duke Nukem Forever, the tweetosphere and blogosphere has literally been ablaze with postings from 2K Games/Redner Group/Gearbox Software and independent gaming media outlets; with both sides crying foul. In the process, what has been revealed of the dark underbelly of the gaming industry has given me pause to wonder exactly how much we can really trust the published reviews we use to make our purchasing decisions.

Caught in the Act: The post that started the whole ball rolling, courtesy of Ars Technica.

At issue are the poor media reviews for Duke Nukem Forever. DNF is certainly not the first game to ever get a poor review. This spot is also usually reserved for most movie tie-in games. However the level of vitriol leveled at Duke Nukem is rarely seen from the gaming press, more so that it has been unanimous across the board. In fact, the level of "venom," as The Redner Group puts it, was so great, they took the unusual step of publicly threatening to blacklist offending media outlets.

Admittedly, the level of hate for this game was pretty high. Just going by current Metacritic scores for DNF doesn't give the full picture of the reaction by gaming media. You'd have to read a few reviews to fully appreciate this. I'll get to the whys in a bit, but if I were to sum it up, I would say that everyone probably really wanted DNF to be good. While I believe expectations were kept realistically in check, everyone was pulling for the Duke and hoped he'd come through in classic underdog style. Unfortunately, DNF did surprise everyone and turned out far worse than anyone could have imagined.

To the dismay of the Duke Nukem fanbase, the classic mechanics of exploration and item collection along with rapidfire acton featured in past games were gone. Also, the humor in past Duke Nukem games were juvenile and irreverent, but never bigoted or offensive. Unfortunately, Duke Nukem Forever became an on-the-rails, corridor shooter  sandwiched between tasteless, in-game cinematic sequences. The game was dumbed down and the humor reached for the lowest common denominator. Many frankly found the game to be offensive and politically incorrect in all the wrong ways. This critical miscalculation on the part of Gearbox in terms of the tone of the game and the lowbrow humor was the final nail in the coffin.

A decade ago, these same reviewers might possibly have just laughed all of this off. But now among the target demographic, most are pushing their 40s, married with kids and are more politically correct. It's often said, "Timing is everything," and Duke Nukem Forever missed that boat 10 years ago. The lesson to be learned from this is that people's memories are sacred. Duke Nukem Forever is nothing like the classic games from the beloved franchise. Instead of reminding everyone again why they loved Duke Nukem, DNF instead reminded them of everything that the game was not.

Keep in mind DNF was a game that spent most of its 13 year development cycle in intensive care. Over the years, it got ported through several engines and eventually burned through nearly a half-dozen development teams in the process. The game was scrapped and restarted so many times the design document - if it exists - probably looked like Humpty Dumpty on a bad egg day. On the face of it, chances were pretty good the game had already lost its way long ago, certainly well before 2K Games and Gearbox got involved.

2K Games and Gearbox were probably not well prepared for the reception that DNF got. Granted, a lot of money got burned up in the development and marketing for this game but that sort of risk goes hand in hand with the potential rewards of a runaway hit for any game. Instead of taking the criticisms to heart and maybe learning something about themselves and their gaming audience, 2K Games and The Redner Group went on the offensive to defend the undefendable. In so doing, they very publicly threatened the use of blacklists against reviewers and review sites for future titles.

Publishers have historically taken a carrot and stick approach to gaming media. They reward journalists by using money to pay for them to travel, stay in nice hotels and get some nice meals as part of the process of reviewing games. Publishers also provide lots of nice free gifts. On the flip side of the coin, they use blacklists to let journalists know when they aren't happy with a review. This stuff goes on all the time, but nobody talks about it publicly. Let's just call this what it is - it is bribery and censorship plain and simple.

I'd like to think that most journalists and gaming sites have the integrity not to be swayed by these machinations.  But just as there are always those that value integrity above all else, there are also those that value the perks associated with being in the good graces of the publishers. As consumers, we have to make sure that the sites we follow are really on the up and up. Metacritic ( is a great aggregator of review information and is a good measuring stick to help us in that regard.

As gamers, we spend good money to indulge in our favorite pastime. We want to know what games are good and worth buying; and we need reliable and impartial reviews to make our purchasing decisions. Conversely, developers and publishers that make good games deserve to make money from their efforts, and those that create crap should face the consequences when consumers vote with their wallets.

Publishers and the media alike should think long and hard about the long term ramifications of the carrot and stick approach to business as usual.  Honest and impartial media helps everyone and will help the industry grow. It is the mechanism by which the wheat is separated from the chaff and helps to inspire consumer confidence. And in the long term, it will create a more healthy and vibrant gaming industry. That's a win-win in my book.

Sorry, Wii only allows U one controller

Recently, it seems the more that gets revealed about the Wii U, the less appealing it looks to me as a hardcore gamer. First, despite Nintendo's claims that this is a fully realized next-gen HD console, we see that the Wii U seems to lack an internal harddisk. Of course, the next ringer is that Nintendo says the Wii U won't play Blu-ray or DVD discs, because they don't feel the need to pay for the licenses required to do so -; and since the Wii U doesn't play back media files, you didn't really need that harddisk anyway. How convenient.

Now, we get further information that the Wii U will only support one Wii U controller - Hello. According to Nintendo CEO Iwata, while it is technically feasible to support multiple Wii U controllers, cost is the main issue. Of course, cost seems to be the main issue with everything related to Nintendo's decisions lately. I find this a bit disingenuous to say the least, because Nintendo is also the only console player to make big profits on their hardware. So who is all this cost cutting for... the consumers or Nintendo's bottom line?

Now this probably wouldn't have raised my hackles if Nintendo's online gaming capabilities were more in line with what Microsoft or Sony provide. But I sometimes have problems remembering friends' phone numbers, much less their friend codes. For better or worse, the Wii was a social gaming machine that you played together with people in the same room. Due as much for the lack of online multiplayer as for the casual party games that made up a large percentage of its content.

Now it is true that the Wii U will also work with Wii-motes. But that means most social gaming on the Wii U will be done from the standpoint of dissimilar competition. One person will have the Wii U controller, and their goals will be different from everyone else who is playing against him or her with Wii-motes. As casual party games go, this is ok. But do you see a problem with this picture?

Ostensibly, the Wii U is aimed at a more hardcore market and shooters are standard fare. How do you play split screen co-op or multiplayer with dissimilar controls? The answer is, you don't. And in the case of shooters, you really need two analog sticks which Wii-motes most certainly lack. So unless Nintendo allows more than one Wii U controller to be connected or gives the Wii U a total networking overhaul, you're not going to be playing co-op multiplayer with any of your friends, either together in the same room or online. What a friggin' mess!

Maybe it's because Nintendo has spent too much time making casual party games and not enough time with real hardcore, multiplayer titles; but I get the distinct feeling that none of this has been particularly well thought out. And all the stuff that's been coming out of Mr. Iwata's mouth lately is doing nothing to convince the hardcore gaming audience of the Wii U's credibility to go up against Microsoft's Xbox or Sony's PS3 anytime soon.

ARMs race makes smartphones beefier, will easily outperform a Wii

And the craziness in the smartphone sector just never stops. Apple's A5 processor which currently powers the iPad 2 is a dual-core 1GHz beast with new SGX graphics that is said to be 9x faster than the A4 chip currently powering the iPhone 4 and original iPad. Not to be outdone, Google's next Nexus 4G smartphone will play host to a dual-core 1.5GHz CPU and have 720p output. My Wii doesn't do 720p output. Samsung, which fabs its own ARM cores for their smartphones say they will have a dual-core 2GHz chip by the end of 2011.

At this rate, most high-end smartphones coming out by the end of this year will easily outperform Nintendo's Wii console, any version of the DS, and Sony's first generation PSP. Which begs the question of when we will start to see more serious games come out for these platforms. Someone needs to come up with a bluetooth gaming controller first though.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

New Xbox due in 2012?

Stories are hitting the web today commenting on the possibility of the Xbox 720 coming out by next year's E3. John Carmack of iD fame, talks about next-gen consoles having 10x the compute power of current generation Xbox 360s and PS3s The original news was broken by Website when Crytek revealed that the CryEngine 3 was being used on TimeSplitters 4 and that the engine would also debut on the Xbox 720 during E3 2012. Crytek knows a thing or two about this new console as they are already working with a Microsoft development platform

If Microsoft really follows through, this could just be the single worst thing that could happen to both Sony and Nintendo. Sony's next console, the PS4, is nowhere to be seen as they continue to talk about their 10 year PS3 life-cycle. Nintendo looks to be ready to launch their Wii U during the next E3 show, but with Microsoft eclipsing them in the hardcore gamer segment, it's already old news before it comes out.

If what Carmack says about the processing power of next-gen consoles holds true, the Wii U is already looking like dated technology before it's even released. Given the vastly different requirements to develop for the next generation of consoles, both Sony and Nintendo could be in trouble as Microsoft takes an early lead with the hearts and minds of gamers and developers alike.

NGP morphs into PS Vita at E3

Sony's E3 conference gave birth to the new branding for NGP. It's now called the PS Vita. I can't help but think that Sony must be using the same guys Nintendo used to name the Wii U. In fact, I get visions of Dragonball dancing in my head as I just finished watching the original Dragonball anime and am now about 20 episodes into Dragonball Z. Kakarrot! Raditz! Vegeta! Vita! 

Stupid name aside, the new Playstation Portable (I refuse to call it Vita) looks to be a very capable piece of hardware. It features dual analog controls which allows for shooters to finally get the proper control scheme on a portable platform. Also included were dual touchscreens one each on the front and rear of the device with Sony showing off unique ways to interact with them. Also announced were WIFI and WIFI + 3G variants as this device will be more firmly tied to Sony's Online portal (for better or worse). UMDs will not be supported and the only way to get content would by purchasing them from the Playstation Store.

However, what Sony really stressed were the next-gen graphics capabilities and the very capable OLED screen used as the primary display. Sony claims their new portable will offer PS3-like graphics in a portable device... claims which aren't too far from the truth. A demo of Uncharted for the new portable wowed the E3 audience. However, given the obvious technical wizardy packed into the new handheld, I have to wonder what the battery life will be like. If Sony can manage 6-7 hours or more like on the current PSP's that would be great, but if it slides into 3DS territory, then you lose much of the advantage of a portable system.

It was clear Sony came out swinging for the fences. Their only real competition in the portable space has been Nintendo's wildly successful DS series of handhelds. Pricing for the WIFI unit was announced to be USD 249 while the WIFI + 3G unit would be priced higher at USD 299. This is on par with the 3DS, which would give Sony a much needed leg up in it's battle to gain market share against Nintendo.

However, neither pricing nor the technical capabilities have been the key drivers for the success or lack thereof of the PSP platform. The original PSPs had always been more powerful than Nintendo's DS series. It's always been the games that mattered. There was a distinct lack of compelling titles for the PSP, most titles being ports from the PS and PS2 throughout most of it's lifecycle. Original and unique titles were few and far between with most of the best RPG experiences being Japanese only affairs which didn't find release in the US.

The PSP suffered from a lack of identity. Sony used the platform to create PS2 like experiences on a portable device, instead of creating unique experiences for the device playing to it's strengths as a portable. So the messaging that the new portable will offer PS3 like power in a portable format has me wondering. Has Sony learned from past history or are they doomed to repeat it? Some of the demos shown at the Sony press conference and in their E3 booth are a step in the right direction. Let's hope that Sony has finally learned that it's all about the games!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

More critical look at the Wii U

Nintendo's Wii U: The Nintendo console for the hardcore?

The E3 show has come and gone and the adrenaline rush and heady euphoria has all but worn off. Now it's time to take a more critical and objective look at some of the show's major announcements. First up is the Nintendo Wii U - and again I have to think to myself, people are getting paid to come up with this stuff. It certainly boggles the mind.

On the positive side, Nintendo has finally come up with an HD capable console. However, many are critical (and rightly so) that this is a move Nintendo should have made years ago, but didn't because the Wii gravy train hadn't been completely milked yet. This is a fair assessment since Nintendo is the only one of the big three console makers that actually makes money on the hardware it sells. Both Microsoft and Sony heavily subsidize their hardware, counting on software licensing fees to cover these subsidies and to make money.

Michael Pachter, Wedbush Morgan analyst, has said for years that Nintendo was late to the HD party and has missed a huge opportunity. I would tend to agree. While this is seen by many Nintendo fans as a good move, it isn't enough to satisfy the hardcore crowd which Nintendo is making moves to address with this latest hardware. Nintendo has claimed that this console is superior in performance to both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 platforms, but nothing shown by Nintendo to date has been able make a solid impression in that regard.

The end result is a general consensus that Nintendo is several years late to the party and is just now reaching parity status with Microsoft and Sony. Both Microsoft and Sony are expected to release new hardware in the next 2 years. These platforms will undoubtedly set the performance bar even higher, and will make the Wii U look dated just as it is starting to hit its stride. Next generation hardware from Microsoft and Sony will prove problematic for third parties that will also need to support the Wii U, the reasons which we will get into a little later.

For it's part, Nintendo is hoping the new Wii U controller with integrated 6.2" touchscreen display will make enough of a difference to convince the hardcore crowd. I question if this is really enough. Nintendo demonstrated enchanced functionality and interoperability at E3 between the Wii U, the new controller as well as with the Wii-Motes from last generation's Wii. The game demos on display using the new controlers were said to be fun and engaging. Nintendo is obviously bringing their dual screen DS gameplay paradigm over to the bigscreen. While the new controller brings lots of added potential to change gameplay in new and exciting ways, the amount of support by the third party developers may be questionable. Again, more on this later.

The move to a 25GB "Blu-ray like" optical storage medium is a welcome sign. It addresses storage issues for modern HD games. However, all the Wii U specs that have so far come out on the web have not mentioned the inclusion of an internal harddisk. Loading huge textures and art assets from optical discs is slow. Sony's PS3 games have data duplicated throughout the game disc to reduce load times. Microsoft uses DVD drives which have much higher read speeds than current Blu-ray drives, even then an option is available to load the game directly to the built-in harddisk on a 360.

This tacit omission doesn't mean that the Wii U won't support harddisk storage, after all the Wii U features built-in USB ports like its predecessor. What it does mean is that Nintendo expects the customer to pony up for it. All current generation HD consoles include harddisks, and for good reason. This is a major failure on Nintendo's part as the decision points to them not thinking too far beyond their own bottom line; and certainly makes their claims that this console is superior to both the 360 and PS3 somewhat dubious.

The Wii U is obviously using Blu-ray optics, but like the Wii, it won't allow you to play standard movie discs. Nintendo's continual omission in this regard leaves me dumbfounded. Most consumers already have a huge library of DVDs and a growing library of Blu-ray discs, and they will want to watch these on their consoles. I specifically bought my PS3 because in addition to being a game console, it also plays back my movie discs. Nintendo's President, Mr. Iwata, recently stated that consumers already had many playback devices in their homes so he didn't see the point of paying additional licensing fees to enable this feature on the Wii U.

I think Iwata missed the point entirely. Most consumers are trying to simplify their lives, not make things more complex. I would rather have one machine as my central media hub, as opposed to having multiple pieces of fixed function electronics cluttering up my entertainment center. The wording in Mr. Iwata's statement again leaves the impression that these decisions are driven more by profit motive than actually caring about what consumers want. Nintendo continues to ignore this convergence at its own peril. In its current state, the Wii U won't be replacing Xbox 360s and/or PS3s as the central media hub in the livingroom.

On the software side, the Wii U looks very similar to what developers are already accustomed to with the Xbox 360 and the PS3. In fact, the Wii U probably looks more like the Xbox 360 as it is using a Watson 7 derived, PowerPC-esque CPU from IBM and a graphics chip from AMD (ATI). This makes porting current hardcore HD titles to the new Wii U a relatively simple affair. But this ease of porting may not necessarily be a good thing, and certainly may not play to the strengths of the platform.

Wii U Touchscreen Controller: But would you want to play an FPS using this?

Keep in mind that what makes the Wii U different from the current Xbox 360 and PS3 is the new touchscreen controller. This controller offers new ways to interact with games, but a straight port of current 360 and PS3 titles won't be able to take advantage of these new interactive possibilities. To take advantage of the new controller and put it to best use would require building in those capabilities from the start, not just tacking them on at the end of a development cycle while doing a port. What Nintendo needs are developers with DS style experience.

Unfortunately, the hardcore publishers and development houses that Nintendo are targeting to support the Wii U have probably never developed anything on the DS. This could translate into a fairly long learning curve for these developers. It is a given that a small initial Wii U install base guarantees that software for the 360 and PS3 is ported to the Wii U, instead of Wii U titles being feature cut and ported back. And since this is a money making proposition, you would have to question how much development time and effort would be expended to add truly unique and compelling features for Wii U to a current generation multiplatform release.

I applaud Nintendo for continuing to push the limits on how we interact with our entertainment experiences. Unfortunately, the only way for us to get truly incredible, built for Wii U gaming experiences would be for games to be designed specifically for the Wii U and then ported back to the 360 and PS3. I rate the likelihood of this happening in the early life of the Wii U as slim at best. It is likely for reasons of experience and probably also cost, most third parties won't be able to make effective use of the new Wii U touchscreen controller. All we need to do is look at the history of third party development on the Wii to get a clue of where all this might be headed.

If we take this argument to a logical conclusion, we'd have to wonder why any hardcore gamer would buy the Wii U if they can get nearly the same experience already on the Xbox 360 or the PS3? Despite the inclusion of two analog nubs, the size of the Wii U controller could make extended use uncomfortable, especially if there isn't a compelling enough gameplay mechanic to use this controller in the first place. In this case, the Wii U controller becomes nothing more than a clunky novelty.

Nintendo's troubles on the software side don't end there. History has shown that the only companies that really made any money on the Wii were Nintendo's first party developers. Most third party developers derived little benefit from the enormous Wii install base. We could argue over the reasons the third parties fared so poorly, but the end result was alienation and diminishing third party support. While Nintendo's stable of first party developers continued to release mostly excellent content, these releases were few and far between. Most Wiis, mine included, spent more time gathering dust than being played. This general lack of content, which has dogged Nintendo for the past 2 years or more, had finally taken it's toll with demand for the Wii drying up rather precipitously - sales of the Wii console have continuously fallen for the past two quarters.

Which is why I find the timing for the recent Wii U leaks in the run up to E3 too coincidental and view Nintendo's motives in a fairly cynical light. The maturity of the hardware shown at E3 and recently rumored release in summer 2012 could only mean that Nintendo had been sitting on this console for a while. I fully believe Nintendo was waiting for the cash cow that was the Wii to finally die before announcing the Wii U. Nintendo's profit motive seems to be the key driver for their hardware releases, which is a shame. Strategically, they would have benefitted more in the long run had the Wii U come out earlier. This, I believe, will come back to bite Nintendo in the ass.

Certainly within 2 years of the Wii U's release, the market fully expects new consoles from Microsoft and Sony. Sony sort of let on that a new console would be out in 2014. I expect Microsoft may have something as early as Christmas 2013, again to beat Sony to the market by a year or more for the next, next-gen. This strategy worked well for Microsoft in the current cycle against Sony, and coming out sooner rather than later would also cut the legs out from under the Wii U. Next generation hardware and graphics capabilities would far surpass the capabilities of the Wii U, and at this point, developers will be left wondering if they want to continue to port over to the Wii U with the decision point probably being the size of the install base.

These trends don't bode well for unique content on the Wii U. Again, the history of the Wii is littered with failed third party titles. Whatever the cause, it stands to reason that if third parties continue to have a bad experience on the new Wii U console, Nintendo will eventually be left again being the sole software provider for their new platform. We will end up getting some stellar first party titles, along with a whole gamut of ports from Nintendo's past library. But this won't make the "U" part of the market very happy and certainly wouldn't incentivize them to buy into what Nintendo is peddling. So who is the Wii U really catering to anyway?

The answer to that question might surprise you. Despite Nintendo's messaging and most pundits predicting that the Wii U is aimed squarely at the hardcore, I have come to an entirely different conclusion. Given the problems Nintendo is likely to face both on the hardware and software front, I find it highly unlikely that the hardcore gaming segment will be moved to buy the Wii U en masse. The addition of an expensive touchscreen controller that may not offer much more in terms of interactivity on hardcore titles would keep most hardcore gamers away. Everyone pretty much assumes that by 2014 latest, the new next-gen consoles from Microsoft and Sony will be out and that will set the new performance bar for the hardcore.

The only conclusion that I can really draw from this is also a fairly cynical one. Nintendo, despite saying otherwise, is really selling the Wii U to their current Wii customer base. Like Apple's iPhone, Nintendo wants to upgrade their casual gaming customers to a DS like experience on the bigscreen. The "hardcore" aspect of the Wii U just gives Nintendo more talking points. Nintendo isn't stupid, and given the installed Wii user base, Nintendo could make oodles of money just replacing all the Wiis currently out there without worrying at all about converting any of the Microsoft or Sony fanbase. As a business gambit, this is really downright brilliant; but for the hardcore gamer, sorry, the Wii U really doesn't seem to be for the rest of us.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Games I'm looking forward to

With the global economy in a shambles the past few years, many people have had to opt out of more expensive vacations and stay closer to home to be entertained. The gaming industry certainly has not suffered as has most of the economy when viewing their year-on-year sales growth for the past two years. Despite the economic ramifications, I would like to think that the continued growth of gaming also has to do with the quality of titles being released.

This year has already seen the release of some big titles, such as Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, Call of Duty: Black Ops, reboot of the NFS franchise Hot Pursuit, Dead Space 2, Dragon Age II, Fable III, Fallout New Vegas, Portal 2, L.A. Noire as well as the latest installment of the Mortal Kombat series. So far, 2011 hasn't been too bad at all, and has been a lot of variety in the various genres. In fact, I personally can't remember the last time we've had such an embarrassment of riches in the first 6 months of the year.

This is a good thing since developers and publishers are starting to realize that they don't need to squeeze everything into the 4th quarter of each year. In the past, too many games in such a small release window led to a lot of games falling through the cracks. By spreading out the titles evenly throughout the calendar year, I believe that more of the really good games will garner better sales overall. Even the PC has had a lot of good releases from Call of Duty, Crysis 2, Portal 2 Sims 3 Medieval, Shogun 2: Total War and the heavily anticipated Witcher 2.

Despite this, there are still a boatload of games that I am personally looking forward to before the end of 2011. Here are my picks for the balance of the year:


Gears of War 3 (duh), Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Future Soldier, Aliens: Colonial Marines, RAGE


Batman: Arkham City, Devil May Cry, Assassin's Creed Revelations

Role Playing:

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, BioShock Infinite, Star Wars The Old Republic (YES!!!)


Driver: San Francisco, Need for Speed: The Run, Forza Motorsport 4

I'm sure that there are other titles that I may have missed. Even this list would be challenging enough for me to pick up without breaking the budget. So what are you looking forward to? Add your feedback to the comment section below! 

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Wii for the rest of us.. Wheeeee!

Unless you've been living under a rock, then you've probably heard about Nintendo's Wii U announcement during the second day of the E3 show. In case you have been in dire need of sunlight, here's the snip of the Wii U announcement video from Nintendo's press conference

The question of whether this would be the triumphant return for Nintendo to the hardcore gaming market segment was answered in parts by the independent testimonials from developers and publishers as well as the followup video montage showing current titles in development. The next generation Wii U certainly has the graphics chops to go head-to-head with the current HD heavyweights from Microsoft and Sony. But that by itself wouldn't be enough to set it apart from the competition.

In line with Nintendo's continued push to expand the gaming accessory envelope, they also debuted the much talked about new controller with built in display/touchscreen functionality. This new controller can be used in conjuction with your main display or in some usage cases, in place of the main display through wireless video streaming. It also offers new ways to interact with the Wii U in conjunction with the Wii-Mote - and we've all got a boatload of those. In particular, the new contoller brings DS-like dual screen funtionality for your large display.

As developers seem keen to support this new console, the inclusion of a BluRay player might be enough to allow the Wii U to displace the PS3 as the all purpose gaming and A/V console of choice for watching movies. Full third party support on the software side will negate much of the advantage that both Microsoft and Sony currently have over Nintendo for the hardcore gaming market.

The only nitpick I have with the new console is its name. Wii U seems to be even sillier than the initial Wii announcement from a few years back. If Nintendo wanted to convey inclusiveness for all gamers, especially the hardcore, why not call it the Wii-All? That would have automatically gotten most of the southern states in the US behind Nintendo 100%. Or for the more tech-saavy why not the Universal Wii, or U-Wii for short? This would also be popular with people who can't make up their mind what direction they're going. Alternatively, you could pronounce that "Ooohwee" as in WOW! Certainly, these names are much more catchy and display a bit of humor that would work great from a marketing standpoint.

Oh well, I guess you just can't win them all.

Gaming at a Crossroads

Before and After: The original X-Com (Top) and the series reboot by 2K Games (Bottom)


It is perhaps appropriate that my inaugural blogpost would be about X-Com which has been in the news over the past year leading up to E3. X-Com is a game franchise that has spanned nearly two decades and is home to a rabid fanbase of oldskool strategy gaming purists. Admittedly, this is probably the game that singlehandely turned me into the gamer I am today. I couldn't even begin to estimate how many hours of my life were lost to fighting aliens and saving the planet. For all the younger gamers that have no idea what I'm talking about, a bit of history is necessary.

In the Beginning

The original X-Com was a series of games made by Mythos Games/Microprose in the early 1990's. These were DOS games which required you to know your way around a command line well before Windows and point and click mouse interfaces became common. The first X-Com game occupied less than 5MB of diskspace - impossibly small by today's game standards, and came on 1.44MB 3.5" floppies.

Despite the miniscule size, X-Com was a very ambitious game for its time. It perfectly melded tabletop style wargaming with bits of resource management and RPG elements. The premise of the game was that extraterrestrials were visiting Earth for conquest. The various Earth governments banded together to form X-Com, a force specifically tasked to interdict and destroy the alien threat. Success meant increased funding for X-Com while failure meant alien subversion of various areas/governments and decreased funding.

During a typical game, you spent your time recruiting soldiers, scientists and engineers. Soldiers were used in later turn-based battles, while scientists and engineers were used to research new technologies and then putting them into production. Bases needed to be built across the world and managed in order to detect and battle alien incursions. Money was the central limiting factor which forced you to balance upgrades and expansion. The tech tree in the X-Com series were always huge and were divided between weapons, craft, power, technology and alien lifeforms.

Isometric, turn-based combat (Top) Information on Sectoid Autopsy in UFOPaedia (Bottom)

The game featured elements of RPG style leveling of troops, weapons and structures, and turn-based battles required proper squad level tactics to successfully complete. Proper management of resources were required for continual progression and eventual success. It was a deceptively simple gaming formula, and yet was a difficult game to master. The addictive gameplay was like getting hooked on virtual crack. The series spawned many sequels with the latest being the series reboot by 2K Games. For more detailed info, here's the X-Com Wiki link:

Fast Forward

Over the past year, a series reboot was announced by 2K Games, which was originally greeted with cheers by the loyal fanbase. However as more details leaked over the web culminating at this year's E3, fanbase emotions have run the spectrum from consternation to fear and now, outright anger. Many oldtimers feel that using shooter mechanics ruins the more cerebral combat of games past. To a certain extent, I have to agree with this argument.

The X-Com series has always played more like tabletop wargames rather than shooters. Success in battle hinged on using the the right troops and weapons with the right capabilities and stats. Combat resolution, while affected by chance, came down to successfully making a die roll. The new X-Com by 2K Games is proposing to change that mechanic to emphasize twitch reflexes.

However it can also be argued that this change is more evolutionary than revolutionary in nature. Tabletop wargames were the direct progenitors of the first computerized, turn-based strategy games. Over time, turn-based games like X-Com evolved into real-time strategy games such as Starcraft or Command & Conquer which required faster reflexes.

In an industry dominated by shooters, it certainly makes financial sense for developers to take that twitch factor to the next level by bringing a first person or third-person perspective to the X-Com franchise. We've seen various examples of RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls: Obilivion, Fallout 3 and the Mass Effect series using first or third person mechanics with all the stat-tracking and die rolls happening invisibly in the background. Done well, an RPG doesn't necessarily need to be a number-crunching exercise and can still provide that sense of progression and accomplishment with a more visceral and direct presentation.

The Crossroads
The real, underlying issue here though isn't the choice of gameplay style or presentation. It has more to do with the financial incentives involved with making a game. Games on modern consoles can cost anywhere from 10 to 20 million dollars to develop. Triple AAA titles, along with their expanded staffing requiremens and advertising budgets cost even more. Over the last several years, independent developers and publishers maximized their financial returns by supporting multiple gaming platforms. Recently, however, thanks largely to Nintendo's uber-successful Wii, an opinion has also formed that making games simpler and more accessible to a casual audience helps to create larger overall demand and sell-through. Herein lies the danger, one that is fully appreciated by the X-Com fanbase.

2K Games has chosen to update the X-Com reboot by making it more like a shooter, and the reasons for that are rather self-explanatory. The more cynical among us might even see this as a pure money grab by creating a shooter and exploiting the X-Com name. It isn't trivial to create a good RPG wrapped in shooter mechanics. In fact, it can be argued that in the worst case scenario, the whole X-Com experience could be severely dumbed down to the point that it becomes literally a brainless point and shoot twitch-fest.

It is a given that developers and publishers need to make money for the gaming industry to continue to thrive and grow. However, what 2K Games needs to keep in mind is that X-Com is a well loved franchise with a lot of history behind it. They need to respect and pay homage to the bits that made the X-Com series special to its fanbase while they update the gameplay for the 21st century. Is it possible to make a RPG-esque, strategic shooter? Absolutely - and many examples exist. So it is incumbent upon 2K Games to do the right thing in its revival of the X-Com brand. They should create an intelligent, action oriented RPG, keeping the resource management, research and tech-tree elements intact. Here's to hoping that 2K Games does this right and helps to revive a classic franchise.