Thursday, March 31, 2011

Katy Perry - "E.T." (featuring Kanye West)

If you havent heard this song yet, stop what you are doing, plug in the headphones (yes go get them right now) and take a listen. The official video for this song was just released yesterday, but the lyrics video they did for it might be even better.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Battlefield 3: Fault Line Trailer

This was featured on IGN as footage which shows that BF3 can give the Call of Duty franchise a "run for its money," but Im not really sure I agree with that assessment. Call of Duty, to me, means an intense single player experience with multiplayer as an add on, while Battlefield I think of as primarily a multiplayer game - as it has always had dedicated servers. But the Battlefield games we get on consoles dont live up to their PC counterparts, whereas Call of Duty is essentially the same on all platforms. Battlefield Bad Company 2 is a very good game on the 360 - but its a great game on the PC, provided you have the proper hardware to run it. Will Battlefield 3 break the mold?

I dont think so, and I think its specifically for this reason I will be buying it on the PC. The current generation of consoles is lagging badly behind current gen PCs, because we have essentially skipped a generation. Due to the Great Recession, we wont even have a console to fit in between the 360 and whatever uber-monstrosity Microsoft is currently cooking up. Developers are shoehorning next gen concepts into consoles with 512MB of RAM. This isnt advisable or sustainable, but its where we are right now. Im sure BF3 will be great, but part of me thinks if it was made from the ground up for a 4 core processor rig with 4+gbRAM, a current gen video card, and a mandatory 10gb install, it could be a totally different game, not just a great one.

The Xbox's greatest strength isnt and never has been its technical prowess, which is finally being overshadowed by the PS3 with its built in HDD and Blu Ray, but rather Xbox Live. Its the defining feature of the console, and if developers are able to leverage digital downloads combined with a huge social network of gamers, the Xbox brand has unlimited potential in the future. As it stands, most of that potential remains untapped and companies like Zynga are primed to capitalize on if Microsoft falls asleep at the wheel. Call of Duty and Battlefield are brands that are both primed to make a big leap in the real next generation, the question is when will we get there and who will be first.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Loudness War And The Death of HiFi

is dead. MP3s killed it, and the Loudness War has raped its corpse. For those of you who are really interested, I suggest reading the entire Wikipedia link on the history of compression and loudness in music. Suffice to say, the difference between a pop recording made in the 1980s or 1990s and today is so stark, that you can hear it with youtube audio quality on computer speakers. In the clip above, the levels of the tracks have been adjusted so that they have the same volume. Suffice to say without this adjustment, the 2004 version would sound much, much louder. But as you can hear, a hotter track doesnt sound better. Retaining the dynamics of the recording, and turning up the volume control on your stereo is better.

The irony is that this race towards increased perceived loudness was all in the name of allowing people to hear the music better: if they just added a bit more compression, you could hear the song better on your clock radio or while driving 70mph on the highway. Eventually a bit more compression became a shitload, to the point that now an entire generation of albums is being ruined by overcompression and distortion. If you listen to a recording made from the 1940s-1990s on a hifi system, it sounds incredible with a huge dynamic range. If you listen to a modern pop single on the same system, its sounds very flat and distorted in comparison, and you will be reaching for the volume control to turn it down.

The music industry is in dire straights. The last thing they need at this point in time is a radical drop in audio quality - but thats what we have gotten for roughly the last 10 years. People arent critical about what they listen to, as long as they can download it for free who cares if its distorted to shit and encoded at a low bit rate. People need to start buying music again, even if its only one song per week or one album per month, and consistently buy albums from artists and producers who have decided not to overcompress their album and leave the dynamics intact. This might mean forgoing the latest pop album for some jazz or an indie rock album, but your dollars talk much more loudly than words, so make sure they are heard.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jefferson Airplane: White Rabbit

White Rabbit is a psychedelic rock/acid rock song from Jefferson Airplane's 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow. It was released as a single and became the band's second top ten success, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was ranked #483 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. One of Grace Slick's earliest songs, written during either late 1965 or early 1966, it includes comparisons of the hallucinatory effects of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, with the imagery found in the fantasy works of Lewis Carroll: 1865's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its 1871 sequel Through the Looking-Glass.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Unreal 4 Engine Tech Demo

Epic isnt calling this the Unreal 4 Engine yet because it isnt finished - but thats what this is, giving us a glance of what in-game graphics quality for the next generation of consoles might be like. Seeing as though we are almost going to completely skip a generation if the next Xbox doesnt come out until 2013-2014, the leap in fidelity we are going to see will be unparalelled in the history of console gaming. We are going to go from a 640-720P native games running at 25-30 FPS to 1080P native games running at 60fps with textures and lighting that will be almost photorealistic. This tech demo is really just a glimpse of whats possible, it really only hints at whats to come in the next 3-4 years. The Blade Runner inspired art direction of the demo is pretty cool, maybe Epic should consider developing this into its own IP, rather than making a next gen sequel to Bulletstorm or Jazz Jackrabbit.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Why Casual Games Arent Worth Playing

And Why We Play Them Anyway

Imagine that you are invited to the house of an out of state friend for a weekend of entertainment. You wont be playing any games or sports - only watching them. You show up Friday night and he tells you that you are going to watch some of the best card players in the world play in his basement, and that you will be picking what games they play. You have two choices: they can play a rotation of Go Fish, War, and Solitaire, or they can play a rotation of Poker, Bridge, and Gin. What do you want to watch?

Its a rehtorical question to anyone with a remote familiarity with any of the card games in question. Of course, it would be ridiculous to turn War or Go Fish into a spectator sport - the games require little to no skill to play other than a basic understanding of the rules, and the outcome is largely determined on the luck of the draw. The real question which you should pose to your friend isnt, "why would anyone ever want to watch someone play Go Fish?" Its, "why would someone ever play Go Fish in the first place?"

It turns out, there are usually simple answers to simple questions. Go Fish doesnt require any chips like Poker, it doesnt require complex score keeping like Gin, and it doesnt take an entire afternoon just to learn the basics, like Bridge. It is the essence of a simple card game - all you need is a deck of cards and another player (or in the case of Solitaire, just a deck of cards). However, its greatest feature, that its incredibly easy to learn and play, is also its greatest flaw: the game becomes tiresome and repititious after only 20 minutes of play. There is no subtlety. "Do you have any 3s?" There is no artistry. "Go Fish."

So this is my question to you reader: if a game isnt interesting enough that you would want to watch someone who is good at it play, why would you play that game yourself? Can you imagine seeing yourself watching replays of Farmville or Angry Birds? Ive been thinking quite a bit on the subject of game complexity, difficulty, and player skill, and Ive come to realize that while Angry Birds might be fine as a diversion for while you are sitting on a crowded subway car for a twenty minute commute, at its essence its just that - a diversion - and nothing more; the digital equivalent of Solitaire.

I was recently reading an article, on Gamespot of all places, where they summarized some comments that Starcraft 2 lead designer Dustin Browder recently gave in regards to choices Blizzard made in the development of its most recent RTS game. Essentially, Browder states he didnt understand the goal of Starcraft 2 when he arrived at Blizzard in 2005. He was looking at the vast numbers of units and special features RTS games like Supreme Commander and Dawn of War had, and didnt see Blizzard's product plans competing in those areas. Then it was all explained to him: this game wasnt really designed to cater to the widest possible audience. It was being built mostly for the E-Sports community in Korea, where not only was the original Starcraft the most popular game complete with pro leagues, but that there was a large broadcast market where the games were shown live in Korea and to spectators around the world. Starcraft 2 would not be built to compete with other RTS games or be sold to gamers who want to play on their Xbox 360 or PS3 with a simplified control scheme. It would be built to be played by professionals, and it had to be entertaining enough in motion, it had to be watchable enough, to be broadcast throughout the nation of Korea as its national sport.

Another great example of game designers specifically excluding a large portion of their potential buying audience as the expense of making a near perfectly designed game is Arc System Works' Hardcorps Uprising, recently released on XBLA. A masterclass of run-n-gun game design, HC:U has received mixed reviews from mass market websites and publications and high praise from specialty press and websites like the SHMUPs Forum. I took particular exception to one review from, always notable for their erratic review scores, which graded HC:U a C-. The reason given for the low score, primarily that the game was too damn hard, reflects a malaise that has fallen over games journalism: unqualified opinions. Im a decent enough writer (as is Matt Clark). Give me a copy of Final Fantasy XIII and let me (force me to) play through it and sure, I will have an opinion about it. Opinions are like assholes - everybody has one. But it wont be a qualified opinion - as in, the opinion of someone who has played and regularly plays Japanese style RPGs and understands the history and legacy of the genre, and furthermore, enjoys playing games in that genre and is competent at playing them. I would probably give the game a C-, with the main complaint being that the game is too damn long. Ahem.

Finally, Id like to note that even Nintendo, derided over the past 5 years for popularizing casual gaming with its Wii, floating on an endless sea of 3rd party shovelware, has finally put its foot down. At the 2011 Game Developers Conference, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said "The majority of people here are creating games for social and mobile," Iwata added. "I fear our business is dividing, and that threatens the employment for those of us who make games for a living." Let me translate that for you: "We at Nintendo aspire to make works of art, like Super Mario Galaxy 2. You make throwaway digital toys which might entertain a 2 year old for 15 minutes, and are threatening the medium itself by turning people on to cheap tricks."

After a great session of gaming, there is a feeling of accomplishment. You havent done anything really, other than advance a bit in some fantastical digital world, but you feel as though you have completed part of a journey. You feel satisfied. After playing Angry Birds for 20 minutes, I feel nothing - emptyness. Time has passed, and now Im where I need to be and can move on to other things. My attention has been diverted from reality but I wouldnt remotely entertain the notion of watching a replay of what I had just done. Contrast that to a great session of Halo, Street Fighter, or Starcraft - the first thing you think is "wow, Im going to go save that replay. That moment of pure awesomeness needs to be saved for posterity."

Gaming is like a lot of other things - the more you put in, the more you get out. You can be the greatest composer in the world, but if I give you a kazoo, a triangle, and a bass drum, we probably wont have Carnegie Hall worthy performance even with the best musicians. Now if I gave you a piano, an upright bass and a percussion set, you can create subtlety, depth, length, dynamics - the possibilities become endless and in turn, so does our fascination.