Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Tech Thought Bag

Okay recently Adam Orth, a Microsoft executive has incurred the rage of the interwebs for saying the he doesn't get why everybody is so mad about always on DRM. This along with other sources have led many to speculate that the next Xbox will have always on DRM. I will talk about that in a second, but I've been meaning to talk about the particularities of this gaming generation and how it has changed how we compute and play.

Before we get started I need to make a disclaimer. While I love videogames, it's been a while since I've been deep into it, being a broke 20 something in a down economy.  Would I buy every Call of Duty clone if I had the money? Oh hells yes. Do I have the money? Oh hells no. The last video game I bought was Scott Pilgrim on Xbox live for $10, two years ago. The last big traditional console video game I bought was Assassin's Creed. No not Assassin's Creed 3 or Assassin's Creed Revolution. Assassin's Creed. That was 2007. So I'm a little out of touch with modern gamer culture. Here is the thing. I consider myself in a weird period of my life that will pass. Eventually I'll get that thing called disposable income and what will be one of the first things I do it? Buy an Xbox 720 or 920 or whatever is out. Because unlike my parents keep assuming I never grew out of video games. I just grew out of being able to casually smack down 60 bucks whenever I wanted.

Okay on to what I actually wanted to talk about the FUTURE OF GAMING AND COMPUTING.

PC Gaming Is Dead?
Okay yesturday I discovered "The Big Picture" with Movie Bob. It's a good show where in The Escapist's  "movie guy", (it's an online gaming magazine so he's a bit of the oddball of the group), can talk about whatever he wants. Comics, games, movies. Anything.

In one of his episodes he declared PC gaming is dead. Being the out of touch antiquated, forced luddite I am. My head exploded a bit. See all the genres I can still actually afford and also whose classics hold up well, (mostly because the major studios are reluctant to bank on them by creating clone after sequel after clone) are things that traditionally do well on the PC but that console gaming studios try to avoid like the plague, real time strategy games, turn based strategy games, role playing games including mmorpgs, and god games. See in my mind I still can't see a "good" Civilization game being done on the consoles or tablet. Oh they'll try, but it almost always tends to be one of those port hell deals because the controls suck, or one of those mildly amusing games but not up to it's meatier big brothers task of holding my attention for months or on some occasions years at a time. Do you know how long it took for Rise of Nations to stop being cool. 

Again I'm just going by what I heared to be fair you could never ever ever get me to try to play a Total War Game on Xbox, or even iPhone. I am complaining about games I never played.

I know I'm being unfair, but any game for those platforms is going to have to make conceits. One of The most revolutionary strategy games I can think of was Rome: Total War and Civilization 3

Any strategy game that to me feels like a step backward from those games, which mind you came out damn near ten years ago, aint getting played.

My point is we are not yet at the point where mobile gaming controls, P.C. gaming controls, and console gaming controls are a moot point in gaming.  For the sake of quality control when going from one to the other games are going to have to change content and features some of which have become intrinsic to the game or rather the game genre. You need hotkeys in World of Warcraft. You need a holdable mouse click in Total War. You need the mouse wheel in Black and White. (No really you do. That was a straight up nightmarish bug in that game.)

Why am I saying all of this. Well I'm interested in technology. I can't afford a lick of it right now, but I'm interested in it. As usual there is all of this talk where we'll be in the next 5 years, as if every new development is going to change the way we compute forever. This post as I originally conceived it . It's gotten a little derailed, was an attempt to step back and remind the tech industry. That no. Not everything is the internet. Sure some things are good to have as options, but they are not going to become the new default. Because being the new default creates a scenario wherein other options are either unavailable or nightmarishly hard to access. That's fine if you can objectively say, "Hey this way is better." CDs are objectively better than floppies and flash drives objectively better to them. Broadband is objectively better than dial-up. For a lot of this stuff it's not objectively better just different, which gives it some advantages in a lot of cases but disadvantages in others. In the name of futurism tech companies and journalists often downplay the disadvantages of some of this tech so let me crush your hopes and dreams of the flying car.

Cloud Computing
Over the last 10 years any computer and media savvy geek has had one big problem. Storage. For years we've been arguing for new models of media distribution because our modems could now handle it. Why shouldn't I be able to download Casablanca to my computer if I want to. There was one big problem with that. What to do with that data once it's on your computer. In data the typical DVD movie is about 1000 times larger than the typical mp3 song. And don't get me started on how much larger that is to the typical Word Document.  Now don't get me wrong these aren't hard and fast numbers and things vary based on format and compression, but by the late 2000's we saw a storage crisis. We had all of this data and nowhere to put it.

Cloud computing is the most practical and favored solution of the moment. Pay a company specializing in storage a fee to use there servers offsite. That way you don't have to fork over more and more money for external hard drives and media servers. Though some of Netgear's stuff is bad ass.

Sounds fine, but here is my big hang up on it. People forget that you are basically renting storage. Now I don't hate renting. I don't even hate digital renting. I'm the guy whose been faithfully subscribing to a music streaming service before subscribing to a music streaming service became cool. But call it what it is. These companies are your digital landlord. Now there are good landlords, but everybody has at least a friend who has had a bad one. The guy who goes into your apartment whenever he wants because he feels he owns the building, the guy who will without warning raise your rent. The guy who won't fix any of the problems that make the place unlivable, the guy who will let anybody into you're place when you're not home, the guy who will sell or close the building without adequate notice.

My point is that there are a whole lot of peccadilloes people are ignoring. Now once the law catches up some of these might be ironed out. They aren't right now. These companies will give over your data to the cops without a warrant, some of them have server issues, some of them don't give a damn about peaking into what you upload and will sell that stuff to third parties. Some of them will be sold to larger companies who just want to eliminate the competition putting your wedding photos in limbo. Some of them will delete you stuff without warning if they feel it it is copyright infringing, even if you paid for it. Some of them haven't figured out a decent business model yet and will be forced to make you later pay for your "free" storage.

One of my greatest fears is that one day Google will say,  "You know what? This blogspot thing isn't paying enough sorry guys we're closing up shop."

As stated I'm not knocking cloud computing at least not completely it has its advantages. Since the data isn't stored on your hard drive its easier for the companies to make the data not care where you're accessing it from. My Xbox media extender still spews chunks at me if I try to access a movie from my computer, Netflix and YouTube on the other hand don't give a damn. But, and this is a big "but" all of this brings a new host of things that could go wrong. In the old days if my disc was scratched up, I knew, for the most part mind you, it was my fault for being careless.  Not because the server was down, or there was a licensing disagreement, or the company thought it was too riskee, but because I fucked up.

By the way this is one of  my central arguments for why I love democracy in general so pay attention.

If something happened I could take comfort in knowing it wasn't some asshole I don't know screwing me over, but my own incompetence, because I can fix my own incompetence. I can't fix EA's incompetence.

Mobile Computing
Okay I've been meaning to hit this one on for a long time, ever since Microsoft announced Windows 8 was going to cater to the the mobile crowd. Forgive me if I'm repeating my overall thesis here, but mobile is great at some stuff, passable at some stuff and downright terrible for other stuff.  Why?

Couple of reasons. In computing there has always been a lifespan/price/size/power trade off. Now it's gotten a little less behemoth, but for certain things where you need a lot of hard drive space, memory and processing power, like I don't know... media editing, scientific modeling, or market analysis. Incidentally at least in my head those represent more or less the new economy. We still need work horse computers. They are not going away.

Let me back up. Why did PC gaming become as popular as it's console counterpart? Because the computer was a machine you needed to have. The games were icing on the cake.   The desktop (or laptop) is still a machine you need to have. The tablet it is not a machine you need to have. The laptop can on occasions substitute for a desktop so I won't say the same of it, but, for business and working purposes which often don't stay confined to the office these days you need to have a desktop or laptop.

While a tablet can do a lot of the same stuff as those other machines it can't do all of the same stuff. And the stuff it can't do is often the most important, the stuff that makes money. Not the stuff that makes making money easier, the stuff that actually makes money. The stuff you are paid to do.

I'm tired of hearing tech journalists say something like, "well I only really use my laptop to do this show." Well guess what. If you didn't have it you would be out of a job. Which do you think should have the priority. The hip new toy or the thing that makes you money. And it's insane to me that media and the market don't reflect that.

Even if they could make a tablet that could animate Brave, or adequately model the Higgs Boson, it would cost a fortune and you know what all of those executives who have investors to satisfy would buy for their animators and scientists in the end. A cheap yet powerful laptop or desktop.

The Life of Gaming
While I hate the idea of always on DRM I get where Microsoft is coming from. Hear me out. The 360 was the first system that had it's crazy lifespan.

Which is wieeeeerrrrrrd.

Why is nobody talking about this? It's been damn near the driving economic force of the last generation of consoles.  Let's go back.

In the old days the selling point of consoles was that they were static. See because everybody knew the stats of let's say the Playstation, when it came out consumers knew that they could play anything marked Playstation on it and developers easily knew how to not make the machines fart... in theory. That is mostly what seperated PC gaming from console gaming. PC developers had no idea what your machine actually looked like. They had to just kind of guess.

If you bought well, buy a PC game you have to look at this thing called minimum system requirements. A guide for telling you when your PC is so old and so crappy that nobody is willing to develop for it anymore, and buying any new software is a waste of money.

For consoles one company, well typically three companies, would decide when the entire industry needed an update. Why because it made things simpler on the consumer.  Until that update came and you had to shell out $2-5 hundred for a new system.

The update should have come out about three years ago for this generation if we're following the standard 5 year model.  Why didn't that happen?

Software Updates
While the general point of a new generation of systems is to update the hardware they also update the software.  Because this was the first generation of counsels to be online compatible out of the box they could do that by updating firmware rather than telling everybody to get a new system. Which seemed better because of the following reason.

The Graphical Singularity
The primary reason to update gaming computers and consoles alike is to update the graphics. The last go round it had become clearer and clearer that we were reaching a point where the graphics were so good the typical consumer didn't notice or care anymore, especially enough to shell out $300. That is what the Wii proved. Okay stuff you should already know if you weren't living under a rock 5 years ago. 

The Wii was economically the cheapest of all the consoles because technologically it was the least advanced. And everybody scoffed at it. Myself include. It's stats were small compared to the Xbox 360 and positively puny compared to PS3. They were getting laughed out of the room until launch day. Then something changed the Wii started outselling everybody by large margins. To John and Jane Smith photo-realism just didn't matter as much as their wallets.

What is the point of all this. There is real concern that the consumer won't be willing to pay for a hardware update they probably won't notice any results from, especially in a down economy.  So the industry has been dragging their feet on asking them to.

The Living Room
Here is the dirty little secret of the Xbox and PS3. They're not really gaming machines anymore.  Oh they plays games.  But that's not why they're in your den. They're in your den because they're one of the most convenient ways to watch Netflix, Hulu and YouTube on the big...ger screen.

You know that big disclaimer I gave at the start of this. Well evidently I am not alone. The executives are starting to theorize that these machines are going to be more about hooking your TV to the internet so you can get content you want when you want than playing the latest Soul Caliber. I am a Taki master!

And I kind of get that. Regardless of gaming potential it's kind of an expected thing since all three consoles do some version of it now.  Hell that's one reason why the PS2 outsold the Dreamcast. It was the cheapest DVD player on the market. 

Gaming Culture
Anyway, it's not just the industry in flux. It's also the fandom and there has more and more a schism between causal gamers who just want something to kill time and hardcore gamers who value a gaming experience and have long been the voice of gaming culture. This schism comes largely from the above stuff. The things hardcore gamers value often the things casual gamers scoff at. Like graphical improvement and spectacle in general.  What does this mean. I don't know. Yeah 10 years ago I would have called myself a hardcore gamer, but now not so much. I read a review and check up on the forums every now and again. I have a secret list of games I would buy if I had the money. But I don't feel qualified to say hey this is where things should be going. Though I guess I kind of just did.

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