Shortly after the release of the Nintendo 64, I rented one and brought it home. I told anyone that would listen that this dark grey, swooped rectangle represented the most powerful graphics processing machine that you could sensibly buy for your living room. There were PC graphics cards, and specialty high end workstation components, of course, that would run shaded polygonal rings around the N64, but they ranged in price from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Here was a machine that was purpose built for drawing triangles to a screen as fast as possible, and it cost around $200.
The N64 was hamstrung in pretty much every other way a computer can be. Not enough memory, outdated software storage, and proprietary everything. Since Nintendo had control of the machine from top to bottom, they could make it do things that seemed to sidestep those limitations. The dismal quality of many third party games proved that maybe Nintendo didn’t really like to share it’s secrets. It hurt the system, and kneecapped the spread of that particular hardware, capable as it was, to other computers and application.
Things in the game industry were changing from hardware centric software design, that tried to squeeze the most performance out of the actual chips, to API and driver centric design. This meant that game developers (or any software developer really) would write their game to talk to an intermediate layer that sits between their application and the actual hardware. A game developer could be less and less concerned with how a specific graphics or CPU chip worked, and focus on OpenGL or DirectX. Those API’s would then in turn be expected to deal with the wide variety of graphics and sound chips available. OpenGL and DirectX were nascent products and they weren’t always reliable, but software is not static like hardware is, so massive improvements came quickly. It wasn’t long before using a particular graphics card and a modified driver let a pretty standard PC emulate the Nintendo 64. The industry had moved on, and it wasn’t the hardware, but the software that pushed everything forward.
The current generation of consoles, namely the Xbox One and the Playstation 4, are headed toward mid cycle hardware upgrades. It will be a new, up to date, version of the same console at the same, or similar, price point. Just faster. Typically a change like this in a console would warrant a new name and some new gimmick to let consumers know that this console is worth the upgrade.
Internally, the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 are PCs. Purpose built versions of off the shelf hardware fit for a low to mid tier gaming computer. They can’t compete with the top of the line Nvidia or AMD PC chips, but they are by no means underpowered. One high end Nvidia card also costs twice what one of the consoles costs, and that is before you even put the rest of the computer around it. I have read a lot of comments that the consoles are lagging behind, but price to performance, they are extremely impressive. More importantly, the hardware doesn’t really matter.
The PS4 runs a Unix type OS and uses an API layer that, by all accounts, closely resembles DirectX. The Xbox One does use DirectX. Games, in almost all cases, aren’t written for the hardware anymore. They are written for the API that talks to the hardware. The hardware could change and as long as the API is aware of that, the games will continue to run. Probably much like they ran on other hardware.
As soon as the announcement about console manufacturers opting for a mid-cycle upgrade broke, I saw several media outlets and commenters claiming that this was the end of consoles. Different versions of a console would stratify the market and create confusion among consumers. You would buy a newer game thinking that it would work in your older system and the whole house of cards would be swept away in a gust of specs and frequencies. Making these consoles into upgradable PCs will ruin the industry.
The computer I’m typing this on is roughly 6 years old, but with a 2 year old video card. The PC sitting 6 feet away from me is almost ten years old. You can play the same games on both. One does a bit better on some games, but neither is any slouch. I have played very new games on the 6 year old PC, and aside from the loss of some visual gloss, they play fine. One uses Nvidia and Intel, the other AMD, but they games don’t seem to care much. There is a PC in the basement older than both of them put together, and I managed to spin up linux and a fairly playable copy of minecraft on the thing a while ago.
The hardware doesn’t really matter any more. Game developers will continue to develop for the average. The computer or console that the most people own will be the development target. A newer Playstation with better chips will offer some headroom, but until the majority of people own that version no game will be made for specifically for that new hardware spec. More importantly, Sony can buy whatever the best price to performance chips are, at commodity prices, and not have to keep a factory busy producing older chips to support a single product. They can keep making the PS4 for 15 years, and it won’t really matter what chips are in it, because your games will probably run. This isn’t like the N64. If it ever gets to a point where new games don’t look as good as you like, or they are getting too slow to be fun, Sony will be more than happy to sell you the newest version for the same $400.
So yeah, consoles have become like PCs, and it’s about damn time.
Two of the batch of VR headsets that are coming out have made their Debut. If you haven’t read any of my other thoughts on VR, I’ll fill you in. Good consumer virtual reality, with interesting content can’t come fast enough for me. I have wanted to play games in VR since I had any idea what it was, or could be. So a couple of the headsets are out, and what’s the verdict?
To start off, they are too expensive by at least half. I understand that there is a lot of R&D money sunk into these things, and right now, they are the very definition of an early adopter product. The initial price, both in monies and technical hassle, is going to be very high. The wires alone provide a physical challenge to using the headsets comfortably. The other technical requirements, computer processing power and physical space, are laughably absurd for a consumer product.
They are also first launch products, so the content for them is meager. There are a few games that I would love to try out, but most of the experiences seem like novelties. Some of the games seem like something that might have come out for kinect or wii. Those names don’t really carry a pedigree of technical excellence, or more importantly, fun.
I have only tried one of the headsets on offer, and only a few brief times. The technology works. The feelings it provokes are occasionally stunning, but in the same way that a good amusement park ride is stunning. Powerful, exciting, and best enjoyed in brief bursts. That’s not the sort of experience that video games have traditionally been associated with. Thrill rides, yes, but the sort of thrill ride that sustains for 12 hours over many play sessions.
So is that it? Is the product too much before its time? Will VR become the fad of 2016 - 2017? Will Oculus and Vive units occupy closet shelves alongside plastic musical instruments and motion controllers? Maybe, but probably not.
The first version of the Ipad was not a good product. The screen was awful, the performance was mediocre, and very little of the content took advantage of what was there. The experience of using an Ipad in 2010 simply did not justify the price, size, weight, or hassle. It was a bad product in every measurable dimension, and people loved it. Current Ipads are fantastic machines, and the problem facing apple now is convincing customers to buy a new one when the one they have does what they want it to do so damned well.
The promise was apparent in that first Ipad. It wasn’t what people wanted it to be, but it was very easy to imagine the version a year or two down the road that worked like you expected. Like you imagined it would. Like you wanted it to. This is where we are with VR. People are buying the promise. By the look of the sales numbers, they are buying the promise in enough volume that a second or third version of this hardware is inevitable. A version that is lighter, with higher resolutions. A version that has no wires tethering it to a computer. A version that presents the content that justifies its existence.
I probably won’t be buying one of the current headsets, but I am excited about the promise they represent. I’ve tried it out. It works. It needs just a little more time before VR hits that Ipad moment.
How long do you think you’re going to live? Seriously. Think about it. Me, I plan on living a damn long time, but barring the as yet unreleased Google immortality initiative, I know that I won’t live forever. I hope that you will, really I do, but the odds are against all of us. Knowing that, what will you do with the time that you have.
For as long as I can remember I have wanted to make video games. I have done peripheral work on a few, but I have never worked on a game, start to finish, and released it to the world. For the past couple of weeks I have been digitally modelling parts to be 3D printed and turned into real physical products. It’s neat, but it has very little to do with game development. Now, This could be framed as lost time. This was time that I wasn’t working toward my goal of releasing a game. Time I wasn’t honing my craft. Time that wasn’t part of those 10000 hours required for mastery. Time wasted.
I have worked in the fields of graphic design, advertising, manufacturing, drafting, and mapping. Not one of them is game design. I enjoy wood work and metal fabrication. Cutting, joining, welding, and shaping physical material. I also enjoy digital modelling, creating mathematical representations of objects composed of triangles and splines. I like to draw and paint and edit video. I finished the basement of our house, with help, but largely on my own. I will write one day and solder wires another. I am not especially good at any of these things. In no way has any of it been notably successful financially. None of this dabbling has, or likely will, make me tremendously wealthy.
Many years ago someone told me that if I wanted to be able to draw as well as my comic illustrator heroes, I would have to focus on only drawing, and forego any other distractions. I would have to sacrifice the small project that interested me in the moment for greater gains down the road. Maybe that was right. Maybe, had I practiced figure drawing rather than leafing through that set of Turbo Pascal manuals, I would have had a different career trajectory. Maybe. Maybe not.
How long do you think you’re going to live? To focus so thoroughly on one craft, one trade, one endeavor, you must either think that your life will be incredibly short, or incredibly long. You are so harried that to step off the path even a little could lead to ruin, or you assume that there will come some time when all of your work is complete. You can sample all of your other interests then.
I don’t know how long I will live, and so I think I will sample all of these interests now, on the chance that I will live long enough for them all to weave back together in whatever I am working on in the future. It’s the only thing that really makes sense.
Best Games - Deus Ex
The first time I tried to play Deus Ex, I played it like a shooter. Running from place to place, trying to clear out all the enemies. I thought it was bland, clunky, overly difficult, and directionless. I put it down.
That first experience itched at me. Either there was something wrong with the game, or something was wrong with the way that I was playing it. I had to try it again. This time I took it slow. I was familiar with Thief, and that games first person stealth puzzle style. In Thief, avoiding combat is often the easiest way through a level. Pay close enough attention to the patterns of the guards or use your tools effectively and you can circumvent them entirely. I tried to play Deus Ex the same way, but everything felt so loose and sloppy. I couldn’t figure out the best pattern to avoid detection. Attempting to navigate the first few areas perfectly resulted in constant trial and error, saving and reloading. I was convinced that I did not like this game, and I put it back down.
It might have been a few months later and I started thinking about Deus Ex again. The reviews were out there, and people seemed to love this game. There had to be more too it. I reinstalled the game and everything clicked. I came at it this time thinking that maybe it played more like a japanese RPG, where the story mattered more than the action, and I would have to spend the first few hours flailing around before the meat of the game really started. I was wrong, but this was my entry point. Deus Ex wasn’t a shooter, it wasn’t a stealth puzzle, it wasn’t even a story based RPG. Deus Ex was something completely different.
It was fast and improvisational. You could attack any situation in a number of ways, and change your mind mid stream with no better or worse chance of success. It was also steadily paced and methodical. You could use stealth and long range tactics. You could set traps and plan multi part assaults. If it all went south, you could run and hide or lob some grenades and start laying down heavy fire. No single solution was given priority. There was no right way to play Deus Ex.
Gradually, as the game wore on, I started to find ways that I prefered to play and tailored my character to suit that style. It happened slowly and organically. I never selected a sniper or heavy weapons class from a menu. The game didn’t really seem to have an opinion one way or another. Whatever way I chose to play was good with Deus Ex.
Areas that at first glance appeared to be slightly larger, but otherwise familiar first person shooter levels, were actually much more intricate. If you could see a spot on the map, you could probably get there, but you might have to mess with the games systems to do it. Using the environment to achieve your aims became as enjoyable as straight ahead combat. The world was dynamic in a way that invited you to poke and prod at it.
Is Deus Ex a perfect game? Oh hell no. It is glitchy and unbalanced in all sorts of strange ways. It feels like a thing barely held together at the seams. One sharp tug and the whole game unravels completely. But what it does do is simulate a world. It is a world that is limited. The boundaries are visible, but still it is simulated not prescribed. If you want to influence the outcome of a given situation, you probably can. You can almost certainly do it in a way that the game designers didn’t think of or didn’t intend. All of the intermeshed mechanics of the Deus Ex world had been spun up and the designers had let go of the wheel. What the player did with them from that point was up to them.
Deus Ex was a unique and fresh take on game design. The games story was linear, to be sure, but nothing else about the game felt like you were playing against the designers. They had come up with a sequence of events, and gave you a whole box full of tools to deal with those events. The important part of this, the thing that makes Deus Ex work, is that the game makes no judgements about what you do with those tools. There is no good or bad way to play. There is no good or evil path through the story. It simply is what you make it. It is how you play it.