tempest in a teacup

the pointless musings of a strange recluse

Archive for the 'Rants' Category

How was your day?

Mine was pretty terrible.

I think I’ll go blow up some random douchebags in Team Fortress 2 to vent.

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Some clarification as to aforementioned spastic monkeys

Since you’ve had to stare at my three-line essay for about three days now, I figured I should explain my position in more detail :P

As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of the games on my backlog is Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the 2003 reimagining of Jordan Mechner’s classic platformer. At the time, my completion rate was 65%; since then, I’ve reached 81% completion, and the game hasn’t lost its lustre yet…except for one problem which you might have been able to infer from my previous post – that the camera is incredibly dodgy.

Most of the time, when you’re running on walls, making death-defying leaps and swinging on poles, it works perfectly, and maintains the perfect angle for you to see what you’re getting yourself into. However, during combat, it takes an incredibly inconvenient angle, moving around jerkily, pivoting 180 degrees for no reason and generally behaving like a douche. This is a problem not only because camera orientation determines your control mapping, but also because it changes your field of view, meaning that I can’t see the huge guy with the scimitar just so slightly off screen who’s about to leap over and tear me a new one.

Exacerbating the problem in this particular case is the fact that you need to protect someone while on this elevator, someone whom the camera excels at keeping out of my field of vision. I don’t know what the general consensus on escort or protection missions in most games is, but based on my experience here and in Resident Evil 4, I would say that they need to take a flying leap off a bridge. The so-called “artificial intelligence” is terrible at keeping itself out of trouble, and in the case of Prince of Persia, said character’s inability to keep herself alive forces me to remain nearby, in a walled-off area of the elevator, eminently suitable for all the enemies to gang up and introduce me to their little friends, simultaneously.

The combat itself is functional, if rather bland, but the camera has proved to be the source of much of my frustration so far. I’m hoping it doesn’t end up putting me off completing the game altogether.

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Beating the dead horse

I was hoping that I could write about something unrelated to gaming today…it’s not like I’m lacking for topics in any way.

But then EA goes and pulls a stunt like this with two of the biggest upcoming PC releases; games which I had been very much looking forward to.

I guess the appearance of security (and mind you, it is only for appearances – the probability that this copy protection will be broken by an enterprising hacker is pretty much 100%) is far more important than customer goodwill.

(BTW, anyone who suggest I should buy a 360 to play Mass Effect can go die in a fire)

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In this post, I talk about PC gaming again

You have been warned. :P

Kotaku covered an interesting interview on Gamasutra with CD Projekt’s VP of PR and marketing. For those not in the know, CD Projekt developed The Witcher, one of the standout PC games of last year. Click here to read the interview.

All in all he pretty much chimes in with what Stardock’s CEO mentioned in that interview I linked a while back (although honestly I think the whole “PC Gaming Alliance” thing is basically hot air until real initiatives to popularise PC gaming are proposed). He does raise one point which from my experience is pretty much correct, though:

As time goes on, sites that don’t offer any unique perspective will probably watch their readership dwindle. There are a lot of great sites out there that are worth visiting just for the quality of writing; so while they might not provide a lot of in-depth editorials, it’s just entertaining to read their takes on the day’s news. As someone who has predominantly worked on PC games in recent years, I have a different gripe: most of the major blogs just don’t really cover the platform very much.

This is pretty much spot on, I think. My experience with the major gaming blogs has been that PC gaming news, be it related to games or new hardware, doesn’t really show up that much outside of the occasional small piece on PC games sales charts (always accompanied by those “lol PC gaming is dying” comments that I loathe so much). I cannot give credit to any of the major gaming news websites for discovering gems like Sins of a Solar Empire (I discovered it from a review I read on technology enthusiast site Ars Technica), or The Witcher for that matter (I have Penny-Arcade to thank for that one).

I know the audience for PC gaming is relatively small compared to the combined market for consoles, but why can’t my platform of choice be treated with equal regard as the others? It’s not as if the major sites shirked PSP titles when the platform was doing poorly.

Another rhetorical question, I suppose.

(On a side note, a handy site I discovered from that Gamasutra article was Rock, Paper, Shotgun – a blog devoted to PC gaming. Needless to say, it has been added to my RSS feed aggregator)

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The most lively corpse I’ve ever seen

I’m a PC gamer. Sure, I’ve owned consoles, and I still do, and I didn’t really have a gaming-ready PC for about 3 years, but it’s always been my platform of choice when it comes to playing the newest games.

That said, keeping up with PC news is getting harder and harder for me. This isn’t because it’s being drowned out or neglected (although one might be able to make such a case) but because almost every single article contains some throwaway line about how the PC gaming market is dying or already dead.

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Sound Blister

From time to time, when faced with a question about industrial development in Singapore, someone will trot out the predictable line “What do you mean we don't have any successful private home-grown MNCs? Look at Creative!”

Never before in my life have I felt more like punching that hypothetical person in the face.

Creative is not what I would call a “successful” MNC by any means – while their sound cards were good once upon a time, and they were one of the pioneers in hardware-based positional audio, they completely missed the boat when it came to integrated audio (something they're belated trying to make up for), and have been utterly flattened by Apple in the digital audio player space in spite of having been one of the first companies to enter the market. Their practice of disabling card features in software so they can force people to “upgrade” for better features (and suing people who try to make up for their lacklustre drivers) is pretty reprehensible. And of course, their drivers have sucked for a long time, and often come packaged with useless bloatware. Their failure to perform is most evident, of course, in their quarterly results, where performance has been abysmal for years on end.

So where am I going with all of this? Well, I have a Creative sound card. An X-fi XtremeGamer, to be exact. And I'm not sure that it was a good buy.

The first warning signs that I had made a bad purchase were when I tried to play Sam & Max Episode 104: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (which is awesome, by the way, if you like point and click adventure games) on it. The audio would periodically hiss or play back way too fast, which was a major issue for a game that focuses a lot on funny dialogue. It turned out this was an as-yet unresolved issue with the X-fi. More recently, after installing the latest driver, any WAV or MP3 files I play have the same issue. Even when my MP3s manage to play correctly, they're interrupted by intermittent popping and hissing. I'm really glad I backed up all my favourite tracks to my new 8GB Sansa e280 (which I seem to have forgotten to mention on this blog) or I would be even more mad right now.

A few Google searches suggests this is an issue with X-Fi cards ONLY on nVidia chipsets (due to PCI bus behaviour), which is of course not at all what I wanted to hear.

I'm going to try a reinstall to see if it fixes anything, and failing that I'm getting rid of it and switching to my onboard sound chip.

EDIT: Looks like the reinstall fixed something…I saw a whole bunch of registry entries get deleted and re-added while I was running the setup program.

YOU WIN THIS ROUND, CREATIVE! D:<

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Wii would like to play

It's been about 5 months since I got my Wii. I don't usually get consoles this close to the start of their lifetimes, but I made an exception in the Wii's case since I was intrigued by the possibility of new methods of interacting with game worlds. Well, that and the fact that there was a Sonic game on it that wasn't entirely bad. Five months on, I find myself satisfied on the whole, yet still disappointed at certain ways in which the experience has been lacking.

First off, let it be known that there IS good third-party software for the system. I've been largely happy with Capcom's efforts on the system, and Sega has also shown some rare (if rough) inspiration with titles like Sonic and the Secret Rings and NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams. I've heard largely good things about other titles like No More Heroes as well. Unfortunately, good third-party software is far from common. There's a LOT of shovelware on the system, and much of it is either in the form of completely uninspired minigame collections or lousy ports of PS2 games. The Wii has the largest install base of all three current-generation consoles thanks to its low price and emphasis on “casual-friendly” gaming, but so far long-time gamers appear to be expressing dissatisfaction at the third-party software available on the platform, and I would have to agree with their complaints. Nintendo's first-party efforts have been largely solid, if excessively familiar, but what really keeps gamers committed to a platform is a reliable stream of quality third-party software. It's why the DS continues to be a success in spite of its own casual gaming focus, and one of the reasons why the PSP and PS3 are finally seeing success.

The other thing that annoys me about the Wii is how underdeveloped certain aspects of the system are. This isn't a knock against the CPU/GPU performance of the system (it's not even as powerful as the first Xbox, seeing how it lacks programmable shaders, but that's not my focus here) – it's a gripe with the capabilities of the hardware. For one, the 512MB internal memory is incredibly limiting. The lack of significant internal storage has already gimped Guitar Hero III's feature set, and the much-anticipated Rock Band will similarly lack downloadable content. In addition, once the WiiWare service launches, Wii owners are going to find themselves strapped for storage space with downloadable titles vying for space with Virtual Console games. An easy fix would be to support USB hard drives (and Harmonix has already openly asked for such a feature) but it seems unlikely Nintendo will do anything of the sort.

In addition, the Nintendo Wi-fi Connection has proven to be a major hassle. A limited online service hampered by the need for “friend codes” made sense on a handheld with relatively simple firmware and no in-built storage, but on the more powerful Wii it makes absolutely no sense. Why doesn't the Wii have support for the same things that Xbox Live or even PSN does? I've been gaming online since before it was even possible on consoles (1997, with Starcraft, Diablo and Quake) and even those games had far more robust online features than anything on the Wii. No unified friends list, strange and hard-to-remember friend identifiers (which are game-specific for some reason), no support for voice chat peripherals of any kind…WFC is just lacking in so many respects that it's not funny. I do play Super Smash Brothers Brawl online, but it's enough of a hassle that such occasions are rare (compared to say, the times when I log on to Steam and play Team Fortress 2).

I've had fun with the Wii, and there are games, both upcoming and currently available, that I'd like to play on it, but I feel that Nintendo is in danger of squandering its lead if it doesn't address the shortcomings in its platform. Attracting casual gamers is all well and good (and lord knows there are still millions of people out there who shell out money for shovelware) but annoying the core gaming audience who have bought into their platform is far from a recipe for success.

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Stuck in neutral

I came across this interesting article at Slashdot a while ago (warning, link contains technobabble. I'll do my best to explain it below)

One thing that has become a big issue in the past year or so in the tech world is the problem of “net neutrality” – i.e. that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally. This has become a particularly acute issue over the last few months, with Comcast's practice of filtering peer-to-peer traffic (like BitTorrent) becoming perhaps the best-known recent incident. The argument put forth by those who support ISPs' right to control what goes through their networks suggest that the explosion of services like BitTorrent, streaming video and HD content in recent years means that today's ISPs are unable to meet capacity demands, and thus should use whatever means necessary to prevent bandwidth needs from spiralling out of control. Some have even suggested that ISPs should shape traffic in order to prevent people from swapping files over P2P illegally.

There is some element of truth to this argument, if only because broadband infrastructure in the US is in a woeful state – The FCC's definition of “broadband” is data services above 200Kbps. As a point of reference, I had a 256Kbps ADSL line in Singapore…nine years ago. There are plans afoot to raise the bottom bound to 768kbps but this still doesn't resolve the major infrastructure and cost issues with getting quality broadband access in the US – people in Asia and Europe are much better off. So I say that if ISPs find themselves in a capacity constraint situation, they probably have themselves to blame for not investing in infrastructure while they had the chance.

Well, at least, until I read the article above. It claims that the capacity constraint brought upon by the advent of P2P services can be relieved not by legislation or political wrangling, but by good old network engineering.

The article should be a good enough summary for the techies who might be reading this, but let me attempt to explain it for the less technically-inclined.

At the bottom of the problem is the protocol used to handle the majority of the Internet's traffic, the Transmission Control Protocol or TCP (Just like how a real-life protocol dictates how two humans might interact, a networking protocol is a description of how two computers can communicate over a network). Just about all traffic that requires reliable delivery from one endpoint to another uses TCP, and this includes a lot of P2P services like BitTorrent. The article suggests that TCP's built-in congestion control mechanism – i.e. the safeguards put in place to ensure that the networks aren't flooded with TCP packets – is inherently biased in favour of traffic similar to that generated by P2P applications. This is for a couple of reasons:

  1. P2P applications use multiple connections, and thus aren't constrained by TCP's congestion controls
  2. P2P applications transmit data continuously over long periods of time, while other applications like HTTP (web pages) and e-mail tend to use “burst” or intermittent tranmission

The combination of these two factors means that P2P traffic tends to “crowd out” regular TCP traffic on most networks (probably not on your home PC, since TCP congestion management focuses on upstream transmissions rather than downstream, but this would certainly be an issue for an ISP).

The immediate solution proposed by the article (or rather by a researcher at BT) is to change the TCP protocol to weight applications that use fewer connections more heavily, so that they don't get drowned out by P2P traffic. P2P transmission speed will take a hit while other applications use burst tranmission, but will recover once they're done. There are a few other, longer-term solutions discussed as well, but the main thing the article reinforced for me was that this should be treated as an engineering problem, nothing more. It can't be legislated away.

It also casts a somewhat different light on ISPs, in that they really shouldn't be subject to the vitriol they are these days. This resonates with me to an extent, in that as owners of a network, they're obliged to do whatever they can to prevent traffic from exploding. However, I still think that filtering is really only a short-term solution at best. I'd say it's better to invest in better infrastructure and long-term technical fixes (like the one discussed in the article, whether or not it ends up being feasible) than trying to stop a leaking dam from bursting.

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One step forward, two steps back

SNK Playmore recently released some information on the upcoming King of Fighters XII in Famitsu magazine. Having been impressed by the initial trailer for the game from AOU 2008 last month, I read the developer interview near the end. One thing in particular jumped out at me.

–What kind of a matchup will KOFXII feature?
SNKP: Rather than the multishift system from KOFXI, this game (KOFXII) will adopt the traditional 3-on-3 elimination style battle system that’s been used since KOF94. By returning to the traditional format and revising the game system that’s gotten too complex, we’re aiming for a game balance that’s playable even for beginners. Instead of complicated combos that makes full use of the game’s system, we want to put emphasis on “reading the opponent’s mind”.

This has me more than a little irritated.

First off, I thought KOF XI’s tag system added a lot to the game. It was the first KOF game I had played in a long time that actually felt new and fresh without being bad, and I think the series was better for it. I was looking forward to seeing how the tag system evolved for the next instalment. And yet, they’ve gone and done away with it together, and gone back to the traditional 3 on 3 elimination format. This is particularly infuriating when you consider that they’ve just released a remake of what is probably the most-loved classic KOF game (KOF’98 Ultimate Match), which you think would satisfy most people’s needs for classic 3-on-3 KOF. Do we really need another game that apes it?

The graphical overhaul is stunning (if you don’t believe me, check out these direct-feed screenshots from Famitsu) but if it continues to keep alive the ghost of old games rather than try new things, I will be quite disappointed.

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There's a reason I haven't been on GGPO a whole lot

I hate losing. Particularly when the gap in skill level between me and my opponent is really wide. I don't see any point in playing when the odds are stacked against me from the get-go. Yes, I know I won't learn to play better without getting beaten by other players, but I fail to see how getting hammered into the corner and dying because I couldn't react in time teaches me anything at all.

Compounding this problem is my poor execution, half the crap I want to do not coming out thanks to lag (network or input, take your pick) or the emulator turning my stand C into a C throw even though I had let up on the arrow keys a full second ago.

Maybe I just don't have the mindset for games like this.

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