Sunday, September 12, 2010

Censorship in the US

What do Rackspace and Medal of Honor have in common?

These are big enough stories that you probably do know what they have in common. While this topic is a bit more political than I like to get, they're probably the biggest things to get noticed last week.

Medal of Honor, which I played at PAX and was quite fun, has been getting a lot of attention for the ability to play as the Taliban. This is only in multiplayer so it's not like you play a single player campaign trying to bomb an American landmark or something, but has ruffled quite a few feathers. It's been banned from American military bases, in fact. This strikes me as especially ironic because these guys go out and fight to preserve our freedom and for the freedom of others - whether you politically agree with what they've been sent to do or not, they serve their country with honor and believe in this freedom. Yet, they don't get the freedom to play this game. I know you give up some rights when you're on a military base, I totally understand that, but they might as well start outlawing war movies, right? How is that different from a game? An immersive movie can be just as powerful as a video game. Video games are an artform and should not be considered a second class citizen in today's media, it's not fair. I applaud EA for sticking to their guns. You can play as the Axis Powers in World War 2 games and you see things from Hitler's side in the movie Downfall, so why is it so wrong to play a game with the Taliban? It's not my cup of tea, but this clamoring for stores to not sell it is effectively censoring freedom of speech for EA, and it's not right.

In a totally different arena, Rackspace has denied service to a church that was planning to burn copies for the Koran. At first reaction, I'm totally with you: burning Korans is hateful and terrible. And yet, the right to peacefully assembly is what America is all about. Who is Rackspace to judge this church? I can appreciate the right of a business to refuse service to anyone, but being a service provider as Rackspace is, they're in a unique position. They may not be the only game in town, but they shut off this church's primary voice to the world. Imagine if Wal-marts started refusing service to Catholics because they don't believe in the death penalty. How different is that from this situation? In some places, Wal-mart is the primary source of a lot of random stuff, much like service providers like Rackspace. Their power is larger than that of a lot of companies because of this.

Maybe I've opened up a can of worms here, but I just believe in freedom of speech. Call me a wide-eyed optimist if you want, but I love this country and stories like this kind of suck.

G2 and Milestone 2 Announced

The cell phone is taking a cue from the movie industry with all these sequels they're coming out with. Motorola's Milestone 2 is a slick-looking slider phone that looks to be targeted more towards Europe and will be released there this fall. Of more interest to us is probably the T-Mobile G2, which is the first HSPA+ (basically, T-Mobile's 4G). Apparently, it has an unusual flip keyboard of sorts. The hardware under the hood sounds pretty similar to the Milestone 2. Aren't there processors other than the Snapdragon?

In more interesting mobile news, Nokia has replaced their CEO with a Microsoft exec. I do not know why they think he'll do any better, but I guess anyone else is better with the rut that Nokia has been in. To be honest though, Nokia needs something pretty drastic to get back in the game, at this point they need to take some pretty large risks. To go from having more than half the market cornered to 34% in 4 years is pretty bleak.

Apple Changes App Store Rules

I don't fully understand this, but Apple has decided to lax their app store rules a bit by not restricting the development tools used to create iPhone apps. This has prompted Adobe to go back to work on Flash for the iPhone. This doesn't mean the browser will display Flash, only that Flash-based applications will start appearing in the app store. There's speculation that the about face was from the antitrust investigation that Adobe is said to have instigated, but the investigation hasn't stopped as a result. I'm really curious to see if this will really create many more quality iPhone apps - Flash just doesn't seem as big of a development tool as it did even 5 years ago, but it's hard to predict where developers will hang their hat. It's a very fast-changing industry.

The Rest

Alright, I have to work on a speech so it's time to wind down.

Kevin Rose spoke a bit about the Digg issues on Diggnation and it didn't help their case tremendously because it made their engineers look like they didn't prep well for the v4 upgrade. If Digg were to add a tab to also show the old Digg they'd be doing just fine right now with their users.

If you're confused between Apple TV and Google TV, this is a pretty good article breaking down how they're conceptually different products altogether. Personally, I pictured what Google TV is purported to be to be where TV was going, but I like the idea of renting shows (especially if there are marathon sales).

This seems like old news now, but GMail released Priority Inbox to all users last week (not just Google Apps users as the week before) and it's pretty sweet. I've been using it and it's the biggest improvement GMail has had probably since Google Chat.

Google also released Google Scribe to help auto-complete everything.

This is old but I forgot to cover it last week: Google posted resources online to help with teaching computer science. Very cool stuff.

Have a great week, everyone!

Monday, September 06, 2010

PAX 2010

My PAX 5

This was my third year going to PAX and it was a blast, as always, albeit exhausted (I counted having played over 30 games on the show floor). I feel like last year was a little better because there were more games I was pumped to see and less people there, but this year was bigger (the main theater was moved out of the convention center to Benaroya Hall - maybe it'll be the Paramount next year). Anyway, per tradition, I'd like to list out the top 5 games that I saw. I obviously didn't play everything and I'm not a journalist so I just did what I could with the schedule of stuff I wanted to see.

5. Infamous 2 - I was a little surprised how much fun this was to play. It was just a very satisfying experience overall and the controls just seemed to click with me, possibly better than with other people. The demo showed off how the camera does some automatic camera zooms for stylistic fighting, which I could see getting annoying after all, and it showed off a fair bit of rampant destruction of the city at your hands. I didn't really play the original, but I'll have to keep my eye on this.

4. Star Wars Force Unleashed 2 - My friend doesn't agree with me on this, but I think Lucasarts made an enormous improvement over the original here. The demo of the original was so bad that I didn't even finish it - I just couldn't get force grip to go my way. Ultimately, force grip is very hard to nail down with a normal game controller and may be better for something more like the PS Move controller where you can gesture in 3-D space. Anyway, the demo they had was pretty long and I had a ton of fun tossing around storm troopers and just being a Jedi (or is it Sith?) badass. Give this one a try before you knock it.

3. Epic Mickey - I think fanfare was low for this one because it's a Disney game rather than a big video game property. Still, I thought it was pretty creative. The graphics weren't that great (better than I expected for the Wii), but the gameplay was something different and I, for one, appreciated that. I don't think Disney games appealing to an older audience are so common that this game is a write-off. The visual style is superb and it brought back so much nostalgia of playing Mickey Mania back in day, even though it has nothing to do with it. Anyway, the game hinges on you using a paint brush to thin out (i.e. remove) pieces of the world or painted in parts that are missing. It lends itself to some great puzzle elements so I'd probably call it an adventure game more than anything else.

2. Donkey Kong Country Returns - If there's one game that Wii owners need to look forward to, it's this one. I adored this series growing up. I didn't own any of them, but I rented and beat each of them (actually rented from Phar-mor, remember when they existed?). My heart grew three sizes seeing the love they put into bringing this franchise back. It's so great that they preserved the 2-D nature of the game while upgrading the graphics (very well, I might add, despite being on the Wii). The gameplay felt just as cute, clever, and fun as it did growing up, and I definitely see it being a great party game (well, a party for nerds, that is).

1. Portal 2 - Even though it wasn't playable, this game looks like it's what we've been patiently waiting for since Portal came out what seems like forever ago. Aside from being more of what we came to know and love, it has co-op (including the ability to hug - chest bump will probably be in Portal 3) and newer guns (actual I think from Tag, which I covered last year) for painting surfaces to make you faster or bounce around, etc. The only problem was that the puzzles seemed very difficult, but I imagine it'll be back next year since they have over a year to go on it. That'll give them a chance to make it even longer and see people struggle with how difficult the puzzles are (or, hopefully, to make it easier to chew for more gamers).

I do have a few honorable mentions that didn't make the list:

  • Duke Nukem Forever was the biggest news of PAX, by far. That's right, after 10+ years, they really are doing a sequel to the iconic FPS Duke Nukem 3D. It didn't make my list because I didn't wait in the 2-4 hour line to play it. I decided that my priorities lied in other stuff going on during PAX. My friend played it and it convinced him to pre-order it as soon as he can. It's apparently just as fun as it used to be with the humor intact and much longer. This game stands to be pretty huge though, especially judging from the great lengths people went through to play it at PAX. I managed to find some probably illicit videos of it online and it definitely looks awesome, but I can only imagine the outcries against it when it comes out given how crude it is. They should be releasing videos soon for the rest of us to see it - it doesn't seem to be vaporware this time around though. By the way, I think this was the first major game to be announced at PAX, which is a pretty awesome achievement for what started as a tiny indie games expo in Bellevue.

  • LittleBigPlanet 2 was fun, but my playtime with it didn't involve much of the super new stuff, I'm afraid. The level we played was trying to protect these Sackbots and it was very cute. The new costumes were also really neat. I can't say I'm amped for this game since it's nothing revolutionary, but I will be getting it at some point because it's looking very good.
  • Killzone 3 deserves a shout-out because (aside from them giving out the best quality shirts) it was so fun we played it twice. The graphics were some of the best on the show floor. I wasn't sure whether to put it on my list at #5 or not, but ultimately it was just another FPS. It was neat how you chose a class and had abilities based on that class, like cloaking and stuff, and the gameplay modes were cool, but nothing really new. Just a triple A FPS. They did have it in 3-D and with the Move controller, but I played some third person shooter in 3-D and it hurt my head - I didn't bother trying with the Move controller.
  • NBA Jam is back, and playing it very much took me back to middle school where I used to play it all the time when guests my age came over. It's as fun an arcade basketball game as ever, and actually transferred pretty well, visually, to the Wii.
  • I'm not big on action games, but I thoroughly enjoyed Marvel vs. Capcom 3, even if I did get owned. The character models and gameplay are the high quality you'd expect from this series.
  • Similarly, Mortal Kombat was a return to form. You can see some footage of it here - fatalities are back and bloodier than ever. A couple of them were so disturbing I shudder to describe them - no one under the age of 17 should be in the same room as this game's disc, but it will be a great ride for the rest of us.
  • Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was playable in multiplayer and, while the graphics didn't impress me, it was fun. I think it would get repetitive after a while because it's just about trying to stay hidden until you find your target and kill them, but it seems like something that would be fun once in a while. You get a new target once you kill yours, but of course you're also someone else's target and have to be on the lookout for anyone suspicious since there are clones of all the players walking around under AI control that are not actually assassins.
  • I didn't get any time with the Kinetic, but I tried out the Playstation Move a bit and it seemed fun. Not really a game changer, but I noticed better accuracy than with the Wiimote. Supposedly, it's hit or miss and I only played one game with it, but we'll see what happens with it.

And a few dishonorable mentions, real quick:

  • Bethesda really missed with Hunted. It's a medieval take on Army of Two with very clumsy controls. Nothing at all was compelling about this game, and it actually froze before we could finish the demo. I was actually glad it froze so I could leave.
  • I don't know why Sega was showing off Conduit 2. If anything, they should lock it away in a box so no one knows it exists. Aside from being by far the ugliest game I saw all weekend, the controls were really bad and the AI was even worse. Nothing redeemed this Wii FPS, except that you could relax your frustrations by moving three steps to the left to try out Sonic Colors, which is classic Sonic in 3-D and on speed.

PAX Keynote

Warren Spector, associated with many great classic games including Deus Ex and Wing Commander, gave the keynote this year and it was the best PAX keynote I've seen (I never saw the Wheaton one). Unfortunately, there's not a video online yet with the most poignant part of his speech, but he basically made the claim some considered quite bold that video games are the medium of the century much like books were ages ago and movies were last century. Every new form of media faces resistance before it makes it big, and video games are growing to the point that they're becoming the ultimate multimedia experience. I've always considered them to be that way because of the ridiculous music quality and, often, voice acting nowadays, but the growth of PAX and the revenues of the industry as a whole are proof that it's becoming more and more mainstream.

He also went into a diatribe, and rightly so, about a case that has reached the Supreme Court on whether video games can be censored by the government (i.e. what games can and can't be sold). It will effectively revoke the right of free speech to video games if the governator wins, and single-handedly bring the industry to its knees. Please join the fight for rights for video games - it's not fair for the government to tell us what we can and can't create if it doesn't have a net negative effect on society.

Real Tech News

Ok, so quite a bit of stuff happened last week, and yet I'm out of time here. I had a bigger to do list today than I was hoping for and I already have spent way too much time on this post, so I'm going to quickly touch on what I thought was the biggest stories from last week before I wrap this puppy up.

Apple had a big press event where the main thing announced was a new Apple TV at a $99 price point and integrated with Netflix and TV show rentals (just $1), as well as YouTube and Flickr. It seems like a device that would've saved Blockbuster if they thought of it two years ago. There's also a new shuffle (with buttons) at $50 for 2 GB, a stupidly small iPod nano with touchscreen starting at $150 for 8 GB, and a new iPod Touch in line with the new iPhone starting at $230. You can drill into these things in more detail here, but I personally am impressed by the Apple TV offering and I think it totally stands a fighting chance against Roku (that's the only direct competitor it really has, to be honest). There's also some silly social networking music thing they're trying to do and a new iTunes with somewhat strange UI choices.

Palm is working on version 2.0 of webOS and the biggest improvements are card grouping (kind of like on Windows 7 task bar does with windows) and a display when docked that passively shows information (I assume stuff like stock tickers and news headlines). Other cool features under-the-hood: outside developers can extend Synergy for better integration with your address book, background services can be written in Javascript (leads to performance improvements over Java and easier to write for many mobile developers versus C), and applications can provide information to make their data searchable from global search. I really hope it's not too little too late because I love webOS from a user experience standpoint.

Say goodbye to national broadband - it's just not feasible.

Gmail has launched the coolest feature it has released in a while: Priority Inbox. It has an algorithm for figuring out what mail is most important to you and bubbling that up to the top above your mailing lists and other junk based on your behaviors and what it knows are sites just selling you stuff, but you can also add in your input to help the algorithm out. I've been using it and have been very impressed - it's really helping me manage my unread items better because you can create subsections within your inbox view and stack them however you want.

I'll leave you with this awesome video from PAX. If you liked it, please support Paul & Storm (you'll have to click through it to YouTube to play in HD - it won't fit in my layout at that size):