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Insert Coin to continue: games go full circle

retro-consolesGames have been a hobby of mine for as long as I can remember, my earliest memory is playing Mario Bros on the NES on a friends rear projection screen. Not only were the graphics amazing, the screen was nothing short of massive. I held the stubby controller with a death grip and for my shame got into a fight with my brother when it was his turn – ah youth.

Since then I’ve owned a plethora including: NES, Master System, SNES, Megadrive, Mega CD, 32X, Multimega, 3DO, Amiga 500+, Sega Saturn (PAL), Sega Saturn (JPN that played video CDs), Dreamcast (JPN), Dreamcast (PAL), Gamecube (PAL), Gamecube (JPN/NTSC), PS2, Xbox (NTSC) Xbox (PAL), Xbox 360 (x3 due to RROD), Gameboy, Gameboy Pocket, Atari Lynx, Gameboy Advance, DS, 3DS and a brief flirtation with a Barcode battler.

And although my collection is a lot smaller these days and I don’t play nearly as much as I used to, I still love it. I am also fortunate to live near Southend seafront, which has ‘The Golden Mile’ a strip of arcades. Now in the heydays of the late 80s and early 90s, the arcades were the place to be. Cutting edge hardware and cabinet designs drew players from all around, I have many fond memories of playing hydraulically assisted  games like Afterburner 2  and Chase HQ.

Big screens, big graphics and big noise, to a youngster this was Mecca.

It was even reasonably priced to keep people coming back, 10/20/50p a go depending on the game, but this was not to last.

The rise of the consoles

The Arcade as a concept was on borrowed time, its main appeal was that it offered a something you simply could not get a home. Like any new technology, it emerged on the market and was so far ahead that people had no choice but to come to the arcade to get  access to it. Profits soared. However consoles soon began to catch up and games such as StarFox on the SNES offered a glimpse at what was to come, 3D graphics, once the domain of the arcade, were coming into the home.

With the advent on the PSX (soon to become the Playstation) and the Saturn, things began to change these consoles offered serious graphical power in compact environment. The Saturn handled competent Model 1 arcade conversions, the board that powered such classics as Virtua Racer and Virtual Fighter.  Not content with hosting home conversions of arcade boards, System 11 and ST-V offered console hardware as an arcade board. Offering arcade developers a juicy extra revenue stream once their game had run its course in the arcade.

But the consumer began to ask a question, why go to an Arcade when I can play a similar game at home. More importantly why go to the arcade and spend a lot of money each time, when I can buy the game and use it at home forever?

The arcade had become a commoditised technology, consoles had caught up to such a degree that the consumer saw little benefit to arcade games. So arcade manufacturers began to try anything to get consumers attention – Dual Cabs, Quad Cabs, Specialised controllers (basic pistols in Lethal Enforcers to shotguns in House of the Dead and MP5’s in Virtual Cop 3). 18 Wheeler by Sega offered consumers a Deluxe cab decked out as an American haulage truck, replete with massive steering wheel.  To cover costs, prices spiked to £1, £2 even as much as £5 for super deluxe cabs, forcing consumers to pay inordinate amounts for a short term hit.  Unsurprisingly, this approach did not succeed as it failed to address the underlying issue. Although the “tinsel” was better, the gaming experience was much the same as the cheaper, more convenient and cheaper consoles.

Consumers stayed away and one by one the arcade’s died, to be replaced with gaudy gambling machines surrounded by cabs that quickly fell into disrepair.

Consoles rule the world

In the mid 90s, as the arcades around the world crumbled; we entered what the golden age of gaming with that of the Playstation/Saturn. The reason for this simple, stepping from a SNES or Megadrive to CD based polygon based graphics, with CD quality sound and FMV felt like you had the arcade right at home. Playing arcade conversions of games Ridge Race and Sega Rally simply was not possible until that generation. The world had opened up for gamers, it was an amazing time for gaming as each new release sought to out do the last. Consumers bought them in droves, and continued to do so throughout each subsequent generation, until now.

Consoles now face the same problem that the arcades did so long ago, a new challenger has arrived to disrupt the status quo.

A new challenger appears….Smartphones

In the late 90s and early 00s the mobile phone offered little that compete with the power of home consoles (Nokias N-Gage gaming phone gets an honourable mention). Snake or breakout could hardly hope to best the likes of Metal Gear Solid or Panzer Dragoon Saga. However the clock was ticking and by late 2009 we started to see games explode on mobile, some offering “close to console” graphics. Phones and tablets now had the power to offer quick fix gaming anytime, anywhere. You were no longer required to stay in one place to get your fix and it was also a lot cheaper (sound familiar?).  For the casual gamer, there is little need to invest in a home Console, when they have everything they need in the palm of their hand.

photo-both-580-75

We are yet to see the long term ramifications of this, but looking at the dismal sales of the Wii U they must worry not just Nintendo but Microsoft and Sony as well.  If you look at the Wii U its main selling point is a tablet controller that seems to say “Hey you like tablets? Don’t leave, we got tablets!”, it stinks of a company trying to shoe horn in a competitors feature. It feels like a Hail Mary. Microsoft and Sony are also making ‘innovative controllers’ a big part of their next gen systems with Kinect 2.0 and Move both to be included in the box. Yet for all its initial charm ‘waggle’ has never really held my interest and I feel that due to the amount of shovelware for both the Wii and Kinect plaforms the consumer is also burnt on the concept.

A perfect storm?

With the Xbox 360 generation of consoles one of the main selling points was HD gaming,  like the switch from 2d to 3D there was a clear easy to digest benefit to switching. However with this new generation there is not that clear, killer feature – sure the games will look prettier but I am still amazed at what they are pulling out of the current 360 (have you seen Halo 4? That is one damn good looking game!). Rumoured specifications, the consoles themselves are not as powerful as expected compared previous generations you would normally expect a power leap of 10-15 . Compare Ps1>2>3 or  SNES > N64 > Gamecube, when comparing them side by side it was instantly obvious which was the more powerful console.  So to review, a weaker than expected console, comes to market against a faster, cheaper competitor platform that is already in the hands of millions of consumers and has an consumer upgrade cycle of  18-24 months.

This in itself would present a challenging situation, but not insurmountable but add in the fact of global recession and the situation looks bleak. If consumers finances are under pressure already, spending upwards of £399 on a new console and games is unlikely when the consumer has a decent gaming device for ‘free’ on their phone.

The consumer wins? Not so fast

Free gaming platform, no need to buy another box and a wealth of games to play, this a good thing right? Yes and no. We are at a dangerous transition point and it runs the risk of doing serious damage to games (both mobile and console)

I am talking about Free to play and In App Purchases.

Free to play games offer a low barrier to entry but then ask the player to purchase in game items to progress, in app purchases are the method of acquiring said items. All fine in theory with the occasional game but it now feels that every game (indeed free or paid) is moving to this new model of  ‘buy now, pay later’. Boy do they pay!

Real Racing 3 is a beautiful game, almost console quality and its free to play. However if you are expecting to get through this game without reaching into your pocket you will be sadly disappointed. 148Apps has looked into how much money it would cost your to complete Real Racing 3:

To earn enough money to buy every car in Real Racing 3, what would it take? Our numbers show that it would take over 472 hours to earn enough money to buy all of the cars in the game. Or to purchase all of the cars with real money via in-app purchase, it would cost $503.22 at the current best rate.

To earn all of the cars in the game rather that buy them with real money, a player would need to finish 6,801 races with an average (per our RR3 stats) of 4:10 per race earning R$3,700 per race. That would equal 472 hours to earn the R$25,163,573 it would cost in the in-game currency to buy all 46 cars. That does not include the cost for repairs, maintenance, or upgrades which can be rather expensive.

If a player wanted to take the shortcut and buy all of the cars in the game with real money, that would cost $503.22 in in-app purchases. That’s assuming the current best rate of R$50,005 per US$1 when buying R$5,000,000 at a time.

Let’s compare the cost for Real Racing 3 to modern day console games, what could be purchased for that $503.22. For one example, a player could get a 4GB XBox 360, Forza Horizon (one of the newest racing sims on the 360), all of it’s DLC including over 127 cars, and a 22″ Vizio flatscreen LED TV. And still have $17.22 left over.

$503.22, granted most players will never pay that but the fact that its even possible worries me and the F2P model is already having negative consequences. Elmo from Joypod mentioned on this weeks podcast that when playing a free to play game he is instantly suspicious of when and where the game will tell him “no that’s enough gaming for you!” and ask you to pay up. F2P gaming is beginning to make the player suspicious about where they will get screwed, no matter how well its handled a pay wall (you may call it something else, but lets not kid ourselves) is a game breaking experience and that is a universally a bad idea. I’m sure that games companies will shout “but people don’t want to buy games anymore! What can we do?” well who’s fault is that? By flooding the market with free games consumers are now conditioned to think that games are a commodity or to use another word – worthless.

This is a hell of their own making.

In app purchases may offer a way out to beleaguered developers keen to generate revenue in difficult times. If that’s the case I have a question for you: when a gamer spends time thinking about when or where they will have to pay up instead of enjoying your creation, does that create a relationship based on trust? I think that, in desperation games developers are trying to make money at all costs, even if it burns the user because they have no where else to go.

Want to play one more time? Insert coin to continue – after all it worked for arcades right?

And for that reason, I’m out…..

Commuting into London with my girlfriend is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my day, as before I used work from home so would ‘lose’ about four hours of us time. We normally talk about plans for the day, news items, things of interest on twitter – the usual stuff.

Today was different.

As I missspelled yet another tweet I decicded that it was time to install a new keyboard; namely Swiftkey. Swiftkey is a popular replacment for the stock Android powered by an AI engine that helps predict your intentions with greater accuracy. Accuracy was something I dearly needed, as since moving to Android I felt like I had regressed to my early dyslexic days getting words and letters all wrong.

So off I went to the marketplace, thinking isn’t it great that I have the option to replace something as fundamental as the keyboard. Perhaps Android isn’t so bad after all.

Installation and setup was fairly simple, and soon enough I had a shiny new keyboard to use. Which promprly started to bog down my system and hold on key presses. Now some of you may have stuck with it, but this really rubbed me up the wrong way and after ten minutes of not much improvement I made my way to the uninstall menu.

Big mistake.

After uninstalling Swiftkey my keyboard defaulted to the chinese/english layout with no obvious way to change it back to the stock keyboard. At this point my girlfriend asked me a question about a tweet of mine, deep in thought of how to sort out this problem I responded with an irritable “What?”.

Afterwards I put the phone away and we continued our normal commute, but I did mull over the problem. As I was walking towards TechHub, it then hit me, that I wasn’t getting annoyed over a keyboard, it was the operating system.

The Android keyboard is a microcosm for the overall platform, the very nature of android and the fact that you can replace something as important as a keyboard is used as excuse for a substandard effort. The mindset feels like (and this is just my personal opinion) that the feeling is that its ok, not bad, satisfactory. Not good enough? Don’t worry install something else!

I fail to see how making the user apply plasters, bandages and gauze to a platform to correct its faults,  is not only acceptable but lauded as a unique selling point.

Android and I are getting a divorce, it isn’t amicable.

Hook, line and sinker: My thoughts on pitching an App

I was recently a judge at the ‘Muther of All Hackathons’, a 36 hour developer event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California. The concept was simple, you get 24 hours to develop an app using a variety of API’s and services and then you pitch your App to your peers and judges to get awesome prizes.

Developers had 3 minutes to sell their App and the previous 12 hours will have been for nothing if they could not get their point across. A good app can be destroyed by a poor or confusing pitch, we the judges had 3 minutes to assess the App, its purpose, innovation, marketability and overall quality. Sadly some of the teams had not heeded the advice in the previous days panel.

Pitching is not easy, especially to a room of 300 or more people, here’s some advice for the future:

  •     If you want to succeed, you need to set aside some time to practice your pitch in front of your team as it will help you separate the important facts from the waffle.
  •     If your App crashed, don’t panic about it and keep talking! Bugs happen at the worst times
  • Practice your pitch some more
  •     In the first minute you will have the most attention, cover the important stuff first: App name, purpose.
  •     Under five minutes to pitch? Don’t read out your CV or give a history lesson.
  •     Never say “This is the most/best/revolutionary X”, if it is trust in your audience to realise it
  • Although bugs happen, test every thing you will be demonstrating, then get someone 100% new to your product to test it
  • You don’t have to demonstrate all features, just the ones that best showcase your App
  • If you have time, offer a summary of the product, you may have have sped through your demo due to nerves, recap and help the people listening to you
  • Breathe, the worst that can happen is that they say no, remember they are people just like you!
  • Prepare to back up any claims stated in your pitch, judges/panels etc will more than likely test them!
  • Lastly, try to enjoy yourself, thinking “I hate presenting” is a self fulfilling prophesy

There are many more tips but those are the essential I think, got something to add to the list? Get in contact!

One year on, time to ramble

Today marked the end of an era, well not quite but I shipped my iPhone 3G off to its new owner so as of now I am a phoneless man. I haven’t been without a phone for over 10 years but prior to the iPhone I don’t think that not having a phone would have bothered me too much.

The iPhone is my go to device for everything and probably gets used far more than any other phone I’ve had.

Need to find somewhere, don’t ask someone, just use google maps

Need to find the nearest store, don’t ask someone, just use yelp

Want to catch up with your friends, don’t call them, use facebook

Casual browsing, chess games, keeping track of my runs, sharing it with everyone (regardless if the content is missed among the Digital cacophony), random app purchases.

The list goes on and on and on and on

I think I share too much, perhaps that’s due in part to my work from home job, which by its very nature implies a removal from normal day to day social interaction. By putting so much of myself online I am reestablishing a connection with textual representations of people, even if the connection is tenuous at best.  I’m not complaining, I am grateful for twitter and facebook as it keeps me sane to a small degree but I am interested to see how these next two weeks go by (24th is iPhone 4 launch date), I suspect not much will change as I’m not expected to be away from home for any great length of time.

I am supposed to get the iPhone 4, its the logical choice but I can safely say that no phone out at the moment has that WOW factor, that instant kill, instant sell factor. Perhaps I won’t get it, perhaps I could simply not replace it or get a simple phone. Learn to communicate and search out things without telling anyone remove the digital crutch and find out whether technology is the great empowerer that I believe it is.

I do believe it, I do .

But this is an unusual situation I’ve always had the next phone lined up, like a junkie, ready prepared. Do I really need twitter and Facebook? Probably not, in fact definitely not are they distraction masquerading as aids? Possibly.

Perhaps I’m just going through the 7 stages of grief.  Why? Because the iPhone was my first smart phone and because I’m one of many sad people that ascribe far too much to a digital device.

Screw it, I’m going to find a phone box, can some one text me the……..

Holidays – Getting away (from//with) it all?

Beach

Beach

My recent trip back from London on Saturday got me thinking wistfully about Holidays (side note since buying my flat I haven’t had any time off that hasn’t been filled with DIY).

Join me as I travel back to my youth, to a time of orange squash and honey sandwiches.

Its summertime, schools out and its time for a holiday!

So in we all cram into my folks car:

  • My brother and I in the back seats,
  • Parents up  front,
  • Mum with the map,
  • Dad with a steely determination to get to the destination as quickly as possible (and screw the traffic laws)
  • Air conditioning was the realm of premium saloons like the S Class etc, so windows open and pray that we don’t get stuck in traffic!

But what entertainment to keep a six and an 8 year old quiet on the journey?

We had few options, stare out the window, read a book, be sick after reading a book or kicking the back seats.

Later on we had access to a Nintendo Gameboy and  an Atari Lynx but the battery of either wasn’t impressive (or in the case of the Lynx horrific, 8 AA batteries drained in under half an hour!!)

Compare that to today’s car journey of today:

  • Individual climate control for front and back passengers
  • In built Sat nav that detects speed cameras
  • And such entertainment (Dvd players, full blown games consoles)

But more importantly we literally have the world on a stick with wireless Internet, with 3g we can update our friends of our progress, play games and keep up to date of everything.

We progress in this swirling mass of 2.4ghz signals constantly pervading our social space, keeping us awake and aware of everything at all times.

I love technology and having the world available to me is very useful but:

If we’re constantly connected, with a permanent on-line presence can we ever say we  really got away from it all?

Is our family’s holiday on the beach lessened as people can tag our photos with their own experiences, thus rendering our holiday a collective experience rather than personal.

Of course other people have climbed that hill, swam that lake, found that cove but that experience is ours and ours alone but until it his the Internet those memories are ours and no one Elses

How much access is too much? Is there a limit to collaboration? Will there be a time when it is no longer possible to get away from it all?

I like the fact that we have the ability to switch off, but in the not too distant future I don’t think we’ll be able to escape the maelstrom that is pervasive technology and with that a small part of ourselves may be lost with it.

Cart before the horse

As you might know,  I’ve been developing a mobile learning platform to give Students access to learning resources from anywhere.

It’s baby steps; but a lot of the groundwork has been completed (discussions, project plans, proof of concepts etc), the main issue is money.

Or more appropriately the complete disinterest of any current smart-phone manufacturer to offer an educational discount.

Facts and Figures:

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does represent the huge barrier to mobile development in education:

  • Google Developer Phone: £244
  • Apple iPhone:  PaynGo (O2 uk): £342 + £10 minimum top up a month
  • HTC Touch: £489

If the College follwed ACU’s path we’d need an iPhone each:

x4 iPhones: £1368

1 Year of top ups (£40 x 12 months ): £480

Year one costs:  £2400 (and then £480 a year for n years)

Compare this to the development phone:

x4 ADP1: £976

Year one costs:  £976

Being Sim free, we can use our existing Sim cards when we need to test outside the College meaning that not only is it cheaper to buy, its total life cost is significantly cheaper as well.

The iPhone has the best interface and the slickest hardware but unless Cupertino does something shortly we’ll be talking to Google.

Running to Stand still

I visited Hastings College last Friday to meet with Apple Distinguished Educator Steven Molyneux to view his latest e-learning project.

Hastings is in the middle of  a sea change, a paradim shift if you will, a transition between two implacciable foes.

I’m talking of course about Apple and Microsoft.

With Steves guidence, Hastings are replacing all teaching and learning PC’s with Mac Mini’s, whilst keeping the administrative staff running on Windows.

So far so average, but this is where it gets interesting:

They are removing their VLE.

A FE/HE institution with no virtual learning enviroment, how will people work?! Perhaps its not as insane as it seems,  a poorly implemented VLE is nothing more than a content repository,  almost a digital library of sorts that people dip into when they need to find something.

They’re replacing it with OS X Server which comes bundled with: Podcast creator, wiki server and combined with the ilife suite makes quite a compelling learning solution….

After a reasonably speedy journey driving in the beast with my collegue Jim accompanied by playing Mettalicas Death Magnetic at ear bleeding volume, we arrived at Hastings College.

I should preface this next comment with the statement that Hastings is in the process of building a new Campus with upto date facilities and on looking at the current one,  I can safely say that the new build can’t be finished quickly enough (old school doesn’t even come close, think of the worst ‘building of the future’ 60’/70’s constuction and you would be getting close).

We met Steve and headed straight to a hair & beauty class that had been using iPod Touch’s as a learning aid to support activities both in and out of contact ours. Students would access course content by viewing the wiki and streaming video/audio/text where appropriate.

Except some students couldn’t get the videos to work, others didn’t bother to use the devices except in class and others either didn’t have internet at home, or if they did failed to have WiFi.

And even if they did overcome the access issue, it still left a bad taste in my mouth as we’re just replicating the same solutions over and over again.

The iPod being utilised as nothing more than a passive viewing medium, almost as if it were a laptop rather than a mobile device,  the iPod is a device born of web 2.0 it is an amazing collaboration and communication tool like no other before (in terms of accessibility, speed and ease of set up).

Why do we in education always seek to reinvent the wheel? Got a homework diary? Have a digital diary! Got a portfolio? How about an ePortfolio! In class poll? Have an online poll!!

The list goes on,  but its always the same things, when will we stop replicating and start to really innovate.