Friday, January 6, 2012

Top 10 Games of 2011

Hey, it's not 2011 anymore! That means I can now make a list of something(s) from 2011. I would make a list of top 10 movies, but it would only have 3 movies on it. And I would make a list of top 10 TV shows, but that would have about 2. So instead I will make a list of things I actually did do this year. Note that not every game below was released in 2011. This is just a list of games that I actually played last year.

I'm glad we could get the one with the longest name out of the way first. I'm not a huge Penny Arcade fan, though I enjoy the comic every now and then and I appreciate the importance of PAX. But you don't have to be a big fan of Gabe and Tycho to appreciate the irreverent and often profane humor that permeates this adventure/JRPG hybrid. Episode 3 was never released, but there are plans to do a reimagining of what was supposed to be Episode 3, with a different studio.

9) Braid (2009)
On the surface it just looks like a clone of the old (and New) Super Mario Bros. But if you pay attention to the onscreen text as well as the symbolism from the different gameplay mechanics, it paints a darker, much more "adult" picture. Just in case you want to find out for yourself, I won't spoil it.

Kairosoft is now a legendary developer on mobile platforms. All their games have the very distinct retro-Japanese pixel art graphics, and they're all very well made, surprisingly deep, and addicting. Mega Mall Story puts you in charge of the new mall in town, and you have a set number of years to turn it into a huge success, garnering yearly awards and regular high-paying customers. This game is full of charm and will keep you glued to your iDevice as you keep adding more and more cool stuff to your mall in an effort to make it the best around.

7) Psychonauts (2006)
So it took me 5 years to get around to playing this Double Fine classic. Sue me. Actually, don't. Instead, play this game. The first thing that comes to mind when I think Psychonauts is "surreal". If that's your thing, the rest of the package will delight. This third person action-adventure game gives you mental powers up the wazoo, as well as a full cast of quirky characters and locations. Psychonauts is a joy through and through. It's just unfortunate Psychonauts 2 was never made.

6) Mini Ninjas (2009)
Swing a sword, throw ninja stars, free wild animals from evil Samurai, and ... play as a Panda? Yup, Mini Ninjas beat Kung Fu Panda and World of Warcraft to the punch. No, but seriously, this game possesses some amazing Far East locales, smooth control, and surprising depth. Just think 3-D Zelda but with a cast of goofy ninja kids and animals. It's funny, lighthearted, and very well made.

Hey, back to back Asian-themed games! This one is a disappointingly forgotten BioWare gem that takes the formula created for Knights of the Old Republic and refined in Mass Effect and crafts a great martial arts and magic adventure. Like those other BioWare RPGs, choice is king, as you get to shape your guy (or gal) to favor expedience or compassion in a quest to unlock the mystery of his or her past. Combat is a little clunky, but good enough that a Jade Empire 2, if it's ever made, has the potential to be spectacular.

If this were a real competition, iOS games would have the really unfair advantage of being available everywhere. That is, my iDevice is on me almost at all times, unlike my gaming computer. So perhaps it should be no surprise that an iOS game is so high on this list, merely because I've spent more hours playing this than any other game in the past 12 months. There isn't much to Jetpack Joyride: you fly continuously to the right, dodging electric zappers, lasers, and missiles while collecting coins, slot machine tokens, and vehicles (yeah, vehicles other than your jetpack). It's simple, but a ton of fun, and the mission/rewards system gives it near-infinite replay value.

It may just be a 2-D Minecraft, but it has a ton of character, depth, and replay value. Who knew that mining resources, fighting the occasional baddie, and building the virtual house (or castle, or mansion) of your dreams would be so much fun? Well, the creator, Re-Logic, apparently did. And the game is constantly being updated with more free content all the time. It may look like a game made in the early 90s, but it belongs at the top of the heap among modern indie titles.

The additional co-op levels promised by Valve as a summer release finally came out a few months ago, but unfortunately I'd moved on by then. So yeah, I haven't played those levels yet. But I assure you, while I was playing Portal 2 (both the single player and co-op campaigns), I was wishing it would never end. Valve improved upon their sleeper hit Portal in every way possible, which surprised even the most optimistic Portal fans (read: me).

Only half of this list consists of games that were released in 2011. But it should be encouraging (perhaps only to me, since I doubt anyone else really cares) that the top 4 were still 2011 games. That means a) I actually do have a little bit of time for games these days, and b) they are still making fantastic games these days. And no game I played in 2011 was more fantastic than Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you read my list of best games of the last decade, you'll see that the original Deus Ex was very high on that list, and I also mentioned that it was my favorite game ever, before Fallout 3 came out. That means two things: DXHR was one of my most highly anticipated games ever, and that it had a lot to live up to, especially after the mediocre Deus Ex: Invisible War. Clearly the fact that I placed DXHR atop this year's list shows that it lived up to the franchise name.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution really delivers with the stealth mechanic, combat, and conversation system, as well as the amazing stylized world that protagonist Adam Jensen exists in. But the greatest thing about this game is the philosophical questions it raises and attempts to get the player to answer for him or herself. How does humanity view and utilize the technological advancements in biomechanical augmentation? If a person receives prosthetic limbs to replace his living tissue, is he any longer human? How do we deal with the idea of replacing perfectly good limbs with bionic ones, just to get ahead in our professions? These issues are addressed spectacularly in the characters, settings, and missions that comprise Deus Ex: Human Revolution, yet the writers take great care to leave the answers up to the player.

Hear's hoping that 2012 brings us some even better ones. Mass Effect 3, anyone?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Steve

It's been four days and it's still hard to get my thoughts together. I think my mind still can't fathom that he's gone. He shaped my life and the lives of others in ways I never even thought about until now, despite us not knowing him personally.


That Steve Jobs changed the world is not an overstatement. In a personal sense, he is a big reason for me having such a great interest in computers and technology (the other reason being my dad). When I was a wee lad, my dad would bring his work computer home over holiday breaks. The computer was a Mac Plus, the black and white screened all-in-one that was a descendant of the original Macintosh. My dad used the computer to do work, but I sure had a heck of a lot of fun with it. My first exposure to computers had me instantly hooked. I loved everything from the oldschool startup chime to the intuitiveness of the Mac System 6 user interface.


But the true test is to ask whether I still would've been hooked if the computer had been a Windows PC. Ah, but that's a trick question, isn't it? Windows would not exist if it weren't for Steve and his Mac operating system. Don't believe me? Go watch Pirates of Silicon Valley, starring Noah Wyle and Anthony Michael Hall. Besides, back in those days Windows was pretty much nothing, and most non-Apple computers ran the useable but horribly unintuitive DOS. I am certain that if my first introduction to computers was DOS or Windows 1, 2, or 3.0, I would've been repelled. My preference, and my family's preference, has never wavered to this day. There has always been something about Apple's products that transcend price and specs that, if you haven't experienced them, you probably don't understand.


But the success and the impact of Apple and Steve Jobs, as well as my appreciation for them, goes beyond simple personal preferences and money. This is something that a lot of detractors seem to completely miss. Common refrains from the hater camp are that Apple claims to innovate but their successful products are ones that have been done already in the past. That Apple's unwavering adherence to their often draconian policies severely hurts the industry and hurts innovation. That Apple's marketing dangerously misleads people into believing their highly priced products can cure the common cold and create world peace. And that Apple doesn't even adhere to their own slogan "Think Different" because they make stuff that's been done before. Even a decade ago, many people held to the believe that Apple's products were just toys compared to their competition, and I even had one friend tell me "Macs are for people who can't afford PCs", which was so wrong in so many ways.


I will address these points individually, and in doing so attempt to explain why Steve's and Apple's accomplishments and contributions must be celebrated. First, people who think Apple just retreads what others have already done are not seeing the big picture. Sure, personal computers were around before the Mac, and MP3 players were around before the iPod, but who used personal computers back then? Only geeks who could stand to use a command line for doing anything besides listing directory contents. And who used MP3 players in their infancy? Well, I didn't know anyone, but I do know that they were hard to use and were mainly the domain of geeks who, again, could stand to get their own MP3s somehow and finagle them onto their clunky portable music player. But when the Mac came along in 1984, and when the iPod launched in 2001, it got regular people excited and regular people understood how to use these machines for the first time. Steve's power was the power to get normal people excited about things that they used to consider silly, complicated nerd paraphernalia. People tend to hate the iPod and the iTunes Store for being a closed ecosystem, but they forget that only Apple's stubbornness and cash could convince the entire RIAA to move into the 21st century in terms of selling their music online. And this is why we have Amazon MP3 and all the other online music stores.


The ultimate example of this, and more, is the iPhone. Before the iPhone was introduced in 2007, the term "smartphone" was synonymous with RIM's Blackberry phones, and to some extent, Palm's phones. And at the time these phones could do email, sure. They could do calendars, messaging, and get on the web. But the web on a mid-2000s smartphone was awful. Web sites were designed to run on browsers made for desktop and notebook computers, and thus when these primitive smartphone browsers attempted to connected them, all they got was some poorly formatted text version that was horrendously inconvenient to navigate. I have no doubt that without the iPhone, smartphones of 2011 would still bear those old stodgy, clunky designs and hundreds of millions of people would not be able to access so much good information in mere seconds, as these phones would still be the domain of businesspeople and rich geeks. Oh and no Android for you! So before you dismiss Apple as not having any original ideas of their own, think about that. Today's Windows computers would not exist, or they would suck way more than they do. Today's music industry would have collapsed due to their inability to adapt to the "digital age". And today's phones would still be clunky contraptions that everyone needs but no one likes to use.


The next issue is Apple's stubborn adherence to their own policies. The company under Steve was uncompromising, headstrong, and aggressive. It creates and enforces strict rules for the use of its operating systems (see Mac OSX and iOS) in the name of preventing dilution of the products and the brand. To this end Apple brings legal action against companies who make products Apple feels is copying them. Apple also has a history of rejecting or removing apps from its iOS app store that thinks violates the developer agreement. Recently the court upheld a ruling for a lawsuit Apple brought against Psystar, a small company that sold "Mac clones" - generic PC boxes that ran Mac OSX. Many see actions like this and others as anticompetitive and harmful to innovation. Perhaps some of them are anticompetitive, and in terms of US law these situations should probably be judged accordingly. But people should also understand the idea behind their actions. Steve (and by extension, Apple) sought to control all parts of their product because he wanted to make really, really great products that people would love. And to do so, he wanted to leave nothing to chance - "chance" being the possibility for someone outside of his control to screw that up. It's this uncompromising dedication to the end user experience that enables their products to be so sought after and valued. In other words, without the stubborn iron first guiding things, Apple's products would not stand out, and there is a very real possibility that no products in the markets Apple currently occupies would be highly desired by anybody. And because their products are so highly sought after, it lights fire under the asses of the likes of Microsoft, Google, Samsung, HTC, RIM, HP, and even Nintendo and the company that makes George Foreman grills. Those who consider the results of Apple's actions hurting innovation need to reexamine their definition of "hurting".


On the idea that Apple oversells its products, all I have to say is "don't you wish your company had the marketing juggernaut that Apple has?" Anyone who says no is a fool. The other side to the coin, however, is the idea of truth in advertising. I'm all for truth in advertising. The thing is, I think Apple actually tends to be more careful with facts than people give them credit for. It's never been about specs or numbers with Apple. It's always been about going after your emotions and grabbing you such that you feel like you "have to have it". The thing detractors don't understand is, when people see these commercials, and they consequently go out and buy the product, they are usually very satisfied with their purchase. Does that sound to you like dishonest marketing? Telling people (not necessarily in so many words) that they're going to love this product, and people buy it and they end up… loving the product? It's not about truth and lies, but about how the products make you feel. Oh, and by the way, they just happen to do what people expect them to do.


My day to day appreciation for what Steve has created at Apple is fairly mundane: I like how Mac OSX feels more than how Windows feels. And I like how iOS feels. These things are a matter of personal preference, and I would get nowhere trying to convince anyone that Apple's stuff is better than Microsoft's or Google's if they have their own strong feelings. But my goal was to examine how no matter whether one likes or hates Steve and Apple, it is a terrible, terrible mistake to discount their contribution to all facets of technology. Without Steve there would be no Windows. Without Steve there would be no Android. Without Steve the music industry would be a 20th century relic. Without Steve our smartphones would be dumb. Without Steve the world would be a world of boring beige boxes that only schools and businesses would bother to use. And without Steve we'd all still be using Parallel and PS/2 ports on our PCs. Steve's stubborn attention to the most minute detail in every aspect of design has made an amazing impact on how we define our aesthetics in technology today.


It has been said that Steve knew what you wanted even if you didn't know that you wanted it. It's so true, and it's been proven time and again, with the iPhone and the iPad. Now that he's gone, who will make us better devices, and who will make us love our technology?



For more reading or viewing, check out the links below:

Godfather of fonts article

Tribute by Leo Laporte et. al at TWiT TV

Think Different video on Youtube

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Simple but amazing

I came across this link in a message board thread at The Escapist. It's a black and white grid. You click on the squares in the grid and each square corresponds to a music note. You can make a pretty cool tune even if you're not musically inclined.

http://seawitchery.tumblr.com/post/4070384205/i-started-out-clicking-strategically-and-by-the

Check it out!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why does the Google Talk web interface suck?

I am a big Instant Messenger (IM) user. I've been using one service or another since the mid-to-late 1990s. First it was ICQ, and then AIM. Yahoo and Microsoft came along with their IM services. Each of these had their own client applications that you used that allowed you to sign on, see which of your buddies were online, and chat with them at your leisure.

Like most things, IM clients matured as time went by. They added features like telling you when your buddy was typing or had entered text without sending it. Voice chat was introduced. Rudimentary file sharing was invented. But also basic things, like contact sorting, message coloring, buddy icons, groups, and all other manners of customization came along.

Then, as it became unwieldy to run 6 different applications just to be able to talk to your friends on all the different IM networks, some enterprising developers came up with multi-service IM clients. These clients, such as Pidgin or Digsby on Windows, or Adium on Mac OSX, allow users to connect to many different networks from one application, using a unified contact list. This makes for a much cleaner desktop and a more streamlined experience. And all of these programs have countless customization options to make your IM experience as personal, efficient, and useful as possible, while at the same time being lightweight and unintrusive.

Enter Google Talk (AKA Google Chat, not to be confused with Google Voice). With the rise of gmail as the E-mail service of choice for the cool kids, Google strategically created an IM service to go along with it. Google Talk allows those in your address book who also have Gmail accounts to have IM conversations with you. Google Talk was and is still primarily a browser-based IM service, although it is based on a protocol that is very widely supported by third party clients (such as Adium, which is how I connect to it).

But most people (you included, probably) just use the browser-based interface to Google Talk that is integrated with Gmail. And oh boy, the thing is vile. So vile that I can't freaking believe that anyone can stand to use it.

First, the contact list and message box are ugly as sin with no way to customize them. Oh, sure, you can choose "small", "medium", and "large" for the contact list size. By the way, I actually mistook that to mean the font size. My mistake. What it really does is change how many of your contacts are actually shown. What if you want Medium-Small? or Medium-Large? You're SOL. Okay, so maybe that's not such a big deal. Setting it to small should be fine because I don't have that many friends. Okay.

The only other option they have for your contact list is "Show in chat list" whose two options are "Most Popular" and "All Contacts". There is no option to Hide Offline Contacts. C'mon, Google! this is IM Client Design 101! I don't care who's offline, only who's online! The lack of a Hide Offline Contacts option makes the "Show All Contacts" option a load of crap. So then we have our other choice, "Most Popular". You would think this would be based on who you talk to the most, either over email or in Google Talk itself. But when I chose this option, someone I hadn't talked to at all for over two years was placed near the top! Shit, Google.

And that's it. No other options.

But I'm not done yet.

One last thing. IM can be considered the least formal means of communications in the digital world. This means that grammar goes out the window. Sentence fragments are allowed. You may type a whole sentence and send it out without a period, and that would be okay.

The following is also acceptable: I and many others have the tendency to start a sentence, and press Enter to send the message before the sentence is complete, and then finish the sentence in the next line. I don't really know why we do it, but I guess it keeps the pace up and maintains the flow of the conversation, so the recipient doesn't have to wait for the whole sentence to be typed out and end up receiving a "wall of text" when it's done. It also can help to subtly indicate where natural pauses or breaks are, without resorting to putting commas everywhere, resulting in runs-on sentences, which nobody likes. Whatever the reason, I do it a lot. Like the full sentences described in the paragraph above, these "partial sentences" also do not end with periods.

What does this have to do with Google Talk's web interface? Well, the way the conversation box is implemented, consecutive instant messages from the same sender are grouped together, such that instead of being like:

omnigeno (6:30 pm): hey, have you ever been
to Original Tommy's
burgers at Universal
Citywalk?
omnigeno (6:30 pm): I'm working 'til 8 tonight
omnigeno (6:31 pm): but if I leave to get food,
I ain't comin' back

It instead is displayed as:

omnigeno (6:30 pm): hey,
have you ever been to
Original Tommy's burgers
at Universal Citywalk?
I'm working 'til 8 tonight
but if I leave to get food,
I ain't comin' back

The first example sort of makes it easier to see where the natural breaks are, whereas the second one just looks like a pair of overgrown, deformed haikus.

In the first example, it's clear that the whole first sentence about Tommy's at Universal Citywalk was in one continuous message, but the word wrap was due to the small size of the IM box. In the second example, however, there's no way to tell. It's a big mess.

It's clear that this was designed purely to be utilitarian, to be sure, but I really feel as if they put all their effort into the backend, and hired the 10-week intern to design the user interface.. and she spent 3 days on it.

The Google Talk Gmail web interface is an awful piece of junk, and the only reason why I resorted to using it this week is because my work no longer allows me to install unapproved applications on my computer.

Google, why does your chat interface suck so badly?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Crazy iPhone 5 Prediction

If you haven't been living under a rock, you probably know that this past week Verizon announced that iPhone 4 (or iPhone in general) is finally going to be available on Verizon's network. Once the excitement wore off, I got to thinking. Actually, I started thinking this several weeks before the announcement, since the rumor mill had been reaching a fever pitch, and I was skeptical.

So as you probably know, up until now there has always been a new iPhone released every summer. That is, in the US, there has always been a new iPhone on AT&T's GSM data network every summer. And since the GSM iPhone 4 came out on AT&T's network last summer, it would logically follow that the iPhone 5 (or whatever Apple decides to call it) will be released for AT&T customers this summer.

But where does that leave Verizon? iPhone 4 is going to be released on Verizon's CDMA network on Feburary 10, a full 7 months after iPhone 4 debuted on AT&T's service. If Apple keeps their release schedule on Verizon similar to AT&T's, that means that iPhone 5 will come to AT&T this summer, while Verizon will have to wait until February 2012 to get the iPhone 5. This makes absolutely no sense.

So here's my wild theory, based on absolutely no real evidence.

CDMA iPhone 4 comes out on February 10 on Verizon as planned. Then, in the Spring, the white iPhone 4 will not come out, despite what Apple said last October. In June, Apple will announce a simple iPhone refresh, probably still called iPhone 4 or something. In this refreshed iPhone 4, Apple will nix the 16GB version and lower the price of the 32GB version by $100. They will also introduce a 64GB model, a first for iPhones. The A4 processors in these iPhones will also receive a minor speed boost. And finally, these new iPhones will be sporting a new hybrid CDMA/GSM cellular chip, which will make it so that the phones work on any carriers' networks, but unfortunately will only see wide usage for a year. This is because in summer 2012, an LTE-based iPhone 5 will be released on both Verizon and AT&T.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Game Review - Soosiz

Soosiz - $1.99 (Appshopper Link)

Mario-style platforming games are kind of a hit or miss with the iPhone's on-screen controls. Depending on how the developer implements the buttons, it could be very bad (like Mega Man II), or very good, like the game I'm reviewing right here. For action-platforming games, reflexes are key; being able to jump at a moment's notice to avoid an enemy or obstacle is the difference between life and death. The problem with on-screen controls is that there's no physical feedback for your finger to know whether you've pressed the "right button" (read: the correct part of the screen). In the iPhone port of Mega Man II, I too often found myself pressing not the jump button, but just one or two pixels to the left or right. Yes, that's a problem.

With Soosiz, on the other hand, the developers did a great job. The jump button is big and responsive, as are the buttons to run left and right.

So you're probably wondering "So what is Soosiz? Why is its name so funny?" Well, I can't answer the second question, but I can answer the first. Soosiz is unique in that it takes the 3-D Super Mario Galaxy style gravity mechanic and removes one dimension, to give you a rather fresh side-scrolling (and rotating) experience. In this game, "down" for your character is essentially the center of mass of the platform he's currently standing on.

You play as this strange yellow circle with big feet, big eyes, and green spiky hair. If I didn't know any better, I would think he's a mutated Goomba.

The levels are set up as a collection of worlds broken down into about 6 stages each, along with two or three bonus "collect all the blue coins" stages. The goal in each normal stage is to rescue all your buddies who have been scattered across the land. Some of them grant you special powers like higher jumping and faster running, which last until that stage is complete.

The gravity mechanic alone makes it worth checking out, though if you get dizzy easily, you may want to skip this one.

Soosiz comes in four flavors: iPhone/iPod touch full version, iPhone/iPod touch Lite, iPad full version, and iPad lite. Check out the appropriate lite version to see for yourself.

Check out my Soosiz screenshots at Picasa Web Albums

Game Review - SkullPogo

Skullpogo - $1.99 (Appshopper link)

I really should have written this as a Halloween post, but I guess better late than never. Skullpogo is another simple game that you can pick up and play for a few minutes. As the name implies, you control a skeleton dude on a pogo stick, whose lot in life is to bounce forever and knock out pigs, zombies, bats, black cats, and other pesky creatures. You slide your finger across the bottom of the screen in order to move, and there are on-screen button to control the height of his bounce: low, medium, and high.

The goal, of course, is to get a high score, and in order to do that you try to get special combos. There are also powerups that will allow you to do things like take out multiple enemies at once, or slow enemies down to make it easier to catch them.

There are three different stages: Halloween, Farm, and Classic, each with a different backdrop and slightly different play modes. Skullpogo also includes Openfeint support for tracking high scores and granting Achievements for those who perform special feats.

Skullpogo is a nice game to play for a few minutes at a time, but that's not to take away from its variety. It's very unique, and a lot of fun.

Check out my Skullpogo screenshots here.