Ruminations on the Smart Phone

I’ve got a fairly large bone to pick with the smartphone as a device. I started out with an MDA 1 from HTC from TMobile running Windows Mobile 3 as my first “real” smartphone. I had a WinCE device previously but it wasn’t a phone. There’s an important distinction here – phones are different from tablets and pocket PCs and such because the task of being a phone has to have immediate preemption no matter what else the device might be doing. This makes any offering on any device consider the idea that the UI must be streamlined enough to be a phone first, and whatever else you want to do secondly. Anyway, this was back when there was enough standard issue C in a device my skills were at least relevant. Me and Tmobile got sort of buddy buddy over in their forums which, while plagued with spammers and me-toos, are fairly open in terms of what’s discussable. Nowadays things like rooting and whatnot come with big tags warning you it’ll void your warranty, but I think anyone who’s afraid of voiding their warranty or service plan is simply going to run over the phone with the car and claim it was an accident. Back then (2003-ish) it was really open to discussion and the company was simply fascinated with the idea that users might actually do something with the phone and not hardware engineers like HTC or “developers” like MS.

I never got into palm. Taking the paragraph above into consideration, maybe palm had the better idea. The phone does one thing at once and therefor when the phone comes up, it knows exactly who to kill to get resources. Every palm OS was different while Windows Mobile, while quirky, was mostly the same thing. Windows Mobile was Windows Mobile, Win CE was Win CE, and then Windows Mobile 5 came out and that was the breakpoint for an entirely new thing. I’m sure people will disagree with me. I felt the iphone wasn’t open enough. When I talk about open my specific rub for iphone development is the threading model. Mysteriously the iphone is limited to four threads per app. I’m not sure if they ever fixed this, but it’s just a bizarre requirement. I have a deep respect for anyone willing to play ball with Apple as a result. The idea is downright strange from a computing perspective and MS more recently did it with the desktop OS. I think it speaks volumes for what level of bullshit the users are willing to put up with and I think that the slow adoption of Windows 7 and the nonadoption of Vista speak volumes for the user experience towards a device. On a smartphone you might not notice the four threads requirement. On a table PC you probably will because the tablet never escaped the PC part of it’s name. On a desktop you will notice it entirely, which I think is why Apple is doing well and will continue to do well. The phone looks like the desktop, they run similar apps. The apple tablet runs the phone portion of the OS and apple users are more comfortable with the idea of a device rather than some shade of PC. Microsoft will always be microsoft and branded itself as a business company after the war with Lotus and therefor MS users expect MS products to be shades of a PC. This is why windows mobile 7 is going to flop. Is it technically astute? Yes. It fixes a lot of the issues Windows previous had getting smaller. Does it look like a business device? No. It looks like a Nokia product. Its not speaking to the MS Target Market. For the same reason Blackberry can’t rebrand itself (aside of the fact that BEX is garbage) as anything more than a business device, attempts by MS to be a non-business device probably aren’t going to fly. Your kids don’t give a shit about Microsoft, but they know the apple logo by heart.

This article cares to disagree. They think a reboot is what’s needed and they pick the bone that everything looks like an iphone. I personally don’t think that everything looks like the iphone, I think we’re stuck in the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers) UI if we realize it or not. Even if you dress something up with new colors or a cartoony look, we’re generally putting out icons in a grid, and we like it. The list UI is available on android, but it tends to fall by the wayside with every casual user I’ve talked to once they install their first application. Cellphones get lists. Smartphones get icons. Cellphones use keypad input. Smartphones have a keyboard. It’s only natural then that we go back to the XEROX PARC idea of icons in a grid. It’s not a MS thing, it’s not an apple thing, it’s not even a Linux thing, it goes all the way back to where we get the X in X-Windows from – XEROX’s UI. We haven’t come up with anything better. We’re sort of getting there, the new widget thing MS is doing with Windows Mobile is sort of cool, but it’s basically a question of “How do I put six windows on the screen and keep them readable”? That’s what the widgets are – they’re very small windows. It really makes me nostalgic for Window Maker. See the little widgets on the right? Each one of those is telling you something while still being about the same as the widgets on any of these smart phones. By the way, that screenshot is from 2001, back when the matrix was cool.

Has the UI changed? No.

We’re still using little postage stamp sized windows on a little envelope sized screen. We might tie into “big boy” services like office, but fundamentally people’s model of the smart phone is that it’s a small computer. The google phones do well because they avoid this idea, the apple phones do well because their users have already seen this on an iPod, and the MS Phones will fail utterly because the UI doesn’t scream “small computer”. MS’s zune is dead. The XBOX doesn’t really talk to anything without a total PITA setup process involving running back and forth between the XBOX and a computer connected to the web, and the whole thing is conspicuously missing a USB cable. Mac people don’t have problems sharing media or networking because it plugs in over USB. Connect the cable, get to work. MS still wants to run the network (not sure why) and that’s above the interest level of the average home user. Bits and pieces of the MS Empire may do well, but frankly the Windows Mobile 7 phone simply isn’t what people expect at this point out of a smart phone.

Where’s the innovation? “You’ve done an awful lot of complaining, Knarr, and very little fixing!”

Here’s the UI of the future, folks, you read it here first. The home screen is going to work on the entire idea that phones are now messaging devices. The last complex application here is going to be the webbrowser, simply because the web was built for PCs and people expect Frontierville on Facebook to look just like it does on their PC. The idea of a “mobile version” is just crap. People hate it. You fire up frontierville on your phone and you want to plant some damned corn, you don’t want to see “FACEBOOK LITE”. The UI of the future is going to be the home screen being the most immediate task. Got a message? The home screen will look like an envelope. You can flip through envelopes to see a series of contacts who messaged you like a rolodex, you click on it to open it and you can read the messages like sheafs of paper or, gasp, individual e-mails! Got a phone call coming in? I want to see the dialpad with the caller ID on it. Why? Because if you’re talking to your friends you’re not looking at the phone, but if it’s the bank calling and they want you to press 2 to speak to a mortgage rep, I hate having to fish around for the keypad. When someone’s calling or you’re calling someone, just display the caller ID until you pick up (or dismiss) and then bring up the dial pad. I hate displaying facebook statuses and crap like that, I’m holding the phone up to my face and talking to someone, not holding it out so I can read the screen. Have a list of applications? Take a queue from the cellphones (or MS) and have a Start menu or “applications menu” which lets you flip through categories. These are typically games, office, web, utilities and configuration. The icons thing, while quick, has got to go. However, I’ve always been a keyboard crusader, and I’ve always liked hotkeys. Why not make your cellphone UI have Hotkeys? You can either yell “start, apps, office, word” or you could use your finger to write S, A, O, W. It already does finger drawing recognition and there’s very little chance of butt dialing with this scheme. Contact lists can be the same way, write letters for Phonebook, Family, Parents, and then Frank, or dad. You get the point. We have this idea of small windows which do one thing, but then we overcomplicate the UI. While bitching about the icons thing for lack of innovation is the right idea, the problem is a problem of input and not presentation. Presentation isn’t going anywhere new until we get holograms, and even then it’ll probably be cubes and not squares. Input is always changing.

Innovate the input, then exploit the hell out of the new methods. The UI should follow the interaction with the phone, not dictate it.

Settlers of Catan for XBox Live

If you’ve got an XBOX 360 this is probably a post for you.

Bad Company 2 – I haven’t tried onslaught mode. Jon says it’s good but with the AI being lackluster at times it’s tough to pay $10 for it when it’s just Gears of War 2’s squad camp mode. The new maps (which are really old maps shoved into a new mode) are terrible. OK it’s sort of cool to have new vehicles but if you put them on a crap map the entire experinece is soured. The rebalanced weapons patch means that the shotguns are grossly overpowered since a lot of guns now do a lot less damage. Since the shotgun shoots 8 “bullets” and only one bullet to the head kills a player, shotgun sniping goes back to being a valid tactic.

UNO on XBOX Live – Dropping you into a game sort of sucks since a lot of players who know they’re going to lose simply drop out. The pauses while someone drops in or out are stupidly long. People tend to put the controller down. People with a headset tend to talk about being high, a ghost in the room unseen by others named “mom”, or AVATAR THE LAST AIRBENDER. Strategy is almost nonexistent. I’ve lost a few simply because someone feels some overwhelming need to play a draw 2 on you which means you can’t possibly play your draw 2 on the guy who called uno. The AI is marginal at best even set to hard and will not fill in more than half the seats. I swear to god the desk isn’t random.

Catan on XBOX Live – My wife hates economy games while I love them. If you’ve played Ticket To Ride, that’s Catan Lite. It’s well worth leaning to play. Catan reminds me of monopoly without the four and a half hour long time commitment. (What would fix monopoly would be having a quarter of the properties on the board). I know you can play Catan online for free. Frankly they should make economy games required playing in school because no-one seems to know how money works anymore. Anyway, Catan is worth the $10 because the online players tend not to suck on the whole, but the AI also can give you a real run for the money. The “roundhouse strategy” (build a ring of settlements around the middle tile) gets far too much play online and I’ve seen people drop out simply because they didn’t get a complete ring. Note that you can use this strategy to effect a monopoly on resources, but a lot of people don’t use or want to use the counter strategy of buying the soldiers to move the robber. On the other hand if you get the center ring, no-one else can get that middle tile. If you don’t ring it out, other people can lock down their part of the board. Strategy aside, the AI is damn good and they give you a stats tracker at the end of the game showing the dice rolls and everything else. It’s enough to make sure you feel like you got a fair shake on the deck and dice.

EA’s Online Pass

The long and the short of it: EA is playing games with content in terms of the “online pass”. For Battlefield 2, it was a few maps and the VIP Pass would get you them. Don’t have a pass? Pay up $12 and you can get the maps. Preorders also came with perks unlocked for high level players. There’s two problems I see with this system. One being that it’s not uncommon to have multiple gamer tags on an XBOX. I know my wife keeps one and I keep one. We got fed up with the permissions being different and this gamertag having something that the other gamer tag didn’t, so my wife doesn’t user her tag anymore. The net result is that MS loses their $50 a year. But, this was only for netflix or whatever, it never was really codified for games. Now there’s stories of people saying that they’re unhappy that two gamertags on the xbox have access to different content. Now as a parent, if my two kids wanted to play xbox and I either had to pony up $12 or save $50/year for a gold gamertag, it only makes sense to drop the one subscription. And, since a lot of the XBOX games don’t play with two people split screen against random strangers on XBox Live, it’s not like the lack of a second gamertag puts a dent in anyones gaming.

However, the vague threat of letting $50 subscriptions keel over a year later doesn’t really impress Microsoft – where I see the push against this coming from are services like NetFlix and GameFly and even the MS Games on Demand service. The games on demand service in particular doesn’t give you anything – even a manual. How are people supposed to get the codes? What happens when the game is $5 and the code is $12? Or for gamefly and netflix, does EA think people are really going to pay money to play online? Probably not. More on the point if I were gamefly, I would probably be suing EA for anticompetitive practises.

Bad Company 2 Initial Impressions

I play very few genres on the XBOX. I play racing games, I play shooters and I play demos of other genres to remind me why I stick to the genres I do. Before anyone flames me that X is better than Y, understand I liked Operation Flashpoint 2, I liked Modern Warfare 2 and I like Bad Company 2. Out of all three, I like them least-to-most in that order. Flashpoint took the cake for having the most potential and the worst execution. Making me pay for patches is a no-no. Modern Warfare 2 had slick execution and excellent graphics, but the multiplayer was absolutely ruined and they botched the patch. Bad Company 2 seems like the game I wanted to play in the first place.

Usually these choices keep me happy.

Multiplayer is also a huge factor. If the game doesn’t have multiplayer, I’m probably not going to buy it. Reasons are entirely personal but my videogames need a good bit of tread to keep me interested.

Basically it boils down to time. I don’t have a ton of it and if I can’t play a round in 15 minutes or so it’s tough to play. Modern Warfare 2 scratched this itch. The singleplayer was great, the multiplayer was (initially) really good. My gripes about MW2 are numerous and they’ve been retread a ton on the blog. I finally got to the point where I picked it up for 15 minutes and played a few rounds and finally quit again in frustration. Two words: GOLDEN DEAGLE.

EBGames was having one of their power-trade things, so I figured I would dump Left 4 Dead 1 (which I didn’t trade to Amazon) and MW2. I ended up with a used copy of Battlefield Bad Company 2 (with a code in it for the maps, not sure if this is still relevant or not) for $17. Not bad, cheaper than beer, right?

Singleplayer review follows – everyone is reviewing multiplayer but I’m firmly convinced both MW2 and BC2 use singleplayer for training and thus it’s important to finish the campaign on normal just once before going online. In both cases this is true, but I haven’t finished the campaign yet in BC2. Also I’ll throw in Operation Flashpoint 2: Dragon Rising comparisons since, to be fair, BC2 has more in common with FP2 than MW2.

Menus – Strange to start a review here? Not really. While MW2 menus had a tendency to take up the entire screen and be well laid out (minus the weird main menu where you “drilled down” into an entirely different set of menus for multi or spec ops) both FP2 and BC2 borrow the “yellow bar” menu system. Don’t worry, it’s entirely usable, but seems a bit strange. In the game, FP2 uses Ghost Recon pie menus, but MW2 and BC2 share the same “bottom bar” menus for gadgets and options and whatnot. Also object interaction in MW2 and FP2 is nonexistent, but in BC2 it’s much closer to Left 4 Dead. If you can interact with something, you are either presented with what button to press (like MW2) or you can use the generic “mark” button (“back” on the controller) to call enemies, vehicles, etc. It’s all done quite nicely. The whole “press this button” or “mark” meme continues through the menus and the game and it flows quite nicely.

Enemy AI – FP2 failed it big time here. The game was entirely scripted, and this is OK, but it was done badly and in a way where if the player didn’t follow “the route”, the events wouldn’t be properly triggered. To make matters funnier, one of the singleplayer maps was terribly broken as a result. MW2 also features AI which is largely scripted. The bad guys always appear at the same places, with the same weapons, and take cover where they need to be. They would rarely break from cover. Even grenades are scripted in the MW2 single player campaign where someone will toss one at a predefined point. The level design is so linear in MW2 that it’s a rail shooter, but it’s so well executed you won’t notice. The AI in BC2 is good. While enemies still have patrol routes, they do make some attempt at maneuvering and they’re reasonably aware of the destruction to the environment. Good examples of this – in the second level if you blow out the wall to a building in the courtyard, enemies shooting from the windows will run away and find a new window. Examples of this being lackluster – if you sufficiently skirt the “engagement area” you can sneak around some obstacles without firing a shot. I’m fairly sure this is intentional as the areas this option presents itself with are usually so filled with bad guys it’s ridiculous. Examples are the lumber yard and the last area of the second map where you can ride a quad to the objective and leave the area onto the “escape truck” without engaging the bad guys.

Maps – Maps are well thought out for what BC2 will do. They understand you’re here to have fun, so they give you plenty of buildings to blow up and propane cans to kick around. They don’t make it overt where you’re destroying everything in your path (minus missions with airstrikes), and some of the missions require you to explicitly not do this. The overwatch area with the sniper rifle makes it incredibly tempting to simply run in and tap off all the gas cans to level the camp, but I failed the mission doing this. On the other hand, the mission with airstrikes is hilarious since the whole place comes down. MW2 is a rail shooter, and while BC2 suffers from the same bit of scripted bad guys, the AI is strong enough to let you get off course and try new stuff. In MW2, if you were smart enough to get in “the wrong place”, you could pretty much dominate the campaign. The terminal map comes to mind here (the end of “no russian”), where the shield guys are a real PITA, but if you were smart enough to run forward before the spawn event, you could literally walk down the line and knife them all without being hit. FP2 failed it utterly, thankfully it merely serves as example of what not to do. While FP2 had trigger areas and weak AI that relied entirely on scripting, BC2 has none of that.

Vehicles – MW2 fails it utterly. The entire game is a rail shooter so it’s no surprise when you step into a vehicle and its a rail shooter. FP2 had terrible vehicle physics, on par with Battlefield Vietnam. It wasn’t uncommon for vehicles to get stuck and to get stuck under vehicles. Actually running someone over might work, but usually not. Stepping out of vehicles was hilarious because you could fall through the planet. It was crap, all around. BC2 does it right. The vehicles might be over simplified but they work correctly. They don’t get stuck. The game is really good at dismounting you properly, including when you do intentionally stupid stuff like drive a boat at high-speed up the side of a hill to get a better shooting position for the cannon (lumberyard). Also FP2 wouldn’t let mounted soldiers fire, which was stupid as all heck but with the AI being as bad as it was, this didn’t surprise me. BC2 lets mounted soldiers fire. BC2 has vehicle damage, so when you blow out the windshield of a vehicle you can kill the driver, or you can shoot people off the quad bikes.

Blowing Crap Up – FP2 you assumed would let you drive over trees and stuff, it never happened. MW2 had scripted events where things would explode, and it had a strange bullet penetration system where sometimes you could shoot through a wall and sometimes not, even with FMJ equipped. BC2 has its own quirks where sometimes sandbags are indestructible, and sometimes not. However, vehicles seem to take the “correct” amount of damage, and so do walls and whatnot. More importantly you really can bring down trees, which provide additional cover if you’re infantry or obscure vehicles shooting and view. The trees thing is nice, and it never seems to get in the way. On the other hand blowing the crap out of buildings means – as infantry – you better surprise them or you’reĀ  toast after the first few rounds.

Sound – Normally I don’t care about how my games sound so long as there’s music to establish the atmosphere, etc. FP2 sucked for this – everything was loud. MW2 had a good soundtrack and excellent voice acting. Bad Company 2 actually sounds real. I’m putting that in italics because the effect is so profound it’s visceral. I shoot in real life, I’ve played with rockets, I’ve blown up things where “danger close” would have been an ironic joke. Normally guns make generic “gunshot noises” and clips make “reloading noises” and explosions go “boom”. If you choose the proper speaker setup, the sound makes the firefights in Bad Company 2 absolutely intense. The guns make the right noises. Plastic clips (called “bullet tupperware”) make the right noises. Metal clips make the right noises. Linked belts make the right noises. More on the point you can hear the brass hit the floor and roll around (or grenades) or not, and standing outside lets you hear far more than standing inside. Also there’s a deafness model at work – if you empty a clip you won’t hear much of anything. If an explosion goes off near you, you won’t even hear teammates yelling. The aural model is really, really exceptionally well done.

I expect multiplayer to be more of the same. All in all I shouldn’t have bought FP2, it was a disaster. I don’t regret buying MW2, it was fun for what it was but in the end the users ruined it and Infinity Ward couldn’t keep up with Activision messing with them constantly. Battlefield Bad Company 2 is the game I should have bought in the first place, but frankly getting all three games for $20 each time because of trade ins means I don’t feel bad about the experience.

I’m Probably Trading in Modern Warfare 2

Ugh, what a mess. First Infinity Ward (IW) has it’s management scalped by activision because they didn’t want to actually pay someone for having the best selling game of all time, then two other managers resigned and nine more developers quit. 12 people is piss in the river for all the people who actually worked on it, but my guess is that it’s their top talent since it wouldn’t be worth it for some minor developer to make a stink about resigning.

What we’re left with is one addon pack which got released and was bugged at release, and we’ve got fundamental issues with how the game actually works for multiplayer. Despite the team doing a pretty decent job cracking down on the cheating, there’s still the fundamental problem that some user accounts have things like ranks they shouldn’t, weapons they shouldn’t, and camo they shouldn’t. These are legit accounts running on legit XBOXes which haven’t been modded, they just have extra attributes.

The modded XBOXes continue to see through walls, autoaim, all the perks listed above and modified weapons attributes. Nothing like finding yourself in a map with ice skaing enabled and sentry guns which shoot grenade launcher rounds. While it might be cool if these were codified into some kind of official mod, that’s not how it’s being used.

I Bought Left 4 Dead 2

Just in case you didn’t get the memo, you can get Left 4 Dead 2 half off at amazon.

Since it’s basically an update to Left 4 Dead 1 (which is to say it doesn’t bring anything new to the table), it’s now appropriately priced. Also since you’re buying brand new, you get the code for the extras.

If you’re into co-op gaming, left 4 dead in general or simply looking for a scary game, this is it. Left 4 dead 1 was good until they tweaked the balance, at least this time I’ll be joining in late enough I won’t know. Four levels for $35 might be a bit steep, but with too many modern shooters out there, I think this is a much better buy than Bad Company 2.

Assassins Creed 2 DRM

UBISoft recently pissed me off by going the EA “You Must Be Online To Play” route. While marginally annoying for PC Gamers who usually are online, this is totally crap for those of us who just might be lugging our xboxes around. Case in point, I have to lose a saturday to disaster recovery activities here at work and I was looking for a game to play while there, and I figured I might pack up the XBOX and lug it along.

Turns out the game I was interested in – Assassins Creed 2 – doesn’t play without an internet connection. Since I know I’m going to be behind a firewall, I’m totally boned.

Now, to make a point about it, someone attacked the UBI Soft servers with the intention of breaking their authentication. They succeeded. Not only were legit copies locked out, but the pirated version was not. In fact, the pirated version is so popular (even among actual customers), that there’s a blog about it. You’ll need one of those if you want to play offline.