Premium is a bullshit descriptor

When it comes to phones anyway.

It’s kind of sad, but despite all the OEMs saying that a metal build (or even more horrific, a GLASS BACK PANEL!) feels the most “premium”, I still find myself wistfully holding my first gen LG Nexus 5 and first gen Moto X and acknowledging that these phones were the best feeling devices I’ve ever held. The first gen Nexus 5’s shape is still the coolest in my opinion: straight sides and that subtle science fiction curve at either end of the device is just classic and ageless. There’s a reason that shape is still used by so many app advertisements (the only shape used more frequently is that of the iPhone).

Granted, I don’t think that should be the shape of every Android phone, but in an age when many phones still boil down to “screen on a black or white slab”, I think we could stand to make that slab a little more eye catching.

And it and the 2013 Moto X were both made of plastic yet are some of the most comfortable devices to hold, and never once felt cheap. I think that skewers the present ideal among manufacturers about what “premium devices” should feel like (lots of glass and/or metal. Gods help you if you drop it onto a sidewalk and permanently get a jagged scuff on the metal or crack the back glass panel — something I have seen happen to a LOT of iPhones over the years). Plastic takes a drop better, and the 2013 Moto X had a metal frame BENEATH said plastic for extra rigidity, and mine has taken countless dives with only some minor scratches on the corners to show for it.

I think we ought to redefine what a “premium” feel means, and I think the secret to that lies in phones made in 2013.

One Light Caravan

Pushing through the dark
Three beams pierce through blackened White.
A silver crescent shimmers overhead
while constant whispers follow sleepy travelers.
The air screams bitter cold to no avail
The occupants do not notice.
Soon, the sun will rise
Mountains will fight it but fail to stop the light.
But for now, darkness keeps its hold.
Undeterred, the drivers push forward.
One light remains for each
The broken brother sitting opposite
Driving in single file down the road
Relentless and dogged
The one light caravan glides through the North.

The Fading Queen

Her words are beyond me.
Her simple voice itself a song.
Her movements still full of grace,
Casting flower petals as she goes.
I understand her so little
And yet still so very much.

She, a Springtime Queen in the midst of Autumn,
Yet no one has told her.
So she keeps on singing
Her marvelous songs,
Words I cannot comprehend,
Hers, a gentle voice full of hope.

No one has told her her realm is ending
No one has told her she is fading
The world has sold her place
It has no need for her magic
And no one has told the world:
“Those with no place for magic need it the most.”
So, I tell the Fading Queen:

“Remain Springtime.
Sing,

Dance,
Weave words,
Prove the world wrong.
Springtime only ends when your song does.
You will always have an audience in me.”

Adventures in introversion!

I have a friend, and we’ll call her “Kay”.

Kay travels a LOT. I mean a LOT. Every week, she’s telling me about some new adventure she’s had in some place like Germany, Japan, Italy, etc.

For some reason, she assumes that because she leads a very jet-setting lifestyle that her friends have something similar.

She’s always asking about “my latest adventures”.

I barely leave my house unless it’s for reasons of practicality.

I like people, or at least the idea of them.

It’s the reality I have trouble with.

I am an introvert of a very high degree, and some of it I come by honestly, other bits are learned.

But I have adventures.

Oh boy I have adventures.

I stood by the side Paul Mua’dib on the sands of the planet Arrakis as he launched an insurrection that tore down a galactic empire. I traveled with the Fellowship of the Ring to the bitter end and watched as my friends were pushed to their limits by evil. I sang onstage with Freddy Mercury and David Bowie, traveled the universe with the crew of the Normandy, and helped guide Master Chief to victory against the Flood. I have taken part in the Napoleonic wars, fought Nazis behind enemy lines, stopped Jihadi terrorist plots, healed the sick in Skyrim, and assassinated corrupt politicians. I’ve fought Dracula and the Grim Reaper to a standstill, seen heroes rise from unlikely places to confront extraordinary evil, and I have witnessed acts of redemption from men of great evil. I have fallen in love with people who hail from planets with names most would struggle to pronounce, and been a witness to history; and not just one history — I’ve seen things that could have been and returned home to tell the tale. Not all of these adventures involved a Tardis, but one may have been involved in a few.

I’ve also stepped outside my actual door and sprained an ankle for my trouble.

These are the adventures in introversion. We have had adventures that no place on Earth could hope to match.

Although we would enjoy a trip to Disney World as well, were it offered.

I’m also waiting for the Tardis to come back.

So, Kay, keep up your jetsetting life. You clearly enjoy  it. I jetset too, but in my own way.

Because my adventures in introversion are just getting started.

System Exclusivity is dead, and I kind of miss it.

Some friends and I were discussing a frankly broad topic involving PC gaming and the ways that Sony’s latest marquee system has managed to fatally offend me, but eventually one brought up system exclusives citing something along the lines of “it will always be a problem”.

No it won’t. It’s barely a problem now, but as it turns out, it was a problem worth having.

I actually addressed the Console Exclusive Problem-that-is-not-a-problem in my New Year’s op-ed, in which I praised the Wii U for being the only console out there actually innovating on gameplay.

As I wrote there:

System Exclusives seem to have gone the way of the Dodo Bird, which means that there’s no longer any clear reason to buy one system over the other as everything is available on everything, with less than five percent of major releases being tied to a given system, and most of those are TIMED exclusives, which will eventually be available on a competing platform, which generally fails to drive system sales.

Compounding the issue, the PS4 and Xbox One are basically just a low-midrange gaming PC with a custom UI in terms of hardware. Then, most damningly of all, not only do systems get all the same games, but all those games feel more similar than ever before.

Console exclusives are becoming a huge rarity. It’s not like back in 2004 when you had to buy a Playstation 2 to play one game, a Gamecube to play another, or an Xbox to play a third. Look at Amazon listings at some point and you’ll see what I mean.

The PS4 and the Xbox One share the majority of their respective libraries, and virtually all of their major releases, and most of that can be found on PC as well. This is good for the consumer in the short term but bad for Sony and Microsoft in every term, as it forces them to lean on aging tentpole franchises like Halo and Uncharted that come from an era before multiplatform gaming was the default. Most system exclusives tend to be in a franchise that originated pre-2008, and the whole industry is feeling the resultant dearth of identity. In that environment, why go for either when the PC is better at almost every price point and has the most of the same games, a massive amount of titles not to be found on any console, plus things like mods and emulation?

That’s part of why I praised Nintendo for betting big on a library unlike almost any other out there. The Wii U has a phenomenal catalog of games that appears nowhere else. Furthermore, the system is so cheap that it undercuts even the best budget PC builds. Now, I’d still like to have one, but for the time being, it’s all hands on deck as I build my PC gaming monster.

Really, the only solution that makes any logical sense for most gamers in the current release climate is a cheap but powerful budget PC and whatever Nintendo’s got that year. Sure you’ll miss out on the latest inFamous or Gears of War, but these are franchises that are seriously feeling their own age and are only iterative tweaks on prior games. There aren’t many inventive or bold system exclusives left on the console side; PC, by comparison, has TONS. Sure, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are more indie friendly than ever. And you know what? I wholly support this. But PC was the primary bastion of these guys to begin with, and still gets the first helpings. Nintendo? They just channel that indie spirit into their own games, and it leaves the Wii U feeling like an incredibly polished library, though small, with mainstay game styles and other, indie-esque eccentricities in equal measure.

Microsoft and Sony are starting to notice that the homogeneity between their libraries is a problem, and I think gamers are starting to take notice too. I mean, can anyone rightly tell me that Battlefield  and Call of Duty are completely different games? Do you really want to lie to yourself that much after all this time?

Honestly, there’s only one system exclusive franchise that still manages to hold my interest, and that’s Halo. Halo has turned into quite the lovely space opera, with one hell of a story running throughout that spans millenia that rivals anything Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, or Mass Effect has on offer. Halo 5: Guardians was a very mixed bag, but it delivered some effective twists throughout that kept the story interesting.

Halo has remained a worthy exclusive, in my eyes, but you know what? It doesn’t sell a system like it used to. We need system sellers more than ever in a period where there are fewer than ever. Despite this unfettered access any given platform has to gaming at large, without the drive to create a game that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that you should buy this new Xbox or PlayStation, innovation dries out. Then the sepia shooters move in, and everything turns the color of mud.

Ironically, the game that convinced me to buy an Xbox One wasn’t Halo. It was Sunset Overdrive, and it’s a system exclusive for the Xbox One. I would not have an Xbox One today if this game had been on another platform. I’d have bought it for the thing I already had, and that would have been the end of it. I wouldn’t have given the Xbox a second glance, and given some of the technical issues I have had with the PS4 I think that would have been a travesty.

So while I still work away at my no-holds-barred PC, fittingly (and lengthily) named the “Das Übermensch Build — “God is Dead”, also sprach Zarathustra” (or “Nietzsche” for short), I continue to hold a fond desire in my heart that we’ll see a game SO GOOD I’d buy a whole new system just for a chance to play it.

Yeah, system exclusives used to be a problem. They were expensive buy-ins, railroading, and always felt a tad dishonest. But in a world that functionally exists without them, I can honestly say I’d rather go back to having that problem than the homogeneity among games we have today.

It’s worth bringing in this sentiment from Infocom back in the eighties, after they had been asked by the company’s new owners at Activision (yes, they’ve been screwing up your favorite developers for a while now) to design graphical multiplatform games: “A game made for every system cannot take advantage of the strengths of any of them, and must therefore cater to the lowest common hardware denominator.”

Let’s just call it “Infocom’s Law“, and it still holds up today. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is a gorgeous console game, but it can’t take proper advantage of the PS4’s hardware gains over the Xbox One, and the PC version is likewise hamstrung by the same.

Infocom’s Law speaks clearly in favor of system exclusives in clear, observable logic, and explains just what we lost and why with the consumer demand that everything play on anything. By necessity, the wider you make the pool of hardware the game is meant to play on, the more the end result suffers.

If things keep going the way they are, we risk the industry becoming creatively stagnant, and then we can expect a fairly literal depression to hit the industry, not just in terms of sinking sales, but in unenthusiastic customers as well. Competition keeps the edge sharp, and Microsoft and Sony just aren’t competing correctly. It’s a duel of clones, Solid Snake vs Liquid Snake, but instead of the threat of global nuclear war, the stakes are simply an ennui-stricken industry that doesn’t see the point in trying anymore.

System exclusives were born out of a desire to produce a “killer app”, a game that would sell systems by virtue of its excellence and unseverable ties to a given platform; if you wanted to partake in the face melting awesomeness that was Halo: Combat Evolved, well, you have to buy an Xbox. If you wanted to experience the amazingness of the original release of Devil May Cry or Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening (because screw Devil May Cry 2), sorry bruv, you needed a Playstation 2 (Xbox fans would finally get the Devil May Cry HD Collection. A decade later.). Without those exclusives vying for your cash and system loyalty, any given system is just as good as any other. When any system is as good as any other, well, both console manufacturers and consumers get punished in the long run as consumers both say “well screw it” and just spring for the best option they can find. Increasingly, that option is a PC, and with game changing boxes like Alienware’s Alpha and Steam Machines which can be had for around the price of a gaming console and with more press than PC gaming has ever had since the mid-1990’s, if console manufacturers and game development studios can’t pull together some impressive killer apps in the near future, we could be looking at a very different gaming industry in just a few short years.

So, I hate admitting this, but… COME BACK SYSTEM EXCLUSIVES.

We need you.

Hey, here’s an idea game industry?

You want to get gamers back on your side?

Get rid of “patch culture”!

You see, patch-culture needs to be done away with entirely. Patches have done more to encourage lazy game development than anything else today, and a good example is Assassin’s Creed: Unity. When that game shipped, it was so buggy that it was almost unplayable — they sold the game when it wasn’t even ready to be in alpha. Because why shouldn’t they? People will buy it, and then we can just patch it later. Aliens: Colonial Marines suffered from the same issue, being released well before it was ready and then actually finishing development after millions had already bought and beaten it. While it’s true that these games are essentially fixed now and perfectly enjoyable, that wasn’t true at launch, or for almost a year after. The combined patch files had a megabyte count that rivaled the weight of the original games. This is also (frighteningly) the WHOLE POINT of Steam Early Access, which I really wish wasn’t a thing to begin with for these same reasons. 

DLC, by the same token, has essentially become microtransactions, and many triple A games can essentially charge double the game’s price in DLC alone when much of that content amounts to cosmetics and maybe a new weapon here or there (Borderlands 2 is a prime example of this). DLC at its best serves as a full expansion that legitimately improve the base game in hugely quantifiable ways, and then, at the opposite end of the scale, DLC does more or less the opposite, making you question why it even has a price tag. 

Adding pre-orders and “Season Passes” (i.e; pre-orders for DLC) on makes it even more insulting to the consumer, essentially asking us to buy content that hasn’t even been released yet and may or may not even be ANNOUNCED YET, which is actually a pretty sizable gamble for most gamers who don’t have Donald Trump’s budget.

I miss proper expansions that effectively doubled the in game content, like Blizzard’s “Warcraft III: Frozen Throne” or “StarCraft: Brood War”. Elder Scrolls Online has stuck to the old MMO mainstays of periodical expansions, and while the reviews for these expansions haven’t been exactly glowing so far, it’s not for lack of trying on ZeniMax’s part; it just kind of feels like they haven’t quite cracked the right balance yet, but I’m confident they will, given time.

For all our gripes about Destiny, at least it never pretends that the Eververse Trading Company is anything but what it is: spend real money, get dances. It’s completely honest, completely optional, and has made Bungievision a fair chunk of dough they probably wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. It doesn’t masquerade as DLC, or an expansion, or indeed as anything meaningful or useful. Quite simply, this honest approach to microtransactions has helped many players accept it. Destiny also deserves credit for having a notably horrid expansion in The Dark Below (as mentioned in the linked video). Most of that was that it just didn’t offer enough content to justify that mondo $20 asking price, but like Horse Armor was for Oblivion, TDB served as a lesser herald of greater successors, and House of Wolves and The Taken King have made huge steps to improve on the failures of TDB and substantially remake Destiny into the game we’d been promised in the beginning. Elder Scrolls Online also deserves special mention here: the Crown Store is essentially the same thing, though it also features an in-game portal for quick purchase of expansion packs.

All of this is yet another list of reasons why I love CD Projekt Red and The Witcher III — it is a shining example of how amazing games can be even when they defy many of the conventions of patch culture that big publishers try to convince us are necessary for a quality gaming experience today. While the Witcher III has seen its share of patches and DLC, the patches tweak and enhance the product (rather than “fix” issues because the vast majority of those got nabbed during beta testing), the DLCs are by and large free, they add to the experience in very noticeable and positive ways, and the two major expansions basically add a whole second game to the one you were already playing. It’s patches and DLCs and expansion packs finally done correctly once again, in the gaming ways of old.

So if the industry can’t get rid of patch culture, they should at least strive to emulate CD Projekt Red in all things.

And, on another seperate but wholly related note: cut the bullshitting, game industry. You can call a pig a horse all you want, but we still have eyes and can see when you’re lying. So stop lying; you only alienate customers and make yourself look bad in doing so, and if you’re very, VERY lucky, you’ll look stupid sooner rather than later. Just be honest. Tell people what you’re really doing and why. We won’t hate you for being honest. Nobody will go “OH MY GOD THIS IS HORRIBLE I WISH THEY’D SPUN AN INCREDIBLY ELABORATE LIE ABOUT THIS INSTEAD BECAUSE THE TRUTH BURNS SO BAD”.

Be like Bungie or ZeniMax if you MUST include these sorts of elements (I stress again that it would be better if you didn’t, but you’re probably not going to change just because I said so). Just be honest about the trivial DLCs and microtransactions. You’ll get more dollars by being honest. “We have a store where you can spend real money on some freaky-deeky awesome dances and costumes” is far better for winning our approval (and therefore money) than vaguely and dodgingly worded promises that “We have a store in which you can spend real money for additional content that will continually redefine your in-game experience”.

The first is honesty. The second is patently bullshit, and you should not do that.

And don’t even get started on pay-to-win. I promise to disown any studio that engages in that crap.

So here’s the TL;DR:

1) Finish your game before release. Delay if necessary. We’d rather our game be late and complete than on time and full of holes. Trust me, we will be understanding about this.

2) Use online updates sparingly and only if absolutely necessary. Nobody likes trying to boot up our game only to be greeted with a mandatory update page. Addendum: GET YOUR PATCH SIZES UNDER CONTROL GUYS. Download caps are still a thing for a hefty chunk of us and we’d prefer we not hit that after one or two mandatory updates, kthxbai.

3) Make your DLC and expansions mean something, or don’t charge for it at all.

4) Put WAY LESS EMPHASIS on preorders and season passes. Of course, you wouldn’t have to if you just followed tip number one to begin with. Preordering anything is a huge risk for a gamer, and we often wind up getting burned by unfinished or buggy products for our trouble.

5) Do not, under any circumstances, do any of the following: lie, swindle, con, “improve the truth”, spin, mislead, use vagueries in marketing materials, or otherwise try to pull the wool over the eyes of gamers. There are far more of us than there are of you and we WILL GODDAMN NOTICE.

6) Be honest about what you do and why you do it. We’re an understanding bunch and we get that you’re out to make money. As long as you’re being honest, and not a snake-oil-salesman (as covered in the previous bullet point), we’ll probably still happily buy your silly dances and extra costumes for fifty to ninety nine cents each.

7) Respect your customers. This is what you wind up doing when you follow the previous six bullets. And when customers feel respected, they will be more inclined to respect you. With their wallets.

Happy gaming, guys and gals!