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Microsoft’s Surface is…Doing Ok? What?

Microsoft’s hardware business has always felt like something of an also-ran, with the notable exception being the Xbox of course. It’s not that the products were bad per se, indeed many of my friends still swear by the Microsoft Natural ergonomic keyboard, more that it just seemed to be an aside that never really saw much innovation or effort. The Surface seemed like an attempt to change the perception, pitting Microsoft directly against the venerable iPad whilst also attempting to bring consumers across to the Windows 8 way of thinking. Unfortunately the early years weren’t kind to it at all with the experiment resulting in a $900 million write down for Microsoft which many took to indicate that the Surface (or at the very least the RT version) weren’t long for this world. The 18 months that have followed however have seen that particular section of Microsoft’s business make a roaring comeback, much to my and everyone else’s surprise.

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The Microsoft quarterly earnings report released today showing that Microsoft is generally in a good position with revenue and gross margin up on the previous quarter of last year. The internal make up of those numbers is a far more mixed story (covered in much better detail here) however the standout point was the fact that the Surface division alone was $1.1 billion for the quarter, up a staggering $211 million from the previous quarter. This is most certainly on the back of the Surface Pro 3 which was released in June 2014 but for a device that was almost certainly headed for the trash heap it’s a pretty amazing turn around from $900 million in the hole to $1.1 billion in revenue just 1.5 years later.

The question that interests me then is: What was the driving force behind this comeback?

To start off with the Surface Pro 3 (and all the Surface Pro predecessors) are actually pretty great pieces of kit, widely praised for their build quality and overall usability. They were definitely a premium device, especially if you went for the higher spec options, but they are infinitely preferable to carting around your traditional workhorse laptop around with you. The lines get a little blurry when you compare them to an ultrabook of similar specifications, at least if you’re someone like me who’s exacting with what they want, however if you didn’t really care about that the Surface was a pretty easy decision. So the hardware was great, what was behind the initial write down then?

That entirely at the feet of the WinRT version which simply failed to be the iPad competitor it was slated to be. Whilst I’m sure I’d have about as much use for an iPad as I would for my Surface RT it simply didn’t have the appeal that its fully fledged Pro brethren had. Sure you’d be spending more money on the Pro but you’d be getting the full Windows experience rather than the cut down version which felt like it was stuck between being a tablet and laptop replacement. Microsoft tried to stick with the RT idea with the 2 however they’ve gone to great lengths now to reposition the device as a laptop replacement, not an iPad competitor.

You don’t even have to go far to see this repositioning in action, the Microsoft website for the Surface Pro 3 puts it in direct competition with the Macbook Air. It’s a market segment that the device is far more likely to win in as well considering that Apple’s entire Mac product line made about $6.6 billion last quarter which includes everything from the Air all the way to the Mac Pro. Apple has never been the biggest player in this space however so the comparison might be a little unfair but it still puts the Surface’s recent revival into perspective.

It might not signal Microsoft being the next big thing in consumer electronics but it’s definitely not something I expected from a sector that endured a near billion dollar write off. Whether Microsoft can continue along these lines to capitalize on this is something we’ll have to watch closely as I’m sure no one is going to let them forget the failure that was the original Surface RT. I still probably won’t buy one however, well unless they decide to include a discrete graphics chip in a future revision.

Hint hint, Microsoft.

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Far Cry 4: I’m Very Particular With My Words.

Far Cry releases have been like clockwork for the first 3 instalments, coming out every 4 years at roughly the same time. That made it something of an oddity in recent times as nearly every other game that had its level of success transitioned quickly to the yearly release model and most suffered for it. The most recent release of Far Cry however came just 2 years after its predecessor, signalling that either the developers had found a way to cut 2 years from their dev cycle (not likely) or the pressure to release more often had finally got to Ubisoft. Whilst I tend to think the latter is more possible (especially given Ubisofts penchant for frequent releases) Far Cry 4 doesn’t seem to have suffered much due to the shortened development cycle and even manages to improve on its predecessor considerably.

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You play as Ajay Ghale, a native of the land of Kyrat (most likely Nepal) who has returned to his birth land to fulfill the last dying wish of his mother: to scatter her ashes in Lakshmana. This is not as easy as it sounds as Kyrat has been in the grip of a brutal civil war for decades, ruled over by a dictator who has crowned himself king of all things. Upon trying to sneak into Kyrat you’re stopped at a military checkpoint and it doesn’t take long before things start going south. Then, for some unknown reason, the dictator himself shows up and takes you away to his palace high in the mountains of Kyrat. It is there you find out why he is so interested in you and why it is you who must free Kyrat.

Even though Far Cry 4 shares an engine with its predecessor I have to say that the graphics do feel like a big step up. Part of this might be the difference in scenery which now contains numerous sweeping vistas rather than the dense jungles of Far Cry 3. My rig also struggled with the default settings (something which I don’t recall happening previously) which is partly due to its age but also speaks to the higher graphical fidelity that Far Cry 4 has. Some of the issues I experienced previously did come across again (like they extremely noticeable tearing) however they were solvable and so they didn’t impact my game experience too much. If anything Far Cry 4 highlighted the fact that the new PC I’ve been fantasizing over would be a worthy investment, especially if I could run a game as pretty as this on max settings.

Far Cry 4 Review Screenshot Wallpaper RADIO TOWERS YAY

Ubisoft appears to have settled on the formula for the Far Cry series with the vast majority of this instalments mechanics being taken directly from its predecessor. You’ll be running around a large map, taking over radio towers, liberating outposts and doing all sorts of odds and ends type missions that will get in your way when you’re trying to travel between two points. There’s dozens of weapons available at your disposal, some of which you will only be able to access after completing certain missions or objectives. The talent system makes a comeback with a slightly tweaked progression mechanism which makes it slightly more  relevant than it was in Far Cry 3. There are also some notable quality of life improvements made that vastly improved my enjoyment of Far Cry 4, some of which I think should make their way into other open world games.

Combat feels roughly the same as its predecessor with the aiming down sights still not feeling as accurate as it should be but overall retaining a highly polished feel. Whilst stealth is always an option (more on that in a bit) you’ll often find yourself in the midst of an out and out gun fight, tearing your way through wave after wave of enemies before you can move forward. For the most part these encounters are laid out well, giving you various routes to victory. Some approaches are far better than others of course but it wasn’t often that I found myself without the requisite firepower to make it through a section. In-vehicle combat, whilst improved, still feels a little janky although I can see it being passable in a co-op scenario.

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The stealth mechanics are, again, largely similar to Far Cry 3 with a meter filling up until you’re detected and all hell breaks loose. On first pass the stealth doesn’t work as expected as there are numerous times where you can’t see an enemy but they can easily see you. From what I can tell this is because leaves and bushes don’t block their line of sight, necessitating you to hide behind something more “solid” in order to block it. However once you’ve worked out the boundaries of their detection it becomes quite easy to pick off everyone in an outpost with the crossbow with the few heavies easily taken care of with a suppressed sniper rifle. Overall it felt like an improvement even if it did require me to adjust my playstyle a bit for it to be useful.

The talent system is the main way you’ll progress your character, spending your talent points on various skills and enhancements. The levels come fast enough that you usually won’t be waiting long to unlock that skill you want but at the same time none of the skills are exactly game breaking. The unlocking of additional skills being tied to campaign missions and side quests is a good way to encourage players to do things that they might not otherwise do and does provide a more organic approach to progression than Far Cry 3 did. The crafting system is pretty much identical to its predecessor, providing an ancillary progression system that’s still more of an also-ran than anything else.

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However there are 2 standout features of Far Cry 4 that made my experience with it so much better: autodrive and the home base. I can’t tell you how tedious it is to have to drive everywhere in these open world games, especially ones like Far Cry where you’ll likely encounter have a dozen events along the way (most of which attempt to kill you). Autodrive allows you to just set it and forget it, taking a ton of tedium out of the game whilst still allowing it to retain that large open world feel. The customizable home base is a godsend once you upgrade it to have a helicopter there permanently, ensuring that you’ve always got the best means of transport at your disposal. These two things together were enough to see me come back far more often than I otherwise would have as they removed nearly all the tedium from the game.

The story however suffers from the almost trademark confused execution that plagues the Far Cry franchise. Whilst it thankfully retains a consistent antagonist throughout (unlike Far Cry 3 which lost all of its impact halfway through) it seems to be caught between not taking itself seriously and taking itself far too seriously to do the underlying story justice. I think the main problem is that your character isn’t given the requisite build up before he’s thrust into the action, unlike in Far Cry 3 where your initial escapades are fuelled by luck and naivety. It’s a shame because there are some really brilliant scenes dotted throughout the main story (the opium factory raid and the Shangri-La missions stand out with this) but there’s just that missing element that binds everything together into a cohesive whole.

Far Cry 4 Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Pretties

Far Cry 4 is an evolutionary step forward for the franchise, improving on nearly all aspects of its predecessor which results in a far better title overall. The decreased development time between Far Cry 4 and its predecessor shows that Ubisoft has settled on a formula for the franchise one which, in my mind, seems to be working quite well for them. There are still some rough edges however, ones that I’m sure can be smoothed  out with further polish, and hopefully the next instalment in the series can get the story right which would greatly elevate the franchises station within the open world genre. All that being said Far Cry 4 is still a solid game, even for people like me who typically aren’t fans of the genre.

Rating: 9.0/10

Far Cry 4 is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $79.95, $89.95, $99.95 $89.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total play time of 17 hours.

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Windows 10: Free (For a Year), Packed With…Stuff.

The rumour mill has been running strong for Microsoft’s next Windows release, fuelled by the usual sneaky leaks and the intrepid hackers who relentlessly dig through preview builds to find things they weren’t meant to see. For the most part though things have largely been as expected with Microsoft announcing the big features and changes late last year and drip feeding minor things through the technical preview stream. Today Microsoft held their Windows 10 Consumer Preview event in Redmond, announcing several new features that would become part of their flagship operating system as well as confirming the strategy for the Windows platform going forward. Suffice to say it’s definitely a shake up of what we’d traditionally expect from Microsoft, especially when it comes to licensing.

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The announcement that headlined the event that Windows 10 would be a free upgrade for all current Windows 7, 8, 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 customers who upgrade in the first year. This is obviously an attempt to ensure that Windows 10’s adoption rate doesn’t languish in the Vista/8 region as even though every other version of Windows seems to do just fine Windows 10 is still different enough for it to cause issues. I can see the adoption rate for current Windows 8 and 8.1 users to be very high, thanks to the integration with the Windows store, however for Windows 7 stalwarts I’m not so sure. Note that this also won’t apply to enterprises who are responsible for an extremely large chunk of the Windows 7 market currently.

Microsoft also announced Universal Applications which are essentially the next iteration of the WinRT framework that was introduced with Windows 8. However instead of delineating some applications to the functional ghetto (like all Metro apps were) Universal Apps instead share a common base set of functionality with additional code paths for the different platforms they support. Conceptually it sounds like a great idea as it means that the different versions of the applications will share the same codebase, making it very easy to bring new features to all platforms simultaneously. Indeed if this platform can be extended to encompass Android/iOS it’d be an incredibly powerful tool, although I wouldn’t count on that coming from Microsoft.

Xbox Live will also be making a prominent appearance in Windows 10 with some pretty cool features coming for XboxOne owners. Chief among these, at least for me, is the ability to stream XboxOne games from your console directly to your PC. As someone who currently uses their PC as a monitor for their PS4 (I have a capture card for reviews and my wife didn’t like me monopolizing the TV constantly with Destiny) I think this a great feature, one I hope other console manufacturers replicate. There’s also cross-game integration for games that use Xbox Live, an inbuilt game recorder and, of course, another iteration of DirectX. This was the kind of stuff Microsoft had hinted at doing with Windows 8 but it seems like they’re finally committed to it with Windows 10.

Microsoft is also expanding its consumer electronics business with new Windows 10 enabled devices. The Microsoft HoloLens is their attempt at a Google Glass like device although one that’s more aimed at being used with the desktop rather than on the go. There’s also the Surface Hub which is Microsoft’s version of the smart board, integrating all sorts of conferencing and collaboration features. It will be interesting to see if these things see any sort of meaningful adoption rate as whilst they’re not critical to Windows 10’s success they’re certainly devices that could increase adoption in areas that traditionally aren’t Microsoft’s domain.

Overall the consumer preview event paints Windows 10 as an evolutionary step forward for Microsoft, taking the core of the ideas that they attempted with previous iterations and reworking them with a fresh perspective. It will be interesting to see how the one year free upgrade approach works for them as gaining that critical mass of users is the hardest thing for any application, even the venerable Windows platform. The other features that are coming along as more nice to haves than anything else, things that will likely help Microsoft sell people on the Windows 10 idea. Getting this launch right is crucial for Microsoft to execute on their strategy of it being the one platform for time immaterial as the longer it takes to get the majority of users on Windows 10 the harder it will be to invest heavily in it. Hopefully Windows 10 can be the Windows 7 to Windows 8 as Microsoft has a lot riding on this coming off just right.

Seeing the Invisible, Radiation Peppered World We Live in.

There’s a lot more to the world we live in that what we can see with our eyes. The colours of the world that we see are merely a subset of the wide spectrum of available light, one that extends out in both directions in an infinite expanse of wavelengths. Beyond that there are countless other things happening around us which eyes simply can’t perceive, that is until we construct something that allows us to see the world that’s invisible to us. One such device is called a Cloud Chamber which allows us to see the streams of ionizing radiation that permeate throughout our world. The video below is probably the best example I’ve seen of one and it makes for some extremely soothing viewing:

It’s striking to see the chamber light up constantly with just the background radiation that’s ever present here on earth. Even if you’re familiar with the idea of the  world having a constant source of radioactivity it’s still another thing to see it in action, the ionizing particles whizzing through the space at an incredibly rapid pace. Adding in a radioactive source is a great way to visualize what radioactive decay is and how various materials decay at different rates and in different ways.

Cloud Chambers played an important role in the early days of particle physics with the discovery of the positron (the anti-electron) and the muon. There have been numerous improvements to the devices in the time since they were first used with the modern day equivalents being solid state devices, typically cooled to cryogenic temperatures. Unfortunately the modern versions don’t provide as good of a show as their historic counterparts did but we’re able to do much better science with them than we ever were with a cloud chamber.

Vaccination

Herd Immunity Broken in Parts of Northern California.

Vaccines are incredibly beneficial for two reasons. The first is the obvious one; for the individual receiving them they provide near-immunity to a whole range of horrendous diseases, many of which can prove fatal or have lifelong consequences for those who become infected. The risks associated with them are so small it’s hard to even connect them with the vaccines themselves and are far more likely to simply be the background noise than anything else. Secondly, when a majority of the population is vaccinated individuals who can’t be vaccinated (such as newborns) or those idiots who simply choose not to gain the benefit of herd immunity. This prevents most diseases from spreading within a community, providing the benefits of vaccinations to those who don’t have them. However there’s a critical point where herd immunity stops working and that’s exactly what’s starting to happen in northern California.

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A recent study conducted by researchers working for Kaiser Permanente analysed the vaccination records for some 154,000 individuals in the Northern California region. The records cover approximately 40% of the total insured individuals in the area so the sample size is large enough for it to be representative of the larger whole. The findings are honestly quite shocking showing that there were multiple pockets of under-immunization (children not recieving the required number of vaccinations) which were signficantly above the regional mean, on the order of 18~23% within a cluster. Worst still the rate of vaccination refusal, where people declined any vaccinations at all, was up to 13.5%. It’s a minority of people but it’s enough to completely eradicate herd immunity for several horrible diseases.

For diseases like pertussis (whooping cough) and measles the herd immunity rate may only start kicking in at the 95% vaccination rate, mostly due to how readily they can spread from person to person. That means that only 5% of the population has to forego these vaccinations before herd immunity fails, putting at risk individuals directly in harms way. Other diseases still maintain herd immunity status down to 85% vaccination rates which some of the clusters were getting dangerously close to breaking. It’s clusters like this that are behind the resurgence of diseases which were effectively eradicated decades ago, something which is doing far more harm than any vaccine ever has.

It all comes down to the misinformation spread by several notable public figures that vaccinations are somehow linked to other conditions. It’s been conclusively proven again and again that vaccines have no link to any of these conditions and the side effects from a vaccination rarely amount to more than a sore arm or a fever. It’s one thing to make a decision that only affects yourself but the choice not to vaccinate doesn’t, it puts many other individuals at risk, most of whom cannot do anything to change their situation. You can however and the choice not to is so incredibly selfish I can’t begin to explain my frustration with it.

Hopefully one day reason will prevail over popularity when it comes to things like this. It’s infuriating to think that people are putting both themselves and others at risk just because some celebrity told them that vaccines were doing them more harm than good when the reality is nothing like that. I know I’ve beaten this horse several times since it died but it seems the bounds of human stupidity is indeed limitless and if I can make even just a small difference in those figures than I feel compelled to do so. You should to as the anti-vaxxers need a good and thorough flogging with the facts, one that shouldn’t stop until they realise the error of their ways.

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Beagle 2 Found on Mars after 11 Years.

The Mars Curse is the term used to describe the inordinately high failure rate for missions to our red celestial sister, particularly those that dare to touch the surface. It’s an inherently complicated mission as there are innumerable things that need to be taken into account in order to get something on the surface and a problem with any one of the systems can result in a total mission failure. One such mission that fell prey to this was the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2, a small lander that hitched a  ride with the Mars Express craft all the way back in 2003. Shortly after it was sent down to the surface contact with the probe was lost and it was long thought it met its end at an unplanned disassembly event. However we’ve recently discovered that it made all the way down and even managed to land safely on the surface.

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Like the Mars Exploration Rovers Beagle 2 would use the martian atmosphere to shed much of its orbital velocity, protected by its ablative heat shield. Once it approached more manageable speeds it would then deploy its parachutes to begin the final part of its descent, drifting slowly towards the target site. Then, when it was about 200m above the ground, it would deploy airbags around its outer shell to protect it from the impact when it hit the surface. Once on the ground it would then begin unfurling its solar panels and instrumentation, making contact with its parent orbiter once all systems were nominal. However back on that fateful day it never made contact and it was assumed the lander likely destroyed.

The information we now have points towards a different story. It appears that pretty much everything went according to plan in terms of descent which, as my very high level description of the process can attest to, is usually the part when things go catastrophically wrong. Instead it appears that Beagle 2 made it all the surface and began the process of deploying its instruments. However from what we can see now (which isn’t much given that the lander is some 2m across and our current resolution is about 0.3m/pixel) it appears that it didn’t manage to unfurl all of its solar panels which would have greatly restricted its ability to gather energy. My untrained eye can see what looks like 2 panels and the instrumentation pod which would leave it with about half the power it was expecting.

In my opinion though (which should be taken with a dash of salt since I’m not a rocket scientist) there must have been some damage to other systems, most likely the communications array, which prevented it from making initial contact. I’d assume that there was enough charge for it to complete it’s initial start up activities which should have been enough to make initial contact with the orbiter. Such damage could have occurred at any number of points during the descent and would explain why there was total silence rather than a few blips before it dropped off completely. Of course this is just pure speculation at this point and we’re not likely to have any good answers until we actually visit the site (if that will ever happen, I’m looking at you Mr Musk).

Still discovering Beagle 2’s final resting place is a great find for all involved as it shows what went right with the mission and gives us clues as to what went wrong. This information will inform future missions to the red planet and hopefully one day we can write off the Mars curse as simply a lack in our understanding of what is required for a successful interplanetary mission. Indeed the bevy of successful NASA missions in the past decade is a testament to this constant, self correcting trial and error process, one that is built on the understanding gleaned from those who’ve come before.

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4PM: It’s Always You, Caroline.

Whilst games have matured a lot as a medium in the last decade or so they’re still finding their feet when it comes to telling stories that deal with mature themes. Sure there are many great examples I can point to however the notion of interactivity drastically changes how certain aspects of story impact upon the player making it a lot harder to craft an experience in a certain way, especially if you want to include some form of player agency. The medium itself can even distract from your story with everything from glitches to bad animations or models breaking player immersion and ruining their experience. Unfortunately for 4PM, a story driven cinematic experience, this is exactly what has happened and any impact the story might have had is lost in the extremely sub-par execution.

4PM Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You wake up in your apartment, head throbbing as the last tendrils of alcohol work their way unceremoniously out of your system. For Caroline it’s just another boring day in her life, one where she’ll repeat the same process of making a show at work before punishing her liver again after she clocks out. Unknown to her however this is the day when everything will break and she will be forced to make some tough choices in order to face what she’s been running away from for many years. Will you face these problems head on? Or will you continue the downward spiral into alcoholism, hoping your troubles will fade away.

4PM heavily touts its cinematic aspects in the marketing blurbs on Steam and from an aesthetic point it delivers on this somewhat. This is mostly achieved through the overuse of depth of field blurring which does a relatively effective job of hiding the decidedly below par visuals that make up the majority of the game. Most of the cut scenes do well with their camera work with some well framed shots and swooping cuts however anything done in the player perspective feels incredibly awkward. I’m hoping this was done deliberately to emulate the main character’s struggle with alcohol but even in scenes where they’re sober walking feels like you’re pushing a bag full of snakes with a broom. It’s all wiggly and not quite right.

4PM Review Screenshot Wallpaper Bae Caught me Drinkin

The creator has billed 4PM as an interactive experience that’s “without the complexities and reflex based natures of classic games”. That almost places it in the same category as the walking simulators of new however 4PM doesn’t want you to explore, rather it wants you to go through the motions of the story whilst engaging in some routine game mechanics every so often. There’s a few places where you’re given a choice between two options however there’s really only 2 outcomes and the differences in dialogue are, to be blunt, minimal at best. The one thing 4PM has going for it is its extremely short playtime, clocking in at 45 minutes if you decide to play through all the alternate options.

Often in games you’ll find things in them that speak to the developer’s learning process, things that are in there because the developer created them as a proof of concept for something and it then made its way into the final product. 4PM feels like a collection of these things, a collection of developer experiences mashed together. Some of these are obvious, like the breakout game on the PC in the main character’s office, to other things like being able to rotate objects in front of the character’s face. This distinct lack of polish might be charming to some however it just gave me flashbacks to Velvet Sundown, not a game I think anyone wants to be compared to.

4PM Review Screenshot Wallpaper JMP GET IT

All of this is made worse when you actually get to see characters without the copious amounts of motion blur as they are, to be frank, horrendous. Your boss looks like a store mannequin brought to life, something which is only exacerbated by the jerky, stilted animations. It gets even worse when you’re talking to John in the penultimate scene as the canned animations he goes through seem to be highly incongruent to the words he is speaking. For a game that took up 3GB worth of space on my hard drive I was expecting a lot more but, unfortunately, it seems that’s just what happens when a game isn’t optimized at all.

I can see the potential in the story and indeed the final climatic scene almost managed to drag me in past all the crap the game had thrown at me to that point. However the way the final scene plays out is so highly confusing (both in player terms and that of the main character) that much of the impact is lost. Sure there are some hints as to what had happened if you hunt around in the opening scenes, but all you’re able to glean from that is that you’re a drunk and you’ve met this guy once before. It definitely feels like the length of the game is to blame for much of this as the story simply didn’t have the time it needed to develop to the point where the final reveal would have the kind of lasting impact it needed to overcome all of 4PM’s shortcomings.

4PM Review Screenshot Wallpaper Come to Jesus

4PM is a game that reaches far beyond its grasp, attempting to build an evocative story driven game but simply fails to deliver. It’s easy to see what the sole developer was attempting to achieve with this however there really isn’t any aspect I can point to which I could consider average. 4PM feels like a game that, given some more time and resources, could have been a real gem. Unfortunately the finished product is far from it and isn’t something I recommend to anyone.

Rating: 3/10

4PM is available right now on PC for $4.99. Tota play time was 45 minutes.

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Sony’s PlayStation Now: Architecturally Interesting, Financially Infeasible.

My stance on game streaming services has been well known for some time now but for the uninitiated let me sum it up for you: I think they’re rubbish. The investment in capital required to get them to work well at scale seems incompatible with the number of potential users who’d want such a service and nearly all offerings in this space priced the games similarly to their full blooded, non-streamed cousins. Sony doesn’t share my view on this however having invested several hundred million dollars into buying game streaming service Gaikai and committing to providing a sort-of backwards compatibility service using that platform. Since I wasn’t entirely interested in the idea I hadn’t looked into it much further but at a tech level it’s quite interesting, even if I think the service won’t be the cash cow I’m sure Sony thinks it’ll be.

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I’ve mentioned in the past that there weren’t too many ways for backwards compatibility to make it’s way onto current generation consoles even if some form of streaming service was going to be offered. I postulated around the potential ways of doing it, either by running a whole bunch of old consoles in a data center or developing an emulation framework, neither of which I felt was going to be particularly scalable due to my percieved lack of demand for the service. As it turns out Sony has gone with the former option for their streaming service, opting to run a bunch of PlayStation3s in the cloud and providing access to them through their new PlayStation Now service. However they’re not consoles as you’d recognise them, they’re in fact all new hardware.

Sony has developed a custom motherboard that contains on it 8 PlayStation3 chips allowing them to achieve a pretty incredible amount of density when compared to simply racking consumer units. Some back of the napkin calculations puts this at about 384 PlayStation 3s per rack, quite a decent number although I’m sure the cost of that hardware is going to be non-trivial. This custom solution does have its benefits though like them being able to throw in a new network interface and hardware video encoder, reducing the latency between the customer and their PlayStation3 in the cloud. This might not be enough to make the service feasible but it’ll do a lot to make the majority of games on their far more playable than they would be otherwise.

Right now the service offers up about 200 titles for individual rent or an all you can eat subscription that has a selection of 100 titles for $15 per month at the cheapest option. That’s a damn sight better than pretty much every other game streaming service I’ve seen before but it still suffers from the same restricted availability (only select US and Canada  areas currently) issues which hamstrung other services. The one thing the service does have going for it though is the veritable cornucopia of devices that PlayStation Now can run on, including Sony’s recent range of TVs and even DVD players. That’s definitely an advantage that other competitors didn’t have since they all required another hardware purchase but I’m still not sure there’ll be enough demand even if the barrier to entry is low for Sony’s more loyal customers.

With the average cost of producing a PS3 apparently down around the $280 mark (which I’ll assume is relatively similar for the custom solution) it will take Sony around 18 months to recoup the costs invested in hardware based on the current subscription fees which doesn’t take into account the licensing arrangements for streaming. There’s potential for them to make up a bit more margin with the single rentals which appear to be quite a bit more pricey but it still seems like a long time for the investment to pay off. That being said with the life of consoles now getting dangerously close to 10 years there’s potential for it to work but I still think it’s a bit of a gamble on the part of Sony.

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What’s Worse Than a Filter? A Backdoor Curtosey of David Cameron.

Technological enablers aren’t good or evil, they simply exist to facilitate whatever purpose they were designed for. Of course we always aim to maximise the good they’re capable of whilst diminishing the bad, however changing their fundamental characteristics (which are often the sole purpose for their existence) in order to do so is, in my mind, abhorrent. This is why I think things like Internet filters and other solutions which hope to combat the bad parts of the Internet are a fool’s errand as they would seek to destroy the very thing they set out to improve. The latest instalment of which comes to us courtesy of David Cameron who is now seeking to have a sanctioned backdoor to all encrypted communications and to legislate against those who’d resist.

David Cameron Shifty Lookin Fella

Like most election waffle Cameron is strong on rhetoric but weak on substance but you can get the gist of it from this quote:

“I think we cannot allow modern forms of communication to be exempt from the ability, in extremis, with a warrant signed by the home secretary, to be exempt from being listened to.”

Essentially what he’s referring to is the fact that encrypted communications, the ones that are now routinely employed by consumer level applications like WhatsApp and iMessage, shouldn’t be allowed to exist without a method for intelligence agencies to tap into them. It’s not like these communications are exempt from being listened to currently just that it’s infeasible for the security agencies to decrypt them once they’ve got their hands on them. The problem that arises here though is that unlike other means of communication introducing a mechanism like this, a backdoor by which encrypted communications can be decrypted, this fundamentally breaks the utility of the service and introduces a whole slew of potential threats that will be exploited.

The crux of the matter stems from the trust relationships that are required for two way encrypted communications to work. For the most part you’re relying on the channel between both parties to be free from interference and monitoring from interfering parties. This is what allows corporations and governments to spread their networks over the vast reaches of the Internet as they can ensure that information passing through untrusted networks isn’t subject to prying eyes. Taking this proposal into mind any encrypted communications which pass through the UK’s networks could be intercepted, something which I’m sure a lot of corporations wouldn’t like to sign on for. This is not to mention the millions of regular people who rely on encrypted communications for their daily lives, like anyone who’s used Facebook or a secure banking site.

Indeed I believe the risks poses by introducing a backdoor into encrypted communications far outweighs any potential benefits that you’d care to mention. You see any backdoor into a system, no matter how well designed it is, will severely weaken the encrypted channel’s ability to resist intrusion from a malicious attacker. No matter which way you slice it you’re introducing another attack vector into the equation when there was, at most, 2 before you now have at least 3 (the 2 endpoints plus the backdoor). I don’t know about you but I’d rather not increase my risk of being compromised by 50% just because someone might’ve said plutonium on my private chats.

The idea speaks volumes to David Cameron’s lack of understanding of technology as whilst you might be able to get some commercial companies to comply with this you will have no way of stopping peer to peer encrypted communications using open source solutions. Simply put if the government, somehow, managed to get PGP to work a backdoor in it’d be a matter of days before it was no longer used and another solution worked into its place. Sure, you could attempt to prosecute all those people using illegal encryption, but they said the same thing about BitTorrent and I haven’t seen mass arrests yet.

It’s becoming painfully clear that the conservative governments of the world are simply lacking in fundamental understanding of how technology works and thus concoct solutions which simply won’t work in reality. There are far easier ways for them to get the data that they so desperately need (although I’m yet to see the merits of any of these mass surveillance networks) however they seem hell bent on getting it in the most retarded way possible. I would love to say that my generation would be different when they get into power but stupid seems to be an inheritable condition when it comes to conservative politics.

PS4 Controller

Transitioning to Controller Based Gaming.

My gaming life started with a mouse and keyboard.

It was the late 80’s and I, still a youngster in the low single digit age range, was thrust in front of a PC and taught how to access the one thing I’d be interested in: the games. For the most part these games were solely keyboard based affairs but as time went on more and more mousey titles made their way into my gaming library. Whilst I did spend much of my pre-adolescent life playing numerous games on consoles once I was granted my very own PC it became my gaming platform of choice and has been for the better part of 2 decades. This has meant that playing games on a console/controller has become somewhat foreign to me, feeling clusmy and awkward. However after spending an inordinate amount of time with a particular console based title I’ve managed to become quite competent, so much so that playing the same game with a mouse and keyboard felt incredibly weird.

PS4 Controller

The game is, of course, Destiny which is a first person shooter. FPS titles, whilst not being the worst games for controllers (I’d probably go with RTS for that one), are one of the games I feel are much better played on a mouse and keyboard. This is mostly due to the quick and precise movements you can accomplish with a mouse and keyboard, something you really can’t achieve on a controller. Whilst my feelings on this matter haven’t changed much after spending 150+ hours in Destiny I have come to appreciate the skills required to use a controller effectively and, more importantly, the design requirements for making a FPS title work well on a controller.

The fundamental difference between a controller based FPS and a mouse and keyboard one (apart from the obvious) stems from the difference in muscles required to perform the same functions. When you’re using a mouse and keyboard many of the motions are completed using your wrist and rest of your arm. By comparison the controller uses your thumbs, a drastically different set of muscles that share almost no function between the two platforms. This is why jumping between your preferred platform and the other feels so clumsy, you’ve lost all the muscle memory you’ve built up and have to redevelop all those habits all over again. Suffice to say the span of most games doesn’t give you enough time to accomplish this and I only found myself becoming competent after 40 hours or so of dedicated practice.

There are compensations made for the platform however, most notably in the form of the subtle (or sometimes not-so) auto-aim which attempts to smooth over the imprecision and slow response times of the analog thumbsticks. Over time you get to know when it will kick in and how to use it to maximum effect but it’s definitely one of the harder aspects to get used to if you’re transitioning from a mouse and keyboard. Each game implements their own version of this differently as well which can make developing proper muscle memory difficult if you’re playing a number of games. There are others of course (like deadzones and turn rates) which factor into it as well which, as I found out, can actually preclude a title from working well with a mouse and keyboard.

I know this because I bought myself a CronusMAX adapter which allows me to use my PC mouse and keyboard as an input to my PlayStation4. Since I have a capture card in my PC this allowed me to play Destiny like any other PC game, albeit with some noticeable ghosting in high action scenes, but it’s very playable. This was well after I had managed to become somewhat decent with the controller however and I quickly realised that attempting to transition to the mouse and keyboard at this point was likely a lost cause. I had simply gotten used to playing it a particular way and no matter how hard I tried to get the mappings and sensitivities just right I simply couldn’t do so. Once another console FPS comes out that, for some reason, doesn’t see a PC release I might give it a go again but for now I’m far more comfortable playing Destiny with a controller than I am with a mouse and keyboard.

It’s been interesting to see how my skills on the controller have developed over the past couple months as it was honestly something I’d never overcome and necessitated the purchase of the CronusMAX to alleviate it. The awkwardness I felt using my mouse and keyboard then was incredibly surprising and was what spurred me to continue plugging away with the controller in the hopes of getting better. Since then I’ve been able to compete quite well in all aspects of Destiny, even some of those which I thought were just going to be beyond me (read: PVP). So whilst I haven’t become a full convert to the controller world I do see where it fits into the grand scheme of things and appreciate it when it’s done well.