Playing the SimCity Beta

When I was a kid, I would go and play at my Uncle’s house occasionally. He was an engineer, and like most engineers, he had a computer set  whose sole purpose in life was to out-calculate all the other computer set-ups in the family. My Father owned a 486. This was a Pentium I. On this computer I experienced many firsts. The first time I used Windows 95, the first time I used the ‘Start’ menu. The first time I saw a computer that had a scanner plugged into it, the first time I saw a computer with an internet connexion. In our family’s computing battle, this computer usually won. While the rest of us were on Windows 3.1, this computer was on Windows 95, when the rest of us finally made the upgrade to 95, this computer was onto 98.

Back then, Windows 95 was considered black magic.

Back then, Windows 95 was considered black magic.

My father himself was born in 1946. A true baby-boomer. He saw the Xerox PARC GUI project with his own two eyes, and was born the son of a man who had seen the worst of the 1930’s and 40’s. My Grandfather, despite this disadvantage, still loved games, and so my father loves games and cartoons, even to this day. I say all this because it gives you good idea as to why, even in the days when I myself couldn’t comprehend that you had to pay money for games, our 386 and the 486 that replaced it both had Clue, Frogger, and the original SimCity on them.

On my Uncle’s computer I also got to experience another first. The first time I played SimCity 2000. The original SimCity was an interesting game for me. It was the first time in my life, that at the ripe old age of 5 and 6 I could get into debates with my father over taxation policies when we played the game together. (He always wanted to tax the highest amount. I always wanted the least). It was the game where I could watch the green ‘R’ rectangles transform into little houses, the blue ‘C’ rectangles transform into business, and the small yellow ‘I’ rectangles transform into factories. (My father, being involved in industry for the majority of his life would devote the majority of his cities to factories, trying to teach me at a young age that an industrial base was the backbone to a successful nation. Being a child who loved the toy stores where I could buy shit, I would over load my cities with commercial and residential. Both our cities failed a lot, since neither of us were good at balance).

'Balance... Balance, nope not here. How about moderation? Moderation? Also missing, hmmm, curious'.

‘Balance… Balance, nope not here. How about moderation? Moderation? Also missing, hmmm, curious’.

SimCity 2000 I loved because the houses, the businesses, and the factories all gained animations, and they gained a 3rd dimension. (It wasn’t really 3D, I know that now, but for this 90’s kid, SimCity 2000 had graphics so good, I could’ve assumed it was a Dalek plot to trap me in an imaginary world so they could invade with minimal resistance).



SimCity 3000 was the first time your advisors talked TO you instead of message boxing, and SimCity 4 was the first time that it was easy to figure out the exact relationship between a zone and the road next to it. It was also the first time that we saw the difference between streets, roads, and boulevards. The problem is aside from the introduction of more realistic looking cars, and colourful pedestrians, SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4 felt like SimCity 2000 with slightly different interfaces and mild improvements. Nothing too game changing, just EA milking yet another cash cow. (The Sim franchises are probably among the first franchises that EA figured it could suck the lifeblood out of. Later would come Medal of Honour, Battlefield, and any sports franchise you’ve ever played).

Then came SimCity Societies. It wasn’t actually made by Maxis, the company that originated SimCity for us. They were too busy making Spore, a mildly entertaining game you might recall that was supposed to be revolutionary, but really was unplayable after you made it to space, and was a place for the ever mature internet gamer to make a thousand and one cock, bum, tit, and vagina monsters to inhabit the player made worlds.

I'm going to go ahead and say it, Spore was one of the games that killed online gaming for me.

I’m going to go ahead and say it, Spore was one of the games that killed online gaming for me.

Thankfully, the underwhelming performance of Spore and the complete failure of SimCity Societies made EA and Maxis nostalgic. They tested the waters of their nostalgia with the release of SimCity Online, a browser version of the original SimCity. You know, the one that caused tax debates between my father and I. By most measures SimCity Online was a success. At least it was enough of a success to convince both EA and Maxis that it was time to give this whole SimCity thing another go.

Enter the reboot. This isn’t SimCity 5. It’s just SimCity. A Medal of Honour style reboot from a company that is realising they’ve defiled a lot of their best titles over the last decade. Now, here we go, I mentioned the Medal of Honour reboot, which was a racist, cliché failure. Mostly because it went up against the racist cliché success that is Call of Duty. (If you don’t think Call of Duty or the new Medal of Honour is racist, then you need a good, thorough lesson in Eastern Humanities, and the fact that not all brown people are enemies). So when we see this reboot, we have a right to be cautious.

Well, I preordered the new SimCity. Out of a sense of loyalty to the brand name. SimCity 4 still sits in my Steam library. I still play it whenever I want to build a city. With the preorder came access to the closed Beta, which was scheduled to happen on 16 February, 2013. The morning of 16 February, I awoke to an email sitting in my inbox telling me that today was the day. I would get 1 day to play SimCity. Each city would only last an hour before I’d have to start a new one, but I could play for all of 16 February and into the morning of 17 February.

First of all, I’d like to make it clear. I made it up to about 20,000 people in my city in my best hour. And I did 7 different cities. (That’s seven hours of play time, yes I’ve been waiting ages for a decent SimCity sequel to come). And yes. SimCity has been successfully rebooted. Maxis hasn’t lost its touch (despite whatever Spore may have suggested) and they’re not just hashing out more of the same old.

So where to begin on this amazing reboot? Well, let’s examine zoning again. We’ve come a long way from the rectangles of the original SimCity. But even SimCity 2000 got away from those. What’s interesting is how they cling to the street now. What is more, a smart grid, not unlike the one from Microsoft PowerPoint pops up when you’re drawing the roads that you will be lining the zones on. If you’re a very grid-based thinker when it comes to planning your cities, SimCity helps you draw the best grids with roads. Once again, you have several varieties of streets that can accommodate different load sizes, and have different upkeep costs. The interesting new road type? Heavy traffic with a street car down the middle.

Finally gone are the ‘light’, ‘medium’, and ‘heavy’ zone types. The load size of the road helps to determine what kind of building goes into the zone, in terms of its heaviness and such, but so does the improved land value system as well as an improved demand system. If a lot of people want residences, but there aren’t that many residential zones available, you’ll get a large block of flats, just as you’d expect from a ‘heavy’ residential zone in the older titles. It’s dynamic now, and frankly, more realistic. Your downtown areas are going to be more realistic now.

And let’s talk about the organic growth of cities. The growth from small village to big metropolis feels a lot more organic over all. The things your city requires grows as the city itself does. You no longer need a police and fire department right off the bat. You can share those resources with neighbouring cities much more efficiently than ever before, so your village of 1,000 won’t need a police department, clinic, or fire department until it grows into a real city. You can build fewer schools than before and expand the schools influence by adding bus routes to cover your residential zones. You can build a mass transit system and draw the bus lines yourself. Resource sharing, and utility management are much cleaner and friendlier than before. The interface feels natural, and lets me get my city what it needs faster and more efficiently.

Origin Sucks, and none of my screen shots came out, but I don't think screen shots alone can do SimCity justice.

Origin Sucks, and none of my screen shots came out, but I don’t think screen shots alone can do SimCity justice anyway, so EA I’ll let you get away with your shameless Steam rip-off this time.

The coolest feature, that makes me feel like a real powerful mayor, is the ability to modify city buildings. Is your school filled to the brim? Build extensions to it and add more classrooms! Does your clinic/hospital fill up to quickly? Add additional wings to treat more patients. Do the ambulances take too long to respond to calls? Add additional ambulance bays to the healthcare centre so they can get additional ambulances. Police departments can have more jail space added to them, as well as additional car parks for more patrol vehicles, fire stations can get additional garages for more fire engines, the city hall itself can expand and gain additional departments and a whole city hall complex.

And yes, the city hall is a new feature, and an important feature. It is a hub of information, and a part of the streamlining of the interface. Protesters gather to tell you about the major problems, your advisors scream from it if they see a problem coming. And all across your city you can drop in on the Sims inhabiting the city and find out what they’re thinking and saying about the governance of their city.

Traffic is real this time. The Sims walking are real. They’re not just representative of data on the road, showing you which roads are busy and which aren’t. Cars no longer just vanish in the middle of the motorways after showing you just how busy a certain motorway is. They go from point A to point B. Each Sim has a name, each house has a specific family. The children go to a specific school, and each Sim goes to a specific job. There aren’t just faceless citizens of your city anymore, there are real people. It blows my mind how realistic the people in the game are. The whole thing feels much more organic, and much less mathematical than the previous SimCity titles ever felt. I really do feel like a mayor of a living city this time around.

'At last these peons appreciate my true power and genius'.

‘At last these peons appreciate my true power and genius’.

Too bad I have to wait until 5 March to get that feeling again.


Video Games I Hate: Gettysburg Armoured Warfare

So in my previous post, I talked about video games I like, namely two frontrunners of the ‘Real Time Strategy’ (RTS), Red Alert 2 (RA2), and Empire: Total War (ETW, as well as the rest of the Total War franchise). So it seems a fair change of pace then to talk about a game I hate.

Now, there’s a bit of difficulty for me here. You see, when I’m not being witty on the internet I’m an author, a screen writer, a playwright. And I’ve had both plays and short stories published, and I’m currently working towards having my big, long novel published too. So I’m no stranger to critics. Plus, I do spend a lot of time on the internet while procrastinating away from doing the things I listed above, so I’m well aware of the fact that everyone is a critic, and that sooner or later the ever-to-critical eye of the public will be placed on me. And indeed, in the past has been placed on me. As a man who’s both criticised and been criticised, as a man who’s critiqued other people’s work and has had his own work critiqued, it is insanely easier to be critic than the artist. (And indeed, the more I read technology magazines and video-game reviews, the more I’m convinced that both are made of people who couldn’t make it in the industry, and so get off tearing apart those who did, in an ongoing fit of jealousy).


That said, I go to an arts school. In fact, I’m about the graduate from arts school. So I’ve been here three and a half years. Trust me, by now I appreciate the fact that not everyone who claims to be an artist or a craftsman (or woman, it is 2013, and all) are good at what they do. And I appreciate the fact that if you claim in anyway to be God’s gift to your medium, you’re even less likely to be good at your craft. (This makes Ben Affleck something of an anomaly. All my science tells me he should be terrible at his job).

My theory is proven by George R.R. Martin who thinks very highly of himself, yet is a terrible writer, and is the inspiration for rapists everywhere.

My theory is proven by George R.R. Martin who thinks very highly of himself, yet is a terrible writer, and is the inspiration for rapists everywhere.

So, if video games are indeed an art (and indeed they are) then we have to accept that some video games are going to be shit. Now, for some the anticipation was so great that no matter what was churned out, it was going to seem sub-par. (To my understanding this is documented as the ‘Duke Nukem’ effect). But some are trying to start their own dynasty, some are trying to bring a new franchise into life, so as to profit from it years later. And end up being brutal miscarriages of the studios what make them. This game, Gettysburg: Armoured Warfare fits firmly into that category.

This mediocre game art is actually the highlight of the game. It's all downhill from here.

This mediocre game art is actually the highlight of the game. It’s all downhill from here.

Paradox Interactive, the publishers of this game, aren’t that well known outside the community of hard-core gamers. Most people know EA, for example, or Sega. Not Paradox so much. Why? Well, one of my friends really loves the Europa Universalis franchise, and I really like (not love) Victoria 2. Outside of that, I have to say every other Paradox Interactive game I’ve come across has been subpar. (Steam uses a Metacritic system to give you game ratings. Not a single Paradox title breaks the 70 point range, and the majority sit down in the 60’s, 50’s, and 40’s, and Gettysburg sits at 22).

I guess you could say that the Paradox is that they still exist.

I guess you could say that the Paradox is that they still exist.

So what’s so wrong with Gettysburg, you ask, sceptical of my claim to its awfulness. Well, let me tell you a story of the nineties. You see, when I was a child ‘arcade fighters’ like Street Fighter and Tekken were very popular. In my school, it was basically the only genre played. One thing worth noting about Street Fighter and Tekken, especially back in the 90’s before the Xbox came and physics were invented, was that the only things that mattered on the screen in terms of environment and the actual game were the two characters fighting. The stage, the backdrop, even the colour of the character didn’t matter at all. It was all just there to make it look pretty. The game would be exactly the same if it were just two characters fighting on a completely black screen. (I remember, one of my friends saw his copy of Street Fighter for the Super Nintendo get corrupted somehow, and so we got exactly that. We still played the hell out of it).
Now I send you back to my previous post about RA2 and ETW wherein I talk about how much the environments, the maps, the cities, the hills, the cliffs all impacted dramatically your battle strategy. You had to adjust everything in your strategy based on the field you were fighting for, and who you were fighting against. And that was a part of what made it so damn awesome.

The ‘maps’ of Gettysburg remind me far more of the background of Street Fighter in terms of their relevance to gameplay, than they remind me of the maps and terrain of Empire.


‘The two keys to a successful video game are racism and sexism’. – The Makers of Street Fighter.

Now, I’m not going to tear into Gettysburg because of its lack of factions. That would not be fair. This is the American Civil War we’re talking about, so your options for factions is limited, namely the Union troops of the U.S. Government, or the separationists, the Confederate States. Neither side had allies nor did they have any outside help or support. (Yes, I know the UK sold stuff to both sides, but it was marginal interference at best, you want to see a civil war from roughly the same time with a lot of foreign intervention? Go look at the Boshin War in Japan). So for this game, only having two factions is going to be the simple reality rather than a condemning factor.
But the difference between the Union and the Confederates in this game is roughly the same as the difference between Ken and Ryu. (LOOK ANOTHER STREET FIGHTER REFERENCE). Yes, same idea with different colours to represent that you’ve different sides. (Oh look, the budget ran out).


‘We got the Union Army done? All right, well just copy and paste the code, change the colour, and call it a game’! – Paradox.

That’s also ignoring the games lacklustre premise. Look I’m a fan of steam punk, and I would not mind seeing an alternate history 19th century video game with good steam punk genre attributes. I have not been a fan of what’s been out there so far. (Except Dishonoured, I did like Dishonoured). And Gettysburg has the same basic premise as another terrible video game, Darkest of Days. Namely the really poorly thought premise of ‘Let’s give future tech to old timey soldiers because of time travelling miscreants who want to change history’. Which of course often ignores the basic idea, ‘how would the 19th century Americans maintain this crazy tech they just got? Where are they making the bullets? Can the factories of their time really do that? No? That’s absurd? Okay’.
There should be no surprise that the story behind Gettysburg does not develop into a real plot, but rather exists as a premise to put crazy weapons into an otherwise sub-par RTS/3rd person shooter.

As for winning or losing battles? Don’t worry about that. This game is extraordinarily glitchy. And if you don’t quit from frustration the first time your selector fails to select any of the troops you’ve drawn it over, your computer will likely crash to desktop the moment it gains any momentum. This has nothing to do with how good or bad your computer is. (I’m running Crysis 2 on full settings because one of my friends told me I just HAD to play this game). It’s because the coding that went into making this game is very subpar. I’m no expert on making video games, (Being a writer/historian lends itself to me having very little experience with actual code) but I am pretty good at writing, and what is more, I’ve studied English, French, German, Hindi, and Arabic (and to a lesser extent Tamil), in the course of studying all those languages I’ve learnt that it doesn’t matter what language you’re writing in (English or C++) you need to proof read and edit your work so it doesn’t make the

person reading/watching/playing your stuff hate you. By the time my soldiers were shooting near (they were not shooting at the enemy, but near him and still causing damage, which in an era of Company of Heroes and Empire: Total War, where you can watch real bullets hit real targets, is unacceptable) I already hated the people who made this terrible game for wasting my time and my $30.


And people have gotten into pub fights over less in the past.

Really this game’s flaw is that it’s a first draft. It’s like paying $30 for a book that doesn’t have any paragraph breaks, periods, or commas in it, and ALSO contains numerous spelling errors. Whoever wrote this game didn’t give a single damn about it, and so did very little to make it feel like a finished, polished, and professional product. Which again, is insulting to me, because by paying them I’m conveying that I’m expecting a product worth money. Not… this.


Seriously Paradox, what the hell?

So in the end I don’t hate Gettysburg for the same reasons that I’m not a fan of Twilight, but for the same reasons that I hate that group member I almost always get in group projects who shows up with half-finished work despite having had a week to do it. Because I expected a finished product. Not a game that I’m guessing the budget ran out on halfway through and so they just meandered their way through the rest of it, for the sake of it.
So is there a moral to this story? Yes. If you’re going to do any sort of creative project. Stick to it. Make it flawless, or as close to flawless as you can before you release it to the public. Why? Because the public is impatient, and we hate waiting for patches, especially when we’ve paid money.

13 Years of Strategy From Red Alert 2 to Empire: Total War

Duke John Churchill, Duke Arthur Wellesley, Field Marshall Viscount Bernard Montgomery, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. This is a list of some of history’s greatest generals. For many players, they don’t see the value in being a grunt in the trenches, as you would see in many first person shooters, they want to be the top of the military hierarchy. They want to be the next Duke Wellesley (or Napoleon, but to me he’s far less important). For these players, we have the beautiful genre known as ‘Real Time Strategy’.

Ah Napoleon, I've written entire essays about how much this man sucks.

Ah Napoleon, I’ve written entire essays about how much this man sucks.

By the time I entered my early teens, Westwood Studios (Rest in Peace) released the sequel to their prequel, Red Alert 2. (Red Alert was a prequel to the original Command and Conquer, a video game franchise that, back in the 90’s, was something completely different from what it is today, and one that I was kind fond of back then). The original Command and Conquer itself was a game that I had to access through MS-DOS on our 486 computer back in 1995. (C:/C&C/RUNGAME.EXE. I typed this command into the prompt many times). By the time that Red Alert 2 had come out, we already were running Windows 98 in my house. Despite this radical change in OSes, the basic UI of the game, and design hadn’t actually changed that much. The little soldiers were still highly pixelated, and there was still a distinct VGA 16-BIT feel to the whole bloody genre.

Are those ants, Russian soldiers, or Astronauts? I'm not sure, and I'm a little afraid to find out'. - The 90's.

Are those ants, Russian soldiers, or Astronauts? I’m not sure, and I’m a little afraid to find out’. – The 90’s.

You can imagine my mind being blown in 2004 when Rome: Total War came out from UK developer Creative Assembly. For one, the soldiers had faces. Two, I could zoom in right above the soldier’s heads. Three, the soldiers didn’t sound like an angry C-List voice actor.

Your average C-List Actor after the end of Live-Action cut scenes in Video Games.

Your average C-List Actor after the end of Live-Action cut scenes in Video Games.

From there on the Command and Conquer series didn’t really cut it. You see, for years the strategy in ‘Real Time Strategy’ for my generation meant building good base defences (mostly automated turrets) around not only your base but a few ‘spice fields’ (resources). Once your defences were built up, you sat pretty in your base building up a massive army that you would eventually unleash in one massive death charge on your opponent. Basically, we’re talking meat grinder/First World War Battle of the Somme tactics. (Star Craft players identify this as ‘Zerg rush’ tactics. My friends and I never got into Star Craft).

But with Rome: Total War, I had to have a great deal more strategy. Yes there was still some meat-grinding, yes there was still a certain ‘rock-paper-scissors’ mentality to the whole thing but there was something new, and bigger. A campaign map, with persistent stats.
Suddenly, my soldiers had skills. Generals were getting promoted, the battles I won counted for a bigger, more epic purpose, and since I could make the decisions on the campaign map of which battles happened when, I could create my own epic narrative of the Roman Empire in my head whilst I was playing this game. Far more depth than the Command and Conquer series had ever achieved.

Imagine a world where you'd have to take Italy seriously. I can't imagine such a world, but it did exist.

Imagine a world where you’d have to take Italy seriously. I can’t imagine such a world, but it did exist.

What is more, on the battlefield itself, strategy finally mattered. Troop movements, the level and style of terrain, castle/fortress walls, the use of static artillery units. Reinforcements. The battlefield was the battlefield. Resource gathering was for the empire at large to manage, on the battlefield itself, it was all about the troops and their commander. The best part? If the commander got killed, troops lost morale. This was doubly true if he was a general. Troops often lost all their morale and routed, and if enough troops began to rout, all your troops would flee from the battle in terror, demoralised and broken. That’s right in addition to all the other elements of battlefield strategy that was added to the Total War series, keeping your troops inspired was a major element that won or lost many battles.

Between that and deploying soldiers to far-off battlefields, and the difficulty of reinforcing soldiers engaged in combat far away made it so that the individual soldier was no longer a disposable pixel. Granted he wasn’t on route to being someone you grew overly attached to, but the battles themselves were less likely to become the ‘meat-grinder’ affair of the old Red Alert 2 days.

From Rome to the Middle Ages, and from the Middle Ages the franchise moved to the era that I was always most passionate about. You see, historians are obsessed with eras more so than they are with actual years. Mostly because when you study history individual years often seem insignificant by themselves. For me, the early modern era is my personal favourite era. This era’s beginning is debated (I put it in the 1640’s, with the dawn of Britain’s first of many Civil Wars in a row) as well as its end (I’m willing to say 1920’s for that).

The era-within-era the Early Modern Era that Empire: Total War covers is the era that identified as the ‘Enlightenment Era’. Which is an era of empiricism, political philosophy, Voltaire, Locke, Franklin, tri-corner hats, industrial revolution, and western ascendancy. The 18th century, from 1700 to 1799 is the age that Empire covers. A difference from the alternate 20th century that RA2 covered.

This Man Knows that the Early Modern Era was so hype.

This Man Knows that the Early Modern Era was so hype.

Naval combat is added, appropriate since naval buffs often refer to this era as the ‘Age of Sail’, but while Naval Combat is added, the historic and prestigious British Royal Marines see little action themselves. On the land, the British Army itself is still the star on land. (Assuming you choose to play as Britain. France, Prussia, Poland, Russia, Austria, the Maratha Confederacy, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire are also all playable. My favourite two factions to play are Britain and the Ottoman Empire).

On the campaign map you push your nation through the First Industrial Revolution, as well as through the various political changes that shaped the era. If enough support for a republic is built up within your nation, there may be a revolution, during which you may choose rather to play as the status-quo or as the radical revolutionaries. (Britain and Poland both begin the game as Constitutional Monarchies, and therefore are much less like likely to revolt since a democracy is already in place. But they can still revolt and establish an absolute republic). As Britain and France you also begin the game with overseas territories that may or may not rebel against your sovereign rule. (Yes, the 13 colonies sometimes revolt and become the United States, and you can choose to supress it or support it).

The battles themselves shine in a new engine in which each and every soldier has a distinct face (complete with the variety of facial hair styles that were popular back then). Different soldiers had different back packs, you had up to 160 men in a regiment, several different artillery pieces to choose from, glorious cavalry, flags being waved by their bearers, and drummers all participating in the chaos of battle. The battlefields were still randomly generated by the Total War engine, and were distinct from region to region, whether you were fighting in Northern Africa, Southern, Central, or Northern India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), South, Central, or North America, the Caribbean, Western, Central, or Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, the battlefields and the buildings of each region felt distinct. You could see the culture clash of you British soldiers marching on Hyderabad, and you could recruit the local Indians into combat regiments, and watch them bring their unique culture into your growing Army. In Africa you could recruit African soldiers, and in the Americas you could recruit Native Americans into your army, you could grow your army to be as diverse as the empire you were building, or keep it all a single race. The choice was completely up to you.

Someone somewhere named their cat the supreme commander of British forces in the Americas.

We all know that someone somewhere named their cat the supreme commander of British forces in the Americas.

The diversity, uniqueness, and consistency of units between battles, as well as the diversity and combination of battlefield and campaign tactics depending on who your opponent was, as well as your necessity to manage diplomacy, trade, and politics on the campaign map created a gameplay experience that was far different from the heavily pixelated, linear, meat grinder that was Red Alert 2. It provided a level of uniqueness and user control that made the user feel like they really were in charge of the fates of men and nations alike.

You see, with Red Alert 2 you got to pretend you were the next Duke Wellesley. You had to ignore the fact that your units didn’t fire bullets (unlike in Empire where you can watch bullets fire and follow them from musket to hit or miss) they just fired chance and you watched them wear down the units in adjacent tiles, here the soldiers acted more human than their RA2 counterparts who threw themselves into Semi-automatic fire without complaint until they bled to death. With Empire you could pretend to be Duke Wellesley, the soldier on the field, and the next William Pitt the Elder. Politician and soldier alike, you were in control. And to me that was just a hell of a lot cooler. Yes, I’ve stayed loyal to the Total War series, and Yes, I do anticipate Rome II eagerly, but for this kid from the 90’s, Empire was more than enough to blow my mind.

Part of me is secretly terrified that once I install Rome II on my PC that an actual Roman will jump out and stab me.

Part of me is secretly terrified that once I install Rome II on my PC that an actual Roman will jump out and stab me.

The Nintendo DS (and 3DS), the Wii U and the Future of Nintendo

So, I am a bit like a Slowpoke from Pokémon. Not just did I just learn what the hell a Slowpoke from Pokémon is a year ago, but I also finally bought a Nintendo DS Lite. Of course, that puts me behind since the DS Lite has since been overshadowed by the DSi, the DSi: Miami, and now the 3DS.

The DSi: Miami is mostly known for poor writing and lame puns.

While I may be slow to finally join the Pokémon fan club (Pokémon: Black is one of the better RPGs I’ve played in a while), or purchase a handheld gaming system, I’m not slow on the news from E3 and the tech industry at large, and from Nintendo we’ve got two awkward bits of news:

‘It was a good design, now let’s make it… bigger’.

First was the 3DS XL. That’s right: the 3DS that you had to hold at a very specific angle in order to get the full 3D effect that you paid for now has a bigger brother who will no doubt be even more awkward to hold on to. Of course, in an era of 7 inch Android tablets it makes sense for Nintendo to make a larger handheld to find this odd niche market. Of course, that doesn’t explain Nintendo’s other piece o’ tech that’s coming our way:

Is it a tablet, is it a console, or is it neither one really?

It’s no secret that after the initial wave of ‘OMG MOTION GAMING’ news reports that sold several units of the original Nintendo Wii, people began to discover, ‘Nintendo Wii is mostly lower quality shovel-ware’ and ‘The Nintendo Wii doesn’t really offer anything except the super linear motion gimmicks’, and my personal favourite, ‘It doesn’t really have Apps, or real graphics, this is basically the GameCube with motion controllers, what the hell, how much did I pay for this’?

‘Damn! I should’ve gotten an Xbox 360, its online service is actually good and its graphics aren’t from the early 2000’s’! – Wii Owner.

In the last round of the console wars (which these days is Microsoft versus Sony versus Nintendo) Nintendo lost. The Xbox 360 became the best selling of the consoles. Microsoft wins (and even sells the Kinect not as a console, but a console add-on to a very fully functional console) Sony takes a close second, and Nintendo gets its poor judgement and gimmick-based console compared to the demise of Sega’s hardware consoles.

‘Awkward large controllers don’t sell themselves! What? We’re bankrupt? Well f***’.

So, it was clear to Nintendo that they had to play catch-up. Ideally, they would’ve have just caught up, they’d have caught up and then surpassed, kicked off the next generation of consoles in style. They caught up, barely. And that’s about it.

The good news is: those who buy them will have a rare collectable when the Wii U production life is cut short.

Nintendo’s answer to their inability to put a decent graphics processor inside their console? ‘Well, instead of only selling one gameplay gimmick (motion gaming), let’s sell two (tablet touchscreen gaming)’. Thus: the Wii U.

Despite the confusing name (what does the U stand for? Underdeveloped?) the biggest problem with the Wii U seems to be its identity crisis. Is it an underpowered tablet (which will only work with the console itself within a certain radius of itself), or is it an underpowered console with another gimmick attached to it? Why do proper innovation when you can attach gimmicks? (This is the video game console equivalent of the mobile tech sectors similar question, ‘Why do proper innovation when you can just sue your competitors’?)

To me, the most recent offering from Nintendo is proof that like Sega, who made a transition from Hardware to software when their consoles began to lag behind, and they lacked the resources to compete with Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, Nintendo now is in the midst of a transfer. Will Nintendo become solely software like Sega did? No, I don’t think so. What transition will Nintendo make? They’ll become a handheld manufacturer, with the Nintendo DS and its successors becoming their new flagship console (it practically already is) and the Nintendo home console joining the ranks of cherished memories that the Sega Dreamcast and the Atari home consoles currently hold.

Nintendo’s other big problem right now is that the President of Nintendo North America is a giant tool.

Windows Phone 8: The Next Generation

My Grandfather Rockhill once reminisced over his life in one elegant sentence (this was a rare occurrence for him, like me he tended to talk constantly, mostly to hear his own voice, but occasionally he had elegant sentences), he said, ‘When I was born [1916], man was taking his first flight, by the time I reached my midlife, we were on the moon, and now everyone has computers in their house’. He died in the 1990’s (for sake of keeping my personal life personal, I’ll keep the exact date from the web). But were he still alive, I often ponder what the old bugger (said in a loving way) would think of the smartphone that sits in my pocket. Knowing that he was a gadget lover (a trait he instilled in my Father and me) he’d probably complain about it first (If you’re genetically British in any large amount, you’re required to complain about how unimpressed you are by everything when you first meet it, either claiming the old ways are better, or you could design better if you wanted to) and then he’d play with it constantly, and eventually love it like me. (This was also my reaction to the Windows Phone).

‘Bugger! I hate everything! And yet, I can’t live without any of it’.

Granddad Rockhill was, of course, commenting on the massive technological developments made during his lifetime, a time period he felt very grateful to be alive during. I’m becoming increasingly grateful to be alive during this time period, even though it’s still my second favourite over-all. (Victorian Era has so much more… class, aside from all the racism, of course, racism is bad). Think of all the rapidly developing technologies during our time!

Windows Phone 8

In my last post, I already mentioned the piece o’ tech that I’m in the most anticipation for: The Microsoft Surface. What I didn’t mention, and what I should’ve mentioned is the lovely side-project that’ll launch with Windows 8 and the Surface Tablet: Windows Phone 8.

Between this and the Surface, I sure hope my girlfriend isn’t anticipating Christmas presents this year…

Aside from the introduction of a ‘Google Wallet’ like system, (that will probably be more useful than Google Wallet), aside from an updated Microsoft Office mobile suite, aside from Internet Explorer 10 mobile, aside from the improved ‘Music’ and ‘Video’ hubs, and the improved Xbox live hub, and the Direct X and Havok cores that’ll bring more advanced games to the phone, and aside from the support for even higher screen resolutions, and aside from the ‘Xbox Glass’ that will allow you to stream music, videos, and even games from your phone to your Xbox or Windows 8 PC or Tablet, and vice versa, what’ll the Windows Phone 8 offer? Well, I would hope all of that would be enough, but the most important thing that Windows Phone 8, the updated Xbox interface, and Windows Phone 8 all bring to the table is Microsoft’s new message, and it’s strangely Jobsian.

For the record, I am still a critic of Steve Jobs’ business practices, his ego, his dictatorship, his ego again, his fanboys and girls, but you have to give the man credit for improving the way we look at technology.

And whether or not you like the Metro UI that is now found on Xbox and Windows Phone 7, and will soon be found in Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8, it all hints in a change in Microsoft’s focus and overall business strategy.

‘I also want it to dance around and whistle like R2D2, why can’t it do that yet’?

The key word to achieve all of this is connectivity. You want your Phone, your Xbox, and your computer (and mayhaps your tablet) to all talk to each other, do it all automatically, and to share all the info quickly and without you asking, so that it’s all available. Thanks to Microsoft’s SkyDrive, I can already do this, I can edit a Word doc on my computer, save it, and the computer automatically sends it to my Windows Phone where I can also edit it and save the updated version to my SkyDrive, which’ll update the version on my PC automatically. The problem here is that SkyDrive wasn’t built into Windows 7, you had to set up Windows 7 to do that. With Windows 8, the theory is you’ll introduce your Mobile and your Xbox to your PC and they’ll all be BFFs that’ll share data, settings, colour choices, Internet Explorer bookmarks, games, and Apps with each other seamlessly. You buy an App on your Windows 8 PC, and since it’s written using the same AP and UI as your Windows Phone 8, you’ll get the mobile version automatically, and both versions will communicate.

‘Wait, that means I have to buy at least two Windows 8 products for this scenario to come true’, you say, (I’m assuming you’ve already got an Xbox 360 since those things have been around for a while). And you’re right, and Microsoft will make big £££, $$$, and €€€ for that fact. (Indian Rupees and Japanese Yen as well, I know, I know). But guess what: they’re a business, that’s their role in the whole thing. What you should be grateful for is that in an era where Android and Apple no longer feel the need to innovate to compete, just sue each other to bits in order to hurt the other’s bottom line, is that someone is still innovating and they are still releasing quality products for you, the consumer to buy. That’s how capitalism is meant to work (in a world without lawyers).

Lawyers ruin everything, from democracy to capitalism.

Besides, when Apple pulls this kind of stunt, no one complains, aside from the Oatmeal. But that’s because the Oatmeal is pretty funny.

My Return, and My Reaction to Microsoft Surface

First of all, let me apologise, to those of you who actually care, for my long absence. Like most writers of my age, I take on several projects simultaneously and as a result, sometimes the less important ones (this blog, which I started as a hobby to write and speculate on my guilty pleasure, technology) get pushed to the back burner in favour of ones more important. (My on-going contributions to Columbia’s much-needed reformation, and trying to help grow the Playwriting Programme at Columbia).

Either way, your friend Taylor is back, and what a time to be back, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Kings and Queens, and clergy alike, I present to you:

I know this is a website, but if it was a video presentation, ‘Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)’ by the Hollies would be playing right about now.

The Microsoft Surface, for those of you living under a rock, is Microsoft’s personal challenge to Apple’s iPad and the numerous (and mostly shit) Android Tablets on the market. It is Microsoft’s gentle push to their own OEMs to build killer Windows 8 tablets that will take full advantage of the OS’s many innovations, and it is the reason my girlfriend already knows she won’t get her wish of me ‘revamping’ my winter wardrobe this year, no I won’t, for my money will be better spent on what will probably be the best digital friend a writer could have in his arsenal.

‘Well, I just feel fat now’.

None the less, there are some inherent risks attached to Microsoft producing hardware. Problem one, of course, is that outside of a few keyboards and mice, speakers and headsets, and of course the Zune and the Xbox, Microsoft hasn’t really produced any hardware, and certainly, never a full-fledged PC to rival their own hardware manufacturers. In other words, Microsoft has never been in direct competition with HP, Dell, Asus, Acer, and all the other people who make the computers that run their OS before. And quite frankly, that was smart. It was Microsoft’s advantage over Apple originally, after all, since HP and Dell didn’t just compete with Apple, they also competed with each other. The result? Two years ago, while living in a cheap studio in Chicago, I could by my HP TouchSmart tm2, with the same specs as its then $1,500 (which Apple rips-off its UK buyers with £1,500 pricing too, despite the exchange rate) Apple ‘MacBook Pro’ cousin for a mere $800. And that wasn’t from some shady second or third person site, no, that was from HP themselves. (And my TouchSmart has a touch screen, something that the MacBook Pro still lacks).

Of course, for Microsoft, this has also been a downside, as they have historically have had very little say over the quality of their OEM’s products. And while my HP TouchSmart tm2 has been fantastic, well, I think most people can remember the crap-tastic computers that Dell released, each generation of lowering quality from the late 1990’s through the early 2000’s. (Dell has turned it around, I’ll admit), or budget computers like NEC that brought shame to Microsoft’s OS.

So that brings us back to the Surface.

I’ll always come back to you, baby.

Now, I like HP, I really do. I am writing this on an HP, like I said, but that doesn’t change the fact that HP’s Windows tablets, well, they suck compared to even, say, Samsung’s Windows Tablet.

What a disappointment you’ve been. (My parents said that to me all the time, finally, I can say it to something else).

And quite frankly, before now there’s not been any standard for a Windows tablet. How many buttons will it have? Will it have a Windows button? Will it have volume buttons? Or rotation lock? What size will the screen be? What will its resolution be? Again, that’s where the Surface comes in.

Here’s a shot of it from behind, what a cute bum it’s got. See that kick stand that comes out? Finally, a tablet that does that.

Not just does the Surface issue a challenge to other tablet makers (‘See? Our smart cover doubles as a ultra-thin flexible keyboard, what’s yours do? Turn on and off the screen automatically? That’s… cool’.) but it establishes and showcases the strict standards that Microsoft is demanding from its OEMs in order to take on the iPad, and says, ‘See? Follow our standards, and you get the world excited’.

Here’s the Surface from the front again, looking sexy in blue.

The Surface marks the beginning of Windows 8 tablets. For an opening volley, it is extremely impressive, and yes, this is the first tech product I’ll be waiting to get right on release (my TouchSmart has been dropped too many times already, and its Hard drive is starting to make the infamous ‘death clicks’ associated with mechanical drives on their way out). So you’ll get to see me talk about it later, writing about it from it.

Do You Need A Keyboard and a Mouse for an RTS to work?

Or, Can the RTS transition to the console?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Real Time Strategy, or RTS for short, is my favourite videogame genre. For those of you unfamiliar, RTS games usually revolve around building an Empire, gathering resources, building the armed forces, and engaging in diplomacy and warfare. In RTS this happens all at once, with new ‘turns’ being taken. So Microsoft’s popular Age of Empires is an RTS while Firaxis Game’s popular Civilisation franchise is actually a turn-based strategy game.

My Father used to refer to RTS games as ‘Get off the damn computer and go do something’.

As a child, I grew to prefer RTS games because it let me command massive armies, and see massive amounts of teamwork and show-off my well-coordinated plans against my friends, and show them that I was a damn good armchair general.

RTS multiplayer tends to revolve around thought, strategy, and teamwork. First Person Shooter multiplayer, like in the Halo series, tends to revolve around insulting your teammates and questioning their sexuality.

Now, back in my Nintendo 64 days, I did own a copy of Command and Conquer for the N64. So that I could play my favourite RTS even when my Dad was doing work on the family computer.

Believe it or not kids, back in the 90’s most families only had one computer, and they tended to look like this, and they had really slow internet, or no internet.

Now, I’m going to break this down bluntly. Command and Conquer for N64 sucked. Do you know what else sucked? Halo Wars, the Halo RTS for Xbox 360, and Tom Clancy’s End War RTS for consoles as well. Why? Because they tried to make these RTS games as fast, action packed, and meat-grinderish in nature as their FPS cousins.

‘Wait, you mean there’s more to military strategy than one infantry charge after another? Impossible’! – Field Marshal Douglas Haig.

Concepts like pincer movements, coordinated, well timed attacks, hot-keys, and unit organisation are usually lost when RTS titles are tossed to the consoles. Why? Well, some think it’s mostly the mentality of console gamers. Speed is king, as is simplicity on the console. The result? In most RTS titles built for console infantry, Calvary, artillery, air support, and armour all behave, move, and are controlled the same way. Thus, even in wars in theHalouniverse in the future, you have soldiers marching into battle in rank and file like the 18th century, and getting mowed down like it’s World War I.

‘Maybe there’s a better way to do this, like ducking behind those rocks and then shooting or something’. ‘No! Keep standing upright in the open and firing damnit’!

When you have infantry moving and thinking like they’re tanks, and a rock-paper-scissors method running the battle, the depth of military strategy is lost, and it becomes a very dull game of digital risk very quickly. PC RTS gamers, on the other hand, are willing to wait. They’re willing to take the time to use their mouse and keyboard (and clickable mini-map) to manoeuvre the battlefield and place infantry, artillery, and armour in strategic places, get spoiled by amazing graphics, and watch battlefield epics unfold, and in the cases of the three best RTS franchises to date, the Total War franchise, the Company of Heroes franchise, and the Dawn of War franchise, the patience, the graphics, and the controls (having a full keyboard and mouse at your disposal gives you a lot of options) rewards the gamer with some of the deepest and most awe-inspiring moments in gaming.

And then, suddenly, you realise that this RTS is the best World War II game you’ve ever played.

In Company of Heroes, for example, the graphics were phenomenal, as was the AI. Playing as either the Americans, British, or Germans in World War II, you’d have a section of British troops marching through a French village, when suddenly they’re ambushed by a German Machine gun team. Do they just stand there, firing blinding at the MG team in the building, hoping that soon the ordeal will be over? No! They jump, they shout, they cuss, they duck, they dive, the move for cover, and then return fire. All without the player even controlling them. Then a lengthy fire fight ensues, and the talents of the soldiers and the creativity of the players controlling them determines who wins. Did I mention there were hundreds of units on large maps featuring miles of European Countryside and villages, as well as urban maps where things like this happened routinely? Tanks were slow, and difficult to drive through cities, but could bash down walls in CoH’s fully destructible environment, artillery was slow to move to its stationary spot, but once at its spot it would take time to set up and fire before it would fire. In short, when playing CoH, you had to think, work, and move like a real World War II general.

The battles were long, but that was fine. You got to be a bloody World War II general.

In theTotal Warseries, which has taken us from Medieval Japan, to Ancient Rome, to Medieval Europe, to Enlightenment Era Europe/Americas/India, to the Napoleonic War, to Medieval Japan (again) and then to 19th Century Japan (and hopefully to the 19th Century World soon) You were always bound by the technological limitations of your era, with each unit acting accordingly. Turns out, there was a reason that 18th century generals were reluctant to move artillery once a battle began. That stuff was hard to move. There’s a reason Rome conquered the ancient world, their armour and swords were better. There’s a reason the British conquered India, their shit was more together at the time.

Building international empires is actually pretty fun.

Infantry tactics reign supreme in those games. And guess what? Infantry is what makes RTS the most interesting. Tanks aren’t that exciting to watch in action. It seems like they should be, they are freaking tanks after all, but good war stories tend to be about infantry sections/squads overcoming the obstacles, and not tanks ploughing through enemy lines.

Imagine if all six Star Wars films were about these things mowing everyone down. A lot less exciting now, aren’t they?

Tank charges are great, but so is a hidden infantry section destroying a tank column using rocket launchers, satchel charges, and mines. (The main reason tank charges in CoH, and indeed World War II in real life, failed).

Can you get the subtlety of real military strategy, ingenuity, and creativity with a clumsy console control? Or a fine-point computer mouse? My experience dictates that the mouse/keyboard combo is a much better combination. Of course, Creative Assembly (the makers of the Total War franchise) say that just because a successful console RTS hasn’t been released yet doesn’t mean it won’t happen. But, well, colour me sceptical until proven wrong.

As to what colour sceptical is? The hell if I know.