Saturday, March 26, 2011

Back Online

Thanks to a new Android phone, I am now able to get online without having to pull out a full computer. This is a good thing because I rarely have the time anymore. But with some apps, I can surf from the palm of my hand. I can read newsfeeds and generally stay on top of things (or at least think that I am). I can even blog again.

Now I just need to do some spring cleaning on my various social accounts. I have a lot of old contacts that are far out of date. However, if you'd like to (re)connect with me then just drop me a line. I have text, email, and will soon be back up on facebook and twitter. More blogging and updates to follow...

Friday, September 24, 2010

There is No Family in DRM

I have a problem. I just bought my wife an eBook reader for our anniversary (5 years!). It's a pretty good little gadget. Very simple to use, basically plug and read. The software is slick, and ties directly to their store. And their store is pretty closely tied to our local big-box bookstore.

I live in Canada, so our big book store is Chapters (slash Indigo, slash Coles... It's practically a monopoly of meat-space book selling, but that's another rant). The eReader is a Kobo.

Now buying books has gotten complicated. Morgan and I share a fairly large library already. Our tastes in literature overlap quite a bit, and often we'll both read a book shortly after buying it. However, as we step gingerly into this brave new digital world I am becoming worried that who owns what will hinder our enjoyment of our books.

Right now we have one eReader. Specifically she has an eReader, so things will work okay. She can buy eBooks through Kobo's website, sync them to her reader, and generally enjoy her new toy. If I want to read something she has bought in digital form, I'll just have to beg her to let me borrow the Kobo. Otherwise I'll stick to the Guttenberg versions.

But I don't think it will be very long until I get my own eReader. I can feel the gentle pangs of tech-jealousy already. Frankly, I've wanted an eReader for a while now. (I actually want a magical device that doesn't exist yet and does much more than a simple eReader could, but I'll settle for something with eInk). This is where things get complicated.

Do I have to use her account to get books she's bought onto my device (which may, or may not be a Kobo as well)? What happens when I want to buy a book? Where is the shared library? It used to be over on the other side of my living room on several Ikea bookcases. Now it resides online (under who's user ID?) or on PC (hers or mine?).

DRM works great from a single user perspective. A single person can buy stuff, move it about his various devices, and generally enjoy his content. DRM fails once the number of people sharing the content goes up to two. Either everyone has to use a shared account, or everyone has to buy their own content. Neither is what I want, especially since I like to centralize all of our shared content in a shared network location but we both contribute to the library individually. DRM makes that hard to do too.

I have no illusions that DRM is going to be around for a while. But to make this easier for everyone the DRM services have to get smarter about connecting people's content. Basically, what I want to do is connect my DRM account to Morgan's DRM account. I can buy content, and she can buy content, but we both have access to it because the accounts are linked. I can manage the DRM on my devices, she can manage hers. We can even have private content that we don't share. The point is that we can still have the shared library, which is the important part.

Someone needs to get on this now because not too long from now my son Damian is going to want to get content of his own, and have access to mine. If I have to buy DRM protected content, then at least make it easy for me to share it with my family. And this doesn't just apply to eBooks (Adobe Digital Editions, I'm looking at you) but to music, movies, and video games as well. Apple needs to add this to iTunes, Microsoft needs to add it to the Xbox Live service. And anyone else thinking of locking their content to a single user account needs to re-think their approach. Not everyone is a unit, single and apart. Morgan, Damian and I are now three people that make one family, who share our content.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

I'm Gonna Let You Finish...

But first I have to apologize for the horrible Kanye West reference. Sorry.

Anyway, I wanted to talk a bit about the conversation interrupts in Mass Effect 2.

I love these things. I think they are fantastic. They feel immediate, visceral, and allow the player to feel like they can have an impact on the conversation. They are not Quick Time Events because they are entirely optional. They irrovocably change the conversation, sometimes for the better or worse of the player. The presence of these is the main reason I want to replay ME2 at least a couple more times. Every time I activate one, or choose not to, I feel like I'm directing the conversation, even more than picking a dialog path.

For the unfamiliar, here's a short description. As you are in conversation (or during other scripted sections) an icon may appear at the bottom corner of the screen. Paragon interrupts appear on the left, Renegade on the right. Pull the matching trigger button (on the console, not sure what the matching action on the PC is) to interrupt. If you wait, then life will go on as before. Sometimes only one option is available, other times both are (though not always simultaneously). These pop up all over the place, and have a wide variety of effects. Bioware has used them generously and they feel like an essential part of many conversations.

For example, the first time you meet the Salarian scientist, Mordin Solus, he begins this wonderful, breathless tirade. There are two interrupts during that first line (which runs on for quite a while), one Renegade and one Paragon. Interrupting him gets you into the real conversation much faster. I think. I couldn't bring myself to do either. I wanted to hear the whole thing, uniterrupted. But I also want to see how that conversation changes. I know that it won't really change anything right there, but the writing (and voice acting) is so wonderful that hearing all the options will be fun.

And sometimes the interrupts have real effects. You can save people, or kill them. There are all sorts of real in-game consequences that come from your conversational choices, and the interrputs add another chance (and a more active way) to make these choices and have them mean something to the player. It also plays into the larger Paragon/Renegade game of the conversation system. Now you have extra options to do good or bad, but at the cost of changing the nature of the conversation or derailing other options.

Of all of the improvements made in ME2, this is my favourite.

* Fun fact: Bioware had played with this idea for the first Mass Effect, going so far as to show it off some in development videos. It never made it into the first game due to technical issues and not being able to get the feeling of it right. I'm glad they worked it out. They sure got it to feel right.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Save the World for Only $5

Until January 31st (2010), Telltale Games is offering the entire first season of Sam & Max for $4.95 USD.

Go Here To Get It

For five bucks you get 6 episodes of hilarious cartoon violence and witty dialog. If you've been reading this blog for any length of time you'll know that I've talked about Sam & Max before (here and here). That was back when I was subscribing to GameTap. I've since canceled my subscription, but I've still wanted to make sure I have these games. For this price, I couldn't say no. Also, they take PayPal.

I think that this falls under the no-brainer category of purchases. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Maxwell Shepard is Dead

I've now had a little over 4 hours with Mass Effect 2 and I think I can reliably say this about it: Bioware is worthy of all the praise and acclaim they will certainly receive from reviewers and fans in the next while. ME2 is glorious. The story grips from the onset, gives you control, and the galaxy is far more alive than it was in ME1. I could probably gush about it for a several paragraphs talking about graphics, combat, interactive conversations, "Wow!" moments, and everything else. And that's just in the first couple of missions and some exploration of Omega Station. Perhaps in another post, after some of the glare has dimmed and I can clearly see again.

I will say that my only real complaint is the same one I have with 90% of modern gaming: I can't see it properly on my Standard Definition TV. This is less to do with the game and more to do with the unwritten convention that Next Gen Gamers all own HDTVs. An option to print your text at twice the size would make most of the games available right now that much easier to play. But I'm digressing again. I wanted to talk about a (minor) disappointment and a missed opportunity.

A Tale of Loss
I bought my first Xbox 360 a little over a year ago; partly because I'd been wanting one for a while (to play Mass Effect on), and partly because the Boxing Day sale was just too good to pass up. I never regretted it. ME1 was one of the first games bought. It took me a while to finally get into it and through it, but I managed. I struggled and fought against the Geth and the Reapers and I (Maxwell Shepard) prevailed. I was a Spacer, a War Hero, a Spectre, a Paragon, a Savior of Humanity, and Champion of the Galaxy.

And then I was robbed; my Xbox taken. Insurance replace the stolen hardware, but Maxwell Sheppard was lost.

Which means that I can't take advantage of the much touted character import feature in ME2. I can start a new character in ME1 and replay the game, trying to make the same decisions I made the first time, and then import it. I might. After I finish playing my Renegade run. But that either means I have to wait (as much as a month or more depending on how much I play), or start a new character to play ME2 now. This is a disappointing set of options, because I felt attached to Maxwell.

And I wonder if Bioware couldn't have made a way for me to resurrect my lost character.

A Post Unfinished
I have a post sitting in draft format talking about how Dragon Age: Origins allows players the freedom to imagine their characters' motivations and personalities. I really should finish it, because I believe that the principles of that are the foundation to allowing players the agency to tell their own stories within a larger narrative. It all boils down to the Improv principle of "Yes, and".

In improv you are taught to never say "No" to an idea. No is a blocking word; it kills a scene by denying the input of the other actors and forcing them to guess or do only what you want. It wrests control away from people and shutters creativity. Instead, you are taught to accept the idea and build upon it. Yes, we are eating raw snails, and we only have these very long sticks to do it with.

In the same way games can proffer an idea and allow the player to add to it via gameplay input. Bioware did this in Dragon Age by giving you dialog choices that let you complain or elate about situations. Your character was then built up in your own mind by how you chose to react. Then the game would build again by responding to your choice and providing you more. In one origin story you are a City Elf about to get married. The marriage is an arranged one and you can be happy about it or sour. Your choices during the whole arc could tell a tale about how you dreaded the day, but were won over when you met your mate to be; only to see them killed and be on the run from the law soon after. Or it could be something else entirely.

The point is that Bioware has realized that your choices in dialog not only act as switches for the dialog tree, but also as input about how your character acts, who he is, and how you see them. And they can be used to collect all sorts of information.

Here There Be Spoilers
In a game that starts of with your death and resurrection, ME2 does nothing to try and ascertain your past. The game opens with the destruction of your ship, the Normandy, and your death in the cold harsh emptiness of space. Then you are painstakingly recovered and rejuvenated. If you start fresh it is only at this point, after the semi-interactive intro movie (read: movement tutorial), that you get to select your looks, origin, and class. However, by this point at least one major plot choice from ME1 has already been made for you.

As Maxwell Shepard, I romanced Liara T'Soni (the Asari), and subsequently felt a distance between me and Ashley Williams (the other possible romantic option). Later, I was forced to choose which of my Alliance crew members would sacrifice themselves. In a weak moment, I let Ashley die to save Kaiden Alenko. We had parted ways and I couldn't bring myself to save her. It was my choice, but not the default choice as a Male Shepard starting fresh in ME2. Ashley is a alive and well, and from the couple of line of dialog it seemed that she and Shepard were close. This is a universe where Maxwell Shepard could not exist without being imported.

Why not let me choose who lived? Instead of choosing for me, hide the face and let me address the character by name before showing them. Then the choice I made in dialog (Ashley or Kaiden) could inform the game about who I saved and who I sacrificed. The player could be allowed to inform all (or a lot) of the major plot decisions from ME1 by providing them (subtle) choices via dialog or other means. Some of them could be while talking with other crew members about past exploits. Maybe some could be choices offered when reviewing old reports. There are lots of ways that the game could have gathered the information about me (with me hardly even knowing) that would allow a veteran player to craft his character (or ever rebuild one) and yet allow a novice character to simply experience the story and the backstory more fully. An imported character wouldn't have to jump through the same hoops and might get slightly different dialog, skipping lines or allowing characters to have more dramatic entrances.

The Pitch
If anyone at Bioware thinks that this is a particularly good idea, then please use it. Or you could hire me and I'll do everything in my power to help you work it into ME3. Let the player build their character, not only visually or in the game world, but in their own minds. Allow them to graft intention and meaning onto actions, and then glean that information back into the world of the game. This can transform a simple narrative delivery system into an engaging, creative, and participatory experience.