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Friday, June 28, 2013

OUYA Review

I've had my OUYA for nearly a month now, having been a backer on their famed Kickstarter campaign.  For me, the OUYA was an easy buy - I've always wanted to be able to easily code something and play it on the big tv.  In this sense, for me, the OUYA is like that workout machine in your basement - even if unused, it serves as a constantly nagging reminder of something you ought to be doing.

So I'm basically OUYA's ideal consumer - I've bought into the whole message about an "open console" and would almost feel guilty not owning it, in a weird way.  However, I'm a reformed modder who doesn't mind tinkering around with something for hours and hours with very little payoff - the real question is how well does OUYA sell to the average Joe?

Well, it has sold out on Amazon (at least at the time of this writing), but like bragging about the Xbox One suddenly passing the PS4 on Amazon - we don't really know how the math plays out there.  For all we know, Amazon only had 20 in stock.

So let's talk OUYA.

OUYA Hardware

The console itself is a small cube that fits more or less in the palm of someone's slightly meaty oversized  palm.  "Well constructed plastic" seems to be a theme here, whereas nothing about the OUYA feels cheap outright, but plastic all the same.  The console has a power button on top, an ethernet port, a USB port, an HDMI port and the power port.  Getting started with the console is dead simple - put some batteries in the controller (more on that later), plug in the console, get it online (either through ethernet or Wifi) and download the obligatory update (which has some pretty funny status messages).

The guts of the console are likewise simple: an 8GB flash drive handles all your storage and most of the heavy lifting goes through a nVidia Tegra 3 chip.  To say that OUYA doesn't have the same processor power as a PS3 or Xbox 360 is a ridiculous overstatement - it barely swings in the same park as higher end phones or tablets.  However, to expect a $99 cube to outperform a subsidized phone or tablet costing hundreds of dollars is a bit ridiculous as well.  The bottom line is that it plays Android games fine, even if it isn't going to impress anyone in the process.

The Controller

The OUYA controller is the very definition of a mixed bag.  It falls into that "well constructed plastic" vibe, has a decent heft to it and feels responsive enough - if possibly a bit laggy at times.  Sadly not rechargeable, which I almost think should be some kind of engineering crime at this point, and the batteries are inserted into the grips by prying off the cover ... which also feels odd.

One of the more innovative bits is the touchscreen residing in the top portion of the black band.  It is, again, a bit of a mixed bag.  It's a great alternative to purely joystick style controlling of a mouse-like interface, but is burdened by a somewhat iffy response rate.  However, since it is also almost completely optional (except by the rare game which is effectively designed solely for mouse-based UI's) - it falls squarely in the "nice to have" camp, even if it is not a killer feature.

It's a good controller, well OK a decent controller - but I'm just not sure it is $49.99 decent.  That put its in the same camp as a replacement PS3 or 360 controller, and the construction just doesn't seem to be on par with what Microsoft or Sony puts out.

In theory, you can use other devices - including said PS3 and 360 controllers - in lieu of the OUYA one.  Have not tried it myself, but it sounds straightforward enough and is actually a pretty nice benefit that OUYA doesn't really market.  It does mean that, in theory, if you wanted to try a four player game and you have existing controllers laying around ... you don't have to shell out another couple hundred bucks.

Update: I've tried using a PS3 controller.  It pairs easily enough, but it seems the actual control is completely up to the application, so it's of minimal benefit.

Software: OS

The OUYA OS is very clearly a custom Android build and it doesn't take terribly long to notice (for instance, when a game says it might need phone permissions granted).  OUYA has taken that Metro UI boxy style which is such the rage today and applied it to a streamlined interface for browsing and playing games.

If OUYA has one real strength, it is that it is crazy easy to just turn the device on, download games and start playing.  Everything in the library is a freemium model game - which means you don't even need to offer up your credit card to start playing around with the system.  It also speaks to the kind of digital centric market that apparently would make Microsoft drool.  You browse, you hit play, you wait, you play.  If you don't like the game, you delete it just as easy. 

The OUYA was sold as an "open console".  This means you don't have to ask OUYA nicely to develop and play games on it, only to get on the marketplace.  This is true on the surface, you can put whatever you want on the console and the SDK (or more specifically the Android SDK add on) is free to download and use.

The reality is that getting software on the console via USB (called side loading), i.e. outside of the OUYA market, is pretty complicated.  At least more complicated than one would like, as it requires jumping through hoops and setting up your own app manager.  In theory if you have the SDK setup you can use the Android Loader to move things directly - which I guess would be the party line from OUYA.  It is "open" as in "develop and go", not necessarily designed for "try to load any old app".

Update: Theory somewhat confirmed.  Basically if you are comfortable with the Android SDK, you can load apps quite easily.  Otherwise, hoops.

Software: Apps and Games

Making side loading a pain would be less of an issue if the OUYA market was launching with a wider array of quality apps.  There's no Angry Birds, no Plants Vs Zombies, no Netflix, no Pandora, no Galaxy on Fire, no ... well, virtually any big name apps.  For listening to music, you can use TuneIn Radio - which isn't bad.  There's Twitch.tv for watching other people play games.

Just recently, OUYA Market added Shadowgun, which is the first game I've seen there that resembles a really well known modern offering.  That isn't to say there aren't other decent games.  Chrono Blade, originally a Facebook browser based brawler, makes a very impressive import over to OUYA.  There are some notable indie favorites like Canabalt to be had as well.

But as it stands, the best way to describe the OUYA Market is an indie playground.  Quality is all over the place, and it is a good thing the OUYA has a strict freemium model - because "try before you buy" isn't even really an optional step for most of the games here.

If I had one very strong recommendation for OUYA, it would be to court the open source project XBMC for a proper OUYA app.  I've "side loaded" (though technically it was more of a download via browser, install, config and run) XBMC on my OUYA and it is easily the #1 use I have for the console.  I've got my OUYA hooked up to a TV in my study where I work and the XBMC is pretty much on full time - and it is probably the closest thing to a killer app the OUYA would have, if only it was truly OUYA friendly.

Finally, I have to say that the OUYA browser is completely abysmal.  It's not even an official app, and it seems like a really hasty port of the standard Android browser.  It seems like an odd thing to have been done so poorly on a device like this one.

TLDR

The OUYA is basically a cheap box ideal for hackers and fans of the indie scene, be they developers or gamers.

So, WTF?

Do I recommend the OUYA?  I do, actually, even if this review does not sound like I do.  It's not the little David of console that will kill off Sony or Microsoft or Nintendo with a sling and rock.  It is, however, a $99 investment that provides an easy way to get a little experimental with the kind of content your HDTV might not normally see.  My biggest problem with the OUYA is the price tag on the controllers.  If they were more solid, rechargeable, and had a killer touchpad - I might see a justification to the price tag, but as it is the controller stands as an oddly expensive offering for an otherwise budget-friendly package.

However, if you're looking for a console to play some casual games, try out some indie titles and hack a few Android apps onto your TV - it's a decent bargain.  But beware - the OUYA is still a work in progress and will by no means replace your normal gaming needs.


Friday, June 21, 2013

How Xbox One's "Family Sharing" Probably Worked

This is a rough draft, but I'm publishing it anyway.

In my last post, I talked about the Xbox One's sharing model might have been a simple timed demo, based largely on follow up reports from a pastebin post.  I've been reading a lot of different posts in various places.  Much of it does not add up.  This is how I see it.

How Microsoft Sold It

Microsoft made it sound like family sharing would allow you to have a list of ten people, and anyone of those people could play any game in your library - as long as only one person on your list was playing the game at one time - indefinitely. Specifically:

Just like today, a family member can play your copy of Forza Motorsport at a friend’s house. Only now, they will see not just Forza, but all of your shared games.  You can always play your games, and any one of your family members can be playing from your shared library at a given time.



How "Heartbroken MS employee" described it

"Heartbroken" is an anonymous source, claiming to be a Microsoft employee working on their "Always On" strategy (which has now been dropped).

  1. First is family sharing, this feature is near and dear to me and I truly felt it would have helped the industry grow and make both gamers and developers happy.  The premise is simple and elegant, when you buy your games for Xbox One, you can set any of them to be part of your shared library.  Anyone who you deem to be family had access to these games regardless of where they are in the world.  There was never any catch to that, they didn't have to share the same billing address or physical address it could be anyone.  When your family member accesses any of your games, they're placed into a special demo mode. This demo mode in most cases would be the full game with a 15-45 minute timer and in some cases an hour.  This allowed the person to play the game, get familiar with it then make a purchase if they wanted to.  When the time limit was up they would automatically be prompted to the Marketplace so that they may order it if liked the game.  We were toying around with a limit on the number of times members could access the shared game (as to discourage gamers from simply beating the game by doing multiple playthroughs). but we had not settled on an appropriate way of handling it.  One thing we knew is that we wanted the experience to be seamless for both the person sharing and the family member benefiting.  There weren't many models of this system already in the wild other than Sony's horrendous game sharing implementation, but it was clear their approach (if one could call it that) was not the way to go.  Developers complained about the lost sales and gamers complained about overbearing DRM that punished those who didn't share that implemented by publishers to quell gamers from taking advantage of a poorly thought out system.  We wanted our family sharing plan to be something that was talked about and genuinely enjoyed by the masses as a way of inciting gamers to try new games.  


http://pastebin.com/TE1MWES2


How the Internet interpreted Heartbroken's description

Access to the full game was only allowed for a time period up to 60 minutes, after that you have to buy the game.

The problem with Microsoft's story

As advertised, I actually have little incentive to buy titles - especially at launch.  Why buy when I can just wait to see people who have put me in their sharing plan might have bought it?  And then when I see that, why not just wait until someone else isn't playing it?  For publishers, which apparently MS was in negotiations with (https://twitter.com/aegies/status/347748309550645249) - why would this be an improvement over the used games grey market?  With this plan, I might actually forego buying a new game at all ... much less buy it and then resell it later.

To put it simply, if I have access to different libraries that I didn't pay for - and I can "check out" one of those games as long as nobody else is playing it (other than the original owner) ... there is a very strong chance that I could find a game to play for free rather than pony up $59.99.  Especially as time goes one and those libraries get bigger and there are more games and older games that others have probably finished.

The problem with Heartbroken's description

On the surface, the description seems like a plausible misdirection on Microsoft's part.  You can share your library (as advertised), but that game is really just a demo (not advertised).

However - this seems like a lot of engineering work to replicate what Sony already has done this generation with timed demos, with the added inconvenience that the game being demoed must be in this family Venn diagram to start.  More work, less benefit ... does not sound like much of a value add for either the consumer or even for Microsoft.

Aaron Greenberg said Heartbroken's information was "confusing and not true" (https://twitter.com/aarongreenberg/status/347911202057379840).

Why is the Internet buying an anonymous post?

The most compelling reason is that a user named CBOAT on NeoGaf confirmed it, and CBOAT has apparently had a very high rate of success predicting information - leading NeoGaf users to believe he is probably a reliable Microsoft insider.  Neogaf also apparently is very quick to the banhammer with false rumors, and CBOAT has managed to hold an account for years.

CBOAT's exact post: "60sigh--"

He (or she) is known for posting in odd ways to defeat search engines finding the leaked info.

So WTF?

Here's my guess:

Family Sharing was never a demo program like PSN's timed demos.  Rather it was nagware.

First - accept the fact that the publishers would have always had final say in this program.  This falls in line with the rest of the Xbox One's DRM policies.  Can your game be shared?  Up to the publisher.  How can it be shared?  Up to the publisher.

Second - take Heartbroken's description of "beating the game through multiple playthroughs" not as a hard limit, but rather as a limit which could be set by the publishers to be sure that a game with 20 hours of play could not repeatedly be finished by constantly going back to the library 20 times every hour and having a save game that keeps their progression.

In other words, this is not a timed demo - but a full game that is gated every X minutes for Y number of times.  Every X, you are prompted to buy the game.  When you have played the game Y number of times - you have to pay the publisher.  Maybe some games you can play once for 15 minutes, maybe some you can play once every hour ten times.  All up to the publisher.


Why does that make sense?

This fits with Heartbroken's description - or at least that it was what Microsoft was still considering.  If fits with CBOAT's complaint that the max a user could play was 60 minutes (reading between the non-lines, as it were).  It fits with Greenberg's denial that these weren't time limited demos (because whether they are or aren't is completely up to your definition of the term, not to mention how the publisher decides to play it).

In some ways it is actually mutually beneficial to the gamer, the developer and the publisher.  The gamer gets (potentially) a kind of extended demo to try out games, the publisher is already guaranteed to block profits from used games which will cover if they don't get the uptick from shared games, and the developer sees the extra cash from the publisher.

All of this falls in line with all of Microsoft's messaging - from CBOAT to Greenberg.  It's a full game. It's not a demo.  At least not technically.  But yes, eventually you have to pay for the content.

It's not as consumer-friendly as the current model - but is an interesting feature made possible through DRM.

So why didn't Microsoft sell this better?

Try going to E3 with the message that you have a features which might be awesome - but only if the publishers let it be awesome.  Especially added onto an already negative campaign being warred about your DRM policy being too publisher friendly.  Add in your biggest competitor shoving the fact that none of this is a problem on their console in your face.

What do you do?  Do you overplay your hand by giving a lot of details which might be turned into fodder about how your great new feature is really just another publisher boon?  Or do you give out just enough information - but do it in a soft sell approach that won't raise too many questions?

I think Microsoft went with the former, which seems rational.  If I'm right - they would have been better served with the latter.

So why can't this happen now, just with digital downloads?

No profit motive for the publishers.  If Microsoft is going to allow the grey market back into Xbox One, why take the risk that someone might play a game for five hours and not buy anything?  That might have been something they would have stuck a toe into when Microsoft would guarantee that all transfer of ownership would go back through the publisher - but they've given that up now.  Along with giving that up, they're putting a (theoretical) chunk of change back into the red for the publisher.

Or in other words, if Microsoft returns to the status quo - so will the publishers.

SO WTF?

I don't see this as a bad thing for consumers - right now.  Microsoft's biggest problem this generation is trying to force a "digital lifestyle" with a big stick, but no real carrot.  This could have been their biggest carrot, but it was obviously flawed.  Even if this theory is totally wrong - it was clearly too flawed to communicate correctly.

What Microsoft (and Sony, to be honest) need to do is not try to force gamers down a path of DRM policy to sell more digital content and make games obsolete - they need to figure out how to make buying digital content more attractive.

Steam has a DRM friendly, digital only model.  It's also the easiest and sometimes the cheapest way for PC gamers to buy games now.  Microsoft was not selling that.  Apple's App Store has a DRM friendly, digital only model.  It is also the only choice for iOS users, and with the Xbox One having a big fat Blu-Ray drive ... Microsoft was not selling that.

If consoles are going to go to a DRM friendly, digital only model ... gamers must be sold something.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Xbox One's "Family Sharing" ... actually a timed demo?

Microsoft has not been having a good time over the last week or so.  They effectively handed Sony one of the most brutal E3 victories in recent memory (and possibly like .... ever), to the point where Sony can even add in details like requiring a PlayStation Plus account for online play (but not, Sony is quick to point out - online apps like Netflix).  The Internet then proceeds to spend nearly every waking hour after E3 trying to come up with the best visual meme to ridicule the Xbox One.  Somewhere in the middle, Amazon quietly pulls a poll from their site because the PS4 was voting out the Xbox One to the tune of 100:1.

So Microsoft goes into damage control and reverses their DRM policy completely.  At the same time, they also remove some features, like disc-free gaming (when originally bought on the disc), voice activated game swapping (since apparently Kinetic is too stupid to know if the game actually exists now) and ... family sharing.

Family sharing could have been Microsoft's ticket to a better user story.  In fact, by all measures - it should have been.  The idea that up to ten people could effectively play your games without actually buying said games seems like the kind of pro-consumer story that Microsoft's DRM nightmare needed to give it a softer side.

It would have made such a great commercial:

"Hey have you played X"?

"No, can't.  No money."

"No problem, just say 'Xbox One, play THIS AWESOME GAME'"

OK, maybe it doesn't write itself - but you get the point.  That's something people might be able to get behind.

Problem was - instead of a really commercial, Microsoft just left big questions open.  How is "my family" defined?  Can I play the game while they play?  Is it my entire library or is there some other limit?  Certainly with the release still a few months out, some of these details might need to be ironed out first ... but Microsoft never went past the elevator pitch on this one.

Turns out, their might have been a good reason why:


First is family sharing, this feature is near and dear to me and I truly felt it would have helped the industry grow and make both gamers and developers happy. The premise is simple and elegant, when you buy your games for Xbox One, you can set any of them to be part of your shared library. Anyone who you deem to be family had access to these games regardless of where they are in the world. There was never any catch to that, they didn't have to share the same billing address or physical address it could be anyone. When your family member accesses any of your games, they're placed into a special demo mode. This demo mode in most cases would be the full game with a 15-45 minute timer and in some cases an hour. This allowed the person to play the game, get familiar with it then make a purchase if they wanted to. When the time limit was up they would automatically be prompted to the Marketplace so that they may order it if liked the game.
-- Heartbroken MS employee

 That's from a Pastebin post being circulated around, apparently from a grief stricken Microsoft employee lamenting the demise of the "Always Online" vision. Neogaf grabbed it, and seem to confirm its authenticity ... not in an official Microsoft way, but apparently a user (possibly an MS employee) there quelled an Internet forum's doubts.  Which is actually pretty compelling, if you think about it.  They also point out that this neatly fits into the whole "one hour online" check if you were playing on an Xbox other than your own.

The sad thing - this is actually pretty plausible.  Why have such a strict DRM policy just to basically allow only one out of ten people actually buy the game?  Sure, GameStop won't see the cash ... but neither was the publisher.  And if you weren't keeping track - that was pretty much the entire point of the DRM.

For the record - PlayStation Plus members already get these, although not for every title.  They're called timed demos and they don't have to be shared - any member can just grab them and go.  With Gakai added to their toolkit, it will probably get even better with the PS4.

If this is true, it is painting a very sad picture of Microsoft being completely out of touch with gamers.  For one thing, if people bought the Xbox One and found out when they got home how this great feature actually worked - the media backlash would have been a sight to see.

It's bad enough that they went through all of E3 without really being able to sell pretty much anyone on why DRM might be positive - it seems like they've gone out of their way to try to sneak some fast ones past gamers, especially on top of the cloud computing hocus pocus they've been schilling about.

Update:
I have my doubts about this being a purely timed demo.  More here:
http://cathodetan.blogspot.com/2013/06/how-xbox-ones-family-sharing-probably.html

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Microsoft Reverses Xbox One DRM Policy

Wow.


Reacting to "feedback from the Xbox community," it appears Microsoft is reversing course and changing two key components to policies for its new Xbox One video game console. All disc-based games can be played without ever connecting online, and the 24-hour connection requirement has been dropped, according to an update to a May post concerning questions about the new console. Additionally, there will be no limitations to using and sharing games, Don Mattrick, president of the Interactive Entertainment Business division, says in the post. People will be able to share, trade or resell their games in the same way they do for Xbox 360 games.

Microsoft backtracks on Xbox One sharing policies (CNN)

I think "feedback from the Xbox community" can be roughly translated to "getting completely slaughtered in pre-sales" - for Microsoft to reverse this fast after E3, they had to be getting punched hard in the money-maker.

This is excellent news for consumers.  They haven't mentioned anything about removing region locking, but that might be part of this ... but at least your discs are your own again, and the console flamewars can stop being so decidedly one sided for the next generation.

Update: Apparently no region locking either.

Monday, June 10, 2013

It Came From E3: Sony Versus Microsoft

This next generation of consoles is proving to be far, far more interesting than I would have thought.  Early rumors and expectations seem to suggest that if anything - this generation would basically be two consoles with little distinction except a brand, and something called a Wii U.

But then Microsoft had to go and throw sand in the face of my long standing prediction that no console manufacturer would be so stupid as to actually try and block buying used games.  My assumption has always been that eventually everything would just go disc-less ... but just not this generation.

Oh no, Microsoft is proving to be just that stupid.  The Xbox One (more on that later) will require an Internet connection at least once every 24 hours to play even offline games and the ability to use a game has been left completely to the mercy of the publisher.

Microsoft has made a clear stance: you do not really own any actual physical media.  You are paying for a license to use software and perhaps that software happens to come on a disc - perhaps not, but it does not actually matter.  Once you've bought a game, you are only buying the privilege to use that game in the manner the publisher desires.  Technically and legally, Microsoft is on strong footing - this is actually pretty much how software distribution has always worked.

But nobody ... nobody, has ever considered taking it to the draconian levels the Xbox One will enforce.  Purchasing an Xbox One is effectively voting against your rights as a consumer, plain and simple.

Microsoft's missteps don't end there.  First of all - I don't know what marketing genius decided on "Xbox One" as a name ... but it is clearly someone who thinks of themselves as a "marketing genius".  It is an utterly moronic name only held aloft by a cool factor in itself supported only by clever advertising.

The Xbox One is the third Xbox.

The Xbox One has two distinct pieces.

The Xbox One has many different purposes.

In short, there is nothing "One" about the Xbox One except that it sounds cool.

Sony has made it pretty clear that they don't share Microsoft's beliefs about sharing your games - and that alone is going to give them miles and miles of traction with gamers.  Also, "PS4" has a very nice logical feel to it.  But then they had to go and give the coup de grace:

The PS4 will also be cheaper.  Even though it will probably be marginally more powerful.

If you twist your crystal ball around just enough, you can maybe, almost possibly, perhaps see what Microsoft was thinking: They assumed that Kinect would be a huge value add, one that Sony can't compete with.  They assumed Sony would probably duplicate their mistake with the PS3 and charge a premium.  They possibly even assumed that the lucrative potential of DRM was too attractive for Sony to pass up and that gamers could hard grumble much if both major consoles had matching handcuffs.

Except none of those would seem to be true.  Finally, Microsoft seems to have fallen back on their original strategy - dating all the way back to the first Xbox:

You'll buy our console because of the exclusive games on it.

And why wouldn't they think that?  Halo single-handedly launched a million Xboxes, or you know - something like that.  Gamers might forgive having their purchasing power tied behind their back, a console that is more expensive with less power and name that reeks of marketing stiffs if only they can play the next Halo.

And while Microsoft's exclusives - which comprised the majority of their E3 keynote if you have no doubt that this is there main strategy - are interesting, the flagship title appears to be Titanfall.

Titanfall looks interesting, but brothers and sisters - I've played Halo and Titanfall is no Halo.  Halo was a ground-breaking shooter on many levels whose mechanics still echo through virtually every FPS game on any platform.  Titanfall is pretty, but it is basically a futuristic shooter with parkour and mechs.

Honestly - what all the talk about Titanfall reminds me of?  Brink.  Think on that for a moment.

The thing is - Sony is doing nothing terribly revolutionary here.  The PS4 is a PS3 with modern hardware and something more akin to PC specs and less Cell Processor weirdness.  The next generation PlayStation Plus will be pretty much this generation of PlayStation Plus.  The OS will get some updates.

Sony isn't going to win the next generation - it's more that Microsoft is going to lose by constantly punching itself in the face.  For Microsoft to even keep pace with Sony at this point, Titanfall would need to be the best game ever made in the history of gaming ... but unfortunately for Microsoft, Bungie is already making Destiny.

Don't get me wrong - the XBO will sell plenty of units for sure ... the brand has too much raw weight and inertia.  But it's going to sell like ice for igloos abroad where its already-too-high price point will be painfully-that-much-higher (one forum comment noted that the XBO would be higher than than their month's rent by far too wide a margin) ... and even here in the good old US of A, loyal 360 users are going to start wondering about their ability to buy cheap games from the used racks between now and the holidays.

Nintendo has basically nailed third place into the ground with the Wii U being far too little and way too late.

Microsoft apparently found second place too tempting to pass up.