The Steam Trinity. Should MS and Sony be Worried?

SteamLogo

We’re all aware of the looming console wars. Both Microsoft and Sony have announced their next generation console and are gearing up for their impending releases. The tit-for-tat marketing is in full swing and the pre-orders are already in. It’s unlikely that there will be an outright winner – the consoles are fairly equally matched and they both offer a similar package at similar price points. So far it has been a two horse race but recent events may change that. Last week Valve made some very intriguing and interesting announcements related to their Steam service which may have a significant impact on the impending battle.

SteamLogo

For those of you who aren’t up to speed, Steam is an online service offered by Valve. It is a distribution platform which allows you to buy, download and play games. Prices are very reasonable and in some cases games are even free. It also allows you to take those games with you to any machine you may want to use them on. There’s no physical media involved, it’s all done on-line. The service is also cross-platform being available for operating systems such as Windows and Linux. Currently not all games offered on Steam can be used on all platforms but Valve are aggressively working on this to ensure maximum availability for all the games they offer. While that’s all well and good, you’re probably asking how this will impact the next-gen consoles.

So what did last week’s announcements bring to the table? First to be announced was the SteamOS. So far Steam has been a service, or piece of software, which users install on an operating system much like any other program. With SteamOS, Valve will be offering a full Linux based operating system with the Steam service tightly integrated within it. It will be designed for use with televisions and best of all it will be free to use. SteamOS wont be restricted to games either, you’ll be able to enjoy other media too.

The xi3 Piston Console

Next they announced the Steam Machines, though I still prefer the name SteamBox. Having been rumoured for some time, this is a gaming PC designed for the living room, obviously coming with SteamOS installed. In contrast to consoles, this will not be one machine. Valve will recommend and classify specs but it will then be up to OEMs to develop and market the machines. Different machines will be made available to suit different pockets and different gaming styles from the casual to the hard core gamer. They will be fully upgradable by the end user – another major difference over consoles. Just before I published this article, Valve announced some eye-wateringly brilliant specifications for the prototype Steam Machines. The specs look good and I’m hopeful the machines they come up with look something like xi3’s Piston PC – that would like very nice under the  telly!

SteamController

Last to pop up was the Steam controller. Probably the least interesting of the three announcements, it may very well be the most challenging for Valve to pull off. This is game controller much in the same mould as you would find with a Xbox or Playstation. The challenge here for Valve is that the games on Steam are designed with a keyboard in mind. A controller which can take over from a keyboard will need to be much more flexible and configurable than the standard controllers we see with the other consoles.

What we have here is a serious challenge by Valve. While the next gen-consoles will be out before Valve’s Steam trinity, I think any serious gamer will need to sit back and have a good hard think before parting with his or her pieces of gold. From what we know so far, Valve will be offering something that will offer the best of the PC gaming world and the best of the console world. In particular it will be possible to keep hardware up to date allowing the gamer to always enjoy the best in gaming graphics, as well as enjoy those games in the living room on a HD TV and have access to those games from anywhere. There can be drawbacks too, the hardware upgradability in particular being a double edged sword. While I’ve recently moved to consoles, I come from a PC gaming background and this really intrigues me. I had been considering an Xbox One till these announcements were made. Now, I’ll be holding on to my hard earned cash and will be watching how things develop with Valve’s Steam ecosystem very closely. I think you should too. It looks like a third horse will be joining the race!

Posted in Games, Games, Microsoft, Steam, Technology, Xbox | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hey, there’s a worm in your Apple!

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We’ve all heard of Apple and we all know who Steve Jobs was. His penchant for pushing the market to new heights and passion for I.T. was legendary. He’s no longer with us now with Tim Cook now manning the helm. Undoubtedly Apple is the worse off for Job’s passing though, with recent efforts by the fruity company having failed to impress. I was hopeful that with the next iteration of the iPhone, Apple would once again be on form – boy was I wrong!

During the last few months rumours of a cheap iPhone and an “iWatch” abounded, the market was salivating and “experts” were proclaiming the arrival of the next best thing since sliced bread. 10th September was to be the date when we’d all be enlightened, when we’d all feel warm and cosy having been blessed with Apple’s generous gifts. The date rolled along and we all waited with bated breath. We longed for the magic, for “one more thing”. What we got was disappointing to say the least.

iPhone 5C

Two new iPhones arrived on the scene. The supposedly “cheap” iPhone, the iPhone 5C, is far from cheap in price though it is definitely cheap and unappealing to look at. Basically what we have here is the iPhone 5 with a plastic coloured back! My initial reaction was that this was some sort of joke, but nope, this is the iPhone 5C. At full price it’ll be close to €550. In comparison to the iPhone 5S it may be “cheaper”, but in reality this is no entry level iPhone for the masses. Why Apple did this is beyond comprehension. There is a real and valuable market for an entry to mid-level iPhone, yet they have chosen to ignore it. A case in point is China which is one of the biggest and fastest growing mobile markets. With this decision Apple has ensured that the iPhone 5C is beyond the reach of the average wage earner.

iPhone 5S

The iPhone 5S is an even bigger disappointment. Priced as a premium top end phone, this model has nothing to really make it stand out. Once again we’re looking at a tweaked iPhone 5. In this case the main changes are a 64bit processor and a finger print reader. The former will hardly be noticeable by the user while the latter is being proclaimed as the next big thing in mobile security. The thing is this has been done before, though to be fair to Apple they do have a tendency to make technologies work were others have failed. In this case I can’t see it happening though and I am convinced that the security will be hacked within a short time. Other than that the iPhone 5S is the same as last year’s model – same screen size, same dimensions. OK, there are some colour choices but these are barely worth mentioning, though I do think gold will be the iSnobs’ colour of choice! Other manufacturers are moving to bigger form factors and screen sizes – a 5 inch screen being considered “normal”. As for the phablet phenomenon Apple appears to be completely oblivious to what’s going on in the market. Looking at the emerging Asian market, this form factor is proving highly popular and current trends indicate that phablets may become the form factor of choice. Samsung is definitely doing well, while HTC and Nokia are looking to get into the game with their own offerings.

IOS7

Both mobiles will arrive with the latest version of IOS – version 7. It is now available as an upgrade on a number of other devices such as the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4 too. Here too Apple have failed. While IOS needed modernising, all they’ve done is given it a lick of paint and made it more difficult to understand. The interface is much less intuitive than IOS6 and forums are being inundated with users trying to find out how to perform simple tasks. It appears that Apple are assuming that users will know and understand what they need to do without making it obvious in the interface. This has made IOS and Apple devices much less attractive to new smart phone and tablet users. While not as bad as the IOS6 Apple Maps debacle, the bug and issue reports have already started rolling in too, including a particularly alarming security flaw. To add insult to injury there’s no new functionality to speak of other than the notifications centre. Oh, and Siri is no longer in beta!

Apple has always created solid and well designed devices, but this latest iteration in their product line offers nothing new and wont entice anyone over from Android or Windows Phone. There’s no innovation or wow factor and these devices and the new version of IOS disappoint on so many levels. It appears Apple has lost its way and the gusto it had for innovating just isn’t there. Fanbois will continue to buy Apple products, keeping the money wheel turning but Apple needs to wake up and “smell the coffee” or its competitors will continue to steal the show and force Apple into irrelevance.

Posted in Apple, Mobile, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Gentlemen, Choose Your Weapons!

Halo 4, games

One of the most common arguments between gamers is the perennial question of which is better – Console or PC? In light of the impending release of the next generation consoles it’s a subject worth pondering on. I’ve experienced both worlds. I was an avid PC gamer for many years and moved to a Xbox 360 a couple of years ago. Undoubtedly there are people from both camps who’ll claim that their choice is the way to go. But which is really better?

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Let’s start with the PC. The PC could quite easily be described as a gaming behemoth. You’ll find all genres of game available for the platform and the options for hardware and software are plentiful. There are gaming rigs out there that boggle the mind. The sheer power and flexibility they offer is second to none. To experience a game to its full potential the best option would undoubtedly be to use a PC. This goes both for graphics, sound and raw processing power. The problem here is that this comes at a cost, and quite a substantial one too. In order to have a top of the line gaming rig you’re going to be spending thousands of Euros. But it doesn’t end there either. It’s not sufficient to buy the rig, if you want to keep that machine cutting edge you’re going to need to keep on spending the pennies, lots of them. While you can keep on playing new releases on your rig without upgrading the hardware, each new game will challenge it more and eventually you’re going to have to start lowering the quality settings to achieve decent performance. I may sound like I’m exaggerating here, but I think most hard core gamers would agree that, if you don’t want to compromise on game quality, you’re looking at roughly a 6 month upgrade cycle.

XBox360

What about the console? They offer the advantage of a stable platform which is guaranteed to remain constant for somewhere in the region of 5 years, the current generation having extended this closer to 7 years. Since game developers have a specific hardware configuration to target and tailor their games for, the gamer has the peace of mind that whatever game he or she buys will work at maximum quality and performance. Intended to have a home in the living room it’s also designed specifically to be hooked up to a TV. Despite many attempts, the PC has never managed to make the same transition and tends to be consigned to the bedroom. That’s quite an advantage. Would you prefer playing on a 50 inch HDTV or 20 inch Monitor? Price too is a point in favour of the console. The current generation are very cheap to buy while the next generation are going to sell for about €500. However, what is a strength for the console, also becomes its weakness. Since the hardware remains effectively the same throughout the life of the console, it can’t take advantage of any leaps in technology. It will remain locked to that hardware architecture and configuration for its entire lifetime. The end result? During the life cycle of the console game quality will become noticeably inferior to that of the same game on PC hardware. Certain genres aren’t really suited for the platform either, a typical example being real time strategy titles.

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So which is better? Such a loaded question! Such repercussions! Any answer could result in a death threat or three turning up in the mail. Hmmm, shall I go the diplomatic way and say they both have their pros and cons? Nah, that’s not my style at all! Nope, my answer is the console is the better choice. I know, I know, you can blub all you like about how the PC is superior, renders games like no console ever could and rains manna from heaven! Sorry, that’s my answer to this dilema – the console is the way to go. What’s the rationale? Well think about it, the console gives you the best of both worlds, has decent longevity and you wont need to take out a mortgage to buy one. The PC has its place and fills a niche in the gaming scene, me, I’ll enjoy playing Halo on my HDTV!

Don’t agree with my thoughts? Use the comments box, let’s discuss!

Till next time !

Posted in Games, Games, Technology, Xbox | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Sci Fi Go Bye Bye?

prom crew

Sci Fi is my number one genre. I just love it and can’t get enough of it but I’ve become increasingly disappointed with Hollywood’s efforts in recent years. For every film I’ve been to see I’ve been left wanting more, expecting more and in general feeling my money would have been better spent elsewhere. It has come to the point that I have to check out as many reviews as possible to get a better idea of the film and judge its worthiness beforehand. Even then it’s not enough and invariably I end up leaving the cinema with a sour taste in my mouth. This year alone I’ve seen three major Sci Fi releases – Oblivion, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Elysium. In each case I was disappointed.

Hmmm do I hear protestations in the audience? No doubt many of you are saying they were good films, that you thoroughly enjoyed them.

To be honest so did I!

Let me pause for that to sink in, I’m sure you’re looking at the screen and thinking “is this guy high or something?”

huh

Not at all! You see I did enjoy these films but they were nothing more than average. None of them had that something special, that extra x-factor to keep you hooked. You watch the film, are reasonably entertained and ho-hum it’s forgotten! Technically they were all brilliant, the effects were spot on but the stories were lacking and in some cases even flawed. Let’s take Elysium as a case in point – a word of warning, spoilers incoming! Jodie Foster’s character, Delacourt, was a strong female character. She was the perfect “evil” enemy. Her decision to shoot down the three immigrant shuttles really cemented her evil villain status. I expected a great finale between Max (Matt Damon) and Delacourt. Instead, what happened? She got stabbed in the throat, refused medical attention and died with a whimper – what a letdown! The final showdown ended up between Max and Kruger (Sharlto Copley). This too was utterly disappointing; there was no showmanship, no pizzazz. Just a quick fight and “Oops Kruger go boom!”. It was even more disappointing knowing the great action sequences Matt Demon is capable of – The Bourne Identity being a case in point.

Unfortunately it is not just this year’s films which are suffering from this problem. It has been going on for a while. Prometheus is another case in point – good film, average story line. Going further back Avatar was even worse. I’m not the brightest spark in the room but I was able to accurately guess how it was going to end within the first 30 minutes of the film. I am a firm believer that Avatar was the success it was for no other reason than the 3D hype which surrounded it – my regular readers will know that particular technology really grinds my gears!

The problem here is that Hollywood is relying too much on effects and the immediate wow factor they generate. The impact on the audience created by these effects fade away very quickly once the film is over. They have forgotten that for a film to be really great you need to develop the characters. By doing this you engage the audience so they create an emotional link with the character and become invested in his or her story. What saddens me even more is that all the films I have mentioned had great potential. In each case the underlying storyline was excellent and had a good foundation. One example of a Sci Fi film which really worked was Moon starring Sam Rockwell – the story and character development was simply excellent.

Moon

There are plenty of Sci Fi films to look forward to this year such as Riddick, Gravity, Ender’s Game and the Europa Report. I have high hopes for each one of them and will doubtless make an effort to catch them when they arrive in the cinema. I hope Hollywood learns its lesson, I hope I won’t leave the cinema with a sour taste again.

We want brilliant stories, and heroes we can love and relate to. Those special effects Hollywood is so fond of should support those stories not supersede them.

Posted in Movies, Sci Fi | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Social Media or Social Decay?

Social Media Logotype Background

Social media has become one of, if not the biggest growing segment on the internet today. We’ve all heard of Facebook, Linkedin, Google Plus and the like and undoubtedly you have an account on at least one of these services. Their popularity is driven by human nature. We are a social species by design and it is probably one of the main reasons why Homo Sapiens has become the dominant species on the planet. Sites like Facebook give us a means of exploring this propensity for socialising and networking in way which has never been possible before.

As these services have gained popularity, many people have come to question if they are really helping to improve our social interaction or if they are simply destroying our ability to socialise with our fellow human beings. If you take a close look and analyse the quality of interaction going on within these services you’ll notice that there is an element of truth to these claims. Very frequently you’ll find that these services are being used as a means of self promotion – somewhere to show off what you have, what you do or what you look like. Many tend to use the number of “friends” as a status symbol. One would have to question if those “friends” are really friends at all. The darker elements of social media such as cyber bullying and cyber stalking shouldn’t be forgotten either.

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These people claim that social media is one of the major causes of the decline of social interaction and society in general – we are losing our humanity for the sake of a few likes! While I can understand their reasoning, I disagree. I make heavy use of social media and have seen both sides of the coin. As in real life you will find those who use the technology as it was intended and those who abuse use it.

In reality these services offer a truly amazing means for us to communicate with the world, to socialise, make new friends and find long lost acquaintances. They are also a way to express an opinion and ensure “Big Brother” is kept in check. Social media has empowered the average man and woman and given them a voice that as little as 15 years ago didn’t exist.

Time and again this has happened throughout history, yet it seems to be human nature for blame to be placed on the technology rather than the people abusing it. Social media is here to stay and we are the better off for it. Society wont collapse, we won’t see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding into town any time soon. Life will go on and social media will become simply another means for us to talk and share.

Be careful out there, till next time.

Posted in Mobile, Self, Social Media, Technology | Tagged , , , , , ,

When a Game Is More Than a Game

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My regular readers will know that I’m an avid game player. I’ve spent many an hour in front of the PC or Xbox in my time and I’ve lost count of all the games I’ve played. There have been a few games which have made an impression on me, which have been more than just entertainment. Some of those games include DOOM, Half Life, Gears of War and Assassin’s Creed. There is one game, however, which has had a bigger and more profound effect on me than all those games put together. The game, or rather games, I’m referring to is the Mass Effect trilogy.

I picked up the first game purely by coincidence. I had only just got hold of my Xbox after having been absent from the gaming scene for a few years. I made the amateur mistake of going to the shop without having done some research beforehand. I had no idea what to choose! Ignoring the whining from the sales person, my attention was drawn by the box art work of Mass Effect.  I guess it was only natural being the Sci Fi geek that I am! I picked it up and had a look at the blurb on the back. I was discouraged – my preferred genre had always been first person shooters while this was a third person RPG. I almost put it back on the shelf. But then I thought to myself “what the heck, it’s on discount, let’s give it a go!” All the time the sales person was dribbling over some shooter and trying to convince me to buy it. It made the purchase all that sweeter seeing their dismay that I was buying a discounted game! I may have even heard a little whimper too………

Mass Effect Box Art

I got home, fired up the Xbox and started the game. The disappointment remained – “I don’t like third person. All this fiddling with options, RPGs aren’t for me!”. Being that I had spent my hard earned cash on the game I was determined to finish it. So I persevered. Then, something strange happened. After the first few hours of game play I started getting used to the controls, started getting into the story arc. I was enjoying it! I was enjoying a RPG! I really got into the game, played all the side missions and finished the main game too – Saren was dead, Sovereign destroyed! It was a no-brainer that I would have to play both sequels too!

Normandy

The thing is, this game had an effect on me, an emotional effect. It was surprising actually as I had never really experienced this before from a game. You see, the characters within the game had become more than just non-player characters, they had become friends! How is this possible you may ask? These aren’t real people! That’s true, but Bioware, the creators of Mass Effect, had incorporated a very important element into the game. While it was technically competent and on a par with other games, it had a trick up its sleeve. It focused very closely on character development. You were engaged in the characters lives, their needs and their tragedies. This was especially true in Mass Effect 2, were Shepard, your character in the game, was tasked with gathering his team and gaining their respect and loyalty. To do this he had to help them with personal issues. These were missions orientated around the characters and their personal lives. Through these missions, the characters’ personalities developed and you got to know them like you would a real person. Each character had his own quirks and intricacies that you came to know and love.  I do believe that some of these characters were more human, had more substance, than some real people I’ve had the “pleasure” of meeting.  There was also the socialising on the Normandy, the banter of the crew, the chit chat during those long waits in the lifts on the Citadel. All these things added up, helped you to get to know the characters. Friends were made. We all had our favourites!

Garrus

There was Garrus the strong warrior of few words, Tali the tech geek and Mordin the eccentric genius. I lost Tali towards the end of Mass Effect 2 during a shoot out with the Collectors. This hit me hard and effected me so much that I seriously considered restarting the game to try and save her. I should emphasise that this happened almost at the very end of the game! But this was my Shepard’s story and doing that would be cheating myself and the friends I had made on the Normandy. So I continued on and played through the entire trilogy to its inevitable conclusion. The battle with the Reapers was over, and while it was great to bring peace to the galaxy this was a side note. For me Mass Effect was about the characters, the friends I had made, and in reality it saddened me as I had to say goodbye to them all.

Reaper

I wasn’t the only person to be effected by the game in this way. Just look at the reaction to the ending of Mass Effect 3 – it bordered on the hysterical! So big was the outcry that Bioware extended and enhanced the ending sequences of the game in an attempt to placate their ravenous lust for a “better” ending. In the end though, these games were brilliant and they hooked you like no other game could. I still miss Shepard and the crew of the Normandy. I still think of the adventures and near misses we had. I long for another chance to spend time with them. Playing over isn’t an option, the story would change; it wouldn’t be my Shepard any more.

Bioware say Mass Effect 4 is on the way. We don’t know anything about it yet other than Shepard wont be featuring in the game. I hope they don’t make a prequel, they never work – you already know how it will all end.

I could go on and on about this game, the characters, the story and my love for the whole Mass Effect universe. I shall resist that temptation though and instead I shall leave you with a very important question, one which all true Mass Effect fans ask:

What ending did you choose?

Me?

I chose Synthesis!

Posted in Games, Technology, Xbox | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

We are our imagination!

zombies

Since I got my first computer I’ve always loved games. For a number of years I had stopped playing though. I hadn’t lost interest, or found a more entertaining pursuit. Rather, I had fallen victim to something which we all have to face throughout our lives. I began giving in to the pressure to conform. Many times I heard the phrases “games are for kids”, “games wont help you build a future for yourself”, “wouldn’t it be better if you focus your energies on your career?”, etc, etc. While I didn’t consciously give in to these pressures, over time it had an effect. It latched on to me like a weed and started growing and spreading throughout my psyche like a crippling disease. Eventually I came to a point were games didn’t feature in my life anymore. I had conformed! I had become another mindless troll, plodding through life and doing what was “expected” of a man my age.

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For a while it seemed OK, it seemed that I was on the right path and I was following the perceived norm. However, over time, a hunger began growing in me, a restlessness, a frustration. This void, this emptiness, just wouldn’t go away. My subconscious was trying to tell me something but I just couldn’t figure out what that was.

Then I met the woman who was to become my wife. She has many of the same interests I have and she encouraged me to enjoy the things I really love. Thanks to her that restlessness in me abated somewhat, but it wasn’t completely gone. It was still there, slowly eating away at me. Many times I lamented how I used to enjoy games and she would encourage me to get back into gaming. I would dismiss the idea with typical run-of-the-mill excuses – “not enough time”, “that’s for kids”, etc, etc.

Then, a couple of years ago, she convinced me to buy an Xbox 360 console. At first I didn’t like the idea and was certain I was wasting my hard earned Euros. Despite my protesting, something deep down encouraged me to get it anyway, and in December 2010 I became the proud owner of an Xbox.

It was the best decision I had made in a long while! As soon as I picked up that controller and started playing I felt the real me coming back. This was a major step in re-discovering myself, and it was a revelation!

That revelation was that by conforming, by giving up games, I had denied myself one of the major stimuli for triggering my imagination. I had effectively switched myself off and had turned myself into a zombie. We all need our imagination, even as adults. Without it we are nothing but machines, going through the motions of life without actually enjoying it. We are pressured to conform, to follow the trend, to do what is expected of us. My advice – don’t give in, be yourself, work your imagination. For me that means playing games, for you that may be reading, painting or building models!

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Don’t become an anonymous cog in the machine, be an individual – work your imagination!

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

Posted in Games, Self, Technology | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments