Windows Mobile 6 Upgrade available for AT&T 8525

Looks like it was just posted this evening. I had coincidentally decided to check to see if it had finally been released, and came across this lengthy forum thread of frustrated phone users where the release of the update was eventually discovered.

I haven’t installed it yet, but I’m curious about the changes and improvements that have been made. I’m hoping that Internet Explorer will be a bit more stable and capable — I’ve noticed that the version included in Windows Mobile 5 has issues with pages that use JavaScript and such, and my experience with Opera Mobile wasn’t much better. (And don’t even get me started on Minimo…)

High Fidelity (Part 2)

I mentioned recently that I got an HD-DVD player for my 360. Today I decided to do a quick visual comparison between the DVD and HD-DVD versions of Hot Fuzz (which conveniently come on two sides of the same disc), to try and see the difference in image quality for myself. First, I watched the opening 10 minutes of the DVD version. (I watched the DVD version first to try and prevent myself from subconsciously nitpicking at its image quality if I watched it after the HD-DVD version.) Then, I watched the same 10 minutes of the HD-DVD version of the film and noted any significant differences.

As could be expected, fine detail was much more apparent in the HD-DVD version. In the opening shot of the film, part of the Metropolitan Police desk sign is illegible in the DVD cut, but is quite readable in the HD-DVD version. The shots of Angel talking with members of the community were also noticeably improved in the HD-DVD version. The DVD version also exhibited extreme blurriness and a bit of a moire effect in the scene where Angel is talking to his superiors and discovering that they plan to ship him off to Sandford — the venetian blinds in the background look much better in the HD-DVD version.

One other interesting difference is that the menu system in the DVD version was considerably nicer than the one in the HD-DVD version. I’m not sure if this is due to limitations of the interactive content format used by HD-DVD, or time/budgetary/effort considerations, but it’s a little annoying that the high definition format gets stiffed on something like this.

Overall, though, it’s a pretty clear win for HD-DVD and high definition formats in general. The visual quality difference is pretty easy to see, even if you’re not really looking for it — things just look nice and sharp. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the resolution differences between most DVD video and HD-DVD video, but it’s nice to be able to verify this for myself.

Crysis Demo Impressions

There has been quite the deluge of FPS releases and demo releases lately, and it’s been hard to keep up with all of them. I noticed that the single-player demo for Crysis had been released, so after a lengthy download, I sat down to give it a shot. To give a frame of reference for my comments, I’ve never played Far Cry, nor any of its console iterations, so I’m looking at both Crytek‘s design and engine from a fresh perspective.

Just to get this out of the way quickly — the game looks great. It’s easily the most convincing jungle environment that I’ve seen in an FPS, and there are many nice graphical touches in the environment and on the characters themselves. I should confess that I’m playing the game on a rig that’s a year and a half old, and, consequently, playing on only medium visual detail. (For Vista users, there is apparently a DX10 version which looks quite a bit nicer.) The physical interactivity in the world is also very cool, although it should be noted that this happens less frequently than you would expect — bullets don’t really jostle and knock over things very much. Grenades, though, can shake apart small buildings, and vehicles can drive through buildings as well. It’s pretty funny. There is still numerical instability in the physics, though — it’s fairly easy to get vehicles to do funny things when driving over rough terrain or other objects. But hey, it’s still fun, and that’s what counts, right?

The gameplay is moderately free-form, in that you are given goals to advance the storyline, but you can go about achieving those goals in whatever manner you choose. This basically boils down to having the freedom to approach objectives from any angle, and using any means necessary to take care of enemies in your path. You can take a rubber raft (with mounted .50 caliber machine gun) around the island, and try and surprise an outpost from behind. Or, you can drive a jeep (with mounted .50 caliber machine gun) straight up the road at the outpost, and go in guns blazing. Or, you can sneak through the jungle and snipe enemies with your silenced rifle. I didn’t have the patience to do much of the latter.

One gameplay wrinkle involves "powers" that your super-special covert ops suit gives you. At any given time, you can be in armor mode, speed mode, strength mode, or stealth mode. The functions of armor mode and speed mode are fairly obvious. Strength mode gives you a boost when jumping, as well as the ability to hurl items (and people) long distances. Apparently it also greatly reduces recoil when firing, but I didn’t really mess around with it too much. Stealth mode is basically Predator camouflage, although the battery on it seems to run out quite quickly. The various modes of your suit are kind of neat, but I didn’t take the time to configure/figure out a way to switch between them very quickly, which would have made them more useful. The standard method involves holding down the mouse wheel and using a context menu — not exactly something that you can do while on the run.

The story and dialogue so far are adequate — nothing too special here. It’s pretty much your standard macho sci-fi boilerplate. Apparently EA left the screenplay documents in the demo install, so if you care to have a look, you can spoil yourself to your heart’s content. It took me about an hour to get through the demo mission (which is apparently about a tenth of the game), which ends on an obligatory cliffhanger.

Overall, I enjoyed the demo. I got a bit of an Operation Flashpoint vibe from the way that you could approach tactical situations in many different ways, and the fact that there are lots of different vehicles around for your use. I’m curious about whether the multiplayer will include cooperative missions, or if it will only contain adversarial multiplayer modes. They do seem to indicate that the mod tools can be used for multiplayer levels as well as single-player levels, but it’s unclear if the game’s networking will really support expansive, scripted missions in multiplayer. I know that there are a lot of challenges in making that kind of stuff work in a multiplayer environment that don’t exist when you’re talking about a single-player game.

It’s not all roses, though. I do have a list of gripes about the game:

  1. I had a really hard time making out enemies through the foliage. This may be realistic, but the AI doesn’t seem to display much of a disadvantage when fighting in the jungle, which made fights very frustrating for me. I would have to rely on the radar display to locate enemies, rather than spotting them visually.
  2. It’s difficult to locate ammunition pickups amongst the debris of the battlefield. Since almost every object can be picked up, and the HUD displays a message any time you aim at a nearby object, it can be difficult to locate the important stuff, a.k.a. ammo, in a densely-populated area.
  3. The game noticed that I had a wired Xbox 360 controller plugged into my PC, and all of the tutorial prompts referred to buttons on the controller, even though I wasn’t using it to control the game. (I’m actually not sure if the tutorial text would refer directly to keyboard/mouse buttons if the controller wasn’t plugged in, though.)

I can’t say for sure that I will pick this game up when it hits store shelves, but it looks pretty solid. It’s also interesting to me from a technical perspective because I believe it’s one of the first multi-platform engines that has really started to embrace multi-threading. (Note that I say "started" — from public presentations and technical talks, I believe they are still somewhat hamstrung by their legacy architecture.)

High Fidelity

I recently took the plunge and bought the Xbox 360 HD DVD Player. There was a great deal at Best Buy that allowed me to get all of the following for $179.99 plus tax:

  • The drive itself (which comes with King Kong)
  • Two free movies of my choice (for which I chose Hot Fuzz and Transformers)
  • Heroes – Season 1 (for which I had to take a rain check)
  • Five additional movies (from a pre-set list) via mail-in rebate.

Not a bad deal at all.

My impressions so far are pretty favorable. I haven’t set up the drive in its final position yet, because I have to disentangle a bunch of stuff behind my entertainment center, but it’s quite small — I would say that it’s about the size of a dictionary or so. It connects via a USB 2.0 cable to one of the ports on the 360 itself, and it has its own small power supply. I have to say that I’m surprised that USB 2.0 provides enough bandwidth to transfer the video data, but hey, it works. The playback process itself is software-driven — an application that apparently comprises 4.7 million lines of code and includes technologies from several different groups at Microsoft.

Following installation of the "drivers" (I’m not sure that it’s actually installing things so much as flipping a settings bit on the 360 dashboard, or doing something like copying a decryption key onto the console), the "disc tray" menu item on the dashboard becomes split in two, with one half representing the main 360 DVD drive, and the other half representing the HD-DVD drive. This should make things a little more convenient in that we won’t have to eject a game disc to play a movie anymore.

An interesting wrinkle is that apparently the playback software can be updated through Xbox Live or a burnt CD/DVD, just like a game title update. I was prompted to download an update when I first inserted a movie. Initially, I wondered whether or not this would allow for forward compatibility with the proposed disc format changes — however, another article I read suggests that this may not be the case.

I should also mention that the HD-DVD add-on comes with the remote control for the 360. It’s nice — not quite as nice as a Harmony remote would be, but it’s a nice addition to the package.

We watched King Kong last night, and the difference between the standard DVD format and a high-def format was pretty clear to me, and pretty impressive. Much finer detail is evident, and there did not appear to be as many motion artifacts in scenes with fast-moving action or camera movement. Our TV is only a 720p display, as well — I’m sure the difference would be more pronounced with a 1080p set.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with it. I’m definitely looking forward to watching more movies on it.

Proven to do what?

I read an e-mail thread recently on the sweng-gamedev mailing list which jogged my memory about one of my most hated development clichรƒยฉs — “proven technology.” Why do I hate this phrase so much?

The phrase implies a certain obvious correctness — nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, right? It conveniently ignores any facts or questions about the current proposed usage, in favor of simply aping another project (whose circumstances may have been completely different). It’s an argument that’s easily “defensible” by other straw man arguments — “are you trying to say that XYZ isn’t successful?”

The only thing proven by “proven technology” is that it isn’t completely terrible, because somebody managed to ship something with it. That’s it. If you’re ever trying to convince me to use something, you better come with something better than this. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Now married

And happy. ๐Ÿ™‚

We saw the wildfires from the plane last night — it was really crazy to see from that far up, and to realize how big they actually were. The whole region appears to be under a cloud of smoke, although today is a little better than last night. Everyone is hoping for a change in the wind, but it seems like the change forecast for Wednesday has now been pushed back to Thursday. For most of today, I’ve been glued to the news sources to see what’s been going on — it’s been hard for me to concentrate on much of anything today, and I can only imagine how it feels for those who are directly affected or who are out there on the front lines trying to fight the fires.

An unexpected surprise

I was at Target the other day, buying some household goods, when I decided to detour into the games section. What I found on the PC racks amazed me:

The PC version of Secret Weapons Over Normandy

That’s right — almost four years after it came out, I found three copies of the PC version of Secret Weapons Over Normandy on the shelf. They must be dumping the rest of them on the market — I know they haven’t been there very long, as the Target location I was at is fairly new, and from what I know about the distribution business, deals often involve taking old stock off someone’s hands in order to get the latest and greatest.

I have to say, it was a pleasant surprise to see it on the shelves again after so long.

Do good games sell more copies?

This is a great analysis of PS2 game sales and Metacritic scores for games released through December 2006. There are a few conclusions that I think can be drawn from this:

  • For a game to truly reach blockbuster status, it must be good.
  • There are many games that are good, but which don’t sell many copies.
  • Regardless of what you may have heard about the PS2 install base and how it makes any game project profitable due to its size, there are a lot of games out there that will not make back their development costs. Even if you double the North American sales for a title (generally accepted to be a crude estimate for worldwide sales), many titles are still well south of half a million copies.

This kind of data really convinces me that Wii development is not the panacea for game developer profitability that some suggest. The mass market still must be regularly “convinced” to buy new games — it’s not like the hardcore market that Microsoft and Sony court, which keeps up-to-date on gaming news of its own volition and buys 10-12 games a year. Smaller-budget Wii games simply aren’t going to get much of a marketing push, and will face stiff competition from their peers as well as Nintendo itself. I’m also convinced that Wii consumers will still overwhelmingly prefer to buy Nintendo-produced games — this has been borne out by the sales figures released so far.

Not Big in China

For some reason, my blog is banned in China, according to this testing tool. Or is it? Every address that I tried, including ones that are in the .cn domain, came back as rejected. They state, “This version, 1.0 may report sites as being ‘blocked’, while there are only technical reasons for their unavailability.” Hmm.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to point at results from a tool like this as reliable and useful when it seems to be broken on a regular basis. I’d rather see them take the tool down when it is not actually working than to leave it up and generate bogus negatives. It kind of makes you wonder, though, if there is any sort of legerdemain going on where test results are manipulated as they return through the Great Firewall of China.