Monthly Archives: January 2013

Plans

Here are some of the following ideas I’ve had for some future posts. I would normally have just started some drafts and just left them there, but I think that since the ideas are so meaty, perhaps just mentioning them would be entertainment/thought-provoking enough in itself.

  1. Recent sales data (Eurogamer) on the WiiU suggests that the platform might be struggling to prove popular. I’d very much like to look into the important factors involved in past video game console launches.
  2. My interest in computer hardware engineering/design has lead me to this page on past famous or otherwise influential CPUs. As a result, I’d like to study the effects of computer hardware on video games. A quick thought I had was whether the jump to hardware capable of 3D visuals in the 90s necessarily lead to 3D platforming, or whether something similar could be said about 2D visuals. Central to this is the broader question of whether computer hardware could determine video game content.
  3. More narrowly, I’d like to inspect and assess the hardware of the WiiU and the corresponding next-gen PlayStation and Xbox consoles.
  4. Having just done some reading on epistemology/the philosophy of the mind–schools of thought such as idealism and physicalism, characters such as Berkeley and Kant–I’d like to conduct a discussion on the philosophy associated with virtual reality. I find Lacanian concepts of Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic fascinating on this subject. The discussion that Slavoj Zizek makes in his book Parallax View remains a favourite of mine, and I’d really like to include it. Against a lot of the mind-oriented theory is the equally interesting physicalist injunction that video games are really just the effects of electricity and the organisation of atoms in hard-drives and semiconductor integrated circuits.
  5. I just received a copy of Banjo Tooie, and it would be pretty cool to compare and contrast it with its predecessor.
  6. Playing Sonic 2 and 3, and reading about Nights Into Dreams and the Sega Dreamcast development makes me interested to study the artistic traits of video game legend, programmer Yuji Naka.
  7. I’m coming to believe that a lot of the nostalgia that gamers have for the Mega Drive/Genesis-Super Nintendo ‘console war’ era is the result of an illusion created and maintained by marketing and advertisements. I’d like to test this idea by looking at sales data and other forms of concrete evidence.

There’s so much interesting stuff to write on! I just need the time!

Advertisements

Ten Best Free Platformers of 2012

yhtwtg_2-1024x768[1]This is basically a reblog of Kotaku and Indiegames (nothing wrong with that, right??), about ten brilliant freeware indie platformers that have percolated into the popular attention since their release in 2012.

While I haven’t tried any of them yet, some of them look really, really fun.

Sonic 2 Prototypes

If you’re interested in looking at all the different decisions that go into making a game–especially a classic one, such as Sonic 2–you’re probably more than captured by things such as game prototypes. Check out these two Sonic 2 prototypes: the Simon Wai prototype, and the Nick Arcade prototype.

Sega Saturn

I’ve always been fascinated by Sega’s video game consoles. Only a few of them succeeded, and among them there are just as many failures as successes. So many of them were either horribly designed, poorly launched or woefully supported that it’s almost impossible not to wonder how such a big corporation–one time industry leaders–managed to make such eccentric decisions. My first instinct was to conclude that the choices Sega made as a corporation bore the mark of a considerable amount of creative freedom: perhaps there was, structurally, within the company, more room to move in terms of experimenting with ideas. After looking closer at what happened in the video game industry between the years 1989 and 2001, I was surprised to find that I was absolutely wrong. In that decade-odd period of time, the home console ‘region’ of the video game industry was a veritable hurricane of corporate politics: inter- and intra-organisational factional warfare. The entire industry was up in arms in a struggle for prestige and financial supremacy, and Sega was caught up in it. One such example of the tumult video game companies went through during this period is the Sega Saturn. The politics involved in the jump to 3D graphics in video games was difficult for everyone involved, none more so than Sega, and in what follows, the reader will find the definitive explanation for the reason why Sega released such an incredible (although not totally unsuccessful) mess as the Saturn.

The Saturn is a perfect example of a complete mess. Sega did nothing to foster goodwill for the platform by launching it four months earlier in the US than originally scheduled, at their 1995 E3 keynote, in an abortive attempt to one-up Sony, alienating developers and retailers alike. If industry groups weren’t turned away, they were forced to incur great costs to secure their cooperation with the company. Gamers were presented with a very small number of launch titles (and a lengthy wait for any more), and would be set back $500 to purchase a console, which, adjusted only for inflation, equals almost exactly 800 Australian dollars in today’s terms. Add to this the previous debacles associated with the Sega CD and 32X, and you have, at the consumer end, a critical and financial nightmare.

How did it come to this? Rewind to late 80s-early 90s where you have Nintendo and Sony collaborating on the SNES PlayStation–an optical storage medium for Nintendo’s famous soon-to-be-released 16-bit console. Here is a match made in heaven. Nintendo, true to form, desires to control every facet of the proto-CD-ROM medium’s distribution by encasing everything in a proprietary plastic caddy (echoes of the 64DD here). Sony wants the absolute opposite: licensing for the technology for anyone would pay. Sony gets up at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1991 and publicly announces this without prior notice to Nintendo. Infuriated, Nintendo cuts the (as it were) R&D umbilical cord and announces that it has instead signed on with Philips, the creator of the CD-ROM, for the development of an optical medium. The outcome of this was two-fold: Nintendo’s efforts with Philips were disastrous (NB. the ‘full-motion video’ Zelda game for the CDi, in all its hilarity), and the resulting legal quagmire to which Nintendo was subjected ensured that it would be forced to totally rebuild its next console, and base it on the age-old cartridge medium — not in-itself a bad outcome, in my opinion — and, secondly, to the horror of the then mainstays of the video game industry, Sony would be prompted to enter the video game console market.

It’s important to recount the entry of Sony into production of video game consoles because the Sega Saturn was, in effect, a reaction to the Sony PlayStation. Sony had connections in the third-party industry, and they exploited them. The PlayStation was built around an improved version of a processor that Sony had been manufacturing for Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstations for years. The specific details of the CPU are irrelevant; the important thing to take away from the PlayStation‘s architecture is that it was cheap to manufacture, simple to understand (therefore easy to program–and, prospectively, would be well supported in terms of programming libraries), and, for its time, very powerful.

Sega’s upper echelons were rocked, upon learning of this information, when leaked. Sega had, for decades now, been an organisation heavily rooted in arcade gaming, and the Saturn was, like the Mega Drive before it, to be based on the architecture of an arcade board (in fact it’s worth mentioning that the reader might find the ease with which Sega shoe-horned the Mega Drive into its case very interesting). The Saturn was originally based on a single-processor design, like the PlayStation, and was originally intended to be proffered up as the ultimate 2D console, but, in its original iteration, was easily eclipsed by Sony’s offering in raw 3D processing power.

P-HidekiSato[1]Sega’s President, Hayao Nakayama, ordered that the Saturn‘s original hardware design be completely scrapped, and rebuilt from scratch. The person responsible for virtually all of the design of Sega’s hardware, Hideki Sato, was sent back to the drawing board. He came back with the parallel-processor based platform that the Saturn eventually became. The concept behind this architecture was fairly radical, and, given that Sato and his team of engineers (the ‘Away Team’) had virtually no time, it was all assembled out of off-the-shelf components.

All of this was occurring at the same time as a bitter struggle between Sega’s main office and Japanese division, and the company’s North American division. Sega of America was then headed up by Tom Kalinske, who had previously lead the toy company Mattel. When he was parachuted into his position in Sega by Nakayama in 1990, he knew nothing about video games, but he was a marketing professional: he instituted aggressive advertising (Sega Does What Nintendon’t) and business methods (‘spend into a profit’) that were employed in both Europe and the USA that well and truly rustled the jimmies of his Japanese counterparts. Kalinske’s decisions were, for a time, insanely successful, winning Sega an enormous chunk of the Western video game market, but it rewarded the company with mountains of debt, a sour taste for Japanese business ethics. When Kalinske and his council of elders found themselves thoroughly unimpressed with a demonstration of Hideki’s team’s efforts, instead suggesting to Nakayama that Sega instead construct a console with a unified processing structure based on another chip from Silicon Graphics, they were silenced. Against Kalinske’s protestations, also, Nakayama discontinued Sega’s support for the Mega Drive in 1996, when the platform was still performing very well (compare with the Apple II). Sega of America was forced into launching whatever Sega of Japan wanted, whenever it wanted.

Nights Into Dreams proves that it was the difficulties with the Saturn‘s architecture, and not its ‘overall power’ that determined its graphical prowess.

The result of the Saturn‘s parallel-processing architecture, on the other hand, was (justly or unjustly) a nightmare for game development. The hardware assembled by the Away Team would have easily outclassed the PlayStation if utilised correctly (and did, in quite a few instances), but it was based on the idea of parallel processing, something which was not (and still isn’t) very commonly understood or employed in video games. By comparison, Sony’s console was based on a unified architecture, and, critically, the SDK released for Sony’s PlayStation provided for development in C, higher level of programming than what had been the traditional language of game development, assembly language. This coincided with a broad generational shift in the industry to higher-level programming, which made the skills of programmers from a great many other disciplines suitable for game development. Old hands might have looked on in derision at this virtual army of less experienced programmers gravitating to the PlayStation, but the unified architecture and readily-understood SDK of the PlayStation made third-party development insanely easy. The Saturn, by contrast, by and large required low-level assembly language to access its potential; real programming genius. There was indeed genius expended in a fair number of Saturn titles, but, when it came to finance, it was too little too late.

The Saturn was discontinued only three years after its US release, hot on the heels of the Sega Dreamcast. By that time, Sega had suffered crippling losses, sacked almost a third of its global staff, and Hayao Nakayama — among other company leaders — had tendered his resignation. Sega’s corporate structure was almost entirely flushed out and replaced with new faces. However, like its predecessor, the Dreamcast would also fail to turn Sega some success. Ignoring the significance that the lack of a DVD drive would have made with respect to the Dreamcast, the enormous amount of consumer goodwill that Sony had built with the original PlayStation, and the equally horrifying amount that Sega had squandered with the Saturn (let alone with the Sega/Mega CD and 32X) guaranteed that the launch of the PlayStation 2 would blow the Dreamcast out of the water. Sega was more or less finished in the home console business.

The fantastic thing about this whole story is that console that Sega finally produced was not based on any rational or scientific reflection: it was based on political machinations. Many have labelled the decisions of Sega of Japan to force their American counterparts to pull rank ‘corporate arrogance’, and I think I agree with that assessment. Despite that, though, the Saturn is such an interesting piece of hardware. Furthermore, there are a plethora of platform-exclusive games that are both innovative in concepts and in programming. Take, for example, the game Powerslave/Exhumed, a first-person shooter (something of a Doom clone) that featured spectacular graphics for its time because its programmer, Ezra Dreisbach, decided to take the time to get to know the console’s architecture. Read all about it here. To become better acquainted with some of the games that defined the popular life of the Saturn, see Racketboy’s article here.

The Saturn is worth your time because it failed. Not because it provided Sega and onlookers with a lesson, but because it avoided the inauthenticity that so frequently accompanies success. And I think that that might go  the same for anything that fails.

References

I have the write-up on Eidolon’s Inn to thank for this post. As you’ll no doubt discover if you read both this article and the six-page one at Eidolon’s, much of this article is simplify paraphrased and/or retold. I make no claim that any part of this post that resembles Eidolon’s is original work. If you have some time, take a look around. The frankness with which the multiple authors describe their projects and musings (a 4-bit handheld console called the Jaguar, complete with its CPU’s instruction set) is pretty cool.

Moved!

Jump’nshoot has moved to a dot-com domain!

There have been a few updates since setting it up, so rock on down and check them out!

jumpnshoot9000.com

End of PS2 Production

This article from Kotaku Australia highlights the end of Sony’s production of the PlayStation 2, and proffers up a list of titles that the author considers to be definitive with respect to the artistic quality of the PS2’s library of games.

I’m not sure whether I was looking in the wrong places during the 2000s, but I only recognise one game out of this list. While it’s all well and good to praise the PS2, nowhere in this article are the platform’s two chief crippling problems mentioned: the predominance of big-title games in its library, and its almost endless amount of compatible shovelware. The fact that the author had to say that leaving out Metal Gear Solid, Gran Turismo, and GTA titles was a deliberate act is pretty much further proof that no-one I know (I realise ‘no-one I knows’ is something of a logical fallacy–I just don’t have the time to compile actual empirical evidence.) had access to any of these titles.

Now the Dreamcast: there’s a whole different picture. All things held equal (this means ignoring the fact that SEGA squandered their business goodwill), comparing and contrasting the PS2 and Dreamcast, it can be said that the success and failure of the respective consoles reveals that success in the sixth generation of consoles had nothing to do with gaming: the change of consumer’s preference from VHS to DVD in terms of audio-visual medium, and the birth of casual gaming.

This article flags the development of nostalgia and historical revisionism around the PS2 in a dangerous way. The author themselves perpetrates revisionism by compiling a list of games that were obscure and largely ignored. Let it be remembered that the PS2 might have possessed some brilliant pieces of art (IcoShadow of the Colossus, Okami, the Katamaris, so on–the games listed by the author might even be fantastic, but that is beside the point) but it was, for the most part, at least in Australia, a platform that ‘played it safe’. This means that money was the chief concern driving the platform’s industrial presence. It was home to a plethora of big-money multi-platform (Xbox-PS2-Gamecube) releases that dominated the limelight in system’s game library, and, correspondingly, used as a means to exploit the uninformed for money with terrible games.

The reader should look through the article’s comments to see for themselves.

Retro Sanctuary

‘Top game’ lists (‘Top 100 Sega games’ &c) are bad, and people should stop making and reading them, but despite that, the people over at Retro-Sanctuary do a brilliant job of them. Despite the conceptual incoherence of ranking games, the lists that RS compiles do a good job of helping one gain an understanding of how the libraries of third, fourth and fifth generation platforms are related to amongst themselves.

The ported-games comparisons section that the website has developed features a really good run-down of the differences between the Earthworm Jim ports of the early 90s. What is particularly interesting about the article on EWJ is its discussion of the different graphics capabilities of the SNES and the Mega Drive–specifically, the Mega Drive’s use of dithering as a remedy for its limited on-screen colour palette.

Multithreading and Singlethreading

Because I’ve been toying with the idea of starting up a YouTube channel (to further inflate my own ego), I’ve been investigating the possibility of putting together a budget video-editing computer. What I’ve discovered is that not only is it possible to put together a computer for video-editing for fairly cheap (around $AUD400, excluding certain things), but one need not throw away lots of money on constructing a computer for playing video games, either.

The websites I’ve been collecting data from include the Perth-based computer component suppliers VTech, Netplus and (the much maligned) Austin Computers; and the benchmarking website Passmark. I’m sure there are plenty more other such websites, but I haven’t had the time to look further.

One of the important tasks in building a video-editing PC was to choose a CPU that was well suited for such a job. The difference between a gaming PC and the one I wanted to make was that the CPU, in video-editing, would primarily be used to crunch rendering data, and not used for displaying graphics on the fly. This is what lead me to multithreading.

This article lead me to the concept of multithreading, and was the motivation behind this post. It provides an insightful analysis of the new AMD CPUs that I had, before reading, become convinced were suitable for my purpose. The important piece of information that it highlighted (with a single sentence) was that PC gaming is dominated by singlethreaded CPU processes. For the reader’s information, ‘threads’ are the smallest unit of computer instruction that an operating system can manipulate, and are the chief building block of the computer science concept of ‘multitasking’. The article plainly demonstrates that the new AMD processors are fantastic at multithreading computer instructions (highly suited to video-editing), but are lacklustre in comparison to the new Intel Ivy Bridge technology in terms of their ability to process singlethreaded (linear sets of instructions) information.

What also interested me was the fact that the article alluded to the ways in which the different political-economic factors that underlie the production of either of the two companies’ CPU ranges impact on the products that they end up making. AMD is tied to another company with respect to some of its research and development, and this hampers its ability to reduce the size of the circuitry in its processors, amongst other things.

The outcome of all of this research is that if you’ve got your heart set on gaming and you want to spend modestly, I recommend buying an Intel i5 3470, 3570 or 3570K. Pursuant to the excel spreadsheet that I compiled below, you can purchase any one of these CPUs online, in Perth, for about $AUD200 each. However, if you are strapped for cash, or you have very little interest in the whizz-bang-pop-shazam-look-at-me-I’m-Bethezda-I’ve-been-making-the-same-game-for-decades-and-my-logo-sucks and you just want to edit videos and/or render 3D models, any of the well-performing AMD CPUs are more than capable of the job. It’s worth reiterating that the sheer pricetag of these AMD chips does much to commend themselves to the impecunious gamer.

This data about the different CPUs under $200 (inclusive) available in Perth might also interest the reader. On Sheet 2 can be found graphical representations of the relationship between the processors’ price, and aggregated processing power.