You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2008.

In the many nooks and crannies of the web – elbow bends of the tubes? – where I spend my time, many people rage on endlessly in the debate about Xbox Live and the Playstation Network. Most of the arguments are exceedingly partisan, unfortunately, with little more than the usual Xbox vs. PS fanboyism running rampant. They were stirred up again by the recent 2.41 firmware patch for the PSN, featuring the introduction of the trophy system, the announcement that the Windows equivalent of XBL is becoming a free service, and the announced changes coming to the 360 Dashboard. They’ve caused me to think a fair bit about this question again recently. I’ve been an XBL user for about 9 months now, and a PSN user since the PS3 launch.

The first part of the debate is free vs. paid. XBL charges $50/year for the Gold membership, whose basic attraction is the ability to play online. The Silver membership gives you full access to most of XBL’s features, including gamerscore, messaging, store downloads… well, pretty much everything except online gaming (Gold also gives you video chat and slightly earlier access to demos and some videos). What sticks in a lot of people’s craw here is that the one part that most people want access to – online gaming – is the part you have to pay for. This makes perfect sense. Despite what most of us in the more hardcore gaming community would like to believe, the vast majority of people who own these consoles couldn’t give a fiddler’s fart for online gaming. Consider that there’s 10+ million 360s sold, but less than 3 million XBL gamertags (at least according to MyGamerCard.net’s statistics). Most people – the majority – can’t even be bothered getting the Xbox online. Of those that do go online, only a percentage care about gaming online. Even a lot of hardcore gamers, myself included, have not caught the online bug in a big way – while I do play online, I’m primarily a single-player gamer.

Now, PSN is completely free, and everyone can play online for free. Everyone once had equal access to demos, game videos, and so on, though the recently lauched $25/year Qore video magazine probably indicates an eventuality like XBL, where those who buy Qore get demos, videos and so on a week or so before the people who don’t have it. In addition, some first-party PS3 games like Warhawk and Resistance:FOM feature dedicated servers, providing a smoother online experience than the p2p connections most PS3 and all XBL games use.

Here’s where we come to the debate; those against paying for XBL point out that Gold gives you very little over Silver; mostly, to almost everyone, it’s the online multiplayer that they’re nabbing you for $50/year, while everything else is free. They point out that PSN’s online play is free, and sometimes even better than XBL’s. What they’re missing is that Gold members aren’t just paying for online multiplayer – they’re subsidizing the Silver customers, and most importantly, the achievement system. The $50/year that Gold members pay is not “paying” for online multiplayer, it has provided the infrastructure and service that all members, Gold and Silver, enjoy.

See, while the numbers indicate that the vast majority of 360 owners don’t care about playing online, everyone gets achievements. Those who haven’t used the achievement system underestimate its power. It’s not just “gamerscore whores” and the like who are all about the achievement system. Not many people I know – myself included, despite my 10k+ points in 8 months – chase gamerscore. But achievements themselves – not the point score associated with them – were an absolutely genius stroke for one reason; it enhances the re-playability of games enormously, especially to those of us who prefer story-driven single-player games.

Sure, if you want to really beat the hell out of yourself trying to beat the hostage/airplane scenario that forms the epilogue of sorts for CoD4 on the hardest difficulty on PS3… you can. You may have great fun doing it. But do it on XBL… you get a little reward for it. A little badge that goes into your XBL profile (and a nice chunk of points added to your score), shows your buddies you pulled it off. Or maybe with a game like Guitar Hero it gets you to do a couple amusing things you wouldn’t have tried without the achievement there to shoot for, like rocking out “Talk Dirty to Me” on Expert with the sound turned off, or trying to top 200k on “Cult of Personality” without using star power.  Who would be crazy enough to try beating Bioshock on Hard with the Vita-Chambers turned off if it didn’t get you that sweet “Brass Balls” achievement and a cool 100 points? It adds depth to many games. Sure, it’s not always perfect – the ludicrous achievements in Guitar Hero 3, most of which pretty much require you to be able to 5-star the whole game on Expert without breaking a sweat, or the plain broken games that let you get all 1000 points in 10 minutes, or the ones that reward all 1000 points just for completing an 8-hour campaign on any difficulty – but most, especially those released in the past year or two, balance it pretty well, enhancing the continued enjoyment of these games after you’ve finished them for the first time.

Now, the PS3 is finally playing catch-up to this idea, with the introduction of the trophy system. Maybe the trophy system will eventually be something like the achievement system, but it’s a long way off. They’ve made two major mistakes with it – one, that it wasn’t in place with the PS3’s launch, and two, that they don’t require games released on their platform to support it. The most avid gamers, who have been playing the PS3 a year and a half now, have hundreds of hours spent on the PS3 with nothing to show for it in their profiles. One guy may game twice as next as the other, but if he prefers games that haven’t chosen to support the trophy system, his “level” (however this will eventually work) doesn’t necessarily indicate anything but that he’s not much of a fan of the games which support trophies.

Meanwhile, the attitude seems to be that XBL should be charging for anything but playing online multiplayer – charge for videos, charge for video chat, whatever, but that it should be the one aspect of XBL that should be free. This is based partially on an idea that since most online multiplayer (outside MMORPGs) on the PC platform has always been free, online multiplayer should always be free. Here we come to the very reason why it’s not free – as already outlined above, most people don’t care about multiplayer. But most people who regularly participate in gaming discussion on the internet in no way represent the “average” gamer, but the dedicated and avid gamer – the “hardcore”. Furthermore, the “hardcore” also care about achievements (usually much more than the casual player) and the like, but does not necessarily have any more interest in high-def game trailers and XBL video chat, or similar services. So which makes more sense – to have the small percentage of people who care about these services pay for them, while everyone gets free multiplayer, even those who don’t want it – or to have that portion of 360 owners, somewhere around 1/3 of them, pay to subsidize all the other features that XBL boasts? Who’s more likely to pay $50/year, the guy who doesn’t play online but wants to video chat to his college buddy once in awhile, or the hardcore gamer who simply can not live without their online CoD4 or Halo 3?  Quite clearly, MS has reached the same conclusion I have – that the only part of XBL that really makes sense to charge money for is the multiplayer, as the people who want it are a minority population yet most likely engaged enough to fork over their $50/year, grumbling about it notwithstanding.

I’d go on at length discussing the differences between the services, but honestly, there’s no point. I know because I was a PS3 owner reading about XBL for months, always saying, “It can’t be that big a deal.” Well, it is. It’s hard to describe why, but spend some time with both services, and the PS3 one just starts to feel decidedly ghetto – slick and pretty, for the most part, but so bare in features. The complete lack of intergration and web presence is one of the worst problems, although they’ve finally provided a (completely pointless and featureless, so far) gamercard of sorts. It’s fun killing some time on Xbox.com, comparing your achievements to your friends, or putting your gamecard in your signature on your favourite gaming website. It’s little things like this – but so many of them, piled on top of one another – that just make the two services incomparable for the near future. It doesn’t take much time playing with them to discover this. As a long-time Apple user and general Microsoft hater, I was quite prepared (even expecting) to hate XBL, but it took me only a couple hours to fall in love with the service.

So, we’ve established why the debates should just stop – that beyond the simple truth that PSN’s online multiplayer is free and mostly as good as XBL’s, online multiplayer has a limited market that is nonetheless dedicated and willing to pay, which has subsidized XBL and allowed it to distinguish itself from PSN in every other respect. Until this disparity in features is addressed, there isn’t really anything to debate about – you don’t argue with success, and while you may hate to pay $50/year, it has undeniably created a superiour service. In Part 2, I’ll discuss how Playstation Home is not the panacea that we all hoped for, more than a year and many delays after its announcement.

Addendum: Part 2 is on hold until I get some personal experience with Home, as I expect to be in the open beta later this month.

I finally caught up with the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica last week, so time to put my exceedingly tardy thoughts on this series and its mid-season cliffhanger down on virtual paper. Spoilers will abound, so avoid this if you still plan on picking up the series.

I was an enormous fan of the original BG when I was a kid; the big deal we made about its Sunday night broadcast is one of my earliest memories. I don’t remember a whole lot about it reliably, though I’ve seen many episodes again in repeats, and Wikipedia has refreshed my memory on much of it. I remembered enough to appreciate most of the tips of the hat to the original series; the original theme music as the Caprican anthem, the 2-parter when Starbuck crashed which was based on an original series episode, with the little wing-waggle thrown in as an acknowledgement; of course, the thoroughly enjoyable re-appearance of the old-school Cylons in the BG TV-movie, Razor. And one thing I remembered well, perhaps because so much of a Catholic’s early life is coloured by religious teaching, was the religious subtext the show had.

I assumed that in the modern age, this would be an aspect the re-imagined series sidesteps; much to my surprise, it became the centre of the show, with the allusions to Egyptians, Jews, Romans and Christians much thicker on the ground than they were in the old series. A daring, and thoroughly interesting choice. The series is solid but unremarkable in script dialogue, and has a few brilliant actors and a balance of journeymen. But the plot development has been outstanding. Not since The Sopranos has a show so consistently defied my predicitons and expectations (as opposed to Lost, where I’ve given up trying to predict or expect anything).

Most of the time, anyway; the “final four” only surprised me with the revelation of Sam. I liked how Sam being a Cylon neatly explains why the Cylons just up and broke camp when they had him and Starbuck pinned down during his rescue from Caprica, much more neatly than the Cylon explanation to the fleet, anyway.

This brings us to one of the major points of fan speculation; the identity of the final Cylon. Here you get to a scale-of-cast issue. Most choices – Gaeta, Dee, etc. – are just not prominent enough as actors or cast members. It has to either be an character we’ve never seen (but an actor of some status, a la Dean Stockwell and Lucy Lawless), or come as a major revelatory shock. Tom Zacharek (however it’s spelled) has long been a favourite candidate of mine; the actor who played the original Apollo turning out to be Cylon has a nice dramatic irony. Starbuck is a little too obvious, tied up with all the prophecies and what not, but she’s certainly a possibility. What sours that is the one thing I’m not exactly clear on; D’Anna said that the fifth isn’t with the fleet.

If she wasn’t lying – and I can’t see any reason why she would – that takes Tom and Starbuck off the table, and most everyone else. It leaves the possibility of a character we haven’t met, of course, but that’d be a bit of a let down, in my opinion. D’Anna also could have meant that the fifth wasn’t with the fleet because it was one of the people on the basestar with her at the time; discounting Athena, that means Baltar, Laura, and Helo.

Baltar, like Starbuck, seems too obvious, but his clear importance to their destiny would make a lot of sense. Helo would be interesting; once bullet-proof because of his relationship with Athena, we now have it confirmed in-universe that at least some Cylons can procreate, as Tigh and Caprica Six seem to indicate. That would mean that Hera was a full-blood Cylon, and the Chief’s kid is actually the first half-breed. Interesting, but Helo seems to fail the shock-test; he’s just not that major a cast member. Of course, Laura would be the jaw-dropper in that group, and I think it’s a strong possibility just for that reason.

Then we come to what I see as the last possibility, with the postulates already laid out; that the final Cylon is the entity or whatever that seems to appear both to Baltar and Caprica Six; Whedon obsession compels me to refer to this character as “the First”. This is the most mysterious character of the show; throughout the first season, we simply thought of her as something Caprica Six did to him; an implant she was using to communicate, maybe his own madness. But the more we saw of Caprica Six on Caprica, we realized that she was absolutely nothing like the Six that was always with Baltar. And then the bomb, when we realized that Caprica Six had her own version of the First, who appeared as Baltar but spoke in the same haranguing manner as Baltar’s shadow. This is my favourite candidate for the Fifth, a Cylon version unlike anything we’ve seen before; pure energy? A ghost in the collective unconcious, able to appear to the receptive and those adept at visualization, which we know both the Cylons and Baltar to be experts at? God? There’s just so many intriguing possibilities.

Finally, we come to the major surprise of the mid-season finale; the appearance of a blasted and wrecked Earth. It almost certainly is Earth just based on the few episodes remaining, as a resumption of the hunt seems impractical, and the constellations were right. So, is it past, present, or future? The old series, from what I can remember, implied that the 13th Colony were the founders of our own civilization, and the events of the series were happening in our present or very recent past, as in one episode they just missed intercepting Neil Armstrong’s broadcast from the moon; I also seem to remember that awful follow-up series having Cylons running around at Halloween, but would prefer to forget it. I supposed there’s a dim possibility that the new series is also in our present, and either we’ve nuked ourselves extinct, or somehow the 1-led Cylons got there first and wiped it. Both scenarios seem unlikely, and rather stupid, so I’m dismissing them. But honestly… there’s just not enough data to speculate with, past or future. I’m hoping for past, as I like the idea we’re all the descendants of mixed-blood Cylons and humans, but that’s a preference, not a speculation.

At any rate, it’s been a thoroughly entertaining series, and if it keeps up its unexpected twists, I’m sure all this speculation will look foolish come mid-March 2009. But it is fun to do.

So the Canadian government is currently readying new legislation to attack P2P and other copyright-infringing internet practices, even uploading a copyrighted picture to your Facebook account.

Much is made of whether current “illegal” file-sharing practices “steal” money from artists. More and more people seem to have succumbed to this piece of propaganda – that sharing music, movies, and so on is outright theft. Here’s what I find flawed about the whole concept.

First of all, these debates assume that the current model of music publishing is the only way to do things. It seems to me most people forget that the music industry, as it exists today, is younger than even the televsion industry, and not much older than the videogame industry. Nobody said it was going to be a business model that persisted well into the 21st century. RIAA suits have stolen more money from real artists than an army of college geeks armed with iMacs ever could. That they try to drum up sympathy for their own plight by doing the “but think of the poor artists!” routine is disingenuous in the extreme.

Secondly, these people don’t seem to know what “theft” is. Despite what they would like you to think, downloading an MP3 does not “steal” money from the artist. You in no way decreased their personal worth. What you did was download something you may or may not have paid for had another alternative not been available. They report numbers – “x million songs downloaded, which would have been x million dollars spent” – like everyone who downloads a song would have, with 100% certainty, bought the song from them if downloading wasn’t an option. Anyone fond of downloading music knows well that only a small portion of MP3s people download is music they would have bought for sure; 20 years ago, radio play would have been enough to sate your taste for most of them. “Theft”, when discussing intellectual property like a piece of music, means to take it and pass it off as your own, especially for profit. As far as I can tell, the post-Napster age hasn’t increased this sort of theft in slightest.

Now here we come to the fundamental problem. The music industry is glutted with bad music that is extremely popular because it has been carefully selected, the artists carefully groomed, and an image carefully marketed, often to impressionable youth. This is what they’re fighting to preserve, the ability to completely control the industry. Alan Freed must roll in his grave to see so many levels of the entertainment industry integrated in a bid to seduce tweens into buying into the latest craze. Disney grows them on some weird farm, EMI records them, Clear Channel broadcasts them, MTV markets their image, Paramount makes movies starring them, E! chronicles their inevitable descent, and then VH1 does a retrospective special about them. Chewed up and spat out by all this is the “artist”. The gruesome exploitation and eventual complete breakdown of Britney Spears couldn’t exemplify this more.

So what of the real artists? The ones whose music becomes widely popular not because of how it’s marketed, but because it’s good? Radiohead and NIN have already demonstrated that bands with a large fan base can release music for free and still have a lot of people donate reasonable sums of money, but more than that, real music artists have something that MTV and Disney can’t duplicate; the ability to perform live. When the Britney craze was at its peak, it wasn’t her, or any of her imitators, who were making the Forbes 100 Entertainers list; it was bands like Dave Matthews and the Eagles, making tens of millions of dollars by going out on the road and fucking earning it. That’s how musicians have made money for, quite literally, thousands of years; not by being groomed by a patron for stardom, but by hustling their ass for cash.

Of course, Ticketmaster has its own evil industry-gloved hand deep in the mix there creating its own problems, but that’s another blog.

As for the concern from the MPAA about movie file-sharing… I think there they have a tempest in a tea-pot, just as they freaked out in the late 70s with the advent of VCRs. The fact is, the movie industry charges a reasonable price for their product. A CD that cost a few hundred thousand dollars to produce, with a total of 15-20 minutes of music on it people actually want, costs about the same as a 2-hour movie that cost $100 million to make. Or I can rent it for a couple bucks. That’s why so few people I know, most of whom are furious music downloaders, bother with movies.

At any rate, that’s my first blog in awhile. It rambled a bit, it’s not exactly what I wanted to write, but hey, you have to start again somewhere.

Welcome to harrysaxon.com! This is the personal website of Chris, a Vancouver-based gamer and blogger who goes by the Doctor Who-inspired online moniker of harrysaxon (or harrysaxon23 if some rotter already nabbed it). I generally discuss books, video games, television (especially Lost), baseball, and my other interests.

As well as posting blogs, I use this as a social networking launch page. Pretty much everything’s clickable through to my profiles the main sites, like the Twitter feed and gamercards, and those that aren’t displayed on the page somehow are listed on the top left. Feel free to visit and/or add me on any of them.

latest books