On the Road Again

I remember when I undertook the Achievement a Day challenge, with some fondness, needing to locate a selection of a games that I could play on the road without needing to take my entire Xbox console with me. Bear in mind, this is a couple of years – an eternity in tech – before xCloud or Game Pass for PC, where my options would have been a little better. Other than a few first party games and one or two iOS games, it was, largely, a case of strategically finding well-paced console games (such as the Telltale series’) and saving the others for emergencies (such as Christmas).

These days, I’m less attached to the Xbox ecosystem, though it still remains my platform of choice, but hitting the road across the last two weeks has forced me to re-examine my mobile game library, and find a few solid titles that I could enjoy while on a plane and in flight mode (which ruled out online titles like Hearthstone and Call of Duty Mobile), as well as something a bit ‘meaty’ to satisfy my gamer lust.

I’m not entirely convinced I managed to meet that brief.

For the most part, my gaming life over the past few weeks has consisted of Gears POP! and Tetris Blitz, bath staples on my mobile, but other than the occasional path towards an achievement on Gears, the pair don’t really offer much substance. Recently, I’ve been considering a play through of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on iPad considering I haven’t really managed to ever finish it, but that takes away from the excellent backwards compatibility option available to me on Xbox, or the comfort offered by playing on PC. But, still, as history tells me, it might also be the only way I’ll ever get the game finished. I haven’t made a decision about the best approach to take – but it’s food for thought.

What these past few weeks have highlighted to me though is the need for me to shift back to PC over Mac. It’s a hard thing for someone like me to say, considering I’ve had the same Mac since 2012 and it runs better than any PC I’ve ever had. It is exceptionally hard for me to point to a PC, or more specifically a laptop, manufacturer, and say that they build machines ‘as good as’ a Mac – but it’s also been a while since I’ve really tested the market. Dell, including Alienware, look awfully tempting these days.

The reason for the shift back to PC is simple. Well, it’s two reasons really. (1) my existing game library is huge and in desperate need for some love; and, (2) Game Pass for PC is increasingly awesome. Imagine being able to smash through some AAA new games like The Outer Worlds while on the road for a week.

It sure beats Tetris Blitz.

I hope to be a little more active on this blog. I had a brief hiatus while I attempted NaNoWriMo for this month, but to be honest, taking so much time away from my family and on the road just made it too hard to land, so I think – unless I can write 30,000 words in a week – I’ve probably failed for 2019.

And that’s OK. There’s plenty of other writing and gaming to keep me busy!

PAX Australia 2019

The sign at the entrance to PAX Australia has always said two simple words: “Welcome Home.”

While, for the most part, PAX can be a solitary affair, that doesn’t stop there being some sort of camaraderie in that isolation – a shared loneliness as it were. Sure, there are heaps of groups and likeminded gamers using the opportunity to get together for some face-to-face Dungeons and Dragons, or spending the time simply hanging out and playing some card games, but there’s also quite a few people ‘going stag’ and balancing their need to just chill out and enjoy gaming alongside their innate hatred of … well, people.

This year’s PAX was certainly no different. Across the three days, I spent quite a bit of time between the showroom floor, but I also committed myself to spending more time in the tabletop area. I wish I had a better sense as to how to use the tabletop zone – am I supposed to come with a pre-existing group? Can I just linger around until I make some new friends? How do I get into a D&D game versus a miniature game? There’s a whole heap of questions which I had planned on answering – but as it turns out, I simply spent more time wandering around the shops and spending money on games that I’ll end up playing with the kids, rather than ‘other people’ at PAX.

But, I don’t want to make this post all doom-and-gloom … make no mistake about it, PAX was fantastic. I had a great time, as usual, on the showroom floor – and I almost always leave PAX more enthusiastic about being a PC gamer. The staple events were there – Xbox, PlayStation, and down the back, Classic Gaming. Ubisoft had a good presence, as did Bethesda. It was a great trade experience, and probably the only truly gaming love you’ll get this side of the equator.

In terms of where I spent my money, well, most of that was on pins – as per usual. I have introduced my son to the love of Pin trading this year, which means that I can pretty much kiss all my doubles goodbye, even though they were few and far between, but for the few opportunities that I had to trade, I’ll admit to being a little miffed that I didn’t have one or two spare to leverage.

All-in-all, my most enjoyable time at PAX boiled down to two things: the first was a fantastic panel around ‘Moral Panics’, which had both an Academic and a Government perspective around censorship and the whole ‘Won’t somebody think of the Children’ mentality we have when it comes to video games. If you want a good summary of what was presented, then I highly recommend a look at Nichboy’s first episode of his series, Help, my Kid is a Gamer, which covers many of the same points.

The second, well – simply hanging out in the handheld lounge with my kids eating morning tea and relaxing. Sometimes it’s the breath you take away from PAX that offers the most satisfaction.

Bring on 2020.

An Apple a Day

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Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

Make no mistake about it – we have entered the age of distribution and subscription. When it comes to distribution – we have Epic, Microsoft, GOG, and the powerhouse, Steam. As for subscription, it used to be Netflix sitting all alone up on the throne of subscription power, with the others’ all at the bottom of the hill, pointing and laughing. Well, these days, everyone has built their own hill and their own throne, and so now we are spoiled for choice with Netflix, Stan, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime Video, Ten All Access and we’re not that far away from NBC and others launching their own offerings to the market.

In the gaming sphere, we’ve been relatively infantile in discovering subscription. Humble Bundle was perhaps the first ‘big player’ on the scene, offering up a selection of games to keep for a monthly fee (which is still a great model). Xbox joined in next with it’s Game Pass, and then expanded the service to offer up PC games as well in the ‘Game Pass Ultimate’. Google has flagged its new Stadia service as, by-and-large, being a subscription model – though it will still have purchases available, and there’s no doubt PlayStation and Nintendo will both join the fray soon, or certainly as part of their next-generation offerings.

But this week, we have a new kid on the block: enter Apple Arcade.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying mobile gaming for a little while now, and while it has been pooh-poohed a lot in recent memory (I still remember the female gaming audience being considered less-than-real-gamers because they played were perceived as simply playing Candy Crush), the breadth of games, and the quality of them, has now reached a point where they are able to stand alone as a solid gaming choice along the likes of the contemporary platforms. Everyone raised an eyebrow when Fortnite was offered on mobile, though it managed to attract enough interest and, perhaps more importantly, numbers, to be able to offer up a very real and pragmatic alternative for playing a AAA title on-the-go.

It’s my own frugalness that sees me reluctant to spend money on a mobile game outright, given that I find it a risky purchase for something that I’m not sure I’ll have forever. Unlike my consoles, I can still pull out a PS3 and play any number of games I’ve bought digitally on that platform, likewise for the Xbox – which has been made infinitely easier since Phil Spencer pushed for backwards compatibility. As such, the idea of a subscription model for mobile gaming makes a lot of sense.

However – and this is the point of this post – I have two issues of note.

The first is the ability to have, and chronicle, a mobile gaming career. I know, I know, a lot of people ‘don’t care’ about achievements, but I am very much someone who likes to chronicle my gaming journey and keep track of what I’ve played. This is why I’ve made Xbox and Steam my preferred combination, because both platforms keep an excellent record of my gaming career. Game Centre on iOS has a long way to go before it can compete with Xbox Live or PlayStation Network – and that should be saying something. The latter took over a decade before it allowed for name changes (and even then it’s not really a long-term fix, instead relying on some sort of clunky workaround that, in practice, really just means they’ve masked your original PSN ID and started displaying some other new field), and about the same length of time before it had any meaningful phone app or web interface. It might be a personal preference, but this is what it boils down to: I don’t really like Game Centre. And for me, this is absolutely an underpinning element of my choice to use a gaming service. It’s why I’ve all but abandoned PlayStation for this generation with the exception of a few first-party titles, and a big reason why I’ve gone Team Xbox. On the sliding scale of platforms and gaming choice, iOS Game Centre certainly doesn’t come close.

The second issue I have with Arcade is the price. AU$8 per month (sorry, “$7.99”) is not cheap. There, I said it. For mobile gaming, I am most likely to spend $1-2 every few months as part of a microtransaction. What I won’t pay is nearly $100 a year on top of my $15pm Xbox Arcade, $10 Stan, $10 Ten All Access, and about $9 Netflix (depending on the exchange rate at any given day). I consume all of these services, regularly, and they are worth the expense, but considering I have this smorgasbord of content to consume, do you know what I don’t want? Another $8 on top of it for the ability to play 1-2 games for 2 minutes at a time.

Thus concludes today’s rant.

Cloud Crash

One word: Yikes.

Full disclosure: I haven’t played Borderlands 3 yet, and while I’m sure as a game on its own it’s worthy of all the praise it’s getting, I’m also a stickler for doing things in order, and so once I’ve cleared Borderlands 1 and 2, and yes I know there’s a Pre/Sequel in the mix there somewhere, then, and only then, will I pick up the third incarnation.

(Second disclosure: this philosophy also works for the Gears of War series, but I did play a round of multiplayer last night just to grab an achievement for a Microsoft Rewards challenge – I’m still a Gears’ story virgin).

More importantly though, I wanted to use this as an opportunity to talk about the cloud. It seems in this instance that the issue with the Borderlands 3 saves is unique to Epic Games and the PC version, but that being said, the other services are not without their own flaws. It’s taken nearly two weeks to finally get back into Gears POP! after Xbox Live failed to let players connect, and who could forget the great Sony outage a few years ago that saw them shower us all with ‘We’re Sorry’ stuff.

The cloud is brilliant, but not perfect. Xbox, I’m my humble opinion, is the closest to the most successful cloud provider in the gaming space so far – given that I have come back from over twelve months off a game and be able to pick up where I left off. PlayStation relies on a subscription to PS Plus, and because I’ve let that lapse, I’m fairly certain my save games have gone as well.

Kiss those Vita saves goodbye.

I’m not sure how Nintendo’s service works, but in general, what we’re seeing here is an absolutely glaring need to ensure that cloud services don’t just form an ‘added extra’ to your platform, but are integral. Microsoft, to their fault, were not backward in their cloud first marketing when it came to the Xbox One, and while they were ahead of their time and that message didn’t quite land up against the more robust PlayStation offering.

Now half a decade later we see what that looks like when played out in living rooms …

… and the cloud.

God help Stadia.

Melbourne Esports Open 2019

Judging by Public Transport Victoria calculations, my trip to the Melbourne Esports Open this weekend was to take about 1 hour and 40 minutes. As part of ‘Victoria’s Big Build’, the city of Melbourne is currently undergoing quite a few disruptions at the moment, up-to-and-including train replacements and complete line shut-downs, meaning that in order to take the public transport option into the city for the Open, I would have to take a bus into the city, then navigate to Flinders Street where I could then get a tram, or – worse – walk to Rod Laver Arena in time to be able to catch an event.

If it sounds like I’m whinging, imagine what doing the above with two kids under six would be like.

So, with that in mind – we did what any sensible human being would do: we drove to the MEO this weekend, and thanks to some well-planned pre-paid parking, scored a park right near the entrance.

Last year’s MEO was very much a social experiment, and while it seemed, at face value, to be relatively successful, I was keen to see how the event had grown or adapted based on this success. After all, there was a notable difference in PAX Australia 2013 to 2014, so if MEO was to gain traction, then this would be the event where we would be able to see some success.

The first thing I noticed was the layout had changed – considerably. Originally MEO 2018 was structured in a way that the main competition and the ‘JB Hi-Fi Game Zone’ were fairly evenly contained between and within the Rod Laver and Margaret Court Arenas. Most of the ‘outside’ activity was concentrated on the entrance to Rod Laver, whereas this year much of that content – and I feel like there was considerably less – had shifted into the open space between the two main arenas, and Melbourne Arena off Olympic Boulevard. As it turns out, this was supposed to be the ‘Main Entrance’ I later found out, and the rear entry where I had come in was actually designated the ‘Secondary Entry’, but the net result was that we got-in.

Last year, I made the assessment that I don’t think the Rod Laver Arena is the best sort of venue for the MEO. While I think the organisers have ‘made do’ with the layout, there is undoubtedly a sense that the whole event is spread too thin – something that was exacerbated this year considering it went across multiple venues. It reminded me a touch of the ESL Masters I attended in Sydney, where the Qudos Arena was simply unsuitable for a major gaming event – in the middle of nowhere and laid out in an erratic fashion. In some regards, I think these smaller stadiums are great for what they were built for: sporting matches, and by all accounts, the stadiums were perfect for the main events on the weekend, but considering that esport now has to offer competition between travelling to the venue or – like I did for the non-kid-friendly events – simply opening up a Twitch stream, then I’d expect a little more polish on my venue design.

While I didn’t get in to the main events themselves, I think it’s fair to say that MEO has matured in a good way. OPL has generally gone from strength-to-strength in the last 12-24 months, and so seeing its high production values land in Melbourne to put on a great show is certainly something to write-home about. I watched as eager fans went trawling through the venue to find ‘skin codes’ for their League of Legends accounts, and the images by brilliant esport photographer Sarah Cooper (@aquahaze) showed just how far esport has come in Australia. I only saw the highlights of the Overwatch Contenders match-up, which is surprising considering I was rapidly getting into Overwatch as an esport, but when matched up against a game like Rainbow Six, it’s hard not to have your attention slightly diverted towards that more ‘meaty’ competitive scene.

Still, it’s no fix for the otherwise toxic R6 community.

In terms of games on offer, both Xbox and PlayStation put in an appearance in the Game Zone, which is wonderful to see. PlayStation, per usual, had large ‘no photography’ signs up everywhere – which is a bit strange considering that they weren’t really showing anything ‘new’ or ‘secret’. Last year, there was Spider-Man on offer a few days or weeks before launch, and so keeping things under wraps made sense, but most of the time my kids played Crash Team Racing … something that was released in June.

The Xbox team were far better-equipped for a public-facing show like MEO, offering up Minecraft for the kids, I was able to take a photo of them playing together, and the marketing team there even had little basketballs (stress balls) with ‘Windows 10’ on the side. Dad may or may not have borrowed one of them for his own collection. There was also a behind-closed-doors demo of Gears 5 which I only have a loose interest in, but considering it is coming to Xbox Game Pass, I’m not too concerned about milking every last drop of content out of it before it drops. I mean … if I need a fix, I have four preceding titles to get through first.

Other big players on the day were Nintendo, who had a great variety of consoles setup, and my kids played Mario Maker 2 for quite some time before etiquette dictated that they get off and let someone else play. Likewise, the kids managed to score themselves some lanyards and a tote bag off the show floor, but nothing quite as cool as the Activision-offered Call of Duty 4 gift bag that my eldest managed to grab last year. I still have my COD4 hat in the cupboard, ready to be broken out again come PAX time.

And speaking of merchandise – we need to have a chat to the organisers about buying in some better hoodies, or at least some more variety in terms of clothing options. One $70 hoodie that was in plain white as the only clothing memento from the weekend? No thanks. At least I managed to walk away with a metallic keep-cup, but for $20, I’m not sure if that was entirely worth it, or I was just clinging to the hope that I’d leave with ‘some’ keepsake.

MEO is not flawless. Nor is it flawed. It is an event in its infancy, that has already shown how much it can improve on in a twelve-month period. Being able to arrange for major teams like Washington to travel to Melbourne for the Open, as well as seeing some great talent in OPL, Overwatch and Rainbow Six means that I’ll be back again next year, if only to keep an eye on what else is new and emerging on the esport scene.

I can hardly wait.

One OS to Rule them All

In the last 48 hours, Microsoft announced two things which tickled my fancy. The first is updates to Microsoft Office, which – as rumoured – is likely to be the implementation of Dark Mode across all of its Office products – which is great for a heavy iOS user like me. The other is that they will be holding a hardware event in New York at the start of October, again – another rumour – likely to bring with it a dual-screen Surface Pro.

As part of some comments on some news article (I have a few Microsoft-specific blogs on rotation, including MSPoweruser and On MSFT), I mentioned that I would absolutely be interested in upgrading from a Mac to a Surface if they introduced USB-C in as standard (like they have with the iPad Pro, and the MacBook). I think we’ve reached an age now where pushing ahead with the best in technology, like the USB-C, should be the norm. It’s no longer ‘innovative’, it’s standard. If I’m buying the latest, greatest product, then I want the latest, greatest offering.

But no, that’s not what the internet picked up on, did they?

Instead, and I’m paraphrasing, the response went along the lines of: well, if you like Windows so much, you should have abandoned Apple long-ago.

Now, make no mistake about it – I love my Apple products. I am yet to find a single piece of Apple hardware that hasn’t been able to withstand everything I throw at it – up-to-and-including my three kids. Consider also, that most products I use from Microsoft are now available on iOS, then it’s largely only gaming and a few specific pieces of software (like Visio) that require me to either dual-boot into Windows, or use another computer for. But that being said, I don’t hate using my Windows computers when I do have to use them either. I think Windows 10 is as close to the perfect version of Windows as I’ve seen since they launched Windows 95, and now with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, I’ve found myself using my Windows PC’s more-and-more. Couple that with the fact that most of my services are web-based, then it really doesn’t matter what hardware I’m on most of the time.

Right now, I’m writing this on my Surface 2, with my MacBook beside me showing my Google calendar for the week on Microsoft Edge Dev while notifications go off on my Apple iPhone.

All that’s missing is a bit of a Ubuntu on my desk and I’d have the whole family together.

So, like all of these other fringe arguments, my point remains the same – why is this a zero-sum issue? Why can’t I like iOS and MacOS and Windows and Linux equally and at the same time? Why and how does my decision to like one-or-more ‘other’ products lessen your enjoyment? Sure, there is enough marketing out there that will make you feel like your choice is the superior one (Remember: “Hi, I’m a Mac.” “And I’m a PC.”), but surely there is enough education out there now to recognise fluff versus feelings and preference.

Back when Xbox One launched under Don Mattrick, there were very real issues when it came to console choice. There was a clear divide about why Xbox sucked and PlayStation was better, and Microsoft adapted their product based on those decisions. These days, the products are like-for-like, and silly historical quibbles belong in the past. Right now, Windows and Mac are in the same position: like-for-like.

You don’t need to be a Mac or a PC person – you can be a little bit of both.

And tell the internet to keep their opinions to themselves.

Cross Save for Destiny 2

It’s here. It’s finally here.

It might sound silly, but I’ve been waiting for the industry to catch-up to this point for so long. I have looked at the Mike Ybarra Tweet many times over the past few years in which he prophesied a world where you would be able to play your same Destiny characters across any platform and take your progress with you, and now – that day has arrived.

While much of the narrative in the industry has been around cross-play for the past few years, I’ve always had my heart set more on the ability to cross-save. I knew that Microsoft had made incredible in-roads in this capability, part of the sales pitch that they use for using Azure, but regardless of any anticipated marketing kick – it was the functionality that most appealed to me.

The reason is simple: I don’t want to play with other people, I just want a choice about where I play.

Sure, Destiny is a game which thrives on social interaction – but other than one time when I managed to get a friend online, and through the good grace of an Xbox LFG – not to mention a few drop ins and drop outs – I managed to finish a raid – OTHER than that … I like to play it solo. If I play in a fireteam, it’s because it’s been randomly assigned to me, not because I have two or three good mates that I like to regularly catch up with each week and play. No, it’s the simple fact that I’m a busy man, and sometimes I only have twenty minutes to play, other times I can settle in for a long afternoon and smash out six missions in a row. There are a lot of variables at work there – whether the kids are in bed, whether my wife wants to watch something on the TV, whether there’s housework to do, whether my in-laws are staying, etc. And when that’s the case, I want to be able to pivot to a different platform, and try and play there – in my case, the PC.

Do you know what I don’t want to have to do? Start things all over again.

So, yes, I am red-hot-keen for cross-save, and I can’t wait to get into Destiny 2 Shadowkeep a little more on PC. It is, undoubtedly, a superior way to play the game, but I have built a healthy little legacy with my Guardians on my Xbox, and so I want to be able to maintain that going forward.

If they can sustain the cross-save capability for Destiny 3, I’ll be a happy man.

Thanks, Bungie.