Wednesday, 18 June 2014

E3 2014

After giving the news some time to sit and digest, I think it's time I shared my thought on this year's E3.

While not quite as underwhelmed this year as I felt with last year's show, I still don't think I saw anything at this show that has me wishing the summer away for new game releases in the fall. There's lots to look forward to, don't get me wrong, but still nothing in this new generation of games to make me go absolutely wild like I remember going in the past.

I'll start with Microsoft. While I found their conference was probably one of the smoothest of the entire show, and their entire show was laser-focused on games, there still wasn't much that surprised me or grabbed my attention. I'm a big fan of the Halo series, and the teaser for 5 looked very cool, but not enough to completely tip the scales in Microsoft's favour just yet. The Master Chief Collection looks cool too, but wasn't a surprise. Definitely solid fan service though. I'm anxious to see the new live action series too.

Aside from Halo, Sunset overdrive seems like it's going to buck the trend a bit. When the trailer started, I'll admit they caught me hook, line, and sinker. As I watched, I thought to myself "Oh great, another gritty army dude shooting his way to victory. Next!" and watching the Sunset Overdive dude kick his way through the door and grind/parkour his way around the warehouse was really fun. I'd love to get a hands-on with the game and see how the motion and fluidity affect the gameplay, but I think it'll be interesting for sure.

Scalebound is another game that caught me by surprise. As the main character faced up to the dragon I thought "lovely, another game where you kill giant dragons... when are we going to get to team up with these things and take on even bigger monsters?" As if reading my mind, that's exactly what happened next, with the trailer revealing that the first dragon is indeed the partner/pet of the Beats-wearing protagonist. It looks like you can teacup with other dragon riders too, making this a gritty version of How to Train Your Dragon. I have high hopes, but will wait for more than a CG trailer.

The final thing that grabbed my attention at the Xbox One show was Crackdown 3. I admit, I skipped Crackdown 2. The first game was fun, and I really loved running and jumping around the city, gaining new powers and making my super cop stronger and stronger as I did, but I didn't want more of the same wight he second instalment. I just went back and played the first one again for a few hours and moved on with my life. Depending on how much they can add with the new hardware, Crackdown 3 could be an amazingly fun, destructive, open-world mayhem simulator that's a blast to play, or it could be a slightly prettier version of the first two games, and something I skip completely.

Moving on to Playstation 4, Sony's press conference was a little too long for my liking, especially airing so late on the east coast, and I felt that they had a lot of great points, but a lull in the middle, some weird missteps in focus, and some technical glitches made it the weakest show from a presentation standpoint. Content-wise, they were on the ball. Games like The Order and Bloodborne make Playstation the place to go if you never want to sleep again. Grim Fandango being remade brings high hopes that we'll see old adventure greats like Full Throttle get the same treatment. Full Throttle alone would make me purchase a PS4, no questions. Someone make that happen.

Since I didn't get a PS3 last gen, the HD remake of The Last of Us and GTA5 are appealing to me, and Rachet & Clank always seemed cool when my brother would play them, but I've never really spent much time on those games personally, so those new/old experiences might be tipping my interest a little bit more toward Sony for this gen. The new Uncharted makes me want to go back and buy a PS3 just to catch up on that series, because I feel like I'm missing out on some great adventures, and the new one, even from a short teaser, looks fantastic. Here's hoping they do an HD remake package of the first games before the next one comes out, as that seems to be the current trend to make up for lack of backwards compatibility.

Destiny was one of the games of the show for me. No matter what console I end up getting, I imagine I'll spend a significant chunk of time getting to know that universe. The white PS4 bundle and exclusive Playstation content are making it appealing to go with Sony, but again, it's not a completely deal breaker for me to miss out on a new gun or something if I went with an Xbox One. This leads in to my next topic, cross platform stuff.

When I compare the list of exclusives that interest me, Sony comes out on top, but only slightly, and partially thanks to not owning a PS3 and being able to experience games I missed last generation. Most of the games I'm really interested in for next gen are cross platform. Evolve, Assassin's Creed: Unity, Far Cry 4, The Division, Rainbow 6, Mortal Kombat X, Arkham Knight and, as mentioned above, Destiny, are going to be available no matter if I chose super gaming box 1 or super gaming box 2. There are other games I can add to that list, but those are just a few off the top of my head, and as they get closer to release and the REAL builds start to come out, my interest in some of those titles might increase, or as it is with a lot of games that have promising early showings at E3, they could end up as shitty games with awesome trailers.

For me, and, after talking with my brother a bit on the subject, some other people as well, waiting seems like the best option at this point. That's sad to say a year after these new consoles were launched. I'm certainly not tempted to get both Xbox One and PS4. Maybe, just maybe, if Destiny is amazing, I'll consider grabbing the white PS4 bundle in the fall, but otherwise the only game that was making me itch for a fall purchase (Arkham Knight) has been pushed back to 2015. With all of these cross-platform games, I'm waiting to see what friends are doing too, because with so many multiplayer and coop games, I'd like to be able to play with people I know. Until then, I'll stick with my Wii U and my largely unused Xbox 360 and play the waiting game.

Speaking of Wii U, let's segue in to Nintendo's conference presence. I can't say their presentation because they did a digital event again this year, but that was only part of their overall approach to E3. The live streamed stuff the ENTIRE TIME! While it was impossible to keep up with it and watch it all, I really loved the approach they used and enjoyed tuning in when I could to see what the heck was happening at any given point on the show floor. It's the next best thing to being there, I think.

I enjoyed their Digital Event, and thought the Robot Chicken introductions, the epic battle between Reggie and Iwata, and other little odd bits were vastly different from the super serious "we're so powerful" feel that often comes through in competitors shows. Nintendo's whole thing felt fun. We saw Smash Bros, which got pushed back for 3DS and got a more solid "holiday season" release window for Wii U. I honestly don't mind the push for 3DS as long as it's a solid experience. As much as I would have loved to chill out at the cottage after a day of swimming and stuff and enjoy some Smash on the go with my brother and cousins, I wouldn't want that experience to be buggy.

The holiday 2014 release for Smash Wii U makes sense, and I would assume they are going full steam to make sure they hit that. With the announcement of Amiibo, Nintendo's answer to Skylanders and Infinity, they need to get both the figures and the game (which will be the first one to utilize the figures) out and in the hands of parents looking to grab stocking stuffers. I've posted about Nintendo doing something cool with NFC and figures before, so I'm very excited to see some really cool Nintendo figurines. I'm not entirely sure if I'll want to use them in Smash Bros, but I'll get the figures for display purposed if nothing else. They look really great.

For the rest of Nintendo's show, games like Yoshi's Wooly World and Captain Toad's Adventures look like cute, classic Nintendo fun, and from what I've heard about both, I'm very excited. Bayonetta looks very cool, and I'm happy to see Nintendo loan out character costumes. This is a tactic I think could work really well for other third party games, and I hope we'll see more things like this and Hyrule Warriors in the future. Games like Devil's Third and Splatoon seemingly came out of nowhere, and I'm looking forward to both, although cautiously, especially for Devil's Third. More games for the Wii U are a good thing though.

Of course, the big highlight, and the game of the show for me, was Zelda Wii U. Without an official name, details on gameplay, or a release window of any sort, Nintendo built up and got me so excited for this new Zelda that nothing else really mattered. Starting by talking about open worlds and exploration, trial and error, and the excitement of being able to chose a path and see where it takes you was such a great way to build up the game. Zelda has always been about this. The first Zelda allowed players to go in any direction and discover things. Often times you'd run in to a monster you couldn't defeat yet, forcing you to run away (or die) and come back when you had better gear, but as consoles continued to grow, technology limited the scope of the worlds and made them surprisingly more linear, instead of more open. Recent games like A Link Between Worlds brought Zelda flack to its roots, both by using the same over world as Link to the Past, but also by letting people chose the order they explored the dungeons in. I think that was a small taste of what this game is going to offer, and I can't wait to see more. Nintendo, for me, won the show based on that promise alone. It wasn't a perfect show for them. Code Name Steam wasn't the game I wanted them to focus on for 90 freaking minutes as a new 3DS game. I wanted Mario Galaxy 3D, or something of that AAA calibre. Splatoon finished their show on a weird note, but people are saying good things. I think voice chat could make or break that game online, and with Nintendo's hesitation to allow voice of any kind except with trusted friends, I can't see cooperative multiplayer being engaging when it's all silent. There are also not a ton of games to look forward to in 2014. Smash excluded, it's pretty bare. Mario Kart 8 and other backlogged games will keep me going for a while, but my fall could be pretty boring if Smash gets pushed back or I don't buckle and buy a new console.

So there you have it. My thoughts on this years E3. What did you think? I know my brother and the rest of the guys over at BFGC did Podcasts and thought on all of the press conferences. You can find and subscribe to their podcast here

Follow them on Twitter too @the_bfgc and for the hell of it, check out their Youtube Channel.

That's it folks! Until next time, follow me on Facebook at my Joystick Monkey page and on twitter @markcarabin

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Gimmicks Shmimicks

With the announcement that Microsoft will be releasing a version of Xbox One without Kinect at $100 less than the current retail package, I'm going to go ahead and say the customers have spoken, and gimmicks aren't going to sell systems.

We've actually been seeing this coming for a while. Even the Wii, which was hugely successful, was a disappointment for a lot of people. Not because it was underpowered and standard def when everyone else was going HD, although that was disappointing enough, but because we never really got that 1:1 experience we all expected to have, where we swung the remote around like a real sword fight and our on-screen counterpart did the same. Instead we mostly got to waggle the controller around a bit and hope we didn't develop tennis elbow. That's not to say the Wii was without any quality software, but most of the games I enjoyed either used very little motion control, or let me plug in a Classic Pro and drop the Wii Remote completely. One area I did enjoy the Wii Remote was FPS games, using the pointer for pixel-perfect aim, and they released somewhere around 2-3 decent ones through the entire console's life. Go figure.

The 3DS was priced too high when it was released and people lashed back, saying they didn't want glasses free 3D anyway, so they weren't going to pay a premium for the technology. Nintendo answered first with a price drop, and more recently with the 2DS, which drops 3D from the system altogether. Personally, I like 3D in most games, and think it adds a bit of depth and makes the experience more immersive in some cases, but I figured I'd make the point that the 3D gimmick was NOT a system seller. It wasn't until the system built a library of some of the best games on the market that people started buying the it. Games sell systems, not gimmicks.

Nintendo is falling prey to this line of thinking once again with the Wii U. "Hey, we have a Gamepad with a touch screen and some cool features" they're saying, while not releasing a single piece of software that sells anyone on the tech. So far the best use of the Gamepad I've seen has been off screen gaming, which is fantastic if, like me, you like to play while someone else is watching TV, but useless if you have a dedicated TV for gaming or something like that. It's been cool to have a map in my hands, and there have been some neat uses for inventory and stuff like that, but there's absolutely nothing about it that screams "you need this to play games!"

Microsoft, as they tend to do, saw another company's success and said "me too!" What they didn't seem to realize was the Wii was an anomaly, and priced to kill when it was released. With Kinect, they have some cool ideas for sure, but 9.9 times out of 10 people are going to opt for the simple press of a button rather than flailing around their living rooms like a spider just landed on their face. And talking to your TV never makes you look cool. If I can quietly press a button to do the same function as yelling at a little black box, I'm going to chose the button, for fear that the men in white coats will come after me. I haven't played around with an Xbox One, but I'm sure the voice commands work wonderfully in a quiet setting, but I have a feeling I'f use them once or twice, then forget about it and go back to a controller for input.

Sony seems to have caught on to this, and just released a super powerful system with a standard controller that just works right out of the box and plays and controls like every game system before it but just looks better. And that brings us to the problem...

After all my ranting and ripping companies apart, what does this all mean for gamers? Personally, I think it's both good and bad. On the good side, I think when developers don't have to worry about integrating gimmicks in to their games, especially cross-platform games, they can focus on just delivering quality content and more resources can go to things like story and graphics. The same thing can be said for the console makers. When they don't have to spend time and money coming up with gimmicks, they can focus on making top quality consoles that are powerful and less expensive. Clearly, with Microsoft cutting a full $100 off the price of their console just for taking out Kinect, there is some room to save costs when you're not paying for a product you're likely not going to use much anyway.

On the bad side, it kind of kills the innovation. If Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony all stop gimmicks and put out ultra powerful consoles with pretty similar looking, standard controllers, where is innovation in the industry going to come from? Is all innovation just going to be graphical? If so, I think we're hitting a bit of a limit. I remember the jump from SNES to N64 and being blown away by real 3D graphics. I remember the jump from N64 to Gamecube and PS2 that smoothed out those rough edges and blocky textures and made things feel more real. I remember the jump to HD with Xbox 360 and PS3 that upped the realism and made things look amazing on my brand new HDTV. This recent jump to Xbox One and PS4... meh. Things looks amazing, don't get me wrong, but I don't think we're even going to experience those types of dramatic jumps where anyone, even someone that's never played a game in their life, can look and say "wow, that looks so much better than before".

That's why I love Nintendo. They don't care. They swing for the fences every damn time, and hope something connects. For the Wii, they had a home run. For the 3DS, it took some time, but they got there. Especially in a world where I can download a great looking game like Infinity Blade 3 to my phone in a couple of seconds, the success of the 3DS is a testament to Nintendo's quality. The Wii U might be flailing a bit now, but if they look at it like the 3DS, consider a price drop, and get some quality software out there, it'll be ok. At least they stick to their guns, and I can't wait to see what they come out with next.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has been just coming off as spineless this entire generation. Last year's E3 was embarrassing. I loved my 360, but have been strongly considering switching to PS4 for this gen simply because MS doesn't seem like they have a clear plan. They say something, get their ass handed to them, then say "yeah, we're going to do what they're doing too. We're still cool, right?" Make a choice and stick with it. Even this announcement is all over the place. I read something basically saying "we're dropping Kinect but we still think it's an integral part of our strategy". If it's integral, leave it in there. If you need to play catchup, drop the price and take a loss for a bit. Don't flop around and make desperate decisions. An art teacher I had in high school would always say "make a decision. Make a choice, even if it's the wrong one, and go with it." and I always try to remember that in life. You're going to make dumb calls. You're going to do things that don't make sense, or that other people don't get right away, or at all. But you made that choice. Follow it through. I think Microsoft could learn from both Nintendo and Sony. Right now, it's trying to have the best of both worlds, and it's not doing the best at either.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The State of Nintendo

Nintendo posted an annual operating loss of $457 million for the past year. They sold only 2.72 million Wii U consoles, missing their expectation of 2.9 million (which itself was lowered from 9). 3DS continued to basically keep the company afloat, selling 12.24 million units. Most people reading this will likely know how much I love my Wii U, but I know Nintendo can do better and I really think they've been their own worst enemy the past few years, making weird decisions and ignoring fans for the most part. They've stated that going forward they have a lot of work to do (duh) and they want to focus on titles that showcase how the Gamepad is different that anything else on the market, and also to make use of things like NFC (near field communications), which is built in to the Gamepad and is the same technology Skylanders use to make the figures communicate with the base stations. I actually ranted last year about how Nintendo is ignoring NFC and came up with a couple of very simple but cool uses I think could show juts how different the system is. If you'd like to read that to catch up, click here

I think Nintendo is shooting itself in the foot in a couple of other key ways as well, and of course, I'm going to list them here and I'd love to hear what you think as well.

So, aside from the ignoring NFC problem, one of the main things that bugs me about my Wii U is the lack of Virtual Console support. Didn't they solve this with the Wii (sort of)? I could write an entire post about the VC and how I've always wanted to see more titles with steadier releases, dating right back to the Wii, but even ignoring that I still don't understand how nearly 2 years after launching the Wii U, I can't just move my entire existing VC library over to the new console. There have been a few NES and SNES titles released, but where are the N64 and Sega titles? I love playing Mega Man X, Super Mario World, Zelda and the other handful of games on my Gamepad while watching TV. Having to switch in to Wii mode and play the other VC games that way is a pain and a nuisance, and instead of porting over GBA games (which are awesome, don't get me wrong) I think Nintendo should be focusing all of its porting power on getting N64 games running on their current machine. Retro gaming is huge, just look to the success of games like NES Remix and you'll see Nintendo is at least vaguely aware that it's past library is still as popular as ever. Stop porting over crappy NES games, bring your SNES and N64 libraries up, and get Sega in on the mix. I'm not even going to complain about the Wii U upgrade fee, because I don't care, just let me play the games.

The Virtual Console is the main focus of my next point as well. I think Nintendo needs to bite the bullet and stop double-dipping. If they sold 12.24 million 3DS units this year, giving them a total of a little over 43 million sold altogether, they're sitting on a HUGE potential audience that can be at least a little more tempted to buy a Wii U if their damn purchases were transferable! I'm not talking about every eShop game being able to port to and from both systems, despite that working for a lot of titles, I'm sure, since there are effectively two screens on both. Just allow people to buy Super Mario Bros 3 ONCE and have it on both systems, and I'm sure there will be at least a few of those 43 million people that say "ok, might as well get a Wii U if it lets me play my retro titles at home". It would be awesome to do save and/or freeze state transfers like I can do between my iPhone and iPad on certain titles, but I really don't think they have to go that far. If I'm paying $5 for a game that's 25 years old, put it on both of my systems, shut up, and take my money. As it stands now, aside from a couple of games that I'll buy pretty much any time they're released (I'm looking at you Super Mario Bros), I am really really picky when I have to decide if I want something on my 3DS or Wii U. I'm not spending the money twice regardless, but if I had it for free on both, I'd tell my friends about it.

The last thing I'll mention are the games. I know, I know, everyone says Nintendo needs more games, and I agree. The problem is Nintendo can only make a few games at a time, and good games take time. I really think Nintendo needs to dip in to its MASSIVE cash stocks and start paying developers to do exclusives. Seriously, Nintendo could have flop systems for the next 20 years and still not run out of money. Use that cash. Start paying developers to make games for your system. Sponsor indies. Do whatever it takes to make your platform attractive. Pimp out your characters, even if it's just as simple as being able to wear something resembling a Link costume in an Assassin's Creed game, having Mushroom coloured gun skins in Call of Duty, WHATEVER. Look back to the Gamecube, which wasn't Nintendo's best selling console, but games like Soul Caliber did fantastically well on that system, in a large part because Link was a playable fighter. Have I bought a SC game since? Hell no, but I was there to grab that game day one, and I would again.

There are many more things I could mention that Nintendo could do, like going back in time and changing the name from Wii U to literally anything else. Seriously at this point I think the Nintendo Game-a-tron would be a better name. However, I'll stop with those three things and ask what, if anything, you think Nintendo can do to make the Wii U more appealing to people.

Friday, 7 March 2014

A future scenario with my idea of smart technology

After using my Pebble for a week and really enjoying the experience, I can't help but wonder what's next in the wearable market. Apple has a great track record of taking a concept that already exists and boiling it down to what that product can do better, and while I mentioned in my review, I think Pebble is on the right track for what I personally want in a "smart watch", I think Apple's experience with the iPad can teach us a lot. Most people (myself included), immediately brushed off the iPad as a bigger iPhone/iPod touch, which they already had, so why did they need one they couldn't fit in their pocket?  But Apple knew that the iPad would be better at a few key things, namely browsing the Internet, looking at photos, and reading email. Obviously, looking at the market now where tablet sales will overtake traditional computer sales within a year or so, they hit the nail on the head. I'm not sure what it will be, if I did I'd hopefully be working for Apple, but I'm sure they're going to come up with something for their wearable product that all at once makes you go "I can't believe I didn't think of that" and "I can't live without this from now on".

All of this has gotten me thinking about the future of technology, and what we might expect to see in the next few years. Particularly, as smart phones get fast and more powerful, what kinds of new experiences we might get as a result of carrying around a powerful, capable computer in our pockets. With the Pebble, no longer needing to reach in to my pocket to see every notification is nice. While I'm driving, being able to tap my wrist to answer call without taking my eyes off the road, or hands off the steering wheel, has been useful already. Weather is a glance away with the right watch face. Not needing to turn on my phone's screen for these simple tasks has actually been extending my iPhone's battery life more than keeping my connection to the Pebble drains it, as I guessed it might in my review. The iPhone does all the heavy lifting and the watch is a simple way for it to relay the information I need at a glance. What else could the iPhone do while still in my pocket?

With iBeacons, some companies are already exploring what I think will be a standard technology in a few years. For those of you that don't know, iBeacons can be placed throughout pretty much any location and relay information to and from your phone. For instance, a recent concept I saw allows you to open an app for a store you're visiting, scan items with your phone to add to a wish list, get information through descriptions and video relevant to where you are standing in the store, and more. The thing that interested me the most, however, was the iPad set up in the store that would detect the app on your phone and recognize you, even if your phone was in your pocket, and bring up your wish list when you touched the screen. This is great for shopping experiences, but I can see more every day use of this kind of technology. Since an iPad can function as an iBeacon, what's stopping an iMac or other kind of computer from functioning the same way? Or a special monitor? I'll explain what I mean.

I imagine a few years from now my day could look like this;

I wake up in the morning and my watch transfers my sleep data to my phone, where I can look up my movement and monitor sleep patterns. I go to get a shower and my phone tells the tiny screen on my mirror that I'm in the room, which then displays the weather for the day and reminds me of my meeting at 9am. In the car, my dash recognizes both my phone and my girlfriend's phone (actually she'll probably kill me if we're not at least engaged by then) and lets us choose who's music library we'll listen to (mine). It can sort out our maps and appointments as well, and since it knows who's driving, create a route that makes sense with me dropping her off first, then continuing on my way.

At work, my iMac will still be my primary work station, but it will wake up and log in once it detects my phone/me. I can set up using touch ID on my watch or phone as a password to unlock the computer if I choose for some extra security. Today, I use an iPad at work if I need to show an ad design or something to someone else in the office, and just transfer the image to the iPad through email or dropbox. I'd like to think if Apple wanted to, iPads as they currently exist could be cut out completely. Instead, you have the option to buy a thin, light screen in a few different sizes. They'd still call these things iPads probably, but like the watch, the heavy lifting is done through the iPhone, and the new iPad is thinner and lighter than ever before because the iPhone is providing all the muscle. They could still have decent processors, capable of browsing and the tasks most people use iPads for, but like the 15 inch Retina MacBook Pro can switch between integrated and discreet graphics now, it could tap in to your phone or a nearby computer to borrow some juice for more intense activities. AirDrop and iCloud allow you to share files between devices more easily than ever.

After work, I head to the mall, where I approach a monitor that talks to my phone and detects which apps are already there and what I might have looked up prices for. It knows my buying habits and brings up a map highlighting which stores have sales on things I might be interested in, any coupons or deals I might want, and generally makes the shopping experience much more personal, just upon entry. Entering a store brings up things from that store's app, and purchases can be paid for through a simple Touch ID transaction from my watch. If I don't have the app, iOS can detect the iBeacon and suggest I download it, which I can accept right from my watch without having to pull my phone out of my pocket. These iBeacons also allow my phone to be location aware without always having to resort to battery draining GPS, making check-ins a snap, and there's an option in iOS to allow iBeacons to intelligently open and close relevant apps automatically, keeping you from needing to have multiple apps running at the same time, again saving battery life and the need to take your phone out and manually select which apps are open.

Through monitors like the ones in the mall, or even other people's computers, you could access your email, documents, etc through iCloud, with your phone seamlessly logging you in, while nothing is stored on the monitors themselves, keeping security risks of using public terminals at a minimum. Obviously with all of this connectivity there are security and privacy risks, but again if I could figure out all of this stuff on my own, I'd likely be working at Apple or somewhere like that, instead of daydreaming in my blog.

At the end of the day, brushing my teeth before bed, that same mirror could display my steps for the day vs. any fitness goals I may have set, and other monitored activity, my appointments for tomorrow, and the weather forecast.

I'll stop there, because I could go on for pages thinking about different little concepts, but through that whole day I hardly mentioned having to take my phone out of my pocket.

I really see the phone as the center of our computing lives in the future. With the A7 chip, I've experienced blazing fast speeds in everything from games to video editing. Give it a couple of years, and I still don't see it replacing a desktop for professional level stuff, but I can envision it lending it's smarts to other devices and affording them to be cheaper, smaller, lighter, and much more convenient.

What do you think? Is all of this a bit too much? Did I miss any kind of integration you'd like to see? Let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Pebble Smart Watch Review

I've always liked wearing a watch. I've had many different types of watches, ranging from inexpensive, sporty Timex models, to expensive, fashionable Esquire and Fossil pieces, and up to weird little experiments like getting a watch strap made to fit my 6th Gen iPod nano. I enjoyed the novelty of the nano on my wrist, but having to reach and turn on the screen every time I wanted to see the time, short battery life, and lack of integration with other products made it just that, a novelty. I've been watching the smart watch scene with slight interest for a while, really since the Pebble was first introduced, but haven't felt it was the right time to jump on board until now. I was trying to wait out until I got a sense of what the ever-elusive iWatch was going to bring to the table, but when I saw the Pebble 2.0 software upgrade coinciding with the Pebble Steel, I decided to make the jump. Read on for my thoughts and experiences from my first few days with my new Pebble.

First off, I decided to stick with a regular Pebble rather than a Pebble Steel. I did this for a couple of reasons. For starters, I like the look of the regular Pebble. I chose the black model, and it's been fine to wear at work with my shirt and tie every day, but easily goes with a t-shirt and jeans as well. I've ordered some skins, including a couple of wraps that alter the appearance and a clear screen protector. The plastic cover on the Pebble was really the only concern when choosing not to go with the Steel, since a nice Gorilla Glass coating would have been preferred.

YWeather: A great watch face that displays time, date, weather, battery life and bluetooth connection.

The second reason I chose the regular Pebble was the price. I set a price watch on and it notified me of a one-day sale, which I took advantage of, but even without that small discount, the extra $100 didn't seem worth it to me for the Steel upgrade, likely because I'm still cautious about this being a stop-gap product until Apple or someone else comes out with something better. Now that I've made the purchase, I'll likely hold out even if/when Apple releases the iWatch, and buy the second gen version. I won't mind upgrading in a year or two if I get some good use out of the Pebble, and the $100 I saved by sticking with the regular version, in my mind, is $100 saved toward something in the future. Having something to hold me over might stop me from jumping on a first run product, and when I look at the iPad 2 or 3 vs. the iPad 1, waiting for the second iteration seems like a really solid plan.

For hardware, the Pebble features a 1.26 inch 144 x 168 pixel e-paper display. It's black and white only, but I actually like the choice, as it's low energy, has a great backlight (that you can turn on with a flick of your wrist), and displays information in a crisp, clear way while allowing the Pebble to stretch out an estimated 5-7 day battery life, which seems pretty accurate so far. I charged mine up a little on Friday when I got it, then fully Saturday, and have been using it on that charge ever since. It's only Tuesday, and I have 40% battery life, but that's 3 full days of heavy use and I should get another day or two. Once the novelty wears off and I'm not swapping apps in and out and testing every feature under the sun, I really expect that battery life estimate will hold up. The watch talks to your phone, most of the time, using Bluetooth LE, which stands for Low Energy. When it needs to swap out an app or something heavy, it can switch to normal Bluetooth on the fly, and this saves battery life for both the watch and your phone. I'll discuss battery drain on your phone a little further down. Overall, I'm very happy with the display, and prefer it greatly to the full colour touch screen of the nano that had to be turned on when I wanted to simply see the time. It might sound dumb, but I enjoy when my watch can function as a watch. I want to be able to glance down and quickly see what time it is, or what's going on, and if I have to get my other hand to tap a button to do that, I might as well reach for my phone. If someone can come up with a hybrid e-paper display that can turn in to a bright, colourful touch screen when it needs to, I'll be on board. Until then, I'll take a Pebble with amazing battery life over something like a Galaxy Gear or iPod nano any day.

In regards to build quality, the Pebble isn't going to win any fashion awards, the Pebble Steel is a step in the right direction, maybe, but this one is purely plastic. I'm not saying that's a bad thing though, as I really like how it looks and feels on my wrist. I think watched are a very personal item, so I won't weigh too much on this, and just let you make up your own mind. I can say that the buttons all feel nice and have a good click to them, and even the strap, which I assumed I would be swapping out immediately, doesn't feel horrible, although I'm still shopping around for replacement options.

With all that out of the way, let's dive in to what a Pebble actually does. For those that don't know, the Pebble is a smart watch that connects to your iPhone or Android phone to get data and display it on screen. I've been using it paired with my iPhone 5s, so I can't talk about any Android features, but I think they're pretty similar overall anyway. The Pebble will alert you to texts, phone calls, emails, and pretty much anything else you have set up to go in Notification Centre if you've upgraded to iOS 7 (which you should have by now). 

You can download new watch faces and apps from a newly released Pebble Store, which isn't nearly as curated as Apple's App Store, but does a good job of helping you find useful things. There's definitely room for improvement, and I think once more developers show interest, we'll see bit more polish to how things are displayed. The watch has enough memory to fit 8 items, whether they be watch faces or apps. The Pebble Store app on your phone makes it really easy to switch apps back and forth, using bluetooth to swap them out with the tap of a button. Apps and faces you download past the 8 item limit are stored in you Pebble Locker, so if you only use a stopwatch when you're doing laps at the pool (yes, the Pebble is waterproof!), you may want to keep it in your locker until you're at the pool and simply swap it out for something you won't be using while you swim, like a watch face or Yelp. 

The Pebble Locker

I've been swapping out watch faces daily, but I like the built in faces too, which don't take away from your storage space, but sadly can't be turned off or on, meaning you still have to scroll through them when you're flipping through your other watch faces, which is done from the watch screen by pressing the up and down buttons on the side.

Simon: A classier llooking watch face inspired by a Simon Carter wristwatch.

Apps are accessed on the watch by clicking the center button on the right side of the watch and going through a few too many clicks for my liking (more on that later). The apps range from professional grade things by big name developers, to absolutely terrible garbage made by goons in theirs mother's basements, but I've found a few that are pretty useful so far and there's a simple but decent "like" button style rating system that I hope helps in curation. 

The App Store 

There are a few simple little games that work better than I expected on the simple screen, but honestly if I want gaming on the go I'll be going to my phone or 3DS. For an app to be useful, it has to do something for me that makes it easier to go to my wrist, rather than take out my phone and play around with a bunch of apps and things. Foursquare, in particular, is an app I use regularly on my phone, but always found it slightly inconvenient to pull my phone out when I'm ducking in to a store, or sitting at a restaurant. With Foursquare on my wrist, I've been checking in to places much more regularly. This might be partially due to wanting to play with my new toy, but it definitely seems easy and less obtrusive than pulling out a phone, especially for people that might leave their phones in bags, purses, or zippered jacket pockets in the winter.

Foursquare on your wrist!

Most of these apps use your phone to do all the heavy lifting, tapping in to GPS, motion sensors, etc to feed data to the little screen on your wrist. Like I mentioned before, the use of Bluetooth LE for most of this data transfer saves battery life on both the watch and your phone, and I've honestly noticed very little battery drain on my phone compared to before I got the Pebble. The only time I notice significant drain is when I'm swapping apps and watch faces in and out, but once you settle on a few standard apps, you're not going to notice this as much. I've also been able to cut down the amount of times my phone screen turns on, because with notifications now buzzing on my wrist, I've turned off the feature that repeats when I get texts or emails, which I used to use to prevent missing important messages. Playing around with notification setting a little more, plus the ability to screen emails and messages so you're not turning on your phone's battery-sucking screen every time you hear a ding or feel a buzz in your pocket, could really negate any battery drain that comes from data transfer. I'd be curious to see if I can actually improve my phone's battery life by changing all my notifications to go just to my wrist, but that's an experiment for another time. 

All of this brings me to my final points, the need for a Pebble in the first place. Like I stated in my open in sentence, I've always liked wearing a watch. I was going to be in the market for a new watch regardless of it was smart or not, and I just chose to go with something a little cutting-edge and different. Like I said earlier, I like a watch to function as a watch first. I want to be able to glance down and tell the time without any fuss, and the Pebble nails it in that category. 

You'll never have a problem finding a new watch face. 

The ability to swap out watch faces is great, and keeps things fun and interesting, but the apps and notification settings really just solve incredibly first world problems. There's no killer feature here that makes a smart watch a must-have item like the smart phone has become. There's no improved feature like the bigger form factor of the iPad that made browsing, emails, and photos much more engaging than they've ever been. Everything about this is simply a mild convenience, and for that reason, I can only suggest a Pebble to people like myself that like technology simply for the sake of technology. With everyone so connected and distracted with their smart phones, it could be argued that being able to sneak a glance at your wrist is less distracting than taking your phone out every second, and this kind of thing could make it easier to ignore the buzzing in your pocket for a bit and remain engaged with actual people, but it could be flipped and said that people will just be constantly looking at their wrist instead of engaging in real conversations. I'll leave that debate for someone else, but my experience is leaning toward not looking at my phone as much as I used to, and that's a good thing. 

The Pebble is a good product, but is still not fully ready for an average consumer. Whether it's the haphazard app store, needing to reconnect to your phone too often, or the fact that it takes too many clicks to scroll down the menu and select an app, there are just too many little things that keep this product from being ready for, say, my mother, like the iPad is. A great example is something like this; I should be able to organize the menu so Foursquare is top of the list. Right now all downloaded apps are dropped below the built in options, meaning you have to click the centre button from the watch face screen, then scroll down through Music (controls your music on your phone, will be using that in the summer for sure!), Notifications (shows your prior notifications), Alarms (set an alarm to buzz on your wrist), Watchfaces (a list of the watch faces installed on your watch, utterly useless) and finally Settings (useful but rarely needed after setup). That's 6 clicks, and only if you installed the app you want to use first. If not, there's no other way to even organize that order either. If I found, for instance, 8 apps I wanted to use and just stick with the standard watch faces, I would have to click through the 5 built-in options, plus every other installed app in the list, just to get to what I want to use. This can and should be easily handled in the Pebble App on my phone, and I hope it is fixed soon. Again, first world problems, but it's little things like that that a company like Apple will jump on and make this product obsolete before it really got started. There were music players before the iPod, Apple just made it SUPER easy to use. The same thing can be said for notifications. I'm not sure if there's a way around this due to the way they're sent to the watch, but if I already have my phone out and a message comes in, I don't need to see that on my watch, but there it is anyway, waiting for me to clear it before I can see the time again. Tiny little things, but they take me out of that seamless experience I'm used to having with all my connected devices. 

In short, I am really enjoying my Pebble watch so far, I really am, but it's not perfect by a long shot, and I'm glad I went with the standard version instead of spending extra money on the Steel version, since I can see some obvious ways another company could swoop in and improve on what Pebble has started here. So, while there are a few bumps in the road, I'm happy to be on the bandwagon, and I'm enjoying seeing new apps and watch faces pop up every day from the active and growing development community. I think the Pebble is very close to being ready for mass consumers, and I love seeing a small player trample the other smart watches on the market from bigger companies. For now, if you tend to lean on the geeky side of things, and don't mind technology that's certainly helpful, if a little rough around the edges, I definitely suggest trying one out. Otherwise, think about holding off for a year or so. 

What do you think? Do wearables like the Pebble interest you? Sound off in the comments!

I'll leave you with a couple of my favourite geeky watch faces. 

A little throwback for classic Mac fans

The Q Watch: Inspired by Goldeneye 007 for N64, the left side represents battery health, the right is your Bluetooth Connection Strength

Monday, 20 January 2014

I just made this post as a comment on another website on an article about Nintendo's current market situation. The site asked what we thought of Nintendo, and what they could do to appeal to us, as consumers, right now. I thought I'd share my thoughts here and see what you thought about the current standings of the company.

I don't personally have a problem with my Wii U or 3DS, but I get the issues other people have with them. With the 3DS, I think the problem is obvious, they're competing in a world where I can download a mobile game to my phone at any point for free, or $1. For a decent gameplay experience, I'm tossing down $5. I don't like touch screen games nearly as much as a full gaming experience on a 3DS, but you can't argue that for most people, Angry Birds is all they need. Setting selling goals as high as they did isn't going to work, and it shows as 3DS was the top selling system and still didn't meet sales goals. Nintendo could counter this a bit by dropping the price of Virtual Console games a bit, $3 instead of $5 for NES, etc. and adding cross-platform play. If I have to chose whether to buy a VC game on 3DS or Wii U, I'm choosing one or the other, not both. They're not making any more money off of me, and frankly if I can't decide which system to get it on, oftentimes I just wait, then forget about it, and move on. If it was cross-platform, maybe with an option to buy the game through my phone so it's waiting for me at home (because connecting my 3DS to wireless networks is a pain) I'd make many more impulse buys just for nostalgia, which is the whole selling point of VC.

For Wii U, as much as I love it, it's underwhelming to the vast majority of people. For casual gamers, the Wii is still fine, and it's been said before, but the name Wii U is confusing. A coworker of mine has two little boys. For Christmas she got them new games for their Wii, and iPad minis. When I mentioned some games for Wii U she had no idea what I was talking about, and said she would have jumped on a new system for her boys if she had have known. The marketing for the system is terrible, and a company with resources like Nintendo should know that spending a few million on marketing is better than taking a $240 million loss.

The final point I want to bring up with Wii U is it's still overpriced. Even with a $50 price drop, when you compare it to PS4 especially, you get a much more powerful system with a MUCH larger hard drive for $100 more. Touch screen controller aside, that's too much. The controller is cool, I love off-TV play, I'm sold, awesome sauce!, but most people are not buying a HD game console so they can look down at a map in their hands. Throw in the extra $100 for a hard drive if you want to download any games at all, and you suddenly have a console that can't even play DVDs, looks slightly better than last gen, and has dumbed down third party games, when they come to the system at all, at the same price as the most powerful effing system on the market. I've been loving AC4 on my Wii U, COD was great albeit with much fewer people online, but I really have to make a conscious decision to get these games as support for the Wii U, and onc eI grab a PS4 or Xbox One, it's going to be tougher to justify supporting 3rd party on Nintendo's platform. Nintendo has to drop the price another $50 at least. Suddenly you'd have a system that's worth getting as a secondary system compared to the others. That was a selling point last gen, and I think it's an easy fix this time around. Nintendo is probably too proud to say it, but if media outlets suddenly started saying "you can get a Wii U and a PS4 for a little more than an Xbox One!" guess what people are going to start doing. That's the reason I got a 360 and a Wii last gen instead of as PS3. A price drop around the time that Mario Kart and Smash come out would, I believe, sell a very decent amount of systems, and Nintendo might have to be willing to take a bit more of a hit on units sold so they can make up the difference in the long term. 

So, what do you think? Do you agree that Nintendo can still recover with the Wii U, like it did when the 3DS had a rocky start, or do you think they're just out of touch, and consoles in general will start to see a steady decline in favour of PC or mobile gaming? With PS4 and Xbox One already basically just PCs, Steam Boxes on the horizon, and mobile making a dent across the entire industry, how do you feel about the current state of gaming?

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Smash Bros NFC

It's been a while since I made a post. New job, busy, blah blah, crappy excuses. I've been writing, which is the weird thing, but most of it's gone in the Day 1 journal app I've been testing out, and none of that gets pushed online. Anyway, I'm hoping I can find a better balance between here and there and get some more thoughts out in the universe. Ok, enough on that, this one's been brewing in my head for a while.

As I've said countless times, I love my Wii U. I use it all the time, and after a bit of a bumpy year, there are some truly great games out for the system, and more on the horizon. The Gamepad is awesome for someone like me! I enjoy spending evenings playing video games and chilling with my girlfriend and our puppy. We have a TV upstairs too, but it's nicer to spend some time together. The Gamepad allows me to play off-TV if she doesn't feel like watching what I'm playing, and if she does feel like watching, or is reading or something, the Gamepad has some other cool features that some games take advantage of, and some don't. And that's fine, as long as the game plays well, I really don't car if a developer shoehorns in some new, exciting way to use the gamepad screen. One thing that has been bugging me, however, is the lack of attention that the NFC reader is getting. I think I've come up with a pretty cool solution for that problem.

Nintendo loves when people get together in the living room and play games. They're all about being in the same physical space, interacting, and having fun with real human beings. Online is improved with Wii U, but Nintendo is still doing it a little differently. Again, that's fine. I'm digging MiiVerse and any game I've played online so far works really well. Back to the living room thing. With Wii, we could upload a handful of our Mii characters to a Wii Remote and take that to a friends house. I think you might see where I'm going with this. The Gamepad is a little (ok, a lot) too big and fragile to start lugging around to a friends house. Plus you can't sync up more than one. Therefore, I think Nintendo should release what I'll call a Mii Coin. This little coin, preferably shaped like a coin from Mario, but really there could be multiple styles from different franchises (a Rupee from Zelda, a Star Fox inspired military badge, a Metroid inspired lightning bolt coin, a pokeball shaped coin, etc), would store not only you Mii's information, but also profile data from compatible games. I'm inspired by the Wii Fit Meter, which is now always attached to my hip, to think of something small and cheap, that would always be on you and easy to take from one friends house to another, keeping your stats and experience wherever you go.

For an example, I thought of Smash Bros for Wii U. Imagine this. You buy your coin alongside the game. It's $10 - $20 to keep in line other NFC toys (Skylanders/Infinity) and not too expensive to if you lose it you're going to lose sleep over it. You go home, pick your favourite character and start learning moves, customizing your controls to the way you like them, and building your stats. Maybe there's a levelling system in this version, that allows you to unlock new features, characters, or costumes depending on your level. That weekend your friend invites you over for a Smash tournament. You start up the game, click Transfer on the home screen, and tap your Mii Coin on the Gamepad's NFC square, transferring your stats, control preferences, etc over to the the Coin instantly, and you're good to go. When you get to your friends house, fire up the game, hit the transfer button, and the game tells each person to tap their Coins (if they have them). After the tournament, simply reverse the process, collect your stats, and sync back up when you get home. When you transfer your stats, your friend also has the option of saving your Mii character to their system, so they'll see you when they're playing Wii Sports HD, etc.

Obviously this example is just scratching the surface of what this thing could be used for. Custom made characters and stages in games could be brought with you anywhere you go. Profiles in FPS games could be transferred over so two people can play online and you don't have to use "Guest 1's" crappy default load outs. It's a simple idea, but it's something that I think would get people excited about going to a friends house to play games, keep their progress and records, and actually use a pretty cool feature that's literally just sitting there under our thumbs.

What do you think? Can you think of any uses for Mii Coins that maybe I missed completely? Dumb idea, cool idea. I want to know!