We don’t need no education

GatekeeperThe number of faux-pas and botched damage control attempts from Microsoft around Xbox One has been hard to keep up with these last few days. Microsoft has confirmed shortly before E3 that the rumors about used and loaned games were true: you won’t be able to dispose of your property without Microsoft’s authorization, and various actors are going to get a cut out of all used sales. Some additional restrictions apply.

This is important because it’s more erosion of private property by big corporations. It’s one more way in which you don’t own what you buy, but instead buy a license to use what remains the corporation’s property. In the end, you own nothing, and it’s corporations that own you.

Microsoft defends its decisions by explaining to us that we need to be “educated”, that we are reacting the way we are because we don’t understand the tremendous benefits they are offering consumers:

"This is a big change, consumers don't always love change, and there's a lot of education we have to provide to make sure that people understand."

Ars Technica further explains that according to Microsoft:

“temporary confusion and discomfort among the audience would be worth it as gamers and consumers adjust to a console world without game discs” and that in “the world of home movie viewing, […] inconvenient trips to Blockbuster Video have been replaced with Netflix streaming.”

Leaving aside the hubris and arrogance, the problem of those explanations is that they are lies. Those features are not being introduced to benefit us, the consumers.

Disk-free playing is perfectly compatible with copy protection, without all the hurdles that Microsoft is introducing with Xbox One. All you have to do is ask for the disk when a new copy of the same game appears on a new console. Microsoft is already doing that today with gamer tags: you can only use them in one place at a time, but the transition from one machine to another is almost painless and transparent. They know how to do it. It’s just that they don’t want to.

Netflix was successful because it was removing obstacles, because it was more convenient than its predecessors. The Xbox One rules on used games are undeniably less convenient, which was beautifully demonstrated by Sony with this little gem of sarcasm: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWSIFh8ICaA

The new system only benefits game publishers, and are probably just a way to secure more exclusives for the platform. Pretending that it’s all done to benefit the consumer only adds insult to injury. For me it will be a PS4, thank you very much.

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More Aperture Science: the Light Bridge

The Light BridgePortals are not Aperture Science's only remarkable scientific accomplishment. Among their other inventions is the Light Bridge, that provides a stable and seemingly immaterial surface that people can stand on. The bridge can also be turned on or off instantly.

How does it work and is it really made of light?

It certainly emits light but it most definitely isn't made of it. For light to be able to withstand the weight of a person would require an amount of energy that would have to be directed upwards and that would be sufficient to fry them instantly.

There is little information available on Light Bridges but similar technology has been mastered by others. One declaration we were able to get from an Aperture representative is the following:

"If you rub your cheek on it, it feels just like being outside, with the sun shining on your face. It will also set your hair on fire, so don't actually do it."

This is because the bridge seems to be a stationary wave of photinos, the supersymmetric partners of photons. Around the surface of the bridge, there is an evanescent wave that is characteristic of a phenomenon of total reflection.

The tricky part is that what is being totally reflected on the surface is the quantum wave function of all fermions above the bridge. In other words, the force exerted by the bridge on what stands on it is purely quantum mechanical in nature, similar to what keeps electrons in separate atomic orbitals or to what keeps a neutron star from collapsing further. It could even be seen as a sort of reverse-quantum-tunneling effect, where objects cannot possibly move any farther. An anti-portal of sorts.

Now light can still pass through because it's made of bosons, of course, which explains the translucency. The blue color is due to the disintegration of some of the photinos that form the bridge.

There is a cylindrical version of the light bridge that is used as a tractor beam and that is obtained by not making the photino wave exactly stationary.

That is it for today. I'll take questions now.

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The physics of portals

Fuckin' portals - how do they work?You heard it like me, someone just asked about the physics of Aperture Science's neat Portal Gun. I'll try to give an account of what we know from the material that Aperture recently made available and from what can be deduced from demonstrations of the product.

Unfortunately I've been unable to get any additional information or confirmation of my findings from Aperture themselves as the only person I was able to contact, a Mrs. Glados, told me on the phone that "all the persons who are still alive are currently unavailable, but as you seem to have an interest in doing science, I'd be happy to show you around our test chambers. We are open 24/7. I hope you like orange. Can you bring some cake? I don't want to lie to you: we seem to have run out."

So let's get going, shall we? Here's how the gun works:

The Portal Gun (source Aperture Science)

The central part of the Portal Gun is a miniature black hole with a Schwarzschild diameter of a few centimeters. Now black holes this size usually radiate strong amounts of Hawking radiation, resulting in their rapid evaporation. This is counterbalanced by an extraordinarily simple device, in the form of a cooling fan that blows evaporated virtual particles back onto the black hole's horizon.

Above and below the black hole, there are two ring singularity rings that can be made to rotate one way or another in order to communicate angular momentum to the black hole (this is why operating the gun while moving creates the impression that it is being gently pulled out of your hands, by gyroscopic effect). Making the hole rotate results in the event horizon opening up and revealing the ring singularity inside.

The fan is then sped up suddenly behind the singularity to blow part of it forward into the portal intake manifold, focused by the three quantum shaping prongs that you can see moving around the front end of the gun when firing a portal. The focalization is necessary but not sufficient, as the singularity needs to be stopped by a surface charged with Z bosons. This is why Aperture is building special panels for their test chambers, the only surfaces that can stop portals in place. Whenever you attempt to fire a portal on a different surface, the portal continues its course through space unaffected while the dye is stopped by the wall and produces a spray of color at the impact point. This of course makes portal guns unusable in practice outside of a specially equipped test facility.

It's worth mentioning at this point that it is a trivial cosmetic detail that orange or blue dye is injected around the singularity at the precise moment when it passes through the intake manifold. The dye then enters into the gravitational orbit of the ring singularity and remains there as long as the portal remains active, creating the rotating colored shimmer that we all know and love.

Now here is the tricky part: when you fire the second half of the portal, it is emitted as a second ring singularity that rotates counter to the orientation of the first one and most importantly while being entangled with it. It is this quantum gravitational entanglement that does the job of bridging space-time on both sides of the portal. Contrary to common belief, Aperture's portals work by creating a quantum tunneling channel between two locations and not at all by creating a wormhole. Creating wormholes requires considerably more energy, making the process unsuitable to the construction of portable devices. Furthermore, as Black Mesa recently showed, we do not know how to control which universe the other end of the wormhole comes from.

It is often asked whether portals are limited to connecting points in space or if they could permit time travel like wormholes do. Well, if you can find a way to aim in the direction of the past or future, which are unfortunately orthogonal to the three dimensions of space that we are familiar with, then yes, it is possible. Good luck with that.

Now that we understand how the gun works, we can look at the energetic consequences of punching tunnels into space. One thing that all people who have operated a portal gun report is that if they create a portal between two places that present a potential gravitational energy gradient (in layman terms, different altitudes), there is wind coming out of the top portal and entering the bottom portal. This wind gets stronger with the altitude difference.

This is very easy to understand as the difference in potential energy between the two ends of the portal manifests itself like any potential energy gradient: by a force from highest to lowest potential.

That leads us to an interesting point which is that air is affected by portals in exactly the same way that we or any massive object such as a weighted cube is. If for example you punch vertically aligned portals on the floor and ceiling of a test chamber, the air in the room will start falling through, creating a strong wind that will blow downwards, attracting passers by in virtue of the Venturi effect.

Another amusing consequence is that falling through such a portal pair, you can reach speeds much higher than the normal terminal velocity in the same conditions of pressure and temperature.

A gravitational turbine, as used by Aperture ScienceThis effect is actually used by Aperture Science to produce the considerable energy that their testing facility consumes: weighed cubes are left to fall between two portals in a tall well, and a turbine harvests the gravitational energy transformed into kinetic energy along the way.

Now of course the next question is where does this energy come from? Well, the portal itself carries little energy and it doesn't seem to decay as energy is harvested. Many speculations have been made about this but the most plausible explanation seems to be as follows.

Conservation of energy, as everyone knows, is not a principle in itself but rather is a consequence of the laws of physics being the same at all points in time. Ergo, all you have to do is to break the laws of physics in order for energy to stop being conserved. And you'll have to admit that a persisting quantum tunneling device is as weird as it gets.

The effect of this is that constants such as the fine structure constant or the gravitational constant are probably varying slightly as more stuff gets dumped into portals, possibly resulting eventually in atoms failing to retain electrons, galaxies to dissolve or the Sun to transform into a black hole. But don't worry too much, that should take at least a few centuries to happen if my calculations are right.

Well, this is it in a nutshell. I'm going to take questions now.

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Why Guitar Hero is dead to me

(c) Bertrand Le Roy 2007 I bought the new Guitar Hero 5 because I needed a new fake plastic guitar and Activision’s guitars are the best that are not outrageously expensive. The Rock Band guitars I just can’t stand. So as I was going to buy a guitar from them, I thought I might as well get a (couple of) cheap game(s) with it.

At first, I really liked what they did with GH5, especially when compared to the mediocre World Tour. The party mode, for example, is a very nice idea: the game acts as a media player and plays songs on its own; but you can jump in at any time and start to play any instrument. Being able to play any instrument in any number is also a nice touch, seeing as few people like to sing in public, but most are not afraid of the guitar or drum set.

I also liked the tapping sections and the bass’ sixth note.

Problem is, that’s about it. The game has 85 songs but they’re not good. Going through the career mode feels like you’re grinding through mediocre song after horrible song. And when there’s one good song (there are a few), it is usually spoiled by an absurd, deliberately “challenging” partition. “Challenging”, in Activision’s mind of course means they have to make extra-sure you’ll have no fun playing the song.

After passing most songs, I heard myself thinking “this is a song I’m never going to play ever again”.

And the design… Will somebody please do something about the ugliness and get out of that uncanny valley? The rest of the industry has, one way or another. Guitar Hero is generally very consistent about the bad taste.

Contrast that with the elegant and subdued design of Rock Band, their well-balanced, well-designed, fun partitions that have the appropriate difficulty (no song is harder in medium than another in expert for example).

And of course, until EA and Activision realize the consumer’s interest is theirs and it’s absurd to limit the songs you sell to only one media player, there can be only one. Nobody wants to switch games in the middle of a party. But that is unlikely to happen as Activision can’t even manage to be compatible with their own games: 35 songs out of World Tour’s 85? WTF? It’s as if Apple was selling iTunes 2008 and iTunes 2009 but you couldn’t play on 2009 all the songs you bought on 2008. And you had to pay again to play those few “old” songs that you bought only a year earlier.

Don’t even get me started on how they milk the franchise, from inane band-specific titles to ridiculous toy-versions.

There can be only one in each home, and for me that one is going to be, for now and I suspect for a long time, Rock Band.

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Five gems of XBLA

  1. The Maw is a charming and seriously fun game that is going to make you smile from start to finish.
  2. Puzzle Quest is one of those “just one more” time sinks. The improbable mix of puzzle gaming and RPG is just awesome. The sequel, Galactrix, is pretty good too (but quite buggy, you might want to wait for a patch or at least regularly copy your game save).
  3. Portal is simply the best game ever, at least for me. Portal proves once more that the simplest ideas can be the deepest and does so with amazing grace and mastery of the art of video games.
  4. Banjo Kazooie and Banjo Tooie were two of the best N64 games, maybe on par with Super Mario but with that unique Rare sense of humour.
  5. Cloning Clyde: smart and funny.

What are your favorite XBLA games?

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The PlayStation’s Flower power

flower Yesterday, I bought Flower for the PS3 and played it through in one sitting (the game is really short but still, couldn’t get my hands off the controller once I started).

This game is one of the best things I’ve seen in gaming this year. It’s beautiful, poetic, more contemplative experience than game. There is not the shadow of a doubt that this thing is art. What really interested me was the way it tells a story without a word. I’m convinced that the acceptance of video games (or any medium) as art is conditioned by its ability to find storytelling methods that are unique to it and that are impossible to reproduce outside of it. Flower is one of those games that do exactly that.

There are many things I dislike about the PS3, but one has to admit Sony knows how to produce original, quirky and high-profile games (Patapon, LocoRoco and Pain are other examples).

Flower is well worth your $9.99 but you have to be aware it will last only about two hours.

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We need Rock Band / Guitar Hero song compatibility

In this post, the Penny Arcade guys make the point that beyond instrument capability, what we really need is song compatibility between the two. Beyond the licensing nightmare that would probably represent for both games publishers, this resonated really well for me. Here’s why and why it makes perfectly good business sense below the apparent “yeah, right, you wish” appearances.

Guitar Hero -and Rock Band even more so- are the ultimate party games. I can’t seem to go to a party these days that doesn’t have a Rock Band game running. Perfect fun. Now here’s the reason why I’ll probably pass on the next Guitar Hero: there can be only one. What are the chances that in the middle of the party, somebody will say “I want to play song X, let’s swap disks and go through the process of getting the band back together”? Let me think… yes, zero. So well, I’ll stick to what I have and what constitutes the better choice in my opinion, Rock Band. Guitar Hero World Tour just lost a customer.

Now let’s imagine for just a second that songs work on both games. If Guitar Hero has a good selection of songs, I’ll just buy it for the songs even if I never play the actual game (or just once, for the achievements :) ).

So to recap, in one case many people will only buy one of the games, in the other those same people might buy both (and play only one but who cares). Which one makes the best business sense? I believe the second one but I have no illusion that both editors will prefer to stick to the iTunes “I want it all” mindset…

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I don't like Braid. What's wrong with me?

I really, really like a good puzzle game. So when I saw Braid announced and read the raving critics, I was quite sure this was a game for me. I really wanted to like it. Then I downloaded the trial version... and pretty much hated it.

So here are some critic's citations and how they resonated for me:

  1. It's beautiful
    Well, excuse me but I find it ugly. To me, it looks like a Van Gogh wannabe under acid had tried to redesign Mario. But that's fine, even though I would have appreciated a saturation setting in the menu, I can love an unaesthetic, tacky game if it works well.
  2. Tight controls
    Sure, the time control works well and is quite instinctive to use, but the rest felt amateurish to me, shareware-like. And the moving jumps are just a little too long, making it counter-intuitive to predict where you'll land, especially on moving targets. The controls worked against me more than for me. That would be fine-ish if I had an incentive to get used to the controls...
  3. Compelling story
    Yeah, OK, the writing is fine. But it isn't integrated to the gameplay at all. Quite the reverse, actually, it's totally isolated from the game. The writing should serve the gameplay, and vice versa. They must be tightly woven together. So the game didn't make me want to care about the story, and the story doesn't save the game for me.
  4. It's all about the puzzles
    That's the strange one. This is the point that should have redeemed all the rest. The idea is quite good and apparently I'm the only one who didn't like its execution. The puzzles in the demo were either way too simple to be interesting or quite hard with the game giving no clue whatsoever. Compare that with a Portal that only adds one concept at a time and makes sure there never is a wall of difficulty but always a smooth progression. Here, the game did nothing to make me care enough, so I just gave up.
  5. It costs $15
    I wouldn't care about this one. I'm ready to pay for a good game, even if it's short, and $15 looks like an ok price to me for a few hours of fun.

So for me the jury's still out on this one. I'd be willing to try again but so far all the reasons I've seen people cite for loving it just didn't work for me.

Did you try Braid? Did you like it? What am I not getting in your opinion?

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You're not being reasonable

Ever since it came out, it seems like Wii Play has been somewhere on top of sales charts and even managed to be the #2 top-seller of 2007 in the US. Let's be clear about this: even if it looks like a good deal, being only $10 above the price of a standalone Wiimote, it really isn't. It would be a good deal *if* Wii Play itself was worth $10, which it isn't by a very large margin (i.e. at least $10). As a matter of facts, if you gave me $10 to play this thing (which I refuse to call a game), I would decline. And I want the fifteen minutes I spent trying to play it back.

The only person in the family who found this of any interest was my daughter but that's probably because she was 3 years old at the time. By buying this, you're sending the following message to Nintendo: "I'll buy anything from you, so please make more mini-pseudo-games that most sane persons would refuse to play if they were free internet Flash games".

Do yourself a favor: don't buy this thing and just go for a standalone Wiimote instead. And while you're there, pick up a copy of Super Mario Galaxy. Now that's a real game.

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Arbitrary Criteria Game Review: Portal is as delicious as cake

What a great time to be a gamer. It seems like there is no end in sight to that steady stream of excellent games. We already got Bioshock, Halo 3, the Orange Box, Guitar Hero III, and we're waiting for Rock Band, Mass Effect, all before Christmas. What we lack is time to play them all.

This is one that won't take too long. So I'm seeing this through our arbitrary prism of Seven Deadly Sins of Game Design...

  1. Checkpoints: the game automatically saves whenever you do something significant. Essentially, you never need to worry about saving. But you can if you want. Anytime. Perfect.
  2. Boss fights: there is one, and it's fun and balanced enough that you can reasonably beat it on your first try (I did). Perfect.
  3. Mini-games: there are none. Portal is a game that knows exactly what it is about, and it doesn't waste time diverging from what it does best. Perfect.
  4. Cut scenes and dialogues: Portal is a talkative game, and the text is wonderfully funny in a dark, random way. That doesn't break the rhythm of the game in any way, it just happens as you play. In that sense, the storytelling (and surprisingly there is storytelling in this game) is even less obtrusive than in Bioshock. Perfect.
  5. Reload times: the time you spend in elevators between levels could be shorter, but reload times are perfectly reasonable. Plus, you don't need to reload that often.
  6. Camera: you own it. No problem here.
  7. Control scheme: it's the usual FPS dual stick scheme, plus one button to jump, a choice of pressing a stick or a button to crouch and the triggers to project a hole of either color (blue or orange). Couldn't be simpler, each button has at most one function and it doesn't insist on using them all. Perfect.

So here it is, it's perfect. Buy it.

Seriously, this game is outrageously fun and clever at the same time. It will create fireworks in your brain. You'll have a big grin on your face the whole time you're playing it. The level design is exquisite, there is a unique atmosphere and personality to the game and of course it relies on an extremely original idea, which is this portal gun that can connect two places with a pair of portals no matter how far away from each other and enable instantaneous travel. This was originally a independent student's project (Narbacular Drop, free to download) that was bought by Valve to become part of the Half-Life universe. And one can see while playing the game how Portal is just an opening. The possibilities are endless. The first thing that comes to mind is how well this could work in a FPS like Half-Life. This portal gun may well be the new gravity gun, only even better and a lot more mind-bending (in addition to being space-bending).

Sure, it only lasts two to three hours, but three hours you'll never forget.

Just in case you don't know, Portal is part of the Orange Box.

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