Audacious Fox

Details are sparse, but here’s Rebecca Ford for The Hollywood Reporter:

Good Universe is teaming with independent video game developer and publishing company Campo Santo to develop content for both video games and feature films. The companies will create a home for talent to develop projects that can bridge both the video game and feature film worlds. Their first project with be a film adaptation of Campo Santo’s first video game, Firewatch.

Browsing through Good Universe’s past work, there’s very little that carries the tone and cinematography I imagine a Firewatch film would have, but who’s to say. I doubt many saw a Panic-backed video game either.

An interesting bit buried in Ms. Ford’s piece is that Firewatch “has sold almost 1 million copies to date.” The last sales estimate I could find was from Panic’s Cabel Sasser back in March, where he pegged the number at “around 500,000”.


Having Only Missed My Target Publish Date by a Year, Here Are Some Brief Thoughts and Observations on Apple Watch

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Editor’s note: Just over a year ago, I purchased an Apple Watch and intended to write up some thoughts and observations. That draft then made its way into a soup of other text files, and I eventually forgot about it. However, this past week, I stumbled back across my old notes, and given the recent launch of Apple Watch Series Two, I thought it would be fun to publish my thoughts on the previous model. Readers should note that although these observations were written over a year ago, I did take an hour to do some light copyediting, as the original was not quite publish ready.

Furthermore, the Apple Watch I purchased a year ago doesn’t technically exist anymore. When Apple announced Series Two, they also upgraded the processors in the now-available Apple Watch Series One. One could make an argument for calling my model Apple Watch Series Zero, but such an argument would be laughed out of the AF newsroom.


What I will miss most about my Apple Watch is the Sport Band. I think you could focus an entire review on the variety of bands and the incredibly intuitive latching mechanism. Truly, I’ve never worn anything quite as comfortable as when I wore my Apple Watch.

Wore, as in the past tense. I no longer own an Apple Watch, primarily due to what I saw as the functionality to cost ratio being tipped ever so slightly in the wrong direction. This cost-benefit analysis will probably go through the minds of many first generation Apple Watch buyers, although I’m sure many will end up keeping theirs. For me, it was a little too much money for too little functionality.

At my local Apple Store, I tried on the 42mm Apple Watch Sport edition in black. I paired it with the high-performance fluoroelastomer1 with pin-and-tuck closure Sport Band. $450 later, they were mine. Around three days after that, they were Apple’s again. What follows are some of my initial impressions of the hardware, software, and how they’re trying to come together.

WatchOS

WatchOS feels constrained, but in a good way. Constraints force us to make tough design decisions, and Apple’s decisions tend to be in favor of the simple and intuitive. Some of these decisions work better than others, but some of my favorites were: tilt your wrist, see the time; push through the screen (Force Touch) and you could change the watch face; spin the Digital Crown too far past the end of a list, and the watch would vibrate like a rubber band had snapped.

Overall, I liked WatchOS. Part of my enjoyment is because there are so many new design patterns, all created for this tiny screen on a flagship product. Of anything related to software, I’m most excited to see how Apple molds and matures the design language of WatchOS in the future.

Fitness

Price was the primary factor when it came to choosing an Apple Watch model. However, even if I had been comfortable paying for the normal Apple Watch in stainless steel, I don’t think I go home with anything but the Sport edition. This is for two reasons: a.) personally, I find the aluminum to be more aesthetically appealing than the stainless steel, and b.) my primary usage of Apple Watch would be centered around fitness, so the lighter, more sporty model makes sense.

Getting access to WatchOS means that my iPhone also now had access to the Activity app, which tracks and logs your, well, activities. The health data is what you’d expect from this type of fitness tracker, but I already get many of the provided data points from my current wearable: a Fitbit HR. After going running, the data from both devices was similar, and from a purely data perspective, it really comes down to what you do with the data that makes the whole experience something more compelling.2

With Apple Watch, the data exists, but that’s about it. On the other hand, Fitbit’s accompanying app lets your data be used as a motivator for both you and your network. I’m biased and conditioned to want this type of thing — I’ve been using my Fitbit for a number of months — but the lack of any friend-based competition makes the experience with Apple Watch feel lonely. This is a shame, because one of the best parts of owning a Fitbit is getting to see how you’re doing against all your friends. Daily steps, as simple a metric they are, can be a huge motivator to get back outside and log a few more laps around the apartment; particularly if you’re just a couple hundred of steps behind 1st place.

When compared to other trackers, Apple Watch isn’t just competing on features; many times it will have to compete against a pre-existing support network.

Ironically, given my enjoyment of tracking fitness data, the health-related feature I enjoyed most were the hourly reminders to stand up and walk around. It was a great example of how Apple Watch could slide into the background, but also help you make small improvements to your daily health.

Notifications

Health and fitness feel secondary to Apple Watch’s main functionality: offloading notifications from your phone to your wrist.3 After a couple of hours, I found not needing my phone to triage notifications a pleasant experience, which is a far cry from the torment I was prepared for. This positive reaction can be attributed in large part to the excellence of the Taptic Engine, which offers a very satisfying, and convincing, tapping sensation. This subtle, silent form of notification is pulled off to near perfection, and you really need to feel it for yourself to understand. When a notification comes in, I felt a small tapping on my wrist, at which point I could turn my watch upward to reveal a slick little animation that ushers new content onto the screen. It worked great, and I loved the vibrant colors and typography, underscored by the superb San Francisco Compact typeface.4

However, interacting with notifications quickly became a one-way street. Notifications could come in, but responding and interacting with them was a mixed bag of emotions. This was particularly maddening when replying to text messages. On WatchOS, the only way to create text on-the-fly is to dictate your message to Siri.

Once you’ve finished dictating your message, there is no way to edit it. You get one shot, which leaves you at the mercy of Siri and her a.) availability and b.) accuracy - neither of which performed well for me. Often times the whole experience with Siri would veer from excitement to “what just happened”.

Closing Thoughts

Apple Watch tries to do a lot, but it’s currently at a cost that was hard to justify. Of all the apps I tried using, the only two that were partially useful were OmniFocus and Due. OmniFocus let me quickly check off items as I was doing them, and Due’s reminders were a fantastic demo of how useful notifications can be on your wrist. That’s just two apps, out of tens that I had available.

I feel somewhat confident in saying that Apple Watch is in the same place that the original iPhone was at launch: polished in many areas, but lacking functionality. I’m hopeful that Apple Watch can mature into a compelling product, especially once the SDK is out, but it’s not there yet. For some, the health benefits may justify the price, but the overall performance and functionality doesn’t do it for me. If you want an Apple Watch purely for the fitness abilities, I’d encourage you to first check out the competition. If, however, you want Apple Watch for the coolness, then go pick one up. It was undeniably cool.

Only having it for a couple days meant that I will have obviously missed many of the subtleties that would accompany a week or more of usage. My ownership began and ended within a work week, so I didn’t use it over a weekend. Additionally, I probably didn’t get more than 75 total notifications; although that’s probably more about my popularity than anything applicable to this piece.

Those things being said, now that I’ve returned everything, I do find myself missing things about Apple Watch. I’ll miss most everything about the physical interactions: the Taptic Engine, the Digital Crown, the Sport Band. I’ll also miss some of the ways it augmented my usage of certain apps, albeit most apps seemed to provide just short of the enjoyment threshold needed in order to be worth using at all.

Apple Watch felt like a device with tremendous potential, and for something permanently attached to your body, it was incredibly comfortable and svelte. However, much like child of a product it is, there are indicators all throughout the experience that Apple Watch isn’t sure what it wants to be when it grows up. Time will certainly tell.

  1. Fluoroelastomer is one hell of a word.

  2. Whenever it comes to personal data, particularly personal health data, privacy is paramount. However, I’m not arguing for any sort of Game Center-style integration (although that does play into the gamification of exercise); rather, I’d be more interested in a Find My Friends approach, where the data sharing process is both granular and intentional. I’m not sure why this sort of thing isn’t there at launch.

  3. Ultimately, there’s not a lot you can do within WatchOS 1.0. The software is limited to displaying apps that do all of their processing on your phone, which ultimately means that you spend a decent bit of time waiting for apps to launch, waiting for data to be refreshed, and waiting for calculations to be performed. It’s not a good experience.

  4. Francisco Sans might have been fun too, although I’m sure west coast natives would have my head for bastardizing the name like that.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

To close us out for the night, here’s co-creator of OpenType itself, Microsoft:

Today, we are announcing the biggest enhancement to OpenType since the OpenType specification was first released nineteen years ago: OpenType Font Variations. […]

Variable fonts will also give document creators a broad palette of typographic features without having to manage hundreds of font files. Variable fonts are all about doing more with less. […]

The Windows engineering team at Microsoft is actively engaged in implementing platform support for OpenType Font Variations for release in an update to Windows in 2017. Some very-limited functionality is already present in the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, and more complete functionality will be visible in Windows Insider preview builds in the coming months.

Nice to see an actual, albeit fuzzy, target date mixed in with all of the other co-announcements today. I also like the “doing more with less” part from above; it succinctly conveys what variable fonts are all about.

As for getting early access to variable fonts — well, that just might be this year’s most compelling argument for installing Windows at all.

John Hudson penned a joint announcement for Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Adobe, introducing the variable font format, which is set to be introduced with OpenType 1.8. Medium tells me the whole piece takes about 23 minutes to read, so I’ve gone ahead and picked out some of the better bits:

  • The technology behind variable fonts is officially called OpenType Font Variations. It has been jointly developed by Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Adobe, in an unprecedented collaborative effort also involving technical experts from font foundries and font tool developers.

  • A variable font is a single binary with greatly-reduced comparable file size and, hence, smaller disc footprint and webfont bandwidth. This means more efficient packaging of embedded fonts, and faster delivery and loading of webfonts. The potential for dynamic selection of custom instances within the variations design space — or design-variations space, to use its technical name — opens exciting prospects for fine tuning the typographic palette, and for new kinds of responsive typography that can adapt to best present dynamic content to a reader’s device, screen orientation, or even reading distance.

  • Within the design space created by the axes of variation in a font, the font maker can define specific positions as named instances. A named instance appears to users as if it were a separate font, e.g. a Light or Bold weight of a typeface, and can be utilised in documents exactly as if it were an individual non-variable font. Because these named instances are defined as coordinate positions within the design space, and not as masters, there is a great deal of freedom for the font maker in deciding how to arrange and name instances, and in fine-tuning the interpolation of the named instances.

  • Because OpenType Font Variations is a new technology, it requires substantial updates to font handling infrastructure in operating systems and/or applications, and has very limited backwards compatibility; this also differs between the TrueType and CFF flavours.

  • Five more-or-less common axes of variation have registered axis tags in the OpenType Font Variations specification — Weight , Width , Optical size , Italic , and Slant  — and these have some assumed behaviours. Font makers can also define custom axes with their own four-character tags and localisable names stored as strings in the ‘name’ table. Additional common axis tags may be registered in future, if these emerge as font makers engage with the technology.

  • In the twenty years since OpenType was first invented, it has only grown more confusing, with the addition of new name IDs for specific platforms and style-mapping models. The concatenation of style names in fonts follow no fixed pattern among font makers, and may reach to ludicrous lengths. What one font maker calls ‘Acme UltraBlack Condensed Display Roman’ another may call ‘Acme Roman Super Black Display Condensed’.

  • Like so much else driving change in the font business, a big part of the answer is webfonts, and the need for more compact and faster ways to deliver dynamic fonts for the Web. Variable fonts also have the potential to enable new kinds of typography for electronic documents, responsive to things like device orientation or even viewing distance. Compact and faster fonts also provide significant advantages for embedding fonts in devices, especially for East Asian (CJK) and other fonts with very large glyph sets and character coverage. The smaller device and disc footprint of variable fonts has been a major factor in encouraging support for the technology in software companies.

  • It will be important for tools to provide font makers with intuitive ways to navigate the potentially complex design space of variable fonts with multiple axes, intermediate delta sets, and axis variation. As discussed previously, maintaining flexibility in the relationship of design masters and the arrangement of variations in a font will enable font makers to tailor fonts to the needs of customer.

There’s a lot more in this piece, but a good deal of it revolves around the technical sides of the variable font spec. I find that stuff fascinating, but I’m already at, if not way over, what I consider a reasonable amount of quotes from a font format proposal. Regardless, the amount of thought, work, and collaboration that went into this format appears to be staggering.

(Pro tip: the appendix and table terms is at the bottom of the post — no need to have Google open in another window like yours truly.)

In what amounts to humor in a font format announcement post, I enjoyed when Mr. Hudson began discussing how Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Adobe were working to integrate variable font support into their browsers and operating systems. On Apple:

Apple, characteristically, are least forthcoming about future plans, but they have a head start on variable font support in their TrueType GX infrastructure, and have played an active role in bringing the technology to OpenType.

“Least forthcoming” may be one of the more kinder assessments of Apple’s future plan disclosure policy.

Tim Brown, Head of Typography for Adobe Tyepkit and Adobe Type:

Just minutes ago, at the ATypI conference in Warsaw, the world was introduced to a new kind of font: a variable font. Jointly developed by Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Adobe, a variable font is, as John Hudson put it, “a single font file that behaves like multiple fonts”. Imagine a single font file gaining an infinite flexibility of weight, width, and other attributes without also gaining file size — and imagine what this means for design.

There’s a lot to digest here, but the gist is this: much smaller font file sizes; incredible control and granularity over presentation; and (arguably most importantly) collaboration from big vendors. This isn’t just noble effort, either; all of this technology is being built into the OpenType format:

To facilitate just such advancements, people from our four companies (along with notable independent contributors) have been collaborating for more than half a year on a significant improvement to the OpenType font file specification that now includes a new technology: OpenType Font Variations, which allows type designers to interpolate a font’s entire glyph set or individual glyphs along up to 64,000 axes of variation (weight, width, etc.), and define specific positions in the design space as named instances (“Bold”, “Condensed”, etc.).

(That last bit answers one of my biggest questions: given an extremely customizable format, how do you guide usage towards simple, sensible configurations?)

It’s clear there’s still a long way to go, and Mr. Brown calls on type designers, browser vendors, and web standards groups to help get it done. Yet, even in its infancy, variable fonts seem downright impressive. Color me excited.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Alexis Kennedy, founder of Failbetter Games, wrote a great piece on the psychology of indie studios as they develop then launch their games. He interweaves his own experience with the presumed mindset at Hello Games, which results in a sound and empathetic take on No Man’s Sky’s launch.

The whole piece is worth a read, but this bit about buying games stuck out to me:

IT HAS NEVER BEEN EASIER TO FIND OUT EXACTLY WHAT A GAME IS LIKE ON LAUNCH DAY, AND IF YOU HAVE ANY DOUBTS, YOU CAN WAIT A WEEK AND YOU CAN BE ABSOLUTELY SURE.

It’s not Kickstarter, it’s not politics, it’s not marriage. You’re not buying land in the Wild West or shares in a startup or payment protection insurance. You’re not being sold drugs or gambling. Whatever you think of Metacritic and the gaming press, a couple of days after launch they had done their job, and you could find out with one Google query that NMS was a 70/100, or in English, Buy With Caution If You Like That Sort Of Thing.

Absolutely spot on.

Friday, 09 September 2016

Somewhat buried by all the news surrounding Apple’s recent product event, Google announced that it will be using Chrome’s strength in the browser market to push for HTTPS everywhere. This will come in the form of, eventually, all HTTP pages being labeled with red Not secure messages in the address bar. Emily Schechter, for the Chrome Security Team:

Studies show that users do not perceive the lack of a “secure” icon as a warning, but also that users become blind to warnings that occur too frequently. Our plan to label HTTP sites more clearly and accurately as non-secure will take place in gradual steps, based on increasingly stringent criteria. Starting January 2017, Chrome 56 will label HTTP pages with password or credit card form fields as “not secure,” given their particularly sensitive nature.

In following releases, we will continue to extend HTTP warnings, for example, by labelling HTTP pages as “not secure” in Incognito mode, where users may have higher expectations of privacy. Eventually, we plan to label all HTTP pages as non-secure, and change the HTTP security indicator to the red triangle that we use for broken HTTPS.

That last sentence should hit hard, because this is a huge change in the world’s most popular web browser. It’s also just the latest step in Google’s quest for all HTTPS all the time. Two years ago, on their official Webmaster blog, Google hinted at the importance of secured content by announcing that HTTPS would become one of the ranking signals used to determine where search results appear on the page:

For now it’s only a very lightweight signal—affecting fewer than 1% of global queries, and carrying less weight than other signals such as high-quality content—while we give webmasters time to switch to HTTPS. But over time, we may decide to strengthen it, because we’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.

Google search rankings are important, but arguably less so than they used to be. Folks are getting more of their news and content from social networks, so there’s a diminishing influence Google can have on encouraging users and webmasters to use HTTPS. However, slapping a big red Not secure message on every HTTP URL — now that’s a direct statement. Additionally, because this change is in Chrome itself, there’s no way to circumvent Google’s opinion on the security of the page you’re on. If a page isn’t secure, they want you to know.

This is good for the web. Even so, I can’t help but feel a little melancholy. My first webpage, and many of the ones I first enjoyed on the web were all simple HTML, served over plain HTTP. Seeing an HTTPS page usually meant you were at your bank’s website or on a checkout page. To think, in a few years, someone’s first webpage will be adorned with a red Not secure label is a little disheartening. Even with services like Let’s Encrypt, which offer free SSL certificates, it still takes some technical knowhow and server access in order to enable and maintain a good HTTPS connection. The bar has been raised.

However, there’s no reasonable argument for HTTP over HTTPS. With today’s premium on privacy, secured content is only going to become more important; a basic web-citizen’s right, even. The future is HTTPS everywhere, and Google’s not waiting around.

Wednesday, 07 September 2016

Fun, thumping supercut of all the announcements from today’s Apple event. The tight editing, upbeat tiempo, and typography are similar to Apple’s 40 Years in 40 Seconds video, released earlier this year, but this new one feels more youthful. My favorite bit: “Oh yeah and the headphone jack from over 100 years ago has been removed (shocker)”.

(The heavier San Francisco weight looks great too.)

Update: This spot was done by NYC-based creative studio Gretel. Excellent work.

Tuesday, 06 September 2016

Sunday, 04 September 2016

Thursday, 01 September 2016

I find headlines with orphaned words visually unappealing, so AF headlines are pre-processed to add a non-breaking space between the last two words. Now instead of this:

U.S Broadband Speeds Reach New
High

I get:

U.S Broadband Speeds Reach
New High

I have both a Liquid implementation (for pre-processing in Jekyll) and a JavaScript version (for post-processing in any webpage). Check them out, and let me know if you have any ideas for improvements or other languages.


No Man's Sky is not the new Destiny

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

I have a few problems with Ben Kuchera’s recent piece for Polygon titled, No Man’s Sky is the new Destiny. I don’t believe the comparison is fair or offers a realistic insight into the future of NMS.

Mr. Kuchera starts with:

We gave it [No Man’s Sky] a six. Here is our original review of Destiny. We gave it a six as well. The version of Destiny that exists now, around two years after its original release, is barely recognizable to vanilla Destiny players.

Two years in any industry is a long time, and particularly so for gaming. Additionally, time gets lengthened significantly when you’re comparing the output of a team the size of Bungie’s with that of Hello Games’. In the winter of 2014, Bungie had a supposed 500+ people working on Destiny. Hello Games currently has less than 20. Regardless how ambitious Hello Games are with the next few DLCs and patches, delivering large content updates take time, and it’s particularly difficult when you lack people power. Later on:

Games that change after launch are nothing new, but Destiny was pitched a bit like No Man’s Sky in that it was supposed to be an all-thing. You can play it by yourself! There is a story and some kind of online play! New content will be added frequently! It’s not an MMO but it’s not exactly not an MMO either!

There are two things here: games changing after launch, and pre-launch marketing. Regarding the latter, both Destiny and NMS were difficult to fit into existing genres, and the marketing for each title didn’t come away completely honest. We won’t be diving into those details here. They don’t really matter anymore now that the games are out.

When it comes to games changing after launch, a key part of successfully pivoting is a clear communication channel between the studio and the players. Bungie got that part right. Destiny’s Weekly Updates became a rallying point for players, and it signaled a consistent cadence of communication. Even though some of the Weekly Updates became targets for player frustration, the very existence of such a channel made things feel a little bit better.

NMS, and Hello Games, don’t quite have this figured out. Most of the news regarding game development and updates is coming by the way of Hello Games Founder Sean Murray’s Twitter account, @NoMansSky. You can also find some updates on the PlayStation Forums for Games and Services, and more on the News section of NMS’s website. There’s no centralized place or predictable release of information to let players know what’s going on.


Sidestepping the communication debacle, Destiny had a staying power far greater than NMS for two specific reasons: multiplayer and universe scope.

There’s no arguing over whether NMS is or isn’t a multiplayer game: it’s not. However, if we’re comparing year-one NMS to year-one Destiny, you can see how having a basic form of multiplayer and online competition provided Destiny players with just enough to keep a lot of them playing. Having a hook to keep players playing is absolutely crucial, and Destiny’s multiplayer afforded Bungie time to push out new content and story fixes. NMS has no such buffer, so it’s first year will lean heavily on whether single-player gameplay is compelling enough to stick around for a few months. Yet, after just a few weeks, we’re already seeing how the repetitive and shallow nature of NMS’s gameplay may not be holding up.

A note on multiplayer — To all the players asking for multiplayer, I’d ask you stop and consider what that would even look like. I think the idea of NMS multiplayer is a far more attractive idea than any implementation would ever be. The universe is simply too large and gameplay too shallow to offer any reason why walking around a planet with two people wouldn’t become equally as boring as it was solo. Additionally, from a survival or resource collecting perspective, having more than one person in your game world simply offers no benefit. The same experience can be had by getting into a group voice chat and playing the game separately, together.


Finally, the scope of NMS’s universe (18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets large) will make any attempts to backfill with story and features exponentially more difficult. Here’s a quote from Mr. Murray in Mr. Kuchera’s piece:

“We do want to add a ton of features, like we’ve just discussed: Freighters, bases, these type of things,” developer Sean Murray told Red Bull Games on Aug. 9.

That’s what Hello Games is going to focus on? Sidestepping development constraints, how much impact will these features actually have on user retention? If Hello Games develops bases, freighters, or ship improvements, they may be missing the mark. The scope of NMS’s universe is not conducive to sticking around one place for too long, nor would you want to. Yours truly, in my review:

In this game, you’re perpetually a visitor, never a resident, and it’s this sort of superficial gameplay that leads to mundane repetition. Look, touch, leave. Now do it again for every planet in the universe.

Any feature that gets added to NMS will have to be one of three things: available on every (or most planets), which I imagine would mean procedurally generated; extremely rare; or player-built and available only on the planets or in the galaxies that you’ve visited. The first option runs into the same problem that the current game has: procedurally generating content for billions upon billions of planets means that many of the creations or experiences will be repetitive. The second option is equally damned by the same problem, as the scale would make finding things improbable.

The last option faces a philosophical problem. Part of what encourages and drives world altering or base building is the expected benefit of easier survival. There’s just one issue: NMS is not difficult game to survive in. Neither the severe weather, species, or space pirates pose much challenge, and there’s no evidence of increasing difficulty like one might find in Minecraft. Things are relatively easy, all the way through.

In contrast, Destiny was able to mitigate some of these problems because of its reduced universe size and built-in tiers of difficulty. With only a few playable worlds and areas, Bungie was able to flesh out the universe’s backstory and give its characters more depth and detail. Back to Mr. Kuchera:

Like Destiny, I have a sneaking suspicion there’s going to be a lot of loud criticism from the hardcore community around the game while huge numbers of players continue to play, enjoy and adjust to the changes. Hello Games bottled wine, not scotch. I’m looking forward to seeing how it ages.

The problem is that players weren’t buying NMS to see how it would age, they bought it because it was sold as a $65, decade-old Pinot Noir. What they got was $15 Yellow Tail. NMS is a good indie game and an impressive tech demo, but it is not the next Destiny. I don’t think it’s going to be the next anything. It will have been a good game, overpriced and overhyped at launch, but one that gave us an incredibly unique perspective on what adventure and exploration games can be.

If you find NMS hours 5-10 to be as enjoyable as hours 0-5, by all means keep playing, but taper your expectations of what Hello Games will actually able to deliver in terms of content and patches. If, however, NMS now strikes you as simply unpalatable, go sell the game back to your local exchange and recoup a little cash. Should you feel inclined to go purchase it again in six months, you’ll have no trouble finding copies going for what it should have cost to begin with.

As for a thriving, two-year-old NMS, we’ll see. But I’m betting we won’t.

Monday, 22 August 2016

PlayStation Plus (PS+) fees now matches that of Xbox Live Gold. Starting September 22, PS+ will cost $59.99 for a year (up $10) and $24.99 for three months (up $5). The monthly plan will stay the same at $9.99.

Here’s Greg Lewickyj, writing for the PlayStation Blog, in not a new post, but an update to an article from last month:

This marks the first time that PS Plus membership prices will increase in the U.S. and Canada since the launch of the service in 2010. The new pricing reflects the current market conditions while enabling us to continue providing exceptional value to our members. As a member, you will continue to enjoy the benefits and features that enable shared experiences, such as online multiplayer, free games, and exclusive discounts.

The new tiers are fair; an extra 83 cents per month is certainly justifiable for what PS+ offers. Folks will complain, but it’s amazing we’ve had lower prices than Xbox Live Gold for this long.

This pricing change may also remind a lot of PS+ members how little of their library is actually theirs. Since 2010, subscribers have been allowed to download full games for free, from a rotating selection of titles. As of today, over 400 games have been made available: 215 for PS3, 86 for PS4, and 108 for PS Vita. However, you’re only allowed to play them if you have an active PS+ subscription.

I do find it somewhat concerning that this news was delivered as a 200 word update, tacked to the top of a month-old blog post. Pricing changes should always warrant their own announcements, especially for services with over 20 million members. Anything else feels disingenuous.

Update: Not ten minutes after hitting publish, I received an email from Sony announcing the pricing change. Still doesn’t make the let’s-use-an-old-blog-post method any less strange.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Speaking of apps that are going away, next up is Vesper, an iOS note taking app from Q Branch. Reading through the release notes, it seems Q Branch itself — comprised of well-known writer John Gruber, developer Brent Simmons, and designer Dave Wiskus — will also be shutting down within the next month.

I stopped using Vesper about a year ago, but it was a well-designed little app. I really dug the typography, and it’s syncing engine was fast and superbly thought out. Somewhat bizarrely, Vesper’s launch even got a decent amount of coverage from Microsoft, since the syncing engine was built on Azure’s cloud service.

Vesper’s development came to a halt after Mr. Simmons departed for the Omni Group. Mr. Simmons was never replaced, and future releases, including planned Vesper for Mac, were assumedly shelved. So it goes.

Update: Per Mr. Gruber, there should be a full post mortem tomorrow.

Sydney Ember, reporting for the New York Times, on the shuttering of NYT Now:

But the app never quite took off as The Times had hoped, and last year, it transitioned from subscription to free in the hopes that the new model might give The Times more of an opportunity to expand its audience. [..]

At its peak, in May 2015, NYT Now had 334,000 total unique users. The app averaged 257,000 unique users in the last three months.

NYT Now did a lot of things right, but making money was not one of them.

Aside: Because NYT Now was free and supplied plenty of articles, my wife and I had decided to cancel our New York Times digital subscription. However, in order to cancel, I had to call the Times and request a cancelation. As I was finishing up with the woman who was handling my call, she asked if I had a reason for canceling my subscription. When I told her that I got most of what I needed from the NYT Now app, I swear I heard a sigh from her end of the line.

Elizabeth Jenson, NPR:

More than half of all comments in May, June and July combined came from a mere 2,600 users. The conclusion: NPR’s commenting system — which gets more expensive the more comments that are posted, and in some months has cost NPR twice what was budgeted — is serving a very, very small slice of its overall audience. […]

Other organizations such as The New York Times manage to keep their comments relatively civil. But they use heavy in-house human moderation that costs far more than NPR currently spends on its outsourced system, according to NPR executives who are familiar with the numbers. The Times also opens only 10 percent of its articles for comments (but is working to increase that percentage), and keeps the comment threads open for just one week. NPR currently allows comments on all articles for two weeks.

I’m not sure why NPR didn’t try rules similar to The Times before completely axing the comments section. Not that I blame them, though. Online comments, particularly ones you display right next to your content, can (read: will) become a cesspool for trolling and hate. If you don’t have the human-power to keep discourse civil, better to just shut it down.

I found Ms. Jenson’s mention of cost interesting. NPR is using a third-party commenting system from Disqus, and it’s running at “twice what was budgeted”. This is unlike the NYT, which appears to use their own in-house commenting system.

Reading through the comments on NPR’s article, it’s hard not to empathize with some of the users. There are a fair number of folks who appear to be genuinely saddened by the loss of their forum.


No Man's Sky Review

Saturday, 13 August 2016

In 1969, the world followed Apollo 11 as it ascended into our atmosphere and transcended our perceived notions of American achievement.

Despite the eventual success of that mission, President Nixon was not aloof to the potential for tragedy. In a speech titled, “In the Event of a Moon Disaster,” Nixon’s speechwriter Bill Safire penned the following lines:

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Which brings me to Hello Games’ most recent video game, No Man’s Sky.


There are no boxes into which one can put No Man’s Sky (NMS). A mixture of survival and adventure, NMS is fun and frustrating in ways that I’ve never really experienced before.

One of NMS’s most hyped features, the procedural generation of the game world, works as advertised, and you are able to travel from planet surface to space and back without any loading screens. It’s not just open world, it’s open universe, and I’d love to see other games take advantage of this type of technology.

Yet, the luster of procedurally-generated worlds quickly wears off after a few hours. As you explore planet after planet, you realize that the gameplay becomes incredibly repetitive and mundane. There are a quintillion miles of worlds to explore, but the experience on each is only an inch deep.

In short: You will marvel at parts of NMS, but you will enjoy them much less at its current $60 price.

Opening Shot

When you launch the game, you’re greeted with NO MAN’S SKY in black against a white background. What I love most about this title is the capital S letterform, where the bottom tail of the spine is shorter than the top. Typically, when creating a typeface, the designer will attempt to instill a sense of symmetry, of balance. But this S, should it be rendered into a physical form, would most surly topple over.

All that to say: I think this letter represents a large part of the NMS experience: unbalanced, yet unique.

After making your way through the title sequence, you’re presented with a white screen and prompt to Initialize... by holding down Square. After a few more seconds of blank screens, you’re thrown into the game.

With no backstory, you awake next to your damaged ship, and you’re tasked with finding the materials needed to make repairs. This process doesn’t take long, but it does give you an opportunity to become accustomed to the somewhat unintuitive control scheme.

Brief interpolation on menu UI — The interface of NMS isn’t great. Although you adjust to the menus and the convoluted way they have you managing inventory, the whole system leaves a lot to be desired. I also can’t ignore the blatant similarity of NMS’s user interface to the one Bungie designed for Destiny. Both use a freely moving cursor for navigating menus, but Destiny’s implementation is far more usable and typography conscious. I don’t mean to bash an indie studio, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with copying Destiny’s approach, but if you’re going to copy an interface that won an AIGA Cased 2015 award, make sure you copy the right parts. — End interpolation

Whatever preconceived notions you have regarding pace of play, forget them immediately. After 15 minutes of NMS, the most common complaint will undoubtedly be the severe case of whiplash that occurs when you play a game that gives a damn about time and space.

As you navigate the planet surface, you’re allowed limited use of sprinting and a jet pack, but it almost doesn’t matter. These planets are to scale, and everything takes a couple of minutes to reach. It’s not as annoying as it sounds, and once you adjust to the speed, it becomes relaxing. Strange, yet enjoyable and cathartic.

Survival

To me, the most undersold feature of NMS was the element of survival. Leaning how to keep your gear and ship maintained is critical to any form of success. Can we even call it success? You survive because you have to survive. There are no bonuses, better gear, or awards, other than you getting to continue on living. Survival, in this way, feels alien. Alien because survival games rarely make the survival process feel as nonchalant and deadly as NMS does.

Even though keeping yourself alive requires somewhat constant maintenance and monitoring (a process that is significantly lessened by what can only be the most annoying and overprotective personal notification system ever), staying alive and managing resources becomes key influencers in where you go and when.

Alone

Planets, although numbering in the billions, begin to feel the same after a while. Go to a planet, strip mine it for resources, and then leave. The game tries to provide incentives for sticking around, like achievements for finding all the species on that planet or learning all of the current alien dialect, but the payoff for accomplishing those things pales when compared to grabbing resources and leaving.

The planet design is varied, but often only slightly so. I’ve visited a dozen or so planets, and they’ve all been similarly barren and bleak. They’re not the sort of worlds you want to stick around, and I’m thankful I could leave.

But one planet was beautiful. So large that it was perpetually night, the faded neon colors and lush landscape around me were calming. Small particles drifted through the air, and reflected the light coming from two different white moons. I found it hard to believe this was generated by an algorithm and not painstakingly drawn up by a designer. I spent a good five minutes just walking around, looking at things.

I wish I could have stayed there. I wish the game gave me a reason to stay there.

However, this style of play is not meant to be. In this game, you’re perpetually a visitor, never a resident, and it’s this sort of superficial gameplay that leads to mundane repetition. Look, touch, leave. Now do it again for every planet in the universe.

Additionally, NMS feels constantly at odds with itself and what it wants you to focus on. First go collect these two elements, now travel a few million miles to another system, now visit this small, abandoned outpost, only to immediately leave the entire planet and go to the next. This cadence of play would occasionally leave me in a state of continual low-grade anxiety.

Descent

About an hour into my journey with NMS, I was given access to the galactic map, which you can use to plan out jumps between star systems. However, by gently pulling back on the left stick, your field of view will begin to expand, and galaxy after galaxy will zoom past. Two minutes later, should you continue holding down the left stick, you would still be hurtling through space as an unfathomable amount of galaxies, planets, and species you will never see fly by.

This is NMS at its best. A seemingly limitless potential for exploration and never knowing what lies ahead all culminate in one emotion: wonder. Unfortunately, this wonder never gets fully realized.


At $60, I can’t recommend NMS. Although, we’ve finally been given the endless, no rules sandbox gamers have been waiting for, it’s evident the number of galaxies don’t matter if the actual gameplay isn’t compelling for more than a few hours.

NMS is an incredible tech demo from a small indie studio, and it would have been a great $20-30 digital title. It’s not a bad game, just overpriced and overhyped.

It’s rare to find a game with no villains to hunt down, people to save, or leaderboards. It’s just the universe and you. And yet, despite this banishment to a seemingly unescapable oblivion of relentless, forced discovery, I feel a small sense of pride whenever I open the galactic map and see the planets I’ve visited.

A small corner of the universe, now forever mankind.

Monday, 08 August 2016

This year’s Ookla Speedtest Market Report:

The data from the first six months of 2016 is in; the internet in the United States has gotten faster. Fixed broadband customers have seen the biggest jump in performance with download speeds achieving an average of over 50 Mbps for the first time ever. This improvement is more than a 40% increase since July 2015.

Any progress is good news, particularly for the U.S. broadband market. We can thank increased competition from players like Google Fiber and the promising potential of public utility broadband, which we’re seeing in Chattanooga Tennessee.

Download and upload speeds aren’t everything, though. Anyone who’s done a live video chat or played video games has probably felt the pain of a high latency (lag) connection. Back to Ookla, here’s Joel Hruska, for their Speedtest blog in 2015:

Latency and ping are two closely related concepts that have a huge impact on how fast or slow your Internet connection feels, but are rarely mentioned in ISP ad copy. Cable and telephone companies sell their services solely on the basis of bandwidth, typically expressed in megabits per second, or Mbps.

The problem with emphasizing bandwidth is that it’s just one component in the perceived speed of an Internet connection.

I also like his water and pipe analogy for illustrating bandwidth vs. latency. I’ll probably steal it the next time I need to explain the difference:

Bandwidth is the total amount of water that can flow through the pipe in a given period of time (typically expressed in gallons per minute or gallons per hour). […] Latency, in contrast, is the amount of time it takes for the water that enters the pipe at one end to exit at the other.

Latency is often equally, if not more, critical to your Internet experience than total bandwidth. As many AF readers probably know, competitive online video games are particular sensitive to high latency connections. When your performance depends on fast reaction time, even a hundred milliseconds of lag can leave you looking stupid.

Friday, 05 August 2016

Sean Clever, GameSpot:

With the FIFA series moving to a new engine, EA’s franchise is in a transitional year. This means PES has the first chance since its PS2 heyday to become the most popular football game. The decision not mess with what works means PES 2017 has a strong foundation, and the new minor adjustments look to be strengthening it. This could be the year.

Maybe, but I doubt it.

I prefer PES to FIFA. I’m not put off by the lack of licenses, kits, and players; I want the best soccer simulator on the market.

I might be in the minority, though. For most fans, gearing up as your favorite player or team is half the fun. If you’ve grown up a Liverpool FC fan, playing as Merseyside Red just feels less exciting. Additionally, FIFA has supplemented their core gameplay with several other game modes, which have amassed huge followings. Yes, FIFA Ultimate Team, I’m looking at you.

All of this to say some things never change. Even if FIFA 2017 takes a nosedive, it’ll still have all the licenses, which is more than enough to sell millions of copies and outsell PES.

Yet, an updated version of our status quo isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Last year’s PES was a great soccer exhibition simulator, and 2017 looks like it’s bringing more of the same.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Most “Learn X thing in Y minutes” articles are crap, but this one from Jeremy Thomas is well done. I like how the page design evolves as you move from topic to topic.

There's more good stuff in the archive.