Game Review: Metal Gear Rising

Okay I know that most of you do not follow my blog with the intention of reading about videogames, but given my Open Source time lately has been limited by me being quite busy with settling down and caring for an apartment, some updates are better than nothing. And since one of the first things that I bought for my apartment was a TV and a (new) PlayStation 3, I got to spend some time with Metal Gear Rising I thought it might be a good idea to write something about it.

First of all I have to apologize to the fans of the whole saga. I only played Metal Gear Solid 4 before, and I didn’t even finish it (my first PS3 died while I was playing it, and I had no backup of the save games — and since this happened quite a bit within the game I didn’t want to play it back from the start afterwards, I might do so now, honestly). I’m also not a big fan of stealth games (I never even completed the demo of Thief, for instance). But I liked MGS4 and I wanted to give a try to MGR simply because I loved the character of Raiden (I like blades, what can I say).

So the gameplay is nice. I love being able to cut almost everything down to pieces, especially when I’m pissed off by the neighbour’s alarm ringing at ten in the night. Or seven in the morning on a bank holiday. I admit I played through in easy mode (I wanted to vent off the stress, not cause more), and thus that might have helped with being able to get away with a basically random kind of attacks. But I liked it, and I liked the fact that it’s not entirely random. I think it might be worth a re-play now that I understand the attacks better (I’m hoping in a new game plus kind of deal).

Graphic is .. well, it’s not like there are any more games that have a bad graphics, but it could be better. It does not feel at the level of Metal Gear Solid 4. It’s also running in 720p, which is surprising for a new game. Although it might have something to do with the fact that the PS3 lacks the memory to run this properly. Oh well, not surprised I’d say, but a bit disappointed.

The soundtrack, oh wow the soundtrack! I’ve loved the soundtrack to the point I had to get it on iTunes. It charges me the same way as DMC4 did.

Unfortunately, maybe because I played in Easy mode, the game is quite too short. Yes there are downloadable chapters, and side “VR” missions, but the former you have to pay for extra, which is just a lowly trick for the publisher, and the latter is not part of the story. One “file” (chapter) consists of … one cut scene and a single batter. That’s not really that nice, in my opinion. As I said I’m going to re-play it with a bit more clue about the attacks, it’s likely going to be more enjoyable. But seriously even in “easy”, two weeks playing on and off were enough to get to the final Metal Gear… I’m not really excited about it.

My take about the Sony EPIC FAIL

First of all let me be clear: it was an EPIC FAIL, anybody saying otherwise is pretty much deluded. On the other hand, even though I’m one of those users who have enough rights to be upset with Sony (I just renewed my Plus subscription a couple of weeks ago), I don’t feel like this is all like people pretend it to be. A lot of the sentiment you see out there seem to come from people who aren’t in that database at all, and that are just trying to take a shot at Sony, either because they hate all corporations alike, or because they still feel they should have kept Linux an option on the PS3s.. or even more likely because they would like for Sony to invest more in developing consoles but pretend not to pay for games.

Am I being cynical? Probably. But I also read enough posts over the last year or so that seem to pretend that each and every PS3 owner should have felt robbed of the opportunity or running Linux on their systems… and as a PS3 owner myself, I don’t really see what’s the point. Sure there were a couple of things that as a Linux enthusiast and hacker I would have liked to be able to do, but with the exception of the clustering efforts to crunch numbers (which seem to be a field nowadays in the hand of high-end graphics cards), the most useful thing I have seen done with Linux on a PlayStation 3 has been testing BluRay movies with Linux, like Steve “beandog” has posted on Planet Gentoo a long time ago.

But my take is more interested in putting into prospective what the EPIC FAIL was about. Definitely I don’t count a general intrusion an EPIC FAIL by itself: most systems out there are going one way or another to fail… of course, we don’t expect them to fail as badly as putting at risk this many users. But then again, my main reason to think that Sony misdesigned their whole network is a simple one: the intruders gathered the users’ passwords.

Given that I expect most people commenting or reading about this are non-technical gamers (and people who don’t play but, as I said above, want to feel smug about it), I don’t expect most of them to put this into context: “Obviously Sony knows my password! I tell it to them every time I connect!” — which for anybody who ever worked on securing web application is a very naïve statement.

When you design a secure login system you do not store the password, but rather a function (hash) of it; when the login request comes in, you take the received string, apply the same function to it, and compare the result with the one you stored. Bonus points for salting such hash so that the same password, on two different users’ records, would be saved differently. Which is why on good systems you have “Reset password” options, and not “Recover password” ones (and why I loathe those systems which do send me back my password).

The fact that Sony declared passwords and (interestingly) security questions as compromised, makes it apparently likely that they didn’t store the hashes, but rather the cleartext passwords. I’m not sure about this myself to be honest: it sounds very stupid for them to make such a puny mistake, but Occam’s Razor calls for the most obvious explanation and that is definitely it. A more complex (but still feasible) explanation is that the intrusion was a long-term one, and that the intruders were able to snoop the passwords between the user and the authentication chain, during the time they are left in cleartext, from the application’s point of view.

I’ll leave a point for discussion for those who have had to deal with credit cards handling: I know that there are security protocols that need to be followed to be given access to processing credit cards; is the “hash the passwords” one missing? If so it might be as much fault of the credit card companies as it is of Sony.

Speaking about long-term, I’m still not sure why everybody’s assume that the (apparent) DoS on Sony’s infrastructure was related to the intrusion. Most complainers seem also to ignore Sony’s statement about finding out only later on that the database was compromised up to this point. By experience, it sounds like oversimplifying the situation. Until further pointers, it cannot be entirely ruled out that the intrusion was an inside job, maybe happening for months or more by now, and that the DoS only served unintentionally as a method to catch the auditing guys’ eyes. Personally I’d believe that on the count that Sony is not telling you that your currently listed creditcard is compromised, but that any creditcard you used is compromised. Which is scarier.

So to add at least a bit of a point to this whole mess, I think that at least the commentators of Free Software area should stop trying to find faults in corporations who don’t share wholly their ideals, and should rather try showing users another viable way. Asking them to stay in the past decade is not viable, and yet if we keep bickering among themselves, that is definitely what’s going to happen. Anybody said “fragmentation”?

Rygel; replacing MediaTomb?

I’ve ranted about overlays leaving notes about Gnome overlay I had to fight with that because of Rygel which reportedly needed the new (testing) version of Gtk+.

Now, my interest in Rygel is so that we can rid of MediaTomb in Portage; I added it myself, when I tried to make use of my PlayStation 3 for streaming video (mostly anime and Real Time with Bill Maher). It actually never worked as well as I itnended for very long; it needed proper transcode support, and what was there was incomplete. Also, the code itself was messy and hacky, with commented-out code still there, and bundled libraries. When I replaced my Samsung TV with a Sony Bravia last year, I was also hoping MediaTomb worked with that (because it actually supports UPnP by itself alone), but that wasn’t the case.

At any rate, with MediaTomb failing to keep up with releases, cleanup code, and so on so forth, I gave up vastly on the UPnP idea; even using the XBMC instance on my AppleTV, the best seems to be using Samba instead. This until a couple of weeks ago when I started worrying about my bedroom’s media outlets. I have three UPnP-enabled devices (Bravia TV, PlayStation 3 and XBox 360), but I use an always-on AppleTV to play my stuff; that really wounds like a waste.

Even more so given that the AppleTV doesn’t really play Full HD content, not with XBMC at least; and my hopes for it to become useful, actually trusting in Apple’s declaration that they would have brought TV series to the iTunes Store in Europe vanished quite a long time ago. And to reinforce the fact that I made a totally shitty deal when I bought this AppleTV, rumors have that the new version of it will be a totally different product, cheaper and with no on-board storage… now I can guess the reason for that; as I said I stream my video from my main storage (Yamato itself), but I actually am glad that the AppleTV I have has 160GB storage so I can keep a copy of my photos, and of all the music I have, in lossless format (ALAC).

At any rate, I wanted to give UPnP/PlayStation 3 another chance; and the current way to do that is using Rygel, developed by the Gnome community and tied to GStreamer (even though I have a number of personal reserves against it). Now, thankfully, most of the needed code was already around in Portage, and Petteri had a partial ebuild for an older Rygel version, so I spent a night trying to work it out. It needs the GUPnP stack that is developed together with it obviously, and it relies on Vala for a big part of it including the GUI.

The “stable’ version is from quite a long time ago; and if you know software enough, you know that ”stable” means “unmaintained” when its release version ends with a “.0”. So I went for the development series, 0.7. And updating the dependencies, it turned out to need Gtk+ 2.21, with all the related trouble. Funnily, Arun notified me that the configure.ac script actually outright lies, it requires 2.21 just because it can, but it does not need it, and works fine with 2.20; I haven’t had much time to update the ebuilds so that they ignore the dependency, but I was able to test it for a little while with 2.21.

I’m sincerely not excessively impressed with it; of course it works definitely better than MediaTomb, and I guess that UPnP/DLNA are messed up enough that they have trouble to actually get them working properly, but… it seems like for the European version of the Bravia TV they always transcode to mpeg2/mp3 (which I’ll tell you, is crappy quality; the TV can do DVB-T HD out of the box, I guess it has support for decoding H.264/AAC), and even the PlayStation3 has trouble identifying some files, even when they should play correctly on local storage; and PS3 is declared to be their platform of choice.

The interface itself is quite difficult to work on, it has no way to monitor the scan status; it also only index files if the extension is one of those they recognize and…. funnily enough they recognize .mp4 files but not .m4v files, which are just the same thing; rename the latter to the former, and voiltà, it works… so you got a possible bug there. I haven’t reported it but on IRC, where I was suggested to check the config files that… are quite a bit messed up.

I’ll fix up in tree some ebuilds for Rygel at some point this weekend if I can get the time to, it’s still a pretty good replacement for MediaTomb, it’s just something I’d probably use rather than XBMC-over-Samba.

Of course this is still not solving my problem with video playback; especially since it does not work with softsub that are overly common with J-Drama…

How Sony gets even more of my money

As I said before, I’m a very pragmatic person when it comes to software and hardware, as they are just tools. While I can understand ethics, I find there are a number of much more important things to fight for the higher ground in (politics, environment, and even more of those, health care). In particular, when it comes to videogames, I’m very much just looking for the entertainment value. So I really don’t care whether a game is free software or not.

*If you disagree with that and find me a bad person for actually playing any proprietary game, you’re free to stop reading this entry, or even my blog entirely, now.*

Sometimes this is for the greater good anyway, given that id Software at least used to release the engine of their older games to the public, and you can actually learn from that and create something new. How many games are there, based on the Quake 3 engine that was opened up?

But at any rate, this said I think that it’s interesting to look at the strategies that proprietary software developers use to get money, as some of those can be used in the Free Software world to find the funds to work on new projects. And this includes to some point proprietary games developers.

This said, I have already written about Hustle Kings which I positively adored. a pool game, much more complex than foobillard for what it’s worth (not that I’ve been able to play any foobillard since a very long time ago, it doesn’t seem to work that well on an r700 with KMS and Compiz, let alone the older r300 I was using). It’s a pretty inexpensive game by itself, and they provided “crazy tables” expansions for free, and then a (even cheaper) snooker table extension — and I adore snooker.

Also, just like I’m quite happy to buy hardware from Free Software-friendly producers, and subsidize projects I’m relying upon and I cannot help with technique, I’m quite fine with paying for games if that means the studios that made them can make better, nicer games for me to play and be entertained.

At the same time, I don’t think that trying to spill my money with “premium content” such as avatars and themes is something that works out at all; this is done, though, by both Sony and Microsoft with their consoles. But there are people paying for that stuff, and if it works for them.. it’s just like people paying for novelty ringtones… and if somebody feels like I’m quoting some witty British author whose unfortunate departure a few years ago is still hurting us… well, it’s the case.

Anyway, last July, Sony started a subscription model for their PlayStation Network, called PlayStation Plus. While it is priced not too lower than the Microsoft subscription for XBox Live Gold, it feels less oppressive: anything that you could do before is still free, it just adds discounts, some premium content, one feature or two but more importantly, they feed you four free games each months, divided into a standard game for the PS3, one first PlayStation game, and two minis that can be played both on PS3 and PSP.

I subscripted to the option (I’m not subscribed to XBox Live), and actually I find it not too bad an idea. And it shows that they are not just dumping a whole lot of stuff on users this way; first of all, by subscribing in the first two months of offering, they added one extra bonus: Little Big Planet. The game, which I won’t go much in the details of, is still selling for whole price in Italy (€60), so it’s not a bad gift, with a one-year subscription priced at €50. But even so it’s a game that is just a start for them, as it has a huge number of “premium” download content in form of costumes for your character (slightly more decent offering than avatars, I’d say), and level creation kits. And new levels altogether!

With the basic offering for July, they also gave out a definitely-nice Wipeout HD, which I have to say, I loved, as it reminds me of the Podracer game I played as a demo sooo many times when I was a boy. What is important of this is that while the game does not have multiple download content as LBP has, it got an expansion already available in the store… and even more cleverly, they made available the extension (Wipeout HD Fury) with a discount for PlayStation Plus subscribers in August. I’m quite sure a lot of people will be getting that if they didn’t do so before already.

And this month’s main game is instead Zen Pinball. Now I got to say I was very happy with this choice, because I’m a closeted virtual pinball player. I used to play a lot of pinball games when I was younger, one I had as a MS-DOS game, at the time when copying or passing a game was just a matter of calling DISKCOPY (in all-caps obviously, since it was DOS), and another demo I played for a veeery long time (if you couldn’t tell, i wasn’t buying so many games when I was actually playing them as a kid and boy, under Windows), was Balls of Steel … so Zen Pinball actually interested me for a while; I ever came close to buying it at some point, but dropped out of the idea, and thus I’m quite happy for their choice.

What has this in common with the other choices, though? Well there are a series of extra tables, with different, themed features, available to download for a price small enough to be interesting. So even here, even by giving away the basic game, they are making money in distributing the extra download content.

It is interesting how even Sony is moving toward a free(ish)-platform, paid-content idea, and that is not altogether a bad thing. The problem is, can we provide any similar strategy in Free Software without compromising? If so, how?

Fake outrage for Sony’s moves

March 2010 is likely to become famous in the Free Software, Open Source movements’ histories as the month of the “corporate betrayals”. From one side, we got Oracle eating away all of Sun, including the latest developments on the Solaris license (which now becomes a 90-days evaluation license) and the change regarding security support for Solaris itself. From the other, we have Sony’s announced 3.21 firmware upgrade that disables the “Other OS” support from PlayStation 3 “phat” that are still around.

Now, the fact that Sony could never be arsed to call it “Linux support” but always stuck with “Other OS” could probably be a good start to understand that they weren’t that fond of the hacking community to play in different ways with their stations, but this is something that probably struck a lot of people, especially after Sony’s own promise of keeping the support around for the “phat” model when “slim” was introduced. Coincidentally, I dissed Sony a bit in my previous post and that was even before 3.21 was announced.

But as you might have understood from the title of this post, I’m not among those who scream “enemy” to Sony for this particular move; while I do agree that it’s obnoxious, and I think that Sony made a very bad move, especially after their promise, I don’t think that some of the comments I read recently seem to have a clue of what Sony is trying to do, and end up looking very silly to me, as they add nothing to the Free advocacy. So I’ll take another page out of Bill Maher, and speak about the “fake outrage” that people seem to have regarding Sony right now.

So the first thing in favour of Sony’s move is… they haven’t tried to stealth this in the firmware update! Sure they are weaseling their way in with “security concerns” but they actually gave a fair warning to the users and organisations that are using PS3s for their tasks, and told them not to upgrade; which is mostly what you should do if you’re just using your PS3s with Linux to do whatever work, it does not hamper you in any way, as the only drawback is… you won’t have support for PlayStation Network or the newest published games. What a waste, for all those people using PS3s for security work! Or is it?

I’m quite sure that most of the people who are using PS3s for high-speed CPU work are not using them to play games with the Sony firmware anyway; I think we actually heard of PS3 clusters to process a huge amount of data like the one that was needed to find the MD5 SSL vulnerability. Also, thanks to Moore’s Law we start to have maybe even more powerful workstation at our disposal: the power provided by (older-model) PS3s is now getting less and less relevant, especially considering that their cost hasn’t really dented so much, maybe cut in half in the past three year. And it still has only 256MB of RAM, doesn’t it?

Of course, I would be a hypocrite if I said that there is no gain for a single geek to run Linux on his or her PlayStation 3. As our own Steve (beandog) shown some time ago, you can use PS3s to rip BluRay discs, thanks to the ability to access the (otherwise pretty expensive) BluRay drive embedded in the unit. But even accepting that fact, which is something I’d be ready to bet Sony is not interested in keeping around, it doesn’t give you such a fantastic use.

Again, I’m all for fiddling with hardware, and getting Linux to run anywhere it’s possible. OpenWRT, OpenBTS, all these projects started by poking around at hardware that wasn’t supposed to be usable with Linux and are providing us with lots and lots of good stuff to use. On the other hand, I don’t see anything like that to be happening here, I actually see something very different! I see self-named “Free Software Advocates” rooting for a “hacker” (which we should probably call a “cracker” instead) that promised a custom firmware… what was the reason again, for which we’d need a custom firmware?

I’m not asserting that we shouldn’t be rooting for “crackers” in general. I think we have lots and lots of examples out there that show us that only by cracking something open we can actually use it properly, even if it might open as well negative and illicit possibilities such as piracy (I don’t condone piracy: let’s agree that all licenses are valid, otherwise I should be condoning GPL violations as well). Cracking encryption and so-called “copy protections” such as CSS, BluRay’s AACS, Apple’s FairPlay, and all the other DRMs is a very important stepping stone to really have Free Software and Free Content. And cracking hardware to run different software and operating systems is just as important for Free Software to extend its influence.

But with these two ideas in mind (cracking DRM and breaking Free hardware), what would a “custom firmware” for the PS3 accomplish? If you were to run a custom firmware, Sony would very much like to keep you out of their store; while obnoxious is something you’d have to accept; the same would be true for games that would require the newer version of the firmware. And if you don’t care about these two things, you can just follow the advice Sony gave you in the first place: don’t update. The only reason why people would root for such a “custom firmware” is – obviously – piracy. It would be hypocrite to say that nobody is hoping to be able to get their games for free, in this crowd.

Again, I’m not happy with Sony’s decision, but as long as it’s possible to use Linux on the PS3, even with some limitations on what you can do with it on the other side of the fence, I don’t see any reason to root for the cracker.

Sometimes it’s really just about what’s shinier

Recently, I bought an Xbox 360 (Elite) unit, to replace my now-dead PlayStation 3 (yes I’ll replace that as well, but for now this option was cheaper, and I can borrow a few games from a friend of mine this way). Please don’t start with the whole “Micro$soft” crap, and learn to attack your adversary on proper (technical) ground rather than with slurs and similar.

Besides, I can’t see any reason why any of the three current-generation consoles is better than any other for what concerns Free Software ideals: sure they do use some open source software in their products (PS3, PSP and Sony Bravia TVs) but as far as I can see they don’t give much back in term of new software, nor they seem to support Free Software that could somewhat work with their hardware (like a proper Free DLNA implementation, that would be something very welcome by PS3 and Bravia users). Even the one thing that PS3 had that the others lacked – support for installing Linux using PPC64 and the Cell Broadband Engine to develop for IBM’s new platform – was dropped out of the new “Slim” model.

I also have to say now that even when I’m taking time off I end up thinking about the technical details, to the point that my friends do dislike me a bit when I start decomposing the way things are implemented in games; probably just as much as I disliked my friend the amateur director when he decomposed the films we see together — on the other hand, after helping him out with his own production, I’m much more resilient to that and I actually started to take a liking to watch the special content of DVDs and BluRays where they do the same. So with this in mind, I did make some consideration about the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, and how they fare in comparison, from what I can tell in my point of view.

For some reasons, I always have seen the Xbox having a worse graphic engine than the PlayStation 3; this was somewhat supported by my friend who owns one because he had it hooked up to an old, standard definition CRT, rather than to a modern Hihh Definition LCD, like I had the PlayStation 3 set up. With this in mind, I definitely thought of the Xbox as a “lower” console; on the other hand I soon noticed, after connecting it to my system, that it fares pretty well in comparison during game play (I’m saying this looking at Star Ocean The Last Hope — gotta love second hand games stores!), so what might have brought this (at least here) common mistake about Xbox’s graphics being worse?

  • the original Xbox models, especially the Arcade entry-level one, lacked HDMI support; while even the PlayStation 3 ships with just the worse cable possible (video composite), it has at least out-of-the-box support for standard HDMI cable which are both cheap and easy to find;
  • the only two cables supporting High Definition resolutions for the original models are VGA and video component cables; the former is unlikely to be supported by lower-end HD LCDs – like the one my friend bought a few months ago – and also depends on having a proper optical audio input port to feed the sound; the latter is difficult to find as only one store out of ten that sell games and consoles in my area had some available;
  • since a lot of people bought the entry-level version to spend as little as possible, it’s very likely that a lot of them didn’t want to spend an extra 30 euro to get the cable, by the way, which means lots of them still play in standard definition;
  • even those who spent money to get the cable, might not get the best graphics available; I got the cable for my friend as Xmas gift (note: I’m using the name Xmas just to note that it is mostly a convention for me, being an atheist – and my friend as well – I don’t care much), and he was enthusiast about the improvement; it was just a couple of weeks later that I found he didn’t configure the console to output in Full HD resolution through the component cable;
  • the Dashboard menu is not in HD quality; it might sound petty to note that, but it does strike as odd to have these heavily aliased fonts, and blurry icons on top of an HD-quality game render – such as the above-noted Star Ocean, or Fable 2 – especially when it happens for a trophy an achievement reached;
  • cutscenes are the killers! While the renders are pretty much on par, if not better than the PlaStation 3, the pre-rendered full-motion videos are a different story: Sony can make use of the huge storage provided by the 50GB BluRay discs, while Microsoft has to live with 4GB DVDs; this does not only mean that you end up with 3-disc games, like Star Ocean, that need to get fully installed on the hard drive (which is, by the way, optional for the entry-level system), but also that they cannot just put minutes over minutes of HD FMVs, and end up compressing them; the opening sequence of Star Ocean shows this pretty well: the DVD-quality video is duly noted, especially when compared with the rest of the awesome game renderings; luckily, the in-game cutscenes are rendered instead.

So why am I caring about noting these petty facts? Well, there is one lesson to be learned in that as well; Microsoft’s choices about the system impacted on its general reputation: not providing HDMI support, requiring many extra additional accessory over the basic system (high definition cable; hard drive), and not supporting standard upgrades (you need Xbox-specific storage to back-up and copy saves around, and you cannot increase the system’s storage, while Sony allows you to use USB mass storage devices for copy – and backup – operations, as well as having user-serviceable hard drives). A system that might have been, on many areas, better is actually considered lower-end by many, many people.

No matter how many technical reasons you have to win, you might still fail if you don’t consider what people will say about your system! And that includes the people who won’t be bothered to learn manuals, instructions, and documentation. This is one thing that Linux developers, and advocates, need to learn pretty well from others, before being crushed by learning that the hard way.

And as a final note, I got the Xbox for many reasons, among which, as I stated above, was the chance to borrow some games from a friend rather than outright buying them; on the whole experience, though, I think I still like the PS3 better. It’s more expensive, and sometimes it glitches badly in graphics and physics (Fallout 3, anybody?), but there are many reasons for which it’s better. The Xbox is much more noisy – even when installing the games to hard drive – to begin with, and then the PlayStation 3 plays BluRay, does not need line-of-sight for the remote control, does not require special cables to charge the wireless controllers. I think the system is generally better, although Xbox got more flak than it should, at least from the people I know around here, for the above-noted problems.

Mini musings

Again for those who don’t care about me writing about proprietary anything (games, cellphones, dishwashers, microwaves, clocks, radios, …) you can just skip over this post.

I’ve already slightly ranted about Sony’s Minis initiative as they have some silly business practises in my opinion, tied to a very good idea. The minis are simply “smaller” (in term of space logical space used) games, initially releases for Sony’s handheld (PSP) and, since last December, playable on the PlayStation 3 through software emulation.

The idea was pretty interesting: games that occupy less than 100MB in size can be store aplenty on a MemoryStick card (or on the failure debatable PSP Go), and they are generally better suited for idly situations, like a four hours train travel (that I’m expecting next month) or waiting at the doctor’s office. The pricing, around or even less than €5 is also not too bad, especially for those games as they don’t have “story”, and are rather pastimes, that aren’t just discarded once completed. Adding the option of playing them on the PS3, while not a kind of tipping point, is also a decent additions (a little more for your money).

What is the problem then? Well, as I said in my older post, even though the 3.15 firmware update for PlayStation3 (recently made a mandatory update, rather than an optional one) added the minis emulator, Sony has not forced the publisher to publish minis to work on both systems, so the number of minis playable on the PlayStation 3 is still much lower than that of those available for the PSP. Not a huge problem by itself, to be honest, as running them on the PS3 is definitely just “a nice extra” but it shows the way Sony always lack the strength of a common environment for their games (some are published in 5-languages-in-1 discs, other are published region-coded, some are distributed through both PSN and physically via UMD, others only through UMD, and so on).

But beside these problems with Sony’s corporate strategy, that might well be much more complex than I can think of at all, there are some interesting technicalities around the minis. The most obvious one, apparent to anybody who played a couple of them, with or without technical skills to appreciate it, is that the “quality” (in sense of polish used on the game) is varying widely. Tetris (released as a PSP-only mini, for the first time on PSP, as they even state in the store description) is definitely very well polished: no rough edges anywhere, fast, with good music, and altogether well calibrated. The mahjong solitaire one (I forgot the full name) already sounds a little rougher: while it doesn’t have blatant bugs, there are times where reaching a given tile is very difficult as the cursor jumps around it; but even more importantly, you can see the framerate drop drastically (which should be a rare event on a console, as they have stable resource limits) when playing endless mode. And a similar slow-down happens on another mini, Bubble Trubble (which has nothing to do with Puzzle Bubble but sounds a lot more like Puyo Puyo meets a lot of soap), which is even rougher: while the gameplay look quite interesting, and the physics involved is definitely not too trivial, the menus look like something coming out of Commodore 64 (or SNES) era.

In particular, the two slow-downs seem to disappear on the PS3; while you could argue that the sheer power of the PS3 is a few times higher than that of the PSP, the idea is that they are currently emulated on the PS3, and most emulators, even on much more powerful system have problems of slowing down, rather than going too fast, especially because it’s usually trivial to limit the speed at which the code is executed. So: the minis are either bugged (or designed) without caring of the performance limit of the PSP, and Sony’s emulator on the PS3 does not cap its speed to the equivalent speed of the PSP.

This doesn’t really bring us any news, but mark my: that if Sony brings up a new device to run the minis, I wouldn’t be surprised. Given they are now trying to extend their PlayStation Network outside of the boundaries of PS3 and PSP, it sounds quite plausible to me. Or it might be another software to play them on the PC. Who knows, but it still is something interesting to look at.

The real hustler: DLC

Today I’m not going to write my usual rant or generic post about arguments tied to Free Software but rather a commentary about modern content, in this particular case, games. If you don’t care, or if you feel like I’m a cancer to the Free Software movement because I do play proprietary games, then you’re free to not read this post at all. Thanks.

There is one thing I love about the “cheap” (less than €10) games that are available on “PlayStation Network” (Sony’s digital content delivery platform — or to use less buzzwords, their online store): they often are multiplayer, either via network or locally. This is something I find quite important because of two tied reasons: most of the games you buy on BluRay for PlayStation 3 are single-player, or only allow network multiplayer, but at the same time I often have friends home to play with. Of course there are notable exceptions like Street Fighter IV and Naruto (to name two I have) but even these only stop at two-players modes, while games like Worms and Bomberman Ultra (both available on PSN for less than €10) can be played with three and more people.

Following this idea, yesterday I bought Hustler Kings, a pool game for the PS3, something that, with a friend of mine, we were waiting for a long time. I like pool, both the real thing and the videogames, so I felt like it was a nice €8 to spend on that (it’s still less than a single session at a pool place around here). The game itself is pretty cool, both for what concerns the pure graphic aspect (very shiny), and the local gameplay, the AI is not too stupid and not too perfect in the non-Hard modes — something that cannot be said of Bomberman Ultra.

While the game provides different modes of play, beside the usual 8-ball pool game (9-ball , English black-ball , and cut-throat ) it still lacks snooker which I got addicted with FooBillard. And for those wondering, I couldn’t get FooBillard to work any good in the last years, both with and without compiz. Given that it seems to be dead upstream that really makes me sad.

What I haven’t had the guts of trying yet is the online play. While, obviously, all games provide a “online game experience may vary”, this game does not really have much of a network-bound problem as it’s mainly turn based, so I guess the gameplay itself wouldn’t change much. But rather than the usual methods of network play, the developers of Hustler Kings tried to go one step further – thus the name – and I quite like the idea: you play for (fictitious) money with other players, investing from the balance you can earn in local play as well. Might not sound that much new but they also seem to have added two extra quirks that I hadn’t found on other games before.

The first quirk takes form of a special “trophy” for the PlayStation 3: you can only earn it by beating another player that has it, with the developers of the game being the only people starting with the trophy on them. This makes the whole competition interesting for the “completitionists” out there.

The second quirk actually made me a bit angry for the moment, but then I thought it was actually a very interesting way of playing it out: special chalk to make complex shots easier is available on the store… not with the virtual money, but with actual money: €0.25 a piece (at least for two out of three versions, the last is a combination of the other two so I guess it’d be priced slightly higher). While they might sound pretty useless for playing locally, or for those who play over the network with friends, they are most likely the required edge that allows entering the online hall of fame.

Now it’s interesting to see the way different developers (and thus different games) consider the so-called DLC (Downloadable Content): some make it the very basis of the game (LittleBig Planet, the various Rock Band and company), others provide expansions (Fallout 3 , Brütal Legend ). I don’t think I have seen anything as interesting as the Hustler Kings method up to now though. The price of the single DLC (the chalk) is very small (even though the PlayStation Store will impose a €5 minimum fund), and it’s neither strictly needed to play nor essential to face other players that have it. And it’s not a one-time expense (like music tracks or costumes).

Yes Sony, we love you — now try to make sense

I’ll stop writing about Ruby-NG porting or the tinderbox effort for a moment to write a little rant to our beloved Sony.

I’ve already ranted before about the prices of games in Italy, and about the fact that Sony’s own PlayStation Network has quite silly pricing policies (sometimes the prices for UK – in pounds – and those for the rest of Europe – in euro – aren’t equivalent, the UK price is sometimes a 20% cheaper), but I guess I’ll just write a bit more of their silliness now.

Remaining in the area of pricing, Sony have been following two very different roads. While both are tied to their expansion of the PlayStation Network game offering because of the introduction of the PSP Go (which does not have an UMD drive, and thus can only play games downloaded through their store), they don’t seem to work quite in the same way.

The first road is making the “usual” games available on PSN as well as UMD, re-issuing older releases and issuing some of the new releases on the two media at the same time. This, though, creates a bit of a problem; while non-UMD releases are faster to load and play (and those with a cracked PSP and pirated games can confirm that quite surely), their price on the PSN is usually quite fixed: it’s the same recommended retail price for the UMD, even when the real stores don’t use that price at all to sell the game. For instance, when I bought Monster Hunter Freedom Unite game for the PSP, I paid it the equivalent of €25 (from Amazon UK), the in-store price in Italy was around €32, and the PSN price was a whopping €39.99! Holy crap! And as it’s a so-called “digital copy” of the game, you cannot lend it to your friend to try it out (which is the way I originally came to know Monster Hunter), nor you can re-sell it if you don’t like it after having bought it (I don’t usually resell the games, but I do buy them preowned).

On the other hand, they have found one thing for which the PSN is well suited in the form of the “minis”, smaller, cheaper games, around 30MB of storage and €5 of price; from the classic Tetris to some newer games. The size and price are just right: for €5 I won’t be scorned by not being able to re-sell or lend the game, and the size allows them to be stored on the PSP’s memory stick even if it’s not that big, which makes them perfect for me when I’m waiting in queue at the doctor’s (or at the airport as it came to be last November).

Now, though, Sony’s silliness comes again: earlier this month (around the 10th if my memory serves me right), Sony released a firmware update that should have allowed PlayStation 3 owners to play minis as well. Since this called out for an emulator, this was the final and crucial hit for those hoping to see PlayStation 2 compatibility in the PS3 (as the last hope that was given was related to a software emulation patent filed by Sony, which is now very well possible to link to the minis emulator rather than PS2 compatibility). It baffled quite a bit of people, me included, that at the time of release of the firmware, the minis weren’t updated: if you simply downloaded them with the PS3 it asked you to copy them on the PSP; Sony did announce with the firmware that the new minis were to be released on the 17th — today. A hint to the next disappointment was already to be seen in their wordings:

[…] we are working on getting the majority of the current minis ready for the PS3 from the 17th December.

Yes they say the “majority” of the current minis, not all of them. Indeed today when I finally went on to re-download the two minis I bought last month (the evergreen Tetris, and a Mahjonng solitaire game, both perfect games to play while waiting in queue — I just miss a card solitaire game, would be awesome to have, now that I don’t have it on my Nokia any more), I got the surprise: the Mahjonng game is available and works on the PS3, but Tetris is not (yet?) available! It still only works on the PSP. Sigh! Really would it have costed so much for Sony to release firmware and minis at the same time? (Probably, a schedule slip-up, they likely wanted to have the whole system ready before Christmas I guess). Okay never mind that.

Next in line of the series of Sony silliness proofs is the Facebook integration that came with the previous firmware update (3.10); yes you can now link your Facebook account with PSN – no you still cannot add your PSN handler in your contact information like it was an IM user, which is what I would have found most useful (to see which ones of my friends I’m missing) – and it will show on your feed the games and demos you buy or download from the PlayStation Store (it actually asks you every time for that as well), and the trophies that you’re awarded in games. Not a bad idea after all, since it allows you to know whether your friend already bought or tried out the game you were looking forward for.

Unfortunately it seems like Sony forgot that quite a bit of games hide their Trophy description until you actually get them! This is the case, for instance, of Worms (how could I have not bought that game? Sure it’s nowhere near Worms 2 or Worms Armageddon for PC – mouse controls for the win! – but it’s still not bad at all!). Until awarded, those trophies look like “???” with description “???”. And lo and behold, the Facebook integration shows them just like that, even to me.

Add this to my anger already built up for the Fallout 3 UK disc not being compatible with the downloadable content from the Italian PlayStation Store (I’m still looking for two £20 PSN Gift Cards to buy the expansions… a friend of mine looked for them while he was in London for a week-end but couldn’t find them), and you can start to see why I’m quite a bit scorned with Sony.

Smarter, greener hardware

I have to say sorry before all, because most likely you’ll find typos and grammar mistakes in this post. Unfortunately I have yet to receive my new glasses so I’m typing basically blind.

I hear lots of complains about the power management in Linux and in Free Software in general, and most of the times, this is related to complains about the time laptops can work on battery. While these complaints are usually well founded, I’d like to add to that the fact that both Linux, and a lot of modern hardware, fail at saving power for the sake of environment and, somewhat important as well, of my bank account.

Indeed, I’m afraid to say a lot of modern hardware fails at being smart to be green; and that does not limit to Linux-based systems (although I’d sill be happy to know what causes my LCD monitor to turn off and then on again when DPMS should start!). I can find quite a few examples that nothing have to do with Linux:

  • keeping in the field of operating systems, while Apple did a lot of good work with Mac OS X and power saving (indeed their laptops last a lot on battery), some things aren’t exactly terrific: my iMac sometimes does not stop when I’m not using it, rather the monitor shuts off but the rest of the system keeps running… and because the monitor is off, it happened more than once that I went away, or to bed, without turning the system off. Not really nice; for now I solved by not turning the monitor off, and just make sure I explicitly turn the system off when I’m not using it.
  • on the field of consoles, I got a Wii last week (I need to do some exercise to make sure my blood sugar level falls in place, and the best way to get a geek to do some physical activity is graphing it! – and the Wii Fit seems to work for my sugar); nice thing, the C64-style transformer in the power supply unit is a bit of a nuisance, but more importantly, the WiiConnect24 idea seems to me like a stupid thing: it keeps the console connected to the Internet even when it’s turned off, and what for? As far as I can see this is only useful to make sure you can have weather forecast immediately upon turning it on… I can get the marketing idea, but wouldn’t be more or less the same if it checked the forecast as it’s turned on, even though I’m not asking for it just yet? It takes time to load the games as well, it could take a little more time to load the weather.

  • on the same field, Sony has one absurd thing: there is no auto-off setting for the playstation 3, at all! Of course you can set it to run folding@home as soon as it’s unused for a period of time, but this also has some limitations; for once, it will not start if a DVD is kept in pause (which happened to me once); it will also not start if a dialog is opened (like a “Delete Completed” or such); at the same time, the “auto-turn off on download complete” option does not turn off the controller which means you can forget about it and have your controller still going for a period of time (until its use-based auto-turn off triggers);
  • more interestingly, Sony’s Bravia TV seems to be both smart and green: contrary to my previous Samsung TV, it has a “power off” button that shuts it down; it’s not a hard button, it’s still soft, but the TV doesn’t respond to anything else (included the remote and the other buttons on the chassis) when it’s powered off that way; it also includes a special “auto turn-off” option, ot like the usual timer, but rather similar in concept to screensavers on computers: if you don’t press any button for a period of time, it’ll auto-turn off, assuming you’re not in front of it; even better: it has a special option to turn off the video and keep the audio going, perfect when using it as a sound system, with either the PS3 or the Apple TV, or when listening to news channels;

  • speaking about Sony, PS3 and Bravia, the BraviaLink function also look like a very smart and green technology: it allows for the TV to turn on and off additional peripherals, included the new PS3 Slim — at least this is what I can see; this is pretty nice since you don’t risk to forget the DVD on when you turn the TV off (my father always did that); too bad I have the older model of PS3… the time I can finally get a reason to install Gentoo on my PS3, I’ll replace it for a new model (which cannot run Linux) and get a new one for my TV.

I know there are devices that are supposed to turn on and off a whole home theatre system with the TV, but I’m still uncertain on how they are supposed to be used; the obvious thing would be to put stuff like the DVD player, DVB receiver and consoles under the TV’s control… but this does not work too well with the PS3 for instance, since I often leave it on, with the TV off, when downloading demos, trailers, or simply leaving folding@home in execution (usually this is done while downloading); similarly the AppleTV is supposed to be auto-synced (but admittedly, I only use XBMC lately so it’s not really important). Certainly, the Skybox and the Wii will make sense to shut down always with the TV.

I wish PC hardware would also work similarly to this or even better to BraviaLink; for instance the HP all-in-one I’m using needs an explicit power on (a soft power on, and this is important) before I can use it with my computer; having a simple way to turn it on and off via software would work much better (since turning it always on and off is not really a nice option, having it turn on when asking for a scan or a print, and having an option to turn it off, and an auto turn-off feature, even if implemented PC-side).

But even smaller things could be done, for instance I have a bluetooth dongle on Yamato; I put it on when I need to send data to the cellphone and take it out when I don’t need it any more… it would be much easier if I could just click on the bluetooth icon in the system tray and ask the bluetooth software to turn it off for me (I know it’s likely feasible already given that OS X does it with the integrated bluetooth on Macs, but as far as I can see it does not work on Linux yet, or at least not with the gnome software I’m using).

Add all these small things together, and you can see that hardware is not really very smart yet nowadays…