Thursday, January 18, 2007

Total Off-the-wall Random Speculation

I'm a fan of shows like Lost, Heroes and 24 where there's the big conspiracy or mystery and part of the show is finding out what the twists are. It seems like a popular pasttime is to try to figure out the twists before they happen. I find myself falling into this also, but, lately, it seems like people are just coming up with absurd theories for the sake of making theories.

"What's with the numbers?" "Who is Sylar?" "Who's the CTU mole?"

Have we seen so much TV - are ideas so recycled - that it's necessary to try and guess the plot before it happens? Part of me feels that people who make up outlandish theories just want the satisfaction of being able to say "I was right" on the off-chance that it comes to pass. Part of me is starting to want people to shut up and see what happens as it unfolds.

Anyhow, in season 6 of 24, Wayne Palmer is now president. He is the brother of former president David Palmer. I recently read a side-comment on TWOP that questioned how he managed to become president and what his qualifications were for running a country.

So, in a fit of free-association from that thought, my uber-outlandish theory is that it doesn't make any sense for Wayne to be president. Season 6 actually isn't real. Jack isn't free and is actually still in a Chinese prison. The events of season 6 are all in his head as a fantasy to deal with his incarceration and torture. Or alternately, it's a kind of hypnosis by the Chinese to get him to spill State secrets. Oh yeah, and Patrick Duffy is in the shower and Roseanne's an aspiring novelist.

There you go. In 4 months, I'll have a very small, but non-zero chance of saying, "Called it."

Friday, January 12, 2007

Axiotron Modbook

A company called Axiotron has created a Mac tablet called the Modbook. The previews and reviews from MacWorld look promising. It is an Apple Macbook that the company has modified with a new case and screen. The internals are all Apple. The tablet functionality is from Wacom. It looks like it would certainly fulfill a market that Apple has decided to skip for now.

From the various descriptions I've read, it sounds like Axiotron is buying completed Macbooks from Apple, maybe getting a bulk discount, and then disassembling and using the appropriate parts to create the Modbook.

Here's my question. What are they doing with the leftover parts? Are the old keyboard and screen being sold as spare parts? This looks like a great product, but buying whole Macbooks (as opposed to motherboards or what not) just seems so wasteful.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Apple's iPhone: Caveats, Concerns and Ideas

Everyone's covering Apple's iPhone so I won't bother to repeat what they're saying. Instead, I'm going to first address things people should have learned from previous Apple dealings. In the second half, I'm going to go over my personal concerns about the phone's design and give some ideas on how to get around those concerns. If anyone from Apple's listening, no charge for these ideas. I promise I won't sue if you use them.

Standard Apple Operating Procedure
The iPhone is a new product, but at the same time it's also an iPod. And anyone who's followed the iPod since its launch should take into consideration Apple's actions with regards to that device. The big issue I'm focusing on has been Apple's unwillingness to back-port features to earlier generation iPods.

For example, people have been working PDA-like functions onto the iPod since the beginning. To my memory, the first-gen iPod supported just played music. And so people made empty mp3 files with contact information in the song tags. The 10 gig iPod then came out and provided contact information as a feature which was also applied to the 5 gig. Unfortunately, this was about it for the free upgrades.

People quickly co-opted the new contact feature to store general data by making dummy vcards. In the second-gen iPod, Apple added its own notes system. However, this new feature was not back-ported to the first-gen.

Along came the third-gen with on-the-go playlists. It was a really nice, new feature, but older iPod owners had to upgrade or get nothing.

Then came along came iTMS. Amazingly, all iPods received an upgrade. iPods that couldn't support the seemingly simple notes system had no problems dealing with the new DRM system.

This behavior has continued where anything that might make Apple money can be implemented on older iPods without issue, but features that seem like they could be provided through a firmware upgrade are reserved for newer iPods only. If one wanted to give Apple the benefit of the doubt, maybe some of the new features genuinely couldn't work on earlier models, but the pattern is rather apparent.

Now, given that the iPhone is advertised as running some version of OSX, hopefully this trend will not continue and we won't end up with first-gen/second-gen/n-th-gen firmware revisions adding new features that are "incapable" of being run on earlier models. Of course, we may end up with paid OS upgrades instead (coming June 2008, OSX 10.6 for Macs and iPhones!), but at least that's better than having to buy an entirely new device.

Batteries Permanently Included
This leads to a second issue which I haven't seen covered too much yet. The battery life of the device has raised a few eyebrows, but I haven't seen too many people question the, yet again, non-user-replaceable battery.

From a design perspective, the permanent battery allows for a level of integration and form factor that's not possible otherwise. However, unlike with a degraded-battery iPod where there's still uses (permanent use in car docks, boom boxes), an iPhone that suddenly only has 2 hours of talk time is significantly less useful. And while your cheap cellphones don't typically have a life greater than 2 years, I wouldn't think that would apply to smartphones. Regardless, I'm not crazy about planning to replace a $500 device that often.

Will Apple provide a reasonable battery replacement service? Remember also that an iPhone is a phone and people would be less willing to part with their phone for a few days compared to their iPod.

So Close Yet So Far
The iPhone truly is packed with a cool combination of technology that makes me drool with the best of them. The multitude of sensors; the slick interface; the next-gen multi-touch control.

And yet, there's a lot of "but"s that make me wonder why I don't want it more. The price, the memory, the battery life. There's also the carrier, but that's more a business problem and I don't have any rationalizations for that.

This Didn't Go So Well for Sony
First off, the price. There's definite sticker shock. At the keynote, Jobs led up with "how much would you pay? A Nano is $199. A typical smartphone is $299." I was hoping he was going to do a "$499? *red line through that* $449? *red line through that* No! Yours for $399!" Too bad that's just in my fantasy world.

It seems expensive compared to smartphones. It seems expensive compared to Nanos. But consider that the original iPod was $400. Consider the (hopeful) strong integration with OSX (and this would definitely be a feature for me). I'd rather pay $400. But I can drag myself up. More easily than I can for PS3s at any rate.

Is There A Zero Missing?
My next big concern (as with many) is the memory. 4 gigs/8 gigs doesn't seem like very much. But if one considers that the iPhone most likely would be docked every night, then it allows for the possibility (at least in my usage) to have frequent content loads and unloads ala the shuffle.

Audio or video podcasts could be synced and then removed after viewing. A cool usage would be for my EyeTV to automatically record, say, The Tonight Show, automatically encode and upload for me to watch during lunch the next day. And then when I get home and dock, automatically unload. This solution wouldn't work for everyone as some people really just want to have all their media available at any time. But for a good percentage, I think it would effectively manage the amount of space provided.

PSP Flashbacks
Lastly, there's the battery life. My concern here isn't so much from the iPod perspective, but from the phone. I shudder at a scenario of getting on a plane, watching 5 hours of video and then landing at the airport with my battery almost dead and myself unable to make a call. Having to charge nightly doesn't phase me too much, but the possibility that the charge wouldn't make it through the day and leave me without a phone really holds me back. It makes me want to have a phone separate from a wide-touchscreen-wifi iPod.

Luckily for Apple, I've got a solution! One of the rumors I've heard is that the iPhone has two batteries. One for the phone and one for the other functions. I hope this rumor isn't true as it's a ridiculously stupid idea. But it did get me on the path to a better solution.

What Apple should do is allow a user to configure reserve battery cutoffs. If the battery has only 1 hour of talk time left, then disable or give a warning for all functions except phone use. Or phone calls and browsing. Let the user configure what they want their buffer to be and what can be used at each level.

So in my above flight scenario, I'd watch video for 4 hours and then the iPod would pop up a warning, "1 hour of power left. Reserving for phone calls," and hopefully have an easy option to override.

On The Bright Side
Let me say that I'm excited about the iPhone. The combination of technologies makes me think of the Wii. It presents real Star Trek or Minority Report feel into a hand-held device. And I own Apple stock so I'm certainly happy as a shareholder. But as a consumer, I'm hesitant because of these various issues and past history.

Most of my issues can be handled in software design so hopefully Apple will implement something like them to make the iPhone even more attractive.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Design flaws in PSU

I've been playing Phantasy Star Universe since launch. I was a big fan of Phantasy Star Online. Personally, I think Sega did a good job with the overall game / balance / environment. I like playing the game even if most of the people I started with have stopped playing.

All that said, there are some pretty grevious design flaws that I'll wish Sega will address (but I won't hold my breath). The set of flaws I'm covering today all stem from the game's mission structure and how rewards are provided upon mission completion.

The mission system in PSU calculates a completion score at the end typically based on the number of enemies killed and the number of times players die. For some of the story missions, the amount of time spent is also considered. The top rank which usually requires killing all monsters and having zero deaths is S-rank. Any deviation from this will drop to A-rank. 2 deaths will usually drop to B-rank and 3 deaths will drop to C-rank. Rewards for A-rank are roughly 60% of S-rank and C-rank gives no rewards.

  1. Moon atomizers are useless.
    Moon atomizers are resurrection items. Using one in the vicinity of a downed player will bring him back. The problem is that if a person dies and is brought back with a moon atomizer, it still counts as a death and lowers the completion rank. This also applies to the resurrection spell giresta.

    Now that's not to say you have no margin for error on a mission. There's another item called the scape doll that will sacrifice itself upon a death and bring a player back with full health. Dying and resing in this manner doesn't affect completion rank.

    The overall effect of all this is that moon atomizers (and in theory, giresta) are pointless and noone ever uses them. For any mission where death is possible, everyone is expected to carry scape dolls. I typically collect moon atomizers until I hit the stack limit and then sell them.

    I don't mind a design that encourages people to play carefully. I've never liked the gungho player that rushes off to death. But a design that renders a historically useful item and spell to be totally pointless strikes me as a serious flaw.

  2. 98% isn't 100%.

    Another problem with the mission system is that it penalizes late arrivers. If a person joins a mission in the middle, his personal completion rank will be roughly prorated depending on when he joined. This is to prevent someone from jumping in at the very last moment and collecting a full reward.

    The problem is that if someone joins 1 second after the mission is started (in other words, was not part of the party when the mission was selected), he gets 98-99% prorated. And anything less than 100% will immediately drop a person down to the second A-rank which typically is about 60% of the reward of the top S-rank.

  3. You can't disconnect.

    The game will automatically remove a person from a party when he disconnects whether intentionally or due to lag. Leaving a party eliminates all record of your involvement and if you rejoin later, it is as if you were new. This will again impact your completion rank. And there's nothing people enjoy more than getting disconnected from lag right before the boss and then ending up with a C-rank for their efforts.

    This one really bugs me as it implies no one at Sega considered the possibility that people might legitimately get disconnected over the internet. Plenty of games just hold your spot if you go link-dead and then it can be the party leader's discretion whether to boot you or not. When the situation happens, it's frustrating to think that Sega didn't follow this course.
Now all this having been said, I enjoy the game. These problems are the occasional annoyances that I feel should never have seen release. Of the 3, #2 bugs me the most as it discourages people from joining mid-mission.

In my next post at some point in the indeterminate future, I'll go over ideas I have for different mission types.