Category: Games

Fell Seal

You know what game I've been enjoying lately? Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark.

It's from developer 6 Eyes Studio and publisher 1C Entertainment, and it's an unabashed homage to Final Fantasy Tactics.

I think that's an underserved niche. There are plenty of tactical RPGs (like Fire Emblem) and their close cousins, turn-based strategy games (like XCOM). But most of them don't feel quite like Final Fantasy Tactics or its predecessor, Tactics Ogre.

Fell Seal does. Its storyline isn't quite as complex or as epic as those games', and its soundtrack is fine but doesn't feel as inspired as theirs. (After a round of Fell Seal, I tend to find myself humming tunes from FFT -- though FS's tunes are beginning to stick in my head themselves now.) But its mechanics? Those are damned impressive. Especially from such a small team (per their The Team page, two leads and nineteen contractors).

As of this writing, I'm eight hours or so in. I haven't seen every map; I haven't unlocked every class. But what I've seen so far has kept me excited and engaged in that FFT "just one more fight" way. Every class so far has been useful; every skill tree seems well-considered. And look, FFT is one of my favorite games of all time, but it's not perfect; there are a whole lot of useless skills in there, such as most of the Archer class's "Charge +n" abilities, and Cloud's Limit Breaks for the same reason. Fell Seal doesn't have a charge mechanic; abilities all execute right away. And I haven't found a class yet with abilities that weren't useful (though I admit I'm not quite sure about Gadgeteer just yet). Beyond your basic classes (Merceneries are a well-rounded base class, Menders heal, Wizards damage from a distance, Knights damage from up close, Scoundrels are quick and maneuverable), you get some more interesting choices, like the Plague Doctor, who has debuff-focused attacks but also a base AoE ability that removes debuffs and heals a small amount of HP. There are useful passive skills, too: Wizards can learn an ability that prevents offensive magic from harming allies or healing magic from healing enemies; it's a major boon for any spellcaster.

I haven't even tried the crafting system yet.

It's not a perfect game -- I don't love the character graphics, and while I do love the environment graphics, the decision to go with hand-drawn environments means you can't rotate the camera, which is inconvenient on some stages (for example, when a character is standing under a tree branch and you can't see them). But it's a damned impressive game, that I've already derived hours of enjoyment from and expect many more. The game has some excellent granular difficulty settings, and while I'm enjoying it on the defaults, I'm also looking forward to playing it again on a harder difficulty sometime.

As of this writing, the game is in Steam Early Access. However, it's scheduled for a release sometime next month, and the version currently on Steam is nearly final; according to the release notes, the only things missing are the ending and a secret bonus dungeon. The price has recently gone up from $20 to $30; I believe that will be the final price on release but I'm not 100% certain. I'd still recommend it if the price went up to $40.

But whether you get it now in Early Access or wait a few weeks for its full release, I heartily recommend this game. If you like tactical RPGs in general, and especially if you like Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics in particular, you should buy Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Fell Seal is available for Windows, Mac, and GNU/Linux, with Xbox One and PS4 versions on the way; I'm playing the Linux version. There's a free demo at itch.io, though I had some trouble with it (I couldn't get shops or guild halls to work, which left me short one party member on the second battle and made it much harder; I haven't had any issues with the full version of the game).

Glaivin'

I don't play many new games anymore. I played Spider-Man because it came with my PS4, but since I finished it I've switched to something a couple years older: Final Fantasy 15.

I haven't been playing it long, just...*looks at save file*...Jesus, twelve hours? Anyway, I'm on Chapter 3. And so far I'm really enjoying it.

I dig the setting. Final Fantasy has been doing this "let's juxtapose fantasy with a quasi-modern world" routine since 7, and it's a lot more fully-realized here than it was then. Still not perfect -- city planning does not work that way, guys; you don't pass the limits of a major city and immediately find yourself off in a big empty desert with only an occasional gas station; the transition tends to be more gradual than that -- but still, the dissonance is a lot less glaring than FF7's transition from Midgar to a big empty overworld.

Actually, to a large extent, the dissonance is what I like about it. Taking things that shouldn't go together and then mooshing them together. This is a game that starts off with...well, I can't seem to get the intro to embed (I suspect a music rights thing), but if you haven't seen it, check it out on YouTube.

As I was saying: This is a game that starts out with a barrage of fantasy tropes -- the king in his castle saying farewell to his son, who's leaving to marry a princess to secure peace with the Empire -- and then cuts to the party pushing a broken-down car while Stand By Me plays. It is instantly one of my favorite video game openings ever.

The game doesn't retain quite that level of quality throughout. But even where it falls short, I like it, at least so far. I like ambitious failures. Here's how Brent described it:

As long as you keep the "FF15 has been in development for 10 years" fact firmly in mind the whole exercise is interesting from a how-do-you-make-something-mostly-complete-out-of-this aspect.

Did you notice the one part of the game where there was supposed to be a rad as fuck boss but they only got as far as modeling and not rigging the rad as fuck boss so they had you go and take a look at how rad as fuck the boss's model is and everybody comments on how rad as fuck the model looks and then you get a cutscene explaining why you don't need to actually fight the rad as fuck boss and then you just fuck off?

Not gonna lie, I love stuff like that. It's like the best kind of soup, the "if you've got it, just toss it in the pot" kind.

I love stuff like that too.

And you know what else is overambitious about this game? Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15.

Kingsglaive is a movie that occurs before and during the first chapter of FF15. It fleshes out some major plot points -- in a way that's, frankly, kind of ill-conceived, because there's at least one major scene in FF15 that lacks some pretty important context if you haven't seen the movie.

Spoilers for Kingsglaive and the ending of the first chapter of Final Fantasy 15 follow.

At the end of the first chapter of FF15, the kingdom of Lucis falls. And in the game, you don't really have a lot of context about just what the hell is going on. You've never seen the Emperor or General Glauca before, and you're given little context for who they are. Clearly the big spiky guy stabbing the king is a bad guy, but...you're given no other information on who he is or what his deal is, except that the peace agreement was a ruse and Niflheim has sacked Insomnia.

Do you even see the general again? I don't know. He kinda gets incinerated at the end of Kingsglaive, but maybe he gets better. I don't know for sure, but...it kinda looks like the game shows a scary-looking dude murdering the protagonist's father, never explains who he is, and then maybe he never appears again? That's...not great storytelling. That makes Kingsglaive less an ancillary cross-media spinoff and more an essential part of the story that is neither included with the game nor explained by it.

But I'm underselling just how baffling the entire endeavor is.

Because shunting a major, game-changing event off into a spinoff movie isn't the weirdest thing about it. It isn't even the weirdest thing about that scene.

Because the climax of Kingsglaive -- the betrayal at the signing ceremony, the fall of Lucis -- is intercut with Nyx and Lunafreya fighting a giant monster. And not just any giant monster.

Giant Purple Octopus

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15
© 2016 Square Enix

That's Ultros. From Final Fantasy 6. This guy.

ULTROS: Mwa ha ha! Let's see if Maria can shrug THIS off!

Final Fantasy 3
© 1993 Square Enix
Screencap courtesy of Blastinus at Let's Play Archive

The movie cuts back and forth between the fall of Lucis -- guards being stabbed, bombs dropping on the city, the Emperor pulling a gun on the King -- and the octopus who tried to drop a 4-ton weight on an opera.

It is insanely, spectacularly wrong, and it is absolutely hands-down my favorite scene in the movie.

How did this happen? What was the thought process here? "Newcomers to Final Fantasy will just see a generic monster. But longtime fans will be wracked with the giggles!"

Obviously Final Fantasy is self-referential as all hell, and some of that was to be expected. But there's a pretty big difference between, say, playing the main Final Fantasy theme as background music early in the movie, and introducing Ultros during the climax.

But there's also something quintessentially Final Fantasy about it. This series is chock-full of sudden and inexplicable tonal shifts. I've talked about this before, back in my Final Fantasy 7 and Iconic Images post in 2011: FF7 goes from Barret's somber battle to the death with Dyne straight to chocobo racing. Bombs dropping while the heroes fight a tonally-inappropriate Easter egg? Just like the games!

And something that weird and singular saves the movie from being boring.

Because Kingsglaive is boring. It's very pretty; as a two-hour tech demo, it definitely demos the tech. But the characters are thinly-sketched, the villains' motivations and the plot twists don't make a whole lot of sense, and the climax feels like a Godzilla movie without the fun or the charm. It feels like the movie is focused entirely on showing really cool locations, monsters, and fights. It does that. But not much else.

In its own way, the Ultros fight is one more of those striking juxtapositions I like so much. Final Fantasy 15 starts out with high fantasy tropes and then immediately swerves into being a road trip movie. And Kingsglaive intercuts the serious and the silly. It doesn't really work, exactly, but I still love it.

There's an old Simpsons line where Marge tells Homer she doesn't hate him for failing, she loves him for trying. Whatever FF15's faults -- and I'm sure I'll find more of them as I get farther in the game -- they seem to be the result of overambition. And you know what? That's a good kind of failure. An interesting kind. Square Enix tried some things nobody else had ever done here. In some cases, at least, it turns out that there's a good reason nobody else has done those things. But if you're going to mess up, at least find a new and interesting and, perhaps, spectacular way to do it.

Gamerverse

I have more things to say about Spider-Man for the PS4!

I saw an ad the other day for a comic book adaptation of the game. It had a logo that said "Marvel Gamerverse".

Now, I assume this is just an umbrella label that Marvel is going to stick all its game-related comics under, and doesn't actually imply that there are going to be other games that take place in the same universe as Spider-Man (aside from the inevitable sequel, of course).

But it got me thinking: what's Spider-Man 2 going to look like, and what would it look like if there were other, non-Spider-Man games in the same series?

My first question is, what's Spider-Man 2's map going to look like? The best thing about the first game is swinging around a fairly realistic version of Manhattan. It's not perfect, of course, and it gets less accurate the farther you get from midtown, but as somebody who's only been to New York once I was impressed by the verisimilitude. "Oh, that's Radio City Music Hall; that means Rockefeller Center is over this way."

How to expand on that? Should Spider-Man 2 include some of the outer boroughs? I'm not sure there's quite as much demand for swinging around Brooklyn and Queens, but I could dig it.

Otherwise, or in addition, they could also expand Manhattan, work on making it even more accurate than it already is. I suppose there'd be some cognitive dissonance there -- wait, this is supposed to be the same location as the first game; why is the map so different? -- but, ultimately, it's video games and you suspend your disbelief.

Alternately, the new game could take a cue from the upcoming Spider-Man: Far from Home and put Spidey down in some other city. But given the dangling plot threads left at the end of the previous game, I don't expect that to happen; I expect the sequel will still be based in New York.

Another thought I had: what other superheroes would function in a game like this?

The most obvious answer is Daredevil. He's another street-level Marvel superhero who gets around by leaping across rooftops. He'd be a natural fit, and the game could also find a way to work some compelling courtroom drama into the out-of-costume sequences. Plus, some creative design choices could do some really cool shit with DD's heightened senses. (One of the most memorable moments in Spider-Man was when I heard a voice over my shoulder and it startled me. You wouldn't be able to make a Daredevil game that required the player to have a surround sound system or play the game with headphones, but you could certainly design the sound so that it would benefit from those things, where available.)

But you know who I'd really like to see in a Spider-Man-esque game? Black Panther.

BP is another character with a relatively modest super-power set, who can run up buildings and leap across rooftops. He'd be perfect. And as cool as Manhattan is in Spider-Man, a game set in Wakanda would provide an opportunity for more creative city design. Where Spider-Man benefits from a realistic recreation of a real-life city (with some Marvel Comics embellishments like Avengers Tower and the Sanctum Sanctorum), game designers would have the freedom to design Birnin Zana however they want (much like Gotham City in the Arkham games). Picture a Golden City as big and detailed as Spider-Man's Manhattan -- yeah, that's a game I want to play.

Original Character Do Not Steal

I posted the other day about how much I loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. But it wasn't the only Spider-Man adaptation that I've thoroughly enjoyed over the past couple of months. You know what else is great? Spider-Man for the PlayStation 4.

But you know, as much as I loved it, it's got its weaknesses, and there's one in particular I'm thinking of; a weakness it shares with the Batman: Arkham series whose formula it copies.

And that weakness is this: Batman and Spider-Man have two of the best rogues galleries in comics. So why do you spend so much of the game beating up on generic thugs?

The generic enemies in the Arkham series fall along the lines of "thug", "thug in clown mask", "thug in Two-Face mask", that kind of thing. What's the difference between a Joker thug and a Two-Face thug? Not a hell of a lot.

Spider-Man does a little bit better. It's got its share of generic thugs, but the Demons and the Sable mercs are more memorable, and they have their own weapons and attack patterns that the other mobs don't share.

But I'd still like to see a little more color among the low-level enemies in the game. I'm not saying get rid of the street thugs entirely; Batman and Spider-Man are street-level heroes, and fighting ordinary thugs is definitely in their wheelhouse. But maybe increase the ratio of colorful costumed supervillains to generic muggers.

And here's my thought: they should copy the Nemesis system from Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor/Shadow of War.

I'm not saying copy it entirely. Like I said, Spider-Man's already got a fantastic stable of villains; he doesn't need a game built around pursuing new ones created at random.

But what I'm thinking is, those sidequests where you fight through a warehouse full of Kingpin thugs or whatever? Put some kind of randomized supervillain sub-boss at the end of those.

I'm also picturing the late, lamented MMORPG City of Heroes as a template. CoH let you choose a basis for your powers -- technological gadgets, scientific experimentation, genetic mutation, the usual superhero origin stuff -- and a power set related to that. It also had an extremely versatile character creation tool.

So I'm thinking, populate a Spider-Man game with minor supervillains whose names, costumes, powers, and origin stories are randomly pieced together from a set of stock supervillain tropes.

Silas Skinner was a lab assistant at Oscorp, until a lab accident caused his skin to begin growing out of control. When Mr. Negative offered him a chance at revenge on Norman Osborn, he joined the Demons. With the help of stolen unstable-molecule tech, he is now able to control his skin-stretching power, and runs the Upper-West Side as Epidermis Rex!

Dawn Dwyer was a ticket-taker at the Central Park Zoo, until she was badly injured in a stampede caused by Kraven the Hunter. In exchange for her loyalty, Wilson Fisk outfitted her with a mechanical suit that compensates for her injuries and grants her enhanced strength and speed. Now, she leads an animal-themed gang of enforcers as Bear Dawn!

Pointagar Stickagon is an Inhuman who owns a pointy stick. He terrorizes Midtown as Pointy Stick!

School of Wizardry

I've been listening to Jeremy Parish's interview with Robert Woodhead, the co-creator of Wizardry. It's a great interview and recommended.

I think about Wizardry sometimes. I first played it on the Mac.

If you pull up the original Wizardry on archive.org, or if you go looking for screenshots, here's the kind of thing you can expect to see:

Wizardry for Mac with lineart dungeon graphics
Via Hardcore Gaming 101, which has a great comparison of the various editions of the game.

You can get more detailed maze graphics by maximizing the window, but at 512x342 that comes at the cost of having to move other windows on top of each other to fit:

Wizardry for Mac with detailed dungeon graphics
I took this screenshot myself.

Of course, if you want to get fancy, you can try emulating a later version of MacOS with a higher resolution, and then you'll have plenty of room. Like these madmen here:

At any rate, I've gone back and tried some of the other versions of Wizardry, but I still think the Mac version is the best, with its GUI and its more detailed graphics. It's not perfect -- look how small the maze window is, even at its larger size; and why does the Castle window need to be visible when you're in the maze? -- but the game is well-suited for a point-and-click, drag-and-drop interface.

The first five Wizardry games aren't currently sold for modern systems, but GOG and Steam both sell Wizardry 6 bundled with DOSbox. So why not sell the Mac versions of the earlier games and bundle them with Mini vMac? I guess I'm not sure what the legality is of distributing old versions of the MacOS; they might need a license from Apple in addition to getting one from whatever company owns Wizardry these days.

I've also often wondered why nobody's ever remade the original Wizardry for modern computers, taking the Mac version as a base and adding quality-of-life improvements. The closest thing I've ever seen is a Japanese remake of the first three games called Wizardry: Llylgamyn Saga that was released for Windows (as well as PlayStation and Saturn) in 1998.

Wizardry: Llylgamyn Saga for Windows
Via Hardcore Gaming 101

Llylgamyn Saga is not quite what I'm talking about; I tried it a few years back and my impression was that it was a Windows port of a console game and its interface felt like it. It simply didn't handle as smoothly with a mouse as the Mac version.

What I'd like to see? Remake the original game. Use touchscreen devices as the primary platform. Copy Etrian Odyssey's mechanic of using the touchscreen to map the dungeon as you go, the way we had to use graph paper in the old days.

Etrian Odyssey Untold 2
Etrian Odyssey Untold 2
Via Jeremy Parish -- him again! -- at USgamer

Using half a phone screen wouldn't be so different from EO using the DS/3DS touchscreen. The biggest immediate hurdle I can think of is fat fingers: Etrian Odyssey is designed for a stylus; drawing with a finger would mean the grid squares would have to be larger. Pinch-to-zoom would be a good idea, or just a toggle to zoom the map in or out. Build to accommodate different resolutions; there's no reason a tablet user should be stuck with a map that's sized for a phone. Of course you could hide the map during combat, menu navigation, in town -- anywhere where it's not necessary. Use a point-and-click, drag-and-drop interface similar to the Mac version; when you go into town, you can drag-and-drop characters between the active party and the reserves.

Add some modern quality-of-life improvements, too. Obviously the weapons shop should behave like it would in a modern RPG: compare a highlighted weapon to the weapon a character currently has equipped. (If it'll fit onscreen, show how it compares to the weapons every character has equipped.)

And allow users to toggle the oldschool rules. Let them play with original inscrutable spell names, or with simple, plain-English ones. Allow them to disable characters aging on a class change, or the possibility of a teleport spell going wrong and permakilling the entire party. Hell, allow a mode where players can navigate through the maps they've made and point to the square they want to teleport to, or even set waypoints so they don't have to do that every time. Maybe even allow them the option of seeing monsters, treasure chests, and other points of interest before walking into them.

Once you've rebuilt the first game in this new engine, it wouldn't be hard to do the second and third. 4-7 would require more work but would be possible. Probably not 8, as it abandons the grid format in favor of free movement.

Hell, open it up. Since I'm dreaming anyway, I might as well say open-source the whole thing -- but failing that, at least release a level editor.

Maybe the best way to go about this would be for a fan group to start by creating a game that's Wizardry-like but noninfringing -- similar D&D-style rules, similar generic fantasy races, classes, and monsters, but different maps, spells, enemy behaviors, etc. -- and then, once they've released a finished game, make an offer to whoever it is who owns the Wizardry copyrights these days to port the original games to the new engine.

A man can dream.

Wii U Softmod Tips

I've spent the past week and a half softmodding my Wii U and ripping my library to it.

There are a few reasons for this -- the primary one being that the copy of Breath of the Wild that I bought used worked for about the first ten hours of the game and then quit reading.

Another reason is, it'll be nice to be able to put all my discs in a box somewhere and get some shelf space back.

The guide at wiiu.guide is a great walkthrough for softmodding your Wii U. But there are a few details I had to figure out myself, and I'm going to share them here.

First of all, here's the hardware I used:

A 1TB Western Digital Elements USB3 hard drive. This is excessive; I have 11 games installed on it and they only take up about 90 GB of space. However, I happened to have it lying around unused (I'd bought it for my grandma as a backup drive and discovered, when I went over to her house, that she already had a backup drive), so that's what I went with.

A 64GB Sandisk microSD card with SD adapter.

Here are a few things I discovered along the way:

It's probably a good idea to repartition and reformat the SD card before you get started. I found that mine had a few MB of unpartitioned space at the beginning, and I got an error with the NAND backup program saying it wasn't a FAT32 disk.

Also, make sure the FS type is C. That's FAT32. I used mkdosfs and wound up with 7 (ExFAT).

Something to note about the hard drive: I didn't need the Y-connector that wiiu.guide recommends, but I did need to plug it into one of the USB ports on the back of the console (I went with the top one). When I plugged it into one of the front USB ports, it would frequently hang on long file copies. When I plugged it into the top back port, it worked fine.

Copy all your save data before you rip any games. By this I mean, as soon as you format the hard drive to Wii U format, go into Wii Settings and Data Management, and copy all your save data. (It's safer to copy it than to move it; if you want to delete it from your NAND, wait until you've made sure it works first. A NAND backup and SaveMii backups are probably a good idea too, just to make sure you don't lose anything.)

This is totally counterintuitive, but here's how it works: save data on the NAND works for disc games (and, presumably, games stored on the NAND, though I haven't verified this), but games installed on the hard drive will completely ignore it. If you've got Breath of the Wild installed on your hard drive, and a saved game and a few gigs of updates installed on the NAND, then when you fire up Breath of the Wild it will behave as if it's being run for the first time. It will try to download updates, and start you out at the beginning. If you want a game that's installed on your hard drive to see your updates and your saves, then they have to be stored on the hard drive too, not the NAND.

And, even more counterintuitively, you have to copy the saves first. If you install the game on your hard drive and then copy the save data over, the save data will overwrite the game on the hard drive and you'll have to reinstall it. But if you copy the save data and then install the game, the game won't overwrite the save; the save will still be there and the first time you run the game off the hard drive, all your save data, updates, and DLC will be there, ready to go.

Hope that helps somebody. It would have saved me a lot of extra hours if I'd known that stuff before I started instead of having to figure it out for myself.

How My Weekend Went

I spent the weekend with a sore throat, so I took it pretty easy. Gargled saltwater, took warm baths, sat around, played Mad Max.

I did manage to make it out to the mall and see Thor: Ragnarok. It was good! While I was out there, I also found out that Barnes and Noble is having a 50% off sale on Criterion Collection movies. I bought a few. I will probably buy more after my next paycheck. The signage said it's going through November 30, though the lady behind the counter said she thinks it might get extended through Christmas.

So as blog posts go, nothing exciting or insightful here. We'll see if I can rustle up something tomorrow.

Podcasts

Expanded from a couple of posts at Brontoforumus, 2017-10-08.


I like listening to NPR on the drive to work.

I do not like listening to NPR on the drive home. I have had just about enough of Kai Ryssdahl acting surprised about the Internet.

So I decided to look into some podcasts. I'm not really looking for scripted stuff at the moment (I've got a buttload of Big Finish Doctor Who I haven't listened to yet as it is); I want something where if I lose the thread for a minute to concentrate on the road, I'm not going to miss out on important story details.

So here's what I've been looking at so far:

Brontoforumus regular Niku recommended Talkin Toons with Rob Paulsen; I listened to the Rick and Morty episode and thoroughly enjoyed it. The website hasn't been updated in a couple of years; it has episodes up through Christmas 2015. It went on hiatus after that (Paulsen had throat cancer; he's better now) and came back in January. Tech Jives has episodes up through May. More recently, the show has moved to Nerdist, which has a bunch of short videos but no episodes; there are some articles referring me to a subscription service called Alpha but it's not mentioned on the website and I really have no idea if the show's even available in audio format anymore? It's really not clear and I hope they fix that.

Retronauts is a podcast started by Jeremy Parish and currently hosted by Bob Mackey, about retro games.

Axe of the Blood God is USgamer's RPG podcast. I've only listened to it a couple of times, when my old friend Steve Tramer was a guest; he hasn't been on it recently, but it's still a good group.

Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast is pretty great. So far I've listened to some great interviews there, with Frank Conniff, Rob Paulsen, and Carl Reiner.

And speaking of Frank Conniff, he and Trace Beaulieu have a podcast called Movie Sign with The Mads where, as the name implies, they talk about movies.

I don't listen to a lot of political podcasts at the moment, but I like Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air. Larry's a good interviewer; I'll never understand why he went with a panel format on The Nightly Show, which was easily its weakest component. (It's not an original sentiment, but I do wish he'd gotten to take over The Daily Show and Noah had gotten a chance to do his own thing in Colbert's timeslot.)

I hear good things about Flop House (failed movies), Kevin Smith's Fatman on Batman (comics, movies, the sort of stuff characters in Kevin Smith movies talk about), and WTF. I've mentioned Kumail Nanjiani's X-Files Files before, back in 2015. I've listened to one episode of Talking Simpsons with Bob Mackey (another Niku recommendation) and it was pretty good; I expect I'll check out more.

As for actually-scripted podcasts (not what I'm currently looking for, but there are some good ones!), I enjoyed the one episode of Dead Pilots Society I listened to. It's a podcast where they do read-throughs of TV pilot scripts that never made it into production; the one I listened to and enjoyed was Only Child, a John Hodgman vehicle (the hook was he was playing himself as a teenager; all the other kids would have been played by age-appropriate actors).

And, lastly (for now!), I see that yesterday saw the launch of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast. I haven't had a chance to listen yet, but I bet it's pretty good!

HyperCard

I was looking for something to post about, and then Jeremy Parish posted a mail call for HyperCard comments over on Retronauts.

And I've got a few things to say about HyperCard, because there's a straight line between HyperCard and what I do for a living (and for a hobby) today.

HyperCard was my first development environment. I was 7 or 8 years old and I wanted to make games. Today we've got Kodu and Super Mario Maker. In 1990, we had HyperCard.

HyperCard's interface bore a certain resemblance to PowerPoint, with drawing tools that looked a lot like MacPaint. You could show slides -- or "cards" -- in order, as in PowerPoint, but you could also use buttons to link to cards out of order. So it was a useful language for making Choose Your Own Adventure-style games. "If you want to examine the sound coming from the next room, turn to page 38. If you want to see what's going on outside, turn to page 44." That kind of thing, but with buttons to click.

My game, SEKR's Awesome Adventures, was mostly that sort of thing. (It's pronounced "Seeker", and it was my grandpa's dog's name.) There were a few roundabout ways to get to where you were going, some of which would result in your untimely death. The most complex sequence involved selecting two tools from a list that you'd be allowed to use later on -- and keeping track of your selection required just a bit of actual programming.

I mostly built SEKR through the simple point-and-click frontend, but HyperCard also came with its own programming language, HyperTalk. I used HyperTalk to track what weapons/tools the user selected, and the endgame would adjust accordingly: you're in a pit; did you bring the grappling hook? It's pitch-black; did you bring the night-vision goggles? Store a variable and test a conditional; this is absolutely as simple as programming gets. It was a pretty good place to start.

And that's more or less how the Web works: fundamentally, it's a set of pages, and users navigate between them using hyperlinks. For more complicated stuff than just moving between pages, your browser has built-in support for a scripting language.

The similarities aren't coincidental. The HyperCard Wikipedia entry says:

Through its influence on Robert Cailliau (who assisted in developing Tim Berners-Lee's first Web browser), HyperCard influenced the development of the Web in late 1990. Javascript was inspired by Hypertalk.

HyperCard is where I started programming. And while I never did make a career of game development, I'm still programming, and there's a more-than-passing resemblance between developing for HyperCard and developing for the Web.

My grandmother's been cleaning old stuff out of her house, and a few weeks ago she gave me a bunch of old 3.5" floppies. SEKR's Awesome Adventures is probably in there somewhere -- the original graphical HyperCard version, the text-only remake I put together in QBasic a few years later, and maybe even the unfinished Turbo Pascal port with PC speaker music (which played fine on the 286 I wrote it on but way too fast on a 486; you had to turn off Turbo to slow it down. Remember Turbo buttons?).

I really should buy a USB floppy drive and see if I can get any data off those disks.

Where Will the PC Go? -- Part 4: SaaS

So, per the last couple of posts, I find it entirely possible that, as vendors develop tablets that double as PC's, they may replace traditional desktop and laptop computers. For the common end user who just needs a web browser and (maybe) an office suite, I don't think that's going to be a tough sell.

But there are markets that rely heavily on more powerful computing hardware.

One is PC gamers. Others are the various types of media creators: people who create images, music, movies.

I've already mentioned dumb terminals and software as a service (SaaS) as a major current trend, with programs like Google Docs running in a browser and working as an effective substitute for traditional locally-run programs like Microsoft Word.

Of course, a word processor is one thing; an enterprise-quality photo editor is another, and a game requiring split-second timing is something else again.

But developers are working on it.

Photoshop

Last year Adobe released a limited beta of a streaming version of Photoshop for ChromeOS. Photoshop itself doesn't run in the browser; the app is a Remote Desktop shell that interacts with an instance of the Windows version of Photoshop running on a remote server.

So, by definition, this is no replacement for the Windows version of Photoshop -- because it is the Windows version of Photoshop. But it demonstrates a potentially compelling alternative to buying expensive, high-end hardware just to run Photoshop: what if you could buy cheap hardware, and pay a subscription fee to run Photoshop on someone else's expensive hardware?

Reactions to the ChromeOS version of Photoshop seemed generally positive; I would expect it to have some latency issues, but I also bet it runs faster on a remote server than it did on the Core 2 I had to use at GoDaddy. (Hey, when I said the Core 2 Duo was the last chip most users ever needed, I said I wasn't including Photoshop.)

Adobe has already moved Photoshop's licensing to a subscription model instead of a purchase model. (A lot of people are very angry about this, but I haven't heard anything to suggest it's led to a drop in "sales"; that's the thing about monopolies.) It's not hard to envision a transition to a subscription model where you run the program remotely instead of locally. Hell, they could even charge more money to give you access to faster servers.

A/V Club

Other media development suites could, potentially, move to streaming services, but there are caveats. Uploading raw, uncompressed digital audio and video files takes a lot more time than uncompressed images. And what about storing your source files? My grandmother puts together home movies on her iMac, and she's got terabytes of data going back some 15 years. That's the kind of storage requirement an amateur filmmaker can rack up; now think of how much somebody who does it for a living might wind up with. If you're renting storage space on an external server, on a month-to-month basis, that could get pretty costly.

But it's technically feasible, at least, that audio and video editing could be performed on a remote server.

Recording audio is another story. Anything more complex than a simple, single-track voice recording is still going to require specialized mixing hardware. And transferring your recording to a remote server in real-time, without lossy compression? You'd better be sitting on fiber.

So I think we can put "recording studios" -- even the home-office variety, like mine -- into the category of Stuff That's Not Going Anywhere for Awhile.

Games

Moving games to a streaming system is a challenge -- but I'm not sure it's as big a challenge as recording studios. It's more or less the same requirement as Photoshop: take simple inputs from a human interface device, send them to a server, have the server run them and respond accordingly, stream the video output back to the client. The trick is managing to do that in real-time with minimal loss of audio and video quality. That's the challenge -- but engineers are working on it.

The OnLive streaming service was a failure, but Sony bought it out; it sees value there. nVidia's got its own streaming solution too, in GRID. One of these things is not like the other -- Sony sells consoles at a loss and would stand to benefit from selling cheaper hardware, while nVidia makes a ton of money selling expensive graphics cards to enthusiasts and surely doesn't want to cannibalize its own market -- but obviously there's more than one type of gamer, and the people who shell out over $300 for a graphics card are in the minority.

Now, as minorities go, high-end PC gamers are still a pretty sizable minority; it's still a multibillion-dollar industry. But it's a fraction of the console gaming business, and it's expected to be surpassed by mobile gaming by the end of this year. Like the PC industry as a whole, it's still big and it's still growing, but it's growing a lot slower than other sectors and could be facing a long-term threat from new platforms.

Switching to a streaming platform could have a lot of appeal to game publishers; it combines the simplicity of developing for consoles with the superior hardware capabilities of the PC. Think about the possibility of developing for the latest and greatest hardware, but only for a single specific hardware build.

It would also, at long last, produce a form of DRM that could actually work.

While the industry has tried many, many copy protection schemes over the years, all of them are, sooner or later (and usually sooner), crackable. And there's a simple, logical reason for this: no matter what you do to encrypt the data of your program, you have to give the computer the means to decrypt it, or it won't work. No matter where or how you hide the key, if you give it to your users sooner or later they're going to find it.

But that's only true if the software is running on their computer. If the binary data is never copied to their hard drive, never stored in their memory, if the program is actually stored and run on a remote server somewhere and all the client has access to is a program that takes inputs and streams audio and video? Well, then there's no way they can copy the game, unless they actually break into your servers.

(Which, given Sony's history with Internet security, might not actually be so hard.)

I am not saying this is a good thing; in fact, I consider it something of a nightmare scenario.

Consider every problem you've ever had with an online or digitally-distributed game. Now think of what it would look like if every game had those issues.

Not just latency, lag, server outages, and losing your progress every time your Internet connection goes out. Consider that if a game is no longer profitable, they'll pull the plug. If a developer loses a license, the game(s) associated with it will go away. (Was GoldenEye ever released on Virtual Console? I don't think it was.) If a game gets updated and you liked the old version better, too bad. And remember when Nintendo ended its partnership with GameSpy and killed all the online multiplayer features of every Wii and DS game ever made? Imagine an entire generation's worth of games not working at all anymore, online or otherwise. Even though you paid for them.

Now, there's recent evidence that a strategy like this would fail. The Xbox One is still reeling from customer backlash against early plans to restrict used-game sales and require an always-on Internet connection even for single-player games, even though those plans were never even implemented.

On the other hand, there's evidence that even a wildly unpopular strategy could still succeed. Have you ever heard anyone who doesn't work for EA praise the Origin distribution service (or whatever the fuck they're calling it now)? I know I haven't, but people still use it. Because if you want to play Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age: Inquisition, your only choices are consoles, Origin, and piracy.

And then there are examples that could go either way: Ubisoft continued to use DRM that required an always-on Internet connection for about two years, from 2010 to 2012, before finally giving in to market backlash.

It's hard to say how existing high-end PC gamers would react if the major publishers tried to force a transition toward streaming games -- or whether high-end PC gamers will continue to be a big enough market for the major publishers to care what they think. But for the foreseeable future, I think PC gaming will continue on much the same as it has for the past 15 years. There could be major changes on the horizon, but I sure don't see them happening in the next 10 years.

Then again, five years ago I was saying there was no way that streaming video would outpace Blu-Ray because there was just no way to stream 1080p video over a home Internet connection. So keep that in mind before trusting any predictions I make.