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Archive for October, 2009

Stealing Time

pocketwatch_smEvery now and again, a game comes along which will sink its teeth into my very soul, biting down with such ferocity that I spend my working day glancing at the ever-slowing clock on the bottom right of my Windows toolbar wondering why what felt like “the last hour” has, in actual fact, been no more than ten minutes.  Granted, there haven’t been very many… but enough for me to realise that my only wish for that day was to replace my business head with the gaming head and immerse myself in a world the likes of which I could only have dreamed.

For me, a passion is an “all or nothing” thing.  I sacrifice so much of my time to the business that, when I am finally able to shake off the rusted chains of Google-shy clients and those who are incapable of reading very clear instructions, I want to lose myself in whatever I do to remind myself that I am still human.  In the past, it was my love for movies which pushed me forward… looking forward to the next wave of releases… and this, coupled with my love for technology, meant that I was always dipping my experimental toes into the waters of virgin technologies.

CD-iWhen Philips released the CD-i format, I was on board immediately and I vividly remember watching The Hunt For Red October with my face almost pressed against the television screen, marvelling at how superior the picture quality was to typical VHS transfers.  Until this point, such “high definition” imagery was only ever possible in science fiction movies and yet, here it was… in my own bedroom.  I had never made the leap to Laserdisc as the 12″ discs really never appealed to me and, although I enjoyed watching them at my friend’s house, I couldn’t see past the fact his movie collection had spines you could barely read… and so I waited for the rumoured format which was said to be the ultimate in viewing quality… DVD!

In 1996, Toshiba released their pivotal SD-3000 DVD player and my eyes lit up.  Sadly, it was a couple of years before I was able to take that first step into the world of DVD when I bought my Pioneer DV-515 and took a trip into Tower Records in Glasgow which was, at that point, the only place that you could buy DVD movies… and their entire display was a table top affair of with four rows and five columns… with most of the titles repeated several times as there simply weren’t enough to fill the whole display!  I grabbed Amadeus, Contact, Life, Nightmare Before Christmas and Practical Magic and figured that’d be enough to get me started.

Over the years my collection grew and I migrated from one player to the next, before eventually tiring of watching my beautiful DVDs on a standard 32″ television and so I ventured into new territory… the realm of home cinema projector.

Khajiit if you can!  Morrowind changed everything for me, in terms of immersive gaming and graphic appreciation.  Bethesda, you rock!

Khajiit if you can! Morrowind changed everything for me, in terms of immersive gaming and graphic appreciation. Bethesda, you rock!

This is where things started to change for me, because it was my first taste of “major” technology purchases where I really started to appreciate the clarity of the image and enjoyed the full DTS sound through my beloved AV Amp, but it was also the first time that I actually allowed myself to become immersed in a game and actually enjoy playing consoles.  The first game I ever played through my projector was Morrowind on the XBox 360 and I was immediately smitten with how I became almost encapsulated by the game and found myself physically moving my head around to see everything that was happening on front of me due to the sheer size of the display.  I was no longer booting up my XBox to play games… I WAS that Khajiit!

With the release of the XBox 360, a whole new problem arose.  Games were developed with the capability to display on high definition screens but my 800 x 600 resolution Panasonic projector just didn’t cut it anymore.  The graphics of the next gen games such as Oblivion and Gears Of War were undoubtedly second to none, but when you’ve stood with your tongue on the floor in GAME while some snot nosed kid in front of you hogs the machine on a glorious 1080p Samsung display you very quickly realise just how much is being missed by running this graphical beast through a standard definition display.  Oblivion was taking up so much of my time that it wasn’t feasible to have the 360 set up in the lounge through the projector, so it sat in the bedroom going through a 32″ CRT television and the on-screen text was almost unreadable in places.

A decision was made, and that decision was to upgrade the projector to one offering 720p HD resolution.  That projector was the incredible InFocus IN78 and with it came a whole new appreciation for home cinema projectors… blacker blacks, sharper images, accurate skin tones and an overall tonal quality that really can’t be put into words without sounding like some drooling uber geek… so I’ll stop there.  In terms of graphic representation, I could now read the text perfectly and was able to see detail in the surroundings and textures that I didn’t even know existed up until that point.  The InFocus IN78 changed me forever… I didn’t just look forward to gaming, I actually craved it.  Whenever time permitted, I would pull the curtains shut tight, close the door, turn off the lights, fire up the XBox, pull down the screen… and enter Cyrodiil as promptly as I possibly could, remaining there for as long as my eyes were able to stay open.

At the time of buying the InFocus IN78 the 1080p price tags were far too cost prohibitive to even contemplate, with the Sony VLP range coming in at over £15,000 and a bulk that would require several Icelandic strongmen to mount it to the ceiling.  My desire for a 1080p projector could not be quantified other than “I want it this much” with the obligatory outstretched arms, but it wasn’t something I’d be able to savour until the prices plummeted considerably.

The InFocus IN83... stunning beyond words.  Has to be seen to be believed!

The InFocus IN83... stunning beyond words. Has to be seen to be believed!

Thankfully, in July of this year, I was fortunate enough to find a listing on eBay for the InFocus IN83 complete with a luxurious black velvet seven foot motorised screen but the seller had misspelled it as “Inofcus Projecter”, so it hadn’t had any viewers and had only hours left before the auction closed.  I opened a line of communication with the seller and took a chance by offering him less than the starting price.  It wasn’t something that I’d normally do, but the starting price he’d set was still more than I could easily afford… in fact, even the price I’d offered him was outwith my means but I had to take the chance to try and pick up this gem if I could.  The auction ended with no bids, and the seller eventually accepted my offer which meant I would be paying less than a third of the retail cost of the projector itself and had the added bonus of the motorised screen as the icing on this rather expensive cake.

Due to the throw ratio of the IN83 compared to the IN78, I was giving away around eleven inches of screen size as a trade off so my actual diagonal display width dropped from 97 inches to 84 inches… but it was worth every single sacrificed inch, with a whole new level of gameplay immersion that is truly hard to describe.  Games such as Fallout 3 have you believing that you are about to be attacked by a rampaging Death Claw, and Burnout Paradise has you leaning back as much as possible at the end of the Ski Jump on Big Surf Island just to give you that extra bit of air and distance… it is THAT immersive, and more.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you want technology, however, you need to be able to pay for it.

I dunno who this is, but he has a goatee and is wearing the EXACT same outfit as I am at the moment (seriously, it's spooky!) and this will give you an idea of why projectors kick absolute arse!

I dunno who this is, but he has a goatee and is wearing the EXACT same outfit as I am at the moment (seriously, it's spooky!) and this will give you an idea of why projectors kick absolute arse!

I’m paying for my technology in two completely different ways.  The first is obvious… cold hard cash.  Even at a third of the price, the projector cost more than I realistically wanted to spend and the cost of having everything sent up by courier itself was £114.  Then we have the cabling to make everything happen, the AV Amp to ensure the highest possible audio quality at all times and the replacement projector lamps every 2000 or so hours.  These costs mount up and, although it really is worth every single penny, there is another cost associated with all of this which isn’t quite as affordable.

In order to pay for such luxuries, I find myself working more than most people would every week.  Where most people are sacrificing 35 or 40 hours every week in exchange for their salary, I tend to hover around the 85 hour week mark.  This translates as an average of ten hours per day at weekends, plus a 9am until 6pm working day throughout the week as well as a typical 8pm until midnight additional shift that I’ve found necessary to catch up with actual work as most of my day is spent dealing with clients on the ‘phone or by email.  Those hours are irreplaceable and so they have to come out of my evening, or they’ll be lost forever.

This means that, under normal circumstances, weeks may disappear without even a single minute on the XBox.  I boot it up a few days ago (October 20th) to try the Brutal Legend demo and was shocked to see that I hadn’t actually played since September 22nd… almost a month, thanks to a ridiculous work schedule.

For all my cravings, for all my expenditure to ensure that I’m giving myself the best possible gaming experience… I leave myself in the position whereby I’m no longer able to game unless I steal the time from the additional hours that I endlessly gift to the business.  The irony of this situation is that, by claiming this time back as my own, I’d lose my ability to pay for those luxuries and have to again struggle to read text on a 32″ CRT in standard definition when my eyesight is already at the stage where I’m only able to see clearly for around 3ft in front of my face.

At the moment, my only craving is to enjoy life a little more and make the endless working hours worth it.  There should be a balance, before my passion for gaming in high definition suffocates my ability to do so.

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Absolute Power

If I had a sword, there are times when my PC would definitely end up looking like this... except black and shiny, of course.

If I had a sword, there are times when my PC would definitely end up looking like this... except black and shiny, of course.

I find it rather odd to be writing this on the same day that my better half published a blog about PC gaming, so I apologise in advance to all those who will see this as plagiarism but, the reality is… this has been bugging me for some time, and it only recently came to a head.

I am referring to the need for power when it comes to PC gaming. As a geek of the highest order who constantly demands more realism from a graphics card than is even possible with the human eye, I should probably understand that boundaries are made to be broken. In fact, if I have to be completely honest with myself then I’d say that there are no boundaries and shouldn’t be, we should take every step as a confident move towards a bigger and better environment… and yet, I am still faced with this contradictory quandary when it comes to gaming. The questions always arise when I’m booting up my PC to play a game which, I must admit, is not very often these days… and the reasons for the infrequency of my PC gaming are those self same questions.

i) Why must it take so long for even a bare bones PC to boot up when a console, which is effectively a PC these days, can be fully functional immediately?

ii) Why are we able to play the same games on a console that we can’t actually play on a PC, yet the PC is one year old (and already out of date in terms of graphic performance) while the console is four years old and still going strong?

iii) Why are PC games not released with the same empathy afforded to console games whereby they are not reliant on the newest, shiniest, fastest components?

My current graphics/gaming PC.  It may not look like much on the outside, but on the inside this was built to perform... yet two years on, it doesn't.

My current graphics/gaming PC. It may not look like much on the outside, but on the inside this was built to perform... yet two years on, it doesn't.

I am blessed with two beastly PCs, one of which is geared specifically towards music production and the other is a graphics workhorse. Both machines were built to my exact spec, and both machines were at the top of their league when they were commissioned. The music machine will never be used for anything other than music, as it would pollute the speed of the hard drive too much and would render it more or less useless for music production, but the graphics PC is used for design work throughout the day and was supposed to be able to handle my gaming in the evenings.

Crysis.. a wet dream for graphics whores everywhere... as long as your PC was actually capable of any decent fps!

Crysis.. a wet dream for graphics whores everywhere... as long as your PC was actually capable of any decent fps!

At only one week old, I subjected the graphics PC to the glorious Crysis… I’d heard about the realism, the physics engine, the fact that the cut scenes would work from whatever vantage point the player found itself at, so there was a seamless interaction between gameplay and cut scene. Incredibly intense, and notoriously difficult in terms of finding machines powerful enough to render the graphics at 1920 x 1200 resolution with the highest texture and shadow details… but I had a MONSTER of a machine, so it would be no problem for me. After all, if you can’t play Crysis on a machine with 2 x Nvidia 8800 GTX cards then you wouldn’t be able to play it on anything… right?

Wrong.

With the game fully installed, I plug in my XBox controller to the USB port (never been one for keyboard gaming) and fumble my way through the settings to make sure everything is on full resolution so I can sit back and enjoy this reputedly beautiful game in all it’s stunning glory… and that’s when it hit me, or rather didn’t. My frame rate was around 2fps, and I am not exaggerating. I immediately assumed my PC had hung or some intrusive virus software had picked this precise moment to perform a full scan on my various drives. This, however, wasn’t the case. I entered the settings menu again, left the resolution at 1920 x 1200 and reduced the quality of the textures and shadows to medium and the game played fine.

The Nvidia 8800 GTX card... one would assume that TWO of these beasts in a powerful PC would be unstoppable.  Nope.

The Nvidia 8800 GTX card... one would assume that TWO of these beasts in a powerful PC would be unstoppable. Nope.

I loved the game, but throughout every hour that I donated to the cause… all I could think about was how beautiful those few frames looked at the highest texture quality and I wanted to bathe in that beauty for myself.

After completing Oblivion on the XBox several times, I installed it to my PC and was again blown away by how beautiful it looked through my NVidia cards yet I had to turn the volume up to drown out the noise of my 1000w power supply sending massive amounts of power to my various fans to keep the processor and graphics cards cool. On more than one occasion I was subjected to the PC coming to a complete standstill with a non-responsive mouse and I would be forced to reboot. Again, my super computer wasn’t capable of playing games which really should have been a breeze.

In contrast, I can boot up my XBox in a second and within another 2-3 seconds I’m already at the menu screen of whatever game has tickled my fancy. I know that it will give me a decent frame rate with no drag, know that all the textures will look as detailed as possible, and know that I won’t need to go trawling the net for patches or new video drivers just so I can get it to work. I also know that, when I tire of playing the game for that night, I can quickly save and shut the XBox down in a matter of seconds. I won’t need to quit out the game to go back into my operating system, then shut the machine down and wait for all the temp files to be removed, everything cleaned up, my settings saved (why is this necessary every time??) and finally, after perhaps 2-3 minutes, shut the PC off at the wall.

Released back in 1994, yet it was capable of much more (relatively speaking for it's time) than my current PC is today

Released back in 1994, yet it was capable of much more (relatively speaking for it's time) than my current PC is today

My first real PC was an AST Advantage P100 with 16mb RAM, a 1.2Gb hard drive and 8mb of video memory. I recorded my first solo demos on that PC and it never struggled once. I was able to play all the latest games without worrying about compatibility problems and the system served me fine from 1994 until I upgraded to a Pentium III in 1999 and, in all that time, I never had to complain about anything not working.

What seems to have happened along the way, is that we reached a pinnacle… not a pinnacle of technology, but a pinnacle of greed whereby whatever we had now wouldn’t be good enough tomorrow. If the processor released today was capable of running at 1.4Ghz then how can we push it to 1.5Ghz tomorrow, and make sure that there’s software out there which is so hungry for power, so thirsty for progress, that it NEEDS the processor to be more powerful.

This is apparently the setup you're going to need to play the latest "hd" version of Pong.

This is apparently the setup you're going to need to play the latest "hd" version of Pong.

Somewhere along the way we stopped developing games that could run the gamut in terms of processor and graphics power and we turned instead to developing games that forced gamers to upgrade their equipment at an alarming rate. The games are becoming more realistic, the gameplay more immersive, and the escapism is so much more rewarding… but if we weren’t being forced to spend so much on our gaming equipment, would we have such an intrinsic NEED to escape?

If you need me, I’ll be pulling together a spec for my new gaming system.

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Saving Grace

If, as Mrs Gump once suggested in that unforgettable drawl, life IS like a box of chocolates… I’m sure we’d find far too many coffee creams for our liking. On the whole, life can be difficult at times although “difficult” is clearly a very subjective term. What may be difficult to one person may be only be achievable in dreams for another, and vice versa.

For as long as mankind has been creative, we have been faced with the very simple principle of “art reflecting life”. Even looking back as far as the primitive cave paintings (primitive, and yet still so much more appealing than a flickering light bulb or an unkempt bed) we are presented with an art form representing a snapshot of time or a period in one person’s history. Whether it was Caveman #1 squaring up against a sabre toothed tiger or Caveman #2 telling stories around his brand new campfire with his friends (no doubt showing off at being the first in the block to have fire, much like the “Joneses” of today with their 100 inch plasma), the ultimate goal was achieved… communication through timeless expression.

In modern times, this genetic aspiration to translate real life into an art form has culminated in games that are more realistic than ever before. The back stories are more immersive, the attention to detail in terms of texture mapping and object meshing has pushed us to the point whereby we question that which we see before us. Our teachings tell us that the image can’t possibly be real because such creatures do not yet roam our plane of existence, and yet the brain is still tricked by the realism and so we are pulled in deeper still.

The game studios dedicate years, and entire teams, into developing new rendering engines capable of taking an idea and making it as photorealistic as possible… for the sole purpose of either pleasing the graphics whores (such as myself) or the hardcore gamers that want to be taken to worlds unknown for hours at a time, and to never be reminded that they are merely watching pixels dancing on a screen like sparks rising occasionally from burning embers. They employ writers to bring life to alternate realities in such a way that, if done properly, we are immediately taken to that time or that fantastical land and, for as long as we remain there, we think and feel like the residents. We live and breathe their past, present and future… knowing their politics, their customs, and understanding how we should be conducting ourselves. On the whole, gaming has become such a detailed arena that powering up a console or booting up a PC can be like taking a small vacation and leaving the problems and mundanity of reality behind for as long as we allow ourselves to wander their parallax planes.

There is one aspect of gaming, however that stands it apart from reality… but this flaw is not the fault of the games designers or the lack of innovation within the technical team, the problem itself lies within the realms of reality and not within the games themselves.

Decisions in the virtual world are overseen by an almighty beast, the likes of which we will never experience in reality. The save point. No matter what choice we are given in gaming, we never have to live with the consequences longer than is deemed appropriate by our own guilt or tolerance. Split second decisions are made within games, just as they are within our own existence and yet somehow we manage to escape consequence if we feel that the decision has brought about a change that we find unacceptable. Suddenly the in-game world changes after a character has been slain… your reputation swings from one social group to the next, and those who would extend a hand of friendship now turn away from you as you approach. All alone, you face the world with a fresh perspective and a new direction that was forced upon you by the decision that was made in that split second… just like in reality.

In reality, however, the decisions made and the consequences of our actions are carved in stone for all time. There is no CTRL+U available to us and we can’t quickly access the HUD and return order by using those three little words that mean so much in gaming terms yet mean so very little in our world of concrete and steel… “load saved game”. Would that we could, I’m sure the world would be a very different place than what we see before us. Whether it would be better is something we are never likely to find out but I, for one, am more than willing to take that chance should it ever arise.

After all… if the very act of using the save point created a whole new set of problems and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, we need only load the previous save to rectify it.

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