Consumer choice refers to an individual consumer.

Via Major Nelson, here’s a story on ten features that should be in every video game. My personal pet peeve:

4. Always let players skip cut scenes no matter how important they are to the story.

What a predicament cut scenes create. As a designer, you want all your hard work to be acknowledged, even the cut scenes. Sadly, interactive entertainment is the name of the game, and it always comes first. That’s why gamers play these things. So rather than assume every player wants to watch your story-telling chops, allow them to bypass cut scenes, tutorials, and even speed up the showing of logos when a game boots up. Tell your story through engaging gameplay, and you’ll easily be remembered and praised regardless of what you accomplished in a cut scene, tutorial, or start screen branding.

I agree. I generally watch the cut scenes the first time through a game, but I do not need to see them every time. It’s tedious and wastes my time. I have a memory, so the second time through, I know what’s going on.

More specifically, never put the cut scene after a saved checkpoint. Barring that, never make the cut scene mandatory. If my character dies before the next checkpoint, I do not want to watch the same (long) cut scene over. Many games make this mistake, but Blazing Angels has been the biggest offender I’ve played so far. I actually stopped playing the game because I couldn’t get past a mission that made me watch the long cut scene every time I started the mission after dying. My incentive disappeared because it wasted too much of my life.

As intuitive as this opt-out seems, the desire to apply one’s personal preference to everyone extends itself to so many spheres. From the comments at Major Nelson’s entry:

You should always be forced to watch cutscenes, if you’re not watching cutscenes you’re not playing the game as it was intended.

As intended. Someone else’s determination is the only way to play the game. No individual thinking or preference is valid. Really?


Nice list, but I disagree with number 4. I’d like the cutscenes to be unskippable the first time. There’s too many times that I’ve pressed a button just because I want to see if it skips or not…

Because this gamer can’t prevent himself from tasting the forbidden fruit, we must all be subject to his whims. No doubt he’ll run for political office at some point.

A private enterprise creating a video game which does not offer complete freedom for preferences is not the same as the government dictating prohibitions for non-favored choices. I can vote with my dollars. Readily conceded. But the mentality that leads to the latter is what’s exhibited in those statements. The central planner knows best or can’t control his impulses, so it’s supposedly wise to limit everyone. They do not care that a view of liberty for all includes the opportunity for self-imposed restrictions and mechanisms to control impulses. I get what I want, you get what you want. Instead, the solution is always to limit everyone.

Please tell us if you steal from us.

With a recent update through its Automatic Update feature, Microsoft proves that it’s incompetently evil, at most. At issue, it released Windows Genuine Advantage Notification (KB905474). The description is as follows:

The Windows Genuine Advantage Notification tool notifies you if your copy of Windows is not genuine. If your system is found to be a non-genuine, the tool will help you obtain a licensed copy of Windows.

Good grief. I know my copy of Windows is genuine. I do not need notification. I purchased every computer I own, and they still have the original operating system included when I turned them on for the first time. I’m honest; I don’t need this surveillance. Thanks for the trust, though.

If I happened to be the type of person who would install a pirated non-genuine copy of Windows, does Microsoft really believe that I would utilize its help in obtaining a license?

The idea is preposterous. Yet, there is the option from Microsoft, treating me like I’m incompetent or stupid. Yes, it has a significant portion of the market for several key software product types. So what? There are options to avoid Microsoft brought about by its own incompetence at innovating and/or adapting to the market’s demands.

Post Script: None of this applies to the Xbox 360. I love my Xbox 360.

I’m still here

The last week-plus turned into a minor blog vacation, as I spent Christmas weekend and the rest of my break from work bonding figuratively (and almost literally) with my couch and my Xbox 360. For reference, I took my Gamerscore from 865 to 2,145 since Tuesday. Some of that was easy enough with Civil War, but I also finished Prey and played a bunch of Madden 07. I’ve had a blast and it’s felt good to step away from The Internets for a few days. But fret not, I will be back to regular blogging tomorrow, or Tuesday at the latest.

You’re excited, aren’t you?

Play or pay, you decide.

Some Xbox 360 owners are upset, believing that games creators are soaking them by offering game content already on the disc on the Xbox Live Marketplace. Users trade Microsoft Points for the content. (80 points = $1) Consider:

What this means, apparently, is that you aren’t actually downloading any content — you’re just getting an encrypted key file that unlocks things already on the game disc. That is, you’re being taken for a ride, buying stuff you already own. Other allleged offenders include The Godfather, Lego Star Wars, and Microsoft’s own Viva Pinata.

From what I’ve heard, the purchase is not for content, but the encryption key to unlock the content. This content is unlockable by the player through playing the game. If the player doesn’t have the time or inclination to earn the content, he can purchase the key to make it available immediately.

This is not an example from the Marketplace, but it’s what I’m playing now. In Gears of War there are three difficulty levels: Casual, Hardcore, and Insane. Insane is only available once the player completes the campaign for the first time, on either Casual or Hardcore. Essentially, if Epic Games decided to offer the key to unlock Insane without completing the campaign first, that is the issue at stake.

The content is on the disc, but the user does not have to pay to unlock it. In my Gears example, I completed the campaign on Casual to unlock Insane. (Yay, me!) That’s why I bought the game, so even if Epic offered the key for sale, I wouldn’t buy it. I choose play. Yet, if someone else is only interested in playing the game once and wants to cheat buy his way to the hardest difficulty, I’m not going to get outraged. Good for him. That’s the beauty of the free market: choice is wonderful.

My caveat is simple. If the unlockable content is not advertised with a notice that it can be cracked through playing the game, that’s a shady business practice and should be stopped. I haven’t reviewed any of the offending content – I don’t have those games – to see how it’s marketed, but I suspect that the source I provided is correct and the content is not game creators sticking content on the disc and then charging gamers for what they’ve already paid for. There is a service underlying the fee. Why should that be a problem? Pay or don’t. To each his own.

My sides hurt from laughing.

I’m thrilled with my Xbox 360, even given the supposed fun factor of the Nintendo Wii. I imagine the Wii is fun, but it seems like more exercise than I want. Yet, I’m glad the Wii exists because without it, Wii Have A Problem wouldn’t exist. If you need a laugh, browse through all the stories of people who’ve broken their televisions, cut themselves, or thrown their remote against the wall when the safety strap broke. Consider this today’s lesson in unintended consequences.

Persistence wins.

An update is necessary to Friday’s post about my Xbox Live Gamertag, for sharing the details of my sixty minute call (calls, actually) with customer support is instructive in how to run and not run a business.

As I mentioned Friday, I chose a Gamertag I didn’t like when I signed up for Xbox Live. I had the expectation that I could change it at will, with no financial repercussions. Nothing during the sign-up process, including an actual reading of the Terms of Service, indicated that changing my Gamertag would cost me 800 Microsoft Points $10. So I chose something for expediency rather than permanence so that I could play online. Silly me.

I called Saturday night before redeeming my 12-month subscription card to leave myself the option of abandoning my achievements. But considering the bulk of them came from playing through the entire campaign in Call of Duty 3, I didn’t want to lose them. I’m going to play through that campaign again, but on a harder setting. Not that I fully care about my points, but I earned them and the basic idea that I should lose them because Microsoft wants to swipe $10 bucks discourage Gamertag changes is ridiculous.

That’s how I phrased my approach with Xbox Live customer service, asking for nothing more in the beginning than a “Why” for the policy. The first person I spoke to informed me that the Gamertag is a privilege. Huh? He also said something about copyrights, which I didn’t understand or care to understand. I told him as much and made it clear that I expected to change my Gamertag this time for free. He couldn’t do that, so he transferred me to a supervisor. She let me know that the policy is stated very clearly on the Microsoft website. I made the obvious point that that information might be available, but what is presented is all that matters. At this point, we were disconnected.

I called back, agitated. In a small personal victory, I responded calmly when the new representative answered. He hadn’t done anything, so no reason to take it out on him. Assuming the disconnect occurred accidentally would save my sanity and might help me achieve my goal. Anyway, I explained the situation again and asked to speak to a supervisor, since that was where I’d left it before. He obliged and the fun began.

To say that I encountered the rudest person ever would do no justice to the truly demented satisfaction this woman took in telling me that I was out of luck. She didn’t care that Microsoft didn’t present the information. She said I could ask my question on the Xbox Live forums and someone would answer me. I asked for a name, which she refused to offer. Anonymity rules, apparently. She finally obliged my request to speak to another supervisor.

This person, the fifth, explained that they could only change it if the Gamertag included first and last name, telephone number, or full birth date. Essentially, they were going for personally revealing. Gotcha. So what. I explained that I can’t run my business the way Microsoft runs Gamertag changes. If I tried to charge for something in which the original contract ignored a charge, I’d be broke and homeless. The customer experience is more than just how fun it is to play online. This should be obvious.

In the end, the last supervisor miraculously found a way to change my Gamertag for free. I don’t know if it was my cold logic or my statement that I would pay the $10 in the future if I wanted a new Gamertag because I now know the policy. Regardless, chalk up the score as Tony 1, Microsoft 0. Or maybe Tony 1, Microsoft 0.5, since I redeemed my Gold pre-paid membership card after hanging up.

Addendum: Regarding Microsoft Points, if you ever need a good time, speak to Microsoft customer service representatives and refuse to engage in the myth of Microsoft Points as currency. We can argue that the US Dollar is a fiat currency, no more legitimate than Microsoft Points. That’d be wrong, but we could discuss. But Microsoft can’t comprehend that anyone would bother to decipher the conversion rate (80 MP per dollar) and talk in real currency without believing in Fantasy Land. The first person I spoke to tried to challenge me by demanding where the Xbox Live service said $10 for a Gamertag change. Just tell them it doesn’t say that but you don’t want to talk about imaginary currencies. They don’t like that. Good times.

I should be shooting Nazis, not dealing with this.

Just because I love my Xbox 360 doesn’t mean I have to love Microsoft. I decided that I want to change my Xbox Live Gamertag because the one I foolishly chose during my giddy excitement while getting my 360 up and running is too cumbersome. This should be simple enough, right? Microsoft is involved, so the answer is “no”. Instead of letting me make the change without difficulty, Microsoft expects me to spend 800 Microsoft Points, or $10, to make the change. That is not going to happen.

The most common theory I’ve read is that Microsoft wants to discourage frequent name changes, which could clog the network. I accept that people would change their ID, but from working in IT, I find it hard to believe that this would hose the network. It takes a lot to stress a well-built system. Even if that is the justification, why not institute a policy of one free name change every 6 months, for example. That reduces any hypothetical traffic spike and maintains goodwill. Is $10 really worth losing that? Microsoft will make far more than $10 from me in the coming years, if it will only stay out of its own way.

I could just create a new Gamertag, of course, but that involves setting up another Microsoft Live ID before attaching the new Gamertag. I’m not interested. I only signed up for a Microsoft account when I bought the 360, having shunned Hotmail and Passport for years because of Microsoft’s poorly thought out policies. I’d also lose my game achievements, which I don’t particularly care about, but I earned them all the same.

I plan to call them tomorrow to complain, though I don’t expect to get very far. Microsoft can ramble all it wants about the customer experience and how it aims to please, but it’s full of crap. It seems to care only about the Take My Money experience.

For more on the lunacy of Microsoft Points, read Kip’s adventure with purchasing Doom.

Xbox 360 Game Review – Part I

I’ve been sick since Friday, so I can’t focus on much beyond the trivial. As such, now is probably a good time to give a review on Xbox 360 games. I’ve purchased a few games, and played demos for a bunch more.

First up, the best. Easily the winner so far is Call of Duty 3. It’s the first version I’ve played on the 360, but I loved Call of Duty 2 for the PC, or I did until it hosed my hard drive in October 2005. Three almost lived up to my high expectations. For my first real foray into next-generation graphics, the game offers wonderful art. I caught myself staring at some of the more impressive features, like the flowing water of streams.

The game play was intense, with the game opening in madcap gunfire. The missions were thought-out for the overall story, and had some fun diversity from previous WWII shooters. I probably spent 15 hours or so working my way through the game’s 14 chapters. I play cautious, so that felt about right.

The game falls short in to areas. The first problem, while minor, drove me crazy for a few minutes. On one mission, the Allies must clear out a long trench. There are corners and debris useful for hiding, as in most places on the map. Usually this allows for strategy and waiting for gaps in shooting. Unfortunately, the hero’s fellow soldiers are quite anxious to find cover and take charge. As a result, I found it impossible to fight through the initial gunfight. I had to sit back and wait for my fellow soldiers to find cover or die. Mostly, they died because they run in front of the hero’s machine gun blasts. The game is more forgiving than Call of Duty 2, but it’s still annoying to work my way to cover, only to have my team run in front of me and end the mission due to friendly fire.

Next, and more problematic, the campaign feels small. Rather than the sweeping scope of previous games, where bits of the entire war come into play, Call of Duty 3 covers one battle from Normandy. While it’s fun to see a cohesive narrative build, when I finished, I felt like I should be finishing disc 1 of a 2 disc set. A WWII shooter set in Europe should end in May 1945, not August 1944.

Also, the ending of the last mission felt like the final scene from the “Romeo and Juliet” production in Shakespeare in Love. The play stops and everyone sits in silence. Normally, as in the movie, the dramatic effect is one of breathless apprehension. In Call of Duty 3, the developer delivered more of a “We’re done, you may applaud,” ending. Not so satisfying.

I still recommend the game. I give it an 8.7 out of 10.

Next up, three sports games: Madden 07, NHL 2K7, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07. Madden 07 is what we’ve come to expect from the Madden series. Some people have complained that it doesn’t add much, other than slightly better graphics. That’s probably correct, but I haven’t purchased a Madden game in several years. Updated rosters and a few fun franchise options is enough for me. But I’m not hardcore about the game, so I’m easier to please. It’ll hold me over for a couple years. An 8.5.

NHL 2K7 is pure fun. I don’t know much about hockey, and the game has taught me what icing and offsides are. Job well done. I haven’t figured out how to pass the puck around as strategy, so most of my goals scored are little more than a bull-rush at the goalie. Whatever, I’m getting great at puck control and picking the right location for my shots. If nothing else, there’s frenetic energy. Again, this game is just fun all the way around. I’m convinced that 2K Sports is the new EA Sports. A 9.3.

Tiger Woods is also a lot of fun. I enjoy video game golf because it provides all the strategy with none of the walking. I love the walking part of golf, but to hammer away at a round in 45 minutes is great. Of note, I found it easier to score well as Annika Sorenstam than as Tiger Woods. A 9.2.

Next, I ventured out to the consumer madness on Friday for The Outfit, which Best Buy had on sale for $9.99. Even if it sucked, I could’ve gotten $10 worth from the game. Add the game’s WWII setting and cartoonish mayhem to the price, and I couldn’t go wrong. Among the many so-called drawbacks I’ve read about, the graphics fit as a first-gen Xbox 360 game and blend into the cartoonish mayhem. They’re not a problem. I agree the gameplay is repetitious, but the maps are open-ended enough that this isn’t a problem. The only drawback I can agree with is vehicle control. Driving a tank, or even a jeep, is difficult. The controls are sensitive, and quite often induce trying to drive up a hill. Annoying, but did I mention that it was $10? Not worth full price, probably, but I played it all weekend while sick. A strong 8.4.

I’ve enjoyed a few demos, which is an awesome feature of Xbox Live. I want to play more of Prey and Rainbow Six Vegas. I enjoyed Saints Row well enough, but I’ll wait for Grand Theft Auto IV instead. Based on videos, I’m looking forward to playing The Godfather, Assassin’s Creed, and Medal of Honor: Airborne.

All of that can’t begin to explain how anxious I am to play Gears of War. That’s next in the queue.