Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Games: Value vs. Worth

I (obviously) buy a lot of games. It's an occasional point of contention that I actually buy more games then I play. It's my intention to eventually remedy this by playing all the games in my collection, but to date... I've only played about half the games that I own.

However, this post isn't about my spending habits.

In addition to buying a lot of games... I also read a lot of game reviews. I've been a routine reader of the various ign.com sites back since the site started (in the N64 days) and various other sites over the years most of which no longer exist. A current favorite of mine is the "Opposable Thumbs" journal on arstechnica.com.

One thing that has always frustrated me with game reviews is that I believe a game review is (rarely explicitly but often implicitly) qualified by the price of the game.

The vast majority of console games are released at a base MSRP. For the Wii and the "prior" generation of consoles this price was $49.99. For the PS3 and Xbox 360 this base MSRP price has risen to $59.99. Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony for the past generation also all featured a "discount price" $19.99 discount price that certain games were eventually reduced to. This special price was qualified with the name "Greatest Hits", "Player's Choice" and "Platinum Hits" for the PS2, Gamecube, and Xbox respectively. (And much to collector's chagrin... titles in these series feature altered box art.) The Xbox360 has introduced this same concept already (although I'm not sure if the actual price has stayed at $19.99 or if it has also risen with the base cost of the game) and most people assume that this pattern will continue with the Wii and the PS3. Just like these lines, often game manufacturers will reduce the MSRP of their titles to this same $19.99 price for older titles to move inventory... even if a title isn't consider a "Greatest Hit" or whatever. Next, stores often use this price point to reduce inventory and finally, some games are actually debuted at this price point as "Budget Titles".

The basic point here is that not counting sales or true clearances: games are sold at only two price points, and most of them at just one a uniform introductory MSRP price of around $50.

Game reviews almost always occur either right before or right at the time of the release. It's really rare that you see a "retrospective" review of a game that's been out for some time. The reviews are essentially being offered as a guide to whether or not a game is worthy of a purchase... and in the vast majority cases it's at the same price point. It's almost as if reviews are unknowingly answering the question, "Is this game worth $50?" Also, game reviews don't happen in a vacuum. Games are constantly being released and it's frankly impossible to absolutely determine the value of a game without comparing it (whether explicitly or implicitly) to other games on that same system, games available at the time, or games that came previously. Scores are relative. They are relative to other games and they are relative to price point.

Before I go much further I want to go ahead and make a statement that seemingly contradicts the rest of this article:

Some games are dogs. They just are. Likewise some games are classics regardless of price. However, the vast majority of games aren't instant classics, but they do have some degree of merit.

My point behind this entire rant is that this merit has a value... and it's hard to quantify that value. For example, I once ran across a clearance-priced copy of Summoner for the PS2 and Fry's. I immediately bought it because this game features one of the funniest easter-eggs in video game history (IMHO) as this youtube video will attest:

Now was Summoner worth $50? I didn't think so... but the title did have some value in my eyes. I don't regret the price I paid for it(<$20)... if only to occasionally slip the disk in and watch this video on my big-screen TV.

I think a testament of this concept is that review sites often give "budget titles" a bump in their ratings because they are cheaper then the vast majority of games released. Likewise, the downloadable games available on all three current-generation systems appeared to be reviewed differently then the store-bought games for the same systems... because these titles often aren't as elaborate as their store-bought cousins (or in some cases are ports of older games were the graphics/sound isn't up to today's standards) so they don't want to hold them to the same standards... but again these titles have worth.

My latest example of this is my first PS3 game I bought yesterday, Enchanted Arms for the PS3. My copy I purchased still had an MSRP sticker on it indicated that the title was $59.99 but I knew that this game was selling for $19.99 everywhere... I imagine that the publisher has decided to reduce the price of this game. On the whole this game has gotten pretty poor reviews online. I suspect the price reduction is in response to poor sales where are in-turn response (at least in part) to poor reviews (whether published or just word-of-mouth).

I think I have to agree, in-part, with these reviews:

  • Although the graphics are pretty, I think God Of War's graphics are at least as good if not better and that was a last-generation game.
  • The dialogue is flat-out annoying (at least in the early stages).
  • Most offensive is the "dance mode" to build up your EX which is essentially how this RPG does a "summons". You basically click a button and then shake the SIXAXIS controller while your character dances on screen. I'm actually embarrassed to even use this mode... but EX is useful for the turn-based combat.
  • Speaking of the turn-based combat, there's a lot of "random" battles that a lot of RPG's are guilty of.
  • The story itself (for at least the first four hours of play) doesn't appear to be anything to write home about.

So why in the world did I buy Enchanted Arms? Well, mostly because I owned a PS3 for two weeks and didn't have any PS3 games. Also, Circuit City this week is running a "buy two $19.99 (or less) games for $30" sale. That means that I paid effectively $15 for a title that was recently selling for $60.

In spite of my previously mentioned criticisms... I am having fun. The combat system uses a grid and your attacks are spatially based so the positioning of your characters in combat affects which attacks you can use and whether a particular character can avoid an attack (or get a defensive bonus because another character blocks the attack). It wouldn't surprise me to hear that this isn't the first RPG that uses a system like this, but I hadn't played one before and it is interesting. Of course, like any RPG there's plenty of character building, and skill learning which always fascinates me. Finally, the ability to create golems to add to your party is an interesting way to add party menus.

On the whole I think this game was well worth the $15 I paid for it. It probably isn't worth much more than that, but I so far I'm glad I bought it...

Now, I'm not saying that any game will be worth something for $15, but a Definitely Buy/Rent/Skip recommendation should changes based on a game's price.

I think reviewers should go back and add a "review update" whenever a game sees a price reduction. I'm not talking a full-fledged review here. Just a little note indicating that the game is "now available at a reduced price" and based on that price do the see the game as a better value then what it was when initially released.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Embeddable Google Maps!

I LOVE Google Maps. Ever since it launched it's fascinated me. I play with it all the time. I surf Google Earth for fun. I even use the Moble version of Google Maps on my cell phone. Now Google has enabled "embeddable" google maps... if you encounter one, rather than getting a static image of a map on a web page you can get a live map that allows you to interact with it.

For instance, here's a map that shows my neighborhood (My wife would kill me if I actually gave out our address on here :) )

View Larger Map

If you browse around you can see Intercontinental Airport (IAH), Houston, Lake Houston... well anything... because it's a live Google Map.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Talked with Psyclone

Since yesterday's post I exchanged some emails with Psyclone. As it turns out, they have identified and fixed a sheilding issue with their video switch. New units will be available within a month or two. Also, my unit is under warranty and they will replace mine. The only catch is I will need to show them a receipt. Fortunately I purchased it with a credit card and Best Buy was able to print a new receipt and fax it to me.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Best of intentions...

So the PS3 came Tuesday and I actually got to hooking it up and trying out various things. I got it to play a Super Audio CD (SACD), regular old CD, DVD, Blu-Ray Disc, and PS2 and PS1 games. While checking out Chrono Cross (a PS1 game) I was troubled to see some occasional video anomalies.... it was like the TV was periodically losing video synchronization whenever a "bright" flash occurred on the screen (not an uncommon occurrence in a video game). My initial assumption was that this was an issue with the "backwards compatibility" support for this particular game.

However, when I went to watch "300" (a Blu-Ray movie) the same thing occurred. Shannon was concerned that the PS3 was defective, but I was betting it was either a problem with my 6 year-old TV or my much newer (and admittedly cheap) Psyclone video switch.

So yesterday I did some research online... and it turns out other people have experienced the same problem with the Psycloine PSC01. The learning here is that although the Psyclone is an excellent switch for passing 480i and 480P component video signals, it just doesn't have the bandwidth to fully support a 1080i signal... particular when that signal has a great-deal of dynamic range. It's interesting that this phenomena did not occur when watching the cable box through it, but I suspect that the degree of compression the cable company applies to its signals is much less then what you see on a Blu-Ray disc (and hence the reason the problem didn't occur on cable but showed up on Blu-Ray). Of course video game programmers get to specify the exact colors to drive the screen with at any given point in time... so if they want to make have the screen pure black and half pure white.... they can (whereas film/and video is always an approximation to some degree or another).... so it also makes sense that it's evident on games.

This left me with a conundrum... it's obvious that the the PSC01 cannot be used for the PS3 and likewise I probably should not use it with an Xbox 360 some day. That means potentially replacing this switch with a higher-bandwidth switch like the Audio Authority 1154A, (or newer 1154B) or the Zektor HDS4.1. However, these switches sale for $200 to $250 ... and I had already invested $100 in the Psyclone... buying another switch means just leaving the psyclone on the shelf to collect dust.

Then I had an epiphany... it struck me that my $1000 Denon receiver (which is a middle-of-the-pack Denon receiver... their top-end receiver sales for $7200) probably was designed to accommodate a 1080i signal. So I could feed the Cable box and PS3 into the receiver's two (it only has two) component inputs and then send that output to the TV's only 1080i Input. Then all of my 480P sources (DVD player, Wii, and Xbox) can be plugged into the Psyclone and fed directly into a 480P input on the television.

Of course this introduces two issues. First and most obvious... if I ever purchase another devices that outputs 1080i... I'm hosed. I will have to buy another switch box. That said, I have no immediate plans to pick up an Xbox360 which is about the only conceivable box I would get that outputs 1080i.... so if nothing else this is buying me time to save up for a better swich (or maybe a better receiver and/or television? :) )

Secondly, my switching is not as intuitive as I had it last weekend as the new diagram will attest. Like I stated previous the Denon 3801's Component inputs are "hard-wired" to the TV/DBS audio input and the "DVD" input. Since it make the most sense, the cable box can be plugged into the TV/DBS input, but that means the PS3 must be plugged into the DVD input. I suppose if someone comes to my house wants to play a DVD on the PS3 this will make sense, but I still have my standalone DVD player... and it's plugged into the video switch.. which I mapped to the "VDP" input. So... PS3 on DVD, DVD on VDP... Got that?

This problem also propagates to the TV inputs: The Psyclone's video out has been connected to the 480P input labeled "DVD"... this is kinda' okay... after all the DVD player is probably the most used device connected to the Psyclone... so if you were stumbling through my setup you probably would try the TVs "DVD" input when trying to watch a DVD... but your probably wouldn't think to use the DVD input for the Wii (which doesn't play DVDs) or the Xbox (which does, but I never bought the Xbox DVD remote so you can't access that functionality). Likewise, the TVs lone 1080I input is labeled "DTV" and it's being fed by the receiver (which as I stated previously is switch between the Cable box and the PS3).... this leads to if you want to use the PS3 select "DVD" on the receiver but DON'T select DVD on the Television.. select "DTV".

As I stated in the beginning.... if you ever come to my house and want to watch something... I'll have a printout of the wiring diagram waiting for you.... take some time to peruse it. It'll help. :)

One last comment, you may notice that the PS3 has been connected with wired ethernet whereas in previous diagrams that was not the case. I had originally intended to use the PS3's 80211.g (aka Wifi) capabilities to just connect to my wireless network rather than bothering with the wired connection. It's not that it would be hard to hardwire it... when I had my house networked I made sure that there would be four 100mbit ports behind my component rack. Rather, if the only reason you put the PS3 on the network is to access the the Internet... and your Internet conneciton speed is slower than even the wireless network then it doesn't really matter what type of networking you choose. However, my premise was flawed.... I had another reason to put the PS3 on my network instead of just as means of accessing the Internet.

As it turns out, the PS3 is a DLNA player too. If you aren't familiar with DLNA... follow that link for more information. Almost completely coincidentally, my RAID array in goliath coughed up a hard drive recently. I didn't notice it at fist because it was a RAID 1 mirror and the other drive was still serving up data. However, now my local copies of my MP3 files, photos, and even school programmer projects I was holding onto were now vulnerable. I decided that it was time to retire goliath as a file server. Until a few months ago, goliath was my everything server. Not only did he serve files but he also functioned as a DHCP server, a DNS server and my firewall. However, I demoted him after purchasing a Buffalo Technology WHR-HP-G54 high-power router and loading the open-source dd-wrt firmware on it. Now "lexington" (it's a really little box) runs a linux kernel and fulfills all of those miscellaneous services that goliath once handled.

However, as I stated previously, goliath was now just a file server... and one with its relability cut in half by a bad hard drive. So Shannon and I talked it over and I purchased a Buffalo Technology Network Attached Storage (NAS) box. Specifically the 1 Terabyte TeraStation Live. Which, as it turns out, is a DLNA Media server. I plan to name him "bronx".

So now, simply copying photos, music, videos, etc. onto the Terastation live (which is primarily the kind of data that goliath was hosting anyway). Means that all of that media is instantly viewable in my Home Theater on the PS3. Not a bad "freebie".

Since streaming high-quality video can potentially consume quite a bit of bandwidth, I thought it best to go ahead and future-proof things with the 100mbit physical ether net cable as opposed to the 54mbit wifi network. Besides the PS3 even came with a network cable in the box!

BTW, if you haven't figured out were my system naming convetion comes from... wikipedia is good for that too.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

August 11th HT Wiring Diagram

August 11th HT Wiring Diagram, originally uploaded by arwild01.

So I'll have to admit... working on wiring brings out the OCD in me. :)

Turns out it didn't take too long to complete and I"m really happy with the results. The big downside of the new configuration: if you want to watch HDTV it's not sufficient to turn on the TV and receiver.... you also need to turn on the video switch.

But there are several advantages...

One of my gripes with the Denon 3801 is that you cannot "rename" or "program" the names of the devices for each input. The names are fixed. Additionally, although the receiver does have 2 sets of component inputs, they are each coupled to a specific input, specifically, the DVD and TV/DBS inputs. This meant that previously when I had a DVD Player and PS2 attached in my hometheater when you selected the "DVD" input you got the "PS2". TO get to the DVD player you actually had to select "VCD", In addition, the "cable box" was previously on the VCR-1 input and the VCR was also on the VCD input (VCD was the video switch... so it was multiple devices).

Now things make more sense:

  • To watch HDTV:

    1. You select "Cable" on the Video Switch
    2. You select "TV/DBS" on the Receiver
    3. Finally you select DTV on the Television

  • To watch the VCR:

    1. You select VCR-1 on the Receiver
    2. You select "AUX" on the TV (okay, not so great, but the other two inputs are labeled DTV and DVD... so it's clearly not those)

  • To watch a DVD:

    1. You select DVD on the Receiver
    2. You select DVD on the TV

So on the whole...I think it makes a lot more sense.

As you can see, I've updated the diagram. Turns out it was easier to use different numbers for the devices on the video switch, but the labels are the same as I said they would be. I've also hooked up the L/R Analog audio for the PS3: This will allow me to potentially listen to SACD's through the PS3. Finally, I opted to use the Coaxial Digital Cable for the DVD Player instead of an optical cable. This leaves an open optical input on the receiver.... I could hook this to the SACD changer if I wanted to, but for now I think I'll leave it open.

Friday, August 10, 2007

2007 Home Theater Wiring Diagram

So back in 2001/2002 when I first setup my Home Theater I used visio to design a Wiring Diagram of my configuration. In part because I'm a geek, in part because it helped me keep things straight and (as my sister will attest) in part because people who visit me need something like this to figure out how to turn something on.

The original diagram appears as follows:

8x14latest, originally uploaded by arwild01.

Today I updated that diagram to what I will be doing this weekend to accommodate the PS3. You can see from this diagram that...

  • I've upgraded my video switch
  • The cable company DVR has an integrated HD tuner unlike the original box
  • DVD#2 has been moved to the office
  • I've disconnected the N64
  • The Gamecube has been replaced by a Wii
  • The PS2 has been replaced by a PS3

I'm surprised by how much more clean I was able to make the diagram.

Now hopefully the actual wiring will only take a couple of hours. :)

2007 Home Theater Wiring Diagram, originally uploaded by arwild01.

In order to make any sense out of these diagrams, you may need to view the "original size" on flickr. (1)Click on the image, 2)click "All sizes", 3)Select "Original Size")

Thursday, August 09, 2007

PS3 for me...

As a hometheater enthusiast and a gamer... it was always a matter of "when" and not "if" I bought a Playstation3. However, I am much more of a Nintendo enthusiast then a Sony enthusiast and given the launch prices... I had to get a Wii right away, but the PS3 at $600 was just way too expensive.

However, the stars have aligned and conspired against me and I just couldn't resist:

  1. First there was the Offering of 5 free blu-ray discs.
  2. Next, there was the $100 price drop.
  3. Then Sony offered a credit card with no interest for 12 months and a $150 "rebate" for purchases over $300.
  4. Finally www.sonystyle.com ran a free shipping promotion.

This effectively made the PS3 a $350 purchase as opposed to a $600 purchase. I'll admit the free shipping wasn't a must-have (there are two sonystyle stores here in Houston), but it sure made it easy to just order online... it's not like I'm in a rush to get it.

Now, I have to re-wire my home theater system to accommodate another box that outputs greater than 480P.... easier said then done... I'll have to post my home theater wiring diagrams later to offer some better perspective on the enormity of this task.

Ironically, I'm still not sure there are any games I "must have". For the time being it may just serve as a blu-ray player. Although it's inevitable that PS3 titles will eventually starting appearing in my "game-collection" and "wishlist" on the right sidebar.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

We'll always be the Redskins to me...

A couple of high school friends recently stumbled across me online, so I thought I should post a link to my high school. Maybe a search engine picks this up and a few more find me...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The effects of Hurricane Rita

IMG_1059, originally uploaded by arwild01.

This is an older photo of Shannon and I while we were "evacuated" from the Houston area during Huricane Rita in the Fall of 2005. I don't believe I'm inebriated, but I can't swear to it. :)

UofL Alumni Launches AffintyCircle Site

I'd like to encourage any University of Louisville alumni that sees this to register themselves with the "Cardinal Circle" site. It's an officially supported community site (think Myspace, facebook, orkut) for UofL alumni... there's not a lot of content there yet, but that's the classic chicken and the egg problem... no people no content... no content no people. We can break the circle by signning up.