Monday, January 26, 2009

Meditations on music gaming

When I bought Rock Band 2 a few months ago, the purchase was my first foray into the world of music gaming. I borrowed DDR once and dabbled in Guitar Hero at parties here and there. But never experienced the games long enough to ponder the kind of entertainment they provide us. When faced with the Rock Band skeptics who ask "why don't you learn a real instrument," I've always argued that these games offer people the chance to feel like a rock star. Indeed, the game is best when played with the geekiest of friends who have choice songs and abundant enthusiasm performing them.

Yet lately, I've stopped practicing the game on my own. I think Shawn Elliot reflects my thoughts best in a recent blog post:

"As I once said on a podcast, I feel weird when I watch people play Rock Band or Guitar Hero. I'm reminded of how human music is and what it means for us to make it. I think, this is what happens when a culture decides that music-making is strictly the domain of the specialist and that we should stop performing when it becomes clear that we aren't cut from professional cloth."

I've heard this guy mention on a podcast that in the past everyone practiced some form of amateur music. Whether it be singing or some instrument. Interesting how society has changed. I wonder how well I could play now if had taken up an instrument in middle school.

A musician friend in Austin asked me how often I play Rock Band. I answered a few hours a week. He told me if I spent that much time learning a real guitar, I could pick it up.

I'm not saying I won't play Rock Band anymore. Just pondering the possibilities. I'm not quite at the point where I think I'm too good for it. Social get-togethers are the current justification for the time spent on it.

Anyone else having doubts about strumming away at plastic instruments?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I really want to love you.

I really do, PlayStation brand. I mean the intentions are there. You want to make a portable gaming device that has robust media capabilities. Great, I game and I listen to music, I'm in. You want to make a home console with really awesome and reliable hardware and online features matching XBoxLIVE. Cool, I'm in $600. But lately... I'm losing faith.

I saw that the PS3's new firmware is coming soon. Oh good, my smiley face picture sorting needs have so far been woefully unmet by my video game console. Seriously, Sony PS3 firmware team? Seriously? This is what you're spending your months developing? Do you need any ideas for what you could be more useful? I'll give you one right now.

When a friend messages me, I go to my friends list on the XMB. My natural instinct is to press X and go into that friend's menu to check the messages he's sent me.

Ok, I'm here. Where's the "check messages from this user" button? Sorry for small image, but if you look closely the only buttons there are "Create New message", "Compare Trophies", and "Start Chat".

So if I want to see the message list, I have to go back out to the XMB, press triangle to bring up the friend's menu and then click "View Messages".

I go through this process EVERY time I want to check my messages. It's been month since that main friend's page was implemented yet the issue has never come to the firmware team's attention. Arguably I'm being really picky about a small issue like this. Let's look at the bigger picture.

The hardware and software developments of the PS3 and XBox360 this generation have made me realize how different Microsoft and Sony are as companies. Microsoft is the software giant. Windows, .NET, Visual Studio, Office, MSSQL, XNA, the list goes on. MS makes software for and supports a large IT development community. Believe me, I work with the stuff everyday as an IT consultant. I'm pretty sure they know a thing or two about developing software with a specific user in mind. More specifically we can look at the new group chat feature in the New XBox Experience as an example of MS developing a feature based on a specific user need.

When my friends and I were playing COD4 last year we wanted to keep our voice chat to ourselves. The solution? Break out laptops and PSP's to use Skype. MS recognized this kind of user experience and integrated a private group chat feature.

Now Sony is obviously the hardware company. Walk into an electronics store and their brand is on almost every type of hardware. When you compare the PS3's failure rates to the Red Ring of Death debacle, there's no contest. Yet compare the PS3's Home launch to the NXE's launch and you see Sony and MS's roles reversed. NXE was delivered in a timely manner with useful features that made sense. Home was delayed for a year and I can't find a reason to use it.

One more thing, Sony firmware team. I hate the PSP's interface. You wanted this thing to be a next generation Walkman yet it fails to play music as well as any MP3 player with a decent UI. I can't dynamically sort my music like I can with other MP3 players or even the freaking PS3. Where's the damn Shuffle All feature? Why can I only access my music in the static folder structure on my memory stick? I really want the PSP to be my one go to device for portable entertainment. Heck, I'd probably buy more games for it if it took on that role. I'm just going to have to buy an MP3 player. Not a Sony one, though. I just couldn't trust the interface.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What is art?

I've been struggling to write a blog post defining art. I want to define art in order to provide at least a personal vocabulary for my posts here. Yet as I write, I can't pin down a solid definition. I begin arguing that art must have a well defined message and context. Without the message then art becomes a banal sort of "anything anyone creates."

With this conviction I debate a coworker of mine. He's into making film on his free time so naturally, I want to know his opinion. He suggests everything is art. Even things not intended as art can be art to the individual.

I let out a frustrated sigh.

"Yeah, I'm one of THOSE people, right?" he suggests.

I counter by arguing that art needs meaning to avoid being pointless. He argues that meaning depends on the the individual. Then it hits me. I've been writing about personal experiences with all these games. And it's impossible to know whether the creators intended for their audience to have such experiences. So my coworker has a point. And so my search continues. What do you think?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

RIP as we know it.

If you don't already know, my video game news site of choice has just died. The URL isn't going away but a good part of the staff that really defined the heart and soul underneath got layed off. Here are the nitty-gritty business details if you need to know.

Taking a look at the list of firings is really the depressing part. The people on the chopping block were behind some of the best games industry podcasts. If you've ever looked on the sidebar of my blog you'd have noticed the link to the podcasts. This whole thing probably lightens my weekly listening by half.

To top it off, the entire staff behind the weekly videocast, The 1UP Show, was fired as well. What am I supposed to do on Saturday mornings now? Games journalism is an industry where something seemingly so simple as scored reviews are causing controversy and sparking thoughtful debate. To me, The 1UP Show, was quietly shining the light toward a brighter future. It's segments features 1UP staff standing around talking about their ups and downs while playing games. They were reviews disguised as previews and shed and pretension of assigning scores or coming up with yay or nay conclusions. They focused on the details of games, rather than the skin deep review scores.

What can we do but remember the good times and look to the future. If is any indication, creative minds propel themselves to good things. I'll be watching.