A number of years ago, Sony introduced an at-the-time revolutionary new interface. It was the XrossMediaBar (XMB) and its stated intention was to navigate a breadth of devices cohesively while supporting a wide variety of inputs. Touch, for example, was something the XMB was supposed to do down the road. PS3s, PSPs and Bravia TVs have all come and gone with this interface and it’s come to be a sort of Sony hallmark in vastly different sectors of consumer electronics. I like it.
Fast forward to today and we have the PS Vita and it’s ‘LiveArea’. I’ll say right now that I can’t stand it. It looks too childlike, is far too clunky to use and abandons too much of what Sony’s built in the past. I’m not sure what, if any, device this interface really suits but it’s certainly not a gaming handheld aimed at the hardcore. In fact, from the pull-down-to-unlock lock screen (which is entirely unnecessary) is seems like Sony’s designers have just pulled in whatever touch-based ideas from wherever they felt like with no regard for the product as whole.
First off the icons are too luminescent, too shiny and the backgrounds too vibrant. This is not just a taste thing- they push the otherwise impressive OLED beyond what it seems to be capable of. Colours side-by-side seem to have too much contrast and the reflections and shadows on the icons show far too much aliasing. Maybe this would have looked better on a higher-definition display, but even the Vita with 4x the effective number of pixels of a PSP (which had no problem showing off a smooth XMB) makes it look amateurish and unfinished. I can’t help but get the feeling this was done on a computer monitor and never tested much on the display that would go into production units.
A lot of interaction design talk of late has gone into visual paradigms and whether it is important to mimic real world gestures and textures for touch or whether that just obscures things. LiveArea, with all it’s page switching and dog-ear pulling combined with buttons and zooms is just horrifically inconsistent. At times, with regular menus and most of the stuff you find in-game, it seems like you’re going to pull out and find a clean, funtional XMB waiting for you. In actual fact you’re just going to be dumped where you started, a bunch of icons and a swathe of screen-wasting pages for active apps that not only takes up more space than it should, but is incredibly labourious to swipe through.
The problem with this really is clutter. Want to multitask? Well you first have to hit the physical home key, then swipe across pages to find what task you wanted to open. Or just go back to the panes on the left and find the icon for what you want to do. Isn’t that one step too many? Do you really have to go all the way out to the main interface to do anything? Couldn’t some sort of overlay be superimposed on the current application instead? An overlay would also solve the problem of showing all open apps on one screen, instead of having to sweep through page after page not really knowing what’s next (they’re ordered by recent activity… most of the time) or how many pages will need to be turned before you get to what you want.
As a real kick in the face none of these pages actually close on their own, even if the task or application is no longer running. It’s on the user to manually pull down each dog-ear to close an app’s page before the sheer number of them becomes unmanageable. What makes this even more ridiculous is that every other app requires closing off of others. Want to open a web page while playing a game? Gotta close the game. Want to reply to a message from a friend while doing something else? You have to come out of that, and flick your finger across any number of dead application pages before you get to the page where you left the messaging app open. Finally, as far as I can tell, there’s no option to skip all the way to the rightmost page, to quickly get back to the starting point or to close everything that’s open with one stroke. The result is inelegant and detracts a lot from the overall impression the PS Vita might give in other areas.
Do I think a touch-enabled and -optimised XMB would have been a smarter, cleaner and more impressive UI to have installed on the Vita? Absolutely and nothing would impress me more than a 2.0 choice which gave a choice between the two. Of course that’s never going to happen – LiveArea is here to stay. But so long as it is, it undermines the Vita’s hardcore, mature market positioning and smacks of a cheap kiddie-friendly interface that abandons generations of visual heritage and sets the Vita on its own, away from the rest of Sony’s CE family. That may well be intentional but I ask this; if you’re going hardcore first and casual later, what real sense is there putting something as Play School as the LiveArea front and centre on day 1?
I call this just the latest example of Sony’s right hand not knowing what the left is doing.
We now stand more or less a week from the international release of the PlayStation Vita via ‘first edition’ programs in the US and other pre-order initiatives in other territories. I’ve had my unit for a few weeks now and feel a few things need to be said before the internet takes a given position on this thing. In this post I’ll be looking at the hardware specifically. For better or worse and despite doing a number of things very exceptionally, I’m disappointed with the Vita overall. As to whether I think it will fail, I’d say no. I am far more convinced though that this will be Sony’s final gaming handheld, at least in a traditional sense.
Everyone who’s been in a position to play with a Vita has been in unanimous agreement that it’s a fantastic piece of technology. A quad-core processor, double the RAM of a PS3, front and rear touch pads, and OLED screen (but not a 720p one) seemed to tick all the boxes while remaining not much larger or any heavier than an original PSP.
In spite of all that it doesn’t strike me with the level of ‘wow’ that Sony consumer products such as the PS2 or PSP did when first releasedw. Maybe the capabilities – not just graphically, mind you – of the smartphones and tablets out there have raised expectations of what can reasonably be delivered. I realise it’s not fair to compare a $250~ Vita with a $500 Galaxy SII, but the fact is the screen on that device is better to look at during any practical application, it’s worlds away smaller and thinner and has a debatable lead in battery life in defiance of it’s small size. This doesn’t take much away from the Vita – the GSII is only a phone with touch controls after all – except to say that it’s ability to impress above and beyond is markedly diminished in light of such competition.
As someone with medium sized hands, not big or small, saying that doing a QCB motion on the d-pad is actually painful is however not a complement. Sure, a lot of people will play things using touch controls or the exceptional (given their size) analogue sticks, but the fact is I bought my Vita with Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with an intent to not kill myself rocket punching and plasma storming against the left hand side of the screen. Thank goodness there are double fireball motions in the upcoming Street Fighter X Tekken because that would quite frankly be a dealbreaker at this point.
Also overly small are the buttons. They have more in common with the Nintendo DS’ face buttons than those on the PSP or Dual Shock 3. This isn’t a massive issue in most games, but if I’m using the ‘Wipout’ style controls in Wipeout 2048, where X is accelerate, square is use and circle is absorb, all with the right analogue a bit close for comfort, I’m going to have serious problems hitting those things at the right times. The PSP didn’t have these control problems and if I had to pick a major point of regression on the Vita, it’s that it has shrunk everything on the face of the unit to the point of near un-usability.
Something that the mainstream of internet opinion has taken a strong dislike to is the use of yet more proprietary media on the part of Sony. Game cards, unlike the cartridge-based titles of Nintendo’s system, can save game data and DLC onto themselves without the need for additional storage. Not all games opt for this though and many have cried foul at Sony’s refusal to mandate it. It’s all the worse since their second proprietary formal of memory cards are priced into the stratosphere and ultimately necessary to fully using the device as it’s being marketed.
My complaint isn’t so much about these devious decisions so much as their poor implementation. Neither the game nor memory cards can be read by anything but the Vita and so I can’t write anything conclusively about data read & write speeds. Nonetheless I have no problem saying that loading times are pretty garbage across the board. UMVC3 takes at least 10 times longer to load 6 characters and a stage than its Xbox 360 cousin and Wipeout 2048‘s load times are just appalling at 50-60 seconds per event. Both of these anecdotes come from experiences with the game card version, which is, if reports are to be trusted, the faster of the two formats.
It seems even more obvious when you look at the UI and other interfaces of the Vita, but the hardware seems cobbled together from technologies and interests of multiple business units operating largely in silos with little regard for the cohesiveness of the finished product. As far as hardware goes the PS Vita has some serious grunt but is nowhere near as far ahead of the field as the PSP was in its time. And whether that raw horsepower is harnessed by software or not in the long run, the machine is hamstrung by capricious design decisions that let it down at almost every turn. The same is true of the rest of the elements that make up the Vita whole, but I’ll save that for the next few posts.
As a postscript I’d like to disclose that my experience has been with the Wifi only model. For a million reasons and one I don’t consider there to be any reason to buy the 3G version and as far as I know there are no exclusive capabilities unique to that model. Ergo, I didn’t think it was worth the time to say anything at length about it.
…it’s always such a pleasure. And now I feel dirty. For lack of anything more insightful I’ve stooped to rolling out the most cliche of internet / gaming tropes – the Portal reference. The truth is while trying – in vain apparently – to recall what has happened since the last two weeks or so since my last post nothing terribly important comes to mind. Sure I dallied with Crysis 2 and endured to varying degrees of unpleasantness Fast Five and Thor. But all I really did that still bears any meaning was labouring through Portal 2. How lame is that? This is why these catch-up posts after periods of inactivity are so hard for me.
Twitter’s general sentiment has led me to believe that I’m not alone in shying away from Portal 2‘s co-op. For me, most my friends are on XBL and none of the friends on Steam I’d want to have such a confrontational 1-on-1 with have the game. Then there are those poor souls cutoff from the world on PSN. Shortly after release I was feeling a bit silly buying the full-priced Steam version instead of picking up the PS3 disc and redeeming a PC copy for free. Not anymore. So anyway like so many other solely single players, I’ve finished Portal 2 and just bought an iPad. Guess what happens next?
I picked up Geoff Keighley’s $2 iPad app ‘The Final Hours of Portal 2′ of course. Really I could go on and on about how those traditional publishers crying bloody murder over the declines in circulation and digitising of media could learn more than a little from this brilliant piece of digital journalism. But I won’t. Suffice to say that I think it was worth the cost – like the game itself – and while short did manage to leave me with a smile on my face afterward. The takeout I’d like to pull out form this is that Portal 2 had a surprisingly fraught development process. Gameplay / puzzle mechanics (there were no portals at one point…), sure, but mostly on the story front. The game went through a few iterations and the more I think about it that really shows in the finished product.
Spoiler alert, but the revelation that GLaDOS was once an ironically stupid human was novel enough. Novel, but not organic. Or believable. The whole thing was rushed and unbelievable. The exposition is laid out on a platter and with no subtlety at all, there’s an ‘oh no!’ moment when she – at that point in potato form – figures it out. Hours after we have, mind you. For a super-intelligent AI whose character is premised on being smart, that slow reaction wasn’t thought out properly, the fact that she was in a potato notwithstanding.
Not to turn this into a review either, but I will say the game was short, but brilliant. Just how I like them. There were moments where I was flabbergasted with the quality of storytelling and often at the same time as being blown away by what Valve still manages to squeeze out of its almost-decades old Source engine. While the telling was exceptional, the story itself was just good. Stephan Merchant’s Wheatley outshined everyone’s favourite homicidal AI and that came from behind for me.
What now for me then? Crysis 2 has failed quite miserably in keeping my interest, despite the praises I continue to sing for its predecessor. Shogun 2: Total War and Civilization V both arrived but between lapsing back into Call of Duty: Black Ops and attempting my 5th expedition into Half-Life 2 I didn’t have much time for then. And my biggest grievance after all that would be the fact that my copy of Mortal Kombat did not arrive before the very long Easter weekend (and still hasn’t arrived). Until it does turn up I’ll just drift along in this zombie-like state. Probably stopping to give Brink a go if it gets here first and maybe even accord some attention to my PSP or iPad. Too bad none of them sound terribly exciting for a mid-Friday morning with a weekend coming up.
Things were simpler a year ago. My original launch 360, bless its soul, had RROD’d on me, I had a decently powerful C2D GTX 260 combo in good working order and I’d recently picked up a cheap Slim PS3 from Japan. My PC had become my primarily platform, thanks mostly to Steam, and the PS3 served as backup for those pesky console-only titles. I thought I had the best possible setup. I was wrong.
I’d tried to live without it for the longest time but now I realise that this last year or so I’ve really been missing Xbox Live. Missing my friends, one button invites, achievements with APIs that can follow me around the net. There was a measure of substitute with Steamworks, although only some games used it, and barely anything cohesive on PSN. In fact my year of Super Street Fighter IV on the PlayStation was one of the most frustrating experiences ever. Getting people into a game and accepting invitations from others… could it have been any more convoluted? Even though the PS3 version of the now-banned Mortal Kombat is getting fighting games favourite cameo with the inclusion of Kratos, my gut would feel yucky buying a multiplayer fighter for Sony’s mess of a machine.
And on a completely unrelated note, Forza Motorsport 3 is absolutely a better game than Gran Turismo 5 although I fear that argument warrents its own article.
So starting to think that the Xbox 360, as a platform, offers a better overall experience is an interesting conclusion. I’d previously considered PC to hold that accolade, and comparing Dead Space 2 on console to PC there really is no discussion about technical proficiency. Textures and resolution are paltry by comparison. However if you take matchmaking and DLC into consideration, I wonder how much weight that extra visual fidelity actually caries?
Against the sheer fragmentation of platforms and standards on PC – EA friends list, I’m looking at you – I’m beginning to see the graphics as less and less of a consideration. Not that its mode was worthwhile to begin with, I never once played DS2 online on the PC. And, by pure arrogance on the publisher’s part, I’ll never play the ‘Severed’ DLC. Thanks a lot guys. Even Steam seems to now show contempt for its customers – again most likely by publishers’ edict – by charging ludicrous prices for games. Ozgameshop.com can now match day-and-date better prices for 360 versions of new releases than Steam can despite being exempt from printing and licensing overheads.
Half the fact that the cohesive nature of the Xbox platform feels so good is undoubtedly that the situation on the PC is so broken. Nevertheless I’m switching over to the 360 as my primary, despite it costing me a new console, some visual bells & whistles and despite costing me a yearly subscription to boot. Certainly wouldn’t have anticipated declaring this a year ago, but for the bunch of reasons I’ve mentioned – and no doubt a bunch more – I’m not regretting a thing.
So come on friends, add my Gamertag Ichorid4.
I was thinking today about how little I actually feel I can trust Sony. Although their marketing pales in comparison to another consumer electronics giant’s (*cough* Apple), Sony actually puts on a good show when announcing new products. Thing is, I can’t remember a single thing they’ve announced in the last 10 years that lived up to their vaunted promises. Don’t believe me? Let’s work backwards.
The PSN, I suppose, would be the most recent full-fledged thing we’ve had from Sony (I’m not even touching Move here). As it stands, we here in PAL land and our fellows in the US are utterly buggered regarding releases online. The problems are plenty. If we’re talking PSP Go, what a discgrace that is. The system is going for budget prices here. Problem no.1 is its unshakable tether to PSN. Games don’t come out, or are overpriced. You’d think that games would at least be released day and date with UMD version – it’s easy enough for pirates to do it – but that’s never the case either. There was even a big fracas about Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep being brought to the troubled portable by hackers before Sony or Square. Further to that price gouging is so rife you’d think the PSN admins have an active and deliberate contempt for their customers.
Worst though is the availability of titles. As our friends at Destructoid pointed out this week the downloadable game count in the ‘Game Archive’ section numbers 6 times in Japan what it does over here. Licensing issues with publishers is obviously biting Sony in the ass, but not only did they fail to acknowledge these issues with the PSP Go, they went and courted the idea of a UMD redemption program. Hmmm. Realistically there was no intention to ever deliver a plan so asinine, and yet they did it anyway. If ever a legal department held its tongue and let marketing go crazy, it was certainly the one at SCEJ.
Speaking of overselling a system, let’s count the number of things cut from the PS3 from concept to release, shall we? PS2 backwards compatibility hardware was cut after the initial NTSC region runs which meant that nowhere in the world could I get a first edition PS3 to play my extensive PAL PS2 library of games. Well done, guys. This was followed by the missing bunch of ports including a second HDMI, and the 7/8 SPU die yield nonsense started about this time too. All while the price remained stable as far as I recall. Next to go was the card reader, I think? And then most recently the Other OS. Cast your mind back to the ‘you will work more hours to buy one’ rhetoric that Ken Kutaragi was throwing out at every press conference 5 or so years ago and you’ll start to feel how I feel about all this.
The PS2 was possibly my favourite console of all time and objectively one of the bestselling, but let’s point out its shortfalls too. Network connectivity and social networking? One overstuffed title; Final Fantasy XI. Not released in PAL, mind you. Connectivity with phones, cameras et al? Nonexistant. At least the thing played games, but it certainly wasn’t all Sony promised- those things I mentioned, I mean.
And predictions of things to come- the NGP. If the development cycles of the PSP and PS3 are anything to go buy, I think we’ll see libraries heavily fragmented by region and language. We may or may not have multiple SKUs tipping different featuresets (the exact thing Sony railroaded Microsoft about regarding the 360’s optional HDD), but we will likely have a bias toward this new propriety flash media (did they learn nothing from the UMD?) over PSN access and a skew toward ports of some kind for the first few years of the machine’s life. Certainly, the easy code path from PS3 to NGP has been held up as a bonus while I and several others are not so sure.
If coherence isn’t the best thing about this article, let’s sum it up with some impact. Sony was once an innovator in consumer electronics and portable devices and while it has always had its finger in too many things, it’s only over the last decade or so that its left hand doesn’t seem to know what its right is doing. It’s playing catchup and that fact is nowhere more evident than in the Xperia Play, a desperate confusing move in a seeming attempt to fight off both Nintendo and Apple with one stroke. And despite this mammoth task its taken on, Sony still can’t integrate internal business units well enough to let your existing PSN purchases carry over – you need to buy them again. Way to go leveraging your own properties and not alienating the consumer like that.
Heated vitriol this is, but off the mark? I think not. Sony had better lift it’s game else see this coming generation turn out to be their last in the console business.