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July 23, 2017

Polybius

I do not know when I first heard of Jeff Minter, but I had played his games before it happened. I associate him mainly with his frantic shooters. Wild, abstract, and very pure pieces of action art which did the most of each platform's ability to smoothly display as many colours and shapes as possible on the screen at once. Simple gameplay wrapped in a fantastically trippy package, they felt to me like an artifact of ages past, gems created by an auteur but which had fallen by the wayside as the world moved on to more complexity, fancier machines and new ways to play.

It is so nice to be wrong.

Not only has Jeff Minter kept making games, one of them is brand new and was immediately recommended to me when I mentioned my purchase of the Playstation VR: Polybius.

Here we are in 2017, and through my brand new VR headset flows the most Minter of Minter creations, one of the purest shooters and an excellent example of what VR can do. It is fair to say it looks and feels retro, but it is completely at home on this brand new platform, as if all Llamasoft was waiting for was for technology to catch up to their visions.

I would not be surprised if that was the case, come to think of it.

There is not much point in providing screen shots or 2D video, but here is Nine inch nails' awesome video for Less than instead (backstory):

Like all shooters, it has rougher spots. There are gameplay elements I do not enjoy as much as the rest. But mainly, and on the whole, Polybius is about getting into the flow, staying there and having an experience. An experience no less immersive platform can approach. Of course it is VR, why would it be anything else?

I am heaping on praise and fancy expressions here, and perhaps making the game sound like a difficult thing to get into, something you need to be in a certain place to appreciate.

It is not.

Polybius is a very simple shooter to pick up and play. It works great in short sessions, there are no complex controls, and you have at least as much fun re-playing levels as you do advancing to new ones.

Oh, it is cheap to pick up, and a very small download as modern games go. If you have splurged for a Playstation VR, you should invest in Polybius. It pays back in no time at all.

July 20, 2017

Room to breathe

Andrum is a favourite place, and may be the restaurant I eat at most often. It is a vegetarian place in central Gothenburg, comfortably near pretty much everything including transportation to and from everywhere else in the city. I come here (yes, I am writing this on-site) for the buffet. There are other options, and I hear they are just as good, but there is no way I can resist the buffet when I am here. There are two different soups, two different main dishes, and a variety of salads so good that I sometimes fail to have enough room on my plate when I get to the main dishes.

As with all good buffets, I tend to over-eat to some extent. This is really the only downside, and I am getter betting at dealing with it through regular practise. Plus, a slightly too full stomach definitely feels better to me when there is not a massive lump of meat in there weighing me down.

My personal favourite main dish is the palak paneer, but I have not had anything I really (or even somewhat) disliked. Many reviews rave about the pea pesto, but I say try a little bit of most of the salads. They are usually worth it. Try and leave a corner for the main dishes too, but no need to be excessive about them. Try a bowl of whichever soup looks best to you as well, they are all nice. Plus, it is nice having some soup to dip the bread in. The bread does not need it to be good, but the combination is even better.

So. Full. Time for a cup of coffee before rolling out the door …

(The coffee is completely standard fare, so no need to save room for that.)

July 18, 2017

Trying to sum up the Surface book

So many thoughts spin around in my head as I try to wrap up my impressions of trying the Surface book. It is a fascinating machine. I have fun exploring it, I am exposed to ideas and tradeoffs I would not otherwise have. It is, in many ways a great machine. At the same time, it clearly is not the perfect computer for me, and I am not sure it is the perfect computer for anyone. It throws a lot into the mix - laptop, tablet, touch screen and pen - but the pieces do not yet meld into a greater whole. Edges of various roughness pop up everywhere. I can not decide whether the Surface book represents the first realization of a great vision, or a sort of failure of imagination.

The most important thing, I think, is this: we need the Surface book. We need more computers which try new thingss. I hope that Microsoft pushes the Surface book forward very aggressively, both in hardware and software. I want it to be a halo computer - a machine used create an image and to test new ideas and solutions which trickle down to more mass-market devices. Seen from that perspective, the only way the Surface book can really fail is if it does not push hard enough.

So, what exactly am I ranting about here? Let us dig into the pen to get more concrete.

Pen usage

It ticks all the technical boxes for pressure sensitivity, it has a nice weight and thoughtful buttons. It can stick to the side of the Surface book by means of satisfyingly strong magnets, and it offers smart shortcuts for getting a screenshot of the screen to draw on, open a sketch book or other useful apps. You can even get additional tips with different feels.

This is the great side of the Surface. We have a really nice screen, of course you can use a pen with it, and the pen has nice specs. Then, I start drawing and writing.

Using the pen with the Surface book is by far the second best computer-pen-use experience I have ever had. The Ipad pro with Apple's pencil is my clear winner, and the comparison is both meaningless and very important. Meaningless because these are (at least in present-day) devices in very different areas with very different audiences. Very important because the Surface book needs to motivate the effort and cost of including this technology.

While I can certainly have fun drawing and writing on the Surface book, it never lets me forget the technology is there. It is clear the actual tip of the pen has nothing to do with registering input, because the crosshair (which can be turned off) appears well before you touch the screen, and because my actual lines rarely appear exactly where the tip is. In this way, input feels very indirect. The software does a good job of giving me nice lines, smooth curves and eliminating jitter, but it also rounds off little details in a way which noticeably alters both my handwriting and my drawing. This feels like the very best drawing experience Microsoft could provide with the technology they had at hand. Over on the Ipad pro, it feels as if Apple started from wanting to provide a fantastic pen experience and figured out the technology to do it right. The pen can also work as a general input device, and while it is fun it too feels clunky, integrated the best way for the technology at hand instead of figuring out how it should work and bringing the technology there.

Again, why is the comparison important? Because someone who really wants to draw and write with a pen should get an Ipad pro, and the rest need a good reason to pay extra for a pen which works okay. At no point during my test period have I picked up a Mac laptop and felt disappointed it lacks a pen (or a touch screen for that matter). This is a place I want to see more vision, more pushing of the envelope. I should go back to other computers and feel I am missing features.

This same feeling comes through for use as a tablet as well. And for touch screen use in general. It all works, it all is nice technology, but the parts do not gel into a greater whole. Plus, they make the Surface book a slightly worse laptop, as without a detachable screen it could save a lot of technology and have an even lighter and slimmer design (or even more battery).

I am not saying Microsoft should do any of that. On the contrary, like I wrote above I want them to push all this even further. If there are things to be gained in this hybrid world, it is by taking it even further, cleaning up ideas, unifying and clarifying. I can not wait for that to happen.

Details I love

Using the camera to log in is delightful. It is fast, elegant, and the little animated eye makes it feel fun and a little whimsical in just the right way. I want this on all my computers.

Hitting the Windows key, typing what I want to run or open and hitting enter to do so. I often think in file names, and Windows finds the right files every time, in no time.

That click when the screen detaches from the base. Yum.

Windows 10 looks really nice as a tablet OS. I enjoy holding a screen of it in my hand. The Surface screen feels physically nice in the hand too, nicely textured, solid and with defined but not sharp edges.

Visual studio, and the whole way Microsoft is firing on all cylinders building great developer tools. When I wrote Python code, I could choose my version and install packages right from a panel within Visual studio. When I opened work's C++ codebase, it picked up our Cmake-based build scripts and just worked, failing only because of naturally missing libraries.

An enthusiast computer?

Finally, one more spinning thought is that the Surface book is a geat enthusiast's computer. It is for the Windows enthusiast who wants to experiment with the future and who does not mind a bit of fiddliness getting there. For me, a developer building web frontends backed by Linux servers, Windows also provided a sort of surface tension which my development ambitions bounced off of. The lock-in effect Windows has in many areas became a lock-out effect for me. I got so far that I know how I could get my whole environment running, so I could do all my work on a Windows machine if I wanted to. But it would be just that: work. But if I was a real Windows enthusiast, I could easily do it, keep it running, and have fun demonstrating my cool different computer to all the Mac users at work. That enthusiast is greatly rewarded with a really cool computer which can do a lot of things, but it is not for everyone.

July 16, 2017

Eagle flight

You are an eagle. Paris has been abandoned by humanity and taken over by animals and trees. Put on your VR headset and go explore.

Sony should have packed this game with the Playstation VR. It is a great execution of a really pure and simple game idea. It is a complete and (mostly) quite easy "full" game (as opposed to a demo or teaser). Perhaps most important for my pack-in case, it is a game which offers free motion in an open world with about the simplest controls imaginable. It occured to me that Eagle flight is how I want to show new people what VR can be about. I can let them put on the headset, launch the free flight mode and just let them explore. They will not even need to worry about the controller at first.

Not only are the controls simple, they also feel good and precise. You look where you want to go, and you turn by tilting your head (you can of course turn your head too, but you hit limits of camera field of view and cable entanglement pretty soon). I was worried beforehand that head tilting would feel strange and imprecise, but it works really well even in challenging situations. I never felt I was fighting the controls as I flew around. Every time I crashed into something it felt … fair, for the lack of a better word. It is not the game's fault I tried to take that corner at too high a speed and too narrow an angle.

Some probably complain Eagle flight is too short. I finished the main story in two highly enjoyable and intense (for my current pattern of playing games) sessions, probably six or so hours in total. Not only is that a fair amount of gameplay to me, there is also a lot left to do. There are items to pick up (of which I have not found even 50%), results to improve on most of the missions, and also a whole online multiplayer mode. I am not much of a multiplayer person generally, but I think I need to try it out to see what it is like. The worst criticism I recall seeing of the multiplayer mode is that it could have been even more to it, which is pretty amazingly high praise.

Missions

So what kind of missions do eagles in Paris go on? There are checkpoint races, escort missions and dogfights, with a few specials thrown in here and there. Every mission is scored one to three stars, has its own leaderboard and can be re-tried in ghost mode (that is, competing against your previous run of the mission). I think my favourites are actually the straight and simple above-ground checkpoint races. (There are also ones taking place in underground tunnels.) They take you on fun paths through the city, discovering passages and views I would not find myself, and they provide all the joy of flying with minimal complications.

The general level of difficulty is nice and low, but the challenge does pick up toward the end. Three missions toward the end had me dying and retrying quite a bit before I got through, and though all missions last only a copule of minutes I do think those ones could have used a mid-way restart point or two.

Much to their credit, I never felt truly frustrated or cheated. Even when I was shot down by an enemy outside of my view I felt eager to restart and do better. I look forward to re-playing most missions for fun and higher scores.

Truly minor mission quibbles

Scores seem to be all about how quickly you finsih missions, but it is not completely clear. I would have liked a little more information there. Also on the side of very slight negatives, most or all missions seem to have a time limit. You do not actually see it as far as I can tell, but if you take too long the mission will suddenly end and you will fail and need to restart. It did not happen to me very often, but it still seemed a little bit unnecessary. Give me a low score and encourage me to replay instead. Also, in those missions where time limit actually matters more, I would have liked to know about it.

Wrapping up

I truly enjoyed my first run through Eagle flight. I look forward to playing it a lot more, for new accomplishments but at least as much for the experience of soaring above and through the streets of Paris. And I am eager to use the game to demonstrate the joy of VR to whichever friends and family get in my way. The Eagle flight experience feels almost Wii-like in its approachability, created around and from the essential unique features of the system on which it runs.

Finally: sequels and games with similar mechanics? Sign me up.

July 15, 2017

Playstation VR

I suddenly bought myself a Playstation VR.

No consumer product should need this many cables.

Playstation VR with full cable complement Playstation VR with full cable complement

Fortunately, once the headset is on, they are all forgotten. Yes, my desk looks messier. Yes, the Playstation now has cables snaking around both the front and back. Yes, resolution could be even better. Yes, there is an extra box to power, which I put some guards on just distract a little bit from the extra cable-ness of everything.

Darth Vader and stormtrooper guarding the PSVR box Darth Vader and stormtrooper guarding the PSVR box

But it works! It is VR, proper and good. It can be the future, and I already wish all my games were made for VR.

Entering the matrix

When you activate the headset and put it on, you end up looking at whichever screen you were already on, hovering in front of you against a black background. It is less sharp than you are used to, but it has a greater sense of size.

Then you enter VR mode. Usually, you click past a couple of standard warning texts, sometimes also one featuring a camera image so you can ensure you are not too close to something you can hit by accident.

Your view goes black. Somehow, it is a deeper black than that of a flat screen. The black of emptiness about to be filled.

Then, there is light, and you are floating in a proper world, attached through the viewport of your headset.

I suspect that feeling will not get old in a long time. It is a wow combined with an immediate question why all games are not like this. Why have we had to wait for so long to get here?

Any motion sickness?

None at all. The first time I tried Playstation VR at a friend's place I did feel a short burst of discomfort a few times when games moved the camera unexpectedly, but that has been it. I have mostly played standing up, too, and neither balance nor dizziness or motions sickness have even approached being an issue. It seems clear games just need to be thoughtfully designed to work well for even extended sessions.

Games

Here are the games I have bought so far:

Comfort

Yes, the headset is pretty comfortable too. The first few times I tried, I had to fiddle a little to get a fit which felt good. A few times I got it to press onto an eyebrow or similar things, but even the first time I tried my own headset I found it much quicker to get it to sit well on my head. This is with glasses underneath it, too. And usually large over-ear headphones, which I put on over the VR headset. A look of isolation from the world, to be sure, but surprisingly comfortable.

Is it worth it?

Counting just cost per possible gaming hour, the Playstation VR is a rather outrageous purchase. I paid more for the headset plus camera than I did for my Playstation 4 itself more than a year ago. There are actually somewhat more games supporting VR out there than I expected, but the number of those I actually want is limited.

(Fortunately, all games flow great so I feel no urge to get the pro version.)

But then comes the emotion. The feeling of owning and enjoying a piece of the future, a piece which works surprisingly well and provides fun already, but which also clearly points toward even better versions in the future. I am completely happy having spent the money to get to own a piece of that, and to in that small way help that that future come closer.

Playstation VR shining in the dark Playstation VR shining in the dark