<CharlieDigital/> Programming, Politics, and uhh…pineapples


Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia Review

Posted by Charles Chen

I played the game for about 6-7 hours yesterday. I wasn't immediately smitten with it, but once I got into it, I couldn't put it down.

I was thinking about it this morning as I was taking a shower and I've personally come to some conclusions about why this game is so awesome:

1) The enemies actually have resistance/weakness attributes and it actually matters. In the CVs that I've played (AoS, PoR), you could hack your way through the game with one of the more powerful weapons against nearly every single enemy. For example: Claimh Solais. Once you obtained this weapon, you basically didn't need to use anything else and all strategy -- for most of the game -- was thrown out the window. The same is also true for the soul system as well: it didn't really matter which soul you used once you found a powerful one.

In OoE, you are constantly switching glyph sets, even when you revisit parts of the game which should be a cakewalk. Of course, the beautiful part of this is that they put in a very simple - yet powerful - system to set up sets of glyphs. The sleeve system empowers the player and makes the experience fun, strategically. If they had forced players to go into the start screen (i.e. no sleeve system), this game would not be as enjoyable. As an example, I always thought that one of the shortcomings of MGS3 was that it could have played up the role of camo a bit more and made it more strategically fun if it wasn't such a pain in the ass to keep switching camo by going into the menu.

There's also some variety in how dual wielding stacks. As I said: this game empowers the player through the superb control system and introduces an element of strategic action, but in a way that doesn't punish the player by having to take the experience out of the action and into the menu system. It makes it a joy to play.

2) The glyph union system, while limited, is pretty awesome. I would have liked to see more distinct combination types. For example, if you combine a non-weapon type glyph with a weapon type glyph, you get the same animation and same attack characteristics, regardless of which weapon type you combine it with. It would have been cool if you ended up with a greater variety of combinations to experiment with. For example, combining the ice glyph with a sword type glyph would yield a different result than combining the ice glyph with an ax type glyph.

But still, while it's not very deep, it's deep enough that it adds variety to how you configure your glyphs.

3) While the game is not "OMG I'M GOING TO THROW THIS ACROSS THE ROOM IF I DIE ONE MORE TIME" hard, it's definitely not as easy as the other CVs I've played. The key is that it's not hard in a cheesy way. At all times, you feel that Shanoa is sufficiently powerful; I would summarize it as "it's hard in terms of strategic action". It's not mindless hack-n-slash.

Also, the item system is very limited (in a good way). There aren't absurdly powerful items in the game (yet) that nullify the need for player skill. This is a good thing. Healing items are VERY weak, in general.

4) As an extension of (3), I think they did a good job balancing the game. Shanoa's life meter isn't absurdly high to the point where she can just take damage and slash her way through bosses. Also, using MP for attacks adds to that sense of balance: you can't just slash your way through with your most powerful glyph. You need to consider strategy. The glyph union/heart system is also a nice touch since it means you can't just spam your most powerful attacks and expect to win. At least to this point, at every boss encounter, I've run out of hearts long before the battle has been over.


Conclusion: this game is solid, fun, and ultimately very satisfying. It's everything that's right about gaming.  If you have a DS, you owe it to yourself to get this game.

Filed under: Gaming No Comments

Final Fantasy 12 – The Movie

Posted by Charles Chen


Or rather, the cut scenes (in game and pre-rendered) from the game.

If you're like me, you really don't have the time to spend plunking down in front of your TV to play 40-60 hour games anymore.  Most of my gaming time these days is spent with the DS (the greatest gaming platform of this generation?).

But I can't shake my adoration for the Final Fantasy series, even though sometimes it seems like it's been milked to death.  The game always features some of the most creative character, architectural, landscape, and creature designs.  In this respect, Final Fantasy XII does not disappoint...some of the bosses and their specials are just jaw dropping.  It blows my mind that they were able to create this world with such detail, creativity, richness, and beauty.

In any case, if you want to skip to the good stuff, then hop on over to videogamesheaven.net and check out the FFXII cutscenes.  It's worth watching through the whole thing.  I actually think it's fairly well written and the voice acting isn't terrible (Vaan is possibly the worst one but Fran, Balthier, Basch, and Penelo are all great).

On some level, the main theme relates to one of the central themes of the Blade of the Immortal series: how does one come to grips with the desire for revenge and the reality of bloodshed that such a path would entail and the cycle of hatred that is driven by such actions?



Love is in the Air

Posted by Charles Chen

An interesting side effect of releasing XNA Express is that there seems to be an uptick of interest in C# and the .Net platforn in general.  A 4 page thread sprang up last night on NewGAF and the community is absolutely bubbling to get their hands on it and create some homegrown games.

I added my $.02 in an earlier discussion:

As a CS major and having written code in multiple languages, I'd have to say that C# is my favorite general purpose programming language. Having written Java for 4+ years as well, I have to comment that the jump from Java to C# is relatively easy and fairly natural as C# basically took Java as a starting point and improved upon it in many ways. As for C/C++ developers, generally speaking, C# can do anything that C++ can do via unsafe code blocks that allow direct access to memory regions (typically protected by the managed .Net runtime) in addition to directly interfacing with Windows APIs via PInvoke. The language is far more like Java than C++.

To begin with, the development environment has been made "stupid-friendly" so that even programming newbies can jump in and start writing code and testing in a matter of minutes. Now you can debate whether this is good or bad (many, including myself argue that this is a bane as it means that there are an excess of sub-par "developers", but regardless, it's a well designed development environment that still has all of the advanced features used by more seasoned developers available).

In addition to this, C#, as a language, particularly in 2.0 and in the specifications for 3.0, will allow for programming constructs that are simply not possible in many other general purpose programming languages. As C# has evolved, it has started to bring in many features of functional languages (such as functions as first class objects in 3.0 spec) and dynamic languages (such as runtime type inference, also in the 3.0 spec). In fact, if you look at the C# 3.0 spec, you'll start to get the feeling that it's starting to become quite like JavaScript (a dynamically typed, functional language and my personal favorite). C# (and the .Net Framework in general) has been designed first and foremost, in my opinion, for ease of use and expediency for rapid prototyping and RAD-style development (and of course, Java elitists will knock this, but realize that it is also capable of more advanced development styles that most .Net developers simply don't utilize since they stick to what's available out of the box).

The Express products from Microsoft are top notch. Considering that they are free, they are pretty ****ing sweet (I myself don't use them day to day as I use the full retail versions, but I've tried all of the Express products and they are basically castrated versions of the full blown product with some usage and licensing limitations).

For learning C#, in my opinion, the absolute best book to start with is Pro C# 2005 and the .NET 2.0 Platform, Third Edition. This book covers many aspects of the .Net Framework that every .Net platform developer should be aware of. It leads by simple *running examples* with full source code and contains a wealth of information on advanced topics that are not touched upon by many lesser books. I've found, after reading this book, that every "advanced" .Net platform question that I've been asked on interviews in the last 2-3 years is covered by this book. Fear not, though, the information and examples are well written and well thought out so that it's easy to follow and not only for "Pros" as the title would suggest.

As for how to start with .Net development, as I mentioned, C# and .Net are "stupid-friendly". This means that generally, for beginners, command line compiling is a thing of the past; you simply download Visual C# Express (it will install C# compilers and tools for you), create an appropriate project type (Console application is a good place to start), fill in some code, and hit Ctrl+F5 to run your code. It's literally that simple to get started. Visual Web Developer Express versions should also include a built in web server that it uses by default when running web code so setup is trivially easy if you're interested in that.

As a reference, it's a good idea to pick up the .Net Framework SDK as it contains documentaion and additional tools that are userful for all developers: http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/d...4-C96D69C35DEC

Microsoft also has a subsite dedicated to kind of teaching beginners how to write code with more interesting examples (articles on the 'Net and in books typically cover console applications to demo language features and use business application examples otherwise as most users are are professional developers), including game code: http://msdn.microsoft.com/coding4fun/. So Coding4Fun is a good place to start with more interesting code examples in .Net.

There's a link off of the Coding4Fun main page to a series of webcasts on video game development in C# and a two part series on how to write Soduku in C#, WPF (next generation presentation API for .Net), and XAML.

In the past, I've also taken a look at .Net games development. One of the engines I was looking at was the Axiom engine (which seems to be inactive). You can find other engines via Google.

Ah yes, and the other engine that I had looked at was formerly known as RealmForge and currently known as Visual3D.Net, which used to be completely free (but now has a few different tiers). Of course, you won't need these once XNA comes out, but in the mean time, if you have interest in trying to write games on the .Net platform, these are good places to get a head start.

I figured I'd cross post this here as there are a few good resources and starting points in there for anyone thinking about starting to learn C#.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the community over at NeoGAF proceeds and whether this initial bubbly enthusiasm holds over a long period of time.  But I think it's good any time you get people interested in your products and solutions that otherwise wouldn't be (musicians, students, graphic artists and so on, to name a few).  Microsoft definitely gets bonus points for releasing XNA Express and opening up XBox Live!

Filed under: Dev, Gaming 2 Comments

Innovation, Sony Style

Posted by Charles Chen

Last week, I touched upon how Microsoft is innovating with the XBOX360 by opening up the gaming console to small time developers, regular-Joe programmers, and students.

And of course, last year, I was just blown away by the initial peek at Nintendo's new controller and how it literally changes the way we interact with games and adds another level of immersion.

So what about Sony and their PS3 then?

It's hard to say.  For the most part, I don't think that I've really been blown away by anything that has been touted for the PS3.  For one thing, I tend to view it simply as a Trojan Horse for Blu-Ray technology, an inferior technology so far as audio/video quality is concerned compared to Toshiba's HD-DVD, so that Sony can cash in on it and force it down our throats. 

Is Blu-Ray innovative?  I don't think so; it's more of a natural evolution of the DVD format and basically gives us a bigger storage medium.  Aside from that, there's not much that excites about the PS3 from a gaming perspective at all.  Sure, it'll pump out some slick graphics, but is it innovating in any way?  Sony copied Nintendo's montion sensing controller capabilities (half-assedly), so that doesn't count.

To me, the PS3 has been perhaps the least interesting of all the next generation consoles and the one that offered the least amount of innovation.  But today, some news came out that showed some promise: the PS3 will run Folding@Home.  It's not that Microsoft's XBOX360 can't do this as well, but for the first time, someone will be copying Sony this generation.  It seems like a match made in heaven for these compuationally expensive distributed computing projects as both XBOX360 and PS3 have CPUs capable of highly parallel computing (the PS3 features 7 SPEs while the XBOX360 features three, symmetric, dual core processors).

Interesting news to me at least 🙂

On a related gaming note, check out this smile inducing clip (via Kotaku) :-D.

Filed under: Gaming, Technology No Comments


Posted by Charles Chen

My eyes just teared up (no, really...I'm still kinda all emotional inside) watching the Nintendo E3 press conference intro video...wow, incredibly moving.


Update: Man, the tears keep coming...I dunno...such a fanboy I guess.  Glorious day!



Posted by Charles Chen

I feel like a little schoolgirl (and a little perplexed).  I've been following Nintendo's next console quite closely for the last few months.  Going by the codename of "Revolution", Nintendo has taken what many seem to be a big gamble by going in the opposite direction of competitors like Sony and Microsoft.

Today, we see how Nintendo continues along a path of defiance of the norm; Nintendo's "Revolution" console will officially be known as.....

Nintendo Wii

Check it out for yourself here: http://revolution.nintendo.com/.


As in "we."

While the code-name "Revolution expressed our direction, Wii represents the answer.

Wii will break down that wall that seperates video game players from everybody else.

Wii will put people more in touch with their games...and each other.  But you're probably asking: What does the name mean?

Wii sounds like "we," which emphasizes this console is for everyone.

Wii can easily be remembered by people around the world, no matter what language they speak.  No confusion.  No need to abbreviate.  Just Wii.

Wii has a distinctive "ii" spelling that symbolizes both the unique controllers and the image of people gathering to play.

And Wii, as a name and a console, brings something revolutionary to the world of video games that sets it apart from the crowd.

So that's Wii.  But now Nintendo needs you.

Because, it's really not about your or me.

It's about Wii.

And together, Wii will change everything.

Wow.  Crazy and brilliant at the same time.

Filed under: Gaming No Comments

Of Crack and World of Warcraft

Posted by Charles Chen

No, this post probably isn't what you think it's about.  Yes, World of Warcraft is like crack in its addictiveness and its ability to ruin your life.  One of my college roomates, Joe, has a townhouse around the corner from me (he used to rent from me).  Since WoW came out, he's been hooked on it.  Whenever I go over there, someone in that house is always playing WoW.  It's gotten to the point where the kitchen is a disgusting, festering mess of putrid food and garbage (yuck, the whole first floor smells like nasty).

But anyways, I digress.

I came across an article on Wired, You Play World of Warcraft? You're Hired!, which recounts the experience of Stephen Gillett an all around successful guy who also happened to be a guild master in WoW.

The article's premise is that playing games like WoW educates players in a way that's more powerful than tradtitional education.  In particular, it provides a sort of deep social education (how to live, work, lead, and interact within a group) that many of the players often cannot experience in real life.

Unlike education acquired through textbooks, lectures, and classroom instruction, what takes place in massively multiplayer online games is what we call accidental learning. It's learning to be - a natural byproduct of adjusting to a new culture - as opposed to learning about.

While Gillett is probably a bad case to use, since he was already pretty successful to begin with, it certainly does raise the question of how learning through immersive gaming can help build skills that translate into real world success.  What's significant is what is being learned, especially at the highest level of the guild.  At the level of a guild master, an incredible amount of things that translate into real world success are mastered and exercised on a daily basis.

In this way, the process of becoming an effective World of Warcraft guild master amounts to a total-immersion course in leadership. A guild is a collection of players who come together to share knowledge, resources, and manpower. To run a large one, a guild master must be adept at many skills: attracting, evaluating, and recruiting new members; creating apprenticeship programs; orchestrating group strategy; and adjudicating disputes.

Indeed, it can take hours to organize and execute a coordinated raid of 20+ players all over the world.  Regardless of the venue, it takes a great amount of leadership to get any number of people to focus on a common goal and execute it in a timely manner.  Even more impressive is that in most guilds, leadership naturally evolves in the sense that most of these people come together without knowing each other and those with the ability and desire to lead tend to bubble up the chain of control.

The article further brings up a good point in stating that virtual worlds are great platforms for teaching these lessons because the cost of failure is low:

Where traditional learning is based on the execution of carefully graded challenges, accidental learning relies on failure. Virtual environments are safe platforms for trial and error. The chance of failure is high, but the cost is low and the lessons learned are immediate.

Cost of failure is a very real metric.  I think people are often afraid of trying new things or undertaking the journey to learn something worthwhile because of the high cost of "failure" in the real world (I'm certainly no exception; it's why I hate to read books because "what if it sucks?").  At the least, it costs you a lot of time to, for example, learn a new language, that you may never get to use frequently.  At the worst, it may cost you a significant amount of money if we're talking about running a business or making an investment.

When the cost of failure is low, it becomes trivial for anyone to adhere to the old adage, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

As for WoW, my personal impression that the skills to be a successful guild master in WoW (or a clan leader in any other multi-player game) are no different than the same skills that it takes to be a successful project manager or business leader in the real world.  You have to be able to evaluate resources and place them in a position to succeed.  You have to find the right mix of resources (build a well balanced team).  You have to be a skilled people person (well, at least in your online persona) and be able to resolve member disputes.  You have to be able to motivate people by controlling incentives (distributing loot).  You have to have great communication skills and overall great organization skills.

In actuality, this isn't too different from what it takes to be successful at many things in life, including dealing crack.  In Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt recounts the experience of Sudhir Venkatesh in 1989, then a young PhD candidate in the field of sociology, and "J.T.", the leader of a gang that he stumbled upon.

So how did the gang work?  An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald's

J.T., the college-educated leader of his franchise, reported to a central leadership of about twenty men that was called, without irony, the board of directors. (At the same time that white suburbanites were studiously mimicking black rappers' ghetto culture, black ghetto criminals were studiously mimicking the suburbanites' dads' corp-think).

Levitt goes into further detail about the incredibly well organized structure of the gang and the immaculate sales ledger that J.T. kept regarding all of the income and expenses of the gang, mostly from selling crack.

In the end, J.T. prevailed.  He oversaw the gang's expansion and ushered in a new era of prosperity and relative peace.  J.T. was a winner.  He was paid well because so few people could do what he did.

"We try to tell these shorties that they belong to a serious organization," he once told Venkatesh.

As is obvious, leadership is a valuable skill, whether it's natural, learned through a proper institution, or acquired through accidental learning.  The interesting question is how well these skills translate into the "real" world of business.  My feeling is that very few gamers will actually make that virtual-real world connection.

It's simply amazing that Joe probably puts in hours of research each week regarding items, weapons, skills, map routes, raids, and so on.  I often wonder what could be accomplished if Joe put the same effort into his personal life as he did into WoW say doing research on SharePoint or .Net.  But then, the learning wouldn't be experiential in nature, so it's hard to say.  I also wonder whether any of these skills can actually be translated into real world success since the whole idea of the online persona is to be someone that you can't be in the real world.

I should also mention that I think that MMO gaming instills a more general type of positive social training that helps even the most rebellious and anti-social of people since, typically, you cannot reach high levels of success in MMO's without the help of a group and you are forced to fall into a social order.  In that sense, it's not much different (and perhaps even more effective since anyone can join) from traditional, contrived, school activities that serve the same purpose like cheering, team sports, debate club, etc.

I don't think Joe believed me when I first proposed to him that MMO's were ultimately about a social experience.  You see, he had started playing the game "solo" and didn't want to be a part of any guild since very few of the group of us that played games together were planning on buying WoW.  This kind of reflects his real life nature in that he has a very close circle of old friends that he sticks with and isn't the most outgoing person (and neither am I, actually).  But now, oddly enough, as I understand, he's one of the higher level leaders of the guild that he's in.

Well, I'm just kind of stammering on now.  So there you have it.  Next time someone makes the obvious comment that WoW is like crack, you can bring up a totally different angle and be a (bigger) nerd.

FYI: I do not play WoW; I tried Guild Wars for a month or two, but I just can't really get into MMOs, possibly due to my INTP personality profile; more likely it's just because I'm even anti-social in my online personas 😀

EDIT: There's some great commentary over at a related thread on Fark, I'll include some choice bits:


I've been a guild leader in WoW. I've also held assorted real life positions of responsibility. The article has a good point. You need to bring 50 people of all ages and personalities together to perform complex tasks, without any of the typical forms of reimbursement. You can't force people to be there, and you can't really pay them in any way that has an impact in their real lives.

In general, I've noticed that the guild leaders in WoW have to be much more saavy than your 'real life' management. Most of the latter tend to exploit the power they hold over their employees...they know that they can get you fired, affect your pay, make sure you get all the shiat jobs.

In the videogame, you have to be more persuasive. Start bossing around a 15 year old whose never had a real job, and he'll just up and quit. Patronize a 40 year old who makes $100k/yr, and he'll quit. It's a much more individual-based form of management.


Two candidates - all other things exactly equal - apply for a job. One tells me in the interview that he/she can keep a herd of 100 or so online gamers on task and organized for 4-5 hour chunks of time. That's gotta mean something.


But irregardless, to do such a thing would take management. And that's what the article is really about. Proper management and people skills. Get the right people with the right mix of talents and you're set.

And if you can do that in the virtual world with jackass 13-year olds that nerf you and then question your sexuality, you can do it in real life.


Gaming Rant

Posted by Charles Chen

So the last few months, I've been on this crazy GBA gaming spree.  Even I myself find it weird that, with a PS2, GC, and a capable PC, I'm having the most fun playing some old school 2D sidescrollers and RPGs.  I'm currently making my way through Final Fantasy IV, which is still a great game in this day and age.

It's weird, in a sense, that in a medium (videogames) that allows for so much innovation and creativity, the industry continues to fall back on tried and true formulas, time and again (with a few exceptions here and there).

I came across two items this morning that kinda got me thinking about how seriously the rehashing has become.

The first was The Grand List of RPG Cliches.  It reveals how many of the RPG games today, while they certainly feature better graphics and some level of innovation in the battle systems, at the core, all contain the same recycled material.  To be honest, this was always in the back of my head.  Seeing it materialized in a list made it much more apparent, however. 

I was more disheartened when I came across a preview of RF Online (yet another Korean MMORPG).  Certainly, this game has some very nice art direction and slick graphics.  I downloaded the gameplay video expecting to be blown out of my seat (I don't know why).  But, to my dismay, I was underwhelmed and even disappointed by the gameplay.  Basically, it boils down to the same "stand-hack-slash-repeat" combat system that has been so disappointing in so many other games.

It's not that such a battle system can't work, one of my favorite games of all time, Vagrant Story, used just such a system.  But it was genius and quite unique at the time (and still is).  The issue with RF Online, Guild Wars, WoW, Lineage II, and just about every other MMORPG to date is that they keep recycling the same basic principles and the same basic gameplay.  Blah!  The least that these guys can do is to copy Vagrant Story and add another diemension to the gameplay.

You would think that someone, by now, would have created a MMO/RPG that would truly break the mold and go off in a totally new direction and address all of the issues that make no sense in "classic" RPGs.

Filed under: Gaming 3 Comments

Ebert on Games as Art, Part 2

Posted by Charles Chen

Over the last few weeks, there has been quite some noise regarding the debate as to whether video games should be regarded as a form of "art".  Certainly, this is not a new debate, but it has been reinvigorated as the new generation of hardware and software allow the game designers to build ever more photo-realistic environments and bring us closer to an interactive movie.

At the center of the debate, today, is Roger Ebert, one of the most respected and recognized authorities on motion pictures.  I must have missed the original source of the current dialogue (I can track it to the third Q&A on this page), but the resulting comments from around the world/web is interesting nonetheless.  There are so many great replies and comments, that it's hard to really summarize, but there are a few choice perspectives that I feel I should highlight.

Like Tim Maly, I don't think that a comparison of film to video games is one that has any relevance.  As Tim states in a letter to Ebert,

The invention of photography sparked a crisis in the world of
painting: "Why should we paint if pictures can do it better?" But then
painters figured out that there were lots of other things that they
could do, that cameras can't.

Simon val Alphen adds,

Last year, I finally got around to reading Aristotle's Poetics and was
charmed to discover that large sections involve Ari discussing the
relative merits between the new-kid Tragedy versus the established form
of Epic Verse. He cites other critics who argue that Tragedy, featuring
vulgar elements such as singing and creating works of hugely less
scale, is a lesser form than the traditional Epic Verse. Aristotle
plays it cute, arguing what they've analyzed as weaknesses are in fact
strengths, allowing Tragedy to move people in ways Epic Verse simply

In general, I tend to agree with the opinion that games can't be compared to movies (nor should they be).  It's certainly not a crime to compare a gaming experience to a cinematic experience (read my review of MGS3 for PS2), as more developers start to create more story driven games, hire top notch voice acting talent, incorporate motion captured movement to create more fluid animation, and push the visual envelope that distinguishes the virtual world from the physical world.  But there will always be that element of interaction that seperates games from film.  This interaction, as Ebert and several correspondents point out, leads to an experience that is altogether incongruent to the principles of film.  However, as van Alphen suggests, video games offer an experience that simply cannot be delivered by film.

Of course, this is not to say that there are no similarities in the two mediums, but rather these similarities must be compared in different contexts and with regards to different factors.

There are many, many more great comments on Ebert's website that are worth reading through for offering well thought out responses to this dialogue which Ebert seems to have singlehandedly rekindled.  I, for one, am glad that Ebert has brought this discussion to a more mainstream outlet (as opposed to the geek-infested Internet forums and boards).


Speculating on the next Gameboy

Posted by Charles Chen

As I was laying down to sleep, I started to think about the next generation Gameboy (GBX, Gameboy Next).  Honestly, I don't remember the train of thought that lead me to thinking about it, but I was sooo engrossed, that I had to get out of bed to jot down ideas and what not.

The first thing that came to mind is what type of media would Nintendo choose to use?  I think that any sort of optical or magnetic disk type media would be way too inefficient from a power and loading time perspective.  Clearly, Nintendo has always placed a big emphasis on quick load times, which are essential for portable gaming systems.  In addition, Gameboys have a rich tradition of looong battery life.  Disk based media require spinup time, which negatively affect load times.  So the only thing that comes to my mind is flash media (or small format hard drives, if they're cheap enough and sufficiently durable).  It will likely be a proprietary format (for reasons that will be discussed below). 

But to distribute flash media with each game is inefficient and costly (as was always the main issue with cartridge based systems aside from the size limitation).  We have already been told by Nintendo that the Revolution will offer games for download.  It would seem like this would also be the obvious choice for the GBX, with one radical difference: the games will be download only

Yes, download only.  This may sound bad for stores that sell games, but consider the facts: 1) stores will have an advantage in that they can distribute game related materials (manuals, freebies, etc.), 2) not everyone will have access to an internet connection, so stores will still need to have download kiosks, 3) stores will allow users to validate copies of existing software titles so that users can download.  That last point is of particular interest as it means that the GBX will have backwards compatability by allowing users to download copies of their old games.  We have a precedence for this as Revolution will allow users to download old NES and SNES games (and who knows what else, maybe even Sega Genesis games?!).  On point 1, all manuals will be made available online in PDF format for download.  On point 2, an internet connection will not be required to play the game, only to download the game.

All downloaded games are portable across units, but not across media.  What this means is that you can download a game to a particular media and you can then use that media in another unit to play the game, but you cannot copy the media.

Flash memory is relativley cheap nowadays, with retail prices for 1GB of memory ranging from $40-50.  For comparisons sake, the Gamecube disks are 1.5GB in capacity.  Keeping in mind that this is a portable system meant to be played on a small screen and the fact that flash memory prices will drop significantly in the next 1.5 to 2 years (the timeline for the GBX), we can postulate that a 2-4GB flash unit at $40-50 could hold a good number of games considering that the current DS memory cards are only supported up to 128MB.  Of course, the games themselves will be cheaper as the overhead of distributing the games is significantly reduced.  The cost of printing the games is completely eliminated.

The advantages of using flash media and downloads is easily apparent in the cost savings for Nintendo and the convenience for the user.  Using solid state memory allows for significant power savings and reduced loading times compared to magnetic and optical media.  For game saves, the GBX can either reserve game save space on the download media (for example, if the game is 120MB, 10MB may be reserved for the game saves for a total footprint of 130MB) or perhaps use a seperate, more conventional (non-proprietary) media, for game saves.

So why is a proprietary media required for the downloaded games?  The reason is that it must support certain measures to ensure that games are not duplicated (or at least not easily duplicated) and/or pirated.  More specifically, it must contain a write only section that cannot be altered. How does this all work out?  I'm glad you asked 🙂

  • Each media will have a unique identifier (UIDMedia)
  • Each media will have a private key (KV,Media) and a public key (KU,Media)
  • Each GBX unit will have a global public key (KU,Global)
  • Nintendo servers will have a master database that contains the unique ID (UIDMedia) for every media manufactured along with the public key for the media (KU,Media)
  • Nintendo servers will also have a private key (KV,Global)

Certainly, there will be some sort of handshake procedure and what not to setup the connection for browsing game catalogs and initiating the download to ensure that only registered hardware (registered when manufactured) can connect to the servers, but I'm only going to cover how a theoretical download scenario could work after the handshake.

(I aplogize for the unconventional notation, as I'm too lazy to go in and format the HTML properly, so just follow along.  Also bear in mind that this is a very high level overview.)

  1. <Unit> M0 = Encrypt(KU,Global(UIDMedia)).  The first step is to create a message by encrypting the unique ID of the media using the public key of the Nintendo servers.  This ensures that only Nintendo servers, which have the private key, can decrypt the message and map the unique ID of the media to the public key of the media.  The message is sent to a Nintendo server.
  2. <Server> UIDMedia = Decrypt(KV,Global(M0)).  The server decrypts the message from the unit using the server's private key.  This results in the unique ID of the media.  The Nintendo servers contain a key map of media unique ID to media public key.
  3. <Server> M1 = Encrypt(KU,Media(KShared)).  Using the public key of the media, a shared key is encrypted to create one part of a message.
  4. <Server> M2 = Encrypt(KShared(FileGame)).  The game binaries are then encrypted using the shared key.
  5. <Server> MF = M1 + M2.  A final message is created by encapsulating the encrypted shared key and the encrypted game file.  This composite message is then returned to the GBX unit.
  6. <Unit> KShared = Decrypt(KV,Media(M1)).  The GBX unit obtains the shared key by decrypting the first part of the return message using the private key of the media (remember, it was encrypted using the public key of the media which is stored at the server).  The shared key is never stored in an unencrypted form.  Each time a player loads a game, the shared key is decrypted again.  Only the encrypted form of the shared key is stored (perhaps the unique ID of the media is also stored in the message as an added measure).  Because the shared key is encrypted with the public key of the media, only the private key of the media, contained in a read only region of the media, can be used to obtain the shared key.
  7. <Unit> FileGame = Decrypt(KShared(M2)).  The game file is read using the shared key.  Decryption is done in real time using hardware level decryption for performance reasons.

Essentially, this would be a form of DRM where the rights are associated with the media, not with the unit.

Bill Gates was straight on in commenting that the HD-DVD vs Blu-ray format war is insignificant due to the fact that this will be the last significant physical media (from a distribution perspective) for quite a while (at least when it comes to consumer electronics; holographic storage will eventually become the standard in ultra high capacity data storage).  Nintendo, I think, will be the first gaming company to move away from distributing physical media altogether by switching to a download only type of service for its next gen portable console.

Other random thoughts on the console are:

  • The DS screen resolution is currently 256x192 (for each screen).  PSP is 480x272.  I expect that, with the improvements in LCD and processor technology in the next two years, the GBX will have a resolution higher than the PSP (although we all know that Nintendo has a habit of undervaluing graphics capabilities).
  • It will have a 6 button design similar to the DS.  The current GBA has a 4 button design (A,B,L,R).  I picture a setup more like the GCN's, however, in that it will be three smaller buttons surrounding one large action button.
  • The unit will have a built in gyroscope.  This ties into the Revolution and some of the experimental games on the GBA which have built in motion sensors (WarioWare Twisted!).  Racing games, flight sims, etc. will be totally sick on this machine.  In addition, it may also connect to the Revolution as a wireless controller.
  • Following in the vein of the SP and the Micro, it will be slickIt will be sexy.  I picture it somewhat like an iPod Nano in terms of finish (except it'll be more resistent to scratches).
  • It will have built in wireless capabilities.  We see that Nintendo is finally coming around to all of this 'Net gaming and really embracing it (Mario Kart DS).
  • To enforce a kid-safe environment, as each unit will have a unique ID, Nintendo can create an architecture whereby each conversation and each exchange of text is logged and scanned in an asynchronous fashion.  Other users in a conversation may also choose to explicitly tag a conversation as breaching the terms of service.  Essentially, it would require a massive grid of computers to scrub recorded voice and text data for abuse.  In turn, Nintendo can punish those users by disabling voice and text capabilities (on the Nintendo network) for an increasing period of time with each infraction.
  • There is a very distinct possibility that we will be seeing an emergence of large capacity, small format hard drives in the next year.  This is related to the recent developments in storage design.  Specifically, perpendicular storage technology, which promises to increase disk density significantly.  Anywhere I've used "flash memory", it may very well be replaced with a micro harddrive boasting 20-40GB.
  • I think it'll look like the OQO ultraportable in terms of layout (the screen slides up to reveal the input buttons), except not as wide.  This would be inline with the design of the Gameboy Advance SP "clamshell" and would be great for viewing media when not gaming.  Which leads me to...
  • The GBX, contrary to Nintendo's typical stance on building pure gaming machines, will be a multimedia platform as well.  With the emergence of cheap, large capacity storage and the competition (Sony), it will be hard for Nintendo to ignore this functionality.
  • And finally, this being Nintendo, we know that there is going to be some sort of innovation that hasn't been done before on a handheld gaming system.  I predict that this will be stereoscopic 3D.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Sharp has already developed an LCD for cellphones which has this technology.  What's great is that the effect can be turned off in case it causes headaches and what not for certain users.

Okay, that's enough babbling and speculation from me.  Time to sleep damnit!  I dunno, I've somehow managed to hype myself up over my totally fabricated speculation 😀

But mark my words, I think what I've outlined here will come to be in the form of the next generation "Gameboy".