Monday, August 21, 2006

UPS Yours!

In Xbox 360: Game Console Or Paperweight?, I wrote about how my console died, repairing it, and the hard lesson learned about service contracts for cutting-edge technology. This time I'm writing about another hard lesson, this one learned in the process of trying to get the console repaired.

Here's how an out-of-warranty Xbox 360 repair is supposed to work: The console owner calls Microsoft and pays for a repair with a credit card. Microsoft sends an empty box to the owner via UPS. The owner packs the Xbox 360 in the box and sends it back to Microsoft. After fixing it, Microsoft ships it back to the customer again.

Here's how it has actually worked, so far: I called Microsoft on the 8th and made a repair order. The good news is that as part of the repair price, Microsoft will pick up the shipping costs both ways. The bad news is that it via be three business days each way for shipping and something like five business days for the repair. So I resign myself to waiting a couple of weeks until I can get my working console back.

Tuesday the 15th comes, and the good news is, surely the shipping box will be delivered by today. The bad news is that it isn't. I get home around 6:30PM from shopping and there is neither a delivery notice on my door nor the blue card in my mailbox that means the package has been left at the apartment complex's leasing office. I call Microsoft, and the customer service representative gives me the UPS tracking number. I look it up on the UPS website, and the good news is that the package was shipped and has arrived in Phoenix. The bad news is that both times when delivery was attempted, I wasn't home and the carrier didn't leave a delivery notice. The good news here is that the regular UPS delivery guy, Dave, frequently delivers stuff I order online, and knows to leave packages at the apartment leasing office before 6PM. The bad news is that this can't possibly be him; the second delivery attempt was around 5:30PM.

So I call UPS and ask item to inform the driver that the package needs to be left at the apartment leasing office before 6PM. The good news is that UPS agrees to do this and text indicating an exception appears in the tracking log. The bad news is that on Wednesday the 16th the package is again not delivered, and again there's no delivery notice. The log indicates that delivery was attempted shortly after 7PM. I was home the entire evening, and my doorbell never rang. So perhaps he tried to deliver it directly to the leasing office as I requested...but after 6PM, which I'd indicated was too late. He certainly never attempted to deliver it directly to me.

I again call UPS to complain, and ask them to make sure the driver knows that the package must be delivered before 6PM, and to the leasing office. I know that the next day I'm definitely not going to be there to get it. The good news is that UPS agrees to inform the driver, and I make sure he can't miss it by taping a note to the outside of my door. The bad news is that of course he does somehow miss it, and again on Thursday the 17th delivery is attempted after 7PM and no notice is left.

I call UPS one more time, and since the log indicates that the package will be held at the local UPS office for pickup, I get the address from the customer service representative and change my Friday plans so I can be at their office before 6PM when they close. The good news is that I'll definitely be able to get the package, finally. The bad news is that I have to rearrange my schedule.

It's a good thing, though, that I check the tracking log one more time Friday afternoon; the good news is that the package was delivered at 1:30PM.

Dave's back!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My Reviewing System

Well, it's not so much a system as a vague notion of how to proceed. My approach will be somewhat similar to that of the website The Game Chair; I'll be providing partial reviews of games as I play them, along with a summary when I'm done. If I revisit a game later on for a replay and have something to add, I'll post another partial review. If you want a hasty impression based on the reviewer playing through a game as fast as possible to get it written a day or two after game release, then go to one of the regular gaming websites like GameSpot or IGN.

Reviews will be contextual; the original release date of a game and the system it runs on will be considered when evaluating its quality, especially as regards technical aspects; I don't expect a game from 1996 to have the graphics, sound and physics support of a game from 2006. Nor do I expect a PSP game to have the same level of presentation as a PS2 game.

My first review of a game will start with some reference information, such as the release date, game type and publisher. Then I'll make some general comments, and describe the game, including where applicable such elements as story, point of view, play style, goals, target audience, and so on. Next I'll make some evaluative comments and tell what I thought of various aspects. Finally I'll summarize my evaluation and provide detail and summary scores.

Subsequent reviews will describe and evaluate the portion of the game I've played through and provide a summary that covers both the new portion and the game overall so far. The detail and summary scores will cover new newly-played portion, adding an overall score that covers the game so far.

The final review will be like the partial ones, only with a more complete summary section and a final score for the game.

A word about scores: Most reviewers provide scores that more closely resemble the U.S. grammar school grading system than a legitimate numerical rating like 0-100 with 0 being unplayable and 100 being unmissable and 50 being average. Instead, 75 corresponds to a "C" grade and means that a game is average. Anything below a 60 is like an "F" and considered not worth playing.

There have been some exceptions to this, such as the new aggregation site that intends to normalize scores on a curve on a per-site basis, or the site The Game Chair, where each of the four star ratings has a specific meaning, which makes score inflation difficult.

My approach will be a little different. Instead of a numeric score or stars, I'll be explicitly grading games as though they were school projects. Grades will range from A+ to F, omitting E. Like The Game Chair, each grade will have a specific meaning in order to avoid grade inflation.

Another difference is that the summary grades are not averages of the detail grades; instead every grade is given independently, with summary grades reflecting my impression of that general aspect of the game. Also, not every game will be evaluated on the same criteria, and the list of criteria will probably grow with time.

Here's my initial list of grading criteria:
  • Graphics
  • Music
  • Sound
  • Story
  • Voice Acting
  • Overall Presentation
  • Controls
  • Difficulty
  • Frustration
  • Gameplay
  • Learning Curve
  • Length
  • Replay Value
  • UI
  • Overall Playability
  • Awe
  • Awww
  • Cheer
  • Cool
  • Fear
  • Fun
  • Funny
  • Outrage
  • Sadness
  • Scare
  • Shock
  • Suspense
  • Thrill
  • Overall Emotional Impact
  • Overall Grade
  • Purchase Recommendation

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Xbox 360: Game Console Or Paperweight?

Yesterday my Xbox 360 died, quietly and without warning. One moment it was playing a DVD for my cat, and the next it was frozen. Rebooting resulted in a freeze partway through the boot logo, and then the dreaded three red segments flashed around the power button.

I performed all the steps listed in the troubleshooting guide at Microsoft's website. Still I got the red lights, the dread lights, the your-box-is-dead-lights.

I've had the box for six months, so it's no longer covered by the default 90-day warranty. I had had very few problems in that time, and thought I was past any manufacturing defects.

Usually I don't buy extended warranties, because I baby my equipment and manufacturing defects show up in the first day or two of use. So my stuff either fails right away or keeps working until it wears out. So I didn't buy one this time either. Just to make sure, I had left the machine running for an entire weekend shortly after I got it, and had no freezes. So I thought I was safe.

I was wrong. What I failed to consider was that the initial manufacturing runs of a new product are often the most trouble-prone, and not all defects show up in the first few days of use.

Now I'm out the cost of repair, which is double the cost of a two-year service contract. Make that triple since I'm going to buy the contract when I get the machine back.

Moral of the story: Service contracts are usually a waste of money...but not always.

My Life As a Gamer Part 4: Reconstruction

After the Recent Unpleasantness in mid-2003, rebuilding of everything began, including my collection of games and gaming hardware.

With the aid of a new job and steady income, my library passed its former size sometime in 2005. So now it's all about new titles and next-gen systems, old titles that are new to me, completing collections of game series, and my first tentative steps into mutliplayer and online gaming.

And actually finishing some of the games!

I'm still adding to my library, of course, but as I have enough games to play for years, I'm being far more selective. For me to consider acquiring it, a game has to be one that I would be interested in anyway, and pass one of the following four tests:
  • Does it help complete a game series I like and already own one or more from it, such as Prince of Persia or Wing Commander?
  • Does it score 90% or better on
  • Has it been recommended to me by someone I trust for reasons I agree with?
  • Is it a game I need in order to play online or multiplayer with a friend?
Titles I've enjoyed during these years include Silent Hill 3 and 4, the first three titles in the Myst series, Max Payne, Halo, Starlancer, Freelancer, Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider Legend, Starfleet Command III, TIE Fighter, Fury3, Babylon 5 I've Found Her: Danger and Opportunity, Armagetron, Grim Fandango, Final Fantasy VII and X, Painkiller, Frozen Bubble, Bejewelled 2, Black Knight, Golden Sun, Burnout Takedown and Revenge, Burnout Legends, all three Fatal Frames, Wipeout 3 and Pure, Katamari Damacy, Dragon Quest 8, Need for Speed Most Wanted, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Battlestar Galactica, Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, Mercury, Stubbs the Zombie, Half-Life 2, Black, EVE Online, Medal of Honor Frontline, Shadow of the Colossus, Jet Set Radio Future, SSX 3, the Marathon series, Metal Gear Acid, Ridge Racer PSP, Prey, Ninja Gaiden, Nintendogs, Guitar Hero, Forza Motorsport, and Killzone.

Those who say there are no good games out there are deluded; I think the ratio of dreck to worthwhile titles remains about the same (90%/10%), but the volume of titles has increased dramatically in recent years. Clearly, given that the above list isn't complete, I'd say there's plenty out there worth playing.

That brings us to the present, the start of this blog, and the end of this post.

My Life As a Gamer Part 3: After Us, The Deluge

By 1997 Commodore was no more, and it was plain that the Amiga's days were numbered. Additionally, I'd married a PC user who also owned a Playstation, and picked up her old PC when she got a new one. So the Amiga gathered dust while I played X-Wing and Wipeout and Duke Nukem 3D. Real Life concerns ate up my gaming time, and the Amiga moved from the house to the garage and finally to the trash.

Technically this was not a violation of my oath, as by this time the Intel processors had moved to a less-brain-dead architecture, and something close to a real operating system had come from Microsoft (Windows 95). Still, I punished myself by feeling bad about it. Honest!

During this era, which lasted until 2003, I steadily accumulated PC and PS1 titles, and PS2 and Xbox titles after we acquired those platforms.

Memorably enjoyable titles from this era include (in addition to the ones already mentioned): Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, Colony Wars, Rainbow Six, Half-Life, Silent Hill, Wipeout 3, Aliens vs. Predator, Star Trek DS9: The Fallen, Gunman Chronicles, Fear Effect 2, Gran Turismo 3, Ico, Ace Combat 4, Ghost Recon, Jedi Outcast, Star Trek Elite Force, and Silent Hill 2.

In 2003 came Divorce, and among other things washed away in the Deluge was my entire game collection. And that bring us to the last era: Reconstruction.

My Life As a Gamer Part 2: The PC Years

With 1981 came college and the continuation of TRS-80 gaming. It also saw the introduction of the IBM PC, a machine I was utterly uninterested in, for esoteric programming-related reasons. Having dealt with CP/M86, I had sworn an oath never to own a machine primarily based on Intel's brain-damaged segmented architecture. This oath I kept until 1997.

There weren't a lot of games for the TRS-80, but in combination with trips to the arcades there were enough to keep the gaming spark alive through around 1990 or so. Most were ports of arcade games, including surprisingly good (considering the 128x48 resolution graphics) versions of Defender, Galaxian and Pac-Man. There were also occasional original games like the hilarious and fun Outhouse. And there were text adventures from Adventure International and later Infocom.

By 1990 I'd been working for a major IT firm for four years and could afford a new PC (dont beat me up over the ''microcomputer vs. PC" distinction; that battle was lost long ago). I stuck to my oath and bought a Commodore Amiga. It was easy. At the time, the PC wars had not yet been decided, and in every technical respect the Amiga was superior to an Intel-based PC running Windows 3.0. It was also superior in some suspects to a Mac, and was considerably cheaper.

And of course it had better games.

These ranged from the unwieldy ArcticFox, Barbarian, Defender of the Crown, Dungeon Master, Falcon, Jet, Pac-Mania, Red Baron, SDI, Space Quest, and Their Finest Hour: Battle of Britain, to the middling Emerald Mine, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Ferrari Formula One, Great Giana Sisters, Gunship 2000, Knights of the Sky, Outrun, Plutos, Silent Service, and StarGlider 2, to the excellent A-10 Tank Killer, Arkanoids, F-16 Combat Pilot, F/A-18 Interceptor, Fighter Duel Pro, Frontier Elite II, Indianapolis 500, Lemmings, Marble Madness, Star Wars, Super Hang-On, Test Drive 2, Turrican, and Wing Commander.

All this kept me in gaming goodness until 1997. My trips to the arcades dropped off drastically; those shallow coin-eating game designs couldn't compete with the hours of enjoyment in titles like Wing Commander, A-10 Tank Killer, or Frontier Elite II. Nor could the Nintendos or Segas, which I perceived as arcade rip-offs. I was unaware of superior titles like Metroid or Final Fantasy.

Then, in 1997, I got married, and the PC-only phase of my gaming life ended. And the next began: After Us, The Deluge.

Monday, August 07, 2006

My Life As A Gamer Part 1: The Public School Years

My first exposure to videogames was in the early 70s, when as a child I saw a Pong machine in a local store. Once I played, I was hooked. After that, I played whatever I could, whenever I could get a few quarters. Arcades, department stores, supermarkets, bowling alleys, whatever. If there was a game there and I could wheedle some quarters, I was playing.

The Atari 2600, when it came out, interested me. Intensely. But alas, Mom and Dad were of modest means and so I had to make do with a dedicated Tank War videogame. Which I played. Until it wore out.

Upon entering high school, I was presented with the opportunity to write software - first for programmable calculators (including my TI-57), then for the school's leased IBM 1130 "small" computer system, and finally for the TRS-80 and CP/M systems (the latter as a summer and part-time job). So of course I tried my hand at writing computer games.

First were a couple of games for the TI-57:

Pinball: A string of '1's would randomly grow and shrink, and you had to hit a button before it shrank to nothing.

Dogfight: You had to put in a roll and pitch value on each turn, and was told the angles of the target plane in response. If you managed to get the angles under five degrees, you shot the other plane down.

Then there were these games in BASIC for the TRS-80:

Blasteroids: This was a side-scrolling shoot-em-down with your ship at the top, dodging and shooting down at the asteroids that scrolled up from the bottom.

Night of the Living Dead: You're in a minefield full of electric mines - they electrocute rather than explode so they're reusable. You can see the mines. The zombies run straight at you. To win, move so that the zombies step on the mines. Don't get caught or step on a mine yourself.

Escape From Death Star: This was my masterpiece. It's the first game I know of to cover loading time with a cutscene. It began with the Star Wars logo, followed by the title and some forgettable text, scrolling from bottom to top. Then came the cutscene of the Falcon leaving the Death Star's docking bay. Finally was an animation of the ship flying away. When gameplay started, the player was presented with a starfield behind a targeting crosshair. You could rotate the turret up, down, left or right. A T.I.E. fighter would move randomly across the starfield, shooting at you. Sometimes it would hit. When you shot at it, two lasers would come in from the corners of the screen and meet at the crosshair. Shoot down all four TIEs, and win. Get hit five times (25% shield loss on each hit) and lose.

This, my acquisition of a TRS-80 Model III, and the availability of some rather good commercial games for it such as Adventure International's Adventure and subLogic's Flight Simulator took some of the shine off arcade games and consoles (like the 2600 and the Nintendo). That's not to say I quit putting quarters into arcade machines; after all, there was Space Invaders, Galaxian, Galaga, Asteroids, and Donkey Kong, just to name a few. But gameplay on the TRS-80, crude as its graphics and sound were, was good enough to kill my interest in consoles entirely. And this perception that anything a console can do, a PC can do as well or better, continued throughout my adult life until around 1997. So I missed out on the Nintendo and Sega eras.

And that brings us to 1981, graduation from high school, and the next era in this gamer's history: the PC years.


Hello, and welcome to Hans On Video Gaming. This blog is where I will, when the mood strikes me, write about things video-game-related. Expect sporadic updates.