Random Thoughts – Randocity!

What is 35mm film resolution?

Posted in entertainment, film, movies, technologies by commorancy on December 26, 2018

filmstrip-fI’ve seen a number of questions on Quora asking about this topic, likely related to 4K TV resolution. Let’s explore.

Film vs Digital

What is the amount of pixels in a 35mm frame of film? There’s not an exact number of pixels in a single frame of 35mm film stock. You know, that old plasticky stuff you had to develop with chemicals? Yeah, that stuff. However, the number of pixels can be estimated based on the ISO used.

Based on an ISO of 100-200, it is estimated that just shy of 20,000,000 (20 million) pixels make up a single 35mm frame after conversion to digital pixels. When the ISO is increased to allow more light into the aperture, this increases film noise or grain. As grain increases, resolution decreases. At an ISO of 6400, for example, the effective resolution in pixels might drop to less than 10,000,000 (10 million) due to more film grain. It can be even lower than that depending on the type of scene, the brightness of the scene and the various other film factors… including how the film was developed.

If we’re talking about 70mm film stock, then we’re talking about double the effective resolution. This means that a single frame of 70mm film stock would contain (again at ISO 100-200) about 40,000,000 (40 million) digital pixels.

Digital Cinematography

Panavision Millenium DXL2With the advent of digital cinematography, filmmakers can choose from the older Panavision film cameras or they can choose between Panavision‘s or RED‘s digital cameras (and, of course, others). For a filmmaker choosing a digital camera over a film camera, you should understand the important differences in your final film product.

As of this article, RED and Panavision digital cinematography cameras produce a resolution up to 8k (7,680 × 4,320 = 33,177,600 total pixels). While 33 million pixels is greater than the 20 million pixels in 35mm film, it is still less resolution than can be had in 70mm film at 40 million pixels. Red DragonThis means that while digital photography might offer a smoother look than film, it doesn’t necessarily offer better ‘quality’ than film.

Though, using digital cameras to create content is somewhat cheaper because there’s no need to send the footage to a lab to be developed… only to find that the film was defective, scratched or in some way problematic. This means that digital photography is a bit more foolproof as you can immediately preview the filmed product and determine if it needs to be reshot in only a few minutes. With film, you don’t know what you have until it’s developed, which could be a day or two later.

With that said, film’s resolution is based on its inherent film structure. Film resolution can also be higher than that of digital cameras. Film also looks different due to the way the film operates with sprockets and “flipping” in both the camera and projector. Film playback simply has a different look and feel than digital playback.

RED expects to increase its camera resolution to 10k (or higher) in the future. I’m unsure what exact resolution that will entail, but the current UW10k resolution features 10,240 × 4,320 = 44,236,800 pixels. This number of pixels is similar to 70mm film stock in total resolution, but the aspect ratio is not that of a film screen, which typically uses 2.35:1 (Cinemascope widescreen) or 16:9 (TV widescreen) formats. I’d expect that whatever resolution / aspect that RED chooses will still provide a 2.35:1 format and other formats, though it might even support that oddball UW10k aspect with its 10,240 pixels wide view. These new even wider screens are becoming popular, particularly with computers and gaming.

Film Distribution

Even though films created on RED cameras may offer an up to 8k resolution, these films are always down-sampled for both theatrical performance and for home purchasing. For example, the highest resolution you can buy at home is the UltraHD 4K version which offers 3,840 x 2,160 = 8,294,400 pixels. Converting an 8k film into 4k, you lose around 24 million pixels of resolution information from the original film source. This is the same when converting film stock to digital formats.

Digital films projected in theaters typically use theatrical 4K copies, much the same as you can buy on UltraHD 4K discs, just tied to a different licensing system that only theaters use.

Future TV formats

TV resolutions have been going up and up. From 480p to 1080p to 4K and next to 8K. Once we get to 8K in the home, this is the resolution you’ll find natively with most digitally captured films. Though, some early digital films were filmed in 4K. Eventually, we will be able to see digital films in its native resolution. 8K TVs will finally allow home consumers to watch films in their filmed resolution, including both 35mm film and 70mm film stock both as well as many digital only films.

For this reason, I’m anxious to finally see 8K TVs drop in price to what 4K TVs are today (sub $1000). By that time, of course, 4K TVs will be sub $200.

8K Film Distribution

To distribute 8K films to home consumers, we’re likely going to need a new format. UltraHD Blu-ray is likely not big enough to handle the size of the files of 8K films. We’ll either need digital download distribution or we’ll need a brand new, much larger Blu-ray disc. Or, the movie will need to be shipped on two discs in two parts… I always hated switching discs in the middle of a movie. Of course, streaming from services like Netflix is always an option, but even 4K isn’t widely adopted on these streaming platforms as yet.

Seeing in 8K?

Some people claim you can’t see the difference between 1080p and 4K. This is actually an untrue statement. 1080p resolution, particularly on a 55″ or larger TV, is easy to spot the pixels from a distance… well, not exactly the pixels themselves, but the rows and columns of pixels (pixel grid) that make up the screen. With 4K resolution, the pixels are so much smaller, it’s almost impossible to see this grid unless you are within inches of the screen. This makes viewing films in 4K much more enjoyable.

With 8K films, the filmed actors and environments will be so stunningly detailed as to be astounding. We’ll finally get to see all of that detail that gets lost when films are down-converted to 4K from 8K. We’ll also get to see pretty much what came out of the camera rather than being re-encoded.

Can humans see 8K? Sure, just like you can see the difference between 1080p and 4K, you will be able to see a difference in quality and detail between 4K and 8K. It might be a subtle difference, but it will be there and people will be able to see it. Perhaps not everyone will notice it or care enough to notice, but it will be there.

Film vs Digital Differences

The difference between film and digital photography is in how the light is captured and stored. For film, the camera exposes the film to light which is then developed to show what was captured. With digital photography, CMOS (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) or possibly CCDs (Charge Coupled Devices) are used to capture imagery. Most cameras today opt for CMOS sensors because they’re less expensive to buy and provide equivalent quality to the CCD sensors. For this reason, this is why RED has chosen CMOS as the sensor technology of choice for their cameras. Though, RED cameras are in no way inexpensive, starting at around $20k and going up from there.

Overall

In concluding this article, I will say that 4K is definitely sufficient for most movie watching needs today. However, Internet speeds will need to improve substantially to offer the best 8K viewing experience when streaming. Even Netflix and Amazon don’t currently provide even an amazing 4K experience as yet. In fact, Netflix’s 4K offerings are few and far between. When you do find a film in 4K, it takes forever for Netflix to begin streaming this 4K content to the TV. Netflix first starts out streaming at 480p (or less), then gradually increases the stream rate until the movie is finally running at 4K. It can take between 5-10 minutes before you actually get a 2160p picture. Even then, the resolution can drop back down in the middle and take minutes before it resumes 4K.

Today, 4K streaming is still more or less haphazard and doesn’t work that well. That’s partly due to Netflix and partly due to the Internet. The streaming rate at which 4K content requires to achieve a consistent quality picture can really only be had from Blu-ray players or by downloading the content to your computer in advance and playing it from your hard drive. Streaming services offering 4K content still have many hurdles to overcome to produce high quality consistent 4K viewing experiences.

For this reason, 8K streaming content is still many, many years away. Considering that 4K barely works today, 8K isn’t likely to work at all without much faster Internet speeds to the home.

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Apple Music on Amazon Echo via Alexa

Posted in Amazon, Apple, howto, music by commorancy on December 17, 2018

AppleMusicThis one’s a quickie. Let’s explore.

Apple Music and Amazon

Apple has recently begun expanding its reach of Apple Music onto non-Apple devices. First was Android. Now, Apple Music has come to Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant on the Echo, Dot and other Alexa enabled devices. Of course, you’ll also need to subscribe to Apple Music to take advantage. Personally, I find Amazon’s digital music selection a bit lacking when compared to Apple’s catalog… part of the reason I chose to buy into Apple Music instead of Amazon Music Unlimited.

That’s not to say Apple Music is in any way perfect. There are plenty of artists who don’t publish digitally on Apple’s or Amazon’s platforms. For these artists, Apple offers a solution. Amazon doesn’t.

Unlike Amazon, who recently shut down the ability to upload songs into its platform, Apple Music allows iCloud upload for sharing music not found on iTunes between all of Apple’s devices. This means that even if you can’t find the song on Apple Music, you can buy a CD, rip it and then upload it to the iCloud platform for sharing and download on all of your devices. You can even buy it digitally, if you can find it, import it into iTunes and upload it for all of your devices.

I actually liked this feature on Amazon before they shut it down this summer. This is other half of the reason I have chosen Apple Music over Amazon Music Unlimited. I have a number of artists in my personal catalog that do not exist on Amazon or Apple’s platforms. I still want to be able to listen to these songs on all of my devices and have them in my Apple playlists. Apple’s iCloud sharing works perfect for this purpose. Amazon no longer has a solution for its Amazon Music Unlimited platform.

If you have music outside of Amazon Music Unlimited platform, you’ll have to figure out some other way to listen to it. You won’t be able to listen to it via Amazon Music Unlimited or by asking Alexa to play it… though, you can play it on your Echo by using your Echo as a Bluetooth speaker.

Installing Apple Music on Alexa

AppleMusic

  1. It’s really simple to enable this. Launch a browser to alexa.amazon.com (intentionally not linkified, select it, right click and then “Open in a new tab”) and login. You can also perform this setup from the Alexa app on your phone or tablet.
  2. Once logged in, click Music, Movies and Books from the left panel. It doesn’t matter which device is currently selected as this skill applies to all devices, but make sure the device can play music.
  3. Scroll down under Music and look for Apple Music and click it.
  4. If you’re in a browser, a new tab will open and take you to an Apple login & password screen.
  5. Log in with your Apple ID. Once logged in with your Apple ID, you’ll need to allow linking between Amazon Alexa and Apple Music.
  6. Done. Time to play some music!

Asking Alexa to play Music

To play music, simply ask Alexa like, “Alexa, play the playlist Fallout 76 Modern Radio on Apple Music” or “Alexa, play the song Pistol Packin’ Mama by Bing Crosby on Apple Music.”

If you leave off the “on Apple Music” statement, Alexa assumes you want to play the song via Amazon’s digital music platform such as Prime Music or Amazon Music Unlimited. Don’t forget to say this.

Alexa will respond by telling you that the song or playlist is playing via Apple Music. Keep in mind that this is a new skill for Alexa from Apple. This means that Apple may not yet have all of the bugs worked out. Expect some problems, particularly if you’re trying to use multiple Dots or Echos to produce stereo. Apple will get all of this worked out, but it may not work perfectly for a while.


Third party Alexa enabled devices, such as Sonos, may not yet support the Apple Music skill. If your device isn’t yet supported, contact your device manufacturer and ask when the skill will be supported. Amazon’s own devices should all work fine.

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Top 25 reasons to hate Fallout 76

Posted in botch, business, video game design by commorancy on December 10, 2018

11-24-2018_1-30-49_AM-oyduc45dIt’s clear, Fallout 76 is a failure. From its lackluster controls, piss poor collision detection and poor enemy AI to its poor graphics quality and poor storytelling, this game fails in practically every conceivable way. Here are the top 25 reasons this game sucks. Let’s explore.


25. Map and Pins

Fallout76-MapWhile the map mostly works in terms of seeing locations, this game really needs multiple pins to mark items found that don’t have map markers, such as where specific plants are, veins of ore, small houses and other points of interest.

How it should have worked — Support multiple pins with labels which can be placed onto the map to allow for marking points of interest, specific areas of plants and other things that may be difficult to locate again.

How it actually works — You get a single custom marker that you can place down. You can’t mark anything else after that one marker, you simply have to remember where you found something. There’s only a single large marker that points your way to whatever you’ve marked. And believe me, you do need this in the game. Because all of the quest markers all look the same, when all of the quests are active at once, there are so many markers on the HUD, you have no idea which one is which.

This problem is mostly insignificant next to those problems yet to be described below. Only after all of the other major problems are resolved would I ever consider adding this to the feature improvement list.

24. Farming at your CAMP and in Blast Zones

You can plant certain limited fruits and vegetables, but they are not irradiated when in a blast zone.

How it should have worked — You should be allowed to plant any type of plant at your CAMP that you have discovered and picked. Any camps in a Blast Zone should be removed from the map and/or severely damaged. If not moved, then at least any planted crops should be irradiated like the ‘naturally occurring’ plants in the area.

How it actually works — Fallout 76 limits you to planting but a few fruits and vegetables from the build menu. In Skyrim, if you could pick it, you could plant it. Here, you can only plant those limited fruits and vegetables selected by the devs, such as Blackberries, Muttfruit, Corn, Razorgrain, Melon, Carrots and Gourd. If you want to plant Soot Flowers, Snaptails, Bloodleaf, Diseased Cranberries or anything else, you cannot. If your camp ends up in a blast zone from the Death from Above quest, your camp remains totally intact including your fruits and vegetables. I wandered into it wearing a Hazmat Suit that I found at the Westek building. While other flora in the area become irradiated, your CAMP planted foods remain completely ‘normal’.

23. Random Server Disconnects

This one might be expected occasionally considering it’s an always-on multiplayer game experience.

How it should have worked — Actually beta test your games and your servers so that server disconnects are the fewest type of failure points.

12-9-2018_10-41-26_PM-qybv0b53How it actually works — Random server disconnects are very common. You’ll run around the wasteland and with or without a *hang*, followed by a “Disconnected from Server”… well no duh… I can see that.

22. The Wrong Gender

At one point, I heard female grunts coming out of my male character.

How it should have worked — Keep track of the character and its associated characteristics.

How it actually works — The wrong vocal grunts were played for about 5 minutes while running around the wasteland. I have no idea why the female grunting began at all, but it’s clear that this game was not beta tested. And no, there was no one else around me at all. The game was playing female player character noises from my definitely male character.

21. Changing Weapons and Applying Medicine

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 1.34.10 AMThe supposedly favorites wheel to help get to stuff faster isn’t actually any faster than using the Pip Boy. In fact, neither the wheel nor is the Pip boy easy to use to change weapon loadout or apply Stimpaks when you can’t pause.

How it should have worked — For controller systems, it should have used the D-Pad to cycle through the favorites in a vertical list to the side of the screen so that doesn’t block your vision and it should remember the last choice so you can use it again quickly. Simply by pressing the D-Pad up and down, the favorites cycle to the next and previous. This way, the next time you press the D-Pad, it will bring up the last used item, then press the A button.

Favorites WheelHow it actually works — On the Xbox One, D-Pad up is assigned to favorite choices. D-Pad down is emotes. D-pad left and right seem to automatically assign to a weapon on the left and a healing item on the right. I haven’t actually determined how to assign these. It may have something to do with ‘last chosen’ from the wheel. When you have the wheel actually open, D-pad left cycles through the wheel clockwise starting at the 1 O’Clock position. D-pad right cycles through counter-clockwise starting at the 11 O’Clock position. There is no easy way to get to the item in the 12 O’Clock position when you’re fumbling for items from the wheel. The wheel covers your vision instead of keeping the vision open so you can see what the enemy is doing.

20. Pacifist Mode

This mode is mostly pointless the way it is currently implemented.

How it should have worked — Pacifist mode should prevent your player from giving damage to other players and prevent taking damage from other players.

How it actually works — This mode, while it does stop damage to other players from your weapons, it doesn’t prevent other players from damaging or killing you. This is wrong on so many levels and is entirely designed incorrectly. Bethesda, take a page from Rockstar’s book in GTA 5 and make it so Pacifist mode both stops outgoing and incoming damage to the player.

19. Obtaining Caps

You know, this one really shouldn’t be this hard!

How it should have worked — Caps should be bountiful practically everywhere. Traders should actually buy items for close to their ‘worth’. Sellers should carry more than 200 caps. Caps should always be given as part of the rewards when you finish all quest types.

How it actually works — Caps are exceedingly scarce and probably one of the scarcest things to find in Fallout 76. Caps are not given when a quest ends. Instead, you get mostly useless stuff. When you do find a trader, they carry 200 caps at most. Most sold items yield 1-4 caps per item. However, you can sell practically anything to a trader including Soot Flowers, Mongrel Meat, Plastic Plates and even flower pots. The difficulty is that it requires carrying a bunch of junk around with you until you can find a trader. Obtaining caps in Fallout 76 shouldn’t be this hard. The only quest types that seem to give caps on completion are Events and possibly Daily. Even then, they only give like 20 caps at most.

18. Fast Traveling

How it should have worked — The point in discovering a location is that you can fast travel to it. Fast traveling should be free as part of the perk of discovering that location. Charging caps to fast travel is just stupid design.

How it actually works — When you choose to fast travel, you are required to pay caps to every discovered place other than Vault 76 and your CAMP, which are both free (See CAMPs below for additional problems). You’ll also pay progressively more caps the farther away the place is. Because this is the primary means of travel in the game, fast traveling shouldn’t cost anything. The only point in making people pay is to deter them from using the feature. Why would you include the feature at all if you are intent on deterring gamers from actually using it?

17. Eating, Drink and Diseases

To disguise the leanness and the barrenness of the game’s features and quality, Bethesda devs force you to search for and create boiled water and cooked food. Otherwise, you’re subject to radiation, starvation, dehydration and diseases.

How it should have worked — Leave it out… a totally unnecessary addition that only serves to degrade the game.

How it actually works — You are forced to continually go get water, food and disease cure potions so you can actually play the game. You know, the thing that we’re supposed to be doing. Instead, because at least 50% of the time is spent constantly foraging to prevent from running out of food, water and avoid catching diseases (which you can’t avoid), you must constantly stop whatever it is you are doing and go get supplies. This problem is compounded by the fact that the inventory system is so poorly designed and because these supplies weigh far too much, particularly water.

16. Photo Mode

12-7-2018_5-54-58_AM-ma4zjmynPhoto Mode is a new thing many game developers are adding to games. However, some game development companies haven’t figured out how to build it properly. In the case of Fallout 76, while it works, it’s a hassle to use and isn’t properly designed.

How it should have worked — When in Photo Mode, the character should disappear from the world and not be visible to enemies or other players. This allows you to line up and take your shot without interference from enemies or other characters. This would allow you to actually take pictures of enemies doing whatever they are doing while in close proximity. The depth of field system should allow for both shallow and deep depth of field shots to blur both the foreground and background once the focal distance is set. Photo mode should support unlimited photos limited only by the Xbox’s hard drive.

How it actually works — Photo Mode leaves the character live in the environment. This means that if an enemy comes along, it will see you and attack you, losing the shot. Getting out of Photo Mode is slow and cumbersome when it should be a single button rapid exit. The quality of the photos could be improved a lot. We got 50 photo slots that requires us to go delete photos every time we run out… irritating.

15b. Crafting

I’m separating Crafting and Inventory into parts A and B to be more clear, but these two go together. Modifying and creating armor and weapons should be easy, yet it is completely cumbersome. Crafting food should be easy, but it is also cumbersome.

How it should have worked — Recipes requiring water should work with any water you have in your inventory including Dirty, Boiled or Purified. Water is water is water. If you choose to make your food out of dirty water, then you need to take the consequences of that choice. Crafting armor or weapons sometimes requires inexplicable items (i.e., Ballistic Fiber). The game should lead (or at least show you a small area marker) where you can search to find these needed items. Like Skyrim, Fallout 76 should have forced you to scrap new items to ‘learn’ what they are made of. Once you learn this, the game can then point out potential sources using pointers, instead of running around blind.

How it actually works — Recipes requiring water only allow the use of ‘Boiled Water’ . This means that even if you have a water purifier set up, you must still go draw water from a dirty water source (a very time consuming operation and adding Rads) and then spend time boiling it at a food craft station. These two steps are overly time consuming when you could have cooked with purified water and been on your way.

Locating specific components in the game is like pulling teeth. You have no idea what items contain what components until you carry them back and actually scrap them at a crafting table. Even then, putting a search onto a component only means you’ll see a magnifying glass on the item when you get close enough to pick it up. The game doesn’t offer a mechanism (at least that I have found) to locate the item on the map or via a sound in close proximity.

15a. Inventory

The inventory system in Fallout 76 is entirely broken. Each player only has two places to store stuff. The first place is directly on the player. The second place is the Stash Box. The player is limited by weight, but inexplicably so is the ‘Stash Box’.

stash.pngHow it should have worked — Inventory should be able to be sent to the ‘Stash Box’ at any time right from the Pip Boy. Permanent sharable boxes should be available to drop stuff off for friends or other players. Sharable boxes should hang around even when you log out of the game. Instead of a single Stash Box, we should be able to create independent objects in our CAMP that limit only by number of items and not limited by weight. A physical box on the ground doesn’t have weight limits, but has physical number limits.

12-7-2018_5-55-03_AM-iujn21rsHow it actually works —  The inventory system is way too limited and uses weight to judge capacity. On a person, weight makes sense as you can only carry so much. However, the game gives far too little per person. For a stash box sitting on the ground, weight limits make absolutely no sense. The Stash Box is always linked to you and there’s only one. If your Stash Box fills up, you’re screwed. You have to start dumping items out of your inventory in a paper bag to be lost. Paper bags are entirely transient. If you drop a second paper bag of stuff, the first one disappears. Be absolutely certain that whatever you drop in a paper bag isn’t something you want… otherwise, that bag may disappear at any time.

The Stash Box currently holds 600 weight which is not nearly enough as you progress in levels. By level 30, you’ll already be running out of space. The only way you can actually play is to have two characters and move stuff between them when both are logged in. The second character is just a storage place, but that means you need to have two systems to play the game. The Stash Box was recently raised from 400. Instead, Bethesda should charge atoms for more space. Just let us pay for the space we need. I don’t want to be limited with no options.

14. Power Armor

12-9-2018_9-41-56_PM-3ra4ojsuThroughout the game, you’ll find power armor in various buildings. The Power Armor may have Raider, T-51, T-45 or T-60 armor attached, usually only some of the pieces and usually with only half or less condition. Instead, you’ll have to go find the rest of the pieces you’ll need for that armor and you’ll need to find Power Armor crafting station somewhere so you can actually repair your armor.

How it should have worked — Power armor should add a seamless combat experience similar to Fallout 4. You enter your armor, you use it as you need to, you exit the armor and leave it behind. Wearing the armor actually gives you, you know, armor protection. Instead, you are forced to carry it in your inventory with a weight of 10 and it provides very little actual HP protection.

How it actually works — Power Armor is only slightly better than without it. It’s glitchy, buggy and sometimes it will trap you in it and you’ll be unable to progress in the game. Use the armor sparingly to avoid glitching up your game that you can’t even play. It takes up space in your inventory and it’s clumsy to use. The only one benefit is that you can jump from great heights without injury. Other than that one benefit, Power Armor is mostly for looks, not functionality. You must exit the armor to perform any crafting.

13. Collision detection

As a shooter, the single thing the developer must get right is the collision detection between a fired weapon and hitting an enemy with the bullet. Otherwise, the game just won’t work.

How it should have worked — With proper working collision detection, you shouldn’t be able to walk into or under objects, projectile physics should always land on their targets when the cross hairs are even remotely lined up and random animals and objects shouldn’t get stuck inside or walk through other objects.

How it actually works — You’ll never see bullet trajectories in a game unless the game developer adds a slow-mo bullet-time option. None of that here. Instead, aim, fire and miss. Even worse, you can use a high power sniper scope’s cross hairs on your enemy’s head directly in the middle and still manage to miss the target when pulling the trigger. If you’re up-close and personal with a Ghoul, it’s even worse. Up close, you’re actually much more likely to miss your target and you’ll expend a great deal of ammo on miss after miss. The only sure fire way to hit is to use a melee weapon or gun bash them.

This the poor collision detection isn’t limited to weapons and bullets. It includes trees, animations (getting into and out of Power Armor), enemy AI walking through environmental objects or other enemies including items getting stuck inside of doors and walls. This isn’t all possible examples, but these are the ones most prominent to show off how bad this part works.

12. Leveling up doesn’t work as expected

I’m not talking about the level up screen itself. In fact, the mechanics of actually applying perk cards to your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes works just fine. It’s one of the few things that seems to work well in this game, though I’m not fond of the card system. It’s what comes after that doesn’t work.

Lucky BreakHow it should have worked — Characters should always fight enemies at or close to their own strength and level. If you wander into a building, you should only find enemies within 4-5 levels of your own level. If you’re a level 4, this means you should only see levels 1-8 near you. This is how every other Bethesda RPG has worked this. This prevents having a level 5 character trying to kill, for example, a level 63 enemy. Perhaps Bethesda needed to find a Lucky Break card?

The card system should have been simplified to require less perk cards to provide the same amount of perks instead of needing loads of perk cards which do less per card. Simpler is always better, even in video game design.

How it actually works — When wandering around, not only will you find AI characters leveled randomly from 1 to 63, you’ll find random levels all bunched together. For example, as a level 5 character wandering into a camp, you can find ghouls and scorched ranging from level 1 to level 63. This means trying to fight level 63 enemies as a level 5 or 10 character. You’ll also find Scorchbeasts randomly flying around that are at always level 50, but in fact are probably level 100 or better. It takes so many shots to kill a level 50 Scorchbeast, it’s almost not even worth it unless you’re on a big team.

On top of this, you can run into randomly leveled up multiplayer characters who add to the problem. Thankfully, unless you engage in two-sided combat, the game sees to it that your character takes minimal damage from an opposing player of any level.

HomebodyThe cards have been broken out to the point of being pedantic. Instead of categorizing cards so that Lead Belly should cover for ALL food, drink and disease, it only covers for ‘food’ only. You have to get the Lead Stomach perk to drink irradiated water unharmed, even then there are limits. Because the cards are so pedantic, there are other perk cards like Natural Resistance to reduce diseases and All Night Long to reduce hunger and thirst (a stupid unnecessary addition).

The pedantic actually carries to the point of being broken. For example, the Aqua Boy perk allows you to swim and wade in water without taking radiation damage, yet drawing water from a water pump still incurs +5 rads damage (or more)? Huh? Clearly, the designers didn’t carry that logic through.

One perk card is actually broken and rarely works. This is the Stormchaser card which allegedly regenerates health when equipped and when standing in the rain, in a storm or in a radiation storm. Unfortunately, this card’s perk works less than 50% of the time. You can be standing in the rain and…. there’s a whole lotta nothin’ going on… no health regeneration. I don’t know how many other perk cards are broken, but this one most definitely is.

11. Crap enemy AI

Here’s a gaming portion where you think Bethesda might have been able to lock down, particularly on the heels of the Elder Scrolls Online. Nope. When you wander the wasteland, you’ll find either animals (Wolves, Mongrels, Radrats, Radroaches, Radstags, etc) or Supermutants, robots (i.e., Eyebots, Mister Handy, Miss Nanny, Protectrons, Assaultrons or Sentry Bots), Feral Ghouls, Scorched or Scorchbeasts. Whatever you run into, you’re likely to find them acting strangely. Sometimes they attack and sometimes they just stand there.

How it should have worked — Like, Fallout 4, when you run into an enemy, they should behave and act like they’re trying to kill you. They should point their gun at you and they should move in naturalistic ways. You know, like they’re actually walking around.

How it actually works — Many enemies, particularly Ghouls, slide around the environment without actually moving. Some people have found them sliding around in “first position” (the initial position a 3D character assumes without having been posed). I haven’t found the enemies in “first position”, but I have seen them locked into a single pose, then moving around the environment like a static posed action figure. They even shoot from these locked posed positions.

When I do find characters not locked up like this, the characters hold their weapons incorrectly. Some hold them downward, yet still manage to shoot at my character. The enemies also move way too fast. They can be on top of you in a matter of one jump or movement. One top of the AI movement, they can see and shoot me through walls, through floors and through buildings. There is no such thing as line of sight in Fallout 76. Even if you hide, they can still find you and kill you through walls.

Molerats must somehow be magic in this game as they can burrow not only into ground surfaces, but wood, cement and even thin air. They can also burrow and jump incredibly long distances in a fraction of a second. Radscorpions can also burrow into cement and other incredulous surfaces, yet they don’t even leave a burrow hole behind like Molerats.

10. Screen blur filters

For whatever reason Bethesda decided to not only add an intense depth of field to the actual gameplay making distant objects blurry, it also added an unnecessary light halo overlay making it seem like you might have vision problems.

lens flareHow it should have worked — Filters applied to the screen should be controllable (on, off and strength) on the settings screen. There is no reason to hard apply such annoying settings to the screen when not everyone wants it. Let the gamer choose what filters they want applied to the screen.

How it actually works — The depth of field applied to the full screen makes the game difficult to look at. When looking at a light source, the game applies a lens flare type blur filter that looks less like lens flare and more like your character has eye problems. These effects degrade the overall gameplay look and feel.

9. Scorchbeasts and Loot

In any game where there’s an oversized and consequently much more difficult opponent, when you do finally kill it, you should get fairly substantial loot more than, say, nothing.

How it should have worked — When you kill a Scorchbeast, the Scorchbeast Queen or a Deathclaw, the loot that is dropped should contain at least one legendary item. In addition, it should drop rare components in reasonable quantities. You should also receive a fair amount of caps.

How it actually works — When you kill an oversized ‘boss’ kind of creature, the dropped enemy loot may range from nothing at all to meat and hide. Basically, worthless items. They’re worthless because even if you do cook the meat, it offers nothing special. Radstag meat is probably the best meat in the game as it offers 20 extra carry points. Eating Scorchbeast steak does nothing for you and is mostly worthless. What’s the point in killing a Scorchbeast?

8. Non-existent non-player characters

While there are talking trader robots, the lone wandering Supermutant trader Graham and a few Mister Handy or Miss Nanny robots dotted throughout the game to provide some quest progression, this is of little consolation when you’re trying to find meaningful interaction with other Vault 76 or locals within West Virginia. Unfortunately, there are no NPCs to be found. See ‘Story’ below for more details as to why.

How it should have worked — While the overseer of Vault 76 may have died and there are 24 players wandering around the environment with you, there have to have been at least a few Vault 76 dwellers who aren’t player characters. In fact, 24 seems an awfully small number of live inside of a vault that big. Ignoring the vault situation, having everyone not in Vault 76 dead is improbable. Because there are also other vaults in the area, a few of these settlers should have survived and been available to talk with. Cities around the area should have been teaming with NPCs, some of which you should be able to convince to come to your own settlements.

How it actually works — Instead, Vault 76 churns out 24 people who are all multiplayer characters. As we all know by now, multiplayers characters don’t interact in meaningful ways. Those who don’t know each other rarely, if ever, work together. In fact, you’re likely to find more hostile multiplayer characters than you will find friends. It’s the nature (and expectation) of PvP. This means that the story failed to consider this problem. Trying to rely on 24 multiplayer characters to bring a story together is like mixing gasoline with fire. It just doesn’t work, unless you’re itching for an explosion… and an explosion is exactly what Bethesda got.

7. Graphics

nuka quantumWhile Bethesda touted an all new rendering look in this engine, it’s pretty much the same rendering engine used in Fallout 4. On top of the unnecessary screen blur (see #10 above) and filters, the rendering distance, shadow distance and up close textures are amateur attempts at best. There are times where the game devolves into a sheer mess, such as invisible buildings, structures that aren’t there and textures are so low-res, you could swear you were playing it on a PS1. This Nuka Cola Quantum bottle looks B_A_D (click on it and see)! When added to the low res background and texture, this looks like something rendered on a PS1.

How it should have worked — We should have gotten a next gen engine capable of producing superbly realistic rusty, sharp, dangerous environments. Sunbeams and moonbeams should be blocked by corresponding solid objects. Textures should hold up on close inspection. Textures should resolve when looking through a sniper rifle sight or binoculars. You shouldn’t notice pop-in at all when wandering.

How it actually works — The sun up and sun down moves too fast. There’s too much night and not enough day time. The sunset and sunrises are almost impossible to distinguish the difference. Textures look fine at an average distance from the player. Up close textures look horrid. Pop-in is horrible and happens way too close to the player.

If you try to zoom in with a sniper, everything falls apart. The sun remains the same size overhead as it does on the horizon. The moon always produces moon rays. The rays don’t actually come from the same direction as the sun and moon sky objects. Moonbeams and sunbeams shine out of rocks, the ground and structures. The smoke coming out of chimneys looks like flat spinning blobs. The character models actually look bad. The only saving grace here is the naturalistic lighting, but the rest of it might as well be cartoons.

The 59 sign below shows everything wrong with this game. The word INTERSTATE is much higher resolution than the 59. At least the texture folks could have used sufficiently high resolution images to create these signs. I just don’t even get why sun shines out of rocks and objects.

 

The only good thing about the graphics is the naturalistic lighting on the trees and house structures. You can get some great environmental shots with the sunbeams through the tree branches. Other than that, nothing else looks particularly realistic.

6. Multiplayer

Here’s one of the saddest parts of Fallout 76. This feature, in fact, is the entire reason Fallout 76 even exists. Yet, it’s one of the worst designed parts of this game. Though, it’s not this game’s #1 problem.

How it should have worked — Bethesda should have sat down and designed a compelling multiplayer experience around the Vault 76 reclamation date rebuilding goal. This means allowing players to fix up, build and then set up shops in towns. If the idea is to rebuild the wasteland, where is this idea in execution?

How it actually works — The Player vs Player (PvP) available in Fallout 76 consists of taking over a workshop and then fighting to keep it. When you do take over a workshop, you are required to spend your own resources to fix it all up. Yet when you log out, you lose that workshop. At most, you get to keep that workshop for as long as you remain logged in.

Once you claim ownership of the workshop, the game forces you to go into a PvP battle to keep it within just a few minutes of taking ownership… most definitely not enough time to both fix up the workshop and build defenses. The only way this would work is if you are on a team of at least 6-10 people who can all pool their resources to fix it up and build defenses simultaneously. One person has no hope of fixing up a workshop alone, particularly considering how little resources you can actually carry with you (See problem #

5. CAMP and Plans

12-7-2018_5-55-03_AM-uba3cuivCAMP is a portable device you can set down in the wilds of the wasteland and create a small CAMP. It doesn’t hold that much. Finding new plans allows you to craft new items.

How it should have worked — Actually, CAMP is entirely unnecessary. Without NPCs to recruit back to your CAMP to live there and help defend it, the point of the CAMP as a settlement is entirely useless. CAMP as a crafting area works, but it could have been implemented better. Plans shouldn’t be needed. Everything you need should already be available to build if you have the resources. If you scrap any weapon or object, it should automatically give you the plan to it. Big items that you can’t carry or scrap should have been unlocked from the beginning.

How it actually works — You drop your CAMP device in the wasteland and that gives you the ability to build a building and crafting tables. Unfortunately, the building allotment is far too small to actually build anything meaningful. In my allotment, I was able to build a small cabin with all of the crafting tables except a Power Armor station as I have no plan for it yet. After that, my CAMP is entirely out of available building allotment. Other than having a portable building that contains all of the crafting tables, there’s no point in CAMP. Plans are dotted all throughout the wasteland like a needle in a haystack that you have to go hunting for. The difficulty with this idea is that they’ll get found by players and documented on the Internet. The idea of hunting for a “thing” is pointless because the Internet will eventually find even the most rare thing and tell you where it is. Instead, plans should come to you by way of scrapping items. As it is now, scrapping certain weapons unlocks certain mods for that weapon… the wrong design.

12-7-2018_5-55-04_am-tgn02n2u.pngWorse, the game encourages you to move your CAMP frequently, yet it continually charges you more and more caps to move it from place to place. The cap rate to move it is also entirely random. Some days it’s 5 caps, other times it’s 25 caps and others it’s somewhere in between that. The game can’t even seem to make a decision on exactly how many caps it costs to move the CAMP. If you move your CAMP, there’s a very real possibility you will lose all of the items outside of your build structure (i.e., crops, water purifiers, turrets, defenses, etc). If the CAMP is supposed to be semi-permanent, then it needs to remain no matter what. If someone else has plopped their CAMP in the same location and there’s a conflict on that server, then the game should auto-disconnect and choose an alternative World server where there isn’t a conflict so the CAMP can be placed. This should be an automatic part of the login process.

Even more poorly designed, your CAMP may disappear at any time including objects in the CAMP. Placing a CAMP is not in any way meant to be permanent. There’s just no place to park it where it’s cannot disappear. I’ve had my CAMP disappear at least 6-8 times or more. The last time it disappeared, it lost every item outside of the building structure. I had a bunch of crops, a turret, a water purifier, a floor decoration and a water pump all outside of the building structure. All disappeared entirely from my inventory. These objects were not stored. Normally, these items should be stored under the STORED area, but not this time. Those items completely disappeared with no explanation and without a trace. It’s frustrating and stupid that the game makes you go find all of the food crops after it wipes them all out.

4. VATS

How it should have worked — Without pause, VATS should have been left out. It’s pointless without pause.

How it actually works — Because this game doesn’t allow pausing, VATS remains live as you attempt to shoot whatever enemy that it is. As the enemy moves around, VATS percentage of hitting the target constantly changes. Unlike Fallout 4 where the game paused to allow proper targeting, this VATS is entirely worthless without pause. However, the Mysterious Stranger remains, but only works with VATS. You have to remember to use it if you have the Mysterious Stranger card in play.

3. Story

As mentioned above about utilizing limited robot characters to progress stories, the rest of the time the stories are progressed by popping a Holotape (audio log) into your Pip-boy and listening. Boring and so easily interrupted by combat!

How it should have worked — Any RPG should have NPCs who not only exist to provide conversation, but also provide story development. You get to learn about these characters along the way and expand on the story.

How it actually works — Because no NPCs exist in the game, the entire story narrative plays out through a series of holotapes you must find and play. Because the holotape system is simply an audio log, it’s as boring as watching paint dry. If Bethesda had taken a page from a few other games that staged “ghost” reenactment scenes in the area, you could examine the scenes and watch the story unfold through a sort of hologram type environment. None of that here. It’s simply a series of boring holotapes audio logs. Without interactive characters, there is effectively no story worth exploring. The story and its quirky characters is the reason we play Fallout. Without NPCs, it’s not really Fallout.

2. Player Death and Dropped Loot

How it should have worked — When a player dies, the loot should remain on the player. There’s entirely no need to drop loot in the game on death. Also, respawn the player in place or alternatively, allow the player to respawn at the last death marker.

12-7-2018_5-55-03_AM-iujn21rsHow it actually works — When the player character dies, a death marker is placed on the map where the player last died and also marks the place where the player’s loot is dropped in a paper bag. When the player character dies, the game also gives the choice to “call for help” and get someone to revive the player with a Stimpak or you can “give up” and then respawn. If you do neither, you sit in limbo and can do nothing. When you choose to respawn, the game requires you pay caps to move to the nearest spawn location or if you can’t pay, then you’ll have to respawn at Vault 76 or at your camp, if it’s still there… that or kill the game and restart it (which, of course, loses your dropped loot). This player death and dropped loot issue is completely unnecessary and has never been part of Fallout in the past and shouldn’t be in Fallout 76.

If your game happens to crash immediately after dying or if you are killed by something on the way to pick up your loot, your loot is entirely lost. You get ONE chance to go pick up your dropped loot or it’s lost forever.

Oh… and the paper bag is such a stupid and unrealistic idea, I don’t even know how this idea passed design review. How can you possibly fit a Fat Man or a Missile Launcher into a tiny paper bag?

1. Glitches, bugs, quest bugs and client crashing

How it should have worked — Actually beta test your game product with real live QA folks, not holotapes. Get them to sign off that both the game client and the servers work consistently, as expected and are better than 95% stable. Actually play test the game internally. Get people to walk through the environment and see if they can break things.

How it actually works — There is so much to say here, that’s why this is the #1 problem. The game client is closer to 50% stable (maybe less). If it crashes or disconnects twice a day, consider yourself lucky. Sometimes it goes on a crashing / disconnect spree and just doesn’t stop. The network servers disconnect far too frequently. As mentioned above, you can be playing and *hang* with a long pause, then disconnect. Sometimes, the game hangs and then recovers. Sometimes it just disconnects out of nowhere. If any hangs or random disconnects happens you should always disconnect and reconnect and get a different server as that other server is likely having problems.

Sometimes the entire client crashes with the repeating audio loop and then the whole client dies. You have to start completely over when this happens. Hopefully, it’s not immediately after having dropped loot or you’ll have lost your “loot”. Below is a texture glitch video. I’m certain this is a client side problem.

Quest bugs are common in Bethesda games. These types of bugs prevent completion of quests because the character you need to interact with, for example, is already dead. This means you can’t complete the quest. There are plenty of other bugged quests as well.

Commentary as of 12/21/2018

The game has officially gotten even worse. With each new passing release, instead of improving performance, features and stability, the game gets more unstable. And, with each new update, Bethesda introduces even more and more bugs… bugs that didn’t exist in prior releases. In fact, I can’t even think of any place in this game where I’ve not encountered a bug, glitch or frustrating problem.

At this point, I actually suspect that someone at Bethesda is intentionally trying to sabotage this game and franchise. If I were management team at Bethesda, I’d actually have the engineers stop rolling out “bug fixes” post haste and evaluate what is going on with both the game and the team. I’d also remove Todd from further involvement in this game. Move him off to other projects and get a new lead… one who can bring some measure of stability and sanity to this game.

Fallout 76 is entirely laughable. There is so much wrong with this game it’s a comedy of errors. This game is literally the poster child of what-not-to-do when building and maintaining an online game. It seems like that for every bug they seem to squash, they introduce 10 more to take its place. It’s just insanely laughable… and it seems Bethesda is entirely oblivious, doesn’t care or is apathetic.

Hey Bethesda, if don’t care to make the game better, then please, just shut down the world servers, cancel the game and issue refunds to those of us who bought it. Admit your failure, cut your losses and move on to building better games in the future. Sometimes admitting failure is the only way to move forward.

Overall

This game was released way too early! Without NPCs, this game is completely devoid of feeling like ANY Bethesda RPG, let alone Fallout. Whomever’s idea it was to include no NPCs should be walked to the door at Bethesda. I realize this is considered an off-shoot game, but it is still a Fallout product. It should always true to being a Fallout product. Fallout 76 isn’t true to Fallout.

However, the instability trumps everything. If you can’t reliably even play the game without crashes, bugs and quest failure, then you don’t really even have a game.

Ultimately, this game needs a whole lot more development time and effort. I have no idea why Bethesda released this product so finished. Yet, here we are. Note that there are plenty more reasons to hate Fallout 76. These 25 reasons are just the tip of the iceberg. I’m quite sure you’ll find many more to hate on if you choose to buy this game.


If you’ve had a different experience when playing, please leave a comment below.

The FTC is investigating pay-to-win loot boxes

Posted in advice, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on December 4, 2018

img_3728.jpgThe FTC is investigating video game loot box issue that was so prominent in Star Wars Battlefront II and in many other games. Is it a form of gambling? Let’s explore.

Pay to Win?

The issue with loot boxes is that people feel ripped off by them, particularly after having already spent $60 for a big named video game title. If you spend $60 to buy a game, the implicit nature of that already hefty price tag is that it covers everything needed to play and win the base game without any additional payments. Any additional downloadable content (DLC) that appears later has a separate price tag. We understand this aspect of DLC. You can buy DLC if you want, but it’s not necessary to pay for DLC to win the base game. DLC is a tried-and-true model and it works to extend the gaming experience, but is not necessary to win the base game. Not everyone likes DLC, but as long as the DLC is created as separate world components, it’s fine.

When loot boxes were introduced, you might end up spending another $60 in addition to the already spent $60 to for the random chance to gain rare weapons or armor or level-ups that are not available in any other way and which are required to progress in the game.

The argument by game developers is that these pay add-ons are not strictly necessary. It depends on how you interpret that statement. It may not be strictly necessary to play the game, but it may make the game experience less enjoyable and possibly even problematic. If you plop down for the loot in the loot boxes, then your experience becomes much easier and better. Loot boxes turn games into a pay-to-win model.

Pay-to-win games to me are not fun. There’s no challenge in plopping down $5 here and $5 there just to get past a level or a boss or whatever it is holding you back. The challenge is and should be in the base game, not in buying add-ons needed to win. If the add-ons become the game, then the base $60 you paid is seen as a rip-off.

Smart Phone Games

Pay-to-win games have been available on the smart phone market for years and that’s fine. These games are typically free to download and free to play to a point. You only run into pay-walls when you want to progress beyond certain points or to buy more lives. Again, most phone game apps are designed around a pay-to-win model. However, there’s no challenge in paying to win a game. Paying to win only depends on how much money you are willing to spend. It’s just a money making scheme.

In the free download app model, you’re not paying an initial $60 to download the game. You’re paying nothing. This means there’s no base expectations set. So then each micro-transaction does help cover the developer costs of producing that free game. In the AAA $60 game arena, you’ve already paid for the development costs and you expect a fully functioning game in return for that $60. That’s the expectation of paying $60.

For example, adding loot boxes to Star Wars Battlefront II was simply a money grab by EA and nothing more. Everyone expected this loot to drop as a result of completing levels. No one expected that you’d have to pay to buy level up cards in addition to the already spent $60… cards that you might not see for many, many hours of play if they ever drop at all. Cards that are needed to unlock key pieces of the game.

Rethinking this Model

Fundamentally, game producers need to think long and hard about the pay-to-win model. Personally, I don’t like it and I will never be a fan of pay-to-win. You pay for the game itself, not for the ability to win it.  You should win the game or not on your own skill as a game player. For a $60 price tag, the game should drop all necessary loot or, if absolutely necessary, offer some kind of in-game credit system that you can spend towards the loot crates as you progress. Many games do give in-game credit that are awarded at level’s end that can be used towards ‘buying’ loot. You can also spend real money to buy those same credits in a store. This gives you two ways to ‘buy’ loot in the world. You can play the game and win credit or you can pay for it. The difficulty is when the game only drops the tiniest amount of credit within the game and then expects you to make up the difference with real money. Again, pay-to-win and I am so not a fan of this.

If you’ve already paid $60 to buy the game at the store, then don’t throw down real money loot boxes in front of the gamer and expect people to open their wallets and be happy about it. Real cash microtransaction loot boxes, again, turn the game into a pay-to-win model.

The argument here is that loot box costs offset the already expensive price tag of video game production. I counter argue that if a game now costs $80 or $100 or $120 per copy to develop, then simply raise the price of the game in the store accordingly and leave out the unnecessary loot boxes. No one says that a developer must sell a game at $60. They can price it at whatever they need to recoup their costs. If they can’t recoup their costs of a game at a $60 price tag, then perhaps they shouldn’t be in the video game business. Or, perhaps they should have kept to a lower budget production. However,  they are also free to raise the price of their game of they want to build bigger, flashier and more expensive games.

Other Alternative Systems

Let’s take a page from the toys-to-life games area. If developers want to offer a level-up swag system for the game, then do it through physical trading cards you can buy at Target or Walmart. Then, use a code on the card to load the card into an app linked to the game. This then gives you legitimate reasons to go buy the cards at the store. It also means anyone can go buy these cards to enhance their game experience… and you’re getting actual collectible trading cards for your money.

It also means the retailer can put the cards on sale and offer discounts on them. Digital cards coming from loot boxes purchased in-game are a waste that can only be used once and have no value after the game ends. It’s just money lost in addition to whatever you paid for in the game itself. Physical trading cards hold their value long after a game becomes a fond memory running on a Raspberry Pi emulator years later. It also means you can trade or sell these cards to others who might value them and at least recoup some of the money spent towards the game. Some of the cards might even become extremely valuable. A video game copy will never have that value.

Having cards produced into 5 or 8 card blind packets means the consumer gets to discover what cards they got and they can trade them with their friends if they get duplicates. It’s a real world way of adding value to the game and a shareable component, but at the same time offers a real world tangible component. Having these cards should also not be necessary to win the game, but they can be used to gain access to weapons, armor and character stats that might otherwise take a lot of grinding to obtain. All physical cards sold in blind packs should be discoverable in the game itself. But, they may contain exclusives that aren’t necessary, but add fun value to the game.

I’m a much bigger fan of using add-ons like real world trading cards than using in-game digital loot boxes… as long as these items are not needed to win the game. Pay-to-win needs to stop in general and these pay-to-win systems definitely have no place in a game sold at $60.

Are Loot Boxes a form of Gambling?

Here’s where some people feel that there’s a problem with loot boxes within video games. If you pay real USD to purchase a loot box, then you’re paying for the ‘chance to win’ something rare. In fact, when you pay for a loot box at all, it can be seen as a form of gambling strictly because of the ‘chance to win’ aspect. If the loot boxes drop on their own for free, there’s still a chance to ‘win’ something rare, but you’ve paid nothing for it and this would not fall under gambling. Gambling is when you pay money for a chance to win.

The paying of real USD to ‘win’ in-game loot is THE bone of contention and is the part in all of this that is seen as a form of gambling. Paying money to win anything is technically a form of gambling. It could also be considered a form of a lottery, much like a scratch card. Because lotteries are considered illegal unless operated by official state organizations, placing an illegal lottery into a video game could result in legal problems for video game producers. As a result, many people view for-pay in-game loot boxes as a form of gambling and in need of regulation under US gambling laws. Because gambling, at least in the US, is only allowed by persons 21 years of age or older, placing pay-to-win ideas into a video game designed to target minors and underage persons could be a problem for the video game industry. It also means the game should, at the bare minimum, put an M rating on any game that includes this mechanism.

These games could also be considered a form of early conditioning designed to teach children about gambling early and get them addicted to its risk-reward system. Because many video game companies also hold stakes in gambling operations, such as producing gambling machines for Las Vegas or actually own stakes in casinos, loot boxes could become very problematic for video game companies.

On the other hand, gambling usually entails winning money, not prizes. In Vegas, you pay to win money. At Dave and Busters, you pay to win prizes. So far, playing games to win tickets at an arcade has not fallen under gambling laws. However, you’re winning tickets, not prizes. The only random chance involved is how many tickets you win. In an arcade, simply playing the game is guaranteed to give you at least one ticket, usually more. The tickets are then redeemed for prizes of your choice. It’s not exactly a random chance kind of thing like a loot box. In addition, arcades use the payment given towards playing a game of skill which then gives you tickets. Giving tickets after playing a skill game that you can redeem is not exactly like paying for a loot box in a game with random chance to win its contents. Loot boxes are much more like a slot machine or lottery scratch card than they are like Dave and Busters skill-game ticket model.

I’m hoping that the FTC will find that any payment of real money towards ‘winning’ in-game loot is ruled as a form of gambling. This would mean that instead of paying for blind random chance boxes, that video game producers would have to set up a store and sell you exact items needed in the game. No ‘random chance to win’ involved. Either that or they must continue to drop the loot boxes in-game at no cost. Better, don’t drop loot boxes at all. Just create a store and sell us the the things we need… that, or use the suggested trading card system sold separately outside of the game.

If the FTC rules that the loot box is considered an illegal form of lottery, this mechanism could no longer be added to video games. I’d be fine with that outcome too.

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Should I buy an Xbox 360?

Posted in botch, business, scam, scams, video game console by commorancy on December 3, 2018

Xbox 360 EThis question seems to be common for some reason. I’ve seen it asked on Quora and on various other sites. I’ve even seen YouTube channels discussing the purchase of Xbox 360s. Let’s explore.

Design Flaws

First, a little history. The difficulty with the Xbox 360 was the Xbox team’s design of Xbox 360’s main board. Because this system was designed by an in-house design team at Xbox, they got a lot of things wrong with the hardware design based on incorrect assumptions. The primary problem was cooling the GPU down properly. This issue compounded with the thin flexible main board (intended to flex as the system got hot). The difficulty with this flexion is that it doesn’t want to work with surface mounted components and it could lead to the board becoming permanently warped and did lead to the GPU unseating itself unceremoniously.

For this reason, the later Xbox 360 editions, specifically the Slim models, clamped the board to the aluminum chassis to limit flexion of the board around the GPU and CPU. However, even this updated clamping system only delayed the inevitable… the Red Ring of Death commonly known as the RRoD. The difficulty of the design was primarily as result of using lower temp solder that would become molten at GPU operating temperatures. This meant that as the board flexed, as the CPU and GPU heated, as the fans and the hard drive caused vibration and even as external audio sounds from neighboring TVs and stereo system caused vibration, this could cause the GPU to lose solder cohesion and shift this chip off it is surface mount pads.

This GPU shifting would leave the system with the Red Ring of Death. One fix for this was using a towel and wrapping it around the Xbox 360 to let it heat up. What this did was cause the internal temperature of the Xbox 360 to rise which allowed the solder to reflow under the GPU and cause the chip to sort of move its way back onto its correct pads. The difficulty is that this was a temporary fix. The operating conditions that led to the original Red Ring of Death would eventually see to it that it would happen again, usually in only a few days. For the towel reason alone, you should avoid buying used Xbox 360s. It means that someone could have toweled their system right before selling it to you… and it might only run for a few days.

Refurbishment Process

Because of the design problems that led to the Xbox 360’s RRoD, the Xbox hardware team decided to try different things to see if they could improve the situation. As mentioned, one of these changes was the chassis clamp. Other changes included better and smarter positioned heat sinks. All of these changes only treated the symptom, not the actual design problem.

Ultimately, the primary fix for an Xbox 360 suffering from RRoD is to reball the chip with a higher melting point solder and then remount the chip. Then, adding on the smarter heat sinks to ensure proper heat dissipation from the chassis. Once the chip was reballed with higher melting point solder, it should no longer shift its position under standard operating conditions. Of course, the board could still flex and warp which could lead to other surface mount chip failures besides the GPU.

Companies like Gamestop employ either internal or third party refurbishers to perform refurbishment on Xbox 360s before selling them as ‘certified refurbished’. The problem is that reballing chips is time consuming and expensive. Gamestop doesn’t seem to want to afford such refurbishment processes and instead lets the refurbisher perform whatever they deem appropriate short of reballing, which is usually inadequate to provide a long term stable fix to these consoles.

Buying Refurbished

When you buy an Xbox 360 that’s been refurbished from Gamestop, the store has no idea what work has been performed on any unit. It might be simple DVD drive replacement to full main board replacement from other Xbox 360s. It’s possible to actually find frankenboxes with refurbished Xbox 360s having been rebuilt from a bunch of different generation parts. This means you could see some parts from the first gen, second gen, third gen Xboxes and so on… all coming together into the same unit. It means that the heat sinks might be the incorrect version for that version of the unit. Who really knows what you might find inside?

This is the problem with buying refurbished units from not only Gamestop, but any company. The design decisions that made the Xbox 360s so problematic compound into making the purchase of any used or refurbished Xbox 360 system a grab bag of problems.

Not Built to Last

The bottom line is that the Xbox 360 was not designed to last. It was designed to fail because of a set of design decisions that just didn’t work out. In short, it’s a lemon. It’s not just one version that’s the problem, it covers all generations.

Sure, some have claimed their their Elite has lasted. Some have claimed their slims have lasted. Even the last version of the Xbox 360, the Xbox 360 E suffered from the Red Light of Death. There has not been one version of the Xbox 360 produced that has been immune to the Red Ring of Death (or Red Light of Death) problem. You can’t rely on buying a more recent version of the Xbox 360 on the assumption that the failures have been eliminated. Some versions of the Xbox may have been a bit less susceptible, but at some point they will all succumb to failure.

Don’t believe the current sales hype that because this is the newest version of the Xbox 360 that it won’t have a problem. It very likely will. In fact, you should consider the Xbox 360 a unit with limited mileage. At some point, the system will fail and you’ll be left with a dead brick. The question is, when it will happen. It could happen 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months or even 3 years in the future. The point is, you spend your money and you just don’t know. However, because of the age of these systems now, it’s more likely the system will fail sooner than later.

Aging Hardware

The last Xbox 360 E model was discontinued in spring of 2016. This means that any Xbox 360 you might consider purchasing is now over two years old as of this article. That’s only if it’s an E model. Any other models will be much older.

There’s nothing new about any of these systems. Though, it’s entirely possible that some warehouse somewhere has some Xbox 360 E models stashed as new unopened stock. If you could find one of these, you might have some possibility of longevity with that Xbox 360. However, anyone claiming to be selling new unopened stock is probably scamming with a used or refurbished unit. I wouldn’t even trust Gamestop with this kind of a claim, even as big a company as they are. The only way you could trust this statement is to have them show you the merchandise. If you’re buying over the Internet sight unseen, don’t trust anyone.

No. You should always consider any systems on sale as, at best, used. Even refurbished consoles should be considered suspect. Better, don’t consider the purchase of any Xbox 360 at all.

Should I Buy?

In fact, you shouldn’t. Because of all of the aforementioned problems with the design, there’s just no way to know exactly what kind of condition any Xbox might be in. Unless you want to disassemble the unit to find out what’s on the inside and that you understand what you’re looking at, you should avoid spending any money towards an Xbox 360.

The bottom line is that the Xbox 360 is a risky investment that you might only get a few days of use out of before your new purchase dies. The Xbox 360 was a risky investment when buying it new. When buying it used or refurbished, the chances of receiving a unit that lasts only a few weeks is very high. In fact, it could be that the unit might last you long enough to get past the return policy, but a few days after that the unit dies. Then where are you?

Xbox One and Xbox 360 Compatibility

While not every Xbox 360 game has been made compatible with the Xbox One, many Xbox 360 games have been made to function on the Xbox One. Unless you want to play a game that isn’t compatible with the Xbox One, there’s no real reason to buy an Xbox 360.

For this reason, putting your money towards an Xbox One not only guarantees a better hardware experience, it also guarantees you’ll be able to play not only Xbox One games, but also all compatible Xbox 360 games. This is a much better deal than wasting your money on an old console that could die at any moment.

Xbox 360 Purchase Disclaimer

With that said, if you can find someone willing to sell you a fully functional Xbox 360 for $25 or less, then it’s probably fine to buy it… as long as you understand the unit may only work for a few days. If you’re considering spending well more than $25 for an Xbox 360 console bundle, you should consider the purchase of Xbox One instead and avoid the almost certain limited lifespan of the Xbox 360.

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How not to run a business — Case Study: Tumblr

Posted in botch, business by commorancy on December 3, 2018

tumblr-logoToday, Tumblr announced that on December 17th, 2018, it will be removing and banning all “Adult” content on its site. I’m going to call it. This is the death knell that will almost assuredly see to Tumblr’s demise in less than 1 year. Let’s explore.

Tumblr and Adult Content

Tumblr started out as a kind of web blogging platform where users could share various content of any variety. Pretty quickly, adult content began to fill the pages of Tumblr. Adult content included naked people posing alone or performing sex acts with others. Whatever the imagery, it actually became a staple of Tumblr as a platform… and ultimately the Tumblr platform became known for its adult content.

The difficulty with not clamping down on adult content early in the life of Tumblr meant that Tumblr management and staff were okay with Tumblr being used to host adult content. If they had nipped this content type early in the life of Tumblr, we wouldn’t be in the dilemma that Tumblr currently faces.

Every platform has to make a decision early in its life about whether adult content is okay or not, particularly with sites that allow User Generated Content (UGC). When you create a UGC platform, you have to make the decision about adult content early and swiftly. If you don’t make this choice early and seal the deal in the Terms and Conditions agreement, your users will use the platform for adult content.

Knee Jerk Reactions

Even though Tumblr’s app was delisted by Apple in late November due to a case of child pornography appearing on a Tumblr page, it’s also crystal clear that the management team at Tumblr is entirely out of touch with exactly how Tumblr is used. Of course, now that Verizon owns Tumblr, they’re probably okay with taking the hit at losing better than 90% of their viewing traffic by making this knee jerk decision. Unfortunately, after the adult dust settles out of Tumblr, there won’t be much of a platform left to see or explore. Tumblr’s claim to fame was its adult content. Without it, this platform is dead. D.E.A.D! Tumblr, for better or worse, was really one of the few goto places for adult content. The Internet knew this. Tumblr really has no use as a G-rated platform. Too many other platforms fill that gap much better, including Pinterest and WordPress and Medium. No, the executives left at Tumblr really don’t seem to understand that Tumblr’s value as a platform was its adult content. Removing that content, you remove Tumblr’s value to exist as a site.

In reality, Verizon would do better to simply shutter Tumblr entirely… because effectively that’s what they are doing on December 17th. There’s literally no reason to go to any sites left on Tumblr once the adult content is removed. Those few G-rated sites left would also do better to move their content to a different platform such as Deviant Art, Medium or WordPress. The fallout from this change will be swift and immediate.

Chasing Page Owners Away

What’s worse in this situation is that non-adult content owners on Tumblr might have to move their content anyway. Many artists use the platform to host their art. Yet, Tumblr robots have been running around classifying their artwork as adult, even when it isn’t. This problem is likely intended to chase away not only those pages classed as ‘adult content’ but also those who don’t actually post adult content. Ultimately, whatever few sites are left after this shakeout means effectively a danger to those legitimate page owners left in the shambles of the former Tumblr. What drove traffic to Tumblr was its adult content, not the g-rated content. When all of that adult content is gone and most of Tumblr’s revenues are missing in action, legitimate content sites will now be in jeopardy because of the tenuousness of the Tumblr platform.

If you are a g-rated content owner on Tumblr, you should seriously consider moving your stuff somewhere else in the wake of this huge platform mistake. You don’t want to be doing this under a deadline in six months because Tumblr is about to close. Do it now while you have plenty of time. Removal of adult content is a mistake anyway you slice it and it is why this is appearing as a case study in the How not to run a business series.

I understand the issue for Verizon. Having worked for Verizon in the late 90s, I am fully aware of just how much of a conservative organization Verizon really is. It’s actually surprising this change wasn’t made sooner to Tumblr. So, I fully understand this knee jerk reaction of Tumblr being delisted from Apple’s App store over child pornography content. At the same time, making this knee jerk reaction by removing all of Tumblr’s adult content is a severe mistake for this platform.

Tumblr would do better to split its platform in two. Create Tumblr Adult and leave Tumblr for the G-rated stuff. Then, cordon off Tumblr Adult for those sites that fall under adult content. Then, hire mods to police the content on Tumblr Adult more closely to prevent child pornography content.

Compensating Controls

Typically, if you decide to make a rash decision about a platform, you must also introduce something to compensate for that rash decision. Removing the adult content kills many people’s reason’s to visit (or use) Tumblr at all. Take away that reason and you get far fewer visitors. Visitors that drive revenue into your site. Take away those visitors and you’re paying to host a site that makes you no money. In other words, it becomes a money losing proposition. For Verizon, it might be willing to soak up these losses for a short time, but there’s no way Verizon will allow a money pit to remain active for very long.

With the introduction of this new policy, it appears Tumblr isn’t implementing anything to make up for the loss of that adult traffic. Oh, well. It’s the death of Tumblr.

Ultimately, I predict no more than six months for Tumblr after December 17th and then the entire site will shutter to be heard from no more. Verizon might allow the site to continue operations longer than six months if they’re complacent. However, keeping a money sucking site open is not likely to go over well with Verizon management for very long. It’s almost a guarantee that Tumblr cannot survive on its G-rated content alone when other sites do this piece so much better.

Soooo…. Buh Bye, Tumblr.

Part 10 | Chapter Index | Part 11

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How to reset Philips Illuminate Lights

Posted in holiday, Household Tips, howto, repair by commorancy on December 1, 2018

img_4242When trying to connect to my Philips Illuminate strand of lights this year, for whatever reason the Philips Illuminate iOS app is no longer finding them. It took me a while to find these instructions to reset the control box. Here’s how I solved the problem. Let’s explore.

Philips Illuminate

This product had great beginnings, but unfortunately Philips has decided not to continue developing and improving either the app or the product. It is an expensive product which required the purchase of a control box and a strand of lights (startup kit)… the control box being the most costly item to buy. Typical strands of LED lights cost around half or less (even cheaper if you pick them up on clearance) compared to the Illuminate strands. However, the Illuminate strands of lights offered chasing lights and many colors, similar to Philips Hue. I think I may have spent $60-$75 or so to buy into the starter kit product with a small strand of lights. Pricey for the strand size. It also offers the ability to chain light strands together making the system expandable.

At the time, I invested into the Illuminate product because Philips had also created the Philips Hue system and I thought they might eventually merge the two product lines together. No such luck. Worse, the light programming options of the strand is far less programmable than one might hope. I was expecting improvements that just never materialized.

Improvements and Features

If you’re just hearing about Illuminate lights this year, then let me explain some of the gripes for this product. While the starter kit does come with the control box, the control box does not offer any kind of networking interface with IFTTT, Amazon Alexa or any other similar control systems. The control box is just a “dumb” box. Its purpose is only to allow for connectivity for the Illuminate app and to provide light effects for the connected strand(s) . The control box has no ability to turn the lights on or off. When power is applied, the lights always turn on.

You can still find the Illuminate lighting on sale at Target. However, the add-on strands themselves cost around $30-$50 per strand. If you need a starter kit, expect to spend about $75 or more.

To add the ability to control the power to the lights remotely, you’ll need to purchase a WeMo smart plug or similar networked plug sold separately. These plugs support Alexa, Apple HomeKit, IFTTT and other networking features. Adding a smart plug lets you control the lights on a schedule via their apps or by voice via a home assistant like Alexa.

Control Box

The control box itself is the heart of this system and allows for WiFi connectivity so the Illuminate app can control the light programming. It also handles the LED light sequencing. When the app was first released, they offered 17 different light patterns which include a variety of chasing options, fading options, twinkling and steady options. Today, we still have those same 17. There is a customize option, but it’s limited to Twinkle, Fade and Chasing.

Unfortunately, the one light programming option I wanted doesn’t exist. Specifically, I want the lights to each change from one color to the next individually and randomly rather than all at once. This one doesn’t exist. A small problem compared to what I faced when attempting to reprogram my strand this year.

For the last two years, I have been able to launch the iOS app and have it find and see the control box just fine on WiFi. For whatever reason, this year it no longer works. As a result, I can no longer program the lighting strand from my phone. I had also lost the instruction guide for this product long ago. Here’s what I saw when I attempted to control my light strand:

img_4243

I’m all, WTF? Rescanning does nothing. As there is no physical reset button on the control box to factory reset with a paperclip or similar method, I had to resort to scouring the Internet to find a solution. Unfortunately, the search engines didn’t turn up much right at the top for how to factory reset the Illuminate lights.

If you have run into the issue where your control box can no longer be found by your iOS or Android app, it’s likely that the control box is not registering itself properly on WiFi. Because there’s no troubleshooting as to why this is happening and after finding the reset instructions, I decided to use the Direct connection approach to control my lights. At least it works for the few times I need to make changes. It’s not handy for the audio/music feature, but it works for the standard light programming.

Resetting the System

To reset a Philips Illuminate control box, you’ll need to perform the following actions:

  1. Turn off or disconnect the power to the control box… wait 3-5 seconds
  2. Apply power to the control box… wait 3-5 seconds
  3. Perform steps 1 and 2 three or four times successively until the light strand begins flashing on and off. This signals that the control box has factory reset and you can stop this process.

If you find that after performing steps 1 and 2 multiple times doesn’t cause the strand to flash on and off, keep performing it until it does. If you can’t get the lights to flash, then you may not be waiting long enough or you are waiting too long between power off and on. Try waiting longer or shorter intervals between power toggling.

Note that factory resetting the device loses its knowledge of any WiFi devices it knew about including passwords. This means you’ll need to set this up again from the Illuminate app (instructions below).

Factory Reset

At this step, you’ll want to make sure you have the Philips Illuminate app installed on whatever device you’re wanting to use to control your lights. For Android, go to Google Play and search for and install Philips Illuminate. For Apple, navigate to the App store and install it. You’ll need this app for the next steps.

Once the control box is factory reset, it no longer attempts to connect to whatever previous WiFi network it once knew. The control box now goes back into initial setup mode and it creates an access point of its own. The new access point SSID will look like PhilipsACCF235B6838 or similar. For this article, I will assume the access point ID to be named PhilipsACCF235B6838. When you are performing this on yours, it will obviously be named something different. You can rename this SSID if you want, but I left it as it is because it doesn’t identify what the product is. It also doesn’t broadcast this SSID very far anyway, which is why you need to be close to it.

If you have installed multiple control boxes all handling different strands of lights around your property, then it would make sense to rename each SSID to a name that identifies which strand it is and where it is located. Renaming in this instance makes sense. For a single control box handling a single strand like mine, renaming is not important.

At this point, you’ll want to open your iOS or Android phone and navigate to the Android or iOS settings area where you can connect to a WiFi access point. Once in settings, wait for your device to scan looking for new access points. Once it finds PhilipsACCF235B6838 (or however yours is numbered), click on it to connect. Note that you may need to be within a few feet of the control box for this to work. Don’t try to do this from a different room in the house.

Once connected, it will prompt you for a password. The default password is 12345678. Depending on which method you choose to try next will determine if you need to change that password.

WiFi Network Setup vs Direct Setup

There are two ways to go at this point. You can have your Illuminate control box connect to your local WiFi lan network or you can use a direct connection. I couldn’t get mine to connect to my local WiFi network for whatever reason. I think someone has set something up in my complex causing massive interference. I fill in the correct WiFi network details, but the app is never able to find the control box on my local WiFi network. So, I reset it again and this time I chose the Direct connection method to manage the lights. Slightly more of a hassle, but it at least works.

Network Setup

After connecting your phone to the WiFi access point PhilipsACCF235B6838 from your device settings, launch the Illuminate app. Once the app loads, it should find control box, the app may show you the control box screen (below) or it may jump into the setup screen. This screen below is what you should see each time you start the Illuminate app regardless of whether you choose Direct WiFi or connect the control box to your local lan via WiFi.

control-box

If not in the setup screen already, select the menu icon in the upper left of the screen and choose ‘Setup Wizard’. From here you can either setup the device for Direct connection or WiFi lan connection like so:

img_4237

If you want to use a WiFi lan connection, then click CONNECT CONTROL BOX TO LOCAL WI-FI. On the next screen, scroll the screen to find the access point you want to connect to and click it.

Illuminate-WiFi

Next, enter the password for the SSID you’ve chosen.

img_4240-1

Make sure the password you enter is correct. The Illuminate App should verify the correctness of the password you enter in this field, but if the password changes on the access point, it will no longer work. I can’t guarantee that the app will verify the password you enter here, so make sure it’s correct.

If you want to use the direct connect method to manage your light strands, then click USE A DIRECT CONNECTION and then follow the screen prompt that comes next:

direct-connect-control-box

From here, you’ll need to change the password you want to use on your control box going forward. This is the password change screen. It changes the password on the WiFi password you will use to connect to the SSID WiFi access point in the control box. You can also change your SSID for your control box on this screen, but I left mine as it is. After you CONFIRM the password, as the screen states, the control box will restart. Once the control box restarts, you’ll need to reconnect to your Philips SSID via WiFi settings on iOS or Android. You may need to forget the old network as it may have remembered the older 12345678 password. Then, reconnect and enter the new password you just entered in the screen above.

Security Tip: you should always change default passwords included with devices because anyone can easily find the default password on the Internet.

Once your WiFi has connected to the access point, relaunch the Illuminate app and it should take you to the screen that looks like so which should immediately find your control box:

control-box

Click the check box like above and press Enter to manage your light strands like normal.

Failure is not an option

If after going through the above steps to reconnect the control box to your local WiFi network, you find that your Illuminate app still cannot locate the control box on your local WiFi network on startup (what happened to mine), you’ll need to use the direct connection to control your lights. If you cannot connect to the control box after a factory reset, your control box may be damaged.

As always, if this article was helpful to you, please consider leaving a comment and following my blog for future helpful advice. If you could please share this article on Twitter and other social media, it would help me out 👍.

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