Two Relatively Capable Technologists Fail to Play PlayStation Game
If you’re looking for evidence that the web and mobile will engulf the games market, I have a story to tell you.
Yeah, I know I’m a putz—but it’s really problematic when the two of us are utterly defeated by mass-market consumer electronics.
Objective: play a game
Last month in Toronto, Bob and I set our hearts on playing PixelJunk 4am, a downloadable game for the PlayStation 3 that lets you paint your own electronic music on a virtual canvas. It’s not really a game, per se—more like a trippy audio visualizer for geeks moonlighting as musicians.
(It’s pretty botique, but check out the reviews if you’re interested.)
This software requires the special “Move” motion controllers for the PlayStation 3. This means that for anyone who wants to experience the software, the first step is hunting down some elusive hardware.
Around 6pm, Bob and I set off for EB Games, the world’s largest video game retailer.
We inform the cute girl working the register that we’re looking for PS Move controllers. We think we need two controllers, but we’re not really sure. Do we need chargers? Any receiver hardware? This is all new to us.
Of course, she doesn’t really understand any of this, either. She offers us the super-ultra-bonus pack that includes LittleBigPlanet, but we turn it down because it seems extraneous. (Later, we’d come to regret this).
She rummages behind the desk and produces a single packaged Move controller ($49.99), which seems like progress, but lets us know that we’re going to need to head over to another EB store to get the second one. “We’re usually sold out of these,” she says.
So Bob and I stand around awkwardly while she rings up the other stores. A few minutes later, she’s located another controller, and informs us that the Eaton Centre has the inventory we’re looking for. They’ll hold the controller for us but they’re closing in 30 minutes, so we need to leave RIGHT NOW.
We hop into a cab and get on the road. Halfway to the Eaton Centre we spot a Best Buy and figure maybe we should check there instead. We’re ten feet past the sliding entrance doors when we spot a whole string of freshly packaged PS Move controllers. We snag one right away and have a relatively speedy checkout ($49.99). Hardware acquired.
We meet up with our dinner friends and get excited about painting music on a virtual canvas. Our friends are disappointed that we’re not joining them for drinks, but fuck it. We have geeking to do.
Arriving at Bob’s around 9pm, we pry the controllers out of their rigid clamshell packaging. I always manage to hurt myself, what with the sharp edges. This time is no exception.
We discover that the two controllers are not pre-charged. No worries; we dig through Bob’s basket of knotty cables to find what we need to concurrently charge the pair of controllers… and fail to find the right USB cables.
But thankfully Bobby has a girlfriend who’s much smarter and more patient than either of us, and she succeeds where we failed. Mini USB cables located. Controllers attached to PlayStation. Charging begins. Now we can download the software.
As Bob initiates the software download, I field a phone call from a potential future colleague and help her weigh the pros and cons of a job offer. This takes some time, but it’s all good—the downloads will soon be underway. ACID SOAKED VISUALS, HERE WE COME.
Here, our real troubles begin.
This is the start of 2.5 terrible hours of PlayStation firmware and software updates.
- First, a necessary system firmware update. 50-60 megabytes.
- Then, a long progress bar while the system update installs.
- System reboot.
- We download the game. Couple hundred megabytes.
- Install the game. I’ve never understood why “installation” would be necessary on a game console, but whatever. 10-12 minutes.
- Discover there’s an update to the game. Also a couple hundred megabytes—this seemingly isn’t a patch to the original download, but an entirely new download. Why couldn’t they just serve us the updated version of the software in the first place? Whatever.
- Download the update.
- Install the update. Again. The last 30 minutes has been a wash.
- Download the “PixelJunk 4am Viewer.” Apparently this software has a dependency on another piece of software. It doesn’t really make sense why these couldn’t be packaged together. Whatever.
- Install the submodule, or whatever it is.
- During the installation of the “PixelJunk 4am Viewer,” we encounter system firmware issues. The system locks up and we have to initiate a forced reboot.
- Re-install the “PixelJunk 4am Viewer.”
Now, it looks like we’re good to play. Our enthusiasm is somewhat dampened, but we’ve come this far—right?
We sit through a series of loading screens, warnings, and title screens. It is at this point that we discover we’re lacking essential hardware and can’t play the game.
Apparently the PlayStation Move controllers require the PlayStation Eye camera for tracking. We don’t have a PlayStation Eye. It doesn’t really seem like this particular game would require any computer vision to work, but what do I know?
I mean, maybe we’re hilariously ill-informed and should have seen this coming. PlayStation.com says that “in addition to the PlayStation®3 system, PlayStation®Move requires both the PlayStation®Move motion controller and the PlayStation®Eye camera to track your every move and put you in the game.”
But there really wasn’t any warning on the packaging or any clear indication that we’d need to buy a “PlayStation Move Starter Kit” ($79.99). Only an ambiguous diagram with a PlayStation camera. Frustration.
We do some Hail Mary Googling to confirm whether any work-around is possible. Can we use these controllers at all without having the PlayStation Eye camera? Can we spoof the presence of the PlayStation Eye camera to advance to the game? Do we need to root the goddamn box to make this work?
Confirmed, no workaround.
We decide to try the “PixelJunk 4am Live Viewer,” which apparently lets you watch other people playing the game. This seems a lot less fun than actually playing the game, but at least it’s something.
Overcoming some confusion about how to actually invoke the live viewer, we hit another inexcusable UX snag. Bear with me, this is a good one.
We boot the Live Viewer as Player 1 with a PlayStation Move controller. Because we are lacking a PlayStation Eye Camera, we’re faced with an unskippable PlayStation Eye calibration prompt.
And here it is: we’re completely unable to dismiss the calibration prompt, because we’re lacking another piece of essential hardware: the PlayStation Move Navigation Controller, a companion to the wireless gestural controller.
Only the PlayStation Move Navigation Controller can issue the directional input we need to dismiss the calibration prompt. And that happens to be the controller we don’t have. Terrible, inexcusable UX. Literally, the only way to advance is to reboot the entire system and use a regular PlayStation controller, once more watch the parade of loading screens, warnings, and title screens, and invoke the PixelJunk 4am Live Viewer again.
When we finally get to anything resembling a game, we find that there’s a lone PixelJunk 4am player in Germany doing his thing. Noone else. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given how hard it was for us to get to this point.
In any case, our player in Germany is either a mediocre player, just learning how to play, or an AI construct. It took over 6 hours to get to this point and it was kind of anticlimactic. Around 2am, dejected, we just kind of gave up on having fun. And I went home.
OK, so maybe this is an outlier experience. But I suspect that if you ask someone who has a PlayStation, they’ll tell you that these sorts of frustrations are all too common.
Why do we still have consoles?
When compared to general purpose computing devices like a mobile phones, personal computers or web browsers, game consoles theoretically offer two sets of advantages. These are advantages to both users of the platform and developers for the platform.
- For users, game consoles should offer a better user experience. Because console hardware and UX are designed with gaming as the dedicated application, they should provide a more streamlined, purposeful, and enjoyable experience to gamers.
- For developers and publishers, game consoles should offer a more viable development- and sell-through platform. Game console hardware is optimized, mass manufactured, and offered with special developer tools. This provides developers with a stable development target and a single known hardware specification. Because of a large installed base, publishers can sell many units of the same software and more easily recoup the investment.
More and more, consoles fail these two counts miserably:
They fail on user experience because with few exceptions, game consoles are more complex and frustrating to use than general purpose computers like phones and tablets. They’re less capable, less connected to the social web, and more prone to stagnation. Platforms like Firefox and Chrome are on a “rapid release” schedule—like clockwork, they are silently updated and made more capable every six weeks. Software developers can deploy updates to web apps whenever they like. iOS gets a major overhaul every year and app developers can push updates to users with relative ease. So even if users of these platforms are using legacy hardware, they are—in many cases—benefiting from incremental improvements and updates by the platform providers and app developers alike.
(Consoles really do utterly fail on this count—please see above to understand what Bob and are I were doing at 10pm.)
They also fail as a viable development and sell-through platform because at the high-end of the spectrum, game development is too risky, expensive and unpredictable. At the medium and casual end of the spectrum—the part of the market that is growing—web and mobile offer a substantially larger install base.
The web as console
Hardware companies like Sony are operating in an era where peddlers of software have a distinct advantage. They’re offering hardware-defined platforms when software-defined platforms like the web and mobile are proving more easily programmable and less prone to the entropy of closed systems.
In a world where you can download and play 99 cent mobile games, or multiplayer 3D games in a WebGL-capable browser, it really starts to look like “the web is the console.” But the web is also the printing press, the radio station, and the movie theater. All of our media is delivered through the web, and the web is extending deeper into our networks, into our hardware, into our lives.
Is PixelJunk 4am really a game? Is an interactive ePub3 book really a book? Is an interactive documentary a movie? Media forms continue to converge and our descriptors of information goods become less descriptive.
We’ve got a ways to go to before HTML5 and the open web platform is the primary development and delivery platform for games. And the games industry’s transition to the web won’t happen overnight. But as many smart people have lately taken to saying, software is eating the world. And that favors the web.
Imagine the potential of “Steam in the browser”—no razor-sharp clamshell packaging, no bullshit firmware updates, no weird proprietary hardware requirements.
In the meantime, Bob and I—professional technologists and avid gamers—have been defeated by a game console. Not very much fun.