Category Archives: gaming

Keep your 360 – Xbox One not backward compatible

Microsoft says that the newly announced Xbox One is not backward compatible with the 360:

Xbox One hardware is not compatible with Xbox 360 games. We designed Xbox One to play an entirely new generation of games—games that are architected to take full advantage of state-of-the-art processors and the infinite power of the cloud. We care very much about the investment you have made in Xbox 360 and will continue to support it with a pipeline of new games and new apps well into the future.

This contrasts with the considerable compatibility effort made in the 360, which runs some (but not all) original Xbox games despite having an equally different architecture and a switch from Nvidia to ATI for the GPU. The way this works on the 360 is that when you put in a compatible original Xbox game, it downloads a patch to enable it to run. I am not sure of the details, but there is some kind of compatibility or emulation layer combined with game-specific code to fill any gaps.

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This may not seem a big deal to Microsoft, but in a family context it matters. Space in the living room is at a premium in many households, and lack of compatibility means a difficult decision. Replace the old 360 and abandon all that investment in existing games? Have both side by side, adding complexity and clutter? Or pass on the new Xbox and rely on your iPad or Android tablet for fun new games, as the 360 fades from view?

What will happen to classic games as the consoles which run them crumble? Emulation is the answer, and enthusiasts have come up with solutions for many obsolete consoles. In other words, we will end up running those games on PCs. For example, check out Cxbx for an ongoing effort to run original Xbox games, though progress is slow.

Contract Bridge on a tablet: Funbridge vs Bridgebase vs Bridge Baron

Bridge is an ideal game for a tablet, well suited to touch control and the kind of game you can play for a few minutes or a few hours at a time, which is excellent for travellers.

So what are the choices? Here is a quick look at some favourites.

Funbridge is available for iPhone, iPad and Android. There are also versions for Windows and Mac. The Android edition is the newest but works fine, though of all of them it is the iOS release that is the nicest to use.

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The way Funbridge works is that you always play against a computer, though this is on the internet rather than running locally, but your scores are compared with other humans playing the same hands. I have not tried the “Two players game” so I am not sure how that works, except that the other player has to be a “friend” in the Funbridge community system. It looks like you play with your friend against two bots.

Funbridge has a lot to like. The user interface is excellent, much the best of all the tablet bridge software I have used and better than most desktop bridge software too. There is a good variety of game options, including one-off games, tournaments of 5 games each, and a series ladder you can climb from 1 club to 7 no trumps. You can select one of 6 conventions, including ACOL, SAYC (American Standard), and 5 card major at three levels from beginner to expert. I think this is a hint that to get the best from Funbridge you should use the 5 card major system.

Another nice feature of Funbridge is that you can go back and replay a hand to try a different line of play. You can also see all the other scores on any hand, and how they were bid and played.

Funbridge is not perfect though. The bidding is eccentric at times, and it can be hard to persuade your partner bot to play in no trumps rather than a suit. There is definitely an art to winning at Funbridge that is a different from what it takes to win at a real bridge table.

Since you are playing against a cloud-based server, you can only play if you have an internet connection. Not so good for most flights.

Funbridge is a pay per game service. Currently 50 deals costs £1.49 (about 3p each) or if you pay more the per-deal cost falls to under 2p. Unlimited deals for a year costs £69.99.

That said, you can get 10 games a week for free, though you only get the 10 free games if you have no paid games in your account; slightly unfair to the paying customers.

Bridgebase is available for iPad, iPhone, Android and Amazon Kindle. Bridgebase also offers a browser-based game based on Adobe Flash. Like Funbridge, you can only play with an internet connection. You can either play with human opponents, or solo with three bots.

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Of course human opponents are more fun, though there are advantages to playing with bots. No pressure, you can think for as long as you like, and none of the issues which afflict online bridge, such as players simply disappearing when in a bad contract, or being bad tempered if you make a mistake.

The Bridgebase user interface is OK though feels clunky compared to the smoothness of Funbridge. As in Funbridge, you can compare your score with other human players even if you play against bots. You cannot replay games, but you can undo your play which means you can easily cheat against the bots if you feel so inclined. Against humans your opponents have to approve an undo, which they will be reluctant to do other then in cases of genuine mis-taps.

The biggest problem with Bridgebase is the standard of the bots, which is much weaker than Funbridge. The play can be quite bizarre at times, sometimes excellent, sometimes daft.

A weak feature is that if your computer partner wins the auction, it also plays the contract, sometimes badly. I do not see the point of this. You may find yourself playing “hideous hog” style (Victor Mollo’s character who always tried to play the contract) as it is painful reaching a good contract but watching the bot throw it away.

Bridgebase is free to play, though there are subscription options online to get some extra features.

Bridge Baron is available for Android, iPad, iPhone, Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. It is inexpensive (£13.99 currently on the App Store) but you have to pay separately for each platform. Unlike the other two games, Bridge Baron runs entirely on your device, which is good if you are offline, but means you do not compare your score against other humans. You can set the standard from novice to advanced.

Bridge Baron plays well enough to be fun, though well short of the best computer players. You can replay games at will. You can compare your score against the Baron’s score, review the bidding and play, and undo your play at will. You can also ask for a hint from the Baron.

The Bridge Baron user interface is basic, a little worse than Bridgebase (though faster) and much worse than Funbridge. I do not know why the card icons are so small; it is like playing on a huge table.

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Still, good fun and good value.

Conclusion

All three of these games have something to commend them. Funbridge for the best user interface and a standard good enough to be enjoyable despite a few eccentricities. Bridgebase for the option to play with real people, and for free play with bots. Bridge Baron for playing offline.

On the other hand, Bridgebase is spoilt by the poor play of its bots. Bridge Baron is dull because you cannot compare your score with other humans. Funbridge is the one I choose if I have some deals available, but can get expensive if you play a lot, and you will get annoyed with your computer partner from time to time.

There is nothing on a tablet that comes close to Jack Bridge for standard of play.

Finally, note there is no bridge app for Windows RT. So if you are a bridge addict with a Surface RT, you are out of luck.

Adobe launches Game Developer Tools including Scout profiler

Adobe is reminding developers that Flash is still around as a game development platform, with the release of a Game Developer Tools package including a Gaming SDK, the Flash C++ Compiler which translates C++ to ActionScript, Flash Professional CS6 and Flash Builder 4.7.

The new thing here is the Scout profiler, previewed as Monocle, which is now available for Creative Cloud subscribers. Scout is a desktop app which profiles Flash apps that have telemetry enabled. The app has to be running in Flash Player 11.4 or higher and have Advanced Telemetry enabled for most of the features to work. You can analyse the time taken for ActionScript code to execute, CPU usage, rendering time for the Flash DisplayList, and record Stage3D commands (hardware accelerated 2D and 3D graphics).

Normally Scout analyses Flash content running on the same machine, but there is a companion agent that you can use on iOS and Android for remote profiling of mobile apps.

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I downloaded and installed the Game Development but with only partial success, since I mainly use Windows 8 and the Flash Player there is behind that used on Windows 7 and Mac. The reason is that Flash Player is now updated via Windows Update, and this additional step seems to mean delays. I was able to try out Scout using Google Chrome, which has a Flash Player 11.5 installed, but have not yet figured out how to update the default Flash Player for the system which is used by Flash Professional and Flash Builder. At the time of writing this is Flash Player 11.3, which is insufficient for the Game Development Tools.

Flash is a strong platform for game development, though it has lost momentum now that Adobe is betting mainly on HTML 5. I also hear a lot about Unity for cross-platform game development. Unity lets you publish to Adobe Flash Player, giving you more choices than with pure Flash development.

Review: Hauppauge HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition. Capture Xbox and PS3 gaming action for YouTube.

The Hauppauge HD PVR2 is a gadget for capturing video from an HDMI or component video source, such as an XBox 360 or PlayStation 3 games console, and has replaced the popular HD PVR, which was component video only. 

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The concept is simple: instead of connecting you console directly to your TV or A/V amplifier, connect it to the HD PVR2. Then connect the unit to a PC or Mac via USB, and to the original TV or amplifier via HDMI. Your PC can then capture the video (and audio) while you are playing the game using the big screen. Hauppauge says the delay between input and output is only 60 microseconds, which you will not notice.

The use of HDMI makes connecting the PVR2 simpler than with its predecessor. Instaead of a bunch of component audio connections, there is just power, USB, HDMI in and out, and an A/V input that connects to component video sources where needed. The A/V input has a special cable that gives floating sockets for component video and analogue audio. The unit is also supplied with a cable suitable for connecting to a PS3.

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You might need component input in two cases:

1. Your games console lacks HDMI – for example, Nintendo Wii.

2. The HDMI output is encrypted for copyright protection. This is the case with the PS3, but not the XBox. Since component video and analogue audio cannot be encrypted, you can capture anything this way.

Getting started

Hooking up the HD PVR2 was easy, but getting started was troublesome. We tried a succession of Windows 7 laptops, including a Pentium Dual Core 2.3Ghz, a Core 2 Duo at 2.6 Ghz Pentium, and a Core i5 at 1.6 Ghz. The pattern with all these was similar: the drivers and software installed OK, HDMI pass-through worked, the capture might work once, but then there were frustrating errors. The problems:

  • Difficult or impossible to select the HD PVR2 as the input device in the capture software
  • Capture software hanging
  • USB device error reported

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This was tedious, partly because nothing could be captured, and partly because the only way to retry was to reboot both the laptop and the HD PVR2.

Swapping to a high-spec USB cable seemed to help a little, but soon the old problems were back, even after applying the latest driver updates from Hauppauge support.

Just before giving up, we connected to another Windows 7 Core i5 laptop, speed this time 2.5Ghz. Everything worked perfectly.

It is not clear what to conclude here. Hauppauge specifies:

Laptop or desktop PC with 3.0 GHz single core or 2.0 GHz multi-core processor

and adds in the FAQ:

You can record HD PVR 2 video on pretty much any PC. Older, slow, laptop or desktop PCs can be used to record HD PVR 2 video.

But when you playback an HD PVR 2 recording on your PC screen, you need a fast CPU and at least 256MB of graphics memory.

All our machines meet the spec. Either our sample box is particularly fussy, or Hauppauge is optimistic about the minimum requirements, or there are other factors at play.

Bundled software and Mac support

Hauppauge supplies Windows drivers for the HD PVR2 along with a version of Arcsoft ShowBiz for capturing and editing video.

If you want to use a Mac, Hauppauge recommends  third-party software called HDPVRCapture which costs an additional $29.95.

ShowBiz is easy to use and provides simple editing features and output to AVCHD, AVI, MPEG1, QTMOV or WMV. You can also upload direct to YouTube with a wizard.

You don’t have to use ShowBiz if you have other capture software you prefer.

Another feature is called Personal Logo. This is a separate application which lets you specify a bitmap as a logo to appear on your captured videos, along with its position and transparency. Handy for reminding everyone who you are on YouTube, or for publications posting review footage.

Capturing video

Once your system is up and working, you can start capturing video with one of two methods. The first is to hit a large corner button on top of the HD PVR2, which automatically starts up ShowBiz in capture mode. Alternatively, you can start ShowBiz, select Capture, and click Start.

While capturing, you can see the video running on the PC. There is several seconds delay between your live gameplay and the capture stream, which is confusing to watch, so ignore it and focus on your gameplay. When you are done hit stop. Videos are saved automatically, by default to the Videos folder on your PC, named according to the date and time.

Next, you can edit the video in ShowBiz. I created the following video and uploaded it to YouTube as a demo. However, I could not get the YouTube unload in ShowBiz to work. I saved the file as an AVI and uploaded it manually.

Settings in depth

When you run the Capture module in ArcSoft ShowBiz it exposes a number of settings, which you get to by clicking Device and Format Settings.

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Device Settings lets you set brightness, contrast, Hue, Saturation and Sharpness.

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Format settings gets you a bunch of settings which gives extensive control subject to the limitations of the hardware. Here are the settings for the H264 encoder:

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Here are the video settings:

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and the audio properties:

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All this looks impressive though many users will just want to click and go. Mostly this works OK, though check that you have 16:9 specified if you use widescreen.

Note that 1080p at 60 fps (frames per second) is captured at a maximum of 30 fps, and 1080p at 50 fps is captured at a maximum of 25 fps.

Annoyances

Hauppauge says that your PC does not need to be on for HDMI pass-through to work. Despite this, we found that if you turn the system on from cold, pass-through does not work until the USB connection to a PC is made. Once up and running, you can disconnect and turn the PC off and pass-through still works.

ArcSoft ShowBiz is very basic. Fortunately you can import the captured videos into other editors.

Having to use component video for the PS3 is annoying but not the fault of Hauppauge. It is surprising in some ways that the XBox generally outputs an unencrypted HDMI stream.

Conclusion

When this device was not working I wanted to throw it out of the window; but once I got it running it was great. The bundled software is poor, documentation is thin, and it is just a little quirky, but the ability to capture your gaming output is worth a bit of hassle. 

 

Ancient game plays better in Windows 8 than Windows 7

Windows 8 runs the 1999 game Age of Empires II better than Windows 7, which curiously messes up the screen graphics unless you terminate the Windows Explorer process – a fact that I noted in December 2010. Here is the game in Windows 7:

and in Windows 8, without fiddling with Explorer:

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The fact that the game runs better in Windows 8 is probably due to some obscure bug-fix, though I like to think that somewhere in the development team is a fan of this old but excellent game (it is great multi-player) who decided to make it work.

Ninja Gaiden 3 comes to Nintendo Wii U

I had enormous fun with Ninja Gaiden on Xbox, especially the first version which was repeatedly refined until, as Ninja Gaiden Black, it came near to gaming perfection. Never mind the plot: the action was intense, challenging and deep.

Ninja Gaiden 2 was more gory but less satisfying, though it was another big game with gorgeous environments – I particularly liked the watery city which was reminiscent of Venice – and more important, tough fighting that rewarded skill rather than button-bashing.

Ninja Gaiden 3 on the other hand was a disappointment, removing most of what was enjoyable about the game. The combat system was simplified and it became just another button bash.

Now the game is among those promised for the Nintendo Wii U. Is it possible that the new version, called Razor’s Edge, fixes the problems?

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The description does seem to recognise what went wrong:

NINJA GAIDEN 3 has been reworked to bring to Wii U the truly intense, high-speed challenge and action NINJA GAIDEN fans demand. With more weapon and Ninpo types, a new character progression system, a redesigned battle system and the return of dismemberment, NINJA GAIDEN 3: Razor’s Edge improves upon the original NINJA GAIDEN 3 in every way and offers Wii U exclusive features and functionalities.

Improving on the original Ninja Gaiden 3, you might remark, will not be difficult. Even so, fans now have some reason to hope for another decent edition of Ninja Gaiden.

Microsoft announces Internet Explorer for Xbox 360, makes bid for living room

At the E3 conference in Las Vegas Microsoft has made a series of announcements focused on its Xbox 360 games console, but also relating to Windows Phone, Windows 8, and even Apple iOS and Google Android.

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Xbox SmartGlass is a free app for Windows Phone, Windows 8, iOS and Android which links communicates with the Xbox. Examples include:

  • Watching a movie on a tablet while travelling, getting half way through, and automatically resuming on the Xbox at home.
  • Seeing related content on your tablet such as team members, maps, game inventory, and so on, while the TV or game action takes place on the main Xbox screen.
  • Using the tablet to navigate web pages that are also displayed in Internet Explorer on the Xbox, tapping links and using pinch and zoom.

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Yes, IE is now promised for the Xbox “this fall”, and there will be a new web hub. No word yet about Adobe Flash, but with a strong focus on multimedia in this context, it would certainly make sense to include it, as Microsoft has done for Metro-style IE in Windows 8. In fact, the browser shown at E3 on Xbox looked reminiscent of the Windows 8 Metro version.

Other major consoles also have web browsers, so what is special about Microsoft’s late inclusion of the same feature? The company says that web browsers on other consoles are little used because they are hard to navigate, and is counting on a combination of Kinect voice control and SmartGlass to make it work better on Xbox.

Another problem though is that most web sites are simply not designed for viewing from twelve feet back. A second awkward question: if you have your tablet out, why not just use the tablet’s own web browser?

It makes little sense for general web browsing, but can work for playing videos or viewing images, which I guess is the main idea here.

Microsoft has also announced Xbox Music, which sounds like a replacement for Zune and its subscriptions. You will be able to download and/or subscribe to 30 million tracks, and the service will work seamlessly, according to Microsoft, on Windows Phone, Xbox and Windows 8.

Watching the E3 press event was an odd experience. Xbox games are still dominated by macho fighting titles like Halo, Splinter Cell, and Black Ops, all of which were demonstrated complete with bone-crunching violence, death and mayhem. At the same time, Microsoft is trying to make the console the entertainment hub for the whole family, and for movies and sport as much as for games, so we also got Dance Central 3, and exercising with Nike plus Kinect.

One thing not mentioned was Xbox vNext. The 360 was released in November 2005, an eternity ago in technology terms. The hardware has held up well, but even so, if Apple pulls out something TV-related soon (perhaps even at its WWDC event next week) then it will have the advantage of being able to release something based on up to date hardware.

The pros and cons of NVIDIA’s cloud GPU

Yesterday NVIDIA announced the Geforce GRID, a cloud GPU service, here at the GPU Technology Conference in San Jose.

The Geforce GRID is server-side software that takes advantage of new features in the “Kepler” wave of NVIDIA GPUs, such as GPU virtualising, which enables the GPU to support multiple sessions, and an on-board encoder that lets the GPU render to an H.264 stream rather than to a display.

The result is a system that lets you play games on any device that supports H.264 video, provided you can also run a lightweight client to handle gaming input. Since the rendering is done on the server, you can play hardware-accelerated PC games on ARM tablets such as the Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab, or on a TV with a set-top box such as Apple TV, Google TV, or with a built-in client.

It is an impressive system, but what are the limitations, and how does it compare to the existing OnLive system which has been doing something similar for a few years? I attended a briefing with NVIDIA’s Phil Eisler, General Manager for Cloud Gaming & 3D Vision, and got a chance to put some questions.

The key problem is latency. Games become unplayable if there is too much lag between when you perform an action and when it registers on the screen. Here is NVIDIA’s slide:

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This looks good: just 120-150ms latency. But note that cloud in the middle: 30ms is realistic if the servers are close by, but what if they are not? The demo here at GTC in yesterday’s keynote was done using servers that are around 10 miles away, but there will not be a GeForce GRID server within 10 miles of every user.

According to Eisler, the key thing is not so much the distance, as the number of hops the IP traffic passes through. The absolute distance is less important than being close to an Internet backbone.

The problem is real though, and existing cloud gaming providers like OnLive and Gaikai install servers close to major conurbations in order to address this. In other words, it pays to have many small GPU clouds dotted around, than to have a few large installations.

The implication is that hosting cloud gaming is expensive to set up, if you want to reach a large number of users, and that high quality coverage will always be limited, with city dwellers favoured over rural communities, for example. The actual breadth of coverage will depend on the hoster’s infrastructure, the users broadband provider, and so on.

It would make sense for broadband operators to partner with cloud gaming providers, or to become cloud gaming providers, since they are in the best position to optimise performance.

Another question: how much work is involved in porting a game to run on Geforce GRID? Not much, Eisler said; it is mainly a matter of tweaking the game’s control panel options for display and adapting the input to suit the service. He suggested 2-3 days to adapt a PC game.

What about the comparison with OnLive? Eisler let slip that OnLive does in fact use NVIDIA GPUs but would not be pressed further; NVIDIA has agreed not to make direct comparisons.

When might Geforce GRID come to Europe? Later this year or early next year, said Eisler.

Eisler was also asked about whether Geforce GRID will cannibalise sales of GPUs to gamers. He noted that while Geforce GRID latency now compares favourably with that of a games console, this is in part because the current consoles are now a relatively old generation, and a modern PC delivers around half the latency of a console. Nevertheless it could have an impact.

One of the benefits of the Geforce GRID is that you will, in a sense, get an upgraded GPU every time your provider upgrades its GPUs, at no direct cost to you.

I guess the real question is how the advent of cloud GPU gaming, if it takes off, will impact the gaming market as a whole. Casual gaming on iPhones, iPads and other smartphones has already eaten into sales of standalone games. Now you can play hardcore games on those same devices. If the centre of gaming gravity shifts further to the cloud, there is less incentive for gamers to invest in powerful GPUs on their own PCs.

Finally, note that the latency issues, while still important, matter less for the non-gaming cloud GPU applications, such as those targeted by NVIDIA VGX. Put another way, a virtual desktop accelerated by VGX could give acceptable performance over connections that are not good enough for Geforce GRID.

NVIDIA’s GPU in the cloud: will you still want an Xbox or PlayStation?

NVIDIA’s GPU Technology conference is an unusual event, in part a get-together for academic researchers using HPC, in part a marketing pitch for the company. The focus of the event is on GPU computing, in other words using the GPU for purposes other than driving a display, such as processing simulations to model climate change or fluid dynamics, or to process huge amounts of data in order to calculate where best to drill for oil. However NVIDIA also uses the event to announce its latest GPU innovations, and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang used this morning’s keynote to introduce its GPU in the cloud initiative.

This takes two forms, though both are based on a feature of the new “Kepler” wave of NVIDIA GPUs which allows them to render graphics to a stream rather than to a display. It is the world’s first virtualized GPU, he claimed.

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The first target is enterprise VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure). The idea is that in the era of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) there is high demand for the ability to run Windows applications on devices of every kind, perhaps especially Apple iPads. This works fine via virtualisation for everyday applications, but what about GPU-intensive applications such as Autocad or Adobe Photoshop? Using a Kepler GPU you can run up to 100 virtual desktop instances with GPU acceleration. NVIDIA calls this the VGX Platform.

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What actually gets sent to the client is mostly H.264 video, which means most current devices have good support, though of course you still need a remote desktop client.

The second target is game streaming. The key problem here – provided you have enough bandwidth – is minimising the lag between when a player moves or clicks Fire, and when the video responds. NVIDIA has developed software called the Geforce GRID which it will supply along with specially adapted Kepler GPUs to cloud companies such as Gaikai. Using the Geforce GRID, lag is reduced, according to NVIDIA, to something close to what you would get from a game console.

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We saw a demo of a new Mech shooter game in which one player is using an Asus Transformer Prime, an Android tablet, and the other an LG television which has a streaming client built in. The game is rendered in the cloud but streamed to the clients with low latency.

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“This is your game console,” said NVIDIA CEO Jen-Sun Huang, holding the Ethernet cable that connected the TV to the internet.

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The concept is attractive for all sorts of reasons. Users can play games without having to download and install, or connect instantly to a game being played by a friend. Game companies are protected from piracy, because the game code runs in the cloud, not on the device.

NVIDIA does not plan to run its own cloud services, but is working with partners, as the following slide illustrates. On the VDI side, Citrix, Microsoft, VMWare and Xen were mentioned as partners.

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If cloud GPU systems take off, will it cannibalise the market for powerful GPUs in client devices, whether PCs, game consoles or tablets? I put this to Huang in the press Q&A after the keynote, and he denied it, saying that people like designers hate to share their PCs. It was an odd and unsatisfactory answer. After all, if Huang is saying that your games console is now an Ethernet cable, he is also saying that there is no need any longer for game consoles which contain powerful NVIDIA GPUs. The same might apply to professional workstations, with the logic that cloud computing always presents: that shared resources have better utilisation and therefore lower cost.