Windows 10 Impressions

Windows 10

About a month ago I moved my desktop Windows installation to the Windows Insider Preview Program, which gets you an early and unfinished version of Windows 10. Tomorrow the first regular Windows upgrades to 10 will begin.

Kind of like Chrome’s different update channels, there are two different paths in the preview program. The different update channels, or paths, or rings as Microsoft likes to call them determine how quickly you’ll get updates and in what condition they’re in and exactly how broken you’d like your machine at any time.

I chose the default slow ring because I’d rather my gaming computer’s operating system wasn’t completely broken during my preview program experience, just somewhat broken.

That is exactly how I ended up with a fairly broken Windows 10 installation the first night where I could use it for maybe ten minutes before a giant error message was displayed telling me that I had to log out immediately. This message would go away if I rebooted my computer. Logging out just made it happen again the next time I logged in. This is just the nature of pre-release software. When I next updated to a newer pre-release version of Windows 10, no more errors for a while.

Well, I did have to reinstall the Visual Studio C++ redistributable files manually so that Logitech’s awful gaming software could run at start-up, but that wasn’t a system-ending disaster like the first prerelease I tried.

In Windows 10 there are now just two Windows Update settings for how updates are delivered to your computer and neither of them lets you choose if you want the updates downloaded and installed. Towards the end of my pre-release Windows experience I ran into issues with Windows Update forcing new versions of Nvidia’s Geforce graphics driver. Despite having the driver for my video card installed manually through the Geforce Experience desktop program, Windows Update would attempt to install newer versions itself. Throughout this mess the driver would incorrectly choose which output to use and I would end up having to turn on my TV in order to regain control of my desktop. Not fun. There is a program that Microsoft offers to reject particular updates, it is not sufficient for resolving this issue as the next version that comes via Windows Update will need to be rejected as well. I would recommend that anyone who doesn’t want to run into this mess let Windows Update handle the driver installation for their video card and not install the driver manually. These issues may be resolved in the shipping version of Windows 10.

Everything else seemed to work fine once that was sorted out and my older games continued to work just as they had before. I’m about 40 or 50 hours into Fallout: New Vegas and it continues to run in Windows 10 just like it did in Windows 8.1.

But hey, there are new features in Windows 10!

When you clicked the Windows-logo button in Windows 8.1, or if you pressed a Windows key on your keyboard in 8 or 8.1, you would be removed from the familiar desktop and whisked away to the tiled application launcher called the start screen. This start screen felt more at home for the tiled phone and tablet apps that you could get from the Windows app store that nobody uses unless they’re on a phone or a tablet.

I don’t mind when interfaces change and provide some kind of progress. People get upset, but they usually adjust to it.

Though I didn’t agree entirely with the general sentiment, I understand why the start-screen replacing the start-menu put so many people off of Windows 8 and 8.1. The start-screen was just so unfamiliar. It never even made sense to keep calling this Windows when it was presented on a tablet or phone where you could only run one or two programs at a time. Overlapping and arranging applications is part of why the operating system could be called Windows in the first place.

In Windows 10, clicking the Windows logo in the lower left presents you with something that at first glance looks like a modern start menu. If you look a little closer you’ll see you’ve been fooled again. This is a hybrid start menu. In addition to adding the tiles from the start screen in a bizarre pop-up box that takes visual priority and space in the interface over your list of programs.

This is even worse than the start screen and feels like another step backwards from the company that couldn’t stick to their plans for the Xbox One.

At least on the start screen every tile and application icon wasn’t crowded together in a smaller visible area. Here, desktop programs are fighting with tiled applications for space. The programs in this new start-menu/screen hybrid are named similarly and only have slightly different icons from their desktop application counterparts. There are two versions of Skype here in bizarro land.

Do you have the desktop version of Skype already installed? The tile-lovers at Microsoft don’t care. They’ve stuffed a tile that looks confusingly similar to the regular Skype icon into this new franken-start-menu to confuse you even if you already have the desktop version installed. If you click this false Skype you’re presented with a simple screen encouraging you to download this terrible version. Don’t do it. It will be very confusing for anyone who isn’t technically savvy to upgrade to Windows 10 and try to launch Skype.

The only improvement to running these phone and tablet apps on your desktop in Windows 10 is that tiled apps are now windows. No more full-screen calculators on a 27 inch monitor unless you intentionally hit the maximize button. Finally, progress.

One actual improvement that I’ve been excited about since first hearing about it was the ability to stream games from my Xbox One to Windows 10.

Game streaming works very well if you can look past the image quality degradation in the process. Compared to the same image on my TV some extra compression artifacts and color banding were visible in this pre-release version of the Xbox streaming software. The only real disappointment is that you can’t use a mouse and keyboard to play the Master Chief Collection. Instead you can use either a gamepad plugged into your desktop or the wireless gamepad going to your Xbox One to control streamed games from your Xbox One. With a kid on the way I can see this as a useful feature for when the little one is watching cartoons and mom or dad need to go hunt some aliens.

I had some fun playing Halo 3: ODST again, but it would be better if original Xbox, 360, and One games just worked on Windows 10 machines without relying on streaming. Emulator authors are already working on it, but haven’t been as successful as authors of emulators for older consoles.

Another new feature is the ability to record your desktop computer gameplay and share it via the Xbox app. You would be better served by using the Open Broadcaster Software instead. You’ll notice a pattern here. These new gaming features feel like more insincerity from what should be the most successful computer gaming platform in the world. Instead of Windows 10 gaming improvements, these feel like the Xbox console encroaching into Windows territory just like with the old Games for Windows Live system.

Perhaps DirectX 12 will be useful in this regard, but without any games that require it I can’t say that it helps today. Microsoft touts that it will improve performance for games that are limited by the CPU today. My understanding is that games are more limited by the GPU if you have a discrete graphics card already. So, I guess it might help out the Surface devices. Hooray for them. Even Microsoft’s Xbox spokesperson Larry Hyrb can’t come up with more than DirectX 12 when describing the actual upgrades in 10 for gamers.

The only exclusive gaming experience in Windows 10 at launch will be Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition. If nothing else, Microsoft is excellent at creating the most ridiculously long names for products. I can’t speak to the quality of Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition, it wasn’t included in the preview program and will be a beta when it is released on the same day as Windows 10. This version of Minecraft will be free to those who already have purchased the game directly from Mojang’s website. The main upgrade to this version appears to be that it won’t require Java. Which is good, because Java in 2015 is awful.

Cortana is another new feature in Windows 10. Named after the Halo video game character, she is supposed to be like Apple’s Siri, but a little bit more conversational and unfortunately she seems more likely to boot you off to Microsoft’s Bing web search. Like Apple’s “Hey, Siri,” you can have Cortana listen for the catch-phrase “Hey, Cortana” and then she will then keep listening for a command of some kind which is handy when you quickly want to check the weather before heading out.

I just spent a few minutes playing a movie guessing game with Cortana, it’s fun up until she misinterprets what I’m saying and launches a movie editing program.

Surprisingly, that is pretty much it for front-facing new features in Windows 10 that I care about. There are new versions of Microsoft’s web browser, music, e-mail, calendar, and photo programs but I don’t do anything besides playing games on Windows. All of my work is on my Macbook Pro.

I did briefly try out the new e-mail and calendar programs, but they’re from bizarro tile land, and not terribly useful. The mail app can’t seem to display a unified inbox when you have multiple accounts, so I suppose that feature is reserved for the desktop Outlook program. Outlook 2013 still prompts you to enter the password your Internet Service Provider gave you when you go to set up your first e-mail account. Even the least tech savvy people have learned their lessons from moving ISPs and losing their e-mail at one time or another and won’t make the same mistake again. At least the new mail app properly understands how to configure a non-Outlook server account. Outlook 2013 did not understand any of my non-outlook server e-mail account and was confused by the idea that it should support them. I was eventually able to get an account into it in order to compare it with the new Windows 10 mail app and would not want to repeat the experience. Stick with web-mail or the Windows 10 mail app.

There are performance improvements in Windows 10. I don’t have any interest in benchmarking them, but they’ll be doubly improved for anyone who rejected Windows 8 or Windows 7. Start-up times in particular are faster for anyone coming from Windows 7 and the desktop was as speedy and responsive as it should have been, even in the pre-release version of Windows that I was using.

Overall, I feel like Windows 10 is not as big an upgrade to 8.1 as it might have been if Microsoft hadn’t been held back by the start-screen grumblings from desktop users. It is still an important step for users who didn’t upgrade to Windows 8 and 8.1 from the unsupported Windows XP or Windows 7, but it feels like 10 could have been more if Microsoft had continued down whatever path they were going in Windows 8. Microsoft continues to be freightened of torpedoing legacy compatbility and moving on. Even their advertising copy for Windows 10 reads:

This is the one that you’ve been waiting for.

Despite the confusing terminology with an asterisk Microsoft is using to encourage upgrades I would encourage anyone who is currently using Windows as a gaming platform to upgrade after a month or two. Those who aren’t reliant on the latest technology for fun should probably hold off until later this year but certainly before uncle Scrooge’s free upgrade offer ends.

Unless Apple starts treating games as a serious need for Mac OS X or the Year of the Linux desktop finally gets here, we don’t have a better option.

Razer’s Benevolence

Emanuel Maiberg:

Just now, Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan told Polygon that Razer isn’t obligated to follow through on the payments developers are still owed through Ouya’s Free the Games Fund, but that it will make good on those payments anyway.

“This is purely being done out of goodwill,” Tan said. “I think this is going to be great for the developers. I think they’re going to be able to get the games done and gamers will get access to games for free. Then those games will spread through word of mouth.”

Developers who want to get the rest of the Free the Games Fund payments from Razer will have to agree to a new deal that’s different from the original in some key ways.

Nothing says obscene fat-cat businessmen like fucking over smaller developers and then coming up with yet another terrible contract for them to agree to in order to receive the funds your business partners screwed them out of.

Hats off to Polygon for not linking to Emanuel Maiberg’s original scoop. That’s why they get no link from me today on this follow-up.

What do machines sing of?

Martin Backes:

“What do machines sing of?” is a fully automated machine, which endlessly sings number-one ballads from the 1990s. As the computer program performs these emotionally loaded songs, it attempts to apply the appropriate human sentiments. This behavior of the device seems to reflect a desire, on the part of the machine, to become sophisticated enough to have its very own personality.

Indie Developers: Ouya Owes Us Thousands of Dollars

Emanuel Maiberg:

On Monday, gaming peripheral company Razer announced that it acquired the software and part of the team behind Ouya, which infamously raised $8.5 million through crowdfunding in 2012 to build an Android-based microconsole. It was a desperate move for the struggling small console maker—and now some indie developers who worked on Ouya games say they’re being screwed by the acquisition.

Multiple independent developers who wish to remain anonymous have told Motherboard that contracts they had originally signed with Ouya, which promised to pay them thousands of dollars, will not be honored as a result of the acquisition.

For a console that was crowdfunded on the idea that independent game developers needed a way to put their games onto a TV when Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo weren’t doing the job, they sure managed to screw up every part of the project. From the controller to paying developers what they were promised.

After the failure of the Ouya it will now be more difficult for independent developers and gamers to trust small businesses. Where did the trust go? Back into Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo who now have better places for independent developers.

Electronic Monitoring by Employers

Esther Kaplan:

Every aspect of an office worker’s life can now be measured, and an increasing number of corporations and institutions — from cosmetics companies to car-rental agencies — are using that information to make hiring and firing decisions. Cramer, for one, is bullish on the idea: investing in companies like Cornerstone, he said, “can make you boatloads of money literally year after year!”

A survey from the American Management Association found that 66 percent of employers monitor the Internet use of their employees, 45 percent track employee keystrokes, and 43 percent monitor employee email. Only two states, Delaware and Connecticut, require companies to inform their employees that such monitoring is taking place. According to Marc Smith, a sociologist with the Social Media Research Foundation, “Anything you do with a piece of hardware that’s provided to you by the employer, every keystroke, is the property of the employer. Personal calls, private photos — if you put it on the company laptop, your company owns it. They may analyze any electronic record at any time for any purpose. It’s not your data.”

I wrote a research paper about this a few years ago while taking some online classes. Beyond not being required to tell you that monitoring is in place, American employers can outright lie to you and tell you that they are not monitoring when in fact they are.

Thanks to the internet’s @vogon for the heads-up that you can now read one article from Harper’s a month without a subscription and for pointing this one out.

DEFCON: Everybody Dies

Due to the AtomicGamer.com & LinuxGames.com shutdown I will be republishing my reviews from those sites.

Computer-room four star generals should be pleased with the latest real time offerings on hand for PC players. Company of HeroesSupreme Commander, and the continuing adventures and re-releases in the Command and Conquer series all provide hope for the waning innovation in PC strategy. Does Defcon? Let us find out together, you and I.

Let me start by saying that I’d like to ignore the hype surrounding Defcon. This is a unique independent game that however ends up sounding like marketing spiel itself. We should instead take it on the terms that we are given: simply as a game. And as a game, it’s a good one.

Defcon presents us with no story, just imminent doom from nuclear destruction. How much doom is up to the players. There are a number of homages to nuclear war films, from the raster-like map display which is quite reminiscent of Wargames to the vast echo hallway sounds reminiscent of the war room in Dr. Strangelove. Do not be deceived by the screenshots; this isn’t just a quick Flash game mood piece. Instead, it is a complete package containing a new take on the somewhat tired genre of real time strategy war games, something for which we can all be thankful. While no one enjoys the next iteration of, “Yet Another WW2 Game, No Really This is a Good One”, er I mean Company of Heroes, more than I do, it is refreshing to see something profoundly creative in this well mined genre.

Not to rail on, Company of Heroes is well worth paying attention to. Defcon though manages to avoid the inevitable, “This isn’t just another WW2 game”, by not being set during the second World War. Instead of World War 2 we get the Cold War; and while there is strong variation between say Company of Heroes and Command and Conquer, it pales compared to the difference in atmosphere, mood and most dramatic strategy seen in Defcon.

So, what is Defcon’s take on strategy?

Instead of a standard field of battle, the player is presented with an simple modular command map. No on-the-ground perspective is provided. Another significant deviation from the standard RTS formula is a complete lack of resource management. Not even Kohan with its system of capturing cities to increase your general resources strayed so far from the familiar. In Defcon, there are no resources, no mines, no peons to zug zug and order around; the payoff is raw direct strategic combat. Stripped of logistical warfare, we are left with only naval fleets and various aircraft to move around. Add to that a few basic immobile units: airbases, radars, and missile silos, and your arsenal is complete. Cities are also present but you have no control over them. They merely serve as targets for the enemy to slaughter and for you to protect.

Cities also serve as a tremendous part of the atmosphere of this game, which itself is lush in its sparseness, gripping in intensity, and, if you let it take you in, can be overwhelming and depressing. This is probably the only game I have ever played which can get so depressing. Through sparseness Defcon entices your own imagination to speculate on the wholesale incineration of cities, countries, and millions of people. This can’t be stressed enough. The atmospherics, while simple, are tremendously effective at pulling you into the mood of the end of the world. Defcon does make one concession from realism and this not only serves gameplay but also increases the tension. In Defcon, Reagan’s delusional dream world has come to life; in-flight nuclear warheads can be shot down by aircraft and missile defense. And this, the fact that one can take action, but in the end millions die anyway, seriously ratchets up the tension. In the real world we learned, as did Joshua in Wargames, that the only way to win was not to play. In Defcon we are given Reagan’s dream of missile defense and are still left with the feeling that if only I was faster and smarter, millions might have survived.

So the atmosphere for Defcon is decidedly not fun unless you can get over the hump of stark destruction in the game. Every single person I have played the game with so far has gone quiet whilst playing and being immersed, then remarked about how depressing the atmosphere is when asked about how they were feeling. For some, this will be the game’s greatest flaw. For others it elevates the game to high art. If you are looking for simple fun, this is not it. If you are looking for an intensity of experience rarely seen outside of film, Defcon is definitely it. Defcon takes a very upsetting subject, makes it into a compelling multiplayer game complete with moderation of the original subject matter for balance, and then leaves you with that and a tongue-in-cheek manual to play on. I realize that most people reading this review are going to think that no game, let alone one that employs a low graphics 80s movie style, can possibly elicit such an emotional response. Playing this game is much like watching Threads or When the Wind Blows. It’s certainly worthwhile, but not for the faint of heart.

It is also true that as someone who was born in 1982, I may not be able to present the attitudes of my older peers who lived under the actual threat of nuclear annihilation during the cold war. Defcon is a great game, but whether it is a great game for you may depend a lot on how you react to the atmosphere of the game. I would advise that you play the demo before you make a final decision about that atmosphere. It is a fairly complete demo and can be later unlocked to provide the full game.

Getting back to the actual gameplay. Unlike a standard RTS game, there is also no research and development tree present in Defcon. Instead, you are presented with time limits in a variety of modes. As the clock counts down both in time and from Defcon 5 (peace) to Defcon 1 (unrestricted nuclear war), new actions become available as others fall away. So right away from the start of the game, everyone has the same weapons and technology. Your main weapons are, of course, your nuclear arsenal. Your secondary weaponry is for defense only, and are your fighter jets which can take down incoming missiles and bombers. There are no usual mobile ground units, at all. The scale is global and primarily strategic and they aren’t missed. I do think they might be interesting in a more tactical variation on the theme of this game, for at least the actions leading up to the Defcon levels.

The titular Defcon levels are unavoidable. Defcon levels will fall from 5 to 1 within the game and nothing can be done to prevent the level raising. Time progression can be slowed down or sped up in the interface or, if you like, keyboard shortcuts. This only happens, though, if all players agree to the new game speed. Each lower Defcon level allows more action from all parties involved. Players may choose to ally with each other. If you ally with someone and your nukes are in their air toward your allies targets, your nukes will automatically be disarmed in flight so as to not ruin that friendship. In addition, the server host of the game can configure that session in a stunning level of detail covering everything from scoring to the style of alliances.

Speaking of scoring, by default you get points in this game through killing the population of the nations you are at war with. By default, you get points for every enemy killed but you also lose points when your citizens are wiped out. So if you take out a large majority of the enemy population, but not their nuclear arsenal, you can still lose if the enemy manages to take out more of your population. This isn’t immediately obvious and you could go from 70 to -50 through loss of your population. Recently while playing online I lost to another player by one point in a similar situation. I’d taken out a large majority of his civilian population, however his nuclear arsenal had remained relatively unscathed.

Technically, Defcon is no incredible achievement. Nor will it provide an engine to be licensed endlessly in an attempt at cashing in on Introversion’s hard work. This game was developed in a relatively short period of time when compared to most regular modern games, though certainly due to no lack of good work. The final product as presented without patches in the 1.0 form is so far without any obvious bugs or issues. Though as far as technical quality, there are a few fonts which appear to be pre-rendered bitmaps too small to view on my 1680×1050 monitor. The recently released 1.1 patch made some major tweaks to the server browser, but remember to exit the game before trying to install the patch – the developers forgot to make DEFCON close itself when you try and run the update from inside the game.

Anyway, the 1.1 patch provides for various methods of filtering games, both visually and with dialogs. It doesn’t seem to have been broken in any way but this poorly written installer. Of course I notified Introversion about this problem. No reply was available as of press time.

Defcon’s interface could probably stand a few months more polish to improve usability. Differentiating between selecting a fleet to move as opposed to say launching fighters from an aircraft carrier in that fleet can be quite confusing and I have seen it lead to frustration as naval units appear to become uncontrollable while the desperate atmosphere of the game claims its psychic toll. The controls are also fairly unintuitive for long-time RTS folks, to which I would suggest Introversion make an optional Defcon Annihilation mode, so that these folks who hate the completely new-for-Defcon control interface don’t get frustrated. I fully expect a patch or two in the future from Introversion which may alter the gameplay and controls, much as they did with their last game Darwinia. The “victory timer”, presented in an apparent conceit to game play balance, could certainly use tweaking and further user instruction with regard to operation. I generally end up altering the options of games I host so that I don’t have to have the game end early with many players.

The only feature I really find lacking is some kind of demo recorder, like in the Quake games, so you can replay the action and really learn about the strategy in each multiplayer game from all sides. Perhaps we’ll get lucky and this all of this functionality will be added in a later patch.

As Defcon is almost entirely a multiplayer game, bots are provided but not much fun to play against. The bots have very limited strategy and are fairly easy to defeat. While one can battle a large number of bots simultaneously this challenge by numbers is less appealing than the strategic challenge one can enjoy in the multiplayer modes and hardly prepares you to compete online. This is a huge change from Introversion’s past titles, which were all single player affairs. I must say that I’ve had no problems with network connectivity or lag to players even in the far reaches of the globe. This isn’t entirely surprising as the game is fairly simple.

If you’re already a bit confused I would suggest you go ahead and get the demo at least before making your final decision to buy or not buy this game. It certainly isn’t a graphical powerhouse of a game, so laptop users won’t be neglected so long as they have bare bones OpenGL acceleration of some sort. However, the lack of fancy graphics and/or the decidedly depressing tone may cause some people to give up before truly experiencing what Defcon has to offer. I feel, at least, that the tone may be something which is a disadvantage to the enjoyment of the actual gameplay. However, I think that perhaps Defcon wouldn’t be regarded so highly if it weren’t so depressing. I know I will be enjoying Introversion’s latest art house masterpiece for some time to come, though it is understandable if the charm is lost on others behind graphical and atmospheric issues inherent with an indie game of this nature.

So with the compelling atmosphere, and sufficiently original gameplay, Defcon gets a 9 out of 10. $17.50 well spent.

PICO-8

Speaking of unknowingly acquiring games, PICO-8 showed up in my Lexaloffe account recently. Lexaloffe are a small game developer who also produce what they call Fantasy Consoles, like PICO-8. Fantasy Consoles are game consoles that only exist in software but have similar limitations for developers to a real console.

For example, PICO-8 limits developrs to 128×128 pixels with 16 colors and like older 8-bit computers that had their own versions of BASIC and a minimal operating system you can launch games and switch to the editor in order to immediately start developing your own in Lua.

Or you could just play a ton of games that others have developed using PICO-8 right in your browser. There are scrolling shooterstrain (riding) simulators, drawing programs intended for Japanese calligraphy that are abusable into creating artful sketches of Splatoon charactershardcore platformers, and many others posted to the Lexaloffe BBS.

If you had Voxatron before from a Humble Bundle or directly from Lexaloffe, then you already have PICO-8 available to you via your Lexaloffe account.

Unfortunately sound for the browser-based PICO-8 games doesn’t work in Safari, they’re fine in Firefox and Chrome. The downloadable PICO-8 Fantasy Computer is available for $20 in a bundle with Voxtraon on Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux.

I found out that PICO-8 was available via metafilter’s grobstein.

No Time to Explain Remastered

Alex Nichiporchik has a fascinating story about how the first No Time To Explain got made, and almost didn’t.:

We’re about to release No Time To Explain on Xbox One, and a “Remastered” version on Steam. The game’s finally been rebuilt in a proper engine (Unity), with developers who actually know how to code games. Neither Tom Brien or I — the pair who started tinyBuild four years ago — know how to code properly. We can do rapid prototyping, but we’re in no way professional programmers. This is one of the main reasons why the original release of No Time to Explain sucked.

I’ve had this weight on my shoulders for four years, and it seems the right time to finally tell the story of how tinyBuild was nearly killed off before it had even begun. This is also an explanation of why the original release of No Time To Explain had so many issues.

The new remake is quite good and it was a nice surprise to get it for free as an owner of the original.