TIME celebrity

Drop Enemies Like They’re Hot While You Play Call of Duty, Now Narrated by Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg
Jordan Naylor / Getty Images

"It's the coolest game in the hood. All my homies play this game."

Fans of the first-person shooter game Call of Duty: Ghosts can soon enhance their playing experience by downloading an add-on pack featuring narration by Snoop Dogg.

Yes. Really. Snoop Dogg! The rapper has lent his voice to the game to provide commentary like “Ballistic vests ready. Those are some fine ass threads” and “Rack up points by reaching the enemy portal, ya dig?”

Snoop will also provide encouragement to players with pep talks like “Don’t stop! Cap ‘em and shank ‘em.” Oh man, now we kind of wish Snoop could just narrate out everyday lives.

“What interested me most about the project is that my voice could be connected with a game that’s so hip, that’s so hood,” Snoop said in the announcement video. “It’s the coolest game in the hood. All my homies play this game.”

The Snoop Dogg voiceover pack will cost $2.99, available on April 22 for Xbox One and Xbox 360. We suggest sippin’ on some gin and juice while you play.

TIME Video Games

Richard Garriott Wants You to Remake His First Dungeons & Dragons Game

Think you've got the stuff to recreate a 1970s-era teletype roleplaying game?

Portalarium

I have no idea how Portalarium creative director Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar is going to turn out, but I’m all kinds of interested to see how this clever little promotional retro-competition he’s sponsoring will.

It involves one of the oldest games he designed. No, not Akalabeth. I’m talking about D&D#1, a game young master Garriott designed on a teletype machine nearly four decades ago while in high school (he’s 52 today, and a pretty eclectic guy — he’s also been to space).

Back in 1977, Garriott typed the game onto paper tape spools, which he fed into a terminal that ran the D&D-inspired roleplaying scenario in the simplest sense: explore a top-down dungeon (it used ASCII characters to indicate geometry), while doing battle with enemies and excavating treasure along the way.

Tele-who? Teleprinter technology. You know the Selectric 251 from the TV series Fringe that let people send and receive messages? Kind of like that, only without the interdimensional communications module. They’re electromechanical typewriters older than me, and Garriott used one to craft a slew of D&D-inspired games: 28 in all, paving the way for his first Apple II game, which in turn anticipated his storied Ultima computer roleplaying series.

Garriott’s asking anyone intrepid enough to take the source code (in BASIC) for that original teletype game — created at Clear Creek High School in Houston, Texas on a teletype machine connected via an acoustic modem to a PDP 11 type mini-computer — and translate it into something that faithfully recreates the original game (the instructions specify “No fancy graphics, stick with a traditional font on ‘yellow’ paper”). The contest just kicked off yesterday, April 15, and the clock’s ticking — entrants have until May 15.

According to the contest overview, the game’s been MIA since 1979, when teletype was retired. The idea here is to come up with a playable version Portalarium can drop into Shroud of the Avatar. You can submit using Unity or design “a no-plug-in Browser Version,” and the winners will be announced shortly after the contest closes. Winners (in each category) get a Citizen-level pledge reward (within Shroud of the Avatar) that Portalarium values at $550, while two runners-up in both categories will receive a Collector-level pledge reward valued at $165 apiece. The only catch: all submissions become Garriott’s property.

TIME Video Games

Get the Xbox One April Update Today, Including Kinect Tweaks and Friend Notifications

Larry Hryb / Microsoft

And you can finally (finally!) run manual system updates by poking around in system settings.

Larry Hryb, Microsoft’s director of programming for Xbox Live, writes that the April Xbox One update started rolling out last night, and that the following list of features should be live now, or available “over the next few days.”

Along with the the usual presumptive bug fixes, the update adds a feature Xbox 360 owners have been enjoying forever: friends list notifications; when friends sign into Xbox Live on Xbox One, you’ll now see an alert.

This was one of the most frequently requested features, so we made it a priority to include it in this update,” writes Hryb, adding that friends in multiplayer will now be identified as such in the list. I’m not sure why this wasn’t present at launch. Maybe the company worried these kinds of notifications were annoying (and they can be, especially if you have a big list of very active Xbox Livers, thus I assume the new notifications can be disabled, too).

Microsoft’s still chipping away at Kinect’s uneven gesture-recognition algorithms, which Hryb says the company’s updated “to reduce false positives on non-hand objects triggering gesture commands.” Voice recognition has also been fine-tuned “for quality and reliability.” Speaking of audio, the controller and headset firmware’s been updated to “reduce audio static and improve wireless connectivity.”

If you’ve had trouble keeping track of large game or application saves and updates, there’s now a game save progress bar that’ll keep you apprised of what’s what, and Hryb says you’ll be able to easily identify what’s being updated (or been updated recently).

Xbox One’s GameDVR feature — the ability to capture gameplay video clips, then edit and share them via Upload Studio — now offers better video quality using an improved compression algorithm, and Microsoft’s tweaked its Blu-ray player to support 50 Hz video output (which, as I understand it, essentially means you’ll be able to watch region-free imports, e.g. Europe-originated content). Hryb adds that Microsoft plans to update the Xbox One’s Blu-ray Player app “in the coming days” to “round out these improvements.”

Last but not least, Microsoft’s finally added an option to manually update the Xbox One in system settings (Hryb says it’ll only be there if there’s an update in the wings — you won’t need to click it to check, in other words; you’ll know there’s something available simply by its presence). I’ll golf clap to that.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Age of Empires Is Going Free-to-Play, Like It or Not

Another once-beloved strategy series is about to make the leap to freemium mobile.

Who wanted a free-to-play version of Microsoft’s old history-minded real-time strategy game Age of Empires — show of hands? All I can see is mine not going up. I wouldn’t have expected a series like AoE to head in this direction, but then I guess I’m just blinkered, since the future’s inexorably micro-transactive.

Not that free-to-play can’t work for a real-time strategy game. “Recreate history with your hands,” claims the trailer above, even if history’s already been recreated plenty with hands holding mice and keyboards. I suppose the more important question at this point is who’s designing the thing, and we do know that: a company called KLab (I assume KLab America, specifically), whose prior mobile games include Eternal Uprising: End of Days, Crystal Casters, Rise to the Throne and Lord of the Dragons.

I’ve played none of those, and so have no insight into the studio’s competence at this point. The reaction to the YouTube video’s been predictably negative, of course, because the presumption is — rightly or wrongly — that taking a beloved and sophisticated strategy game mobile and free-to-play is just a cynical ploy to generate piles of cash, and above all else, an abandonment of original series developer Ensemble Studios’ principles.

Age of Empires: World Domination, which is what they’re calling the forthcoming iOS, Android and Windows Phone take on the series, employs a new battle system (obviously), and lets you play as the Celts, Vikings, Franks or Huns. The game should be available sometime this summer.

TIME Video Games

Check Out 12 Minutes of Star Citizen Not Being the Game You’ll Play

Is it even fair to call it a demo?

It’s not the first time we’ve seen in-game footage of Star Citizen — not by a long shot — but it is a lovely, long, lens-flare-blue gander at Chris Roberts’ flamboyantly crowd-funded (to the tune of $41 million and climbing) deep-space simulator. The game won’t be out until 2015 (and then, I’d guess if we’re lucky), but it looks to be coming along nicely, though most of what you’ll see here is a little mundane.

Armaments, check. Dogfighting, check. A window-dressing planet, check. G-forces callout, check. The most interesting wrinkle may be the in-helmet radar, which illustrates a lock-on using quarter-circle brackets that tumble from foreground to background like the halo of stars in Paramount Pictures’ pre-movie logo. In other words, a little distracting and unnecessary. In fact I thought it was a new type of weapon at first.

“You should probably skip to 3:16,” the person who put up the YouTube video snapped at Pax East 2014 advises. Yep, you probably should, because those first three minutes are just the demonstrator crashing and restarting.

Space is boring. It’s unfathomably big. Not a lot happens. It’s nowhere near as interesting as Alfonso Cuaron’s beautifully shot but ultimately nonsensical fantasy version. You have to add noise and nonsense physics and time compression and narrative silliness to make it interesting.

That’s not this demo, which is more about proving that in 2014, we still know how to design vertical and horizontal strafe, that bodies in zero-G cockpits can still respond to accelerative forces, that asteroid fields can be more enticing if you drop them in low-orbit near a planet (pity the poor occupants of that planet, assuming it’s occupied, who probably have extinction events routinely) and that different weapons firing simultaneously look nifty so long as the tracers are color-coordinated.

But then we’re looking at the disjointed scraps of something that’s not even a game yet. The apparently high school-age audience (that mistook a space sim demo for a sporting event where dimwits shout half-intelligbly) didn’t seem to mind. Yes, the demonstrator bounces off an asteroid toward the end (several times). Did you think that was a feature? That you were watching a representation of what you’ll play in one or maybe two years?

Mind you, a Digital Combat Simulator game Star Citizen will never be. If all you want is painstakingly bleeding-edge Newtonian fidelity, you want DCS, whose simulations are peerless. But give Star Citizen‘s design team time to figure out where, between arcade and simulation poles, it wants to be. Chris Roberts’ first Wing Commander leaned firmly toward the former, but his later games grew in complexity and depth. Star Citizen looks increasingly like it might slot somewhere in the vicinity of Egosoft’s X-series, meaning fairly sim-ish — and that’s to say nothing of the trading or living universe elements we haven’t seen yet.

TIME Video Games

Interview: Sid Meier’s Civilization Beyond Earth Might Be the Alpha Centauri Sequel You’ve Been Waiting For

Could it mark the end of Firaxis' hard-sci-fi, turn-based, planet-bound 4X drought -- a true spiritual successor to one of the grandest, smartest turn-based strategy games ever made? We can hope.

I’ll spare you prolix paragraphs of sentimental Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri gushing and say just this: I loved it, you loved it, who didn’t love it? It’s probably the apotheosis of the Civilization franchise, design-wise, and that’s including everything since (with plenty of warm fuzzies for Civilization IV). Alpha Centauris creative lead Brian Reynolds was a gameplay genius, as most who remember Civilization II and Rise of Nations would probably attest.

But Alpha Centauri didn’t sell well by Civilization standards, and so — perhaps because of that, perhaps for other reasons — it’s sat untouched for nearly a decade-and-a-half, without a sequel or even wishful public musing about one.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, which Firaxis is announcing at PAX East today, may finally bring an end to Firaxis’ hard-sci-fi, turn-based, planet-bound 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) drought. But it’s not Alpha Centauri 2 — just wipe any such notion from your brain. Alpha Centauri belongs to Electronic Arts, not Firaxis.

And so the design team at Firaxis had to come up with something fresh. Something with overt links back to the core Civilization franchise (thus the inclusion of “Civilization” in the title this time). Something that could, in theory and given roughly 15 years of design advances and lessons learned, be the superior sci-fi game.

Given Alpha Centauri‘s pedigree and harder-core player demographic, you might argue Firaxis’ challenge lies in turning a radically reimagined riff on Civilization V — a game praised by mainstream critics, but sharply criticized by core players — into something that can somehow appeal to both demographics. Or at least that’s my hope, having posed some of those questions (and concerns) to Beyond Earth gameplay designer Anton Strenger, Sid Meier’s Civilization series senior producer Dennis Shirk and associate producer Pete Murray.

Here’s what they told me.

Let’s get the elephant out of the room: Beyond Earth sounds a lot like an Alpha Centauri sequel on paper, but it’s not called that. How do the two relate?

Anton Strenger: Beyond Earth is a new entry in the Civilization franchise, and we’re definitely inspired by Alpha Centauri, but this is a different game and it’s meant to stand on its own. So what we’re really trying to do here is take a lot of the lessons we’ve learned from all the other Firaxis games and the knowledge that we have and apply it to a new setting, a setting free from historical context, where we can invent our own alien planet, and where there can be a lot of new interesting things that happen.

But I’m glad you mentioned Alpha Centauri, because it’s certainly something that’s on our minds here. It’s been an inspiration to me personally. It was the first 4Xgame I played, actually, back when I was in middle school. I learned over my friend’s shoulder and didn’t know what was going on, but it was really awesome and I wanted to learn more. So that ended up being my first Firaxis game. When I started at Firaxis three years ago it was very much on my mind.

We’re not making a sequel to Alpha Centauri, but we’re making a new entry in the Civilization series in that same kind of mold, in a science fiction setting with a lot of new opportunities that we get to invent ourselves.

Dennis Shirk: We wanted to ask ourselves what would happen after the spaceship [at the end of the Civilization games] launched, if we had a completely empty canvas, and what we could do with that if we weren’t confined by history.

Sure, but the lens through which core 4X gamers are going to view something like Beyond Earth is inexorably going to be Alpha Centauri, which had that same “What happens after the spaceship launches?” premise back in 1999.

DS: Sure, and I agree that no matter what, there’s going to be comparisons and assumptions made that this is going to be like another Alpha Centauri. But I think this is going to be a completely new take, and that’s going to be evident from the first time people are playing it. As Anton said before, there’s always going to be inspiration from a game like that. It’s in our DNA here at the studio just from having created it and Alien Crossfire [Alpha Centauri's official expansion].

But the experience itself, we want that to be a completely fresh take on what this would be like in space. We built it on top of the Civilization V engine, so we put a new renderer over the top and everything we needed to make it look spectacular and breathe new life into the series. But we wanted a regular Civilization V player — our core audience that we have for that game — to be able to pick this up and run with it.

That said, you’re not going to see an abundance of similarities between Beyond Earth and Civilization V. I mean, obviously you’re in space and colonizing a planet, but the gameplay systems we’ve introduced are all new, from the tech web to affinities to the way that the upgrade system works. We’ve diverged significantly from the original title.

AS: A great example is the tech web. In Civilization V or Alpha Centauri, even though the Alpha Centauri tech tree was a little more hidden from the player, you basically start at one point and you advance to another point, and it branches along the way, and in Alpha Centauri you could focus on exploring or discovering. In Civilization V you can focus on the naval track up top or the military track on bottom, but you’re kind of going in one direction the whole time.

Something that’s really different about Beyond Earth that makes it stand on its own — and not just compared to Alpha Centauri but as a 4X game in general — is the technology web. You’re starting in the middle of this vast spiderweb of cool technological threads taken from all the brainstorming we did by reading futurists writers and science fiction. So you’re going to see things like nanotechnology, things like genetics, things like xenobiology and all these different threads that take you in different directions on the web. You’re not advancing on this predefined track so much as exploring this technology space. The choices that you make in the tech web will lead you into one of three different affinities, and each affinity is like a post-human identity.

Firaxis

You have harmony, which strives for connection with the planet and its alien lifeforms. You have supremacy, which strives for connection with technology and cybernetics and kind of rejects the natural world. And you have purity, which is a rejection of both of those and instead looks back to old earth, the culture and the glory there, and tries to recreate it on the planet. All the different decisions that you make form your identity as you play the game, and I think that really sets it apart.

Is this as unique and singular an entry in Firaxis’ catalog as a game like Civilization V, or is it meant more as an extension of Civilization V, like a standalone expansion?

DS: What we wanted to do when we set out was make the core mechanics familiar enough so that existing fans could pick it up and recognize how to play the game. So it’s a 4X game, we still support one unit per tile hex, your cities are going to be building things, you’re going to be researching things, all of that foundational stuff. But the systems that we’ve built on top of that are robust and large compared to what we have in a typical Civilization V expansion. We wanted this to be completely set apart, a unique and distinct game that stands on its own.

The Colonization remake that used the Civilization IV engine still felt like it was built on Civilization IV‘s systems. Beyond Earth, by comparison, is an absolutely distinct experience. We can’t wait until we’re able to have people playing it because what the designers have done so far is amazing. I never expected it to go as far as it did — what the art team’s managed to accomplish, what the design team’s managed to accomplish to make this an completely unique experience.

AS: Yeah, everything from the aesthetics to the mechanics to the fictional story, it feels like its own game.

DS: But again, just to repeat, what I think is the great balance of the whole thing is that if you’ve just finished a game of Civilization V and you fire up Beyond Earth, those core tenets are going to embrace you like a warm blanket and you’re just going to be able to start playing.

Civilization V was broadly well-received, but there were a few who didn’t agree, who took issue with the A.I. and in so many words said it couldn’t play the game Firaxis designed — that it couldn’t cohere to basic, hex-based, wargame principles. Civilization V lead designer Jon Shafer was himself self-critical of the A.I. in a postmortem. What would you say to skeptics with regard to the A.I. in Beyond Earth?

DS: I read the same article that Jon Shafer put together on the A.I., and he was right about some of those things. There were shortcomings that started to come out, especially when you’re talking about a game with a million-plus fans. The great thing about our publisher is that they let us continue to improve the game well after release, through the expansions, through multiple balance patches and adding additional content. That’s one thing [Civilization V designer] Ed Beach really focused on in the core Civilization V engine: getting the A.I. up to where it could competently play the game and thrill players.

And I think in Brave New World [the final Civilization V expansion], when we finally closed out the series, the A.I. was in an amazing place. Ed took it a very great distance to where we all thought it was a really good experience. A lot of that strategic framework we brought forward into Beyond Earth, and then we handed it off to a brand new A.I. team.

Firaxis

AS: Beyond Earth‘s A.I. programmer, his name is Brian Whooley, has been with us from the very beginning. Will Miller and David McDonough, our lead designers, have worked with him on their previous project [Haunted Hollow for iOS] very closely. Me and Will and Dave share an office, and right across the hall is Brian Whooley, and we meet multiple times a week. He’s following in close step with all the design features that come on line, to make sure the A.I.’s up to par, that it’s winning the game in all the different ways and stuff like that. So the A.I.’s definitely been a focus for us, and we expect we’ll be in a good place at launch.

I think it was Soren Johnson who told me — this was years ago when he was working on Civilization III and I was putting together a feature about A.I. — that it’s easy to create an A.I. that can win, say by cheating, but it’s incredibly hard to create one that can win while cohering to the same strategic principles the player has to, much less employ those principles shrewdly.

Pete Murray: Sid actually gave an interesting talk at GDC a few years ago where he said players often experience the A.I. as cheating if it’s doing very well. So given that our ultimate goal is to create an exciting experience for players rather than an A.I. that can crush the player at every turn, we’re trying to create the best experience for as many people as possible.

AS: My attitude as a designer, and I think you’ll find that Will and Dave have similar attitudes, is that the A.I. — except on the higher difficulty levels — isn’t supposed to be a mathematically perfect, optimal opponent. It’s more like an actor on the stage of the game that the player’s playing. Having it be fun and visible in the right ways is really important to us, and something we think about all the time during development. I think when we’re implementing the A.I., we don’t often make the A.I. cheat. We try to make sure that it’s fair, but in the end it’s about serving the player experience, and that’s our number one goal.

It sounds like the startup process where you’re assembling a spacecraft and picking its cargo is going to distinguish itself from prior Civilization games’ world type and leader selection process.

AS: That’s correct, though when you say “spacecraft,” it’s nothing like you’d see in FTL. What we mean is there’s this phase of the game that happens before turn zero which we call the loadout process. The fictional framework that we’re using for Beyond Earth is that Earth in the near future decides to send expeditions into space to colonize alien worlds because there’s a kind of desperate situation on Earth and they’re looking elsewhere to continue the future of humanity.

In Civilization V or Alpha Centauri, you’d pick a faction or civilization and you’d get this prepackaged bag of benefits. So you’d get this bonus, you get this unit instead of that unit, you get this building instead of that one, and it’s all kind of together, which is cool, especially in a historical context, because you can say “Oh yeah, there’s that civilization I recognize from history, there’s that thing they do I read about in a history book.”

What Beyond Earth does instead is it takes Sid’s philosophy of a game as a series of interesting decisions and folds it into the gameplay itself. So you’re not just picking your faction and the bonus it comes with, you’re also picking the parameters of your expedition, leaving old Earth and going to the new planet. And so in addition to picking the nation that sponsors your expedition, you’re picking the type of spacecraft and the type of cargo it’s carrying.

So you could bring extra weapons to get off to an early military start, or you could bring extra construction equipment to help buff up your city with an extra building. You’re also deciding what types of colonists you want to bring with to form your first colony. They might be more intellectual, and you’d have scientific bonuses starting on turn one. Or they might be more cultural, focused on culture and refinement and development, in which case you’d be focusing on the culture part of the game out of the gate.

Each of these options you can choose differently every time. Whereas in Civilization V you might play as Montezuma every time, and other than the map being different, your core identity as the player would be the same, here you get to choose four things every time you start a game, and your A.I. opponents do as well.

Diplomacy’s arguably one of the weaker spots in the Civilization games, framed with fairly limited options and based more on obfuscation and mystery and a sense of algorithmic capriciousness. How does diplomacy work in Beyond Earth?

PM: We’re still building on where we were at the end of Civilization V, so I think the level of diplomacy that’s going on is going to feel very familiar to a Civilization V player. To some extent, playing a boardgame with a human opponent, they can be capricious too, so some of it’s about keeping that aspect of it. We do the best we can for the audience that we’re trying to reach.

Firaxis

AS: We’re definitely adding new diplomatic vectors, like the orbital layer, so your A.I. opponents aren’t going to be very happy if you launch a satellite over their lands. So diplomacy in Beyond Earth is going to be very responsive to all of the new gameplay systems. But at the same time, we’re trying to appeal to Civilization V players, since they’re our core audience, and we want diplomacy to be familiar and transparent. I think transparency’s a really big deal to make an A.I. feel fair.

Another thing, in the early game, is that one of the things we’re adding is the alien faction, so when you’re on the planet to start with, the other A.I. players are not as important as they are in a game of Civilization V. In Civilization V, you might explore beyond your borders with your scout unit, and on turn 15 you see “Oh, there’s Montezuma next to me. Okay, this gives me an impression of how the game’s going to play out.”

Whereas in our game, your first step is conquering the wilderness and really establishing a base of operations on this hostile alien planet. And the first part of that, before diplomacy really comes online, is interacting with the aliens and either attacking and purging them, or leaving them alone and hoping they don’t bother you.

DS: Before we wrap up, I just want to build on that a little bit. One of the great things about the experience in the early game of Beyond Earth is the fact that it’s you versus the environment. You’re alone on this planet, and the other players aren’t even there. Eventually, like by turn 20, the first one might land and they’ll introduce themselves and you’ll see a capital appear on the other side of the planet. But it’s you and you alone, and you have to decide how you’re going to help your colonists survive in those early days. It’s kind of crazy.

AS: Yeah, you’re disconnected at first, which is really interesting. It creates some really unique situations compared to a game of Civilization V.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Here’s How Far Mario Travels in Super Mario Bros.

Mario
James Coldrey / Getty Images

I’m not great at math (stay in school, kids!), perhaps because I never liked it much. But this is a good use of math.

Nick Greene over at Mental Floss fielded one of the most pressing and important reader questions we’ll ever grapple with in our lifetimes: How far does Mario travel in Super Mario Bros.?

Greene calculated Mario’s steps based on a stance-width of 26 inches – a little more than shoulder-width apart — and assumed that Mario would be the small, pre-mushroom Mario.

The final tally:

  • 3.4 miles, assuming no visits to bonus areas or warp zones
  • 1218.5 feet swimming (about 7.5 laps in an Olympic-sized pool)
  • 3.7 miles, assuming visits to bonus areas
  • Another 344 feet swimming, assuming visits to underwater bonus areas

Kind of puts your entire childhood into perspective, no? I would have guessed dozens and dozens of miles, but we’re actually dealing with a moderately-paced, hour-long treadmill workout.

Granted, the treadmill workout is one without jumping, consuming shape-shifting mushrooms, spitting fireballs and trying to avoid being killed by various animals. I bet Mario burns more calories than we think. He’s still a bit on the pudgy side, but don’t forget that he subsists almost entirely on pizza.

How Far Does Mario Have to Run (and Swim) in Super Mario Bros.? [Mental Floss]

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Celebrate Windows XP’s Demise by ‘Escaping’ from It (Just Watch Out for Clippy)

Microsoft

The end is nigh, but you needn't go gently into that good night.

How many operating system’s deserve sendoffs with parades of flaming trashcans and sentient, grasping file bins and menacing, building-sized, laser-blasting paperclips?

Just one: Windows XP was where I first played stuff like Civilization III, The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, Europa Universalis II, Freedom Force, Dungeon Siege, Warcraft III, Neverwinter Nights and Age of Mythology. From a gaming standpoint, it was a godsend: the gaming versatility of Windows 98 somehow coupled to the resilience of Windows 2000 (I oversimplify, but that’s how we thought of it then). Windows XP basically put paid to all the PC gaming promises Windows 95 made half a decade earlier.

I remember XP’s debut better than any other operating system, I suspect because it arrived just a few weeks after September 11, 2001 (everything that happened around the end of 2001 is unusually vivid). I remember alternating between running it on a built-from-parts desktop PC and a woefully underpowered IBM ThinkPad laptop (that originally shipped with Windows 2000). I remember switching on ClearType and realizing just how awful aliased text looks. I remember playing games and — for the first time with a computer operating system — that sense that PC gaming was this rickety scaffolding prone to manifest inscrutable bugs or collapse outright finally faded (well, mostly).

And now Microsoft’s asking that we bid XP adieu. The last time I used it (and Windows) as a workspace was in the mid-2000s, on a hulking 12-pound Dell gaming laptop, before I threw in with Apple and separated church and state. XP remained my mainstay for PC gaming until its replacement, Windows 7 (we’ll not speak of Vista) in 2009, by which time I’d already said my farewells and dropped the little OEM booklet and install disc into storage, where it remains to this day. I haven’t seen XP up and running for years.

Until this morning, when my editor shared a link he saw on Reddit to what looked like a virtualization site. I clicked it and sure enough, there it was, booting up with the low-res Windows icon perched over a moving bar, the trademark F-Ab-Eb theme playing against “Bliss” (the default background of a cloud-shadowed green field in Sonoma County, California), and then of course, the sudden inexplicable appearance of a blue screen of death.

But then things got weird, and kind of cool. It turns out Microsoft (and developer Bradley and Montgomery) has a sense of humor after all. If you want to see what I’m talking about, click this link and give it a minute or so to take. Enjoy the most excellent chiptunes (that’s 10 n’s before the bandcamp.com link to the folks who wrote the music). And remember: W-A-S-D, the spacebar and the arrow keys are your friend (and you can hit “1” and “2” to switch between the machine gun and battery blast).

Escape from XP [Microsoft via Reddit]

TIME Opinion

Critiques of Free-to-Play Games Aren’t All Snobbery

Free-to-play has upsides and downsides, and we shouldn't allow a healthy, ongoing dialogue to be reduced to advocates versus snobs.

Let’s get one thing straight: snobbery is just another way of saying “I prefer this.” We’re all snobs about something by definition. The very act of preferring one thing to another implies a belief, conscious or otherwise, that the thing you prefer is superior to the thing you don’t, however much you might try to wriggle out of those implications to avoid being stereotyped as a snob. Snobbery is just another part of being human.

If you want to extend that definition of snobbery to include unwarranted disdain or condescension toward others who don’t hold with you on whatever position, fine, but I’m talking about the baseline definition of the word, plucked from the New Oxford American Dictionary. And I’m standing on that baseline definition only to make a point about former EA and Lionhead exec Ben Cousins’ claim in an op-ed carried by Polygon that “snobbery” drives critiques of free-to-play games.

I have no fundamental beef with free-to-play games. I’ve spent my fair share on them (I’m looking at you, Temple Run 2), and I’ve played plenty where the mechanic doesn’t feel intrusive or gimmicky, where the game experience benefits from having certain salable levers you can optionally pull in lieu of not having them. I’d argue freemium games with aptly balanced and carefully integrated micro-transactions have their place, that place being where the parabolic curve and sense of iterative in-game accomplishment dovetails with in-game insuperability — and you’re able to surf that curve either way — for whatever intended demographic.

But I’m also as skeptical as anyone else of the effect and influence of commercial requirements on aesthetic choices in artistic mediums like literature, film, visual art, music and, more recently, gaming. I’m talking about the ways in which commercial demands shape or dictate the form a video game takes, and the follow-on assumption often made by the moneymakers that opened wallets equal thumbs up to design choices, and that popularity alone is all the justification art needs.

We’re making enormous culturally-driven assumptions when we argue any of that stuff has to be monetized to be sustainable or even worth doing in the first place, of course. Not everyone makes the same assumptions, and I’d like to think there’s room for a dialogue about this that doesn’t involve disdain or condescension toward artists who’d dare make art for art’s sake.

At the same time, I understand the allure of bandwagons and the tendency for commercial interests to swarm those bandwagons like sharks scenting blood. Free-to-play has been good to game-makers and players alike. On the casual side of the industry, it offers higher rates of return at lower entry thresholds, certainly when compared to the sort of Hollywood-caliber stakes involved in developing triple-A (or as Amazon’s VP of games put it the other day, quadruple-A) games like the Call of Dutys or Grand Theft Autos of the world. You can make a decent living off a successful free-to-play game without assembling battalions of developers and racking up tens of millions of dollars in art asset creation expenditures, and that more people are able to make games and sustain careers…all the poorly made stuff aside, I’m trying to see how lowering the idea-to-execution-to-sustainability threshold is a bad thing.

And looking at it from the player’s vantage, swinging back to Cousins’ piece, he makes some important and valid points about free-to-play’s overlooked perks: free-to-play games may on occasion take the form of bait-and-switch, but they can also be “played extensively before you even make a purchase.” There’s an “implementation efficacy” test here — plenty of free-to-play games get this wrong — but I’ve found this to be true as often as not. Furthermore, Cousins is correct that traditional games, with their radically higher investment stakes, are often far worse about bait-and-switch in terms of promising things they don’t deliver, because then that’s marketing and rate-of-return 101, ergo caveat emptor.

I can also see where “whales” — players who spend unusual sums on game additives — might well be simply cautious, methodical enthusiasts, as opposed to easily duped irrationalists. Spending more money on things you like than someone else isn’t inherently irrational behavior. Assuming the buyer’s not harming anyone, who are we to judge?

But I’m less persuaded by Cousins’ argument, assuming it’s statistically correct (and it may not be), that there isn’t a predatory risk in free-to-play models when it involves consumers who might not possess the faculties (and economic experience, and psychological independence, and financial obligations) necessary to make responsible purchasing decisions — namely children.

The hypothetical issue of children getting snookered into spending money on freemium content may not be widespread, as Cousins argues, and even if it were, I’m not sure I’d be in favor of introducing regulation (free-to-play games are hardly cigarettes, and much, if not most, of ensuring children aren’t racking up free-to-play tabs comes down to parental involvement). But we need to be able to have a conversation about how the most vulnerable among us might be more susceptible to making uninformed or impulsive purchases in free-to-play applications without slippery-sloping into bipolar “for or against free-to-play” bulwarking.

We should, for instance, at minimum be watchful of what developers and publishers are up to when building games expressly for children, as well as lobbying for evolving strictures on our computing devices to help us better self-regulate how we or our children interface with free-to-play content. Someone trying to sell you something has the most incentive to simply sell you that something, and the least incentive to consider anything else. Where that involves kids and spending money, we ought to at least tread lightly.

Last up, I want to take a swing at what I view as Cousins’ weakest argument in the piece: In closing, he compares free-to-play to “the telephone, the jukebox, rock ‘n’ roll and many other examples,” adding “we fear what we don’t recognize, and in this case it’s the industry not recognizing where it’s heading.” It’s as snobbish a claim as any I’ve seen: as if free-to-play were this inexorable, vanguard force, and anyone who disagrees hates The Beatles, technology and general progress.

Maybe that’s true of free-to-play and maybe it’s not, but it’s just as true that industries head in all sorts of directions, not all of them healthy, and momentum alone isn’t a rationale. You can recognize where something’s going or trending and have concerns for reasons that have nothing to do with cultural shortsightedness or stubbornness. Not every industrial force or outcome is for the best — slavery was once considered an economic godsend, to reference one of the most nefarious — and not every skeptic’s just a blinkered, elitist, fearmongering fool.

TIME Video Games

Interview: Amazon Says Fire TV Isn’t a $500 Games Console, and It Wasn’t Meant to Be

Amazon

Amazon's vice president of gaming Mike Frazzini answers questions about Fire TV's game prowess, hybrid computational gaming, the optional gamepad and more.

Amazon’s Fire TV was expected in the sense that we’ve all been speculating about the company cutting out middle-player competitors like Apple and Roku for years. In nearly all of those scenarios, there’s also been the presumption that an Amazon set-top would play games. But the grapevine had Amazon’s gaming plans pegged as OnLive-like: a streaming game service that moved everything into the cloud, albeit — given intrinsic latency issues when you’re doing connection-dependent game streaming — at the expense of visual fidelity and hair-trigger responsiveness.

The grapevine turned out to be wrong: Amazon’s Fire TV packs the innards of a Kindle Fire tablet into a multifaceted microconsole capable, if not of squaring off against Sony’s PlayStation 4 or Microsoft’s Xbox One at this point, at least of holding its own against high-end smartphones and tablets.

I spoke with Amazon Games vice president Mike Frazzini about Fire TV as a game device. Here’s what he told me about the company’s game design identity and future plans.

Fire TV was a bit of a surprise from a gaming standpoint. You announced something with respectable local horsepower, you announced an optional gamepad that’s right there in the mainstream, design-wise, and you’re launching Fire TV with a first party Amazon-developed game, Sev Zero. Is this Amazon firing a shot across anyone’s bow?

It’s less about firing shots and more about Fire TV being a great experience for customers. When we look at what Fire TV offers, the expansiveness and just the totality of entertainment that you get for $99, I think it’s unique. There’s no other device that allows you to have the range of entertainment, from TV to movies to photos to music. There’s also Kindle FreeTime that allows parents to determine what content and how much of it their kids watch, and for how long. And then we offer a wide variety of games that are affordably priced.

Who do you see as Fire TV’s competition in gaming-dom? Where do you want gamers to see this box on the spectrum of smartphones, tablets, microconsoles, consoles, computers and so forth?

It’s a hard question to answer because that’s not really how we think about building things. The first thing we do with any endeavor is, we write a press release — before writing any code or doing any product work — and that press release expresses to our hypothetical customer what it is we’re going to build and deliver. We did it for the games piece, the music piece, the TV and video piece. The idea is, we want to be able to identify for ourselves the most important things that we can deliver to customers.

When it comes to other products on the market, we obviously want to be mindful that if we think something’s great and it already exists, what’s the point? But in this case, there’s no other device that offers this range of entertainment for just $99. It just doesn’t exist in another product today.

Another way to look at it is smartphones and tablets. The smartphone was at one point not as good of a gaming device compared to dedicated handheld game consoles. Over time, as developers built better and better content, it became a fantastic place to play games. But it’s also so much more than that. I think it would be a mistake to call a tablet a portable gaming device as much as it’s a tablet.

Gaming happens to be the number one or two activity on phones and TVs, and so lots of customers will buy Fire TV to play games. But lots of them won’t, yet they might wind up playing games anyway. We certainly see a lot of people who buy Kindle Fire tablets to read books and then end up playing a lot of games. It’s the range of content you’re getting for the price point that makes this whole scenario compelling.

Sure, and I think everyone gets the multifaceted thing, but I have to press a little on the gaming angle. You’re the VP of Amazon Games, so you have to have thought about who you’re going after market-wise on the gaming side. Your first-party launch game Sev Zero, for instance, is technically a hybrid shooter and tower defense game, which positions it more in the realm of mainstream gamers.

This is an overgeneralization, but you essentially have two ends of the spectrum in terms of gameplay. On one end of the spectrum, call it the casual end, there’s the metaphorical Match 3 game. They’re great games, they’re a lot of fun, and you have a number of developers building games in this vein, again, metaphorically.

At the other end of the spectrum you have the game studios with hundreds of developers that work for multiple years on games, like the triple-A games, which are almost morphing into quadruple-A games because the costs are getting so high.

We love both ends of the spectrum, but we think there’s this big gap in the middle, this place where there’s an opportunity to create games that are immersive and creative and a lot of fun and that have a lot of soul. And along those dimensions, we think these games can score as high as any other game out there.

Examples of this would include Minecraft. We set out for Sev Zero to be that type of game. Another one that’s available on Fire TV is Asphalt 8. And another one is Ski Safari, which is a game my kids absolutely love and grew up playing on a tablet, and can now play on Fire TV.

So the point is that there’s a vast opportunity for games along the dimensions of fun, creativity, uniqueness, emotional appeal, immersion, and that can score as high as any game that’s made. Along the singular dimension of graphics? That’s not what Fire TV’s about. We want the graphics to be fluid and good, and we want customers to be able to have a great gaming expreince. But it’s not a $500 console, and it wasn’t meant to be.

What sort of development project load is Amazon Game Studios juggling? Do you have an annual release volume number in mind?

We have a good collection of games in the works and we just released a sneak peek video of games under development.

That said, I wouldn’t want to commit to any release timeframes at this point, but I’d say what we’re seeing is more and more developers occupying the middle space I mentioned earlier, where you’re seeing teams of five to 30 people and they’re working from six to 18 months on the games they make. And with our game studio at Amazon, we’re very much filling that bottle.

We’re hiring people from the industry who’ve made some of the best games ever released, that have worked on these huge mega-franchises, and they like what we’re doing. They like our sandbox and cloud infrastructure mixed with smaller teams, where individuals on the team have the ability to express themselves creatively and maintain creative autonomy in crafting these games. I think that’s a key point, and it’s allowing us to hire some of the most accomplished people in this industry.

At one point the rumor mill had Amazon pegged for an OnLive-style streaming games service, which turned out not to be true. Is it something you considered? That you’re still considering?

We don’t generally comment on speculation, but there are a couple of things we’ve publicly announced in this area. One was a bigger release. Within AWS [Amazon Web Services] we launched a service called AppStream. It’s a primitive service that allows the content developer via a game or a CAD application or a simulator — anything that’s computationally or graphics or storage intensive — to run within AWS and be streamed to a mass-market, local device. It’s possible for a game developer to build a game, or release their game in AppStream and run it on Fire TV. We don’t have any games that do that today, but it’s possible.

The second thing pertains to rendering in the cloud. There’s two different use cases for what we think of as cloud gaming. One is to take a game that’s already been made and run it from the cloud and stream it entirely. That’s what OnLive did, and that’s compelling.

Another option is to actually think about the cloud from the inception of the game, so that you’re doing things because you have the cloud resources that you otherwise simply wouldn’t be able to do. By way of example, we showed off a prototype that we made, and it’s actually the game in our highlight reel at the very end where you see the titan get hit by a ball of fire. We always had this idea that we’d love to make a game where it’s almost like you’re in The Lord of the Rings, where you have thousands of bad guys attacking you. Just the artificial intelligence alone of trying to render that is very, very computationally complex, and then to have all the graphics and physics associated with that ratchets up the challenge exponentially.

So in the video, you can see we have thousands of bad guys, if you will, attacking your tower. And the way that game’s rendered, is that all the foreground parts around your catapult and the things that you’re controlling are running on your local device, because it’s easy and relatively simple, computationally speaking. All of those thousands of characters that are out in the field, and the physics, and the audio mixing that’s associated with that, and all of those things that are difficult to do, we’re doing through AppStream. And then we stitch it together so that it’s a singular environment and experience for the customer, but it gives you, in that case, an experience that otherwise would not have been possible unless you had a high-end gaming rig.

A hybrid local-cloud experience so you can outsource computation without compromising visual fidelity?

Both runtime environments are engaged at runtime, and it’s combining them so that the experience is consumed and played as a single experience using resources both from the local device as well as the cloud. We’re very excited, by the way, about the prospect of this, and part of what our game studios are doing is pushing toward game experiences we’ve always wanted to create since we’ve started thinking about doing things this way.

You’re offering an optional gamepad that looks more or less like the gamepads you’d use with an Xbox or PlayStation. How’d you settle on a traditional mainstream gamepad design?

We’ve had various versions of Fire TV kicking around in the lab for awhile, and only more recently did we land on the set of features that led to the version you’re seeing. We wanted to make it easy for people, so we came up with the Fire TV remote, which you can use to play a lot of games, like Ski Safari, where all you need is the remote.

But we also wanted to cater to the sort of customer who might want to play tons of games for hours on end. For them, we designed a more comfortable controller. The other aspect of this was familiarity. We wanted customers who’d played games in the past to be able to pick our controller up and go.

We feel really good about what we’ve built. The controller’s $39.99, it comes with 1,000 Amazon Coins, which is $10 in value, so you can buy a bunch of games. And it also comes with Sev Zero, which we built in-house, and that’s a $6.99 game.

Interestingly, and you never know how these things are going to resonate, we sold out of the game controller on the first day.

How insulated is the gaming aspect of Fire TV from lukewarm reception on the gaming side? Is Amazon leveraging its brand power and stuff like Amazon Prime to hedge against potentially slow uptake on the gaming side?

I think the experience we’re offering on day one is very good along all of these dimensions. We’re certainly going to learn and iterate over time, as you would with anything, but in general, the value of the device is in the wide array of entertainment. Lots of customers will buy it just to watch TV and movies and then they’ll wind up playing games. We expect lots of customers to buy it so they can play games, who’ll end up using it to do their photos on the TV and the like. We’ve seen this notion that when you offer customers the option of being able to do a lot of things with a device, it’s worked out very well in the context of smartphones and tablets, and we think that same simple construct will hold true on the TV as well.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

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