TIME technology

Watch a Giant Game of Tetris Played on a Philadelphia Skyscraper

Gaming enthusiasts gathered in Philadelphia for the chance to play the classic arcade game on an unprecedented scale

Have you ever felt compelled to play a giant game of Tetris on the side of a skyscraper? Probably not, but now that you’re thinking about it, doesn’t it sound pretty fun?

To kick off the Philly Tech Week festival, Philadelphians gathered for their chance to play the classic arcade game on the side of the 29-story Cira Centre. Hundreds of LED lights embedded in the building’s glass facade displayed the falling blocks, which competitors controlled with joysticks.

Last year, participants played the simpler (but arguably more mesmerizing) Pong. We’ve got our fingers crossed for Flappy Bird next year.

TIME Gadgets

Set-Top Showdown: Amazon Fire TV vs Apple TV vs Roku

Amazon

It wasn't enough to be another channel on someone else's box: Amazon had to throw its hat in the hardware ring, too. And so it's expanded its "Fire" brand to include Fire TV, a tiny black-plastic slab that does significantly more -- and in some cases, notably less -- than its competition.

Which streaming media box should you buy? We’re here to help by taking a look at the three most popular price-comparable set-top boxes on the market today.

Let’s start with a quick-reference comparison chart, then we’ll go point-by-point through the most obvious (and some not-so-obvious) features below.

Amazon Fire TV

Apple TV

Roku 3

Price

$99

$99

$99.99

In Box

Remote

Remote

Remote
Earbuds

Processor

1.7 GHz
Quad-core + GPU

2 GHz
Single-core

900 MHz
Dual-core

Memory

2 GB

512 MB

512 MB

Storage

8 GB

Only for caching

External MicroSD

Sound

Dolby Digital Plus

Dolby Digital

Dolby Digital

Network

Dual-band Wi-Fi
Ethernet

Wi-Fi
Ethernet

Dual-band Wi-Fi
Ethernet

Video

HDMI 1080p

HDMI 1080p

HDMI 1080p

Pre-Cached
Streaming

Yes

No

No

Voice Search

Yes
(Amazon-only)

No

No

Gamepad

$40

No

Included
(remote/wand)

Cloud Music

Amazon
(Coming in May)

iTunes

Third-party

Tablet/Phone
Mirroring

Kindle Fire

iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch

“Select” devices

App Remote

No

iOS

iOS
Android

Channels

24+

30+

1,200+

Games

134

AirPlay

77

All three boxes are the same price — unless you’re a gamer.

A hundred bucks covers the basics across all three boxes, including remote and power supply (none include an HDMI cable, however, so remember to factor that in if you don’t have a spare). Amazon Fire TV costs another $40 if you’re eyeing the optional game controller, a necessary purchase if you want access to Fire TV’s library of first- and third-party games. Roku sells less powerful boxes for $80 and $50, too.

Fire TV is primarily for Amazon Prime users.

Unlike Roku or Apple TV, Amazon’s interface has Amazon Prime DNA pretty much embedded throughout, and that’s an annual service that costs another $99 (bringing your total all the way up to $240, plus the recurring subscription fee, if you opt for the Fire TV gamepad).

You can buy a Fire TV and use it for Netflix or Hulu, of course, but everything else about the Fire TV, from voice search to interface layout, is organized to push Amazon’s services. If you’re not planning to subscribe to Prime, the reasons to invest in Fire TV (and not a much more broad-minded Roku 3, app-wise) shrink dramatically.

On the other hand, if Prime gets the job done for you, $99 a year for free two-day shipping, Kindle library lending and unlimited streaming of a sizable selection of video content may be a better deal than paying $96 a year ($8 a month) for either Netflix or Hulu Plus.

Fire TV is a lot faster than its rivals…for now.

The Apple TV tends to be an interface dog, lagging behind your commands and sometimes pausing for several seconds in processing limbo-land. The Roku 3 is significantly zippier, but still occasionally has to play catch up when you’re trying to move quickly between apps or a crowded menu. Not so Amazon’s Fire TV, which responds effortlessly and immediately to virtually any command, letting you speed through menus and dialogue boxes as fast as you’re able to input commands.

Here’s a five-minute walkthrough of the Fire TV interface and a few of its features:

I’m sure Apple and Roku have faster boxes in the oven, but for the moment, Fire TV is the king of set-top interface responsiveness and speed.

No one has Roku’s channel library.

Apple TV has a little over 30 channels (not counting Apple’s own), and Fire TV has fewer still at this point. Roku, by comparison, has a smorgasbord, making it the obvious pick if channel versatility is paramount. And since Roku doesn’t have a particular service dog in the hunt, you can probably expect it to remain the most channel-agnostic (and well-rounded, support-wise) of the bunch going forward.

Roku’s version of Amazon Instant Video is Prime-friendlier than Fire TV’s.

Amazon’s interface to its content is slicker, especially with voice search, granted, but where Roku’s version of Amazon Instant Video includes a discrete Prime-only content view, Amazon folds its Prime content into the interface in a way that makes browsing only Prime videos much less straightforward (and makes it much easier to stumble into for-pay content, which is clearly what Amazon wants to happen).

My favorite remote is still the Apple TV’s…

Apple’s aluminum remote sports the best in Jobs-ian minimalism: unbelievably slender (almost too slender, in fact, if you have large hands), with all the navigational functionality smartly encapsulated by its wheel and center button and self-explanatory “Menu” and “Play/Pause” ones.

Roku’s remote, by comparison, feels chunky and confusing (What does an “asterisk” button do again? What’s the difference between a backwards arrow and a backwards circle arrow?), and it’s easily the heaviest, though it has a few nice extras, notably the headphone jack for private wireless listening and the option to tilt it sideways like a Wii Remote with d-pad and A/B face buttons.

The Fire TV’s relatively slim, matte-black remote makes its own design case fairly well, though it also employs less common button symbols (like its three-dash options one). It feels the best in my somewhat larger hands, and sports a microphone button at top, just below the microphone hole.

…but Fire TV’s voice search option (in its remote) feels terrific.

I’ve thrown everything I could at the Fire TV’s remote in hopes of stumping it, from movies to TV shows and actors to directors to genres. Exceptions made for instances I clearly mispronounced something, the closest I got was “Peg-plus-cat,” which returned “Peg plus cat,” as desired, but also nonsense entries for “Pague Pluskat” and “Pigplus Kat.” Just to be a wise guy, I tried the one word almost no one can spell (but almost anyone can sing) from Disney’s Mary Poppins: Fire TV not only knew what I meant, but spelled it correctly.

Voice search seems to rank results identical to manual searches on Amazon’s website (in the Instant Video category), which sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t. When you search “Ricardo Montalban,” for instance, Amazon brings up the somewhat obscure film The Desperate Mission first, followed by the second season of Bonanza (Montalban starred in just one episode). You have to cycle over several entries to get to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which, Fantasy Island aside (it’s not on Amazon Instant Video), I suspect many would argue is his best-known role.

The one hard-to-miss downside, also noticed by my colleague Harry McCracken, is that Fire TV’s voice search works best and most often to summon Amazon content, failing to bring up the same content in a rival service’s channel, even if the rival service offers it free.

Instant video playback works eerily well.

How does Amazon know what I want to watch? How much stuff could it possible be presciently caching? So far, pretty much everything. Amazon calls this ASAP (Advanced Streaming and Prediction, obviously a play on “as soon as possible”) video buffering, and its job is to eliminate the wait you’re accustomed to experiencing when a streaming video buffers, as it will if you play anything on an Apple TV or Roku (or your computer or game console).

Amazon claims the more you use the Fire TV, the better ASAP gets. I can’t confirm that because it has yet not to work. In fact, so far, it seems to be cataloging things that relate to nothing I’ve searched previously. I don’t know what sort of voodoo’s involved behind the scenes here, but it definitely seems to be working.

Fire TV lets you play games the way they’re meant to be played…

Which would you rather play a first-person shooter with:

  • A Wii remote-like wand with absent buttons?
  • Pretending your arms, hands and fingers are weapons, but ones that only work properly some of the time?
  • The tried-and-true method: a straightforward gamepad, honed and respected in gaming-dom for decades?

Fire TV is the only set-top that offers the latter.

…but the gamepad’s a little chunky.

Not original-Xbox monstrous, but Amazon’s definitely erred on the side of large, clapping a sizable flat-lying faceplate on top of a battery-thickened body with enormous handlebars that’ll make you extra-grateful for the smarter design advances both Sony and Microsoft employed in their PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s controllers, respectively.

I’ll have a more detailed review of the Fire TV-as-games-microconsole soon, after I’ve spent more time with the games (especially Amazon Game Studios’ Sev Zero), but at this point, I’d say the gamepad reminds me most of the Xbox One’s controller, only bulkier.

Amazon has the most games, including the only first-party titles.

Not by much at this point — Roku has a decent number, too. But Amazon is the first of these three to offer first-party games, developed by its own Amazon Game Studios, which probably signifies the company committing to this space long-term. Amazon’s also promising “thousands more [games] coming soon,” meaning, I assume, that it intends to eventually crack open the entire Android games library.

Fire TV syncs with your Amazon account before hitting your doorstep.

When I plugged my Fire TV in, it automatically figured out who I was and signed me in — no fuss, no muss. That’s a little creepy, but also kind of cool. I have long, random, easily forgettable passwords unique to each of my accounts, which means I’m often summoning a password management app on my computer or smartphone to sign into things. With Fire TV, Amazon removes that step by taking care of business beforehand.

There’s just one potential problem: This past year, Amazon mis-delivered several items I’d ordered, presumably sending them to someone else or simply losing them. If someone intercepts your Fire TV, unlikely as that sounds, then opts to misbehave, they’d have temporary access to your account simply by plugging the device in. That’s probably a security risk Amazon’s going to have to address at some point.

Fire TV can partner with Amazon’s Kindle Fire Tablets.

Remote control apps aside, Roku only works with “select” Android devices (see here). Apple TV, as you may know, can partner with iOS products, allowing you to AirPlay-stream videos, pictures and even select games through your television set.

Fire TV includes an AirPlay-like feature that lets you mirror movies, TV shows, music and photos from your Kindle Fire tablet to your TV as well as control the display remotely, but it also lets you turn your TV into a “second screen” by clicking what Amazon calls a “fling” icon to fire audio or video running on the tablet at your TV (and freeing up the tablet for other tasks). There’s also a Wii U-like contextual view feature, content-depending, that lets you view additional info, pulled from IMDb, about whatever TV show or movie you’re watching.

Who cares what these boxes look like? They’re basically invisible.

All three boxes are roughly the size of hockey pucks, and when you’re the size of a hockey puck that can fit pretty much anywhere, aesthetics cease to matter. I couldn’t care less whether one has beveled edges or another’s the height of a dime (faced up). Here’s what all three have in common in my household: they go on my entertainment center’s top shelf and I never look at them again.

Fire TV has slightly higher-end audio, but only audiophiles are going to notice.

Amazon does its best to play down its competitors’ sonic capabilities on its comparison site, but while Fire TV supports Dolby Digital Plus surround (and includes an optical audio out option), both Apple TV and Roku 3 support Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (that is, 5-channels plus a subwoofer).

The difference? Dolby Digital Plus supports higher bit rates for improved audio quality and has better techniques for reducing compression artifacts, though it still involves compression. (No one’s doing lossless streaming at this point, or what’s called Dolby TrueHD, for which you’ll have to turn to high-end Blu-ray playback hardware like the PlayStation 4.)

In practice, we’re talking subtle differences most won’t notice (and certainly not in scenarios where you’re playing sound through your TV’s speakers, as I do). And if you’re an audiophile with a stacked, component-filled living room, chances are you’re going to be more interested in a much higher-end streaming video-capable box like Sony’s PlayStation 4 anyway.

Fire TV is missing Amazon Music for now.

Amazon says Fire TV is “made for music,” but apparently not Amazon-bought music out of the gate, which is strange indeed. If you’re an Amazon Cloud Player user, or you’ve simply purchased music through Amazon, you can’t access it directly through Fire TV right now (there’s not even a music option in the menu — the only music features are third-party ones like Pandora, TuneIn and iHeart Radio). The company says integration with Amazon Cloud Player will be here in May, however.

For Roku owners, there’s a dedicated Roku app — dubbed “Amazon Cloud Player” and made by Amazon — precisely for that.

In summary…

If you already own a Roku 3 or Apple TV and don’t play games and don’t care about Amazon Prime, there’s not much that argues for the purchase of Amazon’s Fire TV at this point (if you already own the vastly content-superior Roku 3, in particular, which includes Amazon services Fire TV doesn’t, I’d steer clear of Fire TV for now).

If you own none of the three boxes above, this gets trickier, because it depends to an extent on what sort of ancillary devices and services you own or use. If you’re an iOS user and/or invested in iTunes, there’s a strong argument for the Apple TV because nothing else supports iTunes or AirPlay. Likewise, if you’re a Kindle Fire user and find the second-screen angle appealing, there’s a very strong argument for Fire TV. And if you don’t really care about device-partnering and you prefer to hop around services (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) in more of an egalitarian environment, interface-wise, the Roku 3 should be at the top of your buy list.

But if you do use Amazon Prime, you’ve already invested in a Kindle Fire, you want to dabble in Android gaming on your TV screen with a proper gamepad, and you care about interface responsiveness and voice accessibility, Fire TV becomes easy to recommend. It has no obvious bugs or performance issues or gotchas (beyond the ones mentioned above) at this point. Short of missing services like Amazon Music — albeit temporarily — it already feels like a second- or third-gen product, reasonably priced, content-rich and refined.

TIME Video Games

The Elder Scrolls Online’s Director Talks Cartography, Combat, Boredom and Post-Launch Content

Bethesda

The Elder Scrolls Online's director Matt Firor answered 10 questions about Bethesda's fantasy roleplaying MMO in tandem with its launch today.

The Elder Scrolls games have arguably the strongest claim on the mantle of the fantasy gaming tradition Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons kickstarted in the 1970s. You might say a game like The Elder Scrolls Online was thus inevitable: a sprawling multiplayer-only opus that brings the series full circle.

You see, The Elder Scrolls: Arena, released in 1994 (and which wasn’t originally supposed to be a roleplaying game at all), was the first and last game to offer access to all of Tamriel, the continent on which all the action’s happened to date. Tamriel has nine provinces, and you could visit all nine in Arena — a game that boasted over two million square miles of explorable turf. Nothing else came close to that boast in 1994, though most of that turf was randomly generated and forgettable.

Subsequent Elder Scrolls games increased each province’s granularity, but at a cost, trading sweeping tracts of random-spawned terrain for smaller swathes of hand-sculpted geography. The other compromise involved throwing up arbitrary barriers, like the water surrounding Morrowind’s island of Vvardenfell, or Cyrodiil’s invisible walls bordering its six adjacent provinces and turning you back.

The Elder Scrolls Online dispenses with those barriers and resurrects Tamriel as a continuous continent, all of its provinces plumbable, from Skyrim to Elsweyr and High Rock to Black Marsh (though some of the world remains locked at launch, for the sake of expansion content). The game lets you play as a Dragon Knight, Templar, Sorcerer or Nightblade, squaring off against a demon prince named Molag Bal — referenced in prior games, but the primary antagonist here and threatening to pull Tamriel into his other-dimensional realm.

I posed the following questions to Matt Firor, ESO‘s director and one of the lead designers on Dark Age of Camelot, the most warmly received MMO in the post-Everquest run up to Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. ESO launches today for PC and Mac, and runs $15 a month (after a free 30-day trial period).

How geographically close do you hew to the cartographic arrangement of the provinces in prior Elder Scrolls games? Will Morrowind, Cyrodiil and Skyrim — the three most concretely defined areas to date — be discernibly similar, topographically?

Yes, we stuck as close as we could to the original heightmaps for areas of Tamriel that have featured prominently in other Elder Scrolls games. As we expand the game’s geography, and begin to fill in blank spots on the map, we’ll continue to do this. We also updated those areas’ ruins, flora and fauna — mushrooms in Morrowind, Ayelid ruins in Cyrodiil, etc. — to be immediately recognizable by gamers familiar with those classic titles.

Tell us a little about the quest system and what you’ve done to mitigate the sense of box-checking genericness that plagues most MMOs.

Good quests begin and end with a good story. If you care about the characters you are helping or the mystery you are solving, then the quest works. This is a game content design mantra, not just confined to MMOGs. With fully voiced NPCs and a really strong writing team, we made sure that when you are questing that you care about what you are doing, which makes the whole quest interesting and fun.

Combat was arguably one of the weakest aspects of Skyrim, and in my view, it’s been a problem point for all of the Elder Scrolls games (to say nothing of its click-slavishness and physical disconnectedness in most MMOs). How different is combat in ESO?

I suppose this is subjective — I really like the combat system of Skyrim and Oblivion and we used the combat control system from those games as the foundation of the ESO combat system. But we have a much different A.I. system in ESO, as it is a multiplayer virtual world. Our world has a constant population of respawning enemies, so the main differences come from being able to deal with enemies behind you and multiple enemies at the same time.

More recent MMOs have been figuring out how to fold event spontaneity into their exploration/loot hunt/leveling games. How dynamic and mutable is ESO (as opposed to scripted) as you move through the world?

We have a couple of different types of spawning content in the world. We have our Dark Anchors, which are large-group-based open world encounters where you and your friends take on allies of the big bag guy, Molag Bal. We also have miniature versions of those (Dark Fissures) that are solo-able as well as other randomly spawning encounters at various points around the world. When you add that to the exploration content we have (treasure chests, skyshards, mini-dungeons, etc.) as well as our really in-depth questing system, there’s a ton to do in the game.

Let’s talk music. We’ve been saturated with composer Jeremy Soule’s scores for three sprawling Elder Scrolls games. How did composers Brad Derrick and Rik Schaffer approach this game? Given the time shift, are we in the same thematic ballpark as Morrowind and Oblivion and Skyrim, or a noticeably different one?

Both Brad and Rik have written and managed the scores of many games between them, so they had the experience to find the right tone for the high-fantasy orchestral score. Jeremy’s work does make a cameo – he composed the track “For Blood, for Glory, for Honor.”

We also had Malukah write and perform bard songs for the game, which are amazing – you can hear them just about any time you walk into a tavern in the game. But yes, overall, even though we’re at a different period of time with ESO than Skyrim or Oblivion, it’s still in the same high fantasy ballpark.

Style-wise, ESO‘s interface most strongly resembles Skyrim’s minimalist approach, which some players loved and others hated. Can you talk a little about the things that inspired ESO‘s interface in that light?

It wasn’t so much copying Skyrim’s interface as it was trying to build on one of the most important parts of Skyrim: Moment to moment gameplay is about looking at the world, not at the UI. The compass is small and unobtrusive, but tells you what you need to know, enemies in the game give you “tells” that you respond to instead of buttons flashing on the button bar, etc.

What’s the mini-game and achievement hunt like? I assume there’s an exploration mini-game?

There are several. Every zone has tons of achievements (every quest, every explorable area, every dungeon, all dungeon bosses, etc.). There are also skyshards which, if you find enough of them, give you extra skill points. There are also chests to find — complete with a lockpicking minigame — that can give you some pretty good loot, especially if those chests are found in dungeons. Every time you find an area on the map that has something interesting, you get experience, so just walking around the world will help develop your character.

How interesting do you feel you’ve made the nooks and crannies and null space? How bored (or not bored) do you think players are going to get exploring dungeon #1 versus dungeon #159?

Our dungeons, designed for groups of four, have really interesting stories that drive the player to (and through) them, so the first time you go through it, it feels like just more awesome questing. Dungeons are filled with chests, books, barrels, crates, and traps to keep players busy while exploring and fighting.

If you want to do multiple dungeon runs, obviously then you focus on the loot, which is better in dungeons than in the overworld, and you are always guaranteed good stuff from the boss and mini-bosses.

One particular thing that should be pointed out is the attention to detail on boss encounters in dungeons. Every boss is a hand-crafted encounter with unique abilities for groups to learn and overcome. With over 18 normal dungeons and 6 Veteran dungeons at launch, that’s a lot of boss encounters. Speaking of Veteran dungeons, these 50+ dungeons provide a second challenge or story to the “normal version” of that dungeon. It is a new quest with new areas and all new enemies.

ESO has a huge advantage over other startup MMOs in that it’s built on a successful franchise, but how are you handling sustainability post-launch? What sort of content rollout schedule should players expect?

We have been working on post-launch content for many months now – our first post-launch package, Craglorn, is our first Adventure Zone. It introduces Trials, a large-group competitive PvE endgame, four-man Veteran Dungeons, a Death Recap screen so you can see who or what killed you, and an entire overworld designed for groups. While the content packages we have will range in feature sets, Craglorn illustrates the kind of commitment we have to providing regular content to our players. Over time, you’ll get new systems, new zones, new quests, stories, and lots more.

Do you worry that at some point the whole swords-and-sorcery theme wears out its welcome? That after all the crazy time players put into Skyrim, they’ll bounce sooner in ESO?

These things wax and wane, but there’s always room for a good fantasy, whether that’s a game, book or movie. It’s been over two years since Skyrim launched, so there has been plenty of time for gamers to get their Tamriel appetite back!

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Opinion

Microsoft’s Cortana Raises Important Questions About Sexism and Gender Stereotyping

cortana-halo-4
Cortana, the artificially-intelligent character from the popular Halo video game series Microsoft

Cortana (the Halo-series video game character) has a broader, occasionally controversial history.

Cortana, the name Microsoft’s given its response to Apple’s Siri virtual assistant, may turn out to be a bolder move for the company than I suspect many realize. For starters, she’s a character in a militaristic sci-fi video game that, for all its popularity in gaming-dom, locates her impetus well outside the entertainment mainstream — and as the historical purview of a very specific, mostly not-female demographic.

More importantly, from game one (released back in 2001 for the original Xbox) through Halo 4 (released in November 2012 for the Xbox 360), she’s been a sometimes controversial symbol. On the one hand, she’s a strong-willed and multidimensional female persona in a series that’s been fictively nuanced enough to draw the attention (and participation) of a Hugo and Nebula award-winning writer like Greg Bear. But she’s also a character who’s essentially imprisoned — literally in the series’ case — within the psyche of an adolescent male’s fantasy notion of a Campbellian hero figure: a simultaneously fleshed-out yet hyper-fleshy persona — she’s all but nude in these games, her female parts exponentially more detailed as console graphics and design techniques have improved — who appears in hologram form, Obi-Wan-like, only if Obi-Wan were a nubile pole dancer.

But perhaps that’s just my own biases as a clueless, culturally-compromised male showing through. What’s wrong with nudity (or near-nudity) anyway? Must attractive nearly-nude women be pole dancers? Am I selling pole-dancing short? Are people without clothes (or nearly so) mere sex objects? Is that just latent American prudishness on my part? Fear of female sexuality? Gender stereotyping? A kind of unconscious, compartmentalizing sexism? Is immobility itself necessarily reductive? Doesn’t that then sell the mobility-challenged short?

Or is there also something exploitive and sexist occurring in these games when you start thinking about their demographics and marketing? Does intentionality trump reception? What of Microsoft’s intentions? Do we presume too much? Surely the game’s writers are going to argue there’s nothing sexist about the character.

The question seems to be whether players should celebrate a character like Cortana for her depth and poise (though it’s worth noting that she loses her mind in the most recent game), or view her cynically, as an imprisoned, hyper-sexualized plot actuator — a ploy to titillate the game’s target adolescent male demographic.

And now she’s the name Microsoft’s given its Siri competitor, a Windows 8.1 assistant voiced by the same person responsible for Cortana’s Halo incarnation (Jen Taylor).

Forget Halo for a moment. What about this idea that the personality — and both Apple and Microsoft clearly want us to view Siri and Cortana as personalities — is female and not male, responsible for what amount to secretarial duties like creating alarms, reminders and appointments? To be fair, Apple has a male voice option in iOS, but does anyone use it?

In Microsoft’s case, it sounds like Cortana is female-only, in keeping with her video game persona. So does all the internal testing I presume Apple and Microsoft have been doing suggest people want their servile computer algorithms, just like the computer in Star Trek, to be female? If so, what does that say about us?

This isn’t an indictment of what Microsoft demonstrated at its Build conference yesterday, which from an algorithmic standpoint sounds pretty cool — another step on the very long road toward fully semantic computing, where your computer understands not only what you want to know, but the context in which you want to know it.

I’m just asking the question, because there’s a history here, and in Cortana’s case, one that reaches back over a decade and across one of the fastest-growing (and at this point, greatest revenue-generating) entertainment mediums in history. I don’t have a satisfactory answer yet, but I think it’s important to be mindful that there is a history here, and that we should at least be thinking about its potential implications as we engage with these applications rolling forward.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Blizzard Pushing Hearthstone Out for iPad, Where It Probably Belongs

Blizzard

But you'll have to live in Canada, Australia or New Zealand to play the tablet version for now.

Hearthstone is a free-to-play card game staged in Blizzard’s Warcraft-verse that arrived for Windows and OS X earlier this month, March 11. It’s also been in the offing for iOS and Android devices, which is where you’d think any sort of card game would work best, but all Blizzard said last fall was that we’d see the latter versions sometime during the second half of 2014, i.e. sometime between July and December.

But as of last night, Blizzard says the game is officially available for Apple’s iPad (though not the iPhone, nor Android devices). The only catch: you have to live in Canada, Australia or New Zealand, since that’s all Blizzard’s supporting for now. The company says the “rest of the world” will see the iPad version “soon.” (Since Hearthstone is Battle.net-based and thus online-angled, I assume the staggered rollout is just Blizzard doing server capacity due diligence.)

Why push the iPad version’s release up by at least three months? Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime says that while 10 million people have registered accounts with the service, “we saw that a few people online were holding out for the iPad version.”

“Instead of calling those folks up individually, we figured we might as well let everyone know that the global iPad rollout for Hearthstone has begun, and pretty soon it’ll be available everywhere.”

Where it won’t be available everywhere soon: Android devices, iPhones and Windows tablets. Blizzard says those versions are “in development and will be available in the future.”

TIME Video Games

Amazon’s Fire TV Gaming Angle Sounds Intriguing Enough that I Ordered One

Amazon

This looks like Amazon throwing some actual muscle behind the micro-console gaming concept, as opposed to Apple's roundabout AirPlay approach, or Roku's half-hearted, clumsy Wiimote clone.

So I ordered one of these Amazon Fire TV boxes, because they’re available now, with overnight shipping (mine’ll be here tomorrow), and the only way you’re going to know is if you know, right? It’s only $99, and speaking partly as an Amazon Prime user who just gave Netflix the boot, the Fire TV sounds very cool. And speaking as a gamer, it looks like Amazon’s not just inching but leaping into the micro-console arena, sliding the powerful internals of a Kindle Fire up next to your television set.

My entertainment center’s currently rocking a Roku 3 (where I spend most of my TV time watching “Kids & Family” movies or TV shows on Amazon Prime with my son), a second-gen 720p Apple TV (for AirPlay iTunes streaming) and an Ouya (at this point, for reasons unknown, because I don’t use it). I keep my PlayStations and Xboxes in the study, where they’re used strictly as gaming devices.

My colleagues Doug Aamoth and Jared Newman already covered Amazon’s launch today in detail, so I’ll zoom in on just the gaming components, since they’re what nudged me over the edge. You’re looking at a quad-core processor, 2 GB of memory, a dedicated GPU and up to 1080p video support, Dolby Digital Plus surround sound (with optical audio out), Ethernet, Wi-Fi and an optional gamepad (which I also snagged — it’s $40) that looks more or less like any other gamepad of recent vintage, only packing discrete media playback buttons just below the d-pad and right thumbstick, e.g. backwards, play/pause, forwards. Amazon claims battery life (it uses regular AA batteries) lasts up to 55 hours.

Amazon says the Fire TV supports over 100 games at launch, and promises “thousands more coming soon.” Game-wise, the launch lineup builds mostly on existing fare, so stuff like Minecraft Pocket Edition, Asphalt 8 (a racer from Gameloft), 2K Sports’ NBA 2k14 b-baller and an endless runner based on Disney’s Monsters Inc. But it also ships with an Amazon Game Studios tower defense shooter called Sev Zero, which, the game’s quality aside (and I have no idea this point), is a lot more than Apple or Roku or even outfits like Ouya have ventured at this point.

I know, you’re probably muttering, “Another set-top box? This late in the game? Come on.” And I was too going into today’s event. But this looks like Amazon throwing some actual muscle behind the micro-console gaming concept, as opposed to Apple’s roundabout (and developmentally sleepy) AirPlay approach, or Roku’s half-hearted, clumsy Wiimote clone. Amazon’s also launching Fire TV with a leaderboard and achievement meta-service, accessed with a GameCircle button on the gamepad, that it claims “lets you track progress and compare scores with friends and millions of other gamers.” Again, say what you will, but this looks like Amazon taking a real swing at gaming, not throwing it in like its competitors as a perfunctory checkbox.

There’s not much about Fire TV that other micro-consoles like Ouya aren’t already doing, to be fair — Ouya has a quad-core processor, discrete GPU and a decent chunk of memory, too — but people aren’t buying Ouya to stream Amazon Prime movies and TV shows, and you have to sideload mainstream apps like Netflix or Hulu, making the process a little less than intuitive for the sort of consumer who’d rather everything route through something central and official. In short, Fire TV brings Amazon’s brand recognition and inline portal (Amazon Prime) to a market that’s arguably going to be swayed by name brands and officiated portals. It’s Amazon taking much closer aim at Netflix’s streaming service and Apple TV’s rent/buy service and Roku’s hardware business, as well as the traffic jam of cheap Android-based gaming micro-consoles presently cluttering up that aspect of the market.

And it’s Amazon using its breadth to hedge its bets, leveraging brand recognition (and Amazon Prime) against a slow start on the gaming side. If Sev Zero turns out to be a dud or mediocre, and if gamers (casual or mainstream) don’t flock to play games on this thing, the streaming media features could easily carry it long enough for Amazon Game Studios to pull a rabbit out of its hat, or the company to broaden its deals with industry players, or the hardware to iterate enough that it’s eventually competitive with the PlayStations and Xboxes of the world.

We’ll see. But as an opening move, I’m more intrigued than I thought I’d be. I’m a sucker for first-party software — a thousand percent more interested in hardware-makers willing to give that angle a go, than all these ones drafting off overloaded app stores flush with gaming bric-a-brac, attempting to transmogrify mobile gaming’s successes to the set-top arena.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Amazon Now Shows Metacritic Scores for Video Games

Amazon

And Metacritic now sports "buy from" links back to Amazon products.

I use Metacritic for just one thing these days: to see what’s coming soon. It’s a terrific aggregator if that’s all you’re after. I can find music, movies, games — you name it. I used it to help put the scaffolding in place for this spring games list that went up earlier this week. It’s a handy jumping off point if you just want a finger in the wind.

What I don’t use it for: game scores. I won’t drag you through the mud of my mental processes about reductive and mathematically flawed summaries, or how these things probably do more harm than good in reinforcing problematic simplifications of aesthetic value. But I’ve also stopped letting it bug me, because I get it: people like scores, and they’re always going to like scores.

If you’re one of those and you spend a lot of time on Amazon, good news: Amazon’s partnered with Metacritic to include the latter’s ratings in its video game listings. Bring up Sony’s Infamous: Second Son, for instance, and you’ll notice a little link up top to the right of customer reviews that reads “Metascore” with a number value out of 100. Hover over the link and you’ll conjure a pop-up with Metacritic’s trademark score coloring, as well as further details, like the number of critics the score’s based on and the user score rating.

This could make for interesting juxtapositions rolling forward. Amazon’s user ratings are open to anyone, thus like Metacritic’s user ratings, they’re often employed as tools to punish a company (whether for real or perceived slights, and whether the reviewers have firsthand experience with the product or an ax to grind). It’s one of these anonymous feedback circles neither company’s managed to square yet.

Take Spore, Will Wright’s real-time evolution sim, which still holds a dubious Amazon customer rating of less than 1.5 stars out of five (with over 3,300 weighing in): the new Metascore tag, by contrast, shows “84 / 100″ (the game was critically applauded, but users beat the snot out of EA on Amazon over the game’s digital rights management). Or how about SimCity, also sitting with less than 1.5 stars out of five (with over 3,100 weighing in), but now a much more positive-looking Metascore tag of “64 / 100.”

Hover over those Metascore tags and Metacritic’s user ratings align more with Amazon’s user ratings, but at first blush, you’ll just see the aggregate critic score.

And the partnership appears to work both ways: visit Metacritic directly and you’ll now find games sporting a “Buy from Amazon” link up top, just beneath the product summary.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

No, Thanks: Dark Souls 2 Doesn’t Need a Lower Difficulty Patch

Bandai Namco

The only problem: the game's first dozen hours are already too easy.

I’m starting to worry about Dark Souls 2. It’s turning out to be pretty easy compared to my sojourns with both its predecessors. Too easy. And I’m definitely not a great player, so don’t read that as me boasting. I’m not. Chances are you’re better. I’m just thorough, and as I noted yesterday, playing the game on its own terms by clearing each area before moving on.

That put me into the mid-30s, level-wise, by the time I squared off with the first boss (think Ent and you’re close), one of four majors I’m supposed to tangle with over the course of the game. But man, what a drag. I went in expecting to croak at least once. Death is required reading in this game, the way you’re expected to learn how to grapple with a problem, the presumption being that each problem should be unique, as well as uniquely difficult. But it turned out to be the easiest, lamest encounter I’ve yet had in a Souls game.

That’s more than a little troublesome, as would this likely April Fools’ joke be — about From Software preparing a patch to lower the game’s difficulty by folding in a new effigy — were it true. The hypothetical effigy would reduce the amount of stamina you consume, eliminate the gradual half-health penalty that occurs when you’re undead (or “Hollowed”) and make enemies easier to dispatch. But joke-maker GameSpot attributes a quote about the effigy to Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki…who wasn’t directly involved with Dark Souls 2, and I can’t find the quote on the linked patch page, nor does the effigy appear in the patch notes.

The Souls games aren’t for casual players, of course — another reason to flag this story as suspect. Even if you sheared off more of the difficulty and made the game as hack-and-slash rote as Diablo III tends to be much of the time, it’s still too visually esoteric, stat-riddled and convoluted, interface-wise, to lure (much less hold) a casual player’s attention.

That leaves mainstreamers and enthusiasts, but are they complaining? Do any of you find the game too difficult? Would you want a difficulty reduction option? Are you playing the game on its terms, or just rushing through the areas, fast as you can?

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME April Foolishness

Google HQ Is Now a Pokémon Lab, and Google Maps Has Been Overrun

Google Maps / YouTube

Catch all the Pokémon in Google Maps and Google says you'll be in the running for its new Pokémon Master position.

If you don’t know what Pokémon are (or, if we’re talking about the ongoing phenomenon, is) this isn’t the place to find out. But I’ll do my best, since you’ll need to know the basics now that Google’s unleashed the little critters on the world for a day. Just a day, as far as we know, but I assume nothing in a world where Google and Pokémon publisher Nintendo suddenly join hands.

Grab your iOS or Android device: they’re the only way to see what I’m talking about. Bring up Google Maps (or download Google Maps if you don’t have it — see what’s happening here?) and tap the “Search” bar. Notice that little thing that looks like the CBS logo, only light blue?

Tap it and you’re off, the screen swinging across the country to Mountain View, California. That’s Google HQ, a.k.a. Google Campus, a.k.a. a bunch of Google buildings with numbers like “2000” and “1900” and “1950.” Pitched between the latter three you’ll notice a tiny house with a chimney. That’s Google’s new Pokémon lab, originally located on Cinnabar Island, according to some all-official-sounding Pokémon compendium called the Bulbapedia.

The idea behind Pokémon is that a bunch of cute little fantasy pets smack each other around, but first you have to catch them, and that’s where Google Maps comes in: beside the Pokémon lab, you probably noticed a few in the wild. Tap them to catch them, simple as that, after which you can take a closer look in Google Maps’ new inline Pokédex (basically a Pokémon Rolodex).

You can go for all 150 yourself, scattered around the planet, or skip the hunt and tap the Pokémon April Fools’ wikia, which catalogs the lot, plus one more. That “one more” allegedly only appears once you’ve found the other 150, and then randomly across a potential set of locations.

Oh, and if you do catch ‘em all, Google says you’ll be in the running for a new job with the company: Pokémon Master. You probably think I’m kidding, don’t you.

TIME Video Games

Dark Souls 2’s De-Spawns Are Either Game-Breaking Godawful or Inspired Genius

Bandai Namco

The sequel to one of the hardest games ever made twists the knife.

Dark Souls 2 is a lesser game than Dark Souls. Or maybe that should read greater. It depends what you’re looking for. I’m not sure what that is for me, 15 hours in.

I’m merely level 36, and I’ve only pulled one stat out of the teens. I feel a little like my 21-month-old son, tottering around the house in exploration mode, smacking into things and falling down, trying to make sense of the world with my babbling proto-linguistic toddler-speak.

As Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls, the latter hasn’t prepared me for all the new challenges on tap here: the hollow soldiers with estoc and shield who assault in teams with brutally efficient and overlapping tactics, the Varangian sailors with devastating four-hit combos, the cyclopean all-reaching ogres whose immensity belies their ability to pancake me lighting-quick. That’s also a hallmark of a Souls game: Each encounter feels new, a lesson unto itself instead of other games’ n + 1.

So far series newcomers Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura have recaptured most of what makes Dark Souls feel like Dark Souls, scaffolding to foundation, the world swathed in plaintive John Barry-ish piano strains, melancholy lighting and baffling alien architecture. That gothic opening sequence might be a riff on Poe’s House of Usher (only here the protagonist leaps into the tarn-vortex of his own volition, poor fool). And all the keystone From Software themes take their bow: the obscure narrator, the melodramatic auguring, the sense that someone shook a box of Boschian refrigerator sentence-magnets to cobble together what passes for a story.

Sidebar: Remember the old NES game Wizards and Warriors (by Rare, incidentally — yes, that Rare)? Indulge me. The outset of Dark Souls 2 made me think about that game for the first time in years. It’s the trees. In Wizards and Warriors, you play a knight leaping between sawed-off branches like Li Mu Bai in plate armor, occasionally ducking inside their trunks to scrounge for treasure and battle creepy bugs, birds and spiders. Dark Souls 2‘s beginning feels like a darker, weirder version of that level — a series of places (linked through arthritic wood-skyscrapers) that make no logical sense. All that’s missing are the David Wise tunes.

I love that about games like this. It’s that angle that has nothing to do with the game’s game-ness, but without which the game wouldn’t be Dark Souls. The sunsets that last forever. The distant, bruised, Mordor-like clouds. The weirdly-lit corridors (with no obvious light source) that always creep me out. The subterranean rivers kicking off a scrim of mist. The fiery pits housing who-knows-what that put me in mind of the first time I played Colossal Cave Adventure on a Commodore B-128 and stumbled into a room, described solely in text, that felt like peeping the devil’s own playground.

There’s a lot of talk about “placeness” with virtual reality back in the news. It’s an aspect of gaming that gamers tend to gloss over in the conventional obsession with rules and mechanical minutia. It makes me wish we had a better, less reductive label for games than “games,” though those labels are coming as surely as gaming’s on the verge of being subsumed by technology that’ll bulldoze the sort of arbitrary distinctions we make today, like “genre” and “platform.”

But since this is 2014 and games are still treated as the sum of their mechanics, let’s talk about one that’s changed significantly in Dark Souls 2. It’s perhaps the most controversial change of all, and I had no idea it was coming. Five hours in, I assumed I’d found a bug. The hollow soldiers haunting the fire-lit dungeons below a castle tower I’d been plumbing suddenly vanished — first one, then another, then another still. I ran a search engine query and discovered a bunch of people talking about de-spawning, which is basically how Dark Souls 2 deals with soul farming.

Demon’s Souls mitigated soul-farming by forcing you to return to its nexus to re-spawn enemies. There was a forced pause to reset things, a farming deterrent premised on those load times coupled with fewer travel points. Dark Souls‘ instantaneous reboots and numerous bonfires, by contrast, opened up a world of farming possibilities. The Undead Burg bonfire was basically my home away from home well past the point I should have lingered there, level-wise. I’d just fire up the game and do laps: tag the archer, then the guys charging up the stairs, then the spearmen across the way, then the trio hunkering in a room across the bridge, then the guys tossing firebombs off the roof, and so on. I must have done that circuit hundreds if not thousands of times (and arguably way over-leveled for the area) before moving on.

Not so with Dark Souls 2, where enemies only spawn a fixed number of times before vanishing for good (a little more than a dozen times in my experience, though this varies). That means you have to be pretty darned good (and consistently so) to play without getting yourself into a difficulty rut — a problem I’m seeing more than a few have run into, reading message boards and some of the more insightful off-the-beaten-path reviews.

Not me — at least not yet. I’d estimate I’ve lost maybe 10,000 souls overall to the void — a pittance in the grand scheme — but I’ve yet to feel under-leveled. The game also seems to be unfolding a little more logically: If you take Dark Souls 2 on its new terms, it starts to feel compartmentalized, like you’re checking off areas and actually progressing through them instead of blinking in and out of something immutable. Instead of under-farming or over-farming an area, I’ll work it until it’s clear of antagonists — what some might call a “genocide run,” if you will, though exterminating everything would have to include non-hostiles, and I’ve left merchants and other potential allies alone.

The downside to de-spawning is that some of the risk is gone. Leaving enemies behind means leaving souls behind, and since the total number of souls on the table has a ceiling, you’re inclined to grab them all before moving on. The last thing you want to do is stick your soul-laden neck into a newer, higher-difficulty area, only to lose a clutch of hard-earned souls for good. At risk of losing so much so permanently, you’ll hoard like you never had to in Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls: rarely venturing ahead, calculating the trajectory of level progression to ensure you’re spending every last soul on items or attributes, playing a hyper-cautious perfectionist game to avoid the hypothetical under-leveled, soul-exhausted nightmare scenario that could put you off playing further.

There are ways around this, or so I’m told. You can enlist others to help if you’re stuck, and I’m seeing something about a “bonfire ascetic” that supposedly restocks the creature pool, but I’m not sure where to get one and I’m told the re-spawns are twice as difficult, as if replaying the game at a higher difficulty setting.

But on balance, Dark Souls 2 forces you to care infinitely more about gleaning every last soul, the upside being a sense of structured progress that’s absent from the prior two games; the downside being a stronger sense of linearity coupled to even greater anxiety about throwing your play-through off the rails. In other words, the stakes are perhaps the highest they’ve ever been here, which is ironic considering all the worry some had about Dark Souls 2 dialing things down to expand its audience.

At this point, the game still seems to be “working” for me. I’m moving forward at a comfortable pace and finding the challenge feels about right. De-spawns also function as a sort of historical record of your play-style, each enemy decoupling from the world in tandem with your dispatch strategy. More remote enemies linger, say archers along battlements or enemies hidden in spots you take longer (and multiple bonfire rests) to find. Wrapping up an area reminds you how you went about prosecuting it, in other words.

The way my brain organizes information, I almost prefer this approach to Dark Souls‘ and certainly Demon’s Souls’. But ask me again in another 10 or 20 hours, after I’ve had a chance to throw down with some real troublemakers: I hear the three Ruin Sentinels in The Lost Bastille slot somewhere between extortionate and impossible.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

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