Gaming consoles going nowhere

A recent piece by Alex St. John, an ex-Microsoft worker who was deeply involved in making Windows the preferred platform for gaming back in the 90's and had his fingers in Direct-X and other technologies has predicted the demise of console gaming systems and the rise of PC gaming in the future. Some of you may remember as I do when he wrote a regular ranting but interesting column in the back of Boot magazine, destined to become Maximum PC.

Contrary to how you may interpret my title, and regardless of what you might read in discussions on Slashdot, I completely disagree for a few simple reasons.

First off, there's the fact that this has been predicted before and not been true. Back when Microsoft introduced the X-box gaming platform, it was trying to prove that PC gaming was as good or better than existing consoles for the same price and so the X-box was basically off-the-shelf PC parts assembled with some extra Copyright protection features to make it usable as a gaming system. It had a PC gaming video card, and a PC hard drive, a PC CPU and a PC-like motherboard with PC-standard USB and a PC-like disc drive, PC-style RAM and unfortunately for Microsoft, PC-like cost to build.

Microsoft lost a tonne of money making and delivering the X-box. When they brought out their quite famous second-generation system, the 360, they even completely ceased sales and support on their original system (unlike Sony with the PSOne and PS2). Although it played games reasonably well, and was a pretty good platform and system, and despite how they'd wooed PC game developers with Direct-X compatibility and an Intel CPU, the system simply wasn't a profitable way to do gaming (for Microsoft). As a testament to this truth, he 360 no longer bears almost any resemblance to its first generation's PC roots using a custom external power brick, a custom PowerPC-based CPU (as their competitors Nintendo and Sony do), and a completely overhauled memory and video architecture. The PC-branded-as-a-console was a financial disaster, and is gone.

So why would someone suddenly believe that a PC as a gaming system would now be more successful? More importantly, what really makes consoles successful? One of the big factors in a gaming console is stability. A game developer making a game for the PC targets a random point in the future, and doesn't know what PCs will be able to do. Their game may require huge new $1000 video cards to run (Crysis) or may look terrible (no comment). Users can't be certain of what they'll need to play the games, although the devout frequently lay out the price of a PS3 for a new video card regularly to keep up.

Console game designers have a fixed target. For example, the CPU and HD video card and DVD drive and unified RAM of the X-Box 360, or the Cell processor, HD video card, hard drive, Blu-ray disc, segregated RAM and motion sensitive controller of the PS3, or the CPU, SD video and motion sensing and pointer-like controller of the Wii. They pick a platform, know exactly what they're able to do and are able to perfectly test what the user's experience will be, and then attempt to deliver their game to that audience, knowing mostly what the audience's experience will be like, and not worrying about different capabilities of different 360s, PS3s, or different Wii systems being a problem like PC game developers do.

Now sure, there are advantages to PC game development, such as the constantly higher ceiling of power the systems have for you to work with as a developer. 512MB of RAM one year, 1GB the next, 2GB the next, and so on. There are PC game systems that support up to three video cards now running in parallel for unimaginable graphics power. But consider for a moment which horse you'd place your bets with -- those willing to keep their systems up to date constantly to play the newest games (not to mention dealing with Windows problems, viruses, etc.), or the number able to pick up a Wii controller and play any game they buy with no fuss.

I'm not saying the PC gaming market is going to cease to exist at all, in fact I think it will thrive, but it will become more and more of a niche market as online Java and Flash games take over the low-end and high-end games are only accessible to the most devout gamers while the bulk of games will continue to be produced for gaming consoles of various types.


Make money off your blog

I posted recently about using Haloscan's trackback feature on Blogger without all the extras like comments and reviews. What I find even more people are interested in doing is trying to make some extra money on the side, or even have a profitable website or blog. The easiest ways to earn money off your blog or website would be to accept donations, charge for access, use advertising or some combination of the above.

If your blog or website is already popular and content-rich enough to warrant charging for access, you probably wouldn't be reading this, and begging for donations isn't exactly hard, so I'll be focusing on the third option which is using advertising for revenue.

Adding advertising to your blog shouldn't be difficult, and it isn't. The hard way would be to go out and find advertisers interested in putting ads on your blog or website. The smart way would be to have a personal advertising agent who goes and does this leg work for you. The best would be if this agent were completely automated. That agent would be Google AdsenseTM.

Google AdsenseTM has been around for a while now and is both very easy to sign up for and quite easy to use. In fact, the link to the left for Adsense is itself an Adsense ad inserted into this post with some simple cut'n'paste. With the exception of referrals like that one, what makes Google AdsenseTM so interesting is that the ads are automatically chosen for your website based on your site's content as indexed by Google itself. That is to say, if your website is primarily about cars, your ads will probably be about car products. If your site is about gardening, you'll find the ads are relevant to that audience as well. So how do we put some ads up on our site?

The first thing you need to do is visit their site and sign up. If you have an existing Google account for some other purpose, you can simply use that. Once you've signed up, you'll need to start creating ads that you want to place on your blog or website. When you create ads with Adsense (click 'adsense setup' and then 'get ads', then I recommend 'content' ads for the sake of this discussion), you simply choose a colour scheme (either a pre-made one or a custom one of your choosing) and a size and shape of ad. Since Google AdsenseTM will be filling in the advertiser content automatically from your content, you do not choose the ads themselves, but a shape of space much like renting out a billboard on the side of a highway.

Pick a size and shape that suits the spot you have in mind for placing an ad. Lets say a wide leaderboard ad for the top of your site or a tower ad for the right column like my other blog uses. Once you've created the ad, you will be asked about channels (don't worry about that for now) and then given a piece of HTML code in a little window to cut and paste into your website in the appropriate place.

If you're using Blogger or some other online blog editor, click the 'edit html' option or 'add html' on the layout editor, find a spot where you want the ad to show up, and just paste the code you got in there on a new blank line or in the space provided. If you're accustomed to HTML editing, you can wrap that with a DIV tag or something to place it specifically somewhere else. There, you've added a potential revenue source to your blog already.

"But wait," you say, "I don't see an ad when I look at my website!" No, you probably won't right away. If your blog is new, give it a day or two for Google to index it and figure out what to place there. If you've just created a new Adsense ad type and inserted a new code, it may not show anything for a short while. Don't worry, it should start working within an hour or two. Good luck and hopefully you can earn some money off your site. When you're ready, you can ad some more to your layout (presently up to four standard ads and four text link ads per page) or read some of the Adsense guides and help documents for more information about monetizing your site.

As a final note, in case you didn't read the terms of service on the adsense site when you signed up, you should never click your own ads on your site. That can lead to Google shutting off your account for 'cheating'. Any other questions? Put them in the comments below and I'd be glad to respond to any I can.

See also:


Using Haloscan Trackbacks

Trackbacks are a very cool feature that allow bloggers to essentially reply to an original blog post with a new post of their own. Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't natively support trackback links or trackback pings yet, but there's a free third-party option through Haloscan. Unfortunately for those who prefer Blogger's built-in commenting system, Haloscan's automatic installation option replaces the comments with its own when installing its trackback feature. There are several links on how to get around this using 'old blogger', but after much fiddling it is also possible to do it on 'new blogger' as I've done on my other blog. What you need to do is get into your blogger dashboard and then click Layout next to your blog. Now click the Edit HTML option. At this point you should click on Download Full Template and save it somewhere safe so you can get it back if you screw it all up trying to follow my directions. Once you have it safely saved, click on the checkbox next to Expand Widget Templates and wait for the page to finish refreshing. At this point you want to search for something that looks like:


  <div id='outer-wrapper'>
Just above the </head> "tag", paste the following, replacing myhaloscanname with your Haloscan account name:
<!-- for haloscan trackback -->
<script src='http://www.haloscan.com/load/myhaloscanname'
 type='text/javascript' />
Now you want to scroll down and find (or use your browser's search/find feature to find):
<span class='post-comment-link'>
Immediately after the above, before any other tag begins (tags begin with those angle brackets), paste the following:

<a class='comment-link'
 + data:post.id
 + "/"' expr:onclick='"HaloScanTB(" + "\""
 + data:post.id + "\"" + ");return false;"'>
Again, replace myhaloscanname above with your Haloscan user account name. If you paste it exactly there, exactly as shown above, and you're very lucky and have a similar template to the one I'm using, it should work just fine. You'll end up with a trackback link for each post, much like on my primary blog. See also: Good luck, and if you have any comments or suggestions, please leave them below.


Technological border safety

If you haven't crossed the border lately or read some articles by people who have, you need to realize that a few things have changed since the care-free 80's and 90's. Despite the lack of proof that these systems work at all, border officials now have more rights in many cases than the police do. They can search your possessions without a warrant or suspicion and detain you without a lawyer. Many people have written about the phenomenon and I'm not going to expound on it at all here, except to point out that CNet has written a short but excellent article about keeping your laptop's data secure while crossing the border and dealing with underpaid overstressed border officials. From their article:

The information security implications are worrisome. Sensitive business documents can be stored in computers; lawyers may have notes protected by the attorney-client privilege; and journalists may save notes about confidential sources. Regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and Gramm-Leach-Bliley may apply. A 2006 survey of business travelers showed that almost 90 percent of them didn't know that customs officials can peruse the contents of laptops and confiscate them without giving a reason.
They recommend various levels of encryption depending on your needs, as well as giving links to actual software for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. Do remember if you decide to encrypt your laptop that border officials may request that you boot the laptop to prove its not a bomb. Make sure you have a way of legitimately booting it without divulging the very passwords and data you're trying to protect. Personally speaking, I refuse to enter the United States any time soon because I actually value my personal rights here in Canada and hope my American friends to the south come back to their senses soon.

Understanding point releases

The computer industry has been using a strange form of decimal numbering for versioning for some time now. You may remember or have heard of Windows 3.0, 3.1 then 3.11 being released for example. If you click on "Help" then "About" in most any Windows program, you'll find a very long release version number somewhere in that display that explains exactly which copy of the software you're running. These version numbers are frequently misunderstood, such as when Sony recently released firmware version 2.17 for the Playstation3. The PS3's previous version also being in the 2.1x series, there was some confusion amongst Playstation Blog readers about why major new features (such as "in-game XMB") weren't included.

What usually happens is that you get a version number like "3.4.6" or sometimes just "3.46". Sometimes a unique serial number is also stuck in there, but we'll ignore that for now. What you need to realize is this is not a standard decimal number in terms of counting. Many "number values" will be skipped in an average software project's lifetime. You'll go from 2.0 to 2.01 to 2.5 to 3.0. This is because of what the digits represent.

Major releases are characterized by the number before the decimal. When it changes, it is often to represent a major change in functionality or some other significant difference. In the case of rarely updated software, you may see a version change from 1.00 to 2.00 for example. What if the software simply underwent a cosmetic change though? You've taken a video game for example and not changed anything but added some online leaderboards. That may be represented by a minor number change -- when the first digit after the decimal changes, such as from 2.00 to 2.10. This may look like 2.0.0 to 2.1.0 but many software makers leave out the second decimal place for one reason or another.

Very minor patches such as a small bugfix with no real change in functionality are marked by a numbering change on the final digit such as 2.15 to 2.16. You may have fixed the balancing of knives versus swords in your online RPG, or added a sorting feature to those leaderboards, nothing really significant to most people. In that case the final digit is updated to show that although its a different version, is barely any different than the one before it.

Also note that you may not see these numbers in a direct sequence as update versions may never hit the public (there may be a 2.07 that was wrapped into a 2.10 release for example instead of being released on its own). You may have been ready with the aforementioned 2.16 release for adding a sort feature to the leaderboards but it turns out the company has several other bugfixes and they're going to roll them all into a 2.20 release instead.

Hopefully that makes some sense out of the issue for you, and although these aren't hard and fast rules, they are frequently true when you see a version number.


Tag those pictures

I take a lot of pictures and upload them to Flickr for others to see. I always make sure to tag them with appropriate labels so that people can find more pictures of, for example Toronto or weddings. This makes finding them easier for me and for others. Google has been indexing photos and images for a few years now and has quite a collection but there's a problem of how to search for pictures using a search engine when most photos don't exactly have labels or keywords attached to them. Well, like some other interesting uses of free human potential, Google has set up a little game of sorts called the Image Labeler where you and a partner to whom you're assigned randomly see pictures flash up on the screen and type in all the label keywords you can think of appropriate to that image. When the two of you come up with a matching word, you're scored on the conciseness of that word and a new image appears. Its actually interesting to try and come up with the most accurate and descriptive words possible for high point values and at same time manage to come up with the same word as your partner did so you can score points (unmatched labels go unused). The result is that Google benefits from both additional tags to the images that you suggest for their indexing purposes and also the high likelihood that the labels assigned are accurate based on two random strangers both coming up with the same words. Go give it a try, there's a couple scoreboards to see how many points you can get compared to others.


Axis of Evil: Sony vs. Microsoft

I don't think any two technology companies have taken as much flak in my lifetime as Sony and Microsoft. Sony and Microsoft are both huge corporations with a large workforce and a very broad product base. While Sony is an older company, Microsoft has grown very rapidly and made its own enemies even faster in my opinion. Now each seems to earn their own fair share of criticism for perfectly valid reasons. The DOJ's case against Microsoft for anti-trust behaviours lead to a findings of fact that included a number of corporate sins against competitors, partners and consumers alike. Sony has historically promised more than they can deliver with their electronics products and has a bad habit of leaving consumers high and dry with obsolete and unsupported hardware. What gets to me is how some people (and in my experience, its often gamers) will grow a specific bias toward or against one company or the other because of past transgressions that have nothing to do with the product at hand. For example, some people wouldn't buy a PlayStation 3 over an XBox 360 because Sony's Beta and Minidisc formats faded into obscurity in their view. Others swing the other way and won't touch an XBox because they don't like the Windows operating system. Sure, within the music listening populace, Sony Music made some enemies putting DRM functionality on some of its CDs that used rootkit software (which is bad), but they fixed it and backed away from that mistake after being called on it. The Sony PS3 on the other hand allows users to rip CDs to its hard drive and even share them with memory sticks or USB drives. Microsoft has a history of being involved in really draconian DRM systems as well. Their own PlaysForSure music won't play on their newer Zune products (ironic, considering the original name). My advice is to look at the actual capabilities of a system you're interested in. If you're worried about sponsoring a company that's "evil" at a corporate level, feel free to protest with your wallet become a monk or go join an anti-technology religious community because otherwise you'll go crazy trying to make product decisions. If you want to know which of those systems I prefer, feel free to stick around for another instalment, I'm sure it'll come up eventually.