Seems like Sony likes to sit tight where they are

Sony’s Andrew House doesn’t really seem to get the Switch. It’s nothing new to see an industry member or a someone from media to compare handheld consoles to smart phones despite the two being in different markets. House’s claim that the Vita somehow lost its footing in the market place due to the changes in consumer preference for mobile devices has no basis, despite Bloomberg showing a graph of PSP’s and Vita’s waning sales. Correlation does not imply causation. It is far more likely that the PSP and Vita began losing its sales due to lack of software being presented. This is nothing new either, sadly, as game companies tend to begin moving towards their next generation consoles both in hardware and software.

House seems to correlate Vita’s lack of sales to the aforementioned trend. However, this is was not the case of the 3DS, which saw some rise in sales after its library got stronger. Funny how the 3DS seemed so weak compared to the robust Vita, but things turned completely other way around. The words House chooses to emphasize in the interview give off an impression that the Switch might have a market in the future. What he is missing is that the Switch has a robust demand and market now. Whether or not the Switch will keep it successful trend is dependent on how Nintendo will continue marketing it. If they decide to go the N64 and GameCube way, they’ll have another Wii U in their hands. Going for the NES, SNES and Game Boy route will yield them another DS/Wii. The Wii was supposed to be a passing trend, but in the end it sold hotcakes and everybody and their mother had a Wii. That’s a market that could be easily taken advantage of, if people were to make proper software.

Switch may have not impacted Sony’s sales, as House claims, but the same was said about the DS not impacting the PSP’s sales. Then again, House probably means that the Switch’s sales numbers don’t seem to affect PS4’s sales. The Vita is dead, Nintendo effectively has a market monopoly in the handheld console market. That is what the DS’ sales did to Sony’s handheld consoles. Of course, the Vita seems marginal success in Japan and other Asian countries, thought that’s not an oddity in itself. Japanese electronics companies do have some tendencies of offering support to long obsoleted devices within the nation itself, seeing how the market is smaller than what it is worldwide.

Nintendo’s bet, as Bloomberg puts it, for the hybrid console market as been a success thus far. As said, it’s only up to Nintendo take advantage of its current installation base to expand onward. The situation is much like it was with the DS after its first unsuccessful year (before Nintendo turned the machine into a money printing beast), but 2017 Nintendo is not the same one they were decade and then some ago.

If Andrew House says Sony hasn’t seen the hybrid market a big opportunity, that may give more insight how the company isn’t all too keen on expanding its market. Certainly they are in a nice position of having die-hard fans and general consumers who like the games that are on PS4, but most of them are on other platforms as well, lessening the console’s unique value. Sony’s emphasize of their home console being the central point to their other home entertainment devices is nothing new. Both Sony and Microsoft emphasized how the X360 and PS3 were home media centers. Virtual Reality has been largely a bust thus far with little to no impact on consumer markets. VR comes and goes. It’s always said that the tech is no better than last time around, but the software are still the same and offer no real value for the money needed.

Though it must be said that Sony should be able to juggle this sort of approach. They used to be the brand when it came to consumer electronics, be it music, video or whatnot. However, how consumer electronics are nowadays, with all of Sony’s products being matched in quality and beaten by lower price, one has to wonder how they’re floating around the way they are now. Maybe everything manages to scratch enough money to make their business profitable, but gaming has taken far too much attention from everywhere else from them. Well, PlayStation as a home media center.  Even the PlayStation’s success is rather weird in hindsight. It wasn’t until the DS and the Wii when Sony’s console saw striking competition. Xbox has been largely a failure, for the better or worse, and with the careful positive outlook of macro-economics we have going on right now, maybe Sony has been able to sail the right kind of currents to hits the right spots with their machine and marketing, and been able to secure better libraries. That is, until the DS and Wii decimated and expanded the market on their own.

The Switch clearly has a demand and that demand must be satiated. Hybrid market will only grow. I was part of the hybrid market when the DS was released with the question Why would we need home consoles when portable consoles are doing good enough graphics as is?  I’ve yet to pick up a Switch of my own, but whenever I get one, you can expect a design review on it. The question What will Sony do next? has been asked few times around, but the answer seems to be The same thing we always do. This may not be as sustainable as Sony might want to believe. Maybe their best bet could be to take this home entertainment connection thing to the Nth degree and play the role of some sort Japanese equivalent of Apple in lifestyle electronics department. Their designs already zig where Apple’s zags, so the hardest part is done, right? Nevertheless, Playstation’s future is not guaranteed if Sony won’t take it outside the readily made box. Vita should’ve taught them something about this already, but no. Whatever PlayStation 5 will be in the end, it should expand further away from the living room. Maybe going to the extreme lengths to make PlayStation de facto home entertainment hardware by incorporating everything they have to some extreme degree. Of course, all this would be at the expense of it being a game system, but that’s secondary as it is at best currently.

Electronics don’t really like the cold

Recently I’ve had some car troubles. Well, I always I always have in some form, but when the car you’re driving decides to leave you standing in the yard of your customers’ factory, then something is wrong.

Living in a colder region of the world has its share of problems when it comes to modern day products. The amount of electronics that are put into anything nowadays is rather mind boggling. Cars are a good example how a simple product is filled with unnecessary electronics, relatively speaking. I can’t state that driving computers, power steering, ABS system and Lord knows what else is standard nowadays in cars, as those are things most customers seem to want. What I can state is that when the car has relies far too greatly on the electronics to function, then there needs to be a concern about different climates during the very design process of the car.

Middle-European car designers don’t really think of other regions than their own while designing a car, or at least so it seems from a northerner’s point of view. When I was in a driving school, I noticed that most cars at the time were well sealed, were warm to drive and had little to no troubles in starting. This was because most of them were automatic and less reliant on the driving computer. Nowadays the standard has changed that every car has a driving computer. This poses a problem, and as I was being towed away, the tow truck driver did slip information how most of the jobs they have during coldest frosts are cars with high amount of electronics. That, and the occasional people who have driven out of road into a snow bank.

It is true that not all cars fit every environment. They can be modified and adapted for sure, but that’s often extremely expensive. Sometimes regional laws may prevent you from even making some of the needed modifications. I know that local laws are so strict that deviating from the factory-ready models can’ really be changed. Some people have troubles with the legality of imported cars and I know few cases where a person had to fight against the government to get his German car noted street legal due to some minor differences between the local and German variants.

There used to be a saying that a Lada will start even in -40 Celsius around here. This doesn’t apply anymore, as even Russian cars have become more or less electronics driven. The market for cold region cars exists for sure and it is explored without a doubt, however I have always felt that having your driving computer to freeze and making the car a huge pile useless scrap has always been a mistake in the design of the cards. The electronics have become an irreplaceable part of the cars themselves, and if they fail the cars usually lock themselves down. I would imagine that a certain degree of separation between the digital and analog parts of the cars should exist, where you could have the driving computer utterly fail and still be able to drive the car just fine. Without some of the smart systems, but it’s never the computer that drive the car; it’s the driver. Much like in Zone of the Enders, it’s the Runner and not the Frame.

One could argue that cars have become too electronic and that nowadays the Joe Everybody can’t really go in and fix these things by himself without any specific tools. More often than not I hear that somebody needs to reset a car’s driving computer so it shows no errors. I was taught by my neighbour some car mechanics 101, but nowadays those are somewhat moot as you can barely lift the hood without the car going berserk. Actually, I know a case where two different sensor would prevent the car from running. This is because one temperature sensor is near engine oil that is heated via wall socket, and the other has no pre-heatable components near it. The driver has a cold spray with him in the car so that he can cool down the heated sensor. This sort of thing is absolutely stupid and unforgivable from consumer standpoint.

Then there’s the whole thing that batteries seem to hate cold places with a passion. There are stories about the frost shortening the life or even killing all sorts of batteries. I can say that this is true, as experience has taught me that certain batteries just can’t stand negative degrees. However, if you hold pocket electronics inside your jacket and near your body, they shouldn’t experience the cold. Still, using an iPhone or any other smarts electronics that is easy to damage anyway isn’t really recommended. Ultimately, cold climate demands robust design coupled with somewhat low level but well designed products, not the likes that consume the battery even when shut down.

I have a bias against cars with high amount of electronics. I prefer manual cars over automatic in real life and most of my driving life I drove a Ford Escort mk4. It was a rough car that required the driver to be able to handle its somewhat stiff steering. The time had done its deed to it as well as the trunk door didn’t keep itself up anymore, the seats were well loved and the gear shaft didn’t recognize the positions all that well. Nevertheless, it was a car that responded to the driver’s skills and intentions very well and the driver knew everything the Ford was doing. No bullshit suspension or power steering here, sometimes it felt like driving a tractor on an icy road. Many times I was able to save the car from a crash because I could tell how the car behaved because there was nothing in between me and and the wheels. This doesn’t apply to cars with ABS systems or other stuff. The electronics are in-between the driver, and driving an automatic makes me feel like I’m playing OutRun arcade cabinet with an actual danger. It’s a horrible feeling when you realize how little control you have over the car your driving when you switch from the Escort mk4 to any automatic. No longer I could tell what the car was doing or thinking, which meant that I had learn the finer aspects of driving an automatic car.

On game controllers

When we think what goes into designing a modern game controller, the one thing we must consider is ergonomics. Ergonomics is the beginning and the end with a controller, and you’d think there would be one definitive controller, but alas that’s not true. There is no one perfect controller for everybody to use, as opinions change just as often as hand structures. Thus, the more shapely controllers get, the more the designers need to pay attention to the common elements in human hands. Size has been an issue at times, like with the original Xbox controller. Often you hear comparisons between Japanese and Western sizes, where Japanese have smaller controllers that don’t fit into the Westerns’ big damn hands.

The main thing with any controller, be it specialised or not, is that anyone could pick it up and understand how to use it. Modern controllers have evolved into button monsters, where people can feel overwhelmed by the amount of buttons and their core functions. This is an actual problem, as games have grown in complexity but with no real good reason. One can argue for the dual stick controls, but that is just poor man’s version of mouse and keyboard. If you look at the modern controllers, they all share the exact same layout and core shape. There is no true distinction in them outside detailing, like how the D-Pad was awful on the Xbox 360 controller. The Wii Remote is exception to the rule, but now even the N3DS Flanders uses the standard layout with slight modification with the C-nub.

I argue for four basic controller progenitors. The First is the Tennis for Two, which evolved into the Pong controls we all know and love. Spacewar was controlled with two levers, and its two arcade variants in 1971 saw both a button based controller on Computer Space and something that resembles an arcade stick in Galaxy Game. WASD is pretty much an ascendant of your normal keyboard and the arcade layouts used. Then you have the Game & Watch, with the first real D-Pad combined with a button. Any and all modern controllers are direct ascendants of the Game & Watch combined with the levers in form of the sticks. Of course, you have the gun and racing wheel controllers, but there are more or less simple adaptation from controls outside of gaming. It’s funny to think how CAPCOM’s Steel Battalion controller is basically a huge arcade controller for home use for one game. The Steel Battalion controller has become one of the last of its kind, as we’re seeing less and less special controllers made for consoles. most third party controllers don’t even vary the shape of the controller, even f they may shuffle the button placements a little bit. Hori has a controller designed for FPS games, where the sticks and face buttons have changed places as well as the six face buttoned fighting game controller I’ve reviewed in the past. That controller still works just fine.

When you consider portable consoles, they have to conform with portability and ergonomics. In a sense, they’re as flat controller as you can get with a screen bolted to them. The PSP is a good example of this. There’s some nice examples how to add a level of ergonomics to the console, like in GameBoy Colour where you find Nintendo using the battery cover to add some grasping area to the unit. The GBA, PSP and PSVita all use curved sides to encourage certain style of grip on the unit, leading the fingers into proper positions. However, any version of the 3DS feels off because it lacks support to the hands while expecting the user to handle it like any other modern controller. The 2DS had less of a problem with this mainly because of its lighter weight. To be honest, the PSVita as well suffers from the weight. Weight is an issue that the designers should address further, as lighter weight allows the user to handle the controls in whatever way they wish. GameBoy Micro, albeit somewhat poor in the ergonomics department just like the Game Boy Advance SP, is extremely handy device due to its size and weight. This is one of the reasons why the modern controllers have become such ergonomics monsters; it’s much easier to hold something with heft when it falls into your hands, but it also locks you into one usable position, and to the one controller. Buying a new controller is a dread nowadays, as they’re expensive as all hell. I remember back in the day when you could buy a controller with a hundred Finnish marks, or just under twenty euros. Now be prepared to dosh out sixty to seventy euros, or in the Wii U’s case, some hundred and fifty euros.

Perhaps the current controller reflect the modern game design. A lot to see, little to play.

This post was originally supposed to be a preface to a controller review, but it kept growing in size, so I decided it to give its own spot.

Music of the Month; Ritmica Ostinata

This December we’ll avoid using the Christmas-y music I’ve been aiming here and there a we return to something more brassy; Akira Ifukube’s Ritmica Ostinata.

The last few months have been rocky to say the least. There was a lot of… mishaps first of all with increasing amounts of deadlines, and then my main desktop broke down, forcing me to get a whole rig that has been running pretty decently for a time now. There was also a death in the family, which kind of forced me to stop everything I had planned, thus pushing planned things back as well as just dropping some altogether due to all the lost time.

Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to get my editor run the blog for the time I needed to get things sorted out. Not all the plans are abandoned, their timings have just been thrown out of the window. That’s life to you.

There’s going to be few things left for me to do outside the Internet that are keeping me busier than I’d like to be, which means that some weeks may see a post break. Then there’s this small thing that yours truly is going to Scotland in mid-January to study industrial design for around a half year, so updates will get somewhat uncommon. I intend to find another person to keep this site up with me, so the flow won’t be cut too much. However, just like with everything, there are obstacles in this, mostly in that finding the right person is insanely hard.

Have you noticed how similar the Xbone and PS4 ultimately look like? They both are split into and share sort of chocolate piece look, and their main colour is black out of all. Without their few details, they’d just be black blocks of plastic. They look decent, because they really don’t look like anything.  The NES was made to look like the entertainment electronics of the time, namely a VCR deck. The MegaDrive, SNES, Saturn and bunch of other consoles do not really look like run-of-the-mill appliances, which asks the question if modern game console design has gone insanely bland because nothing is designed to have shapes any more? Of course, the 00’s and by extension, the 10’s have been very sleek, no-nonsense looks and surfaces, a thing that Apple started.  I can’t say that I personally like it, as that kind of design is rather easy to do. iPhone’s design is pretty… well, the design it has is there to justify the phone looks. That’s it. So, does the same apply to Xbone and PS4?

No, because the question is unanswerable. We know what kind of basic design a phone should have in that it needs to sit well in your hand, is able to capture your voice clearly near your mouth and have a speaker you to hear from. That dictates the core design quite a lot, unless you want to be an asshole and make a three part phone. What kind of design is necessary for a game console, or any media device?  First of all, it needs to accept the media it’s designed around, like SD cards, USB sticks, discs or cartridges. Then you have the controller, which might or might not be a separate entity from the package, ie. cordless.

I was asked What are designers needed for? recently, and the question I provided was Designers are there to fulfil your needs.

A  designer is there to take a look how something works, observe its use, and then make it work better, faster, stronger, better. It would be a selfish thing just to do whatever you want, designer whatever you want, to whomever you want, whenever you want and disregard the reason a designer as a field exists.

As such, the answer how a game console should look is dictated by its function and use, and this is why game consoles, other entertainment machines and most household appliances are hard to design; if they don’t work as intended because of the design, they’re badly designed. I’m not talking about the looks here, but also about the functions; how well a machine vents air, how the casing shells the inside mechanisms and takes impacts and how well all of it comes together as a whole piece. Both SONY and Microsoft have been failing with their console design for some time now, and it’s because they haven’t paid attention to design of their products. The looks should come naturally from the core design, but I’m afraid that too many times the process if backwards, where the design and design come from separate origin. We can have design, but we don’t need design.

These two designs are two separate things that share the same name. The first one is what I answered, the one that dictates all and everything, and then we have the second, which is people splattering stuff somewhere in order of aesthetics and good looks. We call people who use the second design as artists for good reasons and only the Lord knows why they’re in a field where they are doing more disservice than anything else.

I’m just saying that the people who design the consoles have exactly one job, and there’s no defending the fact that they failed when a machine breaks down.

Now how did Microsoft manage to put millions of dollars into the development of the Xbone controller? I have no idea, but all they had to do was to fix the D-Pad and they would have been ready to go. Ergonomics is a well researched field, and human hands haven’t manage to evolve into a new shape within a decade, so fixing what wasn’t broken seems to be the wrong thing to do. Then again, Microsoft is seeking to gain more profits from keeping you re-using any 360 gadgets with the Xbone. Sometimes it just seems they’re making new shit up just to justify the existence of any design department in any corporation.

A matter of quality

There’s always a question of quality when it comes to products whether or not we speak of artists or craftsmen. Quality is the universal measure that ultimately decides whether or not something is going to become a success of sorts.

This isn’t really the case.

How quality is measured is up to the individual customer. As a rule of thumb we can say that a certain level of quality will always succeed, whereas far too high quality will sell less, as will too low quality.

Let me use VHS, LaserDisc and BetaMAX as an example of this. The VHS had the worst quality out of the three in sound and in picture. BetaMAX was superior, and LaserDisc was even better. VHS was good enough in quality, and offered other things that were better in quality, such as price and availability. Low price is always better in quality than high price, and larger stocks are better quality than small stocks. That, and all the best films and series was were released on VHS.

In portable electronicscustomers value long battery life. If a product consumes batteries in a slow pace then it’s considered to be pretty good in quality. WonderSwan, a handheld game console from Bandai, managed to last around 24-26h with one AA battery. That’s something to strive for. Naturally, WonderSwan’s quality, as with any game console, lies in the games provided.

For media equipment this is the measure of quality; can it do the job for you? Will it be able to fulfil what you want to do with the machine? This is a question that haunts anyone who is going to buy a new a computer. Should they go for a Windows based PC or a Macintosh? Should they learn Linux or some other other OS instead? What programs will be there for them, will there be a large software support for the OS and so forth.

Windows is regarded as a high quality OS because of its versatility and how standard it is. You can safely jump from version to version and get hang ofthe new versions safely. Sadly, Windows 8 abandoned this altogether and I can see a lot of people and companies jumping over Windows 8 if there won’t be any proper and fundamental changes in how it’s usability works.

Macintosh machines work well for what they’re intended for. Personally they do not allow me the freedom I want on any level, so for me a Mac has a lower level of quality. If you prefer Mac, then more power for you. Just don’t come up to my face and start spouting that it’s the superior choice.

In film and animation the quality of the product can be measured on many levels; story, visuals, sound, acting etc. Much like with design and other creative industries, the only way to get a better quality product is to go through loads of experiences. A simple example would be a steel table; you can’t make the welding seams good if you don’t train your welding, and weak welding means a weak table. In animation you want to have people who have experience in animation to ensure the best possible product, but even then you need to take in newcomers to give them experience in the actual industry. The finalproduct might not be the best because of this, but you won’t get the best quality product in the future if you only have people who never had any actual experience.

Locally this is actually a pretty bad thing; most workplaces only take in people with experience, and you can’t really get any experience if you can’t get a workplace. It’s a vicious cyclethat should be stopped everywhere. Taking in few new workers would serve everybody’s interest, really.

You can see that quality isn’t something that’s set to stone from the get-go. There are things that do have a set standard (like a welding seam) but things like shape are completely abstract and vary from product to product and from user to user. For some a scene of animation might be bad quality, and for some standard quality.

We’ll be discussing Total Eclipse soon enough

The above, for some, is atrocious cell of animation. For some it looks like your modern TV-animation scene. I personally dig the light effect that’s going on.

While there are certain standards that do exist and are used to measure whatever, they only apply if the user, ie. the customer has the same set of values. Rarely dothe standards of industries and customers meet, even if the industry standardsshould be those of customerson appearance. Still, when talking of quality we do need to have those set standards in order to have a common ground, but even then we always deviate from those grounds because we do see things differently even from the same point of view. Just visit any game forum to witness this first hand.

The industries do have to think the standard of quality differently as well. Money is always one ofthe issues as arethe demands of the customers. Juggling between multiple issues to achieve the best possible product is no laughing matter. Sometimes there are customers whose voices need to be discarded in order to get the best mean quality possible. Serving everybody is an impossibility, and that’s why you need to aim to please as many as possible, even if its outside your own comfort zone.

Still, the last point is used as an excuse to do trophy products far too often, especially in the creative industries. Just because you can’t serve the 4/5 of the possible customer group, it doesn’t mean that you should only serve one fifth.

What is true quality is really hard to measure. Universal standards don’t seem to fit when we take individuals in account, and if we discard the individuals then the standards do not apply. Perhaps if we were cold logical machines we all could have those same standards of quality. It’s a richness that we are so different, and that richness makes things a bitch to make.