Thursday, February 20, 2014

How Respawn and Titanfall is a positive step in the right direction ...

For PC gaming, that is.

I've been a gamer for a long time. As long as I can remember back to messing around with an Atari 2600 to Colecovision.

In recent years, I transitioned from PC gaming to console gaming. It made sense at the time. The graphics were great, the community features and online aspects were strong plus "it just worked". There were no upgrades to deal with, drivers to mess with and again, everything was built in to the ecosystem.

One of the best things about consoles is the matchmaking system for multiplayer games. There are no server lists to dig through. It either did it in the background or it was host based which has it's own issues but matchmaking was a very simple affair. Either way, it tried it's best to set you up in the lowest latency/best connection and that was it. Combine that with VoIP/team chat enabled as long as you plug in a mic and you have an painless experience for the most part.

But things started to change.

The community changed which is going to be a given as the price of said systems dropped and more people started adopting it. But that wasn't the worst change. It was the rage quitters and the players who can't gracefully take a loss. That and silly initiatives like skill based matchmaking which is another issue entirely and should be saved for another post.

Rage quitting is a huge issue. More so with host based, multiple player scenarios. When a salty individual decides that he/she can't handle the beating, they opt to just quit out instead of trying harder or learning to play better. Not sure what the big deal is with taking a loss unless these "e-stats" that are recorded mean that much to that individual - which it shouldn't because those stats are technically useless because of the fact that they rage quit to save their stats ... 

Anyway, the ease and speed of host based matchmaking has that huge drawback of affecting every player in that match if the crybaby, who may happen to be the host at the time decide to "dashboard" or quit out of the match. Sometimes the game is smart enough to initiate a host migration but other times, you're dropped back to the matchmaking screen. So that's a disruptive event.

So what alternative is there? Server based matchmaking? The rage quitting issue is resolved but others are introduced. You sometimes can't insure that you'll be placed on the same team as your friend because a lot of the game servers aren't coded for that. It's just not set up that way and it never really was. And watch out when there is a "balancing" feature enabled. Chaos everywhere. 

I mean, look at the current top server based shooter (commercially) - Battlefield 4. You still can't form a party before starting a match and getting in to the same server is a crap shoot. Sadly, this is also the preferred method of PC matchmaking for competitive type gaming. So it's harder for me anyway to make "casual" nights for gaming with friends harder.

So ... to the meat of this post. What has Respawn done with Titanfall that is so different. It starts with having the ability to invite friends into a party so that everyone will end up on the same team in that party - every single time. But what they've also done is something interesting. They utilize matchmaking servers to set players and parties. Then they throw them onto server instances in Windows Azure - the "cloud" shit that Microsoft keeps on touting for Xbox One).

What Azure does is that, in theory, they spin up additional instances of servers depending on the need at the moment. There are no dedicate server constantly up. It's all based on a pool system. So if there are less players, those instances should spin down. More players, instances spin up. The HUGE benefit to this, as long as there is enough infrastructure, is that everything should be seamless and invisible to the player. There are no server addresses to remember. No coordinating of where to connect with friends. Friend join party, party leader launches matchmaking and boom, you're in a game.

Add to the fact that now, you don't need a Ventrillo or TeamSpeak server for game communication up (Google Hangouts or any of the other VoIP apps work GREAT!) ... Respawn and Titanfall is pulling me back into PC gaming. If this trend keeps up and other developers figure out how to use Azure or other cloud technologies for server and matchmaking management, I think my console time is going to diminish quite a bit. 

Hell, having Titanfall being that much of a better experience on PC than it's going to be on Xbox One also cements my choice of not purchasing a One in the foreseeable future.

Thanks Respawn. Keep up the good work. Don't bother looking into putting in kill streaks in Titanfall 2. Please stay the HELL away from death streaks.

Also, the beta was awesome as fuck. Seriously. Only found one real bug and that was a minor graphical issue that I'm sure will be resolved by launch. Most fun I've had on a FPS game since MW2. I can't wait till March 11th.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

CableCARDs, PCs and not leaving well enough alone (Project DVR - Part 2)

Now getting a CableCARD can be a struggle in itself. It took 3 calls and 2 trips out by "technicians" to finally have a CableCARD activated. I hope your experience was better than mine.

Getting it all working was another issue altogether.

Biggest hurdle was getting the HDHomeRun Prime to recognize and find all the channels. My cable provider (TWC NYC) requires a Switched Digital Video (SDV) adapter to access all the channels with a CableCARD. Without the SDV, the HDHomeRun Prime would recognize probably 2/3s of the channels. Problem was that initially, the SDV wouldn't find any channels at all. This was because of the instructions from almost every SDV provider and device that requires it. This is why ...

Almost every diagram states the same. Wall to SDV tuning adapter, out from cable adapter to CableCARD device and USB from SDV to CableCARD device. Problem is, this didn't work for me. As soon as I connected it this way, it failed miserably. The signal to noise ratio was awful - from high 90s percent of signal off the wall to low 60s off the SDV.

Whatever I tried didn't work. Then I finally came across a different diagram.

And this indeed did work. It seems that the SDV only needs coax connection to receive channel data and out how to tune into the channels but it didn't pass any information from the cable out, only through the USB connection. So with a splitter and the HDHomeRun setup like the diagram above, everything ran perfectly.

The PC on the other hand was relatively simple to setup. Had an old PC that was just laying around that wasn't in use so I put it back into service. Only thing I had to do was purchase another video card because I didn't have a HDMI connection. Installed a fresh copy of Windows 7, configured Media Center and it wham, working DVR. Xbox 360s connected to that PC as extenders without any issues.

The bigger issue is that I can't leave well enough alone. Everything was working and there were zero hiccups. But I just had to slap this thing on out of curiosity.

I've had a Kill-a-Watt for ages because I used to run a lot of computers before and I got curious about how much electricity I was wasting away with my labs. But since I was planning on leaving this PC on 24/7 to act as a DVR, I wanted to know how much this PC was going to suck up. And the truth wasn't pretty.

It was in the 120-130 watt range. I'm no eco-fanatic but I understand that in the long run, this is going to ding my wallet. Hell, my current "gaming" PC idles at 60 watts (yeah, I had to check that too) and I don't leave that on all the time. So I started thinking about alternatives and how to replace this aging PC with something more efficient.

This is were the snowballing began ...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

DVRs - Or another idea that snowballed into a project ... (Project DVR - Part 1)

Now, this post isn't for the "cord cutters". If you're one of the many that were able to remove TV services and go OTA/Internet for everything, kudos to you! As for myself, I still need the occasional instant gratification of having all of those channels and nothing to watch.

So like many, I was using a DVR supplied by the cable company. You know, one of these.

It was there and it did it's job for the most part. Well, when it didn't reboot itself randomly when I tried to watch TV or other odd issues that required a forced restart. Then one morning, it started making a noise that I'm quite familiar with ...

The clicking sound of a hard drive ready to give up the ghost.

Hard drives do fail in time. Some sooner, some later. But this was the second time the hard drive failed in one of these DVRs that I could remember whereas not one (*knocking furiously on wood*) of my personal hard drives has failed in any of my devices. It doesn't help that the hard drives on these DVRs are parallel units capped at like 80GB which translates to barely any storage for High Definition recording. While it did have an eSATA port, if one of these DVRs did fail and I reconnected an external drive into the replacement DVR, it formatted the external drive immediately instead of using the available space and saving the recordings that were already on that drive. Plus, after trying out FiOS at a friends place, I realized that the electronic program guide on these units were ridiculously slow and kludgy.

After realizing all of that, I opted to see how much I was paying for this awful box and figure out if there were alternatives. What I found out was a bit surprising.

Per month, it costs $8.41 to rent the box and remote. Which really isn't much considering that they do replace if it does fail. But there was another line item in my bill that caught my attention - DVR Service $12.95.  This wasn't a huge surprise since I've seen that line item before but after scrutinizing my bill because of shoddy hardware, it was costing me $21.43 to have the additional privilege to record shows besides the cost to watch it live. Not cool. It was definitely time to look into alternatives.

Alternative #1 - TiVo

I've had friends and coworkers that really liked their TiVo units. But the initial cost is a bit high because I would've opted for a TiVo Roamio Plus for multiroom capabilities. That and there is a monthly subscription cost associated with the TiVo service which didn't appeal to me.

Alternative #2 - DIY DVR

There are various CableCARD units that will work with a PC to transform it into a DVR. Cost varies depending on how many streams it can handle at once but it ranges from anywhere between $150-$300. No additional monthly costs but you would need to supply a PC.

Both options will require a CableCARD which costs $2.50 a month (TWC NYC) which is easier to accept than $9.

I opted for a SiliconDust HDHomeRun PRIME because it was magically on sale for $99 during Christmas. To be honest, I was going to just replace the DVR set top with another one from the cable company till the SiliconDust happened to drop in price. The timing on that email from Woot was perfect and I had a spare PC just sitting around so I decided to try building my own DVR.

From there, the it was all pretty much downhill. Which I will get to another day.