Kindle Fire, 3 months later

Back in November, I posted about my initial experiences with my Kindle Fire. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep it, but either I liked it or I was too lazy to return in. So now, 3 months later, I’d like to write an update about my impressions.

First of all, Amazon has released several updates to the software already, I counted at least 3 (which is about 3 more updates every other Android device receives, but that’s another topic). Right now, I’m on version 6.2.2.

The good

Overall, responsiveness has improved a lot. It’s still nowhere near perfect though, but it’s a lot better than the initial 6.1 Firmware.

Then, we finally got Full Screen Video on the Netflix app. The mandatory 20 pixel grey line is finally gone! I don’t know if Amazon changed their API to allow it or if it’s Netflix that had to change, but in any case, it’s a big improvement!

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(Unrelated but important: Netflix has Xena The Warrior Princess on instant streaming!)

The browser now has a full screen mode as well, although here you still have the 20px bar.

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The Amazon store experience is quite nice, being able to purchase Music, have it on the cloud drive immediately and optionally download it over WiFi works well. Amazon Instant Video has a few things neither Netflix nor Hulu Plus have (They have Caddyshack, and I’m not to proud to admit I like that movie!), so for me as an Amazon Prime member it’s a really nice plus. Same for the Book Lending feature.

The still bad

The Keyboard has an auto-correct feature that automatically corrects words. You can not disable auto-correct. I realize the Kindle Fire is a device for consumption rather than creation of content (the same was said about the iPad, but on the Kindle it actually applies), but it surely would be nice to write technical or fictional documents without the device constantly trying to “correct” spellings. The settings menu offers a way to disable Quick Fixes, but that is an entirely different feature altogether.

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(Pressing the space bar will replace “hobbin” with “bobbin”, and you can not disable this feature. Have fun writing a fictional or technical document with that.)

The Music section doesn’t handle large collections well. I have about 7000 songs in my cloud drive, and often when I tap a song I get the wrong one, possibly because some index isn’t synchronized properly. Also, the shuffle seems to be capped at 2000 songs. I don’t know if that means the random songs only come out of those 2000 or if it’s a mere display issue. Still, more polish would be better, there is plenty of free space to cache the entire song list.

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You can’t change the background image of the lock screen. You still can’t take screenshots, although a device that doesn’t have physical buttons would have a hard time offering that feature. Pressing the power button for a long time and getting asked “Screenshot, Shut Down or Cancel?” would be pretty much the only option, and it’s an option I’d like. The carousel still sucks. Android applications are for the most part garbage, and the Free App a Day highlights that beautifully. Airport Mania 2 is awesome though, you should buy it!

There are still no Twitter or Facebooks apps. You can argue that a device without a camera or microphone doesn’t really benefit from apps and that the mobile websites are good enough, and for the most part the are. If you can live with the fact that they are slow as hell, because every action requires a roundtrip through the internet.

There is not a big emphasis on developers. They do have a development blog, but their offering to interested developers still contain of a FAQ page which tells you to use Android SDK Version 2.3.4, a version that doesn’t exist in the Android Dev tools. Also, to get ADB running you have to manually edit a bunch of files, outlined in their PDF instructions. Apps clearly isn’t a Focus for Amazon, otherwise we would already have a all-in-one Kindle Fire developer Package with a customized Eclipse, the correct SDK, working ADB Drivers and a set of development Guidelines on how to develop a Kindle Fire Application.

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(Amazon says I should use Android 2.3.4 (API Level 10). That version doesn’t exist, so I hope 2.3.3 has all the features I need?)

Overall

I use my Kindle Fire a lot. My iPad is lying around idly most of the time, mainly because the 7” form factor of the Fire is so much more portable. The Cloud Drive Music player is overall a decent experience, and finally having full screen Netflix is great. Also, reading on the screen is surprisingly good – I no longer feel to also carry my Kindle 4 with me to read a book.

For consumption of Media, it’s worth the $200. For creation of media, it still holds nothing against the iPad, mostly because of the mandatory auto-correct and low quality apps.

It will be interesting if the next iPad comes in a portable 7” format, and I’m certainly interested to see what Amazon will do with the next-gen Kindle Fire (oh please, are there ANY doubts that the Fire will have successors?). 3 months ago I compared it to the Kindle 1, and that still stands: A decent device, a little bit crappy in places, but a market opener that’s actually usable for people.

In defense of story-driven games

I am a gamer. That word has many meanings, to me a gamer is someone who can immerse into games and really enjoy them, for whatever reason. For some people, that reason is Multiplayer and they tend to focus on games with strong multiplayer like FPS and sports and try to be on top of the leaderboards. For some other people, that reason is creativity and they tend to focus on sandbox games and build whole worlds in Minecraft. Other people are fascinated by playing god and shaping a world, which is served by games like The Sims.

For me, the reason to immerse in games is the story, which is why I tend towards RPGs.

Games

There is a lot of bile on the internet about an Interview with one of Bioware’s writers in which she said she doesn’t really like playing games and thinks games should have a way to skip combat. The reactions she is receiving make me ashamed that I am considering myself a gamer, but then I also realize that there are a whole lot of 12 year olds playing on Xbox Live who like to use “Fag” as an all-purpose insult for everything. I could do the right thing and found an organization whose sole purpose lies in locating these kids and giving them the severe beating they deserve, but instead I chose to write a blog post.

First of all, let me talk about BioWare games and their writing. You can criticize their games for weak itemization. You can criticize Mass Effect 1 for the weak handling of the Mako and the fact that their side mission is one of 3 missions, repeated 85 times. You can criticize Dragon Age for weak combat balance (hence many people call it Dragon Mage) and you can criticize Dragon Age II for being a lot weaker than Origins. But each and every game they made (I haven’t played SW:TOR, so no comments there) was a highly enjoyable experience for me. Why?

Because they have the best writers in the whole entire industry. Mass Effect alone has more immortal quotes than other companies entire catalogues, not to forget one of the best scenes to ever make it into a video game. Dragon Age is worth playing if for nothing else then at least for listening to Alistair and Morrigan. And yes, I fully admit that as a heterosexual male, Leliana was my favorite side character, not just because I need a rogue anyway since I was playing a Mage.

A lot of people don’t care, and that’s okay, it’s a choice. A lot of people do care, and I am one of them. I have played through some truly horrible games, if for nothing else then for the story. I am an avid reader of fictional books, I’ve plowed through a lot of Star Wars’ Extended Universe, pretty much anything Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett wrote, I do hope that all of the Witcher books get  translated into English and I have a man-crush on both Neil Stephenson and Iain Banks.

When it comes to games, I actually read quest texts and follow story lines, and I know that if I’m standing west of a house and there is a small mailbox here, I might be eaten by a Grue later.

So when people object the notion of a skip-combat button, it puzzles me. Of course, I do remember a time where “interactive storytelling” meant something else. In the dark ages of the CD-ROM Revolution, we had some truly horrible “games” that were essentially just a collection of horrible FMV clips pieced together with laughable “game” sequences. Night Trap or Plumbers don’t wear ties gave “Interactive Storytelling” a really bad name because those pieces of garbage didn’t have an actual game to them.

When I think of good examples, I think of the X-Files game or Wing Commander 3 & 4. Especially these two Wing Commander games are a showcase of what Storytelling can do to a game. We have moved away from real actors towards computer generated imagery, but it is still about characters and their development. Warcraft 3 is an example of this, in my opinion it’s by far the best RTS ever made in terms of storytelling thanks to the depth of characters like Arthas and Thrall. Command & Conquers Kane is a similar example, even though his plot isn’t as cohesive.

I do not think that removing combat completely from a game and just hopping from dialogue to dialogue is the right solution. I do however stand by the opinion that combat is only one factor that make the game a whole.

I’m playing through The Witcher right now (in anticipation of the Enhanced Edition of Witcher 2, which I haven’t played yet). And by “playing” I mean: I got a Savegame Editor, gave myself Aerondight, Ard’aenye and a bunch of talent Points, set the difficulty to easy and started playing. So, how is playing with pretty much all challenges removed? It’s a blast for me! I can explore the World, I can talk to NPCs and fully immerse myself in the world. I did that with Fallout 3 and New Vegas again, same with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I’m in love with the Gears of War Universe even though I think that Dom’s decision in Part 3 wasn’t given enough depth, it felt rushed. And let’s not get started about Anachronox, possibly the greatest game that no one ever played.

The combat is a large part of this, but for me it’s a means to drive the story. I’m not someone who tries to memorize tactics and use Fire Based spells against Water opponents and I sure can’t tell you how many Zerglings I need against an army of Firebats. When I play an RPG I pretty much pick an Area Spell and just fry opponents – Force Lightning in any Star Wars game, Igni in The Witcher, Fireball and Inferno in Dragon Age.

Some people prefer to spend their time really mastering a game, knowing all the weaknesses and game mechanics and the right answer to any challenge. That is a valid way to play a game (after all, that’s what defines a game as a game). For me, the game is a way to enhance storytelling over what a book gives me. I can make my own choices, I can shape my character, and I can experiment with how it plays out over time. Do I save or kill that character? Do I side with this or that faction? Will I pursue a romance with her or him or neither? I don’t want to spend my time dying on the same enemy over and over again, I just want combat to be there as a way to see how powerful my character can be and to give me a sense of progression when I give my character new skills. It’s there to draw out the story long enough to allow my mind to daydream without being bored and to really see the threat the game universe is facing. But that’s all combat is to me.

I may not play games over the period of several years, so in terms of pure time investment I may get less out of a game than someone who leads the leaderboards on Forza 4 or any FPS (with the possible exception of World of Warcraft, a game whose single player component has some truly amazing stories in it, even though it has a fair amount of filler material and plot holes). But the 40 to 60 hours I do get out of most games I play are extremely gratifying and worth every dollar. They make me happy, they inspire me, they improve the quality of my life.

People like Jennifer Hepler and the many, many other writers in the video games industry are heroes because of the many memorable moments they have given thousands of gamers like me. It’s sad that John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory still applies and will likely never stop being true.

I can only hope that people like us who enjoy the story and love to discuss it in a civilized manner give the writers motivation to continue writing memorable stories, creating fantastic universes and reminding me why I love this industry, this genre, this medium so much.

Piracy is not a solution, but it’s easier than actual alternatives

Over the past 30 or more years, a war is raging. The war between pirates and copyright holders started with pirated software and certainly influenced our geek culture. When most people hear the Enlightenment: Druid II Theme, they don’t really think about the game but about the Fairlight Intro. (By the way, I think it’s incredibly ironic that Tony Krvaric, alias Strider, one of the Fairlight Founders is the Chairman of the Republic Party in San Diego…)

In the past decade and a half, piracy expanded from software to music (thanks to MP3) and eventually movies and TV shows (Thanks to DivX). I’m not going to recite the entire history from Napster to the Pirate Bay here, I’m just going to express my stance on this. First off, I am negatively affected by some of the restrictions imposed by the industry. I moved from Europe to the United States and realized that I can’t play any of my DVDs because they are Region 2. Also, my Xbox Live count does not allow the change of my billing country, which meant that I had to create a new Gamertag, lose all my achievements, lose my Mass Effect 1 Savegame (which had a Level 60 character and all the right decisions) and lose access to the XBLA Games I bought unless I log in with that Gamertag. On the other hand, my Steam account worked without a hitch because Steam gets their business right while Microsoft doesn’t care about their customers and is too weak to negotiate world wide deals.

Here in the USA, TV is ridiculously expensive. I come from Germany where we think that the government-imposed mandatory Pay-TV (GEZ) is expensive (and kills any PayTV competition), but compared to TV over here it’s dirt cheap. On the other hand, we do have Netflix and Hulu Plus here, and a few Music streaming services which gives me access to a whole range of content, legally. I can not get everything though. Certain shows are only available on TV (pretty much anything HBO), I’m cut off many sports events like the German Soccer Bundesliga (some TV Channels offer select games and repeats, but a live Conference doesn’t seem to be available). I can not buy certain music Albums because the bands are only popular in their home country and haven’t set up international distribution.

In short: Between my wallet and something I’d like to pay for, there are sometimes certain walls. The Oatmeal has made a great comic that illustrates these walls better than I ever could and it concludes in the same way the thought process concludes for many people, but it’s not a thought process I agree with. Basically it boils down to “If I can’t watch it legally, I’ll pirate it”.

I do not think that pirating is the right solution. First of all, you are not entitled to anything. Somewhere, there is the belief that there is a right to access to copyrighted material. There is not. There is a company who paid money and owns the right, and they are telling you to fuck off. They don’t want to take your money.

Second, the author made a conscious choice selling their rights. I often hear how bands whose CDs are shipped with playback protection and rootkits are really the victims, how the evil major music companies are not paying them much money and how they rely on the publicity made by live concerts and exposure, and how piracy really benefits them. I am not disagreeing that exposure helps bands because Merchandise and Concert Tickets are their primary source of income. However, they also made a choice. They went to a major label, gave them the rights to their songs so that GEMA and RIAA now own them. In exchange, they benefitted from the marketing and sales power of those labels. It’s a mutual relationship. It’s ridiculously hard for bands to gain exposure unless they are already successful (Radiohead and NIN successfully sell Albums directly now) or become viral on the internet (OK GO’s treadmill video).

In making this choice however, the creators of a work submitted themselves to the terms of condition of the label. Same for TV Shows. I really do not think that someone put a gun to George R. R. Martin’s head and forced him to sell his rights to HBO. I’m pretty sure he could have sold them to someone else, or have kept them. But he sold the rights to HBO, and if HBO makes the choice to exclude me as a customer, that’s in the end Mr. Martin’s decision.

Third, it hinders exposure for other shows and bands that are trying to be customer friendly. Every time you start a conversation about Game of Thrones in your workplace, HBO’s marketing wins. On the other hand, every other show loses. There is only so much time in the day and every moment exists only once. The time you spend watching and discussing Game of Thrones is a moment not spent helping The Crew getting more exposure. It’s extremely hard to create a TV show or Movie. Over the past few years, we have seen tremendous progress in alternative/indie development thanks to video streaming, MySpace, Steam and other distribution channels. But the thing that really matters is exposure.

Fourth, it helps fueling things like SOPA. Child Porn, Terrorism, Nazi Propaganda and Piracy are the cornerstones of every election. The internet is evil, it needs to be controlled and censored. How dare you to protest against SOPA, you child molesting Nazi Terrorist? This isn’t limited to one country, in Germany it’s people like Ursula von der Leyen and Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg who brand people fighting for their rights as child molesters. It’s good to see that the SOPA protests worked for now, but don’t believe that that’s the last we’ve heard of it (ACTA goes into that same area). You have to take away their arguments. If the companies are losing money because they fail to sell to the market, it’s their fault. If they can blame pirates, it’s our loss.

Boycott is the only proper way, but it’s hard. Many kids start smoking in school because they want to belong to a group. They wear certain clothes because they want to belong to a group. The desire to belong never really goes away. If everyone in the office talks about a show, we don’t want to be excluded. And let’s face it, some shows and movies are genuinely fantastic.

Sometimes, getting in touch with a company helps. I’m a fan of JBO, a band that’s really only somewhat popular in Germany. When they released their 2009 album I don’t like Metal – I love it, it was not on either iTunes or Amazon MP3. I asked their record company – Megapress – and initially they could only offer to send me a CD from Germany. However, in the meantime they worked on it and now pretty much all of their Albums are on both iTunes and Amazon MP3. A small victory.

At the end of the day, I don’t care what you do as long as you stop being hypocrites about it. Piracy is not a fight for freedom, it’s a way to acquire something we want that the company doesn’t want to sell to you. If we were concerned about freedom, we would ignore the product and support products that treat us as customers, not just as cash sources. You buy the BluRay, you accept sitting through 30 minutes of mandatory trailers before the menus and not being able to watch the movie if you move to another continent. If you don’t agree, then don’t buy the product.

But we then also realize that those products often aren’t as good. AAA games, prime time TV shows, blockbuster movies cost money. A ton of it. Crowdsourcing like Kickstarter helps for smaller/indie games, but I doubt you could fund a triple-A MMORPG with it. Someone has to go in and gamble a million or two on it, with a very real risk of losing it because people rather spend their time with pirated products. We look at successes by Double Fine’s Adventure, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog or Radiohead’s In Rainbows and forget that these are anomalies. Those products are successful because they already feed of an existing fan base. The reality is that most indie productions are having trouble securing even relatively modest amounts of money and even if they manage to make something, they may not get too many customers.

Movement is happing however. We are seeing tremendous changes already, and now that Netflix and Amazon decided to take up content production we might finally see some money behind things we consider ideals. Following Tim Schafers footsteps, Obsidian is considering a similar move, and Wasteland 2 was mentioned as well. Machinae Supremacy is successful with a hybrid internet/record label approach, and I already mentioned OK GO. I believe that at least for PC Video Games, we’re really in the middle of a revolution where us Gamers become the shareholders. We want another graphic adventure that combines everything we loved about Lucas Arts adventures? We want a good FPS game (after all, the last really FPSes were Painkiller, Unreal Tournament 3 and the Serious Sam series)? How about a shooter that combines everything we love about CAVE’s bullet hell games with some amazing scenario (like Jamestown)?

Piracy hinders that movement because it gives too much exposure and benefit to the companies we oppose. Freedom and Piracy seem related, but are different concepts. Personally, I believe it’s extremely important to make conscious decisions. Read the Terms you accept, realize that companies don’t want to sell but rather rent a product, on their terms. Accept that you may not be able to get everything you want. Freedom is the ability to say no and walk away to one of the alternatives. Piracy is the inability to say no and unwillingness to change the status quo. Having said that, I also cannot deny that iTunes Music Store and other were founded on losses made through piracy. Who knows if record companies really would’ve agreed to this if it weren’t for Napster?

Don’t stop fighting. There are attempts to prevent completion from emerging and to weaken our customers rights. Cable Companies are actively fighting for their position, which is why it’s important for Boxee to fight against them. GoDaddy tried to use SOPA for competitive advantage because they would’ve been exempt for it. RIAA/MPAA tried to get Spyware onto every PC, and Sony BMG outright shipped a Rootkit.

At the end, it’s all about a) making sure we keep the freedom of choice and oppose any attempt to take that freedom away and b) using that freedom to supports the things we agree with and deny attention to the things we don’t agree with.

Or at the very least, stop whining when companies you support and empower in this way screw you over even more.