Category Archives: Entertainment & Media

Writing about entertainment & media topics

Everything Changes, Everything Stays The Same

Nigel has a dead-on understanding of the nature of TV going forward. I have long been trying to make people realise that the traditional TV is the natural home of video content, and integrating content with the existing TV paradigm is the optimal experience. Hence my belief that Smart TVs are the only worthwhile innovation TV manufacturers have pushed since FullHD (except ultra narrow bezels, which are also fantastic).

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TV Reviews: Brooklyn Nine-Nine

You have the right to remain silent. But you won't.
You have the right to remain silent. But you won’t.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is Universal Television’s (By way of FOX) effort to fill the hole in the sitcom landscape where a cop show parody should be. It’s also the latest vehicle for Saturday Night Live‘s biggest recent success story, Andy Samberg – following the decidedly uneven Cuckoo. Alongside Samberg are Terry Crews (Apparently Will McAvoy’s bodyguard Lonny went off to become a cop, explaining his absence from The Newsroom Season 2) and relative newcomer Stephanie Beatriz.

Samberg plays an immature but gifted detective whose “dammit I get results” stylings come into conflict with the “by da book” new Captain’s way of doing things. Despite that seemingly clichéd premise, the show isn’t going for a straight parody of cop show tropes, and instead opts for a more subtle (Yes, subtlety in an Andy Samberg vehicle – if only Cuckoo knew such luxuries) deconstruction, more along the lines of Scrubs.

It’s unclear from the pilot if the show will be able to develop the same dramatic chops as Scrubs did with its cast of beloved characters over the years, but there are early signs of deeper thought at least, with Captain Holt given a decent backstory which earns him the sympathy (and, more importantly, the respect) of Samberg’s Jake Peralta.

But while the dramatic underpinnings of a sitcom can give it the prestige and enduring appeal to make it a long runner (The SimpsonsFriendsScrubshow i met your mother…), any sitcom which isn’t funny will sink like a rock (I’m looking at you, majority of the pilots from Amazon Studios’s first Pilot season). So is Brooklyn Nine-Nine a comedic dud destined to end its run in a graveyard slot and be forgotten about by next Christmas?

No.

No, it’s actually pretty funny. Samberg’s smug performance actually manages to be charming because the show makes the wise choice to show us immediately that he’s actually good at what he does, and he is nevertheless more of a smartass than actually condescending. Meanwhile, the absurdity has been kept just about in check. There’s no lengthy fantasy sequences, and all of the hijinks the cast engage in are relatively grounded.

It’s all just stupid. And I don’t mean that as a knock. It’s the best kind of stupid. It’s the kind of dumb joking around you get into when you’re hanging around with friends or killing time in an office. Too often, this kind of dumb comedy doesn’t work out so well.  Microsoft published a video game example recently in LocoCycle, which just feels like you’re watching someone else’s inside joke. And it’s never explained to you. So it never becomes funny.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine invites you to laugh at its characters with the rest of the cast by constantly ensuring there’s someone to laugh with. The cast takes turns playing straight man for each other as the situation demands; mocking or being mocked, laughing along or hiding their shame. It’s relatable because that’s how people are in real life.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is part of a movement in sitcom writing to reflect the kind of humour people experience day-to-day. Rather than placing absurd caricatures in front of you and inviting you to laugh mercilessly at their failures (Two And a Half Men), Brooklyn Nine-Nine follows the formula successfully deployed by how i met your mother of allowing its characters to know exactly how funny the things that are happening are. And it mines that area mercilessly for extra yucks as Samberg or another cast member manages to deliver that extra quip at the end of the scene that perfectly encapsulates the audience’s feelings.

Oh and by the way, I think you’re overdoing it on the man-scaping.

Rating: Watch

Possible Ratings, in Descending Order:

Watch

Record

VOD

Miss

Seek Cancellation

TV Reviews: BBC One’s That Puppet Game Show

PuppetGameShowThat Puppet Game Show is BBC One’s new Saturday Night Entertainment Show from Muppet-creators The Jim Henson Company; featuring the imaginatively named unlicensed Muppet-esque puppet cast, “The Puppets”, and celebrity contestants vying to win £10,000 for charities of their choosing. So is it worth watching or is it ‘Honey I Couldn’t Afford the Muppets Tonight License’?

It would be incredibly easy to hate That Puppet Game Show. It’s hard to look past the fact it’s clearly a Muppet franchise show without The Muppets license, even knowing it comes from the company who originally created and owned the characters (Who are now owned by The Walt Disney Company). It’s also a celebrity game show in an era where you can’t turn a corner without tripping over a competitive TV show featuring celebrities.

It does itself no favours in its introduction either, where it looks like it’s about to be exactly as cloying, try hard and false as you’d expect it to be – face it, the Americans are just better at being earnest about this kind of nonsense than the Brits. And this is a very British effort. Especially its host, Dougie Colon (It’s pronounced Cologne).

But if you stick with it past the painfully obligatory explanation of the show’s format and let yourself be drawn in…There’s a charm. Especially once some of the puppets with more creative voices and backstories start appearing. It also helped in this first episode that Jonathan Ross was making a triumphant (ish) return to BBC airtime after being made to jump ship to ITV a couple of years ago. While we’re on the subject, if you hadn’t heard, The Jonathan Ross Show got a Super Renewal late last month despite rumours 2013 would be its final year, so two new series will air in 2014, as well as ten more episodes starting this Autumn.

Back on That Puppet Game Show, Jonathan’s easy charm and spontaneous humour help the show through its first shaky minutes and into the meat of the show proper. Like Muppets Tonight and The Muppet Show before it, That Puppet Game Show divides its time between the show itself, and the antics of the puppets backstage. In this case, it is skewed slightly more heavily towards the show itself, with the scenes backstage serving as a series of brief, interconnected sketches (whose plot occasionally receives reference onstage too).

The celebrity guests do occasionally feature briefly in the backstage segments, but not to the extent they would have in the show’s Muppet-branded predecessors. But then, they also factor more heavily into the onstage sequences as well, so the distribution of Puppets to Celebrities screen time is fairly similar – there is possibly slightly more celebrity than previously as it happens, but it’s not at the expense of the puppets.

It’s not nearly as good as a Muppet franchise entry of course. More often the jokes here are a bit on the cringe-worthy side than they would be in a Muppets vehicle, and there’s probably a touch more humour relying on sheer shock value alone than you would see with the Muppet name attached. I was surprised to find though that “not as good” is the worst I could say about it. It’s a bit twee, and a couple of the games are rather stupid, but most of the backstage jokes land very well. Dougie’s banter with the Crab who calls the scores is generally good for a chuckle and the game based on giving humorous acceptance speech for a fictitious award (Life’s a Speech) is actually both funny and engaging in the same way as a more conventional game show, such as BBC One’s Pointless.

The quality of the guests is probably going to have a lot to do with how well the show does from here. The Puppets are doing a reasonable job eliciting laughs, but with the competitive part of the show dominating the runtime, it’s going to be important that the guests are as charming and game for the show’s brand of nonsense as Jonathan Ross and Katherine Jenkins were in this first effort.

I suppose the biggest thing I can say about this show so far is that I actually enjoyed the first episode enough to decide I definitely want to see the second, and that surprised me. I was as skeptical as possible about this show from the moment it was announced. The name, the concept, the Dougie Colon mini-hype from BBC Entertainment’s PR team…I was finding it hard to imagine this would be anything less than an outright cringe-fest, on the same level as BBC One’s 2011 flameout of a trainwreck of a game show Don’t Scare The Hare. I’m still not convinced That Puppet Game Show will entice enough of an audience to avoid deathwatch status, but I am newly convinced that I’d like it to manage to escape such a fate. If you missed Episode 1, check it out on BBC iPlayer and let me know if you agree, or if you think it’s just as bad as it sounds.

Rating: Watch

Possible Ratings, in Descending Order:

Watch

Record

VOD

Miss

Seek Cancellation

(The name is still really bad though)

Movie Reviews: The Hangover Part II

the-hangover-part-2-banner-imageThe Hangover Part II was the highly-anticipated followup to 2009’s sleeper smash hit The Hangover, and the middle part in the inevitable Hangover Trilogy franchise. You probably know that. It was released back in 2011 (Which you probably also know), but I kept missing out on seeing it until now – after the third part has already left theatres. So now I’ve seen it, what did I think? Well…

The Hangover is a great movie. It’s shocking, funny and (despite its absurdity), it’s still relatively believable. And as a result, it’s also relatively relatable. Sure, not everyone has gotten into quite such dramatic all-night benders, but many of us have had nights where we’ve done crazy things while under the influence and most of those us who have also have nights with huge gaps in our memories. It’s got a generally brilliant cast, fantastic and actually surprising cameos, and it was an even better movie when you saw it in a packed theatre.

The Hangover Part II is probably also better when seen in a packed theatre. Unlike its predecessor though, that’s probably the only time it’s any good at all. What might surprise you is that I don’t dislike it for being a rehash of the original. In fact, that’s kind of what I wanted. Another spin on the “crazy night we can’t remember” wheel is what I was looking for with this movie. No, what I dislike about the sequel is what they changed. Reusing the same bones, that’s fine. The problems with the sequel relate to turning some of the weaker elements up to eleven and contriving to reuse utterly inconsequential elements (like plot coupons) of the original for no good reason.

I still get plenty of laughs out of re-watching The Hangover. But the sequel left me cold even on this first viewing. There are some decent laughs in it, but almost all of them (with precisely two – it’s so few I can count them) come from characters the movie seems convinced are less funny than “the funniest character of all time”, played by “the funniest comedic actor of all time”: Alan Garner, played by Zach Galifianakis.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, those assessments are not my own, but those (apparently) of the writers, director and producers.

I say that because Alan gets a whole lot of focus in this movie at the expense, once again, of Doug – played by Justin Bartha – who is written out of the majority of the action in a way so contrived it’s brushed over as quickly as possible. It’s also at the expense of the far more interesting character of Mason Lee’s Teddy (Stu’s soon-to-be Brother-in-Law). Alan is a classic example of a character from an ensemble piece who was well-received enough to be forced to the fore of a later entry in the franchise.

In the original movie, Alan is an equally divisive figure. Some people, I know, love his schtick and enjoy Galifianakis’s style of “weird for the sake of it” humour. I’m not among them. But the first time around, I was okay with it. Alan was funny in the original because he was used (relatively) sparingly alongside the other members of the franchise’s core trio – as well as the rest of the ensemble – and he acts as a plot coupon. He’s the wild card which sets off the chain of events the movie revolves around, and his presence is justified well in the plot.

That is…Not the case here. Alan is forced into the movie with the flimsiest possible justification: Doug’s wife twists his arm about letting Alan attend Stu’s wedding, so he twists Stu’s. Stu, justifiably, wants nothing more to do with Alan who is clearly a deranged individual, who drugged Stu and his friends te first time he spent any time with them. Stu has every reason not to want him there. But Doug convinces him (it’s not particularly well justified), so they go and get him.

What’s worse is, before they even get to Thailand for the wedding, Alan furnishes them with (at least) four perfectly good new reasons not to want him around. By the end of the movie, there are at least five occasions where he should have been punched in the face, and arguably even more where he should just have been left to rot. These characters have absolutely no reason to like Alan and no earthly reason for putting up with his nonsense, which includes the revelation that he drugged them again, information which should in fact have led to Stu and Phil beating the living snot out of him on a public street. Instead he is quickly forgiven, for reasons which never become apparent.

See, the thing is, Alan is not their friend and never was. He insists on the idea that he is, but the only possible reason for them going along with this fantasy is pity. And that just doesn’t cut it when you’re talking about a guy who’s now twice drugged them, causing them no end of problems. Especially since – in this case – Phil winds up getting shot, Stu’s fiancé’s brother (who is a cellistloses a finger and Stu himself unwittingly cheats on his future-wife with a prostitute and gets a crazy Mike Tyson Face Tattoo days before his wedding.

But instead of getting the asshole incarcerated, or beating him within an inch of his life, they forgive him as if all he did was lose their crate of beer. In fact, eventually they go ahead and treat him as if he’s a hero and they’re best buds. It all plays out as if the movie is begging us to love Alan, whilst also expecting that we already do. But I just can’t. He’s the least funny thing in a comedy in which he is a starring player, and he’s an asshole. No justification the movies offer excuses how much of a colossal jackass he is. He’s not even a loveable jackass. He ploughs clean across the edge of unsympathetic comedy protagonist territory and winds up a straight up villain protagonist.

What’s worse is, the only character who could conceivably be justified in pretending to like Alan is Doug, and he is once again sidelined! I’d have loved to have seen a The Hangover story where Doug makes it through the night with the others, and then joins them in their efforts to suss out what happened, because he’s a likeable character. My ideal rewrite of this script would have been to change it so that Alan’s presence was a surprise (like Mr Chow’s) and Doug joined them on the night out instead of heading off to bed early. Teddy could still have served as the lost member of the group, but the first act could then have been spent letting us get to know him better rather than wasting our time reminding us that Alan is a creep who nobody in their right mind would befriend.

And so now you’re saying “but then how would they have gotten into the mess without Alan drugging them?”

Answer: Who the hell cares? Any number of things could have happened. Why did it have to be the exact same thing as in the first movie? Maybe the bartender offers them the “house special” shot free of charge since they’re with a wedding party, and it turns out to have some crazy local ingredient in it which is a powerful hallucinogenic. Contrived? Maybe a little, but as contrived as Alan being there just to do the exact same thing again? No way.

What really bugs me is, when the focus is on the others, it’s actually pretty enjoyable. Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper are both very entertaining in their roles, as is Justin Bartha (when he’s given a chance). Mr Chow’s nonsense and the the zany denizens of Bangkok also make for an enjoyable ensemble. It’s a crying shame that filmmakers’ sad devotion to one character from a movie built on the back of at least a dozen fantastic performances ruined its chances of a worthy sequel.

Dismayingly, I hear the third one is even worse.

Pilot Reviews: Community

community-02

Blinkbox by Tesco is offering users the chance to sample 28 Television Pilots. I’ve decided to take those 28 Pilots and give each a watch and then review them right here on my website. Next up, NBC’s perennial underdog cult sitcom ‘Community‘.

Community is not a show I’ve never seen before. Over the years it’s been on the air, I’ve had occasion to dip in to the series and see what it’s like. So I had an idea what to expect from the pilot – Joel McHale being a loveable jerk, Chevy Chase being humorously out of touch with modern social norms and Danny Pudi’s Abed being just generally weird. I was also familiar enough with the show’s general tone of absurdity, couched in painfully real observations about modern society.

The Pilot is fairly by-the-numbers, setting up the archetypes and roles of the various characters and giving the audience some idea of the relationships between them. Unusually though, it manages to do so whilst keeping the events in the service of comedy. Too often, a Pilot will be a relatively weak episode of a given series because it spends a good chunk of screen time on expository obligations. The best pilots, of the best shows, don’t have this problem. Community is one of them. Another great example is How I Met Your Mother, whose pilot manages to establish where its characters are in their lives and relationships almost entirely as part of jokes (many of which would become part of the show’s running gags). It’s the same here.

The best scenes in the pilot are those where Joel McHale’s Jeff is trying to trick the other members of the group into fighting with one another so he can slink away with attractive co-ed (As the Yanks say) Britta, played by Gillian Jacobs. His efforts prove to be in vain after she figures out what he’s up to and calls him on it, and he is ultimately banished (though the group takes pity on him and offers to let him study with them in the end, ultimately setting up the premise the show ran with once it was picked up). The events in these scenes also lead to a great moment where Jeff admits, wholeheartedly, that he is a liar and equates his former profession (A lawyer) with the act of telling lies. It’s not an original joke, but it’s well executed.

Other standout moments come in the interactions between McHale and recurring guest star John Oliver (as Dr Ian Duncan) who Jeff is attempting to con into helping him cheat his way to success. Particularly amusing is the scene in Dr Duncan’s Smart Fortwo, which he notes is “Good for the earth” (Jeff retorts, bitingly, that so is “wiping your butt with a leaf, but it’s not how a man gets around!”).

It’s a promising start to a series, and it gets you up to speed and invested in its characters very quickly. As soon as it’s over, you’re ready to see more of their escapades (and, undoubtedly, disastrous misunderstandings – it’s a sitcom). Having seen some of what the rest of the series has to offer, it’s also a very indicative Pilot. Not just in terms of quality, but also just with regards to what the show is like. That might seem a trite observation, but many a show has wandered away from its pilot with time. Community did not, it has stuck fairly well to the formula established here (aside from things like character & plot progression, plus slight variations in the episode structure for the sake of novelty) over the years. That’s probably a good thing.

Except of course, the upcoming fifth season. Which sees the loss of Chevy Chase, and another character (Troy) dropping from the regulars to the recurring cast. Only time will tell what toll those moves takes on the show; but the pilot makes a firm bet on the relationships between the characters being important. Tinkering with the group seems like a dangerous area.

Verdict: Order to Series

Verdicts Explained:

The verdicts on the Pilot reviews will be given as if the Pilot was being reviewed by Network Execs prior to announcing the Fall Lineup. Possible results, in descending order, are:

Order to Series, with Super Renewal (3 Season Commitment)

Order to Series, with Renewal (2 Season Commitment)

Order to Series

Order to Series, with Network Notes

Order Second Pilot

Order Second Pilot, with Network Supervision

Pass

Burn The Tapes

Pilot Reviews: Pan Am

pan-am-abc-tv-showBlinkbox by Tesco is offering users the chance to sample 28 Television Pilots. I’ve decided to take those 28 Pilots and give each a watch and then review them right here on my website. First up, ABC’s ill-fated high-concept drama about the crew of the eponymous defunct airline.

It’s always strange going into a pilot knowing  that the show it was pitching has already made it to air, been weighed & measured – and found wanting. It compels you to begin searching for any potential danger signs. What made this show fail? Was it doomed from the start, buoyed to the schedule on mere optimism? Or did it seal its fate later by squandering its premise on mediocre writing or poor decisions?

Sometimes, even with shows which go on to be successful, you can see signs of trouble in the pilot. Fox’s Glee is a smash-hit, one of which I was once a regular viewer owing to its creative premise and talented cast. But now I have disowned the show because of its inept writing, self-importance and wall-banger stupid characters and plot lines. I often said its writers should go back and watch the pilot to remember what show they were supposed to be making. But the truth is, the first signs of trouble were sewn in that pilot. Still, their presence wasn’t the problem. The fact they were allowed to germinate was.

Why am I talking about this? Because the Pan Am pilot calls it to mind for me. Pan Am has a fantastic premise, and a cast of very talented actors who are a delight to watch. Its pilot makes good use of both that premise and its cast to get you hooked. And yet, as much as I liked the pilot, I think I know why this show failed. The major reason of course is that it was colossally expensive, and the pilot (to its credit) looks exactly as expensive as it was. It is lavishly produced and gorgeous to look at with elaborate sets and costumes, plus a distinctly high quality filmic appearance.

But expensive shows can make it if they find a large enough audience of valuable viewers. So why didn’t Pan Am manage that? After all, the premise is appealing, the cast are great, the production values are sky high (pun very much unintended, but kept out of begrudging amusement)…What Is the problem? Of course, I can’t know for sure without seeing the other thirteen episodes, but I think I have some ideas.

You see, for all the love and attention the show seems to have lined up for its premise…It also decides to hedge its bets. You came here to see a show about the crew of an airplane in the golden age of passenger flight? TWIST! Here’s an international espionage plot!

Yeah. That sort of came out of left field, didn’t it? It’s not really clear what amount of the show will be taken up by the CIA-MI6 covert operations subplot, but it’s hard to imagine wasting as much screen time on it in the pilot (and linking it to several characters) if it’s not going to be a major recurring storyline. This is the kind of storyline showrunners attach to shows with high-concept premises, apparently to give them depth and broader appeal.

It’s also the kind of storyline which annoys the people who showed up for the premise.

Many a SportsNight fan wished to be rid of the interminable Casey/Dana romance subplot so we could instead focus on the crew making the Sports show. I’d be amazed if there was a single Glee fan who wasn’t contemplating throwing the TV out the window every second the “fake pregnancy” storyline was taking up screen time. 24 had so many around the middle of its original run it’d be impossible to list them all.

These are plot tumours. They don’t naturally live in the shows they’re part of, and really only serve to distract. Sure, we get it, Pan Am flew during the Cold War. But if we wanted to see a James Bond film, there’s plenty of them to choose from. The introduction to the subplot is especially lazy, with a cartoonish “Russian Spy” whose actions are far too suspicious to be believed. I won’t spoil the resolution, but you probably already guessed the gist of it. I know I did the moment he appeared.

That speaks to the greater problem.  It’d maybe be possible to put up with the Cold War Plot Tumour if it seemed like it was going to have something interesting and unique to say. On the basis of the Pilot, I would doubt that it does.

Fortunately, the rest of the episode’s plots are exactly what you’re looking for. Christina Ricci does a marvellous turn as an irreverent purser, breezing around cockily and in so doing introducing us to some of the zanier aspects of being a Pan-Am-Stewardess. Oh, and get used to “Pan-Am-Stewardess”, because every character who gets a chance to say that phrase in full, does so. The pilot really plays up the whimsy and wonder of the titular airline – even going so far as to treat the take-off of the plane as some kind of bold adventure. Admittedly, it is the particular plane’s maiden flight, but – the way the flight crew is acting – you’d think their destination was Mars, not London.

Unsurprisingly, the most compelling scenes are those in the air and in the airport. And when the concept is able to shine through the distractions, the pilot is very watchable indeed.

Verdict: Order to Series, with Network Notes

Verdicts Explained:

The verdicts on the Pilot reviews will be given as if the Pilot was being reviewed by Network Execs prior to announcing the Fall Lineup. Possible results, in descending order, are:

Order to Series, with Super Renewal (3 Season Commitment)

Order to Series, with Renewal (2 Season Commitment)

Order to Series

Order to Series, with Network Notes

Order Second Pilot

Order Second Pilot, with Network Supervision

Pass

Burn The Tapes

Xbox One Debacle Redux

So, yesterday, Microsoft did a one-eighty on their consumer-hostile disc-based game DRM policies. All through today, some people have been lamenting the loss of the Xbox One Family Sharing plan as a part of that. As it turns out, they shouldn’t have been. It turns out, it was going to be awful. One of the architects of the Xbox One has (allegedly) posted the following information on PasteBin. It’s got more than its fair share of crazy, and I’m going to respond to it paragraph-by-paragraph.

It’s 4am and I’m still up, some hours ago, we at Microsoft had to basically redact on our Always Online infrastructure and dream. Being part of the team that created the entire infrastructure to include the POS (point of sale) mechanisms I must say that I am extremely sad to see it removed. But the consumer knows what is best, I can place the blame on no one but us here at Microsoft. We didn’t do a good enough job explaining all the benefits that came with this new model. We spent too much of our time fighting against the negative impressions that many people in the media formed. I feel that if we spent less time on them and more time explaining the great features we had lined up and the ones in the pipes gamers and media alike would have aligned to our vision. That stated, we felt the people we would have loss would have been made up by the people we would have gained. We have 48 million Xbox 360 users connected online nearly 24 hours a day. That is much more than any of our closet competitors and vastly more than Steam. The people that we would have left behind I feel would have eventually come around as they saw what advantages the platform had to offer. But as I previously stated we at Microsoft have no one to blame other than ourselves for failing to convince those hesitant to believe in our new system. Microsoft might be a big company, but we at the Xbox division have always been for the gamer. Everything we’ve done has always been for them, we have butt heads with the executives many times on what we’ve wanted to, some times we lost (removing the onboard processor from Kinect 1.0) and other times we’ve won (keeping Gears of War as an exclusive).

Okay, right off the bat he’s off to a bad start, because he just tried to characterise “making Gears of War an Xbox console-exclusive” as being something done for the benefit of gamers. Now, on some level, I’m sure there are Xbox fans who were pleased Gears never went to PlayStation. But, really, nobody but Microsoft benefitted from that.

While publishers have never come right out to us at MS and say “We want you to do something about used gaming” we could hear it in their voices and read it in their numerous public statements. The used gaming industry is slowly killing them and every attempt to slow down the bleeding was met with much resistance from the gaming community. I will admit that online passes were not well received nor were they well implemented, but I felt given time to mature it could have turned into something worth having as a gamer much like DLC (we went from pointless horse armor to amazing season passes like Borderlands 2!). Videogame development is a loss leader by definition and unlike other forms of media videogames only have one revenue stream and that is selling to you the gamer. So when you buy a game used you’re hurting developers much more than say a movie studio. Many gamers fail to realize this when they purchase these preowned games. It is impossible to continue to deliver movie like experiences at the current costs without giving up something in return. It’s what gamers want and expect, the best selling games are blockbusters, the highest rated are blockbusters, the most loved are blockbusters. How can developers continue to create these experiences if consumers refuse to support them? Many will argue the development system is broken, and I disagree. The development system is near broken, it’s used gaming that is broken, but regardless I think more emphasis on this from both us at Microsoft and publishers would have gone a long way in helping educate the gamer, but again it is us who dropped the ball in this regard for that we’re sorry.

Here we have a tired re-tread of the false idea that used gaming is killing the gaming industry. It really isn’t. If it was, used sales would be killing every entertainment industry that has them. Further, there is absolutely zero reason to believe that eliminating the used option would lead to more sales of new games, and every reason to believe it would just mean less sales overall. But you all know this. Hell, even the third party publishers have had to start begrudgingly admitting this. Used sales allow the new game buyers of the future (kids) to develop interest in franchises they will be loyal customers to later. Used sales contribute to the ecosystem. But again, you all know this. Microsoft was fundamentally out of touch with the real world on this.

Next, he suggests Online Passes might have evolved into something positive for consumers. That’s…Certainly dreaming big. I fail to see how that is even conceptually possible myself. Maybe you guys have some idea what the hell he was getting at? I sure don’t.

Anyway, he moves on to blaming consumers for the industry being inefficient and not generating enough money, whilst adamantly refusing to accept the idea that if you can’t afford to produce something you should probably find a cheaper way to produce it. He’s blaming consumers, and then he almost flat out calls consumers stupid, saying that Microsoft needed to ‘educate’ consumers about how unfair it was of them to want to pay less for games, as if seeking the highest possible value is somehow a behaviour unique to gamers and not something any rational consumer does. Frankly, it arguably becomes more insulting as he continues, because no sooner has he implied we’re stupid and Microsoft are a benevolent force seeking to enlighten us, than he tries to walk it back by dropping a quick “but it’s our bad” – without, actually, retracting the implication that consumers are wrong and Microsoft alone knows what’s best.

Going back to Xbox One’s feature set, one of the features I was most proud of was Family Sharing. I’ve browsed many gaming forums and saw that many people were excited about it as well! That made my day the first time I saw gamers start to think of amazing experiences that could come from game sharing. It showed that my work resonated with the group for which I helped create it for. I will admit that I was not happy with how some of my fellow colleagues handled explaining the systems and many times pulled my hair out as I felt I could have done a better job explaining and selling the ideas to the press and public at large. I’m writing this for that reason, to explain to gamers how many of the features would have worked and how many of them will still work.

I find this kind of incredible. He seems to be implying there was absolutely a clearly-defined, succinct set of principles and ideas. If that’s the case, why did employees like himself not simply produce a simple, one-page memo for the likes of Don Mattrick and Phil Harrison to memorise? Anyway, more on this later.

First is family sharing, this feature is near and dear to me and I truly felt it would have helped the industry grow and make both gamers and developers happy. The premise is simple and elegant, when you buy your games for Xbox One, you can set any of them to be part of your shared library. Anyone who you deem to be family had access to these games regardless of where they are in the world. There was never any catch to that, they didn’t have to share the same billing address or physical address it could be anyone. When your family member accesses any of your games, they’re placed into a special demo mode. This demo mode in most cases would be the full game with a 15-45 minute timer and in some cases an hour. This allowed the person to play the game, get familiar with it then make a purchase if they wanted to. When the time limit was up they would automatically be prompted to the Marketplace so that they may order it if liked the game. We were toying around with a limit on the number of times members could access the shared game (as to discourage gamers from simply beating the game by doing multiple playthroughs). but we had not settled on an appropriate way of handling it. One thing we knew is that we wanted the experience to be seamless for both the person sharing and the family member benefiting. There weren’t many models of this system already in the wild other than Sony’s horrendous game sharing implementation, but it was clear their approach (if one could call it that) was not the way to go. Developers complained about the lost sales and gamers complained about overbearing DRM that punished those who didn’t share that implemented by publishers to quell gamers from taking advantage of a poorly thought out system. We wanted our family sharing plan to be something that was talked about and genuinely enjoyed by the masses as a way of inciting gamers to try new games.

And this is where it gets ridiculous.

The way Family Sharing was understood, based on Microsoft’s vague FAQ, people shared to would have full access to the game. Nothing ever implied otherwise. The questions were all about how many people could use how many games at once, and what the prerequisites for being included in someone’s sharing plan were. Now, to be fair, he addressed the latter, and the requirements were indeed at the more positive end of the readings people had of the FAQ.

But here he is, trying to make us believe that Family Sharing was this huge, mind-blowing revolution…And what we find is, it was actually way more limited than the version we were all imagining, which we were still not universally sure was worth the tradeoff. His whole aim in writing this was to convince us the old Xbox One philosophy was better after all, and it turns out it was actually worse than we imagined when we rejected the idea in the first place.

This is stunning. I cannot believe Microsoft actually thought this was going to win people over to their policies. I mean…Look, at PlayStation Meeting 2013 (Sony’s two-hour ‘The Future of PlayStation’ reveal of the PS4), Sony had the CEO of their newly acquired Gaikai service reveal that Sony plans to allow everygame on the PSN Store to be tried before purchase, instantly, by streaming the game. Now, sure, Microsoft was going to let the games run natively and we don’t know if Sony’s option will allow progress to carry over to the full game (It’s unlikely to). But, on the other hand, you don’t need to be in a friend who has the game’s sharing group. That’s one less hoop to jump through. Microsoft’s solution is really not that impressive. Frankly, it’s kind of pathetic. Fifteen minutes? Are you kidding me? It’d take longer to download & install the game!

The motto around the offices for the family plan was “It’s the console gaming equivalent to spotify and pandora” it was a social network within itself! The difference between the family sharing and the typical store demo is that your progress is saved as if it was the full game, and the data that was installed for that shared game doesn’t need to be erased when they purchase the full game! It gave incentive to share your games among your peers, it gave games exposure, it allowed old games to still generate revenue for publishers. At the present time we’re no longer going forward with it, but it is not completely off the table. It is still possible to implement this with the digital downloaded versions of games, and in fact that’s the plan still as far as I’m aware.

No, it’s not even remotely like Spotify or Pandora. OnLive Pass is like those things. PSPlus’s Instant Game Collection is even arguably like those things. The Xbox One Family Sharing Plan was like BlackBerry Messenger Music. BBM Music was a colossal failure. You know why? Because you couldn’t access any music your friends weren’t sharing, which meant there wasn’t a lot of use to it. Twitter’s #Music has the same problem. This kind of “sharing” of content is way too limiting. People prefer discovery where they can passively see what their friends are into and then check it out for themselves. Something like seeing “Sarah Greene earned a Platinum Trophy in Knack” and then going and playing the game. Accessing a gimped version of someone else’s library is like (though still inferior to) being at their house and browsing the shelf. It works, sure, but it’s a much less passive experience for both parties, and that makes it a bigger hassle.

It’s certainly not some major innovation that justifies the DRM policy on disc games. It does nothing that Sony’s PS4 isn’t doing anyway – and as noted above, Sony’s PS4 is arguably doing it better.

Another feature that we didn’t speak out about was the fact we were building a natural social network with Xbox One in itself that didn’t require gamers to open their laptops/tablets to post to their other friends nor did they need to wrestle with keyboard add-ons. Each Xbox Live account would have a full “home space” in which they could post their highest scores, show off their best Game DVR moments, what they’ve watched via Xbox TV and leave messages for others to read and respond to. Kinect 2.0 and Xbox One work together and has robust voice to text capabilities. The entire notion of communicating with friends you met online would have been natural and seamless. No reliance on Facebook, or Twitter (though those are optional for those who want them). Everything is perfectly crafted for the Xbox One controller and Kinect 2.0 and given that shine that only Microsoft can provide.

I’m not going to waste too much time on this, because it ties into the same thing about the feature not being all that unique. Both Wii U and PS4 also feature bespoke social networking features which can show off high scores, screenshots and video. Microsoft guy seems to be implying that the integration of Kinect with this stuff makes it much better, and for some gamers maybe it is. But many of them, myself included, think barking orders across the room and waving hands around like a flight-traffic-controller are crummy ways to control a TV experience, so that really isn’t all that much of a plus.

We at Microsoft have amazing plans for Xbox One that will make it an amazing experience for both gamers and entertainment consumers alike. I stand by the belief that Playstation 4 is Xbox 360 part 2, while Xbox One is trying to revolutionize entertainment consumption. For people who don’t want these amazing additions, like Don said we have a console for that and it’s called Xbox 360.

And he closes things up by being a total dick. As if the rest of his article wasn’t already enough of a pile of shit.

There’s a reason this posting is anonymous. If the name was attached, this guy would be getting the Adam Orth Special. This is the exact same horrendous messaging that Microsoft made the change to get away from. In fact, it’s arguably worse, because this guy genuinely seems to think this is an improvement on the message coming form the likes of Don and Phil Harrison. He explicitly said he was frustrated about how much trouble guys like them were having articulating his “vision”.

Well I got news pal, I liked it better the way they described it, and I hated that shit. What does that tell you about your revolutionary vision?

E3 2013: Greatness Awaits

Going into this week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, I was as jaded and cynical about the video gaming industry as I have ever been. In years gone by, for every E3 in the past eight years, I have gone in excited to see what was going to be shown. Ready and eager to be wowed by the big three platform holders. Usually, at least one always did manage to excite me. More often than not, it was Nintendo, whose fun-first games design philosophy has always really spoken to me. But many a time, Sony showed a Killzone 2 or Microsoft a Halo: Reach (Halo. But with jetpacks) or what have you, and I was as delighted with their showing as I as when I first saw Nintendo’s Wii in action, in 2006.

Last year though, nothing anyone had to say about home consoles enthused me especially. Nintendo’s Wii U revelations were neat, and it’s undoubtedly a cool bit of hardware, but not in a “huge leap forward” kind of way. And aside from the interest in the exciting newness of Wii U, nothing but 3DS games really caught my eye and made me go “wow, I need to own this!”.

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The back half of last year, I got Halo 4, Epic Mickey 2 and Borderlands 2. There were some other games I was interested in enough to have played if I had more money, but nor was I sat in my room before E3 2013 thinking “gosh I missed so many good games”. I’m going to be playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown from tomorrow, thanks to Sony generously giving me a free month of PSPlus, and I have wanted to check it out. But it was the game’s coverage upon its release at Giant Bomb which got me interested in that game, not E3 2012.

Really, I left E3 2012 feeling throughly bored. Very little in the home console space felt new, exciting or fresh. The PS3 and Xbox 360 were still pushing Call of Duty and Fifa and Madden…I’m so done with Call of Duty I can’t even describe it. It bores me to tears. And seemingly every other game being touted was an out-and-out clone of it.

Madden and Fifa were given frustrating prominence at Microsoft's #XboxReveal
Madden and Fifa were given frustrating prominence at Microsoft’s #XboxReveal

Microsoft’s damp squib #XboxReveal event, where they unveiled the improbably named third Xbox; the Xbox One; compounded my feelings of detachment and boredom with the console gaming mainstream. All I could see were games I’d either had my fill of or never wanted to begin with. Sony’s “The Future of PlayStation” PS4 reveal event left me with a slightly more positive impression a while before, but it was too early to say for sure if the games were going to draw me in.

Microsoft’s event in particular presented a vision for the future of gaming which, to me, was a total non-response to everything that was wrong. It was as if Microsoft were oblivious to how expensive and unsustainable things were. As if they saw no problem with assembly-line sequels to generic games with little creativity. As if the rise of the increasingly high-quality and inventive indie games on platforms as diverse as iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, Wii U, PlayStation 3 &  PSVita was mere rumour and conjecture. Here then was a console which would do what AppleTV and Roku already do at a significantly lower cost (and without the recurring subscription fee Microsoft demands for Live Gold to get at the media streaming services) and also play a load of painfully unexciting games which are virtually indistinguishable from the ones you’ve been playing for the past seven years. Except for those powered by EA Sports Ignite, which are distinct in that the engine makes character models more detailed but a million times less believable.

Apple's diminutive AppleTV already does a lot of streaming video, for a low cost
Apple’s diminutive AppleTV already does a lot of streaming video, for a low cost

I had been told to wait for Microsoft’s E3 Press Conference. There, it was said, Microsoft would roll out the games that make the Xbox One worth a damn. Well; after confirming ahead of time that yes, they are – unaccountably – messing around with the existing game sales model; Microsoft trotted out first at E3 and showed some relatively interesting games. None that made me sit up and really go “whoa”, but some decent ideas that had some nice graphics. Then they said they wanted £429.99 for their console. A price eerily similar to the one Sony charged for the PLAYSTATION 3 (£425), back before they resolved to make amends for their hubris in planning that system’s launch. Nothing I saw from Microsoft, game-wise, justified that cost of entry.

So then, it fell to two of the third party juggernauts to have their say. EA and Ubisoft. EA said the magic words for me with “Star Wars Battlefront”, but I was (at the time) disappointed that it was coming to platforms I wasn’t planning on owning. Nothing else they showed particularly excited me. Their next-gen sports titles continue to look horrible, and their presentations annoyed me with their superfluous buzzword names for minor physics and graphical subroutines. Ubisoft showed a couple of games I was already interested in (South Park, Watch_Dogs, Assassin’s Creed 4) but had nothing new that piqued my interest. And to be honest, I would go on to be more enthused by the Assassin’s Creed and Watch_Dogs demos in Sony‘s Press Conference than those in Ubisoft’s own.

Ubisoft's inventive "Watch_Dogs"
Ubisoft’s inventive “Watch_Dogs”

Then came the wait for Sony, with me in a sort of “Meh” sate of mind. Nothing I’d seen of E3 had yet completely sold me on the continuation of the big-budget high-end video game. However, I had less reasons to run in the opposite direction than previously. If nothing else, at least they had stopped parading Call of Duty in front of me as if it was new, and had instead shown things like Watch_Dogs which are a bit more inventive.

Sony nailed it. They sold me games-wise. Kingdom Hearts 3’s mere announcement was a standout, along with the demos of Assassin’s Creed 4 & Watch_Dogs (As I mentioned), the trailers for inFamous: Second Son & Killzone: Shadowfall, the procession of great looking indie games like Transistor, Outlast and the Abe’s Odyssey remake and…Well, the real jaw dropper was Bungie’s Destiny. I was already mostly on board with the game conceptually. But seeing it in action floored me. It combines the appeals of Halo, Borderlands and MMOs into a gorgeous package. For me, it looks very much like Destiny is the next big thing – succeeding, with any luck, the painfully repetitive Call of Duty. And probably obviating the need for more Halo.

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Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Sony confirmed the PS4 will not lock down games with draconian DRM, won’t require online authentication checks and is coming in £80 ($100) cheaper than the Xbox One, at a more than reasonable £350 for the 500GB hard drive equipped machine (And yes, it ships with a headset in the box, undoing a frequent PS3 frustration – unlike the Xbox One incidentally, which instead includes the divisive KinectOne. Also in the box is an HDMI cable, undoing another PS3 foible). Their hardware is significantly more attractive too, evoking the much-beloved PS2.

Indeed, the only bad news from Sony was them putting multiplayer gaming on the PS4 behind the PSPlus paywall. But with online entertainment services like Netflix still available on the free tier (Unlike on Microsoft’s platforms), and PSPlus being so compelling a service as it is with Instant Game Collection that I was planning to buy at least a year’s worth later his year anyway, I wasn’t particularly phased by that.

You can buy a PS4 and a year’s PSPlus, and be set for a year. You’d get a new game every month, for an upfront cost less than the price of one new boxed game. It’s tremendous value. Which is the key thing here. Xbox One, and the vision of the next generation it follows, and which I was afraid of, is terrible value for money. PS4, in stark contrast, is terrific value for money. I’m on board. Sony, you’re PS4 is my number one pick among next generation hardware.

So where does that leave Nintendo? They went earlier today with a slightly more understated event, a Nintendo Direct @ E3 broadcast. They didn’t blow me away. But nor was I disappointed. Mario Kart 8, the latest entry in my favourite franchise, looks fantastic. Similarly, Super Mario 3DWorld and the new Super Smash Bros pair look like wonderful new games. And the Wind Waker HD remake sure looks pretty, and having not had a chance to play it the first time around anyway, its lack of out-and-out newness doesn’t really bother me. Oh, and on a handheld aside, the new Pokémon games look like must-haves.

5008-mario-kart

Definitely a more attractive slate of exclusives on the Wii U than on the Xbox One, for me at least. I’m still interested in having a Wii U, but now it’s behind the PS4 in the queue, so to speak. A PS4 I am willing to buy any time I can from launch day onwards. With the Wii U, I can wait at least until Mario Kart 8. If Nintendo are smart, they’ll do a Mario Kart 8 bundle, and I’ll probably buy that. It seems likely, given the success they had bundling Mario Kart Wii with the Wii.

So there you have it. E3 2013, when I was successfully brought back into the core gaming fold. Bravo Sony, keep on trucking Nintendo, make Battlefront good EA, for the love of god, just make it good. And Microsoft…Well, there’s always the integration of Bing with Apple’s Siri to console yourself with.

(Oh yeah, that reminds me, iOS 7 adds gamepad support, so AirPlay games are about to get a lot more awesome. That happened yesterday too. It was a busy day.)