Saturday, 14 April 2018

PlayStation 3: The Negative Influence of Externalities


There's an old maxim about patience. The gist of it is that patience is a virtue. Do you know how the maxim goes? "Patience is a virtue". That's how it goes.

Patience is a virtue, especially when investing in video games. Games are often released with masses of bugs that are gradually patched into oblivion, wiping out your saved games in the process. Brand-new games are expensive, and in the absence of any decent gaming journalism there's no way to tell whether a game is any good or not without getting hold of it first. Time is like a blowtorch to bad games. It burns away the dross. The flames don't touch the righteous.

Some good games, plus Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Total cost about £15, versus about £250 if I had bought them new. Not pictured: Batman: Arkham Asylum, Journey, and Thomas Was Alone.

And so it came to pass that only twelve short years after the PlayStation 3 was released, I decided to try it out. Or rather six years. Twelve years. Six years. Nine years. The PlayStation 3 was launched in 2006 but didn't really start to win over the crowd until the Slim model, which was released in 2009. My machine is the final version, the Super-Slim, which was introduced in 2012. At that point the machine was nearing retirement but still had a bit of life left in it. The console's heyday was roughly 2008-2012, but The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V and Journey, among others, were released during the Super-Slim era.

The PlayStation 3 had a famously rough launch. It completely failed to destroy the XBox 360 and for the first three years was even outsold by the PlayStation 2, which had been launched in 2000. Whereas the PlayStation 2 was a major advance over the original PlayStation, the PlayStation 3 felt like more of the same but at a higher resolution and a much higher price. You may have already seen this video, which compiles highlights of Sony's 2006 launch announcement:


Five hundred and ninety-nine dollars was a lot of money in 2006. At launch the console was more than four times the price of a brand-new PlayStation 2 Slim, two hundred dollars more than an XBox 360, twice the launch price of the PlayStation 2 back in 2000. Here in the UK it was £425, particularly galling given that the Sterling/Dollar exchange rate was almost two dollars to the pound at the time. There was a cheaper model with a smaller hard drive, but it wasn't sold in the UK. The UK launch bundle included the cables and a controller and nothing.

Gran Turismo 5 was the first proper Gran Turismo game for the PlayStation 3. It was famously delayed, not coming out until 2010. It's obviously a labour of love although sadly all of the online functionality is now defunct. The PlayStation doesn't have an equivalent of printscreen, but Gran Turismo 5 has an addictive camera mode - you can even change the aperture - that can even take screenshots from replays.

In Sony's defence it was much cheaper than a home theatre system or a gaming PC, but neither of those markets were particularly interested in a games console. Sony didn't care that the console was expensive; the company expected you to work more hours to afford one or take up a second job. As far as Sony was concerned the PlayStation 3 had no competition and would sell five million units even if it there were no games to play with it and no films to watch.

I bought mine mainly as a Blu-Ray player. Zardoz isn't a great Blu-Ray showcase - Geoffrey Unsworth used fog filters and smoke abundantly - and John Boorman's commentary is sourced from the DVD, but it's a fascinating film. Shown here the Twilight Time edition. All the screenshots in this article were taken by photographing the screen. Zardoz is not yet a computer game but the material is there.

And yet over the next decade the PlayStation 3 gradually shed its image as an overpriced lemon. I imagine that if you were born after the year 2000 you probably remember the console more fondly than I do. Looking back it has an enviable list of triumphs. Despite the high price it sold tens of millions of units and, although it was outsold by by XBox 360, the gap was tiny and the XBox had a one-year head start. It established Blu-Ray as the sole high-def optical disc format. Its exclusive titles included Gran Turismo 5, God of War III, The Last of Us and Uncharted 2, classics all. It was for a while Netflix's most popular client. Its hardware formed the basis of a supercomputer. It was a solid DVD player, a decent media server, and if you block the ventilation fans it will also toast bread.


But it'll always be tainted by the scent of failure, or at the very least unfulfilled promise. Against it, the console began life with an unimpressive range of games; it took years for the aforementioned classics to come out; it was expensive; it was expensive to make; it had a complicated architecture that promised much but at best only delivered parity with the competition; it was difficult to develop for; some of its most interesting features were removed from later versions of the console; it failed to destroy the Microsoft XBox 360; and on a broader level it embodied everything that had gone wrong with Sony. The company began the decade as a well-loved consumer electronics giant that seemed to "get it", but ended the decade as an unwieldy giant with a reputation for technical eccentricity and a range of products designed by different departments that didn't want to compete with each other.

The first two models had a slot-loading Blu-Ray drive. The Super Slim has a top-loader, plus a smaller case with simpler internals. It has a smaller power supply and uses less power than the other machines, and used machines are just newer. According to my voltmeter, this Super Slim model draws 65w idling and around 73w when playing Fallout 3, less than half the original 2006 fat model.

Most PlayStation 3s came with a standard 2.5" SATA laptop hard drive, which was user-replaceable. My model - a late budget variant only sold in Europe - has a 12gb flash drive built onto the motherboard. I think it was an experiment created in response to the flooding in Thailand that raised hard drive prices. Although PlayStation 3 games mostly stream from the Blu-Ray, 12gb still isn't enough for more than a couple of games. But the hard drive bay is fully functional and it's easy to add a hard drive.

You do however need to get hold of a hard drive bracket, but they're available on eBay for a fiver including postage. The PlayStation 3 formats the drive, and then asks if you want to transfer everything across from the 12gb internal storage; you can't use both storage media at the same time.

Let's talk about the technology. The PlayStation 3 used a novel new CPU - the Cell Broadband Engine - that had been designed by Sony, Toshiba, and IBM. It was essentially a multi-core development of the PowerPC 970 that appeared in the Apple Power Macintosh G5, but with a twist. The Cell combined a single-core 64-bit PowerPC Power Processing Element with eight Synergistic Processing Units, which were little number-crunchers that could operate on blocks of data in parallel. Six of them were available to developers. The theory was that some tasks could be offloaded to the SPUs, but doing so effectively required a lot of planning and know-how, and quite often games were ported to the console without making much use of the SPUs at all. This was unfortunate because the single-core PPE was, shorn of the SPUs, not particularly powerful. It was designed to be simple and power-efficient and lacked features that were standard in contemporary Athlon and Pentium 4 desktop CPUs.

I don't know what any of this means either. It sounds authoritative, that's what matters. Besides, it's not the truth that matters, it's what you believe. Apparently if you add vegetable oil to coffee it moisturises your skin. That's what I've read. Is it true? It would be awkward for cosmetics companies if it was. Draw your own conclusions from that. That's an example of propaganda, by the way. I'm subtly implying that cosmetics companies are suppressing super-secret knowledge to which only I am party. The powers that be have an advantage over you. They have a helicopter hovering above with thermal vision, and they have a plan. Right and wrong doesn't come into it. The only purpose of power is power. You might evade the helicopter's gaze for a while, but you're just an individual.

But anyway, Sony had high hopes for the Cell. The company had a dream that it would be a major technical leap over the competition and that in the near future your home would be full of Cell-powered devices that could link up with each other. There were even rumours that the Cell would be powerful enough to make graphics cards redundant, although in the end this didn't happen. The PlayStation 3's GPU was a cut-down variation of the almost-two-year-old NVidia GeForce 7800. The GPU had 256mb of memory; the rest of the PS3 had 256mb of memory to share between the Cell's main CPU and its SPUs. The lack of main memory and relatively weak graphics card were a continual bone of contention with developers. There was a perception that the console was terrific at modelling colliding galaxies but not particularly outstanding for games.


The PlayStation 3's GUI was called the XrossMediaBar. It's pronounced CrossMediaBar because the letter X is pronounced C in Sony's world. You push left or right to switch between games, films, online services, system settings etc, up and down to select options. It's not bad although occasionally sluggish, and the system menu is too big. The PlayStation Store is a buggy mess that crashes if you select "view downloads" if you don't have any downloads.

The PS3's arch-rival was the XBox 360, which was launched a year earlier. The XBox 360's architecture was simpler than the PlayStation 3. It had a three-core IBM PowerPC chip, apparently a variation of the Cell's PPE, that shared a common pool of 512mb memory with a powerful, custom-made graphics card supplied by ATI. Developers found it relatively easy to grasp the XBox 360's architecture, and as a consequence many non-Sony-exclusive titles were built for the XBox 360 and then simply ported to the PlayStation 3's single-core main CPU without using the SPUs. Reviewers often pointed out that XBox games had better anti-aliasing and ran at slightly higher resolutions than the PlayStation 3 equivalents, with the poorly-optimised port of Half-Life 2 coming in for particular criticism.

PlayStation fans blamed lazy devs, but now that all of the PlayStation 3's AAA titles have been and gone even the best-looking and best-optimised PlayStation 3 games were no better-looking or more powerful than their XBox 360 equivalents. The PlayStation 3 had Blu-Ray playback, standard SATA hard drives vs the XBox's proprietary units, a lower albeit still troublesome failure rate, but ultimately the XBox 360 was the better console. The original XBox was solid but mostly an irrelevance; with the XBox 360 Microsoft tried harder, and pulled off one of the most impressive turnarounds in video gaming history. And then ironically the company repeated most of Sony's mistakes with the XBox One, but that's another story entirely.

A filthy dirty DualShock 3. The PlayStation 3 was launched with the SIXAXIS, which looked the same but didn't have a rumble pack. Legal problems, apparently. As a PC person I'm used to keyboard and mouse, but the PlayStation's controller is a decent go at solving the problem of a compact, easily portable, handheld flexible control system.

There was a third player in the console wars. The Nintendo Wii was dismissed by young male games fans as a toy for children and grown-ups because it was less powerful and came in a white case and the pack-in game involved dancing around the living room with a motion-sensing remote control. It wasn't cool. It was however a terrific sales success, and whereas the XBox and PlayStation were sold at a loss the Wii was profitable. Rumour had it that the console was essentially a Nintendo Gamecube with expanded memory and a faster processor but otherwise very few changes. Nintendo made a fortune from the Wii which it almost almost immediately wasted on the Wii U but again that's another story.

The success of the Wii caught Sony and Microsoft off-guard. It prompted both companies to launch their own motion-sensing technology - Sony's even tried twice, firstly with the SIXAXIS controller and latterly with the PlayStation Move - although neither of them caught the public's imagination to the same extent as the Wii. The Move still exists but Kinect was discontinued at the end of 2017. I have long been a home computer person, and for me games consoles are background noise, but even I was aware of the Nintendo Wii. It was covered in the national news. For a brief moment Nintendo was the smart underdog that gave the people what they wanted, and Sony and Microsoft were big unfriendly giants pushing the console equivalents of the Ford Excursion.

The PlayStation 3 was launched at a time when advertisements always had a black man and white woman smiling at each other on a couch, or there was an ambiguously far-eastern-looking woman instead of the white woman. It was an attempt to cover as many bases as possible with just two people.
I always felt sorry for the people who never appeared in adverts - black women, Asian men, far-eastern-Asian men. I guess that from an advertiser's point of view black women aren't "general-purpose people", they're a specialist market.
This advert includes a euro-hispanic man, who is scruffy in a way that suggests his parents are extremely wealthy. Notice how he is pushing his black friend out of the frame.

As a used buy in 2018 the PS3 is in an interesting place. Sony still supports it online although the video service will be discontinued next month. There's a dwindling trickle of new games although at this point the console is suffering the same "death by football games" that happens at the end of a system's life. Although it was released at the beginning of the always-online broadband age it doesn't require an internet connection to play games, so even if Sony pulls the plug disc-based titles won't become non-functional. It remains to be seen what will happen to downloaded games. Patching freshly-installed disc-based games might be a problem. It took a few years for developers to get to grips with the PlayStation 3, and the pace of technical advances in games development has slowed drastically over the last decade, with the result that the console's best titles don't feel a decade old today. Sony sold millions of units so there is a steady supply of used models. Blu-Ray never took off to the same extent as DVD. It was in theory replaced in 2016 by Ultra-HD Blu-Ray, a 4K format, and it'll be interesting to see if (a) people who waited before switching to Blu-Ray skip it entirely in favour of UHD Blu-Ray (b) people give up in confusion and abandon optical media entirely (c) people decide to stick with Blu-Ray and stream films in 4K instead. The modern-day PlayStation 4 and XBox One have Blu-Ray drives, although only the 4K models of the XBox One have a 4K Blu-Ray drive.

The PlayStation 3 is nowhere near old enough to be a retro collectable, although I suspect that as with the original XBox or the Atari Jaguar it will never develop a collector's market. That air of failure again.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Let's describe the PlayStation 3. There were three basic body styles, each of which had a bunch of internal revisions as Sony desperately tried to get the cost down. There are some commonalities. All models play all PlayStation 3 games although the 12gb flash model might not have space to install Gran Turismo 5. They also run PlayStation 1 games with software emulation. All models have a region-locked Blu-Ray drive and an internal hard drive bay that accepts 2.5" SATA hard drives, apparently up to 1tb in capacity. All models had two or four USB 2.0 ports that accepted mice and keyboards for use with the browser and user interface plus USB sticks and external hard drives, albeit FAT32 only. Of note only a tiny handful of actual games - two in total, as far as I can tell, including Unreal Tournament 3 - supported the mouse.

The original body was huge and resembled a George Foreman grill. The console's name was written in exactly the same font as the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies because they were released by Sony pictures and why not. It had a front-loading Blu-Ray drive with a motor that swallowed and ejected discs. Internally it was a mass of heat shields and heat pipes that resembled a steel smelting plant, with a huge fan. Early models had four USB ports; later revisions removed two of the ports; all subsequent models had two ports. The 2009 Slim model had a smaller, simpler case but was otherwise very similar. The 2012 Super-Slim was even smaller, and swapped the motorised Blu-Ray drive for a manually operated top-loading model with a spring-loaded drive cover. Sony apparently lost over $200 on the fat PlayStation, $18 on the Slim model, and turned a slight profit on the Super-Slim.

The console also plays DVDs. It will upscale for HD. The results are subtler than I expected - you could leave the option turned on without it being offensive - although I'm not particularly keen on post-processing. NB Not every film I own has Sean Connery in it. This is Outland, a decent but inconsequential mash-up of Alien (the design) and High Noon (the plot).

Early consoles were prone to overheating, which caused the solder balls connecting the CPU and GPU to the motherboard to crack, bricking the unit. This could apparently be fixed, at least temporarily, by heating the chips up enough to melt the solder, but as of 2018 I imagine it's not worth the bother. The first two models of the original, fat PlayStation 3 - the 40gb and 60gb launch models - also contained the CPU and GPU of a PlayStation 2 and were fully compatible with PlayStation 2 games. The next two models crippled PlayStation 2 functionality and all subsequent models dropped it entirely.

The original, fat PlayStation 3 and early Slim models could run Linux. The official PlayStation 3 distribution was Yellow Dog Linux, although other distributions could apparently be made to work. With only 256mb of memory and no access to the NVidia GPU the results were not pretty, although a number of high-performance computer clusters were built on PlayStation 3's running Linux. The console's supercomputer applications made for good press but actually hurt Sony's bottom line because the units were sold at a loss and particle physicists were not allowed to use their grant money on games and films so the more consoles Sony sold the more money the company lost breathe in. Sadly in 2010 Sony released a firmware update that disabled Linux support. If there's a way to install Linux on the PlayStation 3 in 2018 I haven't found it. The machine can apparently be jailbroken to run pirated games, but as of 2018 used titles are so cheap there's not really any point.


I still have my old PlayStation Doom disc. The PlayStation 3 emulates the PlayStation with software. The console version of Doom is fascinating. It has a creepy ambient soundtrack and some transparency effects (top) and coloured lighting (bottom). Note also the distant computer consoles in the bottom screenshot, which have a fullbright effect absent from other versions of the game. The changes from the PC original are subtle but the make PlayStation Doom feel more like a horror game than pure action.

The equivalent scenes from the PC original, running with the ZDoom source port. Irritatingly the price of used PlayStation games has gone up of late because they're now "collectibles".

Games. One criticism levelled at the PlayStation 3 during its early days was a lack of games. The console was released in time for Christmas 2006 but had a very small launch range without an obvious flagship title. People who queued up to buy the PlayStation 3 had to wait years for their favourite franchises to make their debuts on the console - two years for Metal Gear Solid 5, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Tomb Raider Underworld, three years for Resident Evil 5 and Final Fantasy XIII, no less than four years for Gran Turismo 5 and God of War III. The wait for Gran Turismo 5 was particularly embarrassing given that its predecessors had been the PlayStation's most popular system-exclusive titles. In the interim the developers released Gran Turismo HD Concept, a severely cut-down demo that remained on sale for less than a year, and Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, another cut-down demo that sold over five million copies but felt like an act of desperation. The great thing about waiting until 2018 is that all of the aforementioned are instantly available.

On the positive side - and this is what saved the PlayStation 3, in the end - the aforementioned titles were popular and critically well-received. The PlayStation 3 had an unusually large number of very good AAA titles, including new exclusives such as the Uncharted series, Heavy Rain, LittleBigPlanet, and late-period triumph The Last of Us, plus solid ports of Red Dead Redemption, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and Grand Theft Auto V, which remains the biggest-selling game on the platform by a large margin. A few ports were criticised for bugs, although having played Fallout 3 for a few hours this seems overblown. On the negative side most of the multi-platform titles sold more copies on the XBox 360, although as time went on and PlayStation 3 sales increased the margin narrowed. The worst that could be said of the PS3's games library is that there was an overreliance on franchise entries - Madden and FIFA accounted for no less than twenty-two PS3 titles, essentially one per franchise per year from 2006-2017 onwards - but that problem wasn't unique to the PS3.

PlayStation fans often complained of a lack of exclusive titles for the PS3. For people who weren't interested in Blu-Ray and didn't care about Gran Turismo the PlayStation 3 was essentially a more expensive XBox 360 with the same games, so what was the point? There are essentially two kinds of exclusive titles. There are titles that are released for one platform because other platforms don't have the technology to do it justice, but this was never a factor for the PlayStation 3. There are also titles released for one platform because the publishers have signed a deal not to port the game elsewhere. In this case the the PlayStation 3's inability to convincingly outsell the XBox 360 meant that Sony found itself in a position of weakness when it came to the negotiating table; in particular Square Enix' decision to release Final Fantasy XIII for the XBox 360 as well as the PlayStation 3 seemed like a vote against the console, and Rockstar Games' contractual obligation to release all versions of their Grand Theft Auto games at the same time irritated fans of the series who had to wait while the company wrestled with the Cell processor.

The Blu-Ray drive. This one has two lenses, one for Blu-Rays and one for CDs and DVDs. The original PlayStation 3 had a single lens with a beam splitter, but this was presumably more expensive or more complicated than just having two lenses.

There's also the issue of style. The Dreamcast may not have had the graphical horsepower of the PlayStation 2, but my recollection is that it had a tonne of games with interesting visuals. There was the cell-shaded Jet Set Radio - a cliché later on, but refreshingly novel at the time - the glossy Space Channel 5, and the psychedelic Rez and Cosmic Smash amongst others. Until the late-period indie renaissance of Journey and Thomas Was Alone I don't recall many PlayStation 3 games that had the same sense of style. Some games looked fantastic, notably God of War III, but there's a difference between scale and style; the former tends to date whereas the latter sticks in the mind. The PlayStation 3 lived and died at a time when the market had shifted towards identical-looking sandy-brown military simulators or graphically uniform fantasy games with rusted brown armour.

The PlayStation 3 did have one thing that the competition didn't, however. It could play Blu-Ray discs. This was supposed to drive sales of the console in the same way that DVD had driven sales of the PlayStation 2, and also encourage consumers to pop out and buy a 40-inch high-def Sony Bravia television in order to fully appreciate 1080p. Blu-Ray quickly beat HD-DVD to win the HD format war, but the hardware added greatly to the console's cost and with every passing year it seemed as if the war had been pointless. As a casual viewing format the jump from 480p to 1080p was less apparent than the leap from VHS to DVD, and furthermore consumers were sick of having to buy the same films yet again.

Blu-Ray also introduced a copy protection feature that prevented HD playback unless the console was connected to a television or monitor with a HDMI cable. If the console was connected with analogue composite or component cables Blu-Ray output was scaled down to DVD resolution. The final version of the console even disabled Blu-Ray playback entirely unless there was a HDMI connection to the television. It was supposed to stop piracy but it just added additional layers of faff. Furthermore the launch model was bundled with analogue cables, so I wonder if millions of PlayStation 3 owners are, to this day, playing Blu-Rays at DVD resolution without realising.


As a PC person I ignored Blu-Ray entirely. Playing DVD films on a PC is easy - VLC will do it - but Blu-Rays require special software, and you can't make screen captures (for example). As a means of backing up data it's much less portable than DVD. Notably Apple never got fully behind Blu-Ray, and to this day no Apple computer has a Blu-Ray drive. Furthermore despite having much greater capacity than DVD, 50gb vs 4.7gb, Blu-Ray was released at a time when 500gb hard drives were common and 1tb models were on the horizon, in which case 50gb was a drop in the ocean.

As a games delivery medium the extra space eliminated the need for disc swapping, which was nice although not a system-selling feature. As of 2018 DVD still outsells Blu-Ray by a large margin, and both formats are being slowly killed off by streaming video. DVD and DVD burners are more widespread, and even the resolution advantage can be mitigated by burning MP4 files to DVD.

Uncharted 2 was praised for its cutscenes. By objective standards they're just as badly-written, indifferently-acted, awful-looking and dramatically unnecessary as any other cutscenes, but perhaps the competition was very weak. Do you remember how in Raiders of the Lost Ark we learned almost nothing about Indiana Jones, but he was immediately appealing because Harrison Ford is a charismatic actor and the script was well-written?
Computer games are the opposite of that, and Uncharted's Nathan Drake is no exception. Masses of meaningless backstory, pages of boring dialogue, awful video game acting with flailing arms, no charisma.

Incidentally the PlayStation 3 was, as far as I can tell, the very first Blu-Ray player. Sony's standalone BDP-S1 was released shortly afterwards at a higher price, £700 here in the UK versus £425 for a PlayStation 3. It was aimed at the high-end AV market and had masses of connectors but even so it illustrates just how much the Blu-Ray drive contributed to the PlayStation 3's cost, and also that if you really wanted Blu-Ray drive the Playstation 3 was a relative bargain. As mentioned earlier in the article most multi-platform games actually sold better on the XBox 360, but the PlayStation 3 managed to sell almost as many units because many people bought it as a multimedia device.

You know, it's fascinating to imagine how things might have gone if I, Ashley Pomeroy, had been around to sort out the PlayStation 3. During the 2000s MIPS and PowerPC and SPARC were rapidly overtaken by ARM (for mobile) and x86 (on the desktop). The PlayStation 3 was launched about a year after Apple transitioned from the IBM PowerPC to x86, specifically the Intel Core Duo, and the modern XBox One and PlayStation 4 both use x86-compatible processors manufactured by AMD. Assuming I could travel back in time to 2004 or so and assume dictatorial powers over Sony, I would have been tempted to build the PlayStation 3 around a low-voltage Intel Core Duo, or if that wasn't yet on the drawing board I would use a Pentium M, plus a monster graphics card, as much shared memory as I could afford, and a DVD drive. Eliminating the Cell would have saved a fortune in development costs. Eliminating the Blu-Ray drive would have kept the cost of the console down.

The resulting machine would have resembled a contemporary PC laptop without a screen or keyboard but with a much much better graphs card, so I would further cut costs by merging the PlayStation design team with the Viao laptop team, sacking one-third of the staff in the process. My PlayStation 3 would have been conceptually similar to the XBox, but with OpenGL/PSGL instead of DirectX as its graphics API. Assuming I was still around in 2009 I would have thought about adding a hopefully-now-cheaper Blu-Ray drive to the Slim model as an added incentive to buy the console.

As a PC person I'm used to multi-gigabyte patches. But this is just the first of twenty-seven patches that Gran Turismo V installs! Admittedly none of them are as large, but still. And even after patching the game you still have the optional-but-not-really step of installing 6gb of data to the PlayStation's hard drive.
Having said that, Doom 2016 for the PC is a mandatory 65gb hard drive install, so Gran Turismo V's installation seems almost quaint now.

Of course, in real life I didn't have dictatorial powers over Sony in 2005, and there was a mass of behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty driving the company's decision-making process, and it's entirely possible that a well-received PlayStation 3 wouldn't have made a dent in Sony's massive losses. Sony's top men presumably felt that the PlayStation 3 was highly "synergistic", but what was needed was a well-respected figure who was prepared to tell Sony that the Blu-Ray drive was a distraction, that the Cell's vector processing power didn't make any sense inside a television, and that the PlayStation 3 should be remembered by history as a top games machine first and a converged multimedia device second. Historically this is the approach used by Nintendo, and although the results haven't always been successful my hunch is that devising strategy for a games machine is a lot easier and less prone to the negative influence of externalities than devising strategy for an amorphous entertainment hub.

But what about the games? There were apparently over 1,500 titles for the PlayStation 3, plus a few hundred PlayStation 2 titles that were ported to the console with software emulation. In the next post I will talk about some of them. But for now I have reached the end of words. Hurry up, it's time.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Bomarzo, Monster Park II: Kodak Ektachrome

"Rah! I'm a monstah!"

Last month I went off to Bomarzo in Italy to see the Parco dei Mostri, an attractive park dotted with monstrous stone sculptures created in the late 1500s. I took along my Fujica Half half-frame camera and some Kodak Pro Image film, and also some Kodak Ektachrome that expired a long time ago, viz:



Bomarzo is an awkward day trip from Rome but entirely doable by public transport. I have done it myself, and now I can look myself in the mirror and say "I know de way", like Ugandan Knuckles. Do you remember Ugandan Knuckles? All the way back in January 2018 it became fashionable amongst young people to gatecrash a set of virtual communities with an avatar that resembled Sega's popular Knuckles character, but deformed, while delivering quotations from Who Killed Captain Alex?, a low-budget Ugandan action film. Thus Ugandan Knuckles. The fad flourished briefly in the first month of 2018. Two months later I almost feel nostalgic for it.



Uganda has a surprisingly productive albeit underfunded film industry, which seems to have embraced the audience participation elements of Rocky Horror and DJ toasting etcetera. Ugandan film-makers don't have access to much money, so inevitably they major in exploitation films, violent action and horror, and what's wrong with that? I grew up watching violent action and horror films on videotape, especially if they had nudity, such as for example The Howling or Lifeforce, and there's nothing wrong with me.


The mouth has a surprisingly big table inside. I changed film on the table.

Sadly the Ugandan government isn't keen on the other thing and has funded an anti-pornography committee to the tune of half a million dollars, which is probably more money than the total budget of all Ugandan films made in any given year. I learn that the Ugandan government has spent almost ninety thousand dollars importing a pornography detection machine from South Korea, which is ridiculous given that teenage boys will eagerly do the job for free.

As a consequence of this Uganda is badly unnderrepresented on Pornhub, indeed half of Pornhub's returns for "uganda" are actually Ugandan Knuckles uploads, which aren't even porn. I maintain that it's not government initiatives that bring people of different creeds, colours, and religions together, it is instead pornography and drugs and rock and roll and Counter-Strike and so forth. "We are two of soul".



The mainstream media was convinced that Ugandan Knuckles was bad because it was racist, and so if I do decide to look myself in the mirror and say "I know de way" I will make sure that no-one is watching me. History will look back at a time when Western society decided to ban a cartoon frog and wonder what went wrong.

After visiting Bomarzo, which I have described already and I'm not going to do it again, I returned to Rome, but the light was fading. There are continual rumours that what remains of Kodak is going to reintroduce Ektachrome - the company discontinued its entire slide film range several years ago, leaving Fuji as the world's sole remaining manufacturer of slide film - but I'll believe it when I see it and I won't rejoice all that much. Ektachrome itself was okay, essentially a budget alternative to Kodachrome that was easier to develop. When it was a thing it was often criticised for being a bit flat and pale, and when Fuji inroduced the dense, hypersaturated Velvia in 1990 landscape and advertising photographers switched to that instead. Kodak attempted to compete with "high saturation" versions of Ektachrome but it was too little, too late, and of course it was ultimately for nothing because the problem facing Kodak wasn't weak slide film, the end








Sunday, 18 March 2018

Running Unreal Tournament 1999 in Windows 10


A while back I had a look at The Long Dark, a fascinating survival game that takes place in the snowy wilderness of Canada. You are a man, or a woman - sadly the game others transfolk - trapped in Canada after the electricity has failed. The temperature is minus twenty degrees centigrade and the wolves are very hungry.

I played the game during a cold winter here in the UK but I never thought I would experience it for real. However over the last month Britain has been devastated by almost three inches of snow on two separate occasions, with temperatures in the south of the country dipping as low as minus figures. The north has been affected as well, but they're used to it.


Conditions have been so bad that I had to go out to the shops on several occasions to buy some food. Indoors I began to suffer from cabin fever until it dawned on me that I have a television and the internet and a computer and indeed everything that I normally have.

In The Long Dark you can only pass time by sleeping or playing cards with yourself, but I have Unreal Tournament 1999. Or rather, I used to have Unreal Tournament 1999.


Everybody remembers CTF-Face, "Facing Worlds". The modelling is minimalistic but the scale is impressive and it's great fun. The music probably did more to introduce the US audience to drum'n'bass than anything else. Unreal Tournament dates from a time when computer games depicted women as fantasy sex objects; how times have changed.

In the nineteen years since I bought the game I seem to have mislaid the discs. Back then there was an arch-rivalry between the two leading first person shooters. In the blue corner was Id Software's Quake, which was fast-paced, uncomplicated, action-packed, but visually very drab. In the left corner Unreal, which was a visual and aural feast but boring to play.

Unreal was an awkward mess, with some clever ideas and a few memorable setpieces marred by a perfunctory storyline and gameplay that mostly consisted of running around large empty maps for ages shooting one or two baddies ever few minutes. At the time I remember thinking that it was a great demonstration of the underlying game engine but not a great game, and indeed the Unreal engine is still very successful today, and has essentially outlasted the Unreal franchise.

The music was actually written by Michiel van den Bos. I've always assumed that Unreal's use of Soundtracker / MOD / Demoscene musicians was just a cost-saving measure - other games had "real" music - but the soundtrack remains one of the game's most memorable features.

As a single-player game Quake also had problems, but it was a huge success as a multiplayer title. The compact levels and uncomplicated gameplay lent themselves to quick bursts of action, and it seemed for a while that single-player games were old fashioned and that multiplayer games were the future. Quake and Unreal both had multiplayer sequels; Quake III Arena was extremely popular at the time, but I greatly preferred Unreal Tournament. It had masses of diverse levels, plus bot AI that felt more natural than the cursor-tracking-through-walls bots of Quake III.



I mention bots because I have never, to this day, played either of those games against other human beings. Back in 1999 I didn't have broadband internet, in fact very few people did, and I wasn't prepared to drive my tower PC across north London to attend a LAN party. Furthermore there was no way a contemporary laptop - affordable or otherwise - could play either game at a decent speed. Nonetheless UT was and remains an entertaining single-player experience, which is good given that there are very few servers around today.

What happened to Unreal? The single-player, story-driven Unreal begat an unimpressive sequel in 2003 and then died off. Unreal Tournament however remained popular for a few years after that, but faded away after the third instalment in 2007. The problem is that old-fashioned arena-style "twitch" shooters fell out of fashion - the Quake franchise also died off, at roughly the same time - and at the risk of opening a massive can of worms I have always assumed that games consoles had something to do with it, not least because publisher Epic Megagames seemed to give up on Unreal after the success of XBox cover shooter Gears of War.



In the 2000s games consoles achieved rough technical parity with PCs, to a point where games were often developed for the console first and then ported to PCs, which irritated PC gamers who suddenly found that their beloved PC originals (notably Deus Ex) had become streamlined and cut-down despite running on PC hardware. Furthermore console controllers were never any good for first-person shooters, and the big console FPSes were generally very linear. When I was young no-one spoke of games in terms of the hours spent to complete them. The thought of a game having a "twenty-hour campaign" made no sense - you could play Civilization for as long as you wanted. But console games tended to have very linear campaigns, with replayability encouraged not by the chance to explore new parts of the game, but instead by the chance to tick a few virtual boxes and unlock a special player skin.

Meanwhile the multiplayer components were aimed at ordinary, casual people who were not prepared to dedicate their entire waking lives to perfecting their mouse aiming skills and learning the optimal track to take through certain levels. Casual gamers. Filthy casuals. People who play games purely for entertainment. Eww.

I pity those people. As I sit here in 2018 freezing and alone in a damp-ridden bedsit, diabetes long having taken my ability to sustain an erection, my threadbare pyjamas exuding the ammonia smell of urine, I can console myself with the knowledge that I know CTF-Niven back to front. Unlike those saddoes who only play games for fun. They wasted their lives having fun and building relationships and learning useful skills; I invested my time wisely by studying CTF-Niven in UnrealEd so that I knew exactly where everything was, and by training myself to use the shock rifle's alternate fire consistently.


Still, after going through all of my old CD/DVD wallets and dismantling all the cardboard boxes and chairs in my house - I ended up with lots of tinder and reclaimed wood, and I found a rifle bullet underneath one of the boxes - I eventually gave up and bought the game again from Steam, for £5.99, two pounds cheaper than from Good Old Games. I imagine it's freely available via Bittorrent. £5.99 is a small price to pay to take my mind off the thought that the only people with whom I have regular social contact are the employees at McDonalds.

The ones behind the collection counter, not the tills; I use the self-service checkouts, because that way I don't have to interact with anybody. Diabetic people eventually start bleeding in the eyes, and they go blind and their feet rot off. I console myself with the thought that if I die my body will not go undiscovered; the people in the bedsit beneath me will smell my rotting flesh through the hole in the corner of the toilet area, besides which the next rent payment will fail anyway because I have spent so much money on computer games.



The Actual Point of the Blog Post
But anyway. Back in 1999 my PC ran Windows 98 SE, with an overclocked 32-bit single-core Celeron 300A, 512mb of memory, and a 3DFX Voodoo Banshee that used the Glide API. Probably at 800x600, or perhaps 1024x768 on a 4:3 15" monitor. Even back then I had given up hope of losing my virginity; neither a sustained relationship nor a random fling were ever going to happen, and I had neither the guts nor the money to pay for it. The Glide API is long-dead, as is 3DFX, but UT supports OpenGL and Direct3D as well. And software rendering! Which doesn't work.

Nowadays however my PC runs Windows 10, with a 64-bit quad-core i5-2500K, 8gb of memory, and a GTX 750. It says something about how times have changed that I don't bother listing CPU clock speeds. No-one cares about clock speeds any more. UT still works today, but at least when bought from Steam it requires a bit of tweaking, although surprisingly it doesn't seem to have a problem working on one monitor of a multi-monitor setup.

Firstly resolution. The game was made when 1600x1200 was extraordinary, and the main menu doesn't go up to 1920x1080. Pop open your UT directory, which is in Steam\steamapps\common\Unreal Tournament\System, but can more easily be reached from Steam by right-clicking on UT, selecting Properties - Local Files - Browse Local Files:


Now scroll down to UnrealTournament.ini and pop it open with Notepad. Say it loud, "I'm black, and I'm proud", and scroll down to the WinDrc.WindowsClient section, and change the FullscreenViewportX and FullscreenViewportY values to your native desktop resolution. In this example I have also changed WindowedViewportX and Y so that it runs in a full-screen-sized window:



Save the file and pop open User.ini. Scroll down to the Engine.PlayerPawn section and find the lines that say DesiredFOV and DefaultFOV. Off the top of my head they default to something like 90. Change it to 95, or 100, accepting that the weapon models might look odd. The reason for this is that UT was built for 4:3 monitors and looks zoomed-in with widescreen displays.


You can go mad with this setting. A value of 170 makes the game look like a defished fisheye image, which doesn't change the fact that you will not be saved by the Holy Ghost, or by the god Plutonium, in fact you will not be saved:


For comparison, a shot I took in the Vatican museum earlier in the year with a fisheye lens, defished.

There's something else. I find it more comfortable to run Windows 10 with a higher desktop scaling factor so that I can lean back a bit:


As you can see I have the desktop scaled to 125% normal size. UT gets confused by this and cuts off the right-and-bottom edges of its display. Pop open the UT folder again and find UnrealTournament.exe. Right-click it and select Properties - Compatibility, and tick the box that currently says "Override high DPI scaling behaviour", with scaling performed by the application:



At this point UT works. Or should work. Are there high-resolution texture packs? Probably, but I can't be bothered; I don't play UT to look at decals. You might want to go to UT's preferences window and tick font size - double:


And that's it. You can now play Unreal Tournament 1999. I'll probably pop it open and play it for an hour and then never again. Nineteen years further on I will look back at this blog post. The images will be broken; the text will only be available via an archive. I will be unable to comprehend the words, or recognise that my former self wrote them. I will reach out my hand to the screen and then violently throw it away, knocking my soup onto the floor, and when the care assistant returns she will be very upset. She will turn the computer off.