Category Archives: Gaming

Acer Predator Laptops Not For Ctrl Swappers Or Cap-Alt-ers

If you’re someone who likes to move the Ctrl key to your home row using Caps Lock, or you like custom Caps+Alt macros, then Acer’s gaming laptops may not for you. Unless of course you don’t need Ctrl+Alt+A or Caps+Alt+A, because that that physical caps-with-alt-a combo is the one and only that won’t work:

Most users may think this is a very niche complaint. But password managers like KeePass default to the Ctrl+Alt+A combo for auto-typing, a feature which may be the only alternative when paste blocking and in-browser add-on’s won’t do. Ctrl+Alt combos are also useful for streaming and power users who want global hotkeys that break out of the scope of programs on Microsoft Windows. Gaming too often requires pressing many keys at once, so much so that the term N-key Rollover was coined. And since the Predator series of laptops targets gaming, it is strange to see such a oddly narrow gap in models that cost $2,000+ USD.

Caps-as-ctrl is also a fairly well known arrangement, so much so there is even a highly ranked article disputing its benefits. It’s an arrangement I’ve enjoyed on-and-off for years, and until now had never seen a keyboard which did not allow the physical caps-alt-a combo.

If you’re a consumer consider yourself warned. If you’re a manufacturer then please better educate your level-1 support, and thoroughly test features important to your target demographic. Because top-shelf consumers may go elsewhere when faced with beta testing your hardware.

Uneven Game Difficulty Hinders Accessibility

Getting stuck in a game can be an opportunity to rise to the challenge or be so annoying it feels like a waste of time to keep trying again and again. Everyone has their own threshold and unique mixture of abilities, which makes well-balanced difficulty options so critical to a product’s accessibility.

Boss fights in the original release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution were unpopular because they broke the difficulty curve so badly. For a game series with a reputation for player choice the game launched with only one way to defeat each boss, and with lethal force being the only option. Thankfully later updates provided more options, making it more consistent with the rest of the experience.

Too often the difficulty adjustments in games fall into similar traps when they focus solely on easy tweaks, like making enemies easier to eliminate or the player more resilient. Other game mechanics or mini-games such as puzzles are left largely unchanged which breaks the flow for players more interested in exploration, or less clever than their compatriots. And while I respect designers’ desire to craft an experience and set expectations, it’s hard to justify inconsistent difficulty levels as gaming audiences grow to include people with less free time and varying abilities.

Watch Dogs is another example of a game which feels like it’s only difficult adjustment is rudimentary nerfing, buffing, and timer tweaks. While I appreciated the mission variety and many of the challenges, aspects like tightly timed chases, enemies with supernatural bursts of speed, and nearly impossible to escape police and ‘fixers’ were often infuriating. Even the age-old tradition of cheat codes were unavailable here. Some game guides resorted to suggesting workarounds like shooting out a window then hiding for notoriety boasts, or swimming out into open water to escape.

Considering the resource constraints of smaller development shops it is easier to accept uneven difficulty in their releases. However, larger studios have no excuse; except perhaps ignorance, greed, or laziness. In this age of day-one patches there is little reason not to at least update a product found to have uneven gameplay, even if only to patch in some cheats. Consumers should not have to resort to 3rd-party hacks developed by the community to fully enjoy their purchase.

What do you think? What has your experience been with games and their difficulty levels?

Single Player Commandments

As someone who enjoys older games a story campaign is often critical since multiplayer communities have typically already moved on. Yet it’s hard to overlook some advances in game usability when going back to the past. Now technically these commandments are meant to address campaigns, whether solo or co-op. Still, whether making a new game or remastering an old one, designers please consider these guidelines to avoid frustrating your players.

I. Thou shalt not require Internet
An Internet connection requirement for a campaign is the bane of traveling and rural players who may not have the access or bandwidth to enjoy your game. Neglecting local-network and couch co-op is similarly frustrating for these gamers.

II. Thou shalt always allow pause and skip
Being able to pause at all times is important to gamers with families and responsibilities that may interrupt play. Similarly being able to skip cut-scenes or non-core gameplay helps avoid frustration. Otherwise one may feel forced to miss critical scenes or re-experience the same thing over and over. Ideally players can even rewind, replay, and fast-forward non-interactive cut-scenes.

III. Thou shalt auto-save frequently
Automatically saving at milestones is one helpful feature of many modern games. More frequently is better, though only when there is more than one auto-save slot. If nothing else then auto-saving when a player exits—even during a cut-scene—is better than burdening players with the fear-of-missing-out.

IV. Thou shalt quick save and load anywhere
Providing easy and customizable access to a quick save and quick load is even better than auto-save. It functions as a kind of permanent pause and resume helping players feel they are in control of the experience. This too should include saving and reloading in the midst of a cut-scene.

V. Thou shalt allow changing difficulty at any time
Easier difficulty modes are essential for busy and novice gamers, yet without the ability to change the difficulty players can be trapped hours into a path ultimately too boring or frustrating for them. If resources allow then the option to automatically nerf or buff the difficulty is best, so long as the player can override this in case they find dynamic difficulty doesn’t suit them.

VI. Thou shalt provide navigation hints
Whether arrows, way-points, hot-spot indicators, or objective menus there must always be guides for players who so desire. Of course these may be reduced or completely removed when players want a greater challenge.

Please take care not to rationalize transgressing these commandments as ‘essential’ features of your game. As a designer the intended experience should be a goal—not an unmovable absolute. Also keep in mind that neglecting accessibility and usability reduces the audience capable of appreciating your games.

Did I miss a commandment? Is there one that doesn’t belong? Comments are always appreciated.

Why Can’t I Change Gamepad Controls?

A disturbing trend among some video games is gamepad support whose controls cannot be customized. While the standardization of gamepad support on PC’s has increased the number of games supporting them, for some games there is only a single configuration. For those of us who are differently abled, or simply prefer to use a familiar layout, control customization seems to be taking a step backwards.

This is surprising since personalizing controls has long been a feature of PC gaming for decades, even among small budget titles. Consoles such as the PS4 and Xbox One now offer the ability to remap keys for all games. This is a modest accessibility improvement, though it appears to come at the cost of less in-game remapping. So players who prefer to alternate between different games the situation often involves re-configuring one’s brain each time. One would hope the competition among PCs and various console platforms would drive progress towards more accessible controls.

It’s true that enterprising users and 3rd-party developers provide alternative means of remapping controls. Sadly, many of these fail to remap for multiple games at once. Steam is the most accessible and broadly available which does do per-game mapping. Still, being outside the game requires users know their games default controls and do the old-to-new mapping using only the abstract button names. It’s also a relatively unknown feature.

Despite the variety of games and genres there is a lot of similarity in game control: move forward-back-left-right, jump, crouch, action/shoot, sprint, etc. On PC the keyboard controls have defaulted to the WADS keys for forward-left-right-back, so why not have a means to change the defaults for all games at once? Certainly some games will have unique controls which cannot be standardized. In those cases in-game customization may be the best solution. Still, it would save gamers time and frustration if they could begin with familiar fundamentals when starting or switching among experiences.

If PCs and consoles increasingly become home-theater machines and gamers play a larger variety of games they too may be asking why controls are so difficult to personalize. Hopefully developers will take notice.

Does The DOS Gaming Era Standout?

Plenty of us enjoy a game to relax after a long day at work, school, or life. Yet why is it that some gamers are drawn to games before their time? My experiences with games preceding my youth has almost universally produced boredom, disgust, or both. And what is it about the DOS-era of gaming that is unique?

Anyone who has watched the React channel can probably understand the generational gap in media, especially games. Watching kids react to old games and computers with shock only reinforces my jaded experience looking back on those before my time. Still, as I frequent DOS gaming sites and podcasts to get a nostalgia fix there are often comments or calls from gamers who didn’t grow up with them.

Perhaps it’s because there are so many games today and there were so few back in the day. So getting a critical mass of fans was easier since players had fewer choices. Then the kids of those fans were (and continue to be) inevitably exposed to their parents’ favorites. If there had been more games available to their parents the influence of these ‘classics’ on this next generation would probably have been less concentrated.

Another possible reason is that the DOS era spans a wide range of experiences. The first games were merely black-and-white text while some of the last were high(er) resolution, 3D accelerated, Internet-enabled games rivaling the best consoles of the time. In the beginning a top-of-the-line game could easily be made by one person. By the late 1999’s some games were multi-million-dollar efforts.

DOS also saw wide-spread use over nearly two decades. Apparently consoles only have about about six years of development. That means DOS had about three times as long to innovate, make impressions, and establish a brand. And for many of those users during that period it was the default choice for their computer because of business, school, or other reasons.

Am I blind by nostalgia, or is there something truly unique about this era in gaming and technology?

You Can Raise Any Price Except ‘Free’

When prices go up existing customers feel like they got in at the right time. Prospective customers who missed the sale may feel left out, unless there is a hope for sale in the future or price increases are consistent. But there is one price that seems to have more inertia than any other: free.

A while back on This Week In Enterprise Tech one of the hosts made the point that permanently lowering a price is challenging because of the potential for resentment. After all, no customer wants to find out what they just paid good money which they could have saved. Yet they also mentioned that raising the price is typically not a problem. As a consumer I’d say this is true.

Products improvements and inflation have conditioned me to expect most of the products or services I enjoy to increase in price: appliances, movie tickets, food, and so on. (Preferably this is gradual or otherwise feels justified.) So why is it that seeing a product go from free to paid often involves a backlash? Examples include LogMeIn, ZenDesk, and more recently Steam mods. My guess is the mental gap between free and even one dollar is larger than from one dollar to five.

Initially my preference for free products was driven by the desire to save money. Though over time I became fixated on the other benefits as well:

  • Easier sharing with friends and family
  • Feeling secure that I won’t forfeit the purchase when changing platforms
  • Simpler experimentation without having to go back and pay for what works best (such as for evaluation-only trials)

Of course nothing is truly free of cost. This was often clear in the quality of free offerings compared to paid ones. Microsoft Paint was included with Windows for free while PaintShop Pro was a paid product. Ultimately I got more use out of PSP. Doom modding tools were free, still I found myself far more productive with the non-free Klik & Play; albeit making simpler projects.

Even in mobile gaming where ‘free’ now dominates, typically with quality included, the shifting and hiding of costs is increasingly distasteful to me. Producers are tempted to not only make things enjoyable but rather tease players into paying ever more. Sometimes it manifests as pay-to-progress or pay-to-win. And while ‘shareware’ and trial editions have a similar model they are often explicit, one-time payments. Producers are less likely to string players along.

Now that I’m older and more patient paying for quality products and waiting for sales appeals a lot more to me than in past. Being a producer has also changed my perspective on what ‘free’ really means. Yet there’s still that twinge of discomfort when the ‘buy’ button is in the way. Perhaps it’s the feeling of lost opportunity since I could spend the money on something else. But once I’ve paid the bills and saved enough for long-term goals there’s very little reason to hold back. After all, I can’t take it with me.