The Deal With The iPhone XR

That iPhone XR came out and it has almost the exact trade-offs we discussed before.

The XR is like the XS and XS Max in many ways, except It’s missing the telephoto camera system of the X, XR, and previous Plus-sized devices which can be useful for composing shots or getting superior “portrait mode” photos in daylight. I specify daylight, because the telephoto (zoom) camera system makes portrait shots almost unusable at night on the XS and XS Max. The telephoto system used for portraits on the XS and XS Max captures less light (f2.4) than the “wide-angle” (default, non-zoomed, f1.8) lens.

Ben Sandofsky has way more information about the depth system in these phones, the pros and cons of each, and specifically the upgrades he made to the Halide camera app to support taking “portrait mode” style photos on the iPhone XR of more than humans. The built-in iPhone XR camera app will currently refuse to take portrait photos of non-human objects and beings because it uses a neural network that was trained to detect people so that it can separate them from the background.

There are some other differences between the XR and XS/XS Max, they’re important, but the camera situation is probably the biggest technical difference for most people.

  • The iPhone XR screen is bigger than the XS, X, and all prior phones, but not as big as the Max,
  • The XR has better battery life than any other iPhone
  • Way more color options for the chassis you’ll never see unless you’re a rich person who doesn’t put an iPhone with a glass back and glass front in a case.
  • The LCD screen has a lower resolution and is mostly worse than the XS and XS Max’s OLED screen, but still good.
  • The XR is less water resistant than the XS and XS Max.
  • The XR has less RAM than the XS and XS Max. The XR has 3 GB vs the XS and XS Max’s 4 GB.
  • The XR has different price tiers for storage, it’s “just” $50 to bump it from 64GB to 128GB. It’s $100 to bump the XS and XS Max from 64GB to 256GB.
  • The XR has no 3D Touch, instead you can “long press” to get 3D Touch actions in situations where long-pressing didn’t do anything before. For example, on previous iPhones you could tap and hold an icon on the home screen to make them start jiggling to be able to delete or move apps and put them into folders. iPhones that have 3D Touch also let you press forcefully on icons to bring up a small menu of quick actions for that app, like jumping straight into a selfie mode with the camera. The XR can’t 3D Touch and will only switch into the jiggling icons mode, it won’t let you open up the quick action menu for each app.
  • The XS and XS Max have better cellular radios that can handle faster speeds (“Gigabit-class LTE”)
  • The XR has slightly bigger borders around the screen.
  • The glass on the back of the XR’s is less durable than the glass on the back of the XS and XS Max.

Here’s what is the same

  • Same camera array on the front with the same Face ID system that doesn’t work in landscape mode
  • Same A12 system-on-a-chip
  • Similar goofy notch at the top which either doesn’t bother you at all, stops bothering you within a few days, or will constantly haunt you because you can’t let anything go.
  • Still more expensive than the previous generation of devices were when they were released
  • Same Qi “Wireless” (contact) charging
  • Same shitty 5-watt charger in the box

Overall, I would recommend the XR to anyone who wants to save money and is coming from a non Plus-sized 6/7/8 or earlier iPhone. The situation for people who had a Plus-sized iPhone is a little bit more difficult. The iPhone 6/7/8 Plus’ have two cameras for portrait and zoom, and a higher resolution “Retina” LCD (1920×1080) than the iPhone XR’s “Liquid Retina” screen (1792×828).

Specs aren’t everything, the XR’s screen is by all accounts fine, and not everyone would choose to pay a base price of $1000 over the XR’s $750 just to get the extra camera, worse battery life, fewer color options, and a shinier chassis (the XR has an aluminum band of metal around the edges instead of steel). Joanna Stern can’t even think of many people to recommend the XS and XS Max to over the XR. I’m really, really, into photography and it’s complicated even for me because I love taking good photos at night and the XR takes better portrait photos at night.

Still, still, these new iPhones are too expensive. Nick Heer:

But there is one thing eating at me with this new iPhone lineup: the starting price for a current model year iPhone is now $50 more than last year, and $100 more than two years’ prior. It’s as though they’ve dropped the entry-level model and are starting at what was previously Plus model pricing. In Canada, the difference is even more pronounced — for the first time, you cannot get a current model year iPhone for under $1,000. The iPhone XR might be the least-expensive iPhone Apple launched this year, but it is by no means a budget device.

It might be the right business strategy for Apple to keep raising their iPhone prices but it’s bad for the people buying them.

Gouranga is Gone

While writing up the last post I noticed that the long-running Grand Theft Auto fan site, Gouranga (named after the original GTA’s kind of awful practice of running over a procession of Hare Krishna’s), has shut down and the domain is owned by Rockstar’s parent company, Take Two.

Here’s the last copy of Gouranga that I can find on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The Internet Archive’s copy also goes way back to 1999.

Gouranga was the place to read about Grand Theft Auto until the site’s owner, schu, stopped updating it during the development of Grand Theft Auto IV. Schu was even nice enough to offer unofficial support for those games.

Red Dead Redemption 2, Games Labor, and Dan Houser’s Office

Red Dead Redemption 2 is out today, it’s another game that doesn’t understand that a bigger number means sequel because this is Rockstar Games’ prequel to Red Dead Redemption. Not Red Dead 1, that was a different game called Red Dead Revolver which as near as I can tell almost nobody played but impressed somebody enough to greenlight Red Dead Redemption.

Keza MacDonald calls RDR2 “a near miracle”:

Anybody coming to Red Dead Redemption 2 expecting Grand Theft Auto with horses will be rather baffled by this slow-paced, sumptuous, character-driven Old West historical drama, in which you spend probably 60% of your time simply riding around the American wilderness. There’s action too, in the form of shootouts, train robberies and frequent thrilling escapes on horseback, but these flashes of excitement punctuate a game that is largely about just being somewhere; about hunting, fishing and having long conversations on cross-country rides or around a campfire. In a mad fit of indulgence, Rockstar Games – the creators of Grand Theft Auto and one of the most successful game developers in the world – appears to have spent seven years and hundreds of millions creating the video game equivalent of Deadwood.

Sounds great, I’m excited. Fire up the consoles, we’re going to ride horsies like big boys, yeehaw.

Oh wait, Rockstar Games founder Dan Houser had to talk about the working conditions in this article from Harold Goldberg:

The polishing, rewrites, and reedits Rockstar does are immense. “We were working 100-hour weeks” several times in 2018, Dan says. The finished game includes 300,000 animations, 500,000 lines of dialogue, and many more lines of code. Even for each RDR2 trailer and TV commercial, “we probably made 70 versions, but the editors may make several hundred. Sam and I will both make both make lots of suggestions, as will other members of the team.”

The result of all their labor, Dan says, is “this seamless, natural-feeling experience in a world that appears real, an interactive homage to the American rural experience. [It’s] a vast four-dimensional mosaic in which the fourth dimension is time, in which the world unfolds around you, dependent on what you do.”

Who was working 100 hour weeks? “We”

Rockstar followed-up with Jason Schreier and denied the interpretation that the whole studio was that mismanaged and forced to work 100 hour weeks, sort of. Houser said the quote was only about the senior writing staff, and nobody else was forced to work that hard:

“…that additional effort is a choice, and we don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this. Lots of other senior people work in an entirely different way and are just as productive – I’m just not one of them! No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard.”

That’s not a real denial of anything, and keep in mind that it has been 8 years since Red Dead Redemption shipped. 8 years sure sounds like plenty of time to ship anything, even if they also shipped Grand Theft Auto V 5 years ago and have been working on Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V Online since. Clearly Red Dead Redemption 2 is a huge game and the high scores benefitted from the work these people put into the game they love over that seemingly vast time, but there’s no way this gets better.

Rockstar then made a half-hearted attempt at remedying the situation by allowing current employees to speak publicly without fear of retaliation, which, I don’t know what you think that means but it definitely doesn’t actually mean you could talk about working conditions without fear of retaliation. Anyone who has worked for more than a few years knows that you can’t speak frankly about a current employer unless you are the executive running the company.

Jason Schreier was already working on a story about this that you must read, and of course the majority of the 77 current and former employees he spoke with requested anonymity. It’s a depressingly realistic look at the practice of crunch at Rockstar:

Three people who worked at Rockstar San Diego between 2011 and 2016 recall a period where they were told that overtime wasn’t optional. “It was mandatory 80 hours for basically the whole studio,” said one person who was there. “If you don’t have any work to do on Red Dead 2, just test GTA V for another eight hours.” Said a second: “Maybe they didn’t tell anyone 100 hours, but they definitely told us 80. Concept artists were sitting there being glorified QA.”

[…]

For some people working on Red Dead Redemption 2, crunch started as early as 2016. For others at Rockstar, crunch periods started in the fall of 2017, a year before the game’s release date. Even when the company wasn’t in official crunch mode, dozens of current and former employees say they’ve felt compelled to stay late for a variety of reasons. “Rockstar pressures employees to put in overtime in several direct and indirect ways,” said one current Rockstar developer. “Coming in on weekends is perhaps the only way to show you are dedicated and care. So you can be very efficient and hard-working during the week, but if you don’t show up on the weekend, you’re accused of not doing your share and will be constantly harassed.”

Schreier also confirmed that an employee who worked on a Rockstar game for multiple years and leaves before it ships won’t be included in the game’s credits:

“That has been a consistent policy because we have always felt that we want the team to get to the finish line,” said Jennifer Kolbe. “And so a very long time ago, we decided that if you didn’t actually finish the game, then you wouldn’t be in the credits.”

Rockstar have a website up to credit people who left before the game shipped, which is good except it doesn’t include any mention of title or contribution, and this list should also be in the fucking game. People working on games everywhere need a union to collectively bargain for their time, pay, and define standards for receiving credit for the work they’ve done.

Later, Dan Houser was quoted by Sam White in British GQ as saying that he feels like games are magical because people don’t understand how they’re made:

…and it’s that games are still magical. It’s like they’re made by elves. You turn on the screen and it’s just this world that exists on TV. I think you gain something by not knowing how they’re made. As much as we might lose something in terms of people’s respect for what we do, their enjoyment of what we do is enhanced. Which is probably more important.”

Not knowing how something is made, or caring about it, is the hurdle that players need to cross in order to help the people making these games attempt to have a life outside of work. If you appreciate games, even ones with highs as high as Red Dead Redemption 2 (and there are some incredible lows in the writing of it and other Rockstar games), then you need to learn that everyone working on them needs to be able to have a life outside of them.

Patrick Klepek has a great article on Waypoint talking about how to make a difference in the lives of everyone working on games, and how a boycott might not be the best way to bring change. There’s this one really important tip Klepek has about buying games that are on Steam when the developer also has other options for buying the same game without giving up a 30% cut to Valve:

Another note: if a developer has a game listed on Steam, itch.io, and a personal website, buy it anywhere but Steam. Sure, yes, Steam is a useful tool and it’s nice to have your games in a single spot, but itch.io gives developers greater flexibility in profit margins, and on a personal website, nearly all of it goes to them. For smaller developers, the dollars add up. Other forms of economic reinforcement include supporting creators on Patreon—or tipping.

Maybe the most telling quote about this situation was from Houser in Goldberg’s original article that sparked the current conversation about poorly managed crunch. Speaking about his office, Houser said: “It’s an absolute shithole,”

EXAPUNKS Out of Early Access

Developer hacker training simulator, EXAPUNKS, has exited Steam’s Early Access program for games that aren’t ready for the spotlight yet.

Typical development courses are about learning “big data” and rust and other modern baloney, Zachtronics’ EXAPUNKS is about pulling off hacking heists to earn a cure for the phage that you were accidentally infected with. Oops!

In the early access process much has changed, Zachtronics added an animated gif recorder to save short clips of your solutions to EXAPUNKS’ programmular puzzles. They’ve also added a bonus 9-level campaign, and released a free TEC Redshift player program on Steam that lets you experience community-made homebrew games on the in-game fantasy console without owning the full EXAPUNKS game. Interestingly enough, the homebrew games are embedded in image files distributed online. It’s not quite clear how to get them, so I’ll explain here that you download the image to your computer and then drag and drop the image file into the TEC Redshift Player. Here’s an example image I found online that plays the original Gameboy Tetris music in the TEC Redshift Player.

There were many more updates in that process, and EXAPUNKS is reviewing well. Jody Macgregor enjoyed the challenge in his review for Windows Gamer.

Every time I write about EXAPUNKS, or any other Zachtronics game, I want to mention that I think they’re something special, they each inhabit a little world of their own perfectly and I love that about them even if I’m not always up to their challenge.

EXAPUNKS is $20 on Steam or through the Humble store for Windows, macOS, and Linux. There’s a temporary sale, bringing the game down to $16. The feelies that were available for pre-orders may be available directly from the developer, otherwise you’ll probably get a PDF or something with the game to read Trash World News, the in-universe zine.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is Good

It’s the most wonderful time of the year for everyone who was raised on a diet of murder simulators, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is out, and it’s good, with some caveats.

This year’s Treyarch-designed Call of Duty is something like three years of work now that there are three studios working on their own individual series within the Call of Duty brand.

As usual, I’ll note here that I have good friends at this Activision studio but I try to not let that influence my opinions about any of their games.

Black Ops 4 is split into three subsidiary modes: competitive multiplayer, blackout (battle royale mode), and zombies. There is no single-player campaign, which I am pretty disappointed by, but there are a set of tutorial matches with vignettes that tell the tales of Black Ops’ different playable characters.

The playable characters – with different abilities in the regular competitive multiplayer mode – took some getting used to. I never cared for defined “hero characters” in games that didn’t traditionally have them. WarCraft 3 being the example that first sticks to mind. Nevertheless, I enjoy them in Black Ops 4

BLOPS 4’s UI is somewhat broken and poorly designed. Look at this icon, what does it mean to you: Settings question mark

If you said “settings” or “options” you’re wrong, just like I was. It is the “custom game” icon. If you click that icon while you’re in a party the UI changes from this:

Shot 0015

to this:

Shot 0016

Which are quite similar except for the disappearing “settings” button and the addition of some text that says “custom games.”

If you don’t notice either of those changes, and you hit “play” you’re plunged into a match that you’re hosting without any human players. If you’re as dumb as I was, you’ll sit there for a few minutes wondering when they’ll join.

Still, despite all the quirks to the UI, Black Ops 4 is an undeniably fun multiplayer-only romp through murder town. The competitive multiplayer modes are fine, there’s one like Counter-Strike this year, it’s called Heist. You can still just play team deathmatch if you want. This year you can only heal when you press a button instead of by hiding and waiting for the jelly to disappear from the screen’s edges.

Blackout is the new Battle Royale-like and it’s fun, it feels a little bit incomplete but miles ahead of the competition in terms of how the game feels to play. With PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds I’m always struggling to do the most basic tasks. Clambering over or onto an object in Blackout works 9 times out of 10 instead of PUBG’s 4 or 5 times out of 10. Blackout also has it’s own spin on almost everything. There are packs that provide you with perks, and you can’t examine items that are on the ground to see their stats. I’m guessing they want us to learn what they look like.

The downside to Blackout is that there’s only one map, for now, and it isn’t clear where this mode is going to go. It can’t compete with Fortnite, per se, because it isn’t free-to-play, or at least not yet. Does that mean there will be a Blackout mode in next year’s Call of Duty? Will Treyarch continue to work on this one, including adding more content? That isn’t clear to me.

Finally, there’s still a Zombies mode if you enjoy co-operative zombie hunting with ridiculous dialog between Zombies-specific characters the studio designed. I want to enjoy this mode, I almost never do. There are a lot of hidden things about it, and I’ve never learned about them.

For me, the best single-player Call of Duty campaign was Infinite Warfare in 2016, and I also miss playing that game’s multiplayer. I enjoyed all of the sci-fi movement trappings that this game has eschewed by placing the timeline in-between Black Ops 2 and 3, which seems like the weirdest decision of all given that this game has no single-player campaign and a bunch of cutscenes instead. Also, the number is 4 which is higher than 3. I’m not sure Treyarch understands how the numbers work. Maybe they need to call Mason.

This is the first year that Activision has gone all-in on Blizzard’s Battle.net launcher and Black Ops 4 is only available there for Windows players alongside Destiny 2 (Destiny 1 was never available on Windows). As disappointed as I am with Valve, lately, there isn’t any good reason for this from a player’s perspective. We get Battle.net’s social features and rich presence notifications but that is about it. I’m curious where 2019’s Call of Duty will end up, but it is extremely unlikely it’ll be on Steam. Activision definitely doesn’t want to give up any cut to Valve. The negative feedback in the reviews for WW2, Infinite Warfare, and Advanced Warfare on Steam probably didn’t help things, either.

Unfortunately, this year Activision has again chosen to split their players up with an add-on pass that isn’t included with the “standard” $60 version of Black Ops 4. They’re also adding in some kind of in-game microtransactions.

I’m not going to fully review Black Ops 4, there are good reviews elsewhere. Notably, IGN split their review into four pieces, one  for each mode and an overall score. It’s a game that I’m surprised to find my friends who abandoned Call of Duty years ago talking about and playing, and I love it.

Despite all of the odd decisions and bad UI, I love playing Black Ops 4. It’s the definitive way to play Treyarch’s version of multiplayer Call of Duty, and I have fun with their take on the Battle Royale genre. If you miss dumb, exciting, and fun multiplayer shooters, this is that. If you loved any campaign from previous Call of Duty games and you like to skip multiplayer because you didn’t want to be schooled by 12-year-olds, this isn’t for you. I’m losing to them every night, and that’s OK. I can still get to the top of the leaderboards sometimes.

The Obra Dinn Returns October 18th

Lucas Pope of various independent adventures and most notably Papers, Please has been working on Return of the Obra Dinn for at least four years. The Obra Dinn is a ship, a good ship, that was lost at sea in 1803. Here, now, in 1807 it “drifted into port” and you’re an insurance investigator sent to assess the damage and find out how each member of the crew fared.

If you followed development of the ship’s return you might have seen the prototypical demonstration versions Pope released, one is still available on itch. Obra Dinn has what was an original mechanic the first time I played it, and is now a bit like what players found in last year’s Tacoma — scenes of a crew interacting that aren’t with the ship (or station, in Tacoma’s case) anymore.

That’s confusing if you haven’t played either, in Tacoma it was like watching a holographic replay of the crew’s life. Of course, in 1807 the fictional setup for how you can view those replayed scenes is different from a space station in the future, but I fell in love with the prototype’s beautifully stippled 1-bit graphics and the brutal still scenes of the Obra Dinn’s crew paired with just enough voice acting. If they were TV shows I’d say that Tacoma was a great “SyFy” original and what I’ve played of Obra Dinn is a Netflix Marvel series minus the 3-5 extra episodes of cruft.

The trailer above demonstrates many changes to just about everything from the prototype, so there are still plenty of unknowns here. I’d recommend sticking with the trailer and skipping the old GDC demo, to avoid spoiling too much.

Return of the Obra Dinn will be $20 on Windows and macOS on October 18th, which is very soon now, via Steam, Humble, and gog.

PlayStation Network to Finally Allow Name Changes

If it hasn’t been hijacked yet, PSN is finally going to allow you to change your username. Sid Shuman says it’ll be free the first time, and $10 or $5 (for PlayStation Plus subscribers) after that, and the feature has some odd limitations:

When you change your online ID, you will have the option to display your previous ID with your new ID, so your friends can recognize you. Once you decide to display your old ID or not, you won’t be able to adjust this after completing the online ID change process.

The name-changing feature will be in a temporary “preview program”  in November for people who have registered to test pre-release versions of the PlayStation 4 system software, and it may break some recent games:

This feature is compatible with PS4 games originally published after April 1, 2018, and a large majority of the most-played PS4 games that were released before this date. However, please note not all games and applications for PS4, PS3 and PS Vita systems are guaranteed to support the online ID change, and users may occasionally encounter issues or errors in certain games. If for any reason you experience issues after changing your ID, you can revert back to your original ID for free at any time (you will only be able to revert once during the preview program). Reverting back to an old ID will resolve most issues caused by the ID change. In addition, when this feature officially launches, a list of compatible games published before April 1, 2018, will be provided on PlayStation.com for reference before you make a change.

Yikes.

It sounds like some games may just be broken for anyone who wants to play them after changing their name. I hope that Sony has a better workaround than “pay us to change back so you can play old games” before the name-changing feature ships to everyone early next year.

Microsoft Is Buying Obsidian

Jason Schreier has the scoop:

Microsoft is finalizing a deal to acquire the independent development studio Obsidian Entertainment, according to three people briefed on the negotiations. We don’t know if ink is on paper yet, and plenty of major acquisition deals have fallen apart in the final hours, but those close to the companies believe it is all but done.

Obsidian’s RPGs could work very well over a streaming service.

PSN Account Hijackers

Patrick Klepek has a terrific read up on Waypoint about his investigation into Sony’s incompetent security practices around user accounts, and the social engineering crews that steal them:

$1,200. That’s how much someone is asking for a PlayStation Network account I’ve been investigating for the past few weeks. “Secure,” the person calls it, claiming the account will “never be touched” by the original owner again. “He won’t be getting it back,” they claim. More than a thousand dollars? That’s a little rich for my blood, and so I counteroffer: $700.

He also has a few updates on twitter for after you’ve read the article.

Microsoft’s xCloud Game Streaming Disempowerment

Microsoft is making good on their E3 promises and has announced a marketing name and demonstrated their Xbox cloud gaming streaming service, xCloud in a video and news release attributed to Kareem Choudhry, their Corporate Vice President of Gaming Cloud:

Today, the games you play are very much dictated by the device you are using. Project xCloud’s state-of-the-art global game-streaming technology will offer you the freedom to play on the device you want without being locked to a particular device, empowering YOU, the gamers, to be at the center of your gaming experience.

I hate that we don’t own games today. What we “buy” to download from services like Steam, PSN, Nintendo’s eShop, or Microsoft’s store that doesn’t have a sassy marketing name, is so ephemeral.

Subscription services like PlayStation Now, Plus, and GamePass take that to another level. The second you stop paying them, every game you were enjoying with your friends, and experiencing alone or with somebody on the couch is gone.

It’s the same for Netflix, and Apple Music, and all of the other video and music streaming services.

We own nothing with these services and platforms, nothing lasts, if we can’t pay and keep paying for multiple services we don’t get to continue to enjoy creative works and participate in culture.

I can understand how it could be exciting to work on the technology behind these services, and it will enable some people to access things that they would never be able to, but the real goal is obvious and I’m not excited for it.

Microsoft, Sony, EA, everybody who already has a platform and an audience are all rushing to be the platform that gets your $10 or $15 or $20 a month and hooks you for as long as you can pay. They want to convert us from people who buy a box and a few games a year to people who are just paying them all the time for access to whatever games will work with the latency their service has.

How many services are you subscribed to? I can think of so many that my family uses: Netflix; Hulu; Apple Music; PlayStation Plus; 1PasswordiCloud storage.

Subscription services, and game streaming subscriptions in particular, are the opposite of the “empowerment” Chowdry is talking about. I don’t doubt that Microsoft will come up with a more compelling pitch when there are new games that can only work on their streaming service.