Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) review

When I was five years old I lived with my family on a camp site in Africa owned by a construction company. It was in a pretty remote location and we lived in simple Portakabins, but it was fairly civilised, with a small swimming pool and a club house with a screen and projector. Being so young, I don’t remember many film showings apart from a remake of The Thirty Nine Steps (which scared me) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (TMP). My father pulled a lot of strings to get a reel of the brand new Star Trek film sent over from the UK. He had watched the TV series and been hooked on it, and put his weight behind the film by telling everyone how great it would be. When you live in a remote part of the world with no English TV, getting a fix of entertainment from back home is a real treat.

The showing didn’t go quite to plan and before the film had even ended it was clear that it wasn’t a hit with the audience – non-Trekkies were bored senseless and even fans were left confused by something they weren’t expecting. It was pretty much the same response everywhere else too. Where was the humour, action and occasional tongue-in-cheek silliness of the original series?

In the transition from small screen to big screen, Star Trek had opted to take itself much more seriously. Inspiration was clearly taken from grandiose, intelligent science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey, with lengthy special effects sequences and a plot that assumes intelligence and familiarity with science fiction concepts. Although the film should be admired for not choosing a dumbed down storyline, it was going to be hard for mainstream audiences to understand and enjoy.

The story starts with an inexplicably angry Kirk (promoted to Admiral) ripping into everybody as he tries to get the Enterprise out of space dock to face a mysterious cloud that’s on an intercept course for Earth, destroying everything in it’s path. Maybe it’s meant to be the seriousness of the situation eating away at him, but Kirk seems like a different character – a dislikeable one. More awkward scenes follow with the demoted Captain Decker who Kirk has trampled over to get back command of the Enterprise. The ship and crew eventually get out of space dock, but not in a fully ready state, and when Kirk again behaves like an idiot and forces the warp drives online, there’s more trouble and another clash with Decker as the ship gets trapped in a worm hole. It all feels very pointless and drags out the opening section of the film, but at least provides an excuse for Spock to arrive on-board and offer his services.

There’s yet another howler of a scene where Kirk speaks to the crew about what they are facing. As he is describing the alien cloud, he receives an emergency message from a comms station under attack, which he implausibly asks to be patched through to the large screen so the whole crew sees it. This message shows the station come under attack and be obliterated. Watching the station destroyed doesn’t do much for the morale of the crew members in the room, but you would expect an experienced leader to be able pull of a great motivational speech – instead Kirk stammers a few words and walks out the room. The footage of the comms station being destroyed is made ridiculous by Kirk asking to switch to “external cameras”, so we get a pretty picture of the station being vaporised by the cloud. We are expected to believe that everything in the Star Trek world is surrounded by a set of external cameras, positioned in just the right places to capture scenes in a cinematic way. Anyone who knows anything about films and how to create tension could have filmed this scene in a more believable and dramatic way.

Fortunately, the film starts to improve when the Enterprise intercepts the alien cloud – even the characters settle down, becoming likeable and true to their earlier appearances in the TV series. It’s as if the beginning of the film was shot last and had to be rushed to meet the tight deadline.

Although heavy on special effects scenes, the exploration of the V’Ger cloud is stunning to look at, and feels very atmospheric. It’s a million miles away from the low-budget presentation of the original TV series and must have been a real treat for fans to see for the first time.

The level of effort and investment put into the film was immense, with legendary director Robert Wise teaming up with equally legendary special effects masters Douglas Trumbull (2001) and John Dykstra (Silent Running and Star Wars Episode IV). Robert Wise seemed like the perfect choice, having directed some very successful films including science fiction titles such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain.

A new ship was designed, with a new interior, and all the costumes were new. There was a space dock as well as a few other comms stations and space stations, all presented using highly detailed models. And last but not least, the vast V’Ger cloud, with amazingly complex outer layers and an inner section that still looks great by the standards of todays special effects. Sometimes effects that aren’t CGI stand the test of time very well, and there are some great examples in TMP.

It’s interesting to re-watch the film over 30 years later and see the capabilities of special effects at the time. As mentioned previously, external shots in space almost all look beautiful, yet a simple effect such as superimposing video onto the viewscreen on the bridge of the Enterprise looks amateurish. This effect improved dramatically by the time the sequel (The Wrath of Khan) was released three years later.

TMP is certainly a flawed film, with some awful scenes, characterisation and pointless sub plots, but fortunately they are almost entirely in the first third of the film. If you can overlook those, it’s arguably the film that stayed truest to the premise of Star Trek, and it made a commendable attempt to move the franchise into the realm of serious, grown-up science fiction. I’ve already found that the newest Star Trek film (the J.J.Abrams franchise reboot) doesn’t stand up to repeat viewings very well, and yet I find TMP is mostly enjoyable to watch over 30 years later. It’s particularly surprising to see how many things that we see in the later films (Klingon ship designs and interiors, even the opening sequence music and title fonts) were there in the very first film, proving they were done right from the start. More than any other, this film defines the aesthetics of the Star Trek world.

hp Touchpad WebOS tablet review

Along with many other owners, my Touchpad was bought in the crazy HP fire sale that made news around the world. As someone who works for an online retailer, I was able to place my order directly on the back office system, bypassing the barrage of customers fighting it out on the web site. On that day, traffic from deal sites like HotUkDeals bombarded our site – a huge amount of people were trying to bag the Touchpad for less than £100 (or slightly more for the 32GB version).

The Touchpad sale was an unusual event – it’s quite common for retailers to discount products that are end-of-line or don’t sell well, but when this happens the retailer usually takes the hit. In this case, HP subsidised the retailers on the sell-off, allowing them to give huge discounts without suffering any loss. In effect, HP paid people to buy the Touchpad – the sell-off price is estimated to be half of the cost of manufacture.

Touchpad hardware

The Touchpad is a chunky, heavy piece of kit, even compared to the original iPad. It’s too heavy really, making it awkward to hold in one hand. The device feels sturdy but it falls a long way short of the razor-thin feel of the iPad 2. A major practicality problem I found with the machine is the smooth and glossy rear cover – place the tablet on top of some magazines on a table (or on a fabric sofa) and it will very easily slide off and head for the floor. My Touchpad fell off a table while on charge, and landed on the USB cable plugged into the bottom of the device. This could have been a disaster, but luckily the cable plug was damaged rather than the socket in the machine itself. This near-miss made it clear that the machine really needs a case. I ordered the official hp case, which is a slightly naff attempt to emulate the genius magnetic case of the iPad 2. It’s nowhere near as good but a velcro strip on the rear allows it to fold and stay in place, acting as a rest and making the machine a lot easier to use. Given the problems with trying to hold the device in your hand, the case is highly recommended. You can also find cheaper leather wallet-style cases on eBay.

As some compensation for the heft of the machine, there is good news when it comes to the screen. The LCD panel is an IPS type, just like the ones specified by Apple in the iPad 2 and their desktop and laptop computers. These panels are a fair bit more expensive than the more common TN and PVA types, but have great image quality and very good viewing angles. The capacitive touch screen is accurate and responsive, and it’s way better than the resistive screens you get on a China iPad for the same kind of money (as the fire sale price).

Although the build quality is perfectly decent, the hardware feels closer in engineering terms to a budget Android tablet, and it’s the main reason why the device wasn’t competitive when hp tried to sell it at the same price point as the iPad 2.

WebOS

WebOS is where the premature end of the Touchpad becomes a more lamentable story – it’s an absolute gem of a system. Palm has always had knack of writing powerful but easy-to-use OS’s, and this was the biggest factor in the success of the original Palm Pilot back in the 1990’s. WebOS is effortless to use and it’s biggest achievement is making multitasking something anyone can use – and more important – will want to use. The home screen consists of cards – each one being a large preview of a running application. You swipe left and right to move between cards, and a really nice touch is the ability to throw an application away by swiping it’s card off the top of screen. If an application has multiple windows open, those cards are stacked one beneath the other – another simple yet powerful way of representing running applications. The bottom part of the screen contains a basic dock-style area for holding shortcuts to commonly used applications.

It’s impressive to see how much original thinking there is in WebOS. Another touch I really like is the design of the sliding horizontal panels used in applications like the built-in Facebook client. You slide the panels into view when you need to navigate to a specific area, then slide them out of view to gain more screen space for reading content. Interestingly, the iOS version of Facebook now uses this feature, but for reasons I can’t put my finger on it doesn’t feel quite right on that OS, and takes quite a bit of getting used to.

The onscreen keyboard is excellent to use and scores a big usability point over the iPad by having number keys across the top. Other useful features include a tab key for moving between form fields, and a dedicated key to hide the keyboard from view. Unfortunately, it lacks a few nifty time-saving features – in particular you can’t double-tap the space bar to print a full stop, which is disappointing given that every other major mobile OS supports this.

Given the short-lived nature of the Touchpad, native apps for big names eBay and Amazon may never materialise, making the quality of the inbuilt web browser an important factor. Generally, the WebKit-based browser works well, but isn’t quite as flawless as the iOS or Android browsers. The current version has an annoying bug where some long or complex pages don’t display fully, and performace is only average. On the plus side, it runs Flash which is a major benefit on a number of web sites, and will help future-proof the device to some extent.

Screens and panels in WebOS generally have a clean and stylish layout, with lots of use of grey gradient fills to give a classy appearance. One small area that stood out to me as being especially well-designed in the ratings area for apps in the App Catalog which uses green and red speech bubbles to indicate overall votes. Whoever designed this little feature should give themselves a pat on the back.

The control panel area of WebOS is very simplistic, with each icon simply being a shortcut which fires up the relevant control panel. I found this clunky to use, with the end result being that if you open every applet in the control there will be a whole bunch of windows open, and each one only has a small set of options. It would have been better if the control panel was a single app with a left navigator of options, with the shortcuts opening the app at the relevant page.

As you might expect, the App Catalog is a bit lacking but there are some treasures to be found. The legendary Angry Birds is available, and runs very nicely too. I’ve installed a great RSS reader called Tea Reader, and there’s a really cool Twitter client going by the questionable name of Spaz.

Overall performance of WebOS is acceptable, but you do get the feeling that the effortless multitasking could benefit from a bit more responsiveness. There is a rumour that the WebOS team hacked an iPad 2 to run their OS, and it ran like lightning, which seems plausible until you check on good old XDA Developers and they have a number of small hacks you can make to speed up the system. Apparently the system is very heavy on logging actions and events, and performance can be increased by turning this off. It’s also possible to turn off the unnecessary ripple effect that appears every time the screen is tapped, which sounds like a useful improvement and is said to improve responsiveness. Making these changes involved unlocking your Touchpad, which is as simple as typing a special code into the search box.

There are efforts underway to get Android running on the Touchpad, providing users with a longer-term option should WebOS stop being supported. It’s great to have this as a fallback, but I would be in no rush to flash Android onto the Touchpad because WebOS is a more polished and interesting system to use. If anything, I’d be more interested in hacking WebOS onto other devices, such as the iPad 2!

Overall

At the original retail price, the Touchpad is a substandard piece of hardware that is given a significant lift by the excellent WebOS. It’s to be hoped that communities like XDA continue to provide improvements to the system if hp does fully abandon it. Whether this will happen or not is currently uncertain – software updates are still being delivered to my device for both apps and the core OS.

If another batch of Touchpads does go on sale you’d be daft not to get one, and if we have already seen the end of the Touchpad lets hope it’s not the end for WebOS – it really does deserve better than this. hp’s original instinct to buy Palm was correct but they failed to do justice to their investment. Palm may well benefit from being sold off to another owner with the commitment to  deliver a really competitive product.

A guide to Android

The Android ecosystem is an unforgiving place. Buying a phone that offers the same ownership experience you get with an iPhone is difficult and requires a lot of luck or some serious research on your part. Many owners end up with a sub-par experience – with poor battery life, stability and nasty user interfaces being common complaints.

People often say that the open nature of Android is it’s greatest strength, but it’s also responsible for a number of issues – and more often than not it’s the users end up owning these problems, not Google.

When I decided to abandon Windows Phone in June, I was only five months into an 18 month contract so needed to buy a replacement phone outright, and the htc HD7 was only worth £140 on trade-in. This ruled out the iPhone 4 which was still fetching £350-£400 second hand. Initially I considered a second-hand htc Desire but decided not to get another htc phone after my disappointment with various aspects of the HD7. As luck would have it, the Samsung Galaxy S2 had launched recently and a couple of retailers were selling off the original Galaxy S at a discount. I picked a new one up for £210 – a bargain for what is still a very good phone even in the face of the newer model.

The Galaxy S is a great piece of hardware. It’s amazingly light, but still feels well built. The screen is glorious – the Super AMOLED technology provides vibrant colour reproduction and huge contrast. Black really is black on this screen, and the brightness is good enough to be usable outside in strong sunlight. Screen size is perfect – personally I find 4 inch screens to be the sweet spot on phones. They are larger than the cramped-feeling 3.5″ screens of the iPhone, but still small enough to be able to use one-handed when needed. The only disappointment is the cheap-feeling home button, which quite often feels like it’s sticking, and the surface isn’t tough enough to resist getting covered in fine scratches from thumb nails.

An obvious thing to say about the Galaxy S is that it’s design really apes the iPhone (the 3G/3GS rather than the 4). This is also true of the customised version of Android the phone runs. The app drawer has been modified so that instead of scrolling vertically, you flick it horizontally and dots indicate which page you’re on. It’s very, very similar to the iOS home screen and is part of the reason why Samsung is being sued by Apple for infringing on a number of patents.

Samsung's ugly SMS app

The included applications and widgets are nothing to get excited about, and some of the visuals are distractingly awful. The SMS messaging app looks hideous, as does the social networking widget which has a garish pink header area that can’t be changed. This is surprising from a large manufacturer like Samsung, and spoils the overall phone experience. I also disliked the lock screen which is awkward to unlock – requiring a longer swipe than is ideal.

Fortunately, Android’s openness can save us from the less-than-perfect Samsung ROM. Within a day or two I’d got frustrated, rooted the phone and started to try a number of different ROMs. Generally, Android ROMs fall into three categories – those based on the manufacturer ROM but with modifications, “pure Android” ROMs like Cyanogen, and custom builds like MIUI. After trying a couple of Samsung-based ROMs I quickly moved on to Cyanogen Mod 7 (CM7).

CM7 improved my phone significantly – the pure Android interface is clean, clear and feels authentic, like it was all designed by the same team. It’s a bit plainer than iOS or Windows Phone in visual impact, but is still stylish in a low-key way. But CM7 isn’t just a build of standard Android, it includes lots of power-user settings and features which can be very useful. Almost every part of the OS has detailed customisation options, but if you don’t need any of this it never gets in the way.

The downside to installing a ROM like Cyanogen is that it can bring compatibility problems with your hardware. The most common issue is that the camera won’t work as well as it should do, and extra features like the FM radio on the Galaxy S won’t work at all. When I first installed Cyanogen these were all definite problems, along with terrible battery life. For some reason, the battery would drain quickly even when the phone wasn’t in use. The situation was so bad that I had to switch to a different ROM. A few months later and all of these issues are largely resolved, thanks to the developers. Battery life is still not incredible, but it will last the day even with heavy use – which is all I ever expect of a smartphone. The camera now works very well including shooting video footage, and even the FM radio is now functional.

Android myths and misinformation

Android is great for geeks and tech-heads who have the skills and time to spend trying different ROMs to find something that suits them. This can be a thankless task though, especially if you are unlucky. When I was running MIUI, I installed a weekly update that didn’t have a functioning onscreen keyboard, making the phone unusable. Also, no ROM is perfect. They are usually weak in one area or another – as well as battery life issues some have incorrect regional settings, task killers that cause apps to crash and more.

The problem with Android is when the geeks start telling non-technical users that Android is the best option for them. This is just not true -the iPhone is still the best option for people who need a product that has been done right out-of-the-box, and will work reliably without maintenance and tweaks.

People often quote the openness of Android as a reason for buying, but in reality does it make a difference to the user – or is it just the moral crusade of those who are against Apple? Well, there are some apps you can get for Android that are unavailable for iOS – one kind that springs to mind are emulators for running old games. These usually fall foul of copyright and technical restrictions in the iOS App Store. When I had an iPhone I was jealous of this, but with Android I can’t be bothered to run these kinds of programs because of the fundamental problem that playing non-touchscreen games on a touchscreen phone with no hardware buttons sucks. However, I did buy an album out of the Amazon MP3 store for £3.49 which was £7.99 on iTunes. That felt good. iPhone users don’t have any third party options for buying media directly on the phone, although iTunes will happily import and sync any MP3 files, including ones you’ve bought off Amazon or via less official means.

Android’s multitasking is seen as powerful and an advantage over the iPhone, especially when iOS didn’t allow third-party apps to run in the background. While Android multitasking is powerful, but the problem of battery usage is left in the hands of the users. Turn on all the Android auto-sync services and run a few apps or widgets that get data off the internet, and the battery will take a hammering. A misbehaving background service can get stuck in a loop and drain the battery within an hour or two.

The truth is that on a mobile device, multitasking is only needed in limited scenarios – the main one being listening to music in the background. With this in mind, Apple chose to implement a locked down multitasking system on the iPhone that suspends applications and only allows very limited kinds of services to carry on running, ensuring battery life if perserved. Windows Phone 7 has also followed this model, and it really is the best way.

The Android marketplace is very well populated with software, but things are not perfect. Android users are less willing to pay for apps, so developers sometimes stay away. Take the benchmark game – Angry Birds – it’s available but only as a free ad-supported version. If you want to pay to remove the annoying ads, you can’t. The diversity of Android hardware also causes problems for game developers, so the range is more limited. At least all the major names are there, like Amazon, eBay, LinkedIn et al – unlike Windows Phone.

Should you buy an Android phone?

The only really safe purchase is the Google Nexus S. It is the only phone to deliver the genuine Android experience out of the box. It also has a great Super AMOLED screen, just like the Galaxy S. Buy anything else and you’re placing your trust in the hands of the phone manufacturer and their specific brand of Android.

If you had to buy a non-Google phone, the best bet from a software point of view is probably htc. Although I haven’t used it much, the Sense UI looks capable and polished. However, carefully check any htc handset before buying it for problems with poor quality buttons, bad case design, poor touch screen accuracy and screen reflection issues.

The alternative is to buy a well-specified phone like a Samsung Galaxy S (or S2), root it and install a decent version of Android. Running Cyanogen Mod 7 on a Galaxy S is a very close approximation of a Google Nexus S because the hardware is very similar (the Nexus S is made by Samsung for Google).

Choose carefully and Android can be a good experience. Just don’t be a dick by persuading your Mum to buy one.

Video courtesy of tinywatchproductions

Leaving Windows Phone 7 behind

Back in February I upgraded from a dated-feeling iPhone 3G to a htc HD7 running Windows Phone 7. At first, all seemed well – excellent in fact. The OS is fresh, slick and clean looking, and is capable of presenting information in a beautiful way. Compared to the cluttered display of the iPhone with its top status bar and chunky navigation/title bar, Windows Phone apps have a spacious feel, and animation is used heavily to make the experience feel fluid and responsive.

However, over time some annoyances in the OS became too much to bear:

a) I found a number of areas of the system that don’t remember what has been typed into a textbox if you put the phone down and the lock screen activates. This includes text messages and status updates. Incredibly annoying if you’re in the middle of typing out a Facebook update and get distracted before having chance to hit the submit button. Both Android and the iPhone have this one covered, as did a late 1990s Nokia. How can anyone develop a smartphone OS without taking into account basic usage scenarios like this?

b) My single biggest annoyance with Windows Phone 7 is the way it behaves when navigating between applications. Unlike Android, the back button doesn’t just take you back up through screens of the current application, it allows backwards navigation through multiple applications. It sounds powerful, and technically it is impressive but it’s horrible to use in practice.

There’s no forward navigation to go back the other way, and you can’t rely on the homescreen to switch (tapping the live tiles) because doing so always reloads the app from scratch and forgets where you were previously. This isn’t a bug – Microsoft say it should work this way in the usability guidelines. When you’re trying to switch between two applications to accomplish a single task it becomes a usability nightmare. To top it off, Microsoft tried to make the poor old back button work as the browser back button, which causes even more problems. If you want to dial a phone number off a web page, you’re going to need a pen and paper to get the job done.

How Microsoft can ruin all their hard work building a great user experience with a duff navigation paradigm like this is incredible. In trying to understand this, I thought maybe it was a stopgap until the full multitasking arrives with the Mango update, but from what I’ve seen so far this is not the case.

In Mango, home screen tiles still load applications up back at the home page rather than the state they were in when last used. This is the case even if the application is still running. Also, I believe the back button still works the same way. Mango allows you to hold down the back button to trigger the great-looking multitasking interface, which then does allow you switch between applications and retain their navigation state, but holding down the back button will be irritating when it should be the default.

By comparison, the iPhone uses on-screen navigation buttons and this works perfectly, although it has the disadvantage of using quite a bit of precious screen space. Android has a physical back button and it works brilliantly, even catering for those pesky edge cases like opening a link in a browser from an email – the back button is clever enough to return to the email client if the back button is used in the browser window that was opened from the link.

c) when Windows Phone 7 was new it was inevitable that there would be a lack of third party applications, but eventually I ran out of patience waiting for some essentials. The UK version of the Amazon app still hasn’t launched, the eBay app is horrible to use, and Spotify is still not available. Angry Birds was delayed again and again, and then eventually launched at a price far higher than other platforms.

d) hardware quality. Sadly, I didnt get chance to use Windows Phone on another handset to make a comparison, but the HD7 is hopeless. The sharp edges at the top and bottom make the phone uncomfortable to hold against the ear, and they chip very easily. The grills get dirt and fluff trapped in them and are almost impossible to clean. The touchscreen accuracy is horrible and typing is an absolute chore. In bright weather, reflections on the screen are so bad that it’s regularly unusable – a common problem with htc handsets it seems.

One of the reasons I bought into Windows Phone 7 was the anticipation of watching the platform grow, with updates and added functionality being delivered regularly. It was impatient of me not to wait until Mango shipped before dumping the phone, but my annoyances with the platform became too much to put up with. Microsoft’s strategy of pre-announcing became so frustrating – Joe Belfiore would jump on stage and show off handsets running Mango, with Angry Birds and other unreleased applications installed. I found that particularly hard to stomach. Just finish the stuff behind closed doors, ship it and then tell me about how great it is when I can actually get the update and buy the apps myself.

With the exception of the Nokia deal, Windows Phone 7 has been getting hardly any press coverage in it’s own right. In fact, if it weren’t for Nokia, Windows Phone 7 would be dead. With that in mind it starts to become easier to understand why Microsoft spent such a huge amount of money on the Nokia deal. The question is – will the brand be enough to save the platform? It’s a legendary name, but is also a tarnished brand after taking a hammering from Apple and Android over the last few years.

My recommendation is to avoid Windows Phone 7. When Mango ships it might be enough of an improvement to warrant another look, but it’s a dead end until sales of the platform ramp up significantly when Nokia start shipping products.

A belated update – two wheels better?

They say never start with an apology, so I won’t say sorry for not posting anything for the last three months! I’m not quite sure where the time went and I should really have kept up the rate of articles because it felt like the site was on a roll after publishing some great comments from Stephen Danton in the 2Ton interview.

One of the main reasons I’ve not been blogging is that I bought a bike (one with an engine) and – as a 36yr old complete newbie – I’ve been busy in the light summer evenings learning to ride it. It a skill with a lot of depth to it – far more than driving a car I would say – and although it’s definitely not the safest form of transport it can be magnificent fun on the right road with the right weather. I think the best way to describe it compared to a car is that you feel like you’re travelling in your own right as part of the vehicle rather than just sitting inside it.

My bike is a Yamaha YBR125 – one of the most basic bikes around, but one of the best learner rides. It’s an L-Plate friendly 10bhp 125cc engine which pulls well up to about 50mph but after that it’s a long haul to a maximum speed of about 60mph. As such, you can forget motorways on a YBR 125, or any 4-stroke 125 for that matter.

As well as the odd off-topic article about the motorbike I have a few other things planned including:

  • A review of L.A. Noire
  • A review of the HP Touchpad and it’s WebOS operating system
  • Why I finally had to leave Windows Phone 7 behind
  • What I think of Android
  • The story about how a certain UK-based web host broke my site, dropped it out of Google and I had to move it elsewhere.
  • A Halo3:ODST review – I haven’t started playing this yet but hope it’s good because I love the Halo universe.
  • Some info about an article I’ve written for the official show magazine for REPLAY 2011 in Blackpool.

 

Exclusive: Interview with Windows Phone game developer 2 Ton Studios

Stephen Danton runs 2 Ton Studios – creators of some of the most popular and exciting indie games currently available in the Windows Phone marketplace. He develops games in his free time outside of a day job as a User Interface designer working on cloud development tools. So far he’s developed Akiak – a fun obstacle-dodging game featuring a penguin, and NinjaBoy – a polished and addictive platformer with some challenging tilt-based controls. Both games are available for free and are well worth a look if you’ve not downloaded them already.

I originally contacted Stephen because Akiak has an interesting popup message which says that because my phone is a HTC model, the controls will function slightly differently from other Windows Phone devices due to touchscreen issues. Given that Windows Phone seeks to deliver the same experience regardless of hardware I thought there might be an interesting story behind that. Stephen kindly agreed to an interview and I had an opportunity to ask him a range of questions about Windows Phones and gaming in general…

Tell us about your gaming history and favourite games!

This is a tough one, I’ve played tons of games across almost every system ever built. My first system was a Texas Instruments 99 which I think my Mum got it at a flea market for a couple of bucks. My brother and I played the heck out of that thing. The games were pretty bad, but that was where it all started. Growing up I was a hardcore Sega fan so my favorite systems are the Master System and Genesis, although every once in a while we’d break down and rent an NES or SNES to play games like Zelda, Punchout and Mario Kart. As I got older I stopped being a Nintendo-hater and finally got an N64 and later a Wii – GoldenEye, Mario Kart and Mario are still some of my all-time favorite games. I didn’t get into PC gaming until I was a teenager, but really loved games like the first WarCraft, Baldur’s Gate, X-COM, Planescape Torment and later on Half Life, Ultima Online, EverQuest and World of Warcraft.

My all time, stand out, favorite games are Phantasy Star, Zillion, Y’s and Wonder Boy in Monster Land (Master System games) – I regularly replay them even today, and just recently re-finished Y’s, Zillion and Phantasy Star. On the Genesis I loved the sports games – Lakers versus Celtics and NHL 94 and 95. On Nintendo: Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Punch-Out!! On PC: WarCraft, Baldur’s Gate, and Ultima Online.

Before delivering Windows Phone games did you work on any other titles?

WP7 is the first time I’ve shipped games as a real product. I’ve built games very much on the side as soon as I learned to program, which was pretty late in life, not until my 3rd year of University.

What made you buy a Windows Phone device?

If you can believe it Windows Phone is the first cell phone I’ve ever owned. I was given a feature phone one summer when I ran a small business, but that doesn’t really count. I got a WP7 because I’d been working on a Silverlight based game, Shadow Spire, and saw the new Microsoft phone as an easy way to get into the mobile gaming race, try out stuff with little risk, and see if my ideas where any good.

What do you think of XNA as a development platform?

My first two games where done in Silverlight. I switched to XNA for NinjaBoy because I wanted to create a more complex game. There is a bit of a learning curve with XNA, but overall it’s pretty great. There is definitely a lot of stuff that makes game development easier and it’s supported by a solid community. However, it’s still got lots of room to grow. The lack of an official 2D and 3D level editor as well as embedding something similar to Silverlight Storyboards for animation really hurts.

I’d also like to see Microsoft rationalize the Silverlight vs XNA mess they’re currently in. I think having them both as independent technologies is just confusing. There is good stuff in each of them and it would be great to see them come together a bit more.

Did you encounter any issues or limitations during development of your Windows Phone games?

The one thing I would love to see made much easier is multiplayer/networking. I’ve got tons of game ideas that revolve around a multiplayer experience, but to be honest I’m not sure I have the programming chops to realize them technically. If Microsoft would step up and provide a great, easy to leverage, multiplayer framework, including hosting (perhaps Cloud), I think they’d really have something amazing.

I guess the other thing would be better augmented reality support. To me the mobile market is a great medium for augmented reality games. It’s too bad that tools for “parsing”real world entities and turning them into gaming objects is not better supported in the frameworks.

Did you notice the 30 frames-per second restriction in XNA on WP7 and does it bother you?

In my experience once you get over say 20fps, consistency is more important than a high frame rate. Of course if you can have both that’s great. Or, if you’re building a specific game like a first person shooter then a high FPS becomes more important. For the games I like to build 30fps is fine.

I did wrestle with getting smooth, consistent movement on my Silverlight games. I’m actually convinced that it’s impossible to do this with Silverlight at the moment. With NinjaBoy being an XNA game it was pretty easy to get the results I wanted. However, WP7 doesn’t seem to be that good at isolating a game from the side effects of other apps, so there are times when I play NinjaBoy or other XNA games where you get some slow down here and there. I’m not 100% sure where it’s coming from but I don’t see that kind of thing when I play iPhone games.

Could you elaborate on the HTC touch screen problem you had with Akiak – what was it?

Pre-NoDo the HTC HD7 phone was just really bad at handling touch events. Basically it would often report a touchdown as a touchup, and even miss touches. I’ve talked to lots of people that struggled with this. At the end of the day Akiak was unplayable on an HTC because it really relied on precise handling of touch so that Akiak could jump over obstacles. I solved this by building a fork in Akiak’s control mechanics so that when a player was using an HTC I swapped the jump gesture from touch to tilt up.

Interestingly, the super popular and incredibly similar(!) iPhone game Air Penguin (released a few months after Akiak) uses tilt for all of their gestures.

It’s really unfortunate I had to do this as I think the touch experience is better. Moreover, it’s really sad to see this lack of consistency across WP7 handsets. As an indie dev I can’t afford to test on all devices, so I really rely on the promised consistency across the hardware. Hopefully we don’t see any more of this going forward.

What do you think of the WP7 marketplace and how happy are you with sales/downloads so far?

Overall the marketplace is okay, but often disappointing. Aside from sales/downloads, I see three sides to the experience: app submission, app purchasing by potential players, and lastly marketplace services.

My sales and downloads are decent. As of this writing we have 100,000 downloads and have made around $1,500 dollars. I think NinjaBoy is a pretty good game, but if I didn’t have a solid day job there is no way I could justify building games on WP7. My sales and download numbers – although relatively good and something I’m proud of – are pretty pathetic when it comes to return on my investment. Microsoft is really going to have to do something about this or I fear many of the developers that prove to themselves they have game dev/design talent are going to leave for greener pastures.

The submission side is a little clunky, with a number of issues that I would consider ship stopping bugs. For instance, when adding screenshots for your app you have to add them in the right order the first time or pictures won’t show up in your submission. So, if you add a picture, delete it, then add a different one, you often get no picture in that slot at all. Super frustrating. Other things that seem like obvious fixes include the automatic checking of submit to marketplace after testing (this should be off by default), the lack of app information persistence when I do an update (I have to reenter that stuff every time), the inability to deliver a “point release” e.g. 1.1.1, and the inability to truly preview what you are submitting when doing an update, it just shows you the current marketplace information, you only get to see what users will actually see after it is done testing.

App purchasing on the phone is pretty bad in my opinion. It’s definitely improved with NoDo (at least the Marketplace doesn’t lock your phone anymore), but that’s not saying much. I think it’s especially bad for indie games and overly weighted towards XBL content. For instance, Top Games is not actually top games. It’s top paid games. That’s just wrong. I think they need the concept of “What’s New” to showcase game updates. App ranking seems to be all about downloads, that seems wrong. Reviews and freshness should also matter. I would also like to see the ability to sort by games with a free trail or require paid games to have a trial mode. Lastly, the review UI is totally broken. I have 100s of 0 star reviews with comments like “This game is awesome!”. People think that no stars is actually 5 stars, this really needs to be corrected.

On the marketplace services side of things I think WP7 is really behind the curve. Support for in-app purchases, paying for a new update, and making sharing of your app a first class task through code, like review, are must haves in my opinion. Right now the only way to reasonably make money is to give a game away for free and support it with ads. I dislike ads in my games, I feel it breaks the immersion of the experience and makes the game look cheap. I’d much rather sell the game for 99 cents, or give the game away for free and have an in-app purchase model for additional content.

What do you think of the Xbox Live branding and pricing for games – is it a good thing?

Overall it’s a big mess. The pricing is just nuts – $2.99 for Fruit Ninja when it’s 99 cents on iPhone. That’s just broken. My guess is they were looking to their experience with XBL Arcade on the 360 console and hoped to map that to the phone. However, I’m not sure that model works on the phone. At the end of the day I’m not sure what problem they were trying to solve through the XBL model. Moreover, I don’t see a XBL as a tool to address the “top heavy” problem found on iOS where anything not in the top 200 tends to do very poorly. If anything, XBL makes this top heavy problem worse and somewhat of a dictatorship: at least on iOS the users, not Apple, votes on what is great.

Aside from passing on increased costs to the user for signing bigger studios to make games, I think it does harm to the indie game movement on the phone. Firstly, it suggests that everything non-XBL is bad. Players don’t know, nor do I for that matter, what is required to get a game into XBL, so they often think if it’s not XBL it must not be that good. As far as I can tell unless you’re a well-established studio it simply can’t be done. I’ve had tons of NinjaBoy fans tell me how great it would be if it was on XBL, and I’d love to make that happen, but all of my mails to Microsoft have fallen on deaf ears. Other than the automatic email response, I’ve still never gotten an official answer from them. I could be wrong, but a game that is currently ranked #6 on the whole phone, with a 9/10 worldwide review score (of 2,000 reviews), should at least deserve a “We love NinjaBoy, but think you need to do A and B until we can consider it for XBL.”

To me Microsoft should bending over backwards to work with guys like 2 Ton to get our unique indie games as polished and publicized as possible. I would be running commercials on us, hosting pod casts, offering us contracts to quit our day jobs so we can focus just on games, and giving us as much support as possible. I believe strongly that people will come to WP7 for great unique content – experiences you can’t find on iOS. They are not going to come for an old version of Angry Birds. They might not leave because of that, but I don’t think that’s a great goal.

Thoughts of the future of WP7 gaming

On the positive side, I think the WP7 dev stack and experience is very solid and Microsoft will continue to improve the experience here. However, there is more to building a game than just developing it. If they can’t figure out how to provide not just good, but better monetization potential than iOS and Android, it’s my belief that the good devs will simply leave.

Overall, I’m hopeful but with some serious doubts. I believe the current trend of porting old content on to the phone and trying to pursue bigger box games is just wrong. To me, the iPhone wasn’t great because of games like Infinity Blade (a great game no doubt), but instead because of games like Canabalt, Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja and – yes – Angry Birds!

Summary

Stephen raises some very thought-provoking points about the current state of gaming on Windows Phone, and some of his suggestions such as a slick multiplayer API could give the platform the edge it needs to live up to the Xbox branding. I have already criticised the pricing of XBL games in a previous post, and it’s interesting to hear a developer perspective on this – especially an indie developer with the potential to create the next overnight success in mobile gaming. Come on Microsoft – stop promoting XBL games at the expense of indie games. Even the gaming hub pushes them down off the bottom of the screen!

I’d like to thank Stephen for his time and wish him continued success with his Windows Phone games – NinjaBoy is currently riding high in the sales charts as the sixth most downloaded free application.

Buying controllers for the original Xbox

When I bought my Xbox back in January it came with the original chunky controller. It’s a beast, and stories of hand cramp after prolonged sessions are no exaggeration. To make matters worse, the four main buttons are in an unusual distorted diamond layout which can be tricky especially if you use a 360 regularly. It was time to find an alternative…

I found the Microsoft “Xbox Controller S” and it looked spot on (picture above) – very similar to the superb 360 pad and roughly the same size. It was only available second hand and when I checked prices they seemed overly expensive. eBay has lots of clones for sale so I decided to try one of those. When it arrived I was very pleased with it. Apart from a plain circle where the xbox logo should be, it looked like a quality piece of kit. Occasionally the triggers nipped my fingers but apart from that performance was good. Eventually though, I did notice that the analog sticks are a bit erratic in operation whenever very accurate control is needed – such as using sniper weapons in Halo. Being quite new to the original Xbox, I thought this was normal for the console and battled against it.

After only four months the controller broke. It happened as I was fighting for my life in Halo 2 battling a bunch of Brutes with only an Energy Sword to defend myself. The left thumbstick jammed solid. After moving it around a few times it freed up but the centering had failed, making it unusable. Curious to see what had gone wrong, I took the controller apart and discovered the analog sticks are sealed units so are either impossible or very difficult to repair.

The original chunky controller

Reluctantly I dug out my original oversized controller and straight away something was obvious – the analog sticks are actually perfectly accurate on the original Xbox. The problem was with the non-genuine pad I’d been using. When looking around using the right-hand stick in Halo, screen movement is much smoother and more controllable. Apart from the size of the controller, returning to a genuine Microsoft controller proved to be a welcome move. Gaming is more enjoyable and does justice to what is still a decent console.

I’ve ordered another small-style controller off eBay and this time it’s a genuine Microsoft one that has been refurbished by a seller called gktoysandgames (no longer on eBay). The cost of £8.49 + sensible P&P seems very decent and there’s even a 60 day warranty for peace of mind.

My recommendation is to avoid the cheap copies of the Controller S because mine only lasted four months and the accuracy of the analog sticks is pretty crappy. Even though they can’t be bought new any more, the best option is to buy the real thing on the second-hand market. I’m sure the Microsoft pad will be much more durable too – just what I need to finish off the rest of the Covenent army.