…after exactly one week spent with the iPad, I can honestly say for certain it’s made a successful and appreciated transition into my life. For what it’s worth, this blog post is the first time I’ve touched my Macbook since the iPad arrived. There was one time when I instinctively went for the Macbook to check something online, but it dawned on me it would be much faster to do it on the iPad. Since that moment, I haven’t really looked back.

The iPad has just integrated right into regular use almost seamlessly, but on top of that is getting much more additional use than I did out of either my netbook or laptop. I keep it close while watching TV to check scores and actors’ details, and also nearby my desktop when I’m gaming to check news or watch live TV. I’ve used it on the treadmill, and been able to watch video, listen to music, and even surf and shop while exercising. I bring it to the bathroom, I read eBooks in bed, game on the couch. I’m constantly checking the App store for new apps, and I’ve found quite a few gems, as well as iTunes for new music and videos.

Pretty much everything I’d imagined it would, the iPad is handling, and with very little effort on my part. This is not a “forced usage” kind of scenario where I’m doing these things just to prove a point. More the opposite, it’s really filling in the blanks where I had no effective equivalent on top of taking care of easy things like checking email regularly. The treadmill is the best example, where I watched an episode of Glee the other day while walking a few miles. Before I knew it 45 minutes had passed as I marveled at how good the video quality (and the show itself) was. I’ve tried other video devices and it’s always been too awkward due to the form factor or too small a screen to enjoy, so I had kind of given up. My only issue was the sound (which tends to get drowned out by the treadmill), so as soon as I stepped off, I was on Amazon searching for a Bluetooth speaker. I found a nice one for $50 (Altec Lansing) which pairs up with both the iPhone 3GS and iPad, so the next time I’m on I’ll have decent room-filling sound as well. I can’t wait for Slingbox to optimize their app so I can watch higher quality live and DVR TV; the current version works but video quality is fairly poor.

Typing on the iPad works amazingly well considering what I was expecting, but of course can still never compare to a physical keyboard. The feel of this one in particular (Macbook Air) just fits for me. That said, I’ve gotten used to typing on the iPad for short posts and emails, which I’ve typically avoided on the iPhone; I tried a typing test site and averaged about 30-40 WPM with no errors, so clearly speed and accuracy are not a big problem using the touchscreen implementation. The auto correction, as mentioned in the previous post, is very accurate and useful. Unfortunately with no tactile feedback it’s just not quite the same experience as keys can give. I don’t consider this an issue since I have other options, but somehow intending the iPad to be their *only* device should think about whether they are satisfied with the tying options.

As far as gaming, I am anticipating really big things based on what’s already been demonstrated with the first releases. We Rule is terribly addictive, and often I’ll just watch the graphics as they are just gorgeous on the larger screen. There’s also something incredibly satisfying about touching the screen to collect cash and harvest your crops, silly and hard to explain. Warpgate HD looks like an incredibly deep space sim with an endless amount of gameplay. RealRacingHD has smoothly rendered racing tracks and great responsiveness to the accelerometer; the use of the screen as both HUD and steering wheel makes for some truly innovative gameplay. Plants vs Zombies is just plain fun and the touch interface and gorgeous graphics are perfect for the iPad. There’s a “God” sim called Godfinger which is quite amusing, and a new MMORPG-lite entitled Pocket Legends which is trying to bring Diablo style online dungeon romps to the mix.

So far I’ve only demoed the iPad to a couple of close friends. Both seemed to love the Photos and Books in particular, so these should be popular among the non-geek crowd. My one friend is now re-thinking upgrading his old Macbook, and instead going with a desktop (iMac perhaps) + iPad combo instead. Of course it really depends on your personality and usage, but I’m thinking that’s a really good way to go. Have a nice large screen with plenty of power to do your more intensive tasks, and then use the iPad for general and on-the-go needs. For more tech savvy users, set the desktop up to for both remote use and as the server to stream content from, and you’ve really got a powerful tool at your fingertips.

Clearly this is not going to be a hit with everyone in the short term. I’ve had a lot of questions from folk who still seemed confused by the entire concept? Is it a laptop replacement? Is it a computer? Is it an eBook reader? A portable gaming machine? The answer is of course it can be all of these things and more, provided one is willing to make a few sacrifices like Flash and USB support. And understand to really take full of advantage of all it has to offer, you’ll need to research the right apps and then try them out to see if they worked well for you.

My advice if you are really in the market for one but are still on the fence: take a trip to the local Best Buy or Apple store and try one out. My local BB had 3 of them for people to play with. You really have to feel the thing in your hands and interact with it to make sure it feels good to you and that you can accomplish your highest priority tasks with it. There are some things (like web and photo browsing) I flat out believe are a better experience here than anything else out there. Something about the immediacy and intimacy of the Touchscreen transcend the general state ofThen there are others (productivity) that appear to need some additional effort to learn. This kind of thing will start to sort itself out over time.

All in all I can see the iPad fitting into all sorts of different lives and lifestyles, from students to gamers to housewives to retired folk. It has the potential to be different things to different people, and because of its particular size/weight/form factor, the potential to go a lot of places that traditional laptops/netooks wouldn’t. So it will be interesting to see if it catches on more mainstream or remains in a niche. I’m guessing it won’t really take off til perhaps Christmas, taking advantage of both the holiday and (hopefully) the introduction of iPhone OS 4.

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“It’s been a long, a long time coming – but I know a change gonna come…”

Yeah you know the lyrics, and they were right – so shelve your netbook, box up your UMPC collection, hide the “tablet” PC, give your Nintendo DS and Sony PSP to your nephew, and stick your eReader in the bottom drawer – because after a long, long, excruciating wait (for some of us anyway), the iPad is finally upon us.  And yes, don’t be afraid of the hyperbole; we are absolutely talking about a revolution.  The time to speak gently for fear of rousing the naysayers is over; it’s time to spread the word to the non-haters who still have an open enough mind to accept an awesome new piece of technology that will help define a brand new usage space that crosses over from casual usage to business productivity to portable game console to eBook reader to media player.

OK OK I may be going a bit overboard here in excitement, but after about 4 hours of non-stop use, I’m definitely impressed.  That said, I think you’ll find a fairly balanced impressions post, as I’ve noticed a few negatives along with all the sheer awesomeness.  One thing was clear to me after my first day with the iPad; if you think you know exactly what it is and have defined (or confined) it to a particular space, you are most likely wrong.  In spite of all the research I did and all my past experiences with this “space,” I was still surprised by some elements of the actual user experience.  It’s quite simply a unique and different feeling compared to everything that’s out there now; if you are genuinely interested or on the fence, you really have to try it to see if it suits you.

So without further ado, let’s dive right in:

First “feelings”

When you first pick it up, the iPad feels “just right” – the size, weight, balance, everything seems slick and well tuned.  The first slide to turn the unit on, the first time you start browsing or checking out your photos, everything feels pretty amazing.  Contrary to the unboxing experience I had with the Archos 9 (A9) PCTablet, the iPad comes ready to go, fully charged.  If you wanted, you could just start using it immediately, with the only setup being connecting to your wireless network.  For me I had to spend about an hour syncing to my Mac, and much of that time was my own fault because I needed to reorganize my gazillion apps.  Still, the “out of box” experience was infinitely better and easier.  I’ve seriously already had more quality usage in one day than I’ve had with the A9 and my last netbook combined.  With those two, I literally spent more time updating and upgrading than I did actually using.

Back to the iPad, the rotation from the accelerometer is extremely responsive, more so than the iPhone I believe.  But after longer usage, I noticed (depending on the app) it can be awkward at times, the rotation may be too sensitive, and the weight is definitely still not optimal.  I’ve said this all along, I really think you want to be a pound or under for a device that’s meant to be held in one hand for extended periods of time.  In terms of the accelerometer sensitivity, it’s great for gaming (see RealRacing HD) but not great for general use as it can bounce around back and forth between modes when you are walking, for instance; luckily there is a hard button to lock in your screen perspective.  So I’m mixed on the day one “overall feel”.  I know I’ll get used to it in time and find natural positions (and accessories) that compensate (this is already happening in day 2), but I was a little surprised it wasn’t somehow “magically” better from the getgo.  It was probably an unrealistic expectation given that I knew the dimensions/weight, and you just can’t cheat physics.  I’ll review this again after a month or so of use.

Screen/Touch interface

As expected, the screen is gorgeous and the interface is every bit as responsive as you might hope.  The added size (it seems to be like 6x the iPhone) gives you so much more of everything to work with, and it is very impressive.  Bad news though?  Even with the special coating you’ll get fingerprints all over, and the screen feels sometimes like my finger is sticking (as opposed to sliding).  Of course I should mention that I use a screen protector (Boxwave Anti-Glare) on my iPhone which has an overall smoother feel at the cost of sucking out some of the brightness of the screen.  I was hoping not to have to add a protector but it’s probably a good idea for me since I’ve become so accustomed to the feel I have on my iPhone.  Overall the screen is of the highest quality that you expect from Apple, the touch response incredibly well executed (with no calibration whatsoever required), and the large size as it sits in your hand and close to your eyes creates a unique feel that is difficult to describe.  Yes it sounds a bit weird, but more “intimate” is probably the best choice of words.

Keyboard

Prior to release this looked like it would be the Achilles heel and I had a lot of doubts it would be effective, particularly after the relatively poor experiences I had with the Archos.  With software keyboards on a touch screen, the larger size can actually become a detriment as I found with the A9.  Luckily, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised, in spite of my good experiences with the iPhone keyboard.  In portrait mode, it’s actually easier to use because (assuming your thumbs are long enough) you can just type similar to the way you would on your phone, but with much larger keys and more spacing.  Basically your 2 hands are holding the unit and your thumbs do the work.  I can’t type at regular speed, but combined with the correction technology, I can type faster than I can on the iPhone, which is pretty amazing.  Landscape is actually more awkward if you are holding the iPad; you pretty much have to set it down somehow to type properly.  This can get awkward depending on how you are sitting.  The good news is once you take care of the positioning, you can really take advantage of the size of the keyboard and type with 2 hands.  The speed/responsiveness is almost fast enough to keep up with my typing speed, but still a bit too slow.  Again, the correction tech is almost impeccable, and anyone who’s come to rely on it like they do with the iPhone should be a happy camper.  Now if you do decided you need a physical keyboard you can either go with Bluetooth or a keyboard/dock combo.  One bad thing is for the latter, you are stuck using the unit in portrait mode since there is only one docking connection on the bottom (in portrait).  Personally I’m not thrilled with that design trade.

Battery Life

More good news here, thus far from reviews and my own experience, it looks like Apple’s 12-hour claims were justified.  My usage over 4 hours was browsing, gaming, some video, books, pretty much everything I could think of – and a lot of wireless access.  Last I looked I was at about 70% so I’m pretty impressed.  On other piece of good news, even after all the constant usage I never felt the unit get hot, not while gaming, not while surfing, not while constantly using wireless.  This is a major feat in itself and should not be taken for granted, as pretty much all the (larger screen) portable devices I’ve used will get hot in spots or under sustained usage.

Email

The email client is very nice, if you’ve seen the demos you pretty much know what you’re going to get.  Being able to interact with the touch screen makes for an overall more enjoyable feel compared with web mail and even Apple’s own client.  I definitely like the way that I can flick scroll through all the email while still having a particular one on the main screen.  Speed and overall response is also quite better than it is with the iPhone.  It’s not going to sell the device, but it definitely offers a “best of both worlds” experience compared to the iPhone and a Macbook or traditional web-based client.  The only negative is of course typing, so if you do a lot of long replies, it may not be the best choice.

Web Surfing

This is really the crown jewel of the iPad in my opinion.  By now everyone surfs the web, from my elderly parents to my baby nephew, and finally someone has really made it an enjoyable, more personal and (there’s that word again) “intimate” experience.  Information comes to you as you touch it in an intuitive and comfortable manner, it just feels right to gently flick a page and have more information scroll forward.  We got a taste of this with iPhone but the screen was just too small and cramped to give a more complete experience.  With the improved processor and Wireless N, browsing is just a wonderful experience on the iPad, as full web pages complete with graphics just pop up almost instantly, and responses to your touches are just a tad more responsive and immediate.

Books/Reading

Thus far I’ve dabbled with 2 book readers (Apple’s iBooks and Kindle) and a comic book reader (Marvel).  All were free to download but cleverly give you some free choices and free previews, but then charge you for the content you really want.  And since it’s all done seamlessly through the app itself, you can quickly bankrupt yourself before you know it.  iBooks includes a free Winnie the Pooh book, which is perfect to demo the app as it includes a number of gorgeous original color illustrations.  It also has a great in-app brightness changer and the graphical page turning that’s been shown in commercials and demos.  It all makes for a much nicer presentation than Amazon’s more spartan offering.  Still Amazon has the content at this point so it should be an interesting battle.  The comic reader is absolutely fantastic.  I bought Joss Whedon’s classic Astonishing X-Men #1 and it was simply a pleasure to experience in bold vivid colors on the iPad screen.  There’s even a feature where you can switch to have each panel appear individually and progress the story, which really gives you the opportunity to focus and appreciate the artwork.  All in all I am very satisfied with the reading aspects.  I still need to try reading before bed to see if the brightness will bother me.

Photos

You’ve probably seen the commercial or the demo, and let me just say it is every bit as cool as it looks.  The way your photos kind of come alive at your fingertips as you explore an “event” is simply amazing.  Everything is smooth as silk and flipping through photos, zooming in and out, is all wonderfully rendered.  Be forewarned that the first time you install all the photos will be “optimized” for the iPad, so that can take some time.  All that said, this is more of an adjunct feature for me, I don’t anticipate it getting heavy use.  It’s great for showing off though, I have to admit.  And for photo/image buffs, it could be a main selling point.

Music and Video

It’s funny that like with the iPhone, the whole iPod featureset is pretty much overlooked.  We’ve come to take it for granted that we’re going to get a solid experience, and the iPad delivers pretty much everything you’d expect, though coverflow seems to be missing in the music interface.  Instead a more practical but less sexy scrolling interface is used, more similar to the contacts list.  Video quality looks pretty top notch, but again no surprises here.  I have to admit this is the feature I looked at the least so I will probably evaluate it more as time passes.

Apps/Gaming

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve heard different stories on the number of “release” apps specific to iPad.  Something like 1000 was the rumor.  Add that to the nearly 200,000 iPhone/iPod Touch apps and it’s actually a bit overwhelming.  But having choices is always good, it just might take some time and research (and perhaps some misfires) to get to the cream of the crop.  Before even receiving my iPad, I had already downloaded about $100 worth of iPad apps, ranging from the iWork productivity suite to games to comic and book readers to note-taking.  I was amazed at both the quantity and apparent quantity of what is already available.  Apple definitely worked the timing out well, giving developers ample opportunity to hone this first gen of apps and give us a much stronger release sampling than the iPhone had.  And compare this to your typical console release which generally comes with 10-20 titles, this is absolutely insane.  Most people generally agree it will be the apps that will sell the system long-term, and judging by the initial wave it looks like we are all in for a real treat.

I have about 6 pages worth of apps already, a mix of iPad exclusive and iPhone apps I wanted to try out, really far too many to cover in detail here.  The iPad versions are noticeably improved taking full advantage of the higher resolution and larger screen.  Worth mentioning is the RealRacing HD app, which allows you to use the full iPad to steer as you drive.  I was afraid it might make me nauseous but it just played perfectly.  It’s a very unique experience gameplay wise as no other driving game offers you quite this exact perspective in this size of a screen.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense (physically steering the actual first person point of view) but game-play wise it just works.  I also got some time in Dungeon Hunter HD, which looks fantastic on the larger screen and plays great once you get used to it.  I ended up going with a touch approach (in place of the virtual stick) which seemed to work better on the large screen.  If you are into the Farmville scene, I highly recommend We Rule.  The iPhone version was already addictive enough, but the iPad takes the interface to the next level.  It’s absolutely gorgeous and with the larger screen you can pretty much see your entire kingdom without scrolling and gain a great overview.  Even nicer, instead of having to come out of your kingdom view to see the larger area map where your friends are, you can stay in your kingdom and scroll around the Social map.  Just some nice subtle touches but all very appreciated.  I also tried the first few levels of Plants vs. Zombies HD and let me just say the graphics were stunning on the screen.  I wasn’t actually expecting it to be much better as I thought the iPhone version was already close to perfect, but the higher res graphics and larger screen size take it to the next level.  Playing it with full touch is such a marked improvement over using the mouse to click on things, I’d almost say this game alone is worth the price of admission to getting an iPad for fans of the genre.

MIA

So after all that, what’s missing?  It’s hard to dwell too much on a couple of desired features that didn’t make it into this first design after being overwhelmed with the amount of things that were done correctly.  But yes, Flash is still not supported so a number of websites are going to look sparse or flat out not work.  I’m lucky in that the majority of my top sites do not use much Flash at all, so I really don’t notice it.  I would have really enjoyed a front or dual-facing camera for video chat and the like, plus there have been many innovative uses of the camera such as for a business card scanner.  This is a minor disappointment all in all and likely something that will be added in the next release.   Multi-tasking is of course the “big” feature that many people have complained about, essentially saying it cannot compare to a powerful “computer” because of this.  The fact is we know on some level the hardware is already capable of “multi-tasking” as you can already run iPod music in the background while surfing or doing other things, or check a map while on the phone (as shown in the commercial).  So while I do believe Apple will address this soon enough (both here and on the iPhone), I have to question the full necessity of it.  Cluttering memory with a dozen open applications is something we get used to on our desktops, but does it really make sense to do a traditional style multi-task on a portable device like this?  Honestly I have never once felt the need to have some background process running on the iPhone, and there are only a couple usage cases where I could see it being truly relevant.  Hopefully when it does come it will be presented in a logical, useful, easy to use way, and not just added as a feature to appease the critics.

Bottom Line

Is it for you?  That could be a tough call given the price point which is enticing but certainly not cheap.  For geeks who love new tech, it’s practically a no-brainer.  Ditto for gamers who are interested in a different style of interface.  The hardware itself is top-notch, but when combined with the never-ending supply of cool new apps, it’s a dream come true for people who love new releases and you can bet there will be plenty.

For a truly casual user, it could conceivably replace or be used in place of a “real” computer (laptop or desktop).  It’s going to handle all the same core functions (web, email, multimedia) in a simpler, easier to use form factor.  People like my parents could easily get by with these functions as that’s pretty much all they do.

I could also see this being perfect for students as the preferred unit to carry to classes and coffeehouses.  Imagine having all your textbooks loaded on the iPad and being able to highlight and copy/paste and annotate directly onto the electronic books.  From a business-user’s standpoint, it’s tough to say.  I haven’t had a chance to evaluate the “big 3” productivity products but they look solid.  Still, I don’t see people necessarily giving up their computers to work on detailed spreadsheets and presentations.  As I’ve seen in other reviews, the iPad looks like a great way to edit and review content but not necessarily to generate new content from scratch.  One other thing that I found disconcerting at first look was there doesn’t seem to be an obvious and intuitive way to handle file transfers, organize documents (particularly PDFs), or stream media from other computers.  I found an app called FileTransfer that seems to do what I want, but it’s been difficult to get running effectively, and this is something that really should be handled by the OS.  (Edit: apparently it’s handled somewhere in iTunes, I still have to figure it out.)

For gamers, it’s opening a whole new gaming interface due to the size of the screen combined again with the touch sensitivity and the accelerometer.  I’m expecting a lot of bigger and better things to come along and clever ways to use these capabilities.  The small portable DS and PSP screens just can’t compete, so this is something developers can really take advantage of.  Admittedly there are certainly some games that become more awkward when you don’t have buttons or a mouse, but there are others (like Plants vs Zombies) that really do play better when they are all-touch.

So for now I see the iPad fitting perfectly alongside my other gadgets and computers, but quickly taking over some spots (like the bathroom, bed and couch).  It’s the perfect companion piece to fit in the in-between spaces that were awkward for my laptop or when the iPhone screen is too small.  On top of that it’s providing the best web-browsing interface I’ve personally used to date, as well as a whole new way to game.  Short version: love it.

Since the January 27th announcement of Apple’s new iPad, I’ve encountered what appears to be a great deal of negativity and skepticism regarding the tablet.  As is now becoming fairly customary with Apple’s announcements, there appears to be a focus on all of the things the new device can not do:  Flash, take pictures, multi-task, eInk, the list goes on and on.  I’m not going to ignore the fact that this initial release is not the perfect, ideal tablet I’ve been dreaming of with every feature I might have wanted, but I also think many people are missing the point to some degree.  They are focusing on a list of specifications, or lack thereof.  They haven’t even looked at the video demo of the iPad in action, or thought about how the device might be fun and useful in their everyday lives, because they are too busy being disappointed, pointing out all the flaws and missteps. 

Then there’s another set of folk, who I think are more just skeptics, they just don’t see where the usage “space” of such a device might be in their lives, or how it could fit in since they already have a nice desktop, laptop and iPod Touch.  So this blog post is mostly for that group.  Now obviously I can’t claim to know exactly how the new device works, but I’ve had years of experiences with other tablets, as well as the iPhone, and therefore I have a distinct sense of how I think I might use it one day.  So without further ado, here’s an imagined “day in the life” scenario with the iPad:

Morning.  iPad alarm wakes me up with some nice classical music I downloaded the night before.  I get up and pull it out of its dock and take it to the breakfast table.  I stand it up in the case and read the LA Times while eating my breakfast.  Flick to the next page, entertainment section – oh, I see that HBO’s Ice and Fire show is premiering tonight; zoom in to check the time.  Hit the Home button and hit U-Verse app, a quick search and I set the DVR to record the series.  Well, heck, now I feel like actually watching some TV.  Hit the Infrared Remote app (this requires an additional attachment), and the TV is now playing the morning news.  Commercial comes on, I change the channel to MTV, and a  new Lady Gaga video is playing and gets stuck in my head –  so I hit the iTunes store and download her latest album.  After finishing breakfast, I check my calendar – yuck, my section meeting is at 9 and a vendor is coming in at 2.  I still have a package to drop off at Fedex so I better get moving.  Open Maps, check for the closest Fedex station, a couple zoom-ins and I’m on my way.

On the drive.  Switch on Bluetooth and stream the new songs I downloaded to the car stereo, not bad so far.  At a stoplight, check the map one more time to make sure I know where I’m going.   Drop the package off and then head to work.

Work.  At my desk, I flip through the presentation I’m going to make at the section meeting.  A couple of things are off and I’m not sure on a few numbers.  So I show it to my colleague on the tablet and he point out a few typos, which I change on the fly.  I call up an eBook reference to check the last of a few questionable equations, switch to the calculator to check my numbers.  Looks good enough.  At the meeting, I use the VGA adapter to put my presentation up on the projector screen, and flip through it as I go through.  All goes well.  Back at my desk, it’s lunch break so I relax with a quick game of Need for Speed.  I remember there was something on my desktop I wanted to finish so I jump into Logmein, move a few files around and get a round of file encodes started in Handbrake.  Update my calendar throughout the day, taking notes as needed on the pad.  At the vendor meeting which we do in the lobby due to security reasons,  the vendor has an idea for a new mechanical housing he’s trying to describe, but I just can’t visualize it – I hit Brushes and let him draw the concept out for me since there’s no white board around.  Ah ha!  I like it, so he’s going to put a quote together.  I save the drawing he made and email it to him right there as a reference.  Back at my desk, I finish out the day in the lab, importing my data into a spreadsheet from the PC directly into Numbers, which I’ll look at later if I get a chance.

Back home.  Laker game is on but I want to get in some exercise.  So I change clothes, get on the treadmill.  Hit Remote to access my main iTunes library and start playing some background music through the Airport-enabled speakers.  Touch the 2010 Treadmill playlist, Shuffle and Play.  Then hit Slingplayer and get the TV game up on the screen while doing the treadmill.   Exercise isn’t too bad like this 🙂  Half-time comes, so I access my home server and pull up an old episode of Buffy that I just converted.  Man I love that show. 

Dinner-time.  iPad is sitting on the table again, this time with the latest Wired magazine up.  Flipping through while eating some pizza, I soon get in trouble when my partner asks if I’m ever going to put “that thing” away.  So I hit Photos and set it to screen-saver mode, and it’s immediately a nice picture frame, just off to the side.

Evening.  I cuddle up in my favorite recliner and do a little more browsing, check a few forums and other sites.  Move to email and flip through quickly to see if any need responses.  Watch a Youtube video that a friend has recommended, then play a round of Words with Friends.  Back to email, I see another friend has recommended a new 3D RPG, so I move to the App store and download it.  Sweet! 

Night time.  Sitting in bed I read a couple more chapters of the latest George RR Martin novel.  There’s a couple of characters I don’t remember so I call up the previous book and re-read a few passages.  But then I realize some of the plot still doesn’t make sense so I bring up Wikipedia and read the details.  Wait a sec – who’s going to play the mom again?  Hit IMDB and check that out.  Back to the book, finish out another chapter.  Finally put the device back in Alarm mode in its dock and turn out the lights.

They say that all good things come to those who wait.  Well, I’ve been waiting for an incredibly long time for a really usable, portable but powerful, lightweight Tablet PC.  My earliest experiences have been with portable media players (PMPs) mostly from Archos, who has generally been in the forefront of the technology.  Of course in the years that followed, Apple has come along and essentially revolutionalized the market in this category, but only in the small iPhone/iPod Touch screen size.  As all eyes are on Steve Jobs and the big A now with the impending (rumored) announcement of a Tablet computing device, numerous competitors have been making their own announcements and trying to release their products.

The Archos 9 PC Tablet is touted on their website as “The Ultimate Mobility Experience”  which allows you to watch videos (including Full HD format), browse the web, “video chat”, email, documents, etc. – as far as I know it’s the first full-featured Tablet in such a light (1.76 pounds) and thin (0.67″) package capable of running Windows 7 (Starter edition is included).  It features a 1.1GHz Atom processor, 1GB of RAM 60GB hard drive, integrated webcam and a 8.9″ LED backlit touch-screen.  There is a single USB port, and input can be made via the touch screen (both fingers and stylus) and with a small finger “trackpoint” navigation system.  So essentially you have a low end Netbook that has been carved into a thin handheld unit all for roughly the cost of what Netbooks started out at ($550); it all sounds great on paper but how does it fare in the real world?

The Packaging: really pretty nice, it appears people are finally learning from Apple that style in packaging can also go a long way to impressing customers. Everything was neat and simple and classy and the unboxing process went flawlessly. I give it a thumbs up.

The First Look: picking the Tablet up for the first time, it felt very slick and looked very nice, better than I’d expected.  Certainly the best looking Archos device (from the exterior) that I’ve personally owned (this now being the 4th portable device I’ve purchased from them).  Again, they are clearly looking at Apple for inspriation, as the hardware has very few external buttons or ports, and interface buttons are kept to a minimum to keep the product looking sharp and sexy.  Another big thumbs up.

Weight/feel:  This is a big deal and often overlooked with devices of this type.  If you build an incredible portable device but it’s just unwieldy, there’s very little point to it.  As competition you have to acknowledge the competition, from netbooks and the Macbook Air that come in at 3 pounds vs. Archos’ own 705 Wifi 7″ unit that weighs 1.4 pounds.  On first pick up the weight felt almost exactly right, until I realized the battery was not installed. With battery in, the weight is just a tad bit over what I’d like ideally, but all in all serviceable, and very much on par with what you’d expect given the competition.  I’d say a target would be half a traditional netbook, and they are getting pretty close with this design.  Strong Pass (still needs testing in different environments over time).

Physical Interface:  The trackpoint mouse function is definitely serviceable but a little too small for my fat thumb. I like the relative position of the mouse buttons on the left side, but I think I would have preferred them in a horizontal left/right positioning instead of top/bottom vertical.  All in all a very decent secondary control scheme if no mouse is available, and I found myself using it more often than not for precision.  I like that on the back side of the unit, you have easy access to a built-in removable stylus, and there is a  prop/kickstand that works nicely to allow you to set the unit facing up.  Unfortunately both of these feel a little cheap in quality, but they do seem to work well.  I’m just worried they may break sooner rather than later.

All in all I give the physical interfaces a Pass.

Touch Screen: looks very nice overall, but still need a lot more testing for a real review in terms of touch sensitivity vs. graphics quality and look.  Thus far I’ve tried numerous calibration schemes and drivers but haven’t really got a good feel for the touch interface.  Sometimes it seems fine, other times it is frustratingly awkward.  Compared to the beauty and simplicity of the iPhone, this is a major Fail.

On-screen Keyboard:  this is where things start to get a little iffy.  There are multiple options for the keyboard, but none of them seem ideal.  While you are able to resize and reposition the keyboards, the overall effect given the size of the main unit makes everything awkward.  It’s too big to allow you to do iPhone or Blackberry thumb style typing, but too small to do true full-hand typing.  I found myself using the stylus more often than not, and in truth I’d really rather just avoid typing as much as possible.  I ordered a Bluetooth keyboard for this, but really it’s not an ideal solution if you want to see how the unit stands on its own.  Because this is really a software/interface issue, and compared to what I know works well on the iPhone, I’m going to have to give this a solid Thumbs Down.  (After a few more days of usage I made some headway into getting a better feel for the on-screen keyboard options, but all in all it’s been rather hit or miss, nothing like the ease of use and intuitiveness you get with the iPhone.  Just as an example, often if you want to put a search term into Google, you bring up the keyboard and it shrinks your browser in half, leaving you seeing…. nothing.  This can be circumvented somewhat with some things I’ll mention later, but it’s just an example of the lack of thought that went into the design.)

Documentation:  incredibly skimpy and poor. You are given the bare minimum info, and it comes in multiple places and different sheets of paper or on a sticker on the screen.  Poorly executed given that the device is just not simple plug and play. If you want to go minimalist like Apple does on docs, your device better be up to the task.  Sadly, the Archos is not.  I do not need the same 5 pages of skimpy information printed on a tiny booklet in 10 different languages.  Reeks of cheapness and/or laziness.  Fail.

Startup:  First off you have to press and hold the power button (about 2 seconds) to get it to start. I don’t remember how it was documented but it wasn’t clear to me.  Not to mention one of the mouse buttons says “ON” on it and I originally thought it was the power button. You can say I was foolish for not reading the manual but I would counter by saying there is a lack of intuitiveness to the setup.  And yes it is slow as people have complained about.  The initial bootup and setup is kind of excruciating given that most people probably want an iPod Touch/iPhone like experience – there is nothing near “instant gratification” with this device.  Instead you need to charge the battery for at least 2 hours before you even hit the on button, and then you get to go through the tired Windows 7 startup, which takes quite a while given the slow processor.

At various points you need to enter information in. Somewhere in the docs it mentions to press a small onscreen icon to bring up the keyboard, but it was definitely not intuitive for me.  Typing in the Windows 7 serial number was also a bit excruciating, as you have to keep flipping the unit upside down to read the numbers, and then tapping them in with stylus or finger.  I also had to drag the keyboard around to access the correct portion of the window to type in, etc.  It’s little details like this that make for an overall unfriendly experience.  You wonder if Archos quality department ever sat and watched a real person just try the initial procedure, because nothing on the unit or in the documentation prepares you for the subtle details.  After the long Windows initial bootup, I did what a second sheet of doc told me to do, and ran the backup. This was also a long and excruciating wait to complete.  So after about 5 hours (including battery charging) I was theoretically ready to begin using the unit.  But by then it was way past my bedtime, sigh.

The next morning, I decided to try the Windows Anytime Upgrade before diving deeper, but I had to leave as it was taking a long time and I needed to get to work.  I left it running and when I got back from work I was disappointed (but not surprised) to see that the upgrade had failed and the system had reverted back to Windows 7 Starter.

Day 2 Impressions:

I spent around 5 hours the second evening working on the Tablet.  I use the word “working” purposely  because it really did feel like work for a majority of the time.  I must have rebooted over 20 times over the course of the evening.  For those interested in such things, the approx. boot time was about 2 minutes, maybe a bit more.  In comparison, my HP Mini 311 netbook (spruced up with an SSD) has a boot time of 45 seconds.  The time is actually not horrible or unexpected given the processor and hard drive speeds, but when you are trying to get drivers and such squared away it can feel like a lifetime.

I was finally able to get Windows 7 Ultimate “anytime” upgraded after following the advice on the Archos Fans forums.  I then started updating drivers to try to get better performance from the touch screen with mixed results. I was able to get Flick support installed but it didn’t seem to work right, or maybe I am flicking incorrectly. I calibrated using my thumbs as that seemed the easiest way to do it, but it may have been a mistake as afterwards when I tried to use the stylus everything was always offset. As far as the popup keyboard, I’m still a bit confused with it. I know the button on the left is supposed to bring it up but it seemed hit or miss for me. I then tried starting the “Touch” keybaord program directly and again it was hit or miss whether it started. Once it was on, I found it kind of aggravating that it would often shrink my internet window into a worthless long skinny rectangle.

In any case, these are the kinds of things that I find baffling and a bit disappointing. Can you imagine how cool this product would have been if it came out of the box and just…. worked? Touch interface, multimedia, full featured Windows? Clearly it is capable of delivering a decent internet browsing experience as well as playing certain formats of media (with the right codecs installed). And clearly some folk have been able to adjust the user interface to their liking, so it is all possible. But instead, it seems like Archos was content to just build the hardware, slap Windows 7 Starter on, and let the user community itself try to figure out how to actually use their product effectively.

One piece of good news. It found my home network server without issue, and I was able to get in and stream a video from it without incident. The video was a tad choppy from the streaming but all in all I was happy with it.

In any case, I will continue to forge on as boysie suggests. In the following days, I’ll likely mess with Office and iTunes and see if I can get any netbook level games to run on it. Should be interesting.It certainly appears to be perfectly capable of most of the things I wanted in a full Win 7 device. Just looks like a lot more “work” to get it all the way I want it.Day 2 Impressions:

I spent around 5 hours last night working on my Tablet. I use the word working because it really did feel like work. I must have rebooted over 20 times over the course of the evening. BTW for those interested the approx. boot time was about 2 minutes, maybe a bit more. In comparison, my HP netbook (spruced up with an SSD) the boot time is 45 seconds. The time is not horrible given the processor and hard drive speeds, but when you are trying to get drivers and such squared away it can feel like a lifetime.

I was finally able to get Windows 7 Ultimate “anytime” upgraded after following the advice on the Archos Fan forums.  (This forum is a wonderful resource for anyone looking to purchase the device.)  I then started updating drivers to try to get better performance from the touch screen, with mixed results.  I was able to get “Flick” support installed but it didn’t seem to work right, or maybe I am just “flicking” incorrectly.  I calibrated using my thumbs as that seemed the easiest way to do it, but it may have been a mistake as afterwards when I tried to use the stylus everything was always offset.  Again, this is nowhere near the incredible ease of use with Apple’s Trackpad gestures or on the iPhone, all technology that has been available for 2 years now.

In any case, these are the kinds of things that I find baffling and a bit disappointing.  Can you imagine how cool this product might have been if it came out of the box and just…. worked?  Touch interface, multimedia, full featured Windows?  Clearly it is capable of delivering a decent internet browsing experience as well as playing many different formats of media (with the right codecs installed).  And clearly some folk have been able to adjust the user interface to their liking, so it is all possible.  But instead, it seems like Archos was content to just build the hardware, slap Windows 7 Starter on, and let the user community itself try to figure out how to actually use their product effectively.  

Archos is clearly of the traditional hardware manufacturer’s mindset.  Build the hardware and let the users do whatever they want with it.  It’s very much the opposite of the Apple mindset, where they put as much (if not more) time into the end-user experience development as they do the hardware itself.  Imagine the iPhone if it released without the brilliant touch OS (yes yes I know it was missing things), plus iTunes/App Store in its back pocket.  It would just be a cool device but people would struggle to figure out how best to use it. 

All that said, while I’m an Apple fanboy, I also enjoy having devices like this where I get to decide what to do, and I can tinker and optimize and have complete freedom to play with it.  Whatever else one might say about the device, this Tablet has full Windows 7 running on it, with all the opportunities and baggage that that capability brings with it.

One piece of good news on night 2.  It found my home network server without issue, and I was able to get in and stream a video from it without incident.  The video was a tad choppy from the streaming but all in all I was happy with it.

Conclusions:  Oddly enough, I’m really starting to like the product going into the 4th and 5th days of ownership.  There have been definite disappointments, and a lot of restarts and baffling “why the heck didn’t they do such and such?” moments.  But for the most part I am finally starting to get a grasp on the pctablet and how it might fit into my usage patterns.  Yesterday morning I realized I could easily rotate the screen 90 degrees and go vertical.  With the keyboard locked on the bottom, browsing was much more manageable.  With the keyboard  shrunk and locked at the bottom of the screen, it was no longer intrusive on the browser size, and the keys were close enough that thumb typing similar to the iPhone was possible.  I then downloaded Kindle for PC and within moments was reading a book I had purchased for the iPhone a while back; it looked great on the much larger screen. Very very cool.

I’ve now installed the base Office products but haven’t tried them out yet.  Three games I installed ended up not working correctly (one was 1024×768, the other kept having weird purple glitches) but a 4th (Spectromancer) seems to run fine.  iTunes installed without incident but as others have mentioned the video can be pretty choppy; I still need to check the audio.  I tried playing a number of different wmv, mp4 and mov files I had, old and new, and it was a pretty mixed bag.  The larger HD resolution files were very choppy, but others worked great.  Quicktime files were equally hit or miss, but since I am not anything close to an expert on encoding and video files, I’m not sure what was what.  Same goes for streaming directly off the internet.  Choppy to good depending on what it was.  Too many variables to say whether it’s solely the tablet’s issue or not.

My conclusion on video?  It’s an obvious point but sometimes hard to accept: the hardware (and software) is limited (surprise!).  But the fact is you can pretty much convert anything you download (or DVDs or even HD) to something the device will like, once you figure out the formula.  Yes it’s more work but realistically, what portable/tablet-style device is out there that you don’t have to adapt in some way your video content to it? Maybe there’s something I don’t know about, but for something in this form factor and weight, I think it’s fair to expect that video content will need to be adapted for best performance.  Even Apple’s Tablet will have some kinds of restrictions on what video content is playable (keep in mind wmv is still not directly playable on a Mac without flip4wmv), and users will simply adapt to it through conversion or other means.

Ultimately this mindset is what you really need to enjoy and exploit the device’s potential. Understand your own goals, the hardware’s limitations and help yourself by not trying to constantly overcome them.  Archos advertises the unit as a next gen style of Netbook, so from a usage standpoint you have to get a sense of what a 1GB, 1.1GHz (about 50% slower) Netbook is capable of.  And then adapt your expectations to what you can get out of the Tablet form factor to maximize the unit’s potential (shifting to a vertical perspective is a great example of this; it’s something you could theoretically do on a netbook but you wouldn’t normally, but it’s perfect for the Tablet).

As you can probably tell, this is not a consumer friendly device at the outset, so it’s hard to recommend to people without the caveat that it’s going to take quite a bit of work to get it to do what you personally want.  It’s a very nice, solid piece of hardware, fairly priced, but without the seamless user experience to back it up.  My sense is that it can still capture its own niche in the market, as Apple will likely not release a product that is going to be Windows 7 capable.  PC users may want a tablet but still prefer to stick with what they know, and the Archos 9 could easily fill that void.

My recommendations to Archos:  install 2GB of RAM, provide an SSD option, and install Windows 7 Home Premium (possibly streamlined with all the frills and unneeded elements removed).  Change the keyboard button to one that automatically rotates the perspective 90 degrees (including the mouse pointer).  Re-structure the initial user turn-on experience with better documentation.

And now for something entirely different from my normal blog-fare…

A few nights ago I started experiencing some pain around the back right corner of my mouth.  I had recently (about a month ago) had a tooth removed in the area due to a crown coming off and the tooth being infected.  So I assumed it was some strange after-effect from that.  It was very strange, as it only hurt when I was sitting on my sofa and watching TV.  When I brushed my teeth, the pain went away instantly.  I thought maybe I had some food particles falling in the socket but I later realized it was just the toothpaste itself that soothed the pain.  The pain was bad enough that I had to keep getting up and doing the toothpaste treatment, but when I sat down it would hurt.  Finally I just went to bed and it seemed OK.

Next day, no incident, but at night the exact same thing happened.  Exact same circumstances, same pain and same remedy.  Very very odd, I have had severe toothaches in the past, but they always came in waves of pain, and were never so easily sedated by something as simple as toothpaste.  I took a couple Motrin and slept it off again.

The following morning, things seemed OK but by lunchtime it started hurting more.  I noticed that hot liquids were affecting the pain and would send sharp hits through my jaw.  Though I should have known better, the pain seemed manageable enough so I went to see a movie with my family instead of trying to see a dentist.  In hindsight I should have been calling dentists that day and making a move to get it checked out, but at the time I kept thinking I could handle it with my simple tricks.

By New Year’s Eve, things took a severe turn for the worse.  By mid-morning I was in excruciating pain.  I am talking mind-numbing, eye-searing, death-wishing pain.  And worse, unlike what I’ve experienced in the past, painkillers would not dull the pain, and it didn’t come and go in waves, it was flat out constant and unyielding.  I soon realized the only thing that could counter the pain was ice directly in my mouth around the area.  The odd part was that the ice would instantly calm the pain, usually a jolt of pain and the it would be managed.  Even a tiny piece of ice around the socked would help, but as soon as the ice melted, the pain would be back in full force – literally within seconds.  I tried to go a full minute without ice, and it just would show no respite.

I took a Hydrocodone pill that morning (never had taken one before), and it did nothing for the pain.  But worse , a few hours later after I was coming down from it, I started to experience extreme nervousness and panic.  I could not contain myself, and completely did not know what to do.  I started pacing back and forth like a madman, I felt like I couldn’t breathe so I jumped outside and started pacing some more.  All the time carrying 2 cups, 1 filled with ice, 1 to spit into.  By this time I had consumed so much ice and icewater, it was starting to make me sick.  The need to constantly swap in new ice was really driving me mentally insane and unstable.  At first I thought it was all the aftereffect of the medication, but now I am realizing that was just partially the problem.

At numerous points during the afternoon, the pain literally brought me to my knees in anguish and tears, leaving me cursing life and praying to God for forgiveness, yet wondering why any God would create such an incredible form of seemingly endless pain.   I had to force myself to remember to just breathe, and as others have expressed in their experiences with similar pain, a part of me wished I could just kill myself to end the insane torture.  As I mentioned, I’ve had bouts with tooth pain in the past, and while it made me miserable to no end, I’ve never experienced anything like this where there was simply no relief aside from the ice treatment.  What was even worse was the feeling of utter hopelessness that I wouldn’t be able to get professional treatment for 4 full days.

This being New Year’s Eve (Thursday), of course all the dentists in the area were closing up shop.  I tried emergency numbers, 24 hour dentists, anything in the area I could get someone to talk to.  Everyone was out til Monday.  Eventually, remarkably, both my oral surgeon and dentist called me back.  The oral surgeon prescribed anti-biotics and that became my lifeline.  I don’t know how I pulled myself through those hours waiting for the prescription to be filled but eventually I made it.  Eating was a joke, as I would try to remove the ice, take a bite, then quickly stuff the ice back in before the pain started.  It really didn’t work out too well and I barely managed to stuff some food down.

After a hair-raising trip to the local CVS which involved a lot of ice and covert spitting, and fears of running out of ice, I made it back safely home with the drugs.  The antibiotics didn’t really kick in (and in hindsight, the doctor probably should have told me to take a double dose at the outset, as I was later told by a different endodontist) until late that night.  So it was a long, torture-filled afternoon.  Pain, ice, pacing, fear, nervousness, that’s all I remember now.  My partner sent me to hit the treadmill to just burn off some energy, which actually helped.  I was so incredibly tired and hungry, yet still so wired from the drugs and pain.  The whole evening I was filled with fear of how I was going to get to sleep or even try to sleep when I couldn’t relax one bit.  I eventually took a bath for the first time in years, but even that didn’t help much.  It did soothe my body some, but my brain wasn’t accepting relaxation, and somewhere during the breath I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe, so I just had to get out.

I took part of an Ambien along with more Motrin that night to get to sleep.  I was afraid of mixing in too many new medications, particularly after experiencing the craziness from the Hydrocodone.  I took my glass of ice to bed with me, and proceeded to try to read and continue the ice.  Note at this point I had been pretty much putting ice in my mouth for about 14 hours.  I think the affects of this are still lingering on me mentally.  In any case, I started to feel the effects of the Ambien, as it made me completely unaware of what I was reading, and my brain seemed to form some completely different story than what was actually on the pages.  It was a really weird experience.  Due to the necessity for ice, though, I was unable to fall asleep soundly.  I would drift a bit but then the ice water would fall out onto my shirt, or the pain would wake me.  Somewhere along the night, though, I started noticing that the pain seemed a bit lessened and I could last a little longer before putting in more ice.  At first I thought it was just wishful thinking, but eventually I realized it was real.  FInally somewhere around 5am I actually got a few hours of real sleep, and it was wonderful.

Next day I woke up and life seemed so much better.  The day went on with very little ice, and I thought I might be out of the woods.  That night I went to bed with NO painkillers whatsoever, a bit risky but the drugs were really driving me a bit batty.  I was able to get ahold of my dentist, who then recommended I see an endodontist immediately (we both agreed it seemed most likely the issue was an infected tooth next to my previously extracted tooth which would require a root canal).  The doctors I talked to of course would not be available until Monday at the earliest, and so the waiting continued.

Which leads to today, where the pain started coming back in the morning.  Not as sharp and powerful and all-consuming as it was on New Year’s Eve, but certainly enough to serve as a reminder of who is boss.  More importantly it’s left me with this strange anxiety that I can’t put my finger on.  Every single activity that I would normally enjoy or do to relax I have been unable to.  Any idea that sounded fun I would start but within moments would have to stop as I would feel claustrophobic, or nervous or annoyed by it.  It’s as if my entire life has been flipped around and inside out and my patience for just about anything has been taken away.  In retrospect I think it has something to do with the pain itself, the way it seems to be just lingering in the back and ready to hit me whenever it chooses.  I think the fear of the pain, the fear of the constant ice game back and forth has rendered me unable to relax into some form of normalcy.

Finally I turned to typing on this blog, which seems to have some form of therapeutic quality, or at least has kept me fixed on a single activity for the first time today.   I’ve  finally been able to sit quietly for an hour without jitters or leaving or getting irritated, though the irony is the topic is just all about the pain.  And even still, I have to take a deep breath every now and then to keep myself centered and not get overwhelmed by feelings of claustrophobia (for lack of a better description).  This tooth pain has taken me to new levels of pain and torture, and sadly, I don’t feel any wiser or stronger because of it.  I feel broken, violated and completely consumed by it, and the effect it has had on my daily well being, and I guess the only thing I’ve really learned is to not underestimate the signs again.

36 hours until Monday.

Sort of a follow-on to the previous post, but I thought it warranted separate discussion as it could apply to both traditional or new MMORPG designs.

1.  Have a coherent MMORPG vision.

Of course this sounds obvious, but I seriously feel like most of the games we’ve seen of late are lacking in one of the 3 key words above.  Many of the games simply seem to have no vision at all, that’s the saddest and they are hardly worth discussing.  Some of the games may have a vision, but it’s more accurately a group of visions that have been jumbled together, some which conflict with each other, i.e. the vision absolutely needs to be coherent.  If you want to make the ultimate PvP game, then let that be the vision and don’t compromise by forcing in a bunch of Hello Kitty PvE to gain a few more subscribers.  And lastly, you better damn well know exactly why your game MUST be a MASSIVELY MULTIPLAYER game.  If the gamer can get the same (or perhaps even better) experience in a smaller multiplayer scale, or single player scale, there’s no reason to demand all the resources required of an MMO.  STO is a great example of this, the game could have been a nice story-centric multiplayer game where the focus was on you as a captain building up your NPC crew, mixing in space and ground combat for away missions that led to a big epic story payoff. 

2.  Undertand who your target audience is.

You aren’t going to get everyone to play and love your game, so know from the getgo who you are targetting and cater the game to them.   Do your research on the different types of gamers, and learn how much time they are going to put into your game.  Trying to appease everyone generally just pisses people off.  If you are creating a niche game for hardcore gamers who have tons of hours to play, don’t be shy about it.  If you want masses of casual gamers, don’t be surprised or get your feelings hurt when hardcore folk label your game carebear.

3.  Know exactly what the intended gameplay is for every stage of the game.

Let’s say you have divided the game into tutorial, beginning, mid-game, late-game, and end-game stages as a baseline.  Maybe these stages are level based, maybe area or skill based, who knows.  In any case, you should understand exactly what your players will generally be doing (or what you intend them to be doing) to “progress” and continue playing, while in these stages. 

Of course much of this depends on #1.  If your vision is a conventional level up til you are max so you can PvP or raid, it’s probably not too difficult to figure this out.  All you need to do is pace the game the way you intend, and make sure you have the proper content to back this pace up.  Don’t act surprised when people are complaining that they are mid-level and hit a “wall” where they have to grind mobs or have run out of quests or are bored.  Either you intended that or you didn’t, or you were simply ignorant of your own game design.   Also if you have late and end game stages, please please please don’t neglect these until the end of beta testing, or worse, after the game is released.   How many games have we seen do this?  Even the godlike WoW is guilty of this sin.  The endgame should be part of your vision from day one, and should be given ample time and testing to get it right.  This follows right into #4. 

4. Don’t change the rules of the game midway. 

Or more accurately, if you built something really fun from the getgo in the early stages, don’t change it midway.  This I believe was WAR’s (and perhaps AoC’s and even Aion’s) greatest mistake.  They created an almost universally loved/enjoyed tutorial plus early game, but then mid-game created levelling walls that completely changed the pace of the game.  This correlates with #3 as well; ask yourself if your mid-game intention is/was truly to be grinding the same mob after the same mob 500 times to make it to the next level, and if you truly believe that is what your intended playerbase from #2 wants and thinks is fun.

5.  Test ’til you drop (and with the right mix of people).  Corollary: pay attention to all your testers!

Beta testing seems rather hit or miss with the latest batch of games.  Often when the more generic folk (like me) get involved, it’s already way too late to do anything about it.  Most of the testers in my grouping seem to treat the beta test like a free game demo that they are entitled to, and as a consequence, I don’t think the feedback is listened to seriously. 

Contrast this with my most detailed test experience, which started in the Friends and Family Alpha of WoW.  I think it was early enough that concerns from more generic players like myself were actually heard and listened to, or at least I’d like to think so.  We debated things like death penalties and levelling pace, and the discussions were likely and fruitful.  Unfortunately they went ahead without addressing certain complaints (like the lack of endgame battlegrounds at release) but obviously it worked out fine for them anyway.   I think they started early enough and did their homework, tested rigorously, and allowed in a different/fresh mix of testers soon enough to get varied opinions. 

One thing you don’t want to do in testing is fill your ranks with a bunch of raving hardcore fanboys who will defend your every decision to the detriment of the game.  I’ve certainly seen this happen, where developers seem so blinded by all the fanboy-ism and their own jaded experience with the gameplay, that fresh opinions are ignored and forgotten.  I’ve seen this in nearly every beta I’ve been in – longtime testers and developers engage in discussions where half the terminology and discussion is lost on a newcomer.  Then when a new tester tries to chime in with a fresh perspective, they are either ridiculed or sent away to check old posts. 

Never lose sight of #2 when testing because you may be pissing off your meal ticket.

6.  Learn from others’ mistakes.

This is pretty obvious but it seems like the lessons from the past are often not learned, or are simply ignored.  Otherwise, how is it that 10 years into the genre’s explosion, we still get games releasing with the same tired bugs, path-finding collisions, servers that crash or force us into hours-long queues, patch servers that don’t work, boring grindfests that cause players to quit, unbalanced PvP, etc etc.  There’s plenty of experience out there, and more than enough MMOs to look at as examples of what to do and what not to.  If you release your spanking new game with a known mistake, shame on you!

7.  Don’t forget the social aspect.

Many games these days seem so focused on making a great single player experience, they forget the whole reason (or at least one of the reasons) for building an MMO is to engage *other players* to interact with.  There are many ways to encourage social interactions, all the way from an easy to use chat interface, to built-in voice interaction, to designing in-game areas like pubs or meeting halls.  This is something SWG did well with their cantinas and customizable homes/towns, even integrating gameplay into the social areas to encourage socialization.  I know there are some players that prefer to stick to themselves and do everything solo, but my guess is there’s a part of them that is still craving some sort of social interaction, else they could easily stick to single player gaming. 

8.  Don’t be afraid to innovate, and dream BIG.

I get the sense that many people these days are afraid of new, challenging ideas.  I remember a while back I posted some ideas for an MMO, to which the majority of responses were “that’s technologicaly impossible so why bother”.  To that attitude I say poo on you – if I took that mentality at my job (as an engineer) each day, I’d have long ago been fired.  Yes, I realize some goals may be too lofty or difficult to achieve, but if you don’t take a chance on a new idea or at least make an attempt to fully understand the pros and cons, you will never have the opportunity to progress to the next level, no pun intended. 

Ten year ago I’d never have dreamed we’d have handheld touch-screen computer phones that doubled as GPS units and full 3D gaming machines running the Unreal engine, sitting in our pockets, but someone had the vision to believe it could be done – and lo and behold we have that today.  As for MMOs, I know it’s different because it is software, but I’d like to think there are enough talented and brilliant software guys out there that they could solve just about anything, or at least come up with solutions that gave the illusion of solving anything.

9.  Don’t be afraid to steal past ideas.

This may sound contradictory coming from me after all I’ve said about innovation, but if there are some base ideas that “just work” within the context of your vision, don’t avoid them just because they’ve been done before.  Things like level-based, class-based fantasy games, these are traditions that some may consider timeless, and could very well work even in a completely overhauled game.  Good ideas like seamless transitions from area to area should always be carried over.  If your game vision involves the necessity of getting players together quickly, don’t be afraid to steal “Summon” spells/magic or teleporters, or whatever it takes to get it done.  If it makes the game more fun and ties it closer to your vision, go ahead and make it your own.  Speaking of which…

10.  Never forget to make the game FUN.

Last but certainly not least, and possibly most important, don’t ever forget you are creating a game, a place for people to have fun and enjoy themselves in some way or another.  Putting in punishing death penalties, horribly repetitive tasks, long wait times or oddball lockout timers for the best content, just makes no sense to me.

Of  course I realize everyone’s definition of fun is different.  Some people’s idea of fun is to torture themselves with repetition to reach some sort of milestone.  Go back to #2, are those people your target audience?  If so, I guess that’s fine as it defines your game and your vision.  If not, and you are looking for a more general sense and definition of what’s fun for a different audience, then please DON’T stack your game with torturous content. 

Seems pretty simple, but it seems also be neglected time and again.  Another example is ganking (which I define as much higher level powerful players preying on lower level less experienced ones with no consequence).  This may be fun for one of the groups, but most likely it’s not fun for the other.  Maybe you intended to build this in to your game design, but if the latter half get frustrated and quit the game, it was probably a bad decision.  Suggestions #4-6 should hopefully prevent you from putting in something that’s horribly un-fun, but somehow these things seem to find a way to creep into many games.

That’s it for my list!

What happened to the MMORPG genre?

Posted: December 22, 2009 in Uncategorized
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The state of MMORPGs today feels to me like it is utterly (but hopefully not irreversibly) stagnant.  I don’t know if WoW has stunned all the competition into submission, or if it simply is incredibly difficult (next to impossible?) to innovate in the genre, but the last few years seems to have given us fans one disappointment after another.  Even the best of the more recent releases are more or less retreads with very little new to offer.  And sadly, I see no end in sight, no knight in shining armor to save the genre down the road.  Even Bioware’s Star Wars game has more or less come up with what looks like MOTS, albeit with better storytelling and a great license (see recent PC Gamer previews if you disagree).  Personally I feel that a deep story-based game is best handled with a single or small scale RPG, like Dragon Age, where you can truly make quest/story based decisions that impact the world and change the story, without affecting anyone else’s game.

It’s been really frustrating for me, because I love the genre and I love the potential I see in it, and have seen in it, for so many years.  This is not to say I haven’t enjoyed much of my time in all of the many new games I’ve tried, but it just bothers me to see the same mistakes (or the same basic gameplay) repeated over and over.  I think back to my time in my first major MMO experience (DAOC), and in all honesty it seems like few areas have progressed, and some have actually gone backwards.  Sure the game wasn’t perfect, but for its time, it had a nice balance of PvE and PvP, fun dungeons and group content, *three* warring factions, tons of different classes (some with very unique gameplay like the Theurgist), etc.  And that was all EIGHT years ago!  I don’t know of a game out there now that has all these features (in particular three warring factions).  It’s as if once WoW declared it OK to balance a game with 2 realms having essentially all the same classes, everyone just gave up on making anything too much more complex. 

I really don’t know what happened, and I hate to blame it all on WoW, but it really seemed like it was the turning point.  It’s success became such a measuring stick that no competitor could measure up to, but everyone felt they had to.  Everyone had to either copy their formula (with perhaps inchstones of improvement or a few added features here and there) or run to the hills crying. 

Most disappointing for me is how no one has truly manned up to build what I would call a REAL MMORPG world, one that changes and evolves with the will of the players.  I’m talking a Shadowbane-esque sandbox that looks good, doesn’t crash, and has enough inherent content and gameplay built in to appease both casual and hardcore gamers alike.  In that sense, perhaps the failures of both Horizons and SB were what have seemingly killed the sandbox MMORPG.  I’m not discounting Darkfall entirely, but it is/was so niche that casual gamers really weren’t invited to the party.  It now feels like “Sandbox” has to automatically equate to”hardcore” – somehow those 2 concepts became linked together and entwined in such a way that no one seems to want to break that mold.

So what are we left with?  Re-tread after re-tread.  Sure there have been nice improvements in combat, incredible leaps in graphics, excellent tweaks to questing/journal engines, some twists here and there on PvP, but in terms of creating a living, breathing MMORPG WORLD that anyone can dive into – little  progress at all.  Every quest NPC resets, every story is repeated for every player, every mob no matter how mighty will eventually “pop” again for the next set of raiders to kill ad infinitum.  If this is all we’re playing for, why not enjoy an in depth story based RPG like Dragon Age instead?  Or play an Action-RPG like Diablo?  Of course I’m not accounting for the community experience of raiding and grouping, but even these could theoretically be achieved in a smaller-scale multi-player game (which allowed for as many as the largest raid groups these days).  What’s the point of the “massive” in MMO if individuals (or groups) are simply just repeating or doing the same exact content without interaction amongst the “masses”?

So is the answer to the above question more PvP?  Sure, perhaps, on some level at least.  Large-scale PvP is certainly a form of interaction benefitting from more and more players.  But no one has seemed to be able to consistently capture the essence of this in a truly meaningful way, for very much the same reasons.  Because ultimately nothing matters.  You can bring an opposing faction to its knees in games like WAR or WoW, but who cares?  You can kill the same guy or the same NPC over and over but he’ll just be back again.  Ultimately everything will all just “reset” magically so that it can be done again.  The fighting for fightings sake is fun, of course, but then again, that can simply be done in an FPS, or maybe an instanced, Guild Wars-esque environment, if the goal is to have balanced PvP team combat.  All the massive part generally adds to the equation (when left unchecked) is zerg-like gameplay which devolves into which side has the most players. 

This is what sets the Sandbox game apart, and should theoretically set the true next generation of MMORPGs apart.  When a group of people allied to destroy my guild’s city and plunder it’s riches, it actually happened, and there was no turning back.  There is no reset button to rely upon.  We fought to preserve what we had built, or planned to save what we could to rebuild.  Now that group that destroyed my city are my sworn enemies, and I will likely seek revenge.  But what if I need them to fight off an even greater danger, say some uprising of demons?  Will I set aside my past differences to ally against a greater evil?  Should I turn on my new allies at a critical moment and make a deal with the devil?   There are consequences to every action and every decision.  I’m not saying this style of game is necessarily for everyone, but certainly it would be a change to today’s model. 

I am also not saying there is absolutely no meaning or no fun in today’s batch of MMORPGs, as I have certainly enjoyed my time in many of them.  But it’s been EIGHT years and countless releases for me now, and I simply yearn for something that takes the genre to the next level. Slapping on a new coat of paint with a fresh new license is not the answer I’m looking for anymore.  If I really want old school style of gameplay I have more than enough choices to enjoy that in, many of them now becoming free to play.  So what I really want is to see a Shadowbane/Horizons hybrid with a brand new engine (that doesn’t crash), with NPCs and mobs that evolve, with life and death consequences, with cities built and lost, its history, politics and economy created by the players, and the ability to contribute to the meta-world/story even if I only have a few hours a week to play.  I want nothing less than my avatar to be able to enter and participate in, and even shape, a truly evolving virtual world.