Goodbye 2010

2010 is gone. For me it was a year filled with changes and new hopes. It was also a year full of interesting developments in technology, gaming, and science fiction, and I wanted to share a few with you that I found particularly noteworthy.

On January of this year, Bioware released Mass Effect 2 to almost universal praise. Even more importantly, Mass Effect 2 received great commercial success. I could (and very well might) write quite a long article about the Mass Effect series and my thoughts on it, but there’s a few things about it I’d like to point out. First of all, its a game that is at least as much about storytelling as it is about combat. The branching conversation paths system is about equal in effect and importance as the third person shooter segments, and for once I don’t think I’ve heard a single complaint about “too much talking”. In fact, according to Bioware’s statistics, only 15% of conversations were skipped over; indeed, it almost single-handedly restores my faith in mankind right there (or at least gamer-kind). Second, its the first deep sci-fi RPG series that’s been successful at this scale and in a long time. I for one am very glad to see it. And third, though perhaps related to the second, its one of a growing number of games that are breaking down the shooter/action genre’s with RPGs; I’d include last year’s Borderlands and MMO Global Agenda amongst those, although of the three I’d have to say ME2 is the one that I’m most comfortable with still calling an RPG.

Also on the gaming front, I think we might be seeing the twilight of the pay-to-play subscription based MMORPG. And good riddance I say. I fully understand that these games take money to maintain and that the developers need to feed their children; as a would-be developer myself I’d be the last person to begrudge them compensation for their work. The problem is that the subscription model is too limiting to the gamer; for example, its is often impractical to be paying/playing more than one at the same time. There are many alternatives to the monthly sub system; Guild Wars (arguably, an UnMMO), an old favorite of mine, has the user pay for the box and expansions, with a new item store offering mostly cosmetic enhancements. Other games are completely free to play, with purchases required to advance beyond a certain point. For a long time this kind of MMO was often looked down upon as being second rate; many were Asian ports where this economic model is more prevalent. But last year Turbine started a wave of change when previously subscription-based D&D Online went free-to-play; a move they followed up this year by turning their flagship game, Lord of the Rings Online, similarly free. The image of Gandalf in a business suit yelling “You shall not pay!” might be remembered as a turning point in the MMO industry for some time to come. Already, rival company Cryptic Studios has announced that their superhero game, Champions Online, would be following suit; awesome news in and of itself, but my little Trekkie heart skips a beat thinking that Cryptics other big game, Star Trek Online, might soon receive the same treatment. Beyond these previously paid games going “free”, the quantity and quality of free-from-the-start games seems to be increasing; several are coming in 2011 (I’ll get to those) and in at least one case, Global Agenda, a game that was to have a paid component saw those plans scrapped before the system was even put into effect (leading some to joke that it was the quickest transition to free-to-play of all time).

In hardware news, 2010 saw the 3D trend sort of fizzle, or at least remain flat. There’s good technology there, and I’m all for continued exploration in this regard, but adoption will take a while. This is partially because of the challenges the physical technology still faces, partially the results of the sometimes inflated “premium” prices associated with it, and partly because of some astonishingly bad and irresponsible decisions made by the usual fools in suits. Converting movies shot in 2D to 3D using essentially the same techniques once used on slides for the effing View-Master is NOT how you prove to the masses that you have a hot new technology to sell them. Not everything is better in 3D and more importantly, no 3D is definitely better than BAD 3D. And no matter what your analysts say, there IS such a thing as bad 3D. You might fill a few more seats in the short term, but you won’t fool moviegoers twice. Worse, its basically salting the earth; the next Avatar-quality movie to come along will have a doubly hard time convincing anyone that its best seen in 3D; in other words, it hurts the overall adoption of the technology significantly.

Another interesting hardware development in 2010 was the continued insanity (in a good way?) surrounding the smartphone and tablet markets. Thankfully Apple is finally facing some stiff competition; Android has continued to improve and impress, and Microsoft finally has a credible contender in the Windows Phone 7 line. Tablets are swiftly becoming the next big thing, and the lines between phone, pda, tablet, and laptop continue to blur to an amazing degree. I smile now when I see Picard and crew check something on their PADDs; yea Captain, I’ve got me some of those. Not all is bright and happy; right now its incredibly confusing to go out and make a choice of what to buy; the good news is that the decision is made difficult by the high quality of all the contenders, and not the opposite. Competition is fierce and heated, and when the dust settles we’ll be left with some amazingly efficient and powerful devices; again this is another topic I could write whole pages about, but suffice it to say that the Saga of Mobile is far from over…

And finally, a last word about an entirely different kind of hardware. Its no secret that we, the children of the 60s, 70s and 80s, once thought that by this time mankind would have conquered space; with massive stations in orbit and grand hotels on the Moon. In fact, by now the Leonov should be well on its way back after its encounter with the Discovery in Jupiter Orbit. Ah well. I must admit that my usually unconditional support of our great President wavered a bit as I heard news of the scuttling of the Orion project; all my life I have lived with a terrible envy of anyone who was alive and watching as the Eagle made its historic landing on the surface of the Moon. I did, however, get to watch live as SpaceX launched its first Dragon capsule into orbit, and then recover it some hours later after a perfect flight. For those who don’t know, the Dragon is the first recoverable commercial space craft. Its capable of delivering cargo to the International Space Station, and is contracted to do so for at least 12 missions. It is also designed to carry astronauts, though its first manned flight is likely a few years off yet. In many ways its a stripped-down Apollo-type capsule, with less range than those legendary ships and far less functionality than the shuttle. Still, as a commercial (as opposed to government) venture, its an encouraging step. We’ll just have to wait and see what this means in the long run, but we might get our space hotels yet.

Well, that’s it for now. Oh, a thousand other things happened last year worth mentioning, but those are the ones that come to me now, as I look back after only a day. But enough looking back; come back tomorrow as we look forward to 2011.

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