Rundown (10/09-10/15) Tax Hell + COVID

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Wherein I discuss: The COVID woes. A Triple Threat of acquisitions. AI art. And ‘Console Gaming on the Go.’

Rundown Preamble Ramble:
Got COVID at the Worst Time. NDB.

As the title of this Rundown implies, after 2.5 years of this pandemic nonsense, I finally got COVID-19. How and where did I get this? I’m not really sure. I kept my mask on when outside and around others, and the only place I went to a week earlier was my workplace. For the record, I work with one other person who, while not the best, is pretty good at this whole prevention thing.

Regardless of the origin, it spread across my home, infecting my mother and sister. My symptoms were pretty mild— grogginess, nasal congestion, sore throat, coughing— not too different from a regular cold. But my family, due to age and health differences, took things a lot harder. As I am writing this, we are all over the worst of it and dealing with the residual effects of our symptoms. However, this whole situation pisses me off for two reasons:

One, COVID broke my 13-year-long streak of not getting sick, which I was pretty proud of. 

Two, I got sick at the tail-end of tax season. 

Fortunately, due to the dedication of my boss and I, and thanks to a few 10 hour days I did earlier in the season, we are in good shape leading up to the October 17th deadline.

Also, this had no meaningful impact on Nigma Box related projects, as I was able to record a significant amount of footage for Dragalia Lost this past week and finished recording the minimum gameplay for ‘regular quests.’ Meaning I only need to record 76 campaign segments, 28 events in the event compendium, 35 Enter the Kaleidoscape runs, along with my dailies/weeklies until EOS. So… screw it, I’m gonna do all of that by October 31st! Because this shit suuuucks!

Meta Continues To Make The World Worse
(Meta Acquires Armature, Camouflaj, and Twisted Pixel)

You know what else sucks? This. This story sucks, and I hate it. As the header says, Meta (Facebook) has acquired three prominent independent game developers, all so they can have a stronger first-party line up for the Oculus platform. Armature Studio, Camouflaj, and Twisted Pixel Games.

My initial reaction to this news was: “Oh, you’re one nasty-ass motherfucker.” Because they grabbed two developers who I have some personal affection toward, even if it is more of a symbolic affection. Whatever that means.

Armature is a studio founded by veterans of Retro Studios who left the studio upon wrapping up the Metroid Prime trilogy. Despite having this promising pedigree, it always felt as if this studio was struggling to amass the resources needed to release their breakout hit. 

Things started with a thud with 2013’s Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate, a 2.5D metroidvania title that suffered from two things. Being both a 3DS and Vita game, when both systems have strongly different hardware. And being a licensed game with a presumably short turnaround. This led people to criticize the game for being unfinished or rushed. And considering the state of its sister title, Batman: Arkham Origins, I think that was very much the case here.

2016’s ReCore offered an opportunity for Armature to redeem themselves with a big Xbox One exclusive. Sadly, the game was given the same set of criticisms for being rushed and unfinished. However, this time the developers were able to correct many of these mistakes with ReCore: Definitive Edition. Which was considered a far better package, albeit one only considered to be good, not great.

After these two releases, the studio lingered largely in the background until they delivered the wildly impressive Resident Evil 4 VR. A complete recreation of the 2005 horror classic, expanded and reworked beyond its original assets to facilitate the level of interactivity one would expect from a VR game.

After seeing a success like this, and experiencing a number of failures or non-starters while doing porting work to keep the lights on, I cannot say I am surprised that Armature gave up their independence. I would have loved for them to make ‘basically another Metroid Prime,’ like they were aiming to with Maverick Hunter, but I suppose that will never happen now…

Camouflaj, by comparison, I have far less to discuss. The story of the studio begins with the story of Republique, the passion project of former Kojima Productions producer Ryan Payton, who wanted to create a mobile game with a more cinematic bent, which manifested as Republique. The game was one of the first big Kickstarter success stories, having narrowly made $500,000 in funding back in 2012. Afterwards, the game was released from 2013 to 2016, and saw an ‘anniversary’ re-release earlier this year.

I do not remember the Kickstarter in detail, as I never backed it, but I remember seeing news about it every few weeks. So I imagine development was a bit staggered, as is often the case when self-funding a project. However, the BIG breakthrough for Camouflaj was Marvel’s Iron-Man VR. Which was, unsurprisingly, one of the most popular VR experiences on the PS4. This is why Meta bought them. Because they want to buy developers who make successful VR games.

Last we have Twisted Pixel. They were among the most prominent Xbox Live Arcade developers back in their day, and whose library of titles really sold me on the merits and quality of independent gaming. Also Ms. Splosion Man is just straight-up one of my favorite platformers of all time. Beautiful flow, wonderful level design, excellent sense of speed, and a style that while a bit muted by today’s standards, was vibrant for the time.

Back in 2012, I considered them among my favorite developers, and one who seemed to get better with every game… Captain Smiley notwithstanding. However, the studio fell from grace after their Xbox One launch title: The monotonous and racist-as-hell Lococycle. A game that was more concerned with pursuing a goofy premise, and interspersing it with FMV cutscenes, than it was with making a good game. 

After this, Twisted Pixel and Microsoft parted ways in 2015, and Twisted Pixel has exclusively made VR games since then. Also, they were actually bought by Meta back in November 2021, but the acquisition was not announced until… this past week. I would be upset by this… but I’m guessing most of the developers from 2011 quietly left the studio to pursue other career opportunities. 

Artificial Robotic Trite
(Natalie Rambles About AI Art)

…This week is exceedingly light, so let’s follow-up with a topic prompted by some discourse I’ve been seeing on Twitter the past few days.

Shortly after NFT-based art theft stopped being a hot button issue, the broader community of art-do-ers have been facing another, larger threat in the form of AI generated artwork. While things like Dall-E Mini were novelties near the start of the year, various other AI art generation platforms have come into prominence over the past few months. Such as Midjourney, DALL-E 2, and NovelAI. AI generated art is now in the hands of consumer-level users, and has stirred some controversy.

Firstly, AI generated artwork could represent a new form of competition that artists need to contend with. Most ‘online artists’ depend on commissions or patronage— they make their living by fulfilling the monetary requests of their audience. And if a commissioner wants a drawing of something, they need to commission an artist. At least that is how it used to work.

With the advent of AI generated artwork, commissioners have the option to visit an AI generated art platform, pay for some credits, provide some prompts and references, and be given a large volume of results. Meanwhile, dealing with an artist requires more communication, the turnaround is longer, and you typically only get one image as a result. 

Or in other words, AI generated art is cheap, fast, and lower quality. While artist-created art is more expensive (but still relatively cheap in most instances), might take weeks or months depending on the artist, but a considerably higher quality. To many people, the first option sounds far better… but this dichotomy falls apart when one really stops and looks at what these AIs can produce.  

AI generated art has the ability to appear like a high-quality piece of artwork, but almost always has a certain element of awkwardness or soullessness to it. When a computer does something, it does it in the most direct and straightforward way possible. Unless you specifically teach it to do something, it won’t do it. This is made incredibly clear with AI art, as the more you look at a given piece of art, the more you notice the problems.

For the sake of illustration, let’s look at an example. An innocuous Tweet from someone trying out NovelAI who posted four images of a purple-haired cloak-wearing woman in profile, in a forest.

With the first image, you can see the character’s hair fading into the background, merging with it into an ethereal purple smear. The interior of her cloak is glowing in what could potentially be a deliberate character trait, but it looks more like a misunderstanding of how light sources work. The trees in the background have a strange shape to them, as if they were made hastily and trying not to intersect with the character. Then there is the radiant glow emitting from the character’s head, spreading throughout the forest fog and past the trees.

Image two fares a bit better, but the fog-infested background looks worse the more one looks down from the golden leaves on top and at the actual trunks of these trees. They bend in an unnatural manner, contorting for the sake of framing the character, while sending a branch into her face… where it merges with her hair. Nice at a glance, but anything more than that, and it is clear that this was not made by a human. As a human simply would not make a mistake like this.

Image three, same problem with the uncanny trees bleeding into hair, along with some truly odd coloring choices, with the most prominent trees almost looking like stone. However, what really irks me about this image is the lighting. When drawing, you want to simulate a light source and shade things accordingly. This is something a lot of artists, even highly skilled ones, get wrong, and the AI falls victim to the same shortcoming. Light is shining on her hair, her cloak, but not illuminating the bottom of her hair, which is shrouded in darkness. Also, the outfit kind of falls apart when one realizes the inconsistent right and left collar.

With number four, the same problems persist. Hair is glowing for no reason. Trees blend in with the hair as the AI cannot distinguish between them. And the neckline of the cloak is, once again, rather strange.

In conclusion, while AI generated art might seem like a threat, I do not think AI is ever going to replace artists. When people commission artists, it is often because they have something highly specific in mind, and are a fan of the artist’s style. When companies commission artists, it is because they need something highly specific to be done and produced in a required format. While AI can do a lot, it cannot be as precise as a lot of people need or want, and just about everything it makes requires some modification.

However, I think AI art, like image upscaling, will thrive as a tool to make things easier. As seen by those using AI to generate character designs, provide references, or assist with image manipulation. While some might highlight how certain individuals have used AI art in lieu of hiring an actual artist, this is something that always happens when any emergent technology appears. People try to use it to undercut costs and avoid paying people. But for anyone who actually cares about art, or producing something with consistent quality, then AI art is a dead end. Because while it can produce something that looks good at a glance, it requires a lot of additional manipulation, modeling, and cleaning to look presentable.

However, that clearly has not stopped people from posting art hoping that people will not notice the discrepancies. For example, I looked through some AI generated TG sequences on DeviantArt by the likes of IzzyViolet, MagmaFoxxx, EmeraldTurtle123, and Nebtfulous. All of which might look okay in isolation, but the AI they use cannot maintain a consistent style, consistent outfits, consistent lighting, or a consistent setting. It is so sloppy that I have to wonder how long it would take for someone to clean these up in Photoshop. Because there are so many mistakes here…

Console Gaming On The Go (For 30+ Years and Counting)
(Natalie Rambles About ‘Console-Quality’ Handhelds)

…This Rundown is still too light, so here’s something that was going to be the Rundown Preamble Ramble for next week.

Something that has been low-key bothering me since 2018 is how a lot of Nintendo fans discuss the Nintendo Switch. How they position it as a ‘home console’ and insist that it is not just a handheld— that it is a hybrid console. Something new and revolutionary. This is a position they do not primarily defend by technical merits or by the design of the system. Instead their core defense is typically that the Switch has ‘console-quality games’ or offers players ‘console games on the go.’ 

Oh boy… where to begin with that mindset?

Firstly, when I bought a Switch back in 2018, my first thought upon putting the doodad into my hands was ‘this is a tablet.’ Because when divorced from the Joy-Con peripherals, that is what the Switch resembles. A tablet. It looks like one, it is built like one (sans the large heat vent), and it is designed like one on a technical level. I like the system, but to say it is ‘not a tablet’ is just disingenuous.

Secondly, the Switch being a ‘hybrid’ is something of a misnomer and not revolutionary. The ability to project or mirror a display from a portable device on a larger display, such as a TV or computer monitor, is nothing new, and it wasn’t that new in 2017. And while not super common across various devices, in 1995 the Sega Nomad was capable of mirroring its display on both its scrunky little screen and a television. Or to give a less dated example, the PSP supported AV out, making it technically a hybrid system.

Thirdly, ‘console-quality gaming’ is a… strange term. It exists as a term meant to highlight the technical advantages that consoles have over their contemporaneous handhelds. However, what never made sense to me are two things. One, the metric for ‘console-quality’ is a moving target, as consoles keep getting better and higher quality, so can a handheld ever truly reach ‘console-quality?’ Two, this entire term implies that handheld games are inherently worse than console games. Which is a highly reductive way of looking at games— judging them strictly on a technical merit and positioning certain platforms as superior to another. 

Fourthly, ‘console gaming on the go’ has been a thing since 1990 when Sega launched the Game Gear. A system that is commonly described as a ‘portable Sega Master System.’ Because not only were the technical capabilities of both devices very similar, but lots of games were released on both systems with near identical versions. …Except for the screen size. The screen was smaller than what you would see on a TV, but aside from that, what you saw on the Master System could pretty much always be done on a Game Gear.

Some might also cite the PSP as being a ‘portable PS2’ but I consider that to be an old marketing tagline that was never really true. Yes, you had a few games that were released on both PS2 and PSP, especially during the end of the PS2’s life. But those were all clearly developed around the limitations of the PSP and then ported to the PS2. It’s really no different from how developers ported PS2 games to Wii. Did that mean the Wii was technically comparable to a PS2? …No

However, the PlayStation Vita was, in many ways, originally pitched as a portable PS3, and Sony did make an effort to bring several PS3 games to the system. Such as PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, Sky Cooper: Thieves in Time, Street Fighter X Tekken, Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3, Dragon’s Crown, etc. The list goes on, including multiple RPG series, such as the Trails and Atelier series, and I do not think there is much argument that the system wasn’t comparable to the PS3 in many ways. Admittedly, there was an influx of PS2 ports compared to PS3 ports, but I chalk that up to PS3 games being temperamental when it comes to porting.

Fifthly, this perception and harsh divide between handhelds and consoles only exists because Nintendo has historically made cheap handhelds. The GameBoy was made using cheap components in 1989 and lasted 5 years longer on the market than it should have. The GameBoy Advance did not aim to be more powerful than a SNES, even though it realistically could have. The Nintendo DS was given conservative specs out of the gate due to how different it was. To the point where I’m still not sure if it is actually more powerful than a Nintendo 64. The 3DS was low res and low power when Nintendo could have made it more powerful than a Wii if they were so inclined. Instead, it is not even as powerful as a GameCube… 

It was not until the Switch when Nintendo created a handheld device with comparable specs to their prior home console. And that is what people actually mean when they call the Switch a ‘console.’ Because using it did not feel like jumping back in time two decades, and its early launch titles were closer to early PS4/Xbox One titles than they were PS3/Xbox 360 titles. Or in other words, it felt like jumping back 3.5 years instead of 10.

However, now that the Switch is 5.5 years old, its library and tech are starting to feel… dated and less ‘console-quality.’ Because its hardware feels less modern and more ‘dated.’ Which, come to think of it, is really just a euphemism for ‘console-quality.’ Something is ‘console-quality’ if it does not look and/or feel dated.

However, the euphemism has mostly died down with the Steam Deck coming out, and surprising people by being a $400+ handheld that can play pretty much every new PC release and emulate 30,000 games or something bonkers like that.

…What was the topic again? Um… that the next generation of handhelds will likely position themselves on avoiding the stigma of feeling ‘dated’ like their predecessors, and will instead focus on being ‘portable consoles’ because that, apparently, is what people actually want.

Header image comes from Fallen Prince -from α to ω- by Yotsuba Chica. A TSF comic that I skimmed through after realizing it had little to offer me, but I had to screencap this one panel, because without context, it is hilarious. I did not actually buy the comic, but you can support the official release on Fakku

…Also, when I say screencap, I mean open it up in, crop it, throw it into Waifu2x, and then sloppily edit away the white gap to the right side. It might sound complicated, but that stuff takes me three minutes to do nowadays. Because I have a system!

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