Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller

Microsoft Story Labs has a great piece by in-house writer Deborah Bach about the development of the Adaptive Controller. It’s great storytelling through and through; chock full of touching stories, business cases, and design implementation all the way down to the packaging.

Here’s the opening story:

Dan Bertholomey awoke in a hospital in June of 2010, four days after a hit-and-run driver almost killed him while he was riding his motorcycle, to the sinking knowledge that he’d lost the use of his right arm and hand.

As he lay in his hospital bed, Bertholomey pondered his future. He thought about his daily life and the things he loved to do. How am I going to game again, he wondered? He’d been an avid gamer since age 10, when an original Pong console from Sears magically transformed his family’s television set into an electronic playground that he could control. Bertholomey was instantly hooked. He loved the competitiveness of gaming, loved the places it took his imagination.

Bertholomey continued gaming into adulthood, playing often with his son and daughter. In 2005, when he was 40, Bertholomey placed sixth on “Madden Nation,” a televised competition of the U.S.’s best “Madden NFL 06” football video game players. For him, gaming wasn’t just a hobby, something he did in his spare time. It was a lifestyle.

“You can’t fathom losing something that you love so much, said Bertholomey, 52, who lives in Mesa, Arizona. It’s incredibly devastating.”

Bertholomey began looking for ways to play with one hand. He found someone to hack him a foot pedal that connected to his Xbox, but it didn’t work well for him. He eventually taught himself to play with his left hand, but it was awkward and he couldn’t play at anywhere near his previous capacity.

The solution Bertholomey needed is now a reality — and it has the potential to make gaming accessible to players with disabilities worldwide. The new Xbox Adaptive Controller, which will be available later this year, can be connected to external buttons, switches, joysticks and mounts, giving gamers with a wide range of physical disabilities the ability to customize their setups. The most flexible adaptive controller made by a major gaming company, the device can be used to play Xbox One and Windows 10 PC games and supports Xbox Wireless Controller features such as button remapping.

Bertholomey, who is among a select group of gamers who have been testing the device, said the controller makes it easy to create different setups for various types of games and seamlessly switch between them. Gamers can set up three different gaming profiles on the controller and don’t need to reset the device every time they change games, as they sometimes do with modified controllers.

This controller is really something else. There should have been steps taken to get to this point a long time ago, but this is wonderful, nonetheless.

I’ve recently wondered how to make games more accessible. The thought (rather shamefully) finally occurred to me while playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for Switch in handheld mode. I have perfect eyesight, but the text was just small enough to be uncomfortable to read. Seeing as the game was originally intended for a TV experience on Wii U, it’s not terribly surprising that the experience wasn’t tailored for the Switch’s 6.2-inch screen. However, with the success of the Switch and Breath of the Wild, it’s surprising Nintendo hasn’t patched the text size while in handheld mode.

More recently, I’ve been playing God of War on a 720p TV. Golly, is the text tough to read.

Software accessibility is difficult, let alone manufacturing a piece of hardware for a niche audience. But it’s a niche audience that must to be considered. Where many companies seemingly glance over serving mental and physical handicaps, it’s wonderful to see Microsoft doing the right thing by enabling play for as many people as possible.

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Ben Thompson: ‘Humans Run on Stories’

Ben Thompson on The Talk Show with John Gruber podcast:

Stories matter. Humans run on stories.

I look at my own site and the articles that often resonate are not the ones with brilliant analysis or something clever. It’s the ones that tell a story.

People know it implicitly, but have a very difficult time articulating it. If you’re selling to consumers, there’s so much that goes into it that doesn’t go on a spreadsheet. That sort of stuff matters.

I subscribe to Ben’s Stratechery Daily Update newsletter. I read a lot of it and consider Ben’s insights priceless. But it’s typically his free weekly articles that grab me.

His most recent, ‘Tech’s Two Philosophies’, had me reeling. After reading it over morning coffee, I raced to work to share it with my team.

I shoehorned Ben’s ideas into something relevant to our work. It was a stretch, but I don’t think overly so. Regardless, I was so moved by the story in the piece that it woke me up better than any cup of coffee.

Humans run on stories. They absolutely do.

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Adjustable Charging Stand for Nintendo Switch

Nintendo:

The adjustable charging stand allows the Nintendo Switch system to be charging while in Tabletop mode, enabling longer play sessions.

Home console?

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Virtual Console kinda sucked

Chris Kohler, Kotaku:

Virtual Console is no more, but that doesn’t mean that Switch won’t become the best place to play classic games. It’ll just be done in a different way than what Nintendo’s tried in the past. And that’s a good thing, because Virtual Console kinda sucked.

Now, by “Virtual Console kinda sucked” I do not mean “Nintendo’s old games are bad,” or even that Virtual Console’s game selection was bad, or anything like that. In case you are wholly unfamiliar with my work, I love old games and think that as many of them as possible should be kept in print on modern-day hardware. I just think that Virtual Console, the feature, was an inefficient way of implementing this idea, and that there is a better way. Virtual Console died so that retro gaming on Switch could live.

My knee-jerk response to Nintendo Switch Online was disappointment. 20 8-bit games, while great, seemed paltry.

However, heeding my own words, Nintendo doesn’t need to release any more than this for the new service. The games are the lure. The online play and cloud saves are the lock-in. Nintendo will trickle classic titles out over time when needed. Additions of consoles (SNES, N64,… GameCube) will be tentpole announcements — when needed.

That said, I agree with Kohler. And Adult Swim Games’ Chris Johnson. Truth is, as much as I loved playing NES, SNES, and N64 games on my Wii and Wii U, I hated not knowing what releases to expect and when to expect them. Likewise, as Kohler mentions in his piece, the pricing structure seemed bananas. Virtual Console kinda sucked.

I do wish Nintendo was offering up more than NES titles, but I get why they aren’t. I’ll take this handful for now with the excitement that lots more classics will arrive at the low fee of $20 per year.

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Some Numbers That Illustrate Nintendo Switch’s Massive Success

Jason Schreier reporting for Kotaku:

Nintendo today reported its earnings for the 2017 fiscal year, which means a whole bunch of interesting new sales numbers to look at. They’re all impressive, and they all show the massive appeal of Nintendo Switch.

Here are a few numbers that, taken together, make for some good perspective on just how successful Nintendo’s latest console has been throughout its first year on the market.

Wild numbers to the Switch’s set-top predecessor, the Wii U.

The Switch is more or less tracking the same sales pace as PS4. It took a little over one year for the PS4 to reach 18.5 worldwide hardware sell-through units — November 22, 2013 – January 4, 2015.

Microsoft has been mum on sales figures, but in 2016 slipped that the Xbox One had sold “around 18 to 19 million” units, two years after launch.

Update: Here’s a sales trajectory visual. Data source: Wikipedia.

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Griffin and Justin McElroy Depart Polygon

Griffin McElroy, Polygon:

With that sage wisdom in mind, it’s time for us — Griffin and Justin, who have, for the purposes of this introduction, fused into a singular, fraternal hivemind — to announce some big and bittersweet news: This Friday will be our last day as full-time employees at Polygon.

We’ve written our own individual letters below, but understand that everyone’s attention span might not sustain them through both; especially now that you know we’re leaving, and our relevance to you slips away like so many grains of sand through the hourglass. So, here’s a TL;DR, as the kids say: We’re leaving to focus on our other projects, and to have more time to live functional human lives. We’re gonna keep doing Monster Factory on some kind of recurring basis, as well as a couple other of our pre-existing Polygon projects. Our departure is completely amicable — so, SORRY, beef-hunters. No beef to be found here. This exit is strictly vegetarian.

Now that we’ve spoiled all the big surprises, here’s our individual takes. Thank you all so much.

This one hurts.

When my wife and I moved to San Francisco for my job, I felt alone when outside of her company. On my commute or wandering the city, I’d listen to Polygon’s The Besties with Griffin and Justin McElroy, Russ Frushtick, and Chris Plante. Their humor and camaraderie comforted me. On one episode, I caught wind that Griffin and Justin had another podcast: My Brother, My Brother, and Me. It was a treasure trove of wit and goofs; things that helped me through my days.

Even with their plethora of amazing and innovative endeavors outside of games journalism, I will always associate Griffin and Justin with Polygon. They’re perspectives and writing are exceptional. I always looked forward to their articles.

But the writing was on the wall. Their bylines on Polygon.com appeared with decreasing frequency, while their amount of “side-projects” began to seemingly multiply.

In their departure letters, they both reflect on Polygon’s editor-in-chief Chris Grant’s friendship — how he helped kick off their games journalism journey. It’s amazing to see how much adoration is paid to Grant for his support and willingness to allow them to balance their dream job while pursuing other endeavors.

The piece of this news that hits the hardest comes from Justin’s letter. It speaks to the heart and humanity I believe the folks behind Polygon harbor. It also speaks to why I write Zero Counts and the countless other blogs I left in its wake:

So for years, I wrote for myself. I created and maintained no fewer than three different blogs with a readership of, statistically speaking, nobody. I pitched myself to every major gaming site and magazine and was ignored by all of them. But I kept applying, kept pitching, and was eventually ignored by almost all of them. After a few years, I was able to cobble something that looked like a resume in dim light, and things got a bit easier.

The call that changed my life though came from Chris Grant, the EIC of Joystiq who remembered liking my submissions when I had applied for a job (six months prior, didn’t get it, natch). He was reminded of my existence after I emailed him trying to get Joystiq to post about some videos I had made about a laserdisc lightgun game featuring prop comedian Gallagher. I owe Gallagher so much that I’ll never be able to repay.

I’m happy for Griffin and Justin and look forward to supporting their other adventures. But this one hurts.

Godspeed, boys.

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The Verge: ‘My Xbox One S is now a meaningfully different console to my PS4’

Sam Byford, The Verge:

It’s also something that Sony simply isn’t able to offer, given the complexity of the PlayStation 3 hardware and consequent difficulty of emulating its software. And to be clear, Sony doesn’t really need to do it — the PS4 library is more than strong enough to make the console worth buying. If I only owned an Xbox and had the choice of being able to play the likes of Nier Automata, Uncharted, and Horizon Zero Dawn instead of a bunch of games from the last decade, I’d take it. It’s the paucity of Xbox One-exclusive content that is forcing Microsoft to find other ways to get people to use the platform.

That’s actually fine with me. I like that my Xbox One S is now a meaningfully different console to my PS4 Pro, with different use cases and functionality. It’s the box I go to for 4K Blu-rays, Forza Horizon 3 in HDR, or Ninja Gaiden Black with a usable controller. It’s the box I switch on to browse through when I’m not sure what I feel like doing, or when I’d rather play Cuphead on the couch than at my desk.

As I said, I think Microsoft has turned a story-telling corner.

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Video Game Music’s Tremendous Power

Voice actor David W. Collins digging into the Super Mario Bros. ‘Ground Theme’ on his recently debuted Soundtrack Show podcast:

As a general concept, game music is very often written to loop back around, seamlessly. This composition is meant to loop endlessly into itself so you can play for hours and hours and hours. But the actual composition that we just listened to was only 80 seconds long. 80 seconds! And there’s repetition within that 80 seconds; there are repeating parts.

There are other pieces of music in this game — the underground music, the underwater music, the castle music, a series of music fanfares, etc. — but in total, the amount of music written for this game adds up to less than 5 minutes. 5 minutes of music. 40 hours of gameplay, give or take on average. 40 million copies.

Now we’re starting to get a picture of the power of video game music. The amount of times that we heard that 80 seconds. That’s what I mean about video game music’s tremendous power. It’s why we have to talk about it.

Don’t take repetition for granted. When done poorly, repetitious music can become jarring — quickly. When done well, a great loop can increase the feeling of immersion in the game’s world. When done well, a standalone soundtrack’s standard of two loops per song feels wrong.

Nintendo has a knack for this. Koji Kondo — composer of many first-party Nintendo titles, including Super Mario Bros. — is without a doubt a master at this. But even Kazumi Tokata painted his masterful stroke with the Wii’s heavily repeatable ‘Mii Plaza’ and ‘Wii Shop Channel’ themes, both of which continue to live on in today’s mainstream.

While today’s AAA titles can incorporate orchestral arrangements through to procedurally generated soundscapes, repetition in video game music was born with the medium and will continue to live on. For those of us who grew of up listening to 8-bit repetitions to orchestral repetitions, we’ve had the great fortune of experiencing the evolution of a music technology, medium, and experience, as I touched on in my piece 1985: Burst and Bloom:

The sounds, visuals, and interactivity provided a pool of imagination. The limitations of early consoles could not provide orchestral arrangements. Instead, repetitious patterns were drilled into our heads. They not only encapsulated the game we were playing, but they opened the world outside to a new soundtrack, creating a wealth of memories that could be tapped into from a few simple chirps. Hearing these primitive arrangements evolve felt like experiencing the birth of music. As hardware progressed, so did the complexity if the music. Repetitive pieces turned into grand and iconic themes, each game re-shaping the idea and importance of video game music.

Final Fantasy X, Kingdom Hearts, Mega Man 2, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, T&C Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage, Vectorman — these are some of my favorites.

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Most Video Games Are Too Long

Patrick Klepek for Vice’s Waypoint:

Minit knew what it wanted to accomplish, and how long it took to accomplish it. Done. But it also left me wanting more. If they announce a sequel—may I propose Another Minit?—I’ll be there with bells on. Too many games leave me exhausted, as if my dozens of hours have only made a small dent. (This is especially true for open world games.)

I recently played and completed Florence on iOS in 40 minutes. In that short stint, it hooked me, filled me with hope, sadness, and nostalgia, and ultimately left a last impression on me. It felt much like Disney’s Paperman short.

I understand the feeling of immersion, but even with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — as focused on in the previous post — I was yearning to finish. Most of the most impactful gaming experiences I’ve had have been shy of four hours; Journey — again, mentioned in Lewis Gordon’s ‘The Rise of the Ambient Video Game’ previously linked to — has been the most impactful of all. Another being Dear Esther.

Speaking got both Journey and Dear Esther, see also ‘Why the Two-hour Game is the Future’.

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The rise of the ambient video game

Lewis Gordon, writing for The Outline:

Both The Legend of Zelda and these ambient records channeled the natural elements of water, earth, and air — phenomena of increasing rarity in the modern Japanese city. To step into such video game worlds was to stabilise oneself within the frenetic noise and anonymity of the expanding urban spaces. The Famicom allowed players to experience video games from the comfort of their home while Yoshimura, alongside other ambient artists of the era such as Satoshi Ashikawa, designed their records for public spaces whose mood they attempted to subtly augment. Later, in 1993, Haruomi Hosono, member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, released Medicine Compilation From the Quiet Lodge, an ambient album touching on house and techno but infused with Japan’s past and elementalism. Its title articulated the healing potential of music created outside of the metropolis.

A lovely observation and read by Gordon.