As I have stated many times, I am an occasional streamer. I like to think that I’m only one regular schedule away from being even moderately popular, but I am also a realist: I know that I am not anyone’s demographic based on the games that I play and…you know…that I’m a middle-aged guy — not young enough to have my finger on the pulse of the stream viewing public, not old enough to be a novelty, and not enough cleavage to get people to turn in no matter what I play.
Yet I am inappropriately attracted to the new Elgato Streamdeck.
Licking this image does nothing. I’ve tried.
A few years ago there was a product called the Optimus Maximus (which I just found out had actually been produced!) which was a keyboard where every key was a tiny LCD screen. This seems like a stupidly logical product not just for gamers but for all kinds of professionals. The idea was that you could design a custom keyboard, replacing the staid lettering with icons that might have more at-a-glance meaning for whatever you were getting up to with your input. For folks who use Photoshop or other keyboard-intensive apps (I’m glaring at you, Blender), such functionality would be a godsend. It was apparently too costly or too technologically steep to mass produce so the product and its spawn were discontinued, but the technology caught on somewhat, most prominently in the Razer Star Wars: The Old Republic-branded gaming keyboard which sported 10 programmable function LCD keys and one big LCD trackpad. Still, this was a bespoke product, and while I’m sure some folks bought them, this specific device also seems to have been discontinued.
Elgato makes products for streamers. They are known for their capture cards, which are dedicated hardware that allows users to offload some of the heavy lifting usually reserved for the CPU when broadcasting. They also make breakout boxes that allow for the connection of consoles for streaming to services that integrated solutions might not support.
It seems that Elgato does have their fingers on the pulse of what streamers need, and one thing that streamers apparently need is more control over their productions. Apps like OBS and XSplit have a lot of features, but they either require the user-slash-streamer to move focus from the game to the app to trigger, to use a mobile device companion app, or require keyboard hotkeys to be recognized by the app which, when playing a game, especially those which have a whole lot of keyboard commands, is easier said than done.
The Streamdeck seeks to alleviate these issues. It ties directly into popular streaming apps to allow for direct actions through its 16 programmable LCD keys so that the operator can trigger whatever bell and/or whistle he or she feels needs to be shoved into the viewers face at any given time. This is where my well-crafted prose regarding the act of streaming is going to trail off into a mumble because that level of need is way beyond what I’m interested in when it comes to the Streamdeck.
I’m talking about this disaster area:
You might be an old-school sim gamer if this makes you drool instead of vomit.
That’s the keyboard layout for Star Citizen. If you squint you’ll notice that there’s not just a set of commands for most keys, but that each assigned key has a shift state as well. Flying a starship ain’t easy, folks, and although I have a lot of buttons on my HOTAS, there’s simply not enough easily accessible buttons to accommodate the full range of actions I’ll need to perform in order to keep my ass alive in the cold depths of space. Sure, I could use the keyboard, but the older I get the less bandwidth I have for remembering which four-finger configuration triggers ECM, and which triggers the eject sequence.
Is it possible for a product designed to play obnoxious sounds and display irritating graphics on a live stream on command to execute at least some of these keyboard functions in Star Citizen? Supposedly, yes. See, from what I can gather, the Streamdeck isn’t much more than a really expensive “speed pad”, which has existed for many years under the names of Belkin Nostromo (now the Razer Orbweaver/Tartarus) and the Logitech G13. These products are little more than a small keyboard seated upon an ergonomic hand rest (although the G13 sports an LCD display of sorts), but it’s the programmable software that does the real work. Each key can be programmed to relay a normal key value, a key combo, activate an application or intrinsic command (in supported apps), or even a series of commands. I frequently use my Nostromo for games like The Secret World to allow me to move using the thumb stick and execute my attacks with the action keys. It allows me to place my hand in the comfortable position so I don’t have to wave around looking for the right key in the right situation.
So why the Streamdeck if I have a pile of speed pads already? Those keys, man! When talking about complex games like Star Citizen, it’s easier to pick an icon from a lineup or to find an acronym on a key that matches the acronym displayed in the game so there’s no need to remember which key combo has been assigned to which key doing what. While a regular speed pad would do just as well…those LCD keys for crying out loud!
The proof will be in the pudding, so they say. I should be getting a Streamdeck…(checks watch)…tomorrow, so I’m hoping that my understanding and expectations aren’t totally off base in regards to the functionality of this thing. Of course, I can also use it for streaming, but…who would know?
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Last week I picked up EVE Valkyrie for the PSVR, but didn’t get to partake of it until a few days ago. I had played the demo included on the disk that came with the headset but it was a poor showing since it only allowed me to fly around and shoot at things for a few seconds before it artificially self-destructed (my character, not the disk). I had been on the fence about Valkyrie mainly because it’s a primarily a multiplayer game, but I like the EVE universe and I love space sims.
Part of the reason for my love of flying around in space is the immersion. Sitting in the cockpit and (mentally) flipping all the switches and punching all the buttons while hurtling through the endless void of space is both peaceful and nerve-wracking. I’ve been playing a lot of Elite Dangerous recently alongside the Infamous CMDR Benjeth (a.k.a. Talyn328 of Pumping Irony fame), and have tried — successfully, I might add! — to get the PSVR working with the game for the spacial benefits as well as the head tracking. It’s been the realization of everything I’d long wanted in a space sim.
When I got around to Valkyrie, I found it difficult mainly because I’m not so good with the control pad, but at least the game itself wasn’t nausea inducing. I have had balance issues in a few games, but almost always up front as I find myself getting accustomed to the new sensory input. I have stopped turning on the projector unless someone else is in the room, but I had been pumping the audio through the receiver to allow the sounds through the room’s speakers. I had been, up until last night when I finally decided to go whole-hog and plug the earbuds into the PSVR for the up-close-and-personal audio experience.
That turned out to be a whole different ball of wax. Having audio right in my ear-holes threw me way off balance. Valkyrie is a dogfighting game (ships, not actual dogs) so you’re tasked with flipping your ship along all axis to both avoid and to catch up to your targets. In my earliest attempts while using the amplifier audio I had only experienced disorientation when starting out — racing out of the carrier launch tubes and into the wide expanse of space. I suspect that this physical setup was the safety net; I still had some level of grounding because while my eyes were trying to convince me that I was in a nimble space-fighter performing all of these acrobatic motions, my ears knew that I was in the basement because the acoustics were familiar from my time sitting on the couch. Once I put the earbuds in, with whatever limited positional audio I could get from them and the PSVR, all bets were off: I was totally immersed in the situation and my mental processes had no anchor to the real world. As I was bobbing and weaving through the struts of the Gallente shipyard to avoid enemy missiles, I found myself getting slightly dizzy and disoriented.
Now, as painful as this realization was, it was also kind of cool because this was probably about as close to an actual high-speed flying experience as I’m willing to get. If the gameplay was making me truly nauseous to the point where I couldn’t continue, then I’d certainly take out the earbuds and go back to the momentary disorientation of room audio. I don’t know if people who have tried VR with the nauseating effects were using close-to-the-head audio, but if so it might be worth a shot to try it without earbuds or headphones and see if the conflicting messages to the brain can help smooth things out.
More Affordable VR Is On The Way
Last week Microsoft had a dog and pony show which I missed, but during that time period, I got wind of a product that Acer was working on. It apparently came up during Microsoft’s discussion of what they are calling “mixed reality”.
Regardless of the silly naming tricks, Microsoft is forging ahead in the VR/AR space. While the tech world was talking about Vive/Oculus, Microsoft was showing off their Hololens augmented reality glasses that overlaid computer output on top of what you normally see…basically creating “holograms”. When everyone who was going anywhere with this tech was going left, Microsoft was going right, and that seemed to garner some excitement and tentative good will. But the Vive and the Oculus had issues. First, they were expensive. The Vive is about $800, and the Oculus is now down to around $600. Second, you need a really beefy PC to use them: USB 3.0 or better, a top-of-the-line video card, enough RAM, and a beefy processor. For gamers, upgrading to this level on top of spending to get a VR headset would have put them well over the $2000 mark, and a lot of gamers don’t have or aren’t willing to spend that kind of cash on a nascent technology.
One of the best/worst things about Microsoft is their partners. Unlike Apple, Microsoft hasn’t really been in the business of creating their own hardware. They’ve traditionally worked with companies like Dell, Acer, and HP for the hardware while Microsoft created the software. It was this talk of the “mixed reality” brought Acer’s project to my attention.
Acer’s mixed reality bundle is basically a VR headset with two “wands”, which is really no different from what we get with the Vive or Oculus. It’s specs, however, are impressive: 350g, compared to 470g for the Vive and the Oculus, and 610g for the PSVR. From the images, it looks like the Acer VR headset has a lower profile than any of the existing headsets. Where it counts — resolution — the Acer is said to be sporting 1440×1440 resolution (per eye), which is a total of 2880×1440 compared to the Vive and Oculus’ 2160×1200. The PSVR resolution is only 960×180 per eye, for a total of 1920×1080. What really sounds attractive, though, are the reported minimum PC specs to use the Acer headset:
- Mobile i5 dual core with hyperthreading equivalent
- Integrated Intel HD 620 or better (DX12 capable) graphics
- 8GB of ram
- HDMI port that can pump out 2880×1440 at 60Hz, or better
- USB 3.0
- Bluetooth 4.0 for accessories.
Now, any gamer who has upgraded his or her system within the past…say 5 years, is probably going to clear these hurdles without breaking a sweat. USB 3.0 came around a while ago, and anyone interested in PC gaming is always going to be upgrading RAM and a better GPU ahead of most everything else to a point beyond what the minimum recommendations list here unless he or she is really on a tight budget. But let’s face it: an entry level GTX card is still going to be better than an integrated GPU.
Not real VR because the guy’s mouth isn’t agape.
Acer’s purported icing on the cake, though? Starting $399. The details about availability is very thin right now, with nothing more than a marketing blurb available on Acer’s site, but if that price holds and doesn’t represent a budget version of the device then what Acer has is the first of a second generation of VR headsets that seems to indicate that the technology is going to improve in performance, requirements, and price, which are three of the four areas where VR needs to improve in order to get more people on board.
The fourth, software, is going to be a more difficult hurdle but outside of Acer’s control. Devs who are developing for current VR will need to continue, while those who have been on the fence or who have scoffed at the technology will need to make a final decision as to which way they’re going to fall. One thing I was thinking of yesterday, though: I hope that we don’t see the continuation of the “walled garden” and techno-pissing matches that plague tablet and smartphone markets. Having worked a little bit with SteamVR I’ve seen how the software is designed to favor the Vive (natch) and Oculus. Being that Microsoft and Valve have a love-hate relationship, it would be some very sour grapes if Valve opted to ignore direct support of headsets like the Acer offering simply because it’s a Microsoft initiative.
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This weekend and this weekend only, players can log into RIFT and claim their latest expansion for free (one character only). I reinstalled the game specifically to take advantage of this and contemplated starting over with a new character even if I couldn’t use the expansion on that new alt.
Like cholesterol, RIFT is very close to my heart. Also like cholesterol RIFT is something I’d rather avoid at this point in my life. I had played the hell out of it when it was in beta and after it launched, to the point where RIFT‘s launch day stands as my all-time longest continuous gaming session; I had taken the day off from work, and I believe I played it for 16 hours straight.
I eventually ended up with several characters on both sides of the faction fence, which meant that I’ve done and re-done all of the starting zone content many times. To this day it doesn’t take long for me to return to the game, start a new alt, and feel like I’ve fallen into a rut, regardless of how long it’s been since I last tread those Telarian boards.
Naturally, I was thinking about how cool it would be if this expansion brought with it a new starting zone that I could experience. Then I started thinking about how many MMOs have added new starting zones post-release, and the only ones I could come up with were The Elder Scrolls Online with their upcoming Morrowind expansion, and WoW (which isn’t to say that there aren’t others, just others I can’t think of).
In the past, I’ve written about expansion philosophy not jiving with my usual circumstance, but also how I understand that the point of expansions is to retain high-level players by laying down more content from those player’s current position (endgame) and stretching outward towards even higher levels or simply more content geared towards capped characters. The act of releasing an expansion isn’t a guaranteed panacea; a botched release will drive endgame players away just as quickly as no content at all, or a guild could drift away, or players could get sick of what passes for high-level content these days, or players could start to feel that having a capped character is the best time to go on an MMO walkabout.
Now, I’m just talking out of my ass, as usual, and strictly from a personal preference, but it seems to me that if a game provides a new reason to start over for the first…I dunno…twenty levels, say, then that’s an opportunity to A) reinvigorate players who might be tired of the hamster wheel that is the endgame grind by allowing them new content with the caveat that they have to shed their highest-level personas and become noobs again, B) attract existing capped or even lapsed players by providing them with new mechanics, new quests, and new rewards that are essentially what they’d experience if they did jump ship to a whole new game, C) would populate lower-level zones again which is not only good for existing or returning players, but which looks good to players who are just jumping into the game for the first time (possibly because they grew tired of their capped characters in another MMO), and D) would put the entire existing game ahead of them once more. Voila! Instant whole-game expansion!
I wonder what the logistics are of one approach over another, then, because it’s a risk-reward thing from the perspective of the devs, I’m sure. Maybe it’s a case of capped players having a higher affinity for their characters that is stronger than their desire to start over even if they get new content in doing so. Maybe it’s more costly to create a new starting zone, new content, new races, and classes compared to sticking with the same character options but just creating new landmasses, quests, and items. Maybe people actually like the thin air at the top of the level heap.
I can certainly say that from my perspective, I’d be more apt to pick up an expansion for a game that I’m either playing or have abandoned if there was a chance I could get a new experience from the get go; my playstyle makes that an attractive option. I’d be playing RIFT right now if this expansion gave me something other than the two factional starting zones that I’m still sick of. I suppose there’s some technical or financial reason behind the post-cap method of expansion compared to the new starter method, but if any company is still interested in following WoW‘s lead, this might be a good aspect of their success to emulate.
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