Innovation with Solitaire?!

Solitairescreenshotupdate Last summer I was bored one day and searched the app store for solitaire apps. I admit, this is like telling the universe you give up, you're so bored that you'd like to play the most boring game known to man, the game most synonomous with isolation and going it alone.

I started playing the free version of MobilityWare's Solitaire and realized quickly that the love affair I ended in 1999 with Windows 95's included Solitaire had been rekindled and I quickly paid the 99 cents for the "gold" version to remove ads. It was a fun way to pass time when I was bored but I also found it quieted my mind and was a great way to get to sleep, by playing 5-10 hands until I was so tired I was about to drop my phone.

Enter Game Center

A few months later, the game was updated to add features with Apple's Game Center, and they presented a list of 20 acheivements as part of the game. Funny enough, I had already done about half of them in my months of casual play but it was enough of a motivator to complete the rest that I started playing solitaire not just to cap off a day and get ready to sleep, but increasingly I found time during the day to chase goals. Three of them were quite difficult. One was scoring above 10,000 points on a hand and it requires not just a near-perfect randomly dealt hand but you have to learn how to do a speed run since points are increased for shorter times. As I was sitting there speed running solitaire games for hours a day waiting for the elusive easy hand so I could finish an entire game in about 60 seconds, I knew this was ridiculous, but a couple days later I surpassed the goal. The other two acheivements were playing 5,000 hands and 10,000 hands. I was somewhere around 3,800 hands when the app was updated so a couple weeks of playing it grinded me over the 5,000 mark and though the 10k mark seems far off (as I've gone back to casual play) I'm somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,800 games played and I'm sure I'll hit ten thousand by the end of the summer.

They also added some social scoring via Game Center and at one point I was in the top 100 of all players for some metric and I was on the leader board, though the people near the top were a magnitude away from me in terms of games played and points scored, so this aspect never appealed to me.

Then it went all social

This week, the creators released a new version with something they call "Winning Hands" which will tell you when you're playing a new hand that it is indeed solvable and if you get stuck, you can replay someone else's method for solving that puzzle. At first, this sounded a bit goofy but I could see it coming handy when you get stuck with a seemingly impossible puzzle. I played a few games with the settings tweaked to give me more Winning Hands plays to check my skills against random previous players. I found I could solve them easily about 9/10 hands, but once in a while something would get me stuck and it was fun to watch someone else replay a hand, though it often included them making some crazy move when presented with a few options (where I took a more sensible path).

Another innovative thing is that you can click the "winning hands" indicator and be told what the fastest time, most points, and fewest moves was for that hand in the past. This has become a new motivator to keep playing as the feature is new and I can easily take a minute off the best time, score thousands of points more, and often save a dozen moves.

I never thought I'd say Solitaire makes for a fun social game, but the latest version is pretty impressive and knowing that I'm competing against others has changed the motivation to play completely. Knowing my process and moves can be viewed by others is also pretty cool.

With enough players and hands dealt, it seems like the creators of this app can very well exhaust every possible hand in solitaire, tell you which plays are solvable (I'm curious what the global statictics are on overall winning percentages), and show you the exact moves someone, somewhere used to finish it.

For a solitary pursuit, it's pretty amazing that the game developers came up with a way to record everyone's games, and let advanced players gain recognition for a job well done as well as use that play to teach less experienced players the tips and tricks for solving the seemingly impossible. I know it's just solitaire, but I could envision an app operating in much the same way allowing real-world impossible-seeming problems be solved by tapping social aspects of a large userbase trying their best, sharing the successes and showing the exact process of their solution, letting others build upon that quickly and easily.

The future of Microsoft

A lot of people seemed worried about Microsoft's future, given less people are buying computers running the Windows OS and their Microsoft Office cash cow could be threatened by free alternatives going forward.

But I have to say in the week I've owned an xbox 360, I can't believe how often I've used it (often for watching movies/shows on Netflix streaming) and how slick and user-friendly the platform is. The new Kinect is pretty amazing, going way past the cool intuitive approach of the Nintendo Wii with the simple controller by getting rid of the controller entirely. I threw the dance party kinect game up yesterday when some friends came over and everyone from age 5 to 50 enjoyed getting down to 70s hits.

Put simply, the xbox 360 is an incredible home entertainment delivery device, one that has already got me to spend $50 on xbox gold and $50 on xbox live points, about $250 on games, and this is in addition to the $300 unit I got as a gift. It's a pleasure to use, super handy for streaming movies, and the games are super fun.

Microsoft has a killer living room appliance and bridge to the internet that easily hooks up to your TV. If their business models around gaming are at all set up correctly, they should have no problem remaining a dominant force in the technology world.

Health Month (so far)

Health Month is a new game (currently in beta) designed to help you find that ever-elusive motivation that you need to improve your health. 


I've been playing the Health Month beta this month and it's been a great motivator to get out of my office chair and onto my bike and into some running shoes. I set some pretty high goals for myself and have been doing my best to try and hit them. As crazy as it sounds, I actually forced myself to take a long bike ride the other day when I was still tired from the previous day's exercise simply because I was low on "life points" in the game.

Screen shot 2010-09-15 at 9.38.50 AM

I've lost five pounds in two weeks because I set a goal of exercising 5 times a week instead of the typical 1x or 2x per week I've been doing lately. Due to some of the medications I take, I've been gaining about 3-4lbs a month since last December, so having my first significant weight loss has been satisfying and I'm feeling better than before. The game is just enough to motivate me to try a little harder while still being fun.

The site runs as a month-to-month thing, so be sure to sign up so you can try it out in October.


Amazon blows for video games

I’ve bought a handful of video games this year and my local Gamestop seems to have trouble getting new games on release day (“sorry, UPS didn’t show up yet, maybe tomorrow”) and for the popular games, they insist on pre-ordering with a deposit. Since Gamestop was a hassle, I started ordering stuff on Amazon instead, usually a month or so before big games came out.

For the most part, it’s worked well except items ship on their release date instead of arrive. I know a lot of games are done and in boxes, ready to ship weeks ahead of release dates and it sure would be nice if Amazon could ship them a day or two before release date so they show up on time. I know that’s a minor problem, but it’s tough waiting 24 hours when everyone online is talking about a game that’s available down the street at a store.

Lately though, Amazon has been a big problem with popular games. I’ve had a couple games delayed by 1 week and 2 weeks respectively and Amazon doesn’t inform you until the actual release date of the game. So if you pre-order a month or so early and you’re thinking you are going to get the game shipped on day 1, you don’t find out until that day arrives that they ran out. It’s really unfortunate, since I guess Amazon has no idea what their supplies will be like when they start taking pre-orders. Today I got this message about Guitar Hero III (PS3), which got released today:

We wanted to let you know that there is an unexpected delay with your video game order you placed on September 11 2007 17:47 PDT. Unfortunately, we are unable to ship the product(s) as soon as we expected and need to provide you with a new estimate of when they may be delivered:

“Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock Bundle” [Video Game]
Estimated arrival date: 12/31/2007

I pre-ordered a month and a half early and they estimated it would take anywhere from 1 to 2 additional months to get a copy of the game sent to me. That’s pretty ridiculous and why I won’t be buying video games from Amazon anymore.

Playstation 3: complete failure for casual gaming

The other day this thought popped into my head and since several people asked, I wanted to expound on my original point.

First off, let me just say I’m a casual gamer — for the past seven years I’ve usually owned one console game system and I play it about once a week for a couple hours. I might get obsessed about a new game and play everyday for a week, but on average, maybe once a week. I mostly like “organic” sports sims, games where no two plays are alike (tony hawk’s skate games are my favorite). I also bought the PS3 for the blu-ray DVD player and it works ok for that (more below), but for gaming, I wish I bought a xbox360 instead.

Here is a list of why I think the PS3 I’ve owned for almost a year sucks:

  1. While blu-ray movies look great on my 46″ 1080p Sony LCD TV, after about 30 minutes of any movie playback, the unit’s fan goes to 11 and it sounds like a hair dryer was left on in my media rack. Keep in mind I have a fully vented system with plenty of air circulation and space around the unit. I could understand if the PS3 got hot when it had to render a billion polygons per nanosecond, but does 30 minutes of Meryl Streep really tax a modern system?
  2. I’ve got it hooked up via HDMI, at 1080p, the max resolution. The menus feature teeny-tiny fonts that look about 8px tall, max. I’m only ten feet away from my almost four foot wide screen, but I can barely read text within the PS3 dashboard menus and online features. I’m not an old man complaining about tiny fonts — I stare at small fonts all day on my computer screen, but the PS3’s menus look ridiculous even on a large screen TV. Who was their target market for the tiny font choice? 12 year olds with 103-inch plasmas?
  3. Since I’ve owned it, there have been over a dozen updates to the OS. While it’s cool they keep fixing bugs and adding features, if you want to use any online aspect of the PS3, you are blocked and told to update your system. For someone that plays once a week, this means about every third time I fired up the device, I was told I had to download some 100Mb+ file and let it do its update thing for about an hour or so, rendering it unplayable.
  4. System updates and demo games are often in the 100-600Mb range in size. I’ve got a 8Mbit cable modem line at home and typically a couple hundred megabytes comes down in 10-15 minutes. The Sony network servers are really slow and I’ve had downloads take overnight to complete.
  5. Some of the online features are worthless. It has a web browser, but it renders pages vertically in a portrait-like layout (even though TVs are landscaped layout) and features those great 6px fonts. It’s basically worthless and after I tried Google on it once, I never launched the web browser again.
  6. Signing up for an online account is tedious and seems to take forever. Periodically you get kicked offline while trying to view game demos. Currently, I can’t stay logged in for more than 30 seconds before being dropped. This means downloads no longer work, since I get disconnected
  7. Every couple weeks, there are new free game demos to download. I’ve only successfully downloaded and installed three game demos in the past 10 months of owning the PS3. Downloads that fail in the night can’t be resumed and have to be restarted. It’s all very frustrating. Imagine if Microsoft’s Windows Update failed on more than half of your update attempts and took all night to successfully work the few times things went well.
  8. Games cost $50-60 each and the release schedule has been very slow since the introduction of the PS3. I’m still waiting for a GTA title and Guitar Hero to come out for the PS3. Most PS2 games play fine on it (though I didn’t own any when I got my PS3 — I sold my PS2 about two years ago), but some of the most popular don’t (like Guitar Hero and DDR, which just sort of work with some hacky attachments)
  9. The PS3 has an online store, but despite entering my credit card info into my profile twice, I’ve never successfully purchased anything. I get errors when I attempt to buy a downloadable game.
  10. The video player is ok, they just added video streaming from other computers in a recent update, but it’s nowhere near as flexible as something like the free open source XBMC I used to have.
  11. My other game system, the Wii, is still highly playable, fun, and innovative. Playing the average PS3 game still involves memorizing some button mashes. I’ll never play a button-mashing golf or tennis game on the PS3 when I can swing a Wii controller around and have much more fun.
  12. The controllers on a PS3 are wireless which is nice, but they use bluetooth. While that’s cool and forward thinking, it means that makers of alternate controllers (universal remotes, steering wheels, dance pads, etc) are way behind and the choices are non-existent. My nice Harmony universal remote can control thousands of devices but not the PS3, so I have to use a Sony DVD remote when watching movies. Driving games suffer from not having peripherals out there and things like DDR and Guitar Hero simply don’t exist for the PS3 yet, almost a year after launch.

Now that I’m almost a year into owning the PS3, I kind of wish I bought a xbox360 instead (which I would have last year if they only offered it with a HDMI output back then). I hear the xbox360’s online component works really well and brings a social multi-player component to games in a way I’ve never gotten to work on the PS3. I hear you can download games and movies without having to wait overnight, and there’s the HD-DVD option for that system (oh how I wish for a decent <$500 hybrid HD-DVD/blu-ray combo player instead).

I’ve never been much of a fan of Microsoft, but in the world of console gaming, they look a heck of a lot better than the PS3. So that my friends is why the PS3 sucks and why you should avoid it.

A Wii little story

A friend from college visited me a few months ago and we played a few rounds of Wii tennis and he fell in love with the game and wanted one. Then I had to break it to him that it was still currently almost impossible to buy a Wii. He recently told me a story of his coworker tracking one down:

So my friend is walking through Wal-Mart on a Sunday morning and I guess it’s when the Wii shipment comes in because just as he’s walking past the video game area, he watches an employee put four Wii console boxes on the shelf. He picks up a Wii box and he’s reading the label for maybe 30 seconds. He looks back at the shelf, and the three other boxes are gone. Then someone taps him on the shoulder.

“You gonna buy that Wii you’re holding?” says the shoulder tapper.

“Yeah, I think I am.”

And he did.

Now that’s consumer demand for a successful product.

Where there’s a Wii, there’s a way

Everyone I know seems to want to score a Wii on launch day, and most are betting on second tier outlets to get one. I agree and think that the world will line up at Walmarts, Targets, and BestBuys around the country so the secret is to find another option that is big enough to get Wiis on launch day, but also not so big that anyone would notice. This could be a local mom & pop store, a non-franchise video game store, or that seedy Kmart in the bad part of town.

I tested this theory out by visiting my local Fred Meyer. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest and near any major city, chances are you are surrounded by Fred Meyers. I don’t think I’ll hurt my chances by sharing that they’re open from 12:01am-1am this Saturday night and my local one has 75 Wii consoles ready to go. That’s a lot of boxes, right up there with what most BestBuy stores will get and about double what any Target store is getting near me.