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This is a continuing series of directors commentaries on the Something’s In The Air game available here.  It contains spoilers, and this post is best read after playing the game first.

Almost exactly one year ago, I posted the first beta of Something’s In The Air on a couple of websites where I knew I would get constructive feedback and very few downloads.  After spending two years developing the Rachel character, and even longer developing Ariane, the two “dates” in story 3, Bonnie and Veronica were basically throw away characters, undeveloped extras.

The entire purpose of story 3 from the get go was to 1. have a couple of dateable characters besides Ariane and Rachel, and 2. better establish the important plot point about whether or not there is a lightning storm around 11PM on Saturday night. All of the Ariane dates end in a storm, and all of the Rachel dates don’t. Bonnie and Veronica dates establish that Rachel is the “one of these things that is not like the others.”

To accomplish my goals, all I needed was a couple of stories that end in a thunderstorm.  For fun I decided to give story 3 a comic book theme: using a font that looks hand written, occasionally abandon the  first person perspective like on the road trip with Veronica, and adding floating onomatopoeia words in the pool table scene.  Following the comic theme, the plots were originally designed, to be “good” Bonnie vs “bad” Veronica.  Many changes later the official theme turned into “Bad dates”.  Bonnie and Veronica demonstrate how badly dates can go, as a way to balance all the relatively good dates of the other dateable characters, and also because bad dates can be really funny.

Story 3 is the shortest, and the first one I completed, and ultimately the one that changed the most in beta testing. This was the original Bonnie:

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She looked “exotic” with darker skin tone but Asian facial features.  Cute but dressed rather plainly.  The comments I got on her were not favorable. It also was pointed out that Wendy the weightlifter had already filled my quota of dateable exotic darker skinned beauties, and between Ariane, Wendy, Veronica, and most of the time Rachel, I had too many Brunettes. So I made her a blonde haired blue eyed beauty, which was OK since I cut two other blondes (Heidi and Stacy) roles to support characters.

That’s enough history, let’s get started with story 3…

Go Back to Sleep

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The story opens with a naked blue “Medusa” with snakes for hair.  This opening image is supposed to get a “WTF?” reaction from players. Stories 1 and 2 are pretty normal and reality based, and suddenly we have a naked blue creature with a magical staff.  Like most movies and TV shows where something is out of place, it ends up being a dream sequence, or in this case a video game.  Trivia: the head shape for “Medusa” is the same head shape as Veronica, she also has blue skin, Veronica’s skin is later painted blue.

We then meet Ranger Dude who is the game avatar of the player character.  I have been into MMORPGs for years, so when I decided to incorporate a game within a game, it had to be an MMORPG.  My original plan was to make these video game scenes in Second Life, to make the gaming scenes more primitive looking than the Poser pictures, but ultimately decided that it is more interesting if the video game scenes look just as real as the reality scenes, and have the fantasy elements be their only distinction.

One of the games I play is Guild Wars, and I usually played a Ranger.  In the original Guild Wars, a global rule was that most of the beasts in Tyria were based on one of the four classic Greek elements: fire, water, air, and earth. If you hit such a creature with its opposite element, it would do more damage.  Fire creature hate water (ice) damage, creatures that spew electrical damage (air) were damaged themselves by earth (rock) damage. Many RPGs from the original Dungeons and Dragons to  World of Warcraft had similar rules regarding elemental damage.  My strategy in Guild Wars was to carry four bows, each with a different elemental string and switch to the bow most likely to damage the creatures I would be facing.  It was a very successful strategy for me, but rarely used by players, because they did not want to carry around a bunch of different element damage weapons all the time.  Elemental damage was dropped completely in Guild Wars 2 due to lack of popularity.

But I kept the elemental damage rule for my game within a game, in fact the silly name for my made up MMORPG is “Elemental Realms” thus emphasizing the rules of elemental damage.  The Medusa of legend turned men into stone if you looked into her eyes.  That makes her an Earth based creature, and thus most vulnerable to lightning damage.  It also happens to be a cool foreshadowing of things to come.  But this is a comedy, so the tense video game scene ends in a penis joke.

Next is the baseball scene. In writing the plot I meticulously figured out a timeline for the days events.  The game starts at 7 AM on Saturday, and Ariane and Rachel are both in the restaurant bar at 7 PM. I needed a way to keep the player busy for a few hours so he would get to the restaurant bar after Ariane and Rachel had already left.  An afternoon baseball game that runs late was the best I could come up with.  Once a longer scene, the baseball game is now one heavily edited picture my dad took at a Yankee Stadium, with all references to Yankees, Major League Baseball, or the dozens of real companies advertising in the background blurred out or changed.  Of course the city that this whole adventure takes place in is never named, so the baseball team can’t actually be named either.

The game ends after 8 PM, so when you get to the bar Rachel, Ariane, and Dave have already gone. Veronica, who just came from the movie theater as seen in story 1 is there.

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Let’s talk about Veronica.  She is the token “bad girl”. Because I have had my car stolen by kids so they can go on joy rides, ultimately getting my car back a few days later when the cops find it abandoned somewhere, the idea of a car thief seemed pretty evil to me.  My original model design was very simple: This Assassin Angel character at DAZ seemed the obvious choice, especially due to her resemblance to Angelina Jolie in Gone in 60 Seconds.  Eventually, I decided the resemblance to Angelina Jolie to be too distracting, and went with Jordana Brewster from The Fast and The Furious films. (Just kidding, I went with a generic female head), but I kept the sexy leather outfit and the tattooed skin.

I’m aware I am using a tired trope in representing a “bad girl” with tattoos. I know quite a few women with tattoos, and none of them are evil. Good tattooed skin is hard to find in Poser models, so call it a coincidence that the only tattooed character is a “bad girl”.

Ironically, she is also wearing a “cross” necklace.  I originally envisioned the character’s personality to be similar to Faith the Vampire Slayer, who ironically wears a cross to slay vampires.  My universe does not actually have vampires (or does it?), but I added the cross with that in mind.  Veronica is also very tech savvy, and the camo hip pouch she wears is filled with cool tech gadgets.

For example, fancy new cars can be potentially easy to steal by the sophisticated techie thief.  Newer cars can be “called” through the cell tower network.  That’s how car control apps on smart phones work, and how OnStar or similar services can remote control your car.  I figure Veronica has some kind of hacked device that lets her unlock cars after scanning the VID number bar code.  Once in, she can attach a computer to the terminal port under the driver dash of every new car and start it up. All of this is technically possible to do, though there are plenty of safeguards in place.  This is how I imagine Veronica steals fancy late model cars in 5 minutes for joyriding purposes.

Sure I just got done watching five hours of baseball…

But for the purposes of this commentary we are going to talk about baseball which is a big turn off for Veronica.  This is the only real choice in story 3 and it is a purposely vague choice. Talk about baseball gets you Bonnie for the evening, not talking baseball gets you Veronica.

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Bonnie’s story is pretty simple.  After she gets off work, she suggest billiards and the place most likely to have a free table is a strip club. The “Live Cabaret” is a popular venue in Date Ariane and I wanted to find a way to bring it back in SITA.  This is what I came up with.

If you look at the “Live Cabaret” posters in Date Ariane, you will see that “billiards” is mentioned on the advertisement poster (as if that would be an important selling point for a strip club), so you can see I was already establishing this plot when I made the poster.

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Like Bonnie, I played pool all the time at the Student Union in College. In designing the placement of balls on the table during these pics I made a real game out of it, having Bonnie plan out each shot like a pro.

As you play, Bonnie flashes back to an event where she ended up on stage and accidentally took her top off.  This was originally the best way I could think of to get Bonnie naked in this short story: in flashback.  Later of course, I added a sex scene.

Trivia: The “original” Bonnie’s left arm makes a cameo appearance in the animation of the winning shot. After deciding I needed to replace old Bonnie with new Bonnie, I had to redo about 50 or so pictures, including Bonnie’s appearances in story 1 and 2.  The 8 ball animation took hours to render originally, and I did not want to do that again, so I figured I would keep the original animation and with the lighting, no one would notice it is not “new” Bonnie’s arm making that shot.

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After winning the game, Bonnie has a “psychic” flash that something is about to happen, and sure enough a storm happens, and that is where the “original” Bonnie story ended. The abrupt ending was a result of me not knowing how to end it.  I could not think of a good ending that wasn’t basically something that also happens on the Ariane or Rachel dates already.

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Even though the story accomplished my goals, it was too short.  My first attempt at lengthening the story involved an exotic dance by a topless “vampire”.  I had a short piece of music I could use, and thought it would be fun to animate the routine to the music.  If you stop advancing the pictures just as the dancer shows her fangs, the game will display the dance routing in perfect sync with the music.

That made for good story padding, but the ending outside the strip club still seemed too abrupt.  I figured that players would make up their own ending, but beta testers didn’t like that.  One of my beta testers said the whole plot seemed “fishy”, like the date was a “setup” to “something”, but then nothing happened.  Another beta tester just wanted a sex scene, even though you barely know this girl.

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That’s when I realized what was missing: While I still could not think of a “good” way to end Bonnie’s story, I could think of a ton of ways to end it badly.  So many bad endings in fact that it became a question of which “bad” scenario should I add?  Then I realized I wanted to do all of them.

This is contrary to visual novel rules that provide choices to get to the endings.   Not only that, these endings are completely contradictory; is Bonnie a budding porn star?, or a good Christian?  Then I thought, “Screw convention, its more entertaining if you never know what you are going to get.”  The Bonnie plot is ultimately about sleeping with a woman you barely know, and realizing after the fact it was a bad move.  Besides, like Veronica (obviously), Bonnie is a one shot guest star, so it really does not matter what the canonical “real Bonnie” is.

I like the idea of random bad endings so much I’m bringing it to Date Ariane Upgraded.  After realizing that there are 118 pictures devoted to a rarely accessed part of Date Ariane where she gets drunk on whiskey, I decided I don’t want to spend that much effort remaking that scene. My plan is to replace Whiskey with Absinthe, and instead of Ariane passing out, you the player will pass out and wake up in one of 10 random strange places.

And there you have it. Story 3 is complete. Eventually, I’ll get around to doing one last commentary on story 4.

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One of the things I have on my website is a list of 3D Virtual Worlds that I try to maintain.  Although I don’t play them much anymore, I have a few reliable sources I go to keep me up to date.

It has been about two years since I added a new program, and that program was Cloud Party.  This week I removed it, as well as Free Realms, and MooveCloud Party got bought out by Yahoo!, and Yahoo! has decided not to keep it open.  Free Realms, a MMORPG designed for kids that also included virtual world elements like personal houses, is closing its doors too due to lack of growth.  I’m dropping Moove because no one seems to be using it anymore, and no one is supporting it. The web site hasn’t changed in 2 years.

A fair number of others are on their way out.  Information on Kaneva is sketchy, no twitter updates in months.  The virtual world side of Blue Mars seems to be already dead population wise, though the app side is alive and kicking. Playstation 3 Home is declining since the “Home”less Playstation 4 was released.

Some of the major ones are still doing well.  Second Life is still popular.   There.com still has an active community and still making a profit. IMVU is not advertising like they used to but still pulling in big numbers of users (just pulled up my client to check, 115,000 users online). My contacts inside Nuvera Online say its doing well, too. I am also still seeing continuing interest in Twinity.

In business, this is called a consolidation phase. The 3D Virtual World industry as a whole is declining, but the ones that are well established are growing as the less well established ones close their doors.

Why the decline?  Two reasons: 1.  Almost all 3D Virtual Worlds are designed for keyboard and mouse play on PCs. With the rise of tablets and phone computing, interest in Virtual Worlds is declining, as these worlds are not designed for those devices.  3D Virtual World Apps do exist, but they are not doing enough business to stop the decline.

2. The rise of Free MMORPGs, which I have talked about before.  MMORPGs have basically adopted every aspect of 3D Virtual World play except user created content.  Maybe that is why Second Life, There, IMVU, Nuvera, and Twinity are the survivors — they are the ones with user created content.  If that is not important to you,  if all you want to do is meet and play and chat with other people online, the MMORPG’s now cater to those interests.

I used to think that 3D Virtual Worlds would eventually lead to a 3D internet.  I still think a 3D internet is possible in the future, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.  I expect more closures in the short term.

Meanwhile, there is hope of new things around the corner.  High Fidelity is going into alpha mode.  A Yahoo! based virtual world could be coming using the Cloud Party tech they just acquired.  Also a wild card in this is VR hardware like Oculus Rift, which will no doubt renew interest in all things 3D.

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Date Ariane 10th Anniversary Part 2

Date Ariane (first released 2004) may not have been the first dating sim to only have a single character, though I don’t know any that predate it, and I wasn’t influenced by any.

Date Ariane may not have been the first dating sim done in 3D graphics, thought I don’t know of any that predate it, and I wasn’t influenced by any.

It is even possible that it is not the first dating sim with one character and in 3D, but it was the first to gain popularity, and directly or indirectly inspire dozens of similar games, mostly by independent creators like myself.

Because the one thing I can take away from all this is this: I invented a genre, or at least a subgenre (or a subgenre of a subgenre).  OK, “invented” is not the right word, because genres only become genres if other people are contributing.  Is “inspired” a better word? Still not accurate. How about “created a work original enough to influence the creation of” a subgenre.  OK, more accurate.

One of the goals of every artist to do exactly this! Achievement unlocked, I guess I can call myself an artist. (The other goal of every artist is to sell a work for a lot of money so they don’t have to work again. So far that one has eluded me.)

So I am going to tell you how I created a game that inspired many other games.  Short version:  I did it by accident.

I heard the term “Dating Simulator” as a type of game popular in Japan, “Dating Simulator” is a bad translation of japanese “ren’ai shimyureshon gemu” (more accurately a romantic simulation game).

But I was intrigued about the idea of a “Date Simulator” and instead of tracking one down and finding out what they are like, I just took the term “Date Simulator” literally, and created my own.

In 2001, I invented the “Ariane Barnes” online persona in hopes of creating an Alternate Reality Game based on her. That turned out too ambitious, so I created a “choose your own adventure” game based on the concept of simulating a date with Ariane Barnes.  Turns out what I created was a visual novel, a popular gaming genre in Japan, romance simulation is a subgenre of the visual novel.  Anyone familiar with the subgenre knows that they are always done with 2D manga style art, and almost always involve multiple partners to choose from.

I didn’t know any of this when I created Date Ariane, which is why DA defies so many conventions of traditional visual novels, like how it loops upon itself, has no coherent story, and involves a bunch of events that can be done in different order.  I have been using Poser since the late 90′s, which is why I used 3D graphics instead of Manga art.

So I released my “Dating Simulator” on the web in 2004, and made improvements as I went. I did not advertise it except through word of mouth in a few virtual world communities I was a part of at the time.  And then in 2007 it went viral, 3 millions “dates” from January to March of that year.  Complaints from my host forced me to release an offline version that people could play without spamming my website.

In August of that year, the first post about my game appeared on the Sharks Lagoon forum. The cool thing about that forum is that it is dedicated to 3D sexy games and their development.  At the time most “erotic” games  were either of the arcade variety, or the “Adult Interactive Fiction” variety (text based adventures with occasional graphics).  Date Ariane sort of bridges the gap between the two, more visual than an AIF, and more complex than an arcade sex game.

Shark’s Lagoon is where the vast majority of the 100+ games similar to Date Ariane got their start. The “single character date simulator” (for lack of a better term) is a perfect type of game for independent game makers: it is simple enough to make that one person can do it themselves, its a fun type of game to make, and it is also a fun type of game to play. So it is no surprise that a lot of people joined in on the fun.

One creator Tlaero, even wrote an “Adventure Creator” engine you can use to build your own online single character date simulator. More info here.

The one thing the genre lacks is complexity, which is why it only takes one or two people to make a game like this. That, plus the general public bias in favor of violent games and against sex in games, means that creating a commercially successful game in this genre is damn near impossible. That’s what is standing in the way of wide genre recognition.

Sex Games vs. Violent Games

But I knew this going in.  One of my continuing motivations for even dabbling in sexy games is my belief that the general population’s attitude towards sex and violence is completely backwards.  Sex is something we all engage in, and yet it is viewed in the public’s eye as dirty and shameful, while violence, something most decent people never engage in, is glorified and revered.  No where is this more true than in the world of gaming.

In movies, this double standard is understandable because we know that movie violence is fake, while movie sex involves actor nudity and touching that cannot be faked (actually it can, but let’s not go there now).  In gaming, sex and nudity are 100% fake, just like the violence.  And yet pixel nudity, or worse an animated sex scene will get your game an AO rating, the equivalent of an NC-17 rating in the movies, even if similar scenes in movies can still get a PG-13 rating.

This is because of the strange bias that video games are for kids, this despite the fact that 68% of all gamers are over 18.  “Kids play games, therefore games can’t contain sex or nudity.”  This is a horrible double standard.

If violent games reduce violent crime, I’m willing to bet sex games will reduce sex crimes. We already know this is true with the wider availability of porn, we have also seen incidental reports of reduced sex crimes in Japan where erotic games are more widely available, though I could not find any actual studies.  Illogical cultural bias is the only thing standing in the way of erotic games becoming commercially successful.

To the future…

While I’d love for one of my games to be a commercial success, I’m not holding my breath, and if it happens, it will happen the same way the genre was created: by accident.

My #1 objective is having fun creating. It’s my geeky hobby.  My #2 objective is making a game that is fun to play. My only criteria is to make a game that is fun for me to play, and if others enjoy it, well that’s just icing.

Meanwhile, anyone interested in other “Single Character Dating Sims” especially of the erotic kind can check out the following places.  WARNING: These links are Not Safe For Work and not appropriate for those under 18. Some are financed by subscription models.

Playforce One
Lesson of Passion Gold
Shark’s Lagoon Games
Pusooy Games
V Date Games

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So Renpy is out HTML is back in.  That is not to say there will never be a Renpy version of Date Ariane, I’m saying the HTML upgrade is a better use of my time right now.  I know this contradicts what I said here and here, but plans constantly change.

The numbers are in and Date Ariane is still popular.  A link on a popular Brazilian website has caused DA to go viral in Brazil.  I do not think a Renpy download version will ever achieve the same level of popularity, so I am concentrating on upgrading the HTML game.  As mentioned in my last post the resolution is now 1000 x 600, and the links are no longer hidden.  I have already made these changes and they are already live.

What I have not announced here is that I am bringing one change I had planned for the Renpy version and brought it to the HTML:  eliminating alcohol as a means to unlock content. Alcohol will still be needed to get to “drunk” scenes, and after two glasses of wine Ariane will decline to drive, but that’s it.

I am implementing a very simplified RP system to replace it. There are four personality traits you can demonstrate: nice, smart, funny, and sexy. The introduction part of the game (which was kind of lame anyways) has been rewritten giving you two opportunities to demonstrate a trait to Ariane.  The first is immediate and obvious: “Compliment her looks” = Nice, “Give her a hug” = Sexy,  “Say something smart” = Smart,  “Say something funny” = funny.  You then have a choice to kiss Ariane.  She will react negatively to the kiss, but you can explain/apologize in a smart, nice, sexy, or funny way.  Or you can choose to read a smart, nice, sexy, or funny poem.  These are less obvious.

The various dinner conversations, give you one to four more opportunities to unlock these traits when you “talk to” or “complement” Ariane.  The objective here is to demonstrate as many traits as possible, so ideally you should demonstrate all four before dinner is over.

You need to unlock at least two to go on.  Unlocking only one leads to an end state:  Too smart = too pretentious.  Too nice = creepy.  Too witty = cant take anything seriously.  Too sexy = obsessed with sex or too desperate.

The game plan is this:  Various activities will require different combinations of these traits.  For example, it used to require at least one glass of wine to unlock dinner at the restaurant or picnic in swimwear. Dinner at the restaurant now requires the “nice” trait, and picnic now requires the “funny” trait.  (since these happen before dinner, you need to unlock them during the introduction.)

The thinking is that Ariane has all four traits, and she feels more comfortable with date partners that do too. It also gets rid of the game plot of getting Ariane drunk to get her to do stuff, which is a trope I apparently started, and would like to see end.

I’m explaining the game plan, because I want it to work a certain way, and it probably doesn’t right now, so if you are playing the new version trying to map the changes for a “walkthru” or something,  the way it currently works is subject to change.

Note this trait thing ONLY replaces the drinking requirement.  There are also “activity” requirements and “foreplay” requirements for many of the advanced content.  I’m not changing those.

Combine two or three traits together and you get a personality “skill”.  It’s these skills that drive the various assignments.

Funny + Sexy = fun loving.  Any activity involving the pool or hot tub will become easier with this skill.

Funny + Nice = creative.  Any activity involving dancing and the removal of clothing, whether at home or in front of a crowd,  is going to need some of this.  In front of a crowd might also need some Sexy trait, too, if you want to win.  In front of a fountain at the park, creative and Smart leads to more daring snapshots.

Funny + Smart = clever.  Astronomy lessons requires some cleverness, so does handling both Ariane and Rebecca at the same time.

Nice + Sexy = cuteness.  This is meant to be more of a “lost puppy” kind of cuteness.  With this skill Ariane is likely to be more forgiving when you walk in on her changing clothes.  Cuteness is likely to help talk Ariane into skinny water skiing, too.

Nice + Smart = romantic.  A little romance is likely to get you further on romantic walks on the beach, or drinking contests in the kitchen, for some reason only Ariane knows.  Add some Sexy talk on top of it for some hot and heavy couch action in the living room.

Sexy + Smart = luck.  Risk taking is Sexy, especially to Ariane, but risk taking is less risky if you play it Smart.  That is why Ariane is more likely to get naked in a public place, say the store or the park, if you possess these traits together.  If you also happen to be Funny too, you can make her feel more comfortable at the scenic vista in the mountains.

Meeting the drinking requirement before was just a matter of a glass of wine before dinner, then two more during dinner.  Meeting the trait requirement is picking two up before dinner, then talk and compliment during dinner.  Failing to get all four traits, means some content may not work on this date, but you can always start again.

Next Part II: A brief history of Date Ariane, the first “single character dating sim”.

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I came up with a complicated plan for the Renpy version of Date Ariane, too complicated — like another multi-year project complicated.

Sometimes you just have to take a step back and decide what is most important.  While many of the ideas I came up with are cool, there are only really two things that I want to actually do:  1.) Make a version of Date Ariane that can be played on a tablet, and 2.)update the pictures with all the cool new models, poses, outfits, and lighting tricks I learned while doing Something’s In The Air.

I realized that I can accomplish both goals by simply updating the current HTML version of Date Ariane, and I can probably accomplish my goal in a few months rather than years.

I already have a “proof of concept” in the introduction portion of Date Ariane online.  Instead of hidden links that don’t show up without mouse hovering, I have visible links pushed off to the sides or below to be as unobtrusive as possible.  The pictures are much prettier, too. What I am not showing on the online demo is pictures 1000 x 600 pixels instead of 800 x 500.  Trust me, it looks even better.  I’m positioning all text proportionally instead of exactly so I can use even bigger pictures in the future if I want to.  I’m also trying to make it HTML 5 compliant so it works with all future browsers.

I haven’t decided if I will change the game any beyond the updated look, though it is probably inevitable that it will.

My last post was about Windows 8.1 tablets and how they are generally better than iPads or Android based tablets.  Apparently I’m not the only one who recognized their utility, as these tablets are selling pretty well now. I thought I would post some pointers I learned playing with mine. I mentioned a few at the bottom of my last post, here are a few more.

The most annoying thing is that Windows 8.1 is not Windows 7.  The PC marketplace has been in the doldrums ever since 8 was released. Windows 7 is way ahead of 8 and 8.1 combined, and still growing as people continue to order new PCs with Windows 7 pre-installed instead of 8.

I thought about posting suggestions to Microsoft to “fix” 8.1 and make it more acceptable to PC users and the business community, like get rid of the “Live Tiles Start” menu completely, move live tile icons to the desktop without auto arranging them, allow folders in the “Apps” menu for better organization, and allow the apps menu to only take a fraction of the screen instead of the whole screen.  Also allow “live tile” software to be “windowed” so it can be run from the desktop if we want.  Microsoft probably has heard these suggestions before, and they are not coming anytime soon so no point to dwell on them.  I think it is only a matter of time before they actually happen.  Maybe in Windows 9?

Despite these annoying shortcomings, there are some useful features in 8.1 worth keeping especially with tablets.

Pro Tip #1: After playing with Windows 8.1 for 10 days, I have come to the conclusion that the “Live Tiles Start” screen is completely useless and only exists so that the marketing boneheads at Microsoft can market windows desktops, windows tablets, windows phones and XBox One as being the same and cross compatible (see above picture) which they are not.

If you have Windows 8, upgrade to 8.1, if you have 8.1, right click on the taskbar (on a tablet you “right click” by pressing and holding down for a couple of seconds) and click “Properties” then the “Navigation” tab, then check everything. You will never have to look at that stupid dumbass “Live Tiles” start screen ever again!

There, now we have eliminated the most annoying thing in Windows 8.1

Pro Tip #2: Learn Touch screen gestures.  There are two  types of programs in Windows 8.1, classic “Windows” software, and new “Live tiles” software.  The biggest difference between the two is that the latter programs run in full screen, and they are missing the “red X” close icon in the corner.  The Windows 8.1 desktop is actually a “live tile” program itself.

Live Tile designed programs can run in the background and instantly recalled to the foreground just the way you left them, just by pointing to the left side of the screen and sliding to the right.  You can also open up to four of them side by side.

The “Desktop” is one such app sidebar item. The “Live Tile” Internet Explorer 11 is another. With one flick of a finger I’m on a browser, with another flick I’m back to Desktop.  The “Live Tile” version of IE11 is, in my humble opinion, the greatest browser ever made. No tool bars, or link bars, or search bars, or favorites, just nothing but web page filling the whole screen.  If you need the IE bars, just touch the bottom of the page and slide up (or right click on your mouse), then slide back down. Left swipe brings back the desktop again, easy peasy.

There are four basic gestures and they all start by touching an edge and sliding towards the center.  As pointed out, left edge slide right will switch from program to program.  Variations on this gesture will put two programs side by side, or a list of programs running in the background.  The keyboard equivalent is “alt tab”.

The right edge slide left brings up what Microsoft calls the “Charms” menu. This is basically the stuff that used to be in the start menu, like “Programs”, “Settings”, “Run/Search”, etc.  The keyboard equivalent is pushing the windows key.

The bottom edge slide up brings up the options of the current program you are running. This varies from program to program.  The options of the “Live Tile” version of IE11 is where you can find the address/search bar, favorites, tabs, history, and status, thus eliminating the need for that stuff to clutter your browsing window which now takes up the entire screen.  That’s why I like it, completely clutter free browsing (not counting the ads). On a keyboard hold the windows key and press Z, or if you have a mouse, right click.

The top edge slide down is how you close a program. That is why there is no need for a “red X” any more.  The left slide right gesture is a very cool way to switch from program to program, but it is easy to end up with a lot of programs open that you have to flip through before you reach the program you wanted.  Top edge slide down is how you get rid of those extra programs.  Alt+F4 on the keyboard still works, too.

Pro Tip #3: Invest in a bluetooth keyboard and mouse, or at least a stylus pen.  The biggest drawback of a windows 8.1 tablet is the small screen, with small lettering, and the need to occasionally select stuff with fat fingers.  While you can do an awful lot with fingers and the onscreen keyboard, “House cleaning chores” such as transferring selected files and organizing them into folders are a lot easier with a keyboard and mouse.

Note: A bluetooth keyboard is a bluetooth keyboard.  I have one designed for Android that  I also use on my PS3, my Apple TV, and now my Windows Tablet. Apple keyboards work too as they also use bluetooth.  A “Wireless” mouse is not the same as a Bluetooth mouse, the former will not work on a tablet as they require a special USB dongle, so be careful what you get.

There are other ways to deal with the smallness of stuff, like set your folders to default to “Extra large icons” whenever a new folder is opened.  I also have extra large icons set on the desktop screen too.  I wish the taskbar had an option for large icons.  Add that to the list of things Microsoft needs to do to improve Windows 8.1.

tablet

I figured that headline would get your attention.  You are probably thinking, “Who in their right mind would think that Microsoft is ahead of Apple and the various Android tablets when the market data says the exact opposite?”  I can explain it in five words:

Windows 8.1 on a tablet!

Now some of you are probably wondering why is that such a big deal, Windows tablets have been around since 2010.  Well not really: Based on size, weight, and battery life, every so called “tablet” that ran Windows 7 or 8 — up to and including Surface Pro which came out last February have basically been laptops with touch screens.

To me, and most of the buying public, tablets are defined by the original iPad: 9.6″ x 7.5″ x 0.5″ (24cm x 19cm x 1.3cm) weighing 1.5 lbs (0.7kg).  It’s the defining upper limit size for portable and mobile devices.

Until recently, “laptops with touch screens”, had to exceed those dimensions because the Intel class processors needed to run them required a larger cases.  That changed with the recent introduction of the Intel Atom quad core processor.

Up until now all “tablets” (both iOS and Android) ran on ARM processors primarily designed for smart phones, which are getting faster and more powerful and approaching PC speeds, but real computers run on Windows or OSX (or Ubuntu) which are not compatible with ARM architecture.  To find out why, ask someone who has a degree in Computer Science, but the answer for now is “they just can’t, OK?”

I hold in my hands a Dell Venue 8 Pro, sized 8.5″ x 5.12″ x 0.35″ (21.6cm x 13cm x 9mm) weighing 0.87 lbs (0.4kg), and it runs Windows 8.1.  Slightly bigger than the iPad Mini (7.87″ x 5.3″ x 0.28 at 0.69 lbs) and costing the same as an iPad Mini on sale, it is a real tablet.  The first small Windows 8 tablet (Acer Iconia W3) was rushed out this summer to poor reviews, but the newest ones from Dell, Toshiba, and Lenovo are getting better reviews.  Microsoft, Dell, Asus and Samsung have 10″ tablets comparable to the iPad, at about twice the price.

Why is this such a big deal?  Tablets have been around only since 2010, and have been huge sellers.  Up until now tablets have been upscaled smart phones, relying on “apps” designed for smart phones to supply the software to run on these tablets. Windows 8.1 tablets represents a new trend:  Downsized PCs that can run all PC software natively.  That is huge!  Microsoft agrees with my assessment, but the tech gurus still don’t seem too convinced.

Recently ZDNet ran lists of 10 advantages and 10 disadvantages of Windows 8.1 tablets.  The truth is there are a ton of advantages not listed, like file and printer sharing between your PC and your tablet.  That means easy wireless transfer of files from your PC to your tablet without any messy USB patch cords.  Meanwhile, on the disadvantage list, 3 of the 10 disadvantages are the same thing: the lack of a decent app store, and the other 7 are bogus.

App stores are controlled and censored by corporate know it alls.  I’d love to sell my visual novels on Google Play and Apple Apps, but they would reject them due to “adult material”.  I have a two year old Android tablet that will not run iTunes purchased videos because iTunes can only run on iPads.  Guess what? iTunes also runs on Windows!

The point is that if your tablet is a downsized PC, there is not much need for an app store because there is a huge uncensored library of software already available.  In fact I am predicting this is the beginning of the end of the whole “app store” model.

Apple’s response to the threat posed by “downsized PC” tablets was to release iOS7, a more robust OS that is still primarily designed for phone use.  I would be shocked if Apple did not already have a prototype of an iPad running OSX Mavericks sitting in their development lab right now.  I’ll even go out on a limb and predict just such a device will be released by Apple within a year.

It’s only a matter of time before smart phones themselves are running operating systems designed for work PCs as well.  Eventually these pocket sized PCs will be powerful enough that we do not even need a PC.  This tiny Dell that I have in my hand will connect wirelessly to bluetooth keyboards mouses and speaker systems, and monitors via Miracast.  Plug a USB hub to the micro USB slot and you can connect external hard drives and DVD drives.  Suddenly, I am running a complete desktop PC setup off of a tablet sized computer.

Can’t do that with an android or iOS tablet (well you can but there really isn’t a point to it.)  I said it before, tablets are good at retrieving content, but you need a PC to create content.  “Dummy” workstations that you plug your phone sized PC into will become the norm for your content creation needs, while the PC itself can go with you.

The difference between Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 RT are HUGE!!

On another matter.  Yes, I know I have said a lot of hateful things about Windows 8.  I still believe that Windows 7 is the superior OS on desktops and non-touchscreen laptops.  The touch screen friendly “start menu” happens to be great on a Windows 8.1 tablet, which is what it was designed for, but Microsoft should have made it optional.  My desktop remains Windows 7 and luckily the PC and the tablet get along well with each other.

I still have much hatred for Windows “RT”, just as much as Windows CE a few years earlier.  Windows 8.1 RT is not Windows 8.1, be very careful if you are in the market for one of these tablets.  “RT” is a version of windows developed to run on the above mentioned ARM processors, but cannot run Windows programs designed for Intel architecture.  Result: you are stuck using an “app store” to get software.  Microsoft itself seems to be the only company still supporting “RT” and I am guessing the Surface 2 will be the second and last tablet to use it, though it still may show up on future Windows phones.  The more expensive Surface 2 PRO does not use RT.  So if you are in the market “Pro” is good, “RT” is bad.

On The Negative Side…

The biggest problem with a sudden focus from “big phones” to “small PCs” with tablets is that the accessories and software market isn’t ready yet.  Most of the games and other programs for PC are written with keyboard and mouse setups.  Older games want you to keep the original disk in the drive while you play, and in case you didn’t notice, there are no drives on tablets.  The USB port on my tablet isn’t very useful except to recharge my tablet, so a USB connected DVD player is probably a waste of money. Newer games want you to have a hefty graphics card in them to play, which the tablet has generic “Intel graphics” which are better than I had expected, but no match for my PC’s Nvidia graphics.

That means if you want to play games on the tablet you are limited to games that don’t require DVD drives or hefty graphics, which limits your choices considerably.  In other words, tablets aren’t good for PC gaming.

And if you do try to play games or other PC based programs, you will probably want to invest in a bluetooth keyboard and mouse to run programs designed for PCs.  I have been able to get Second Life to run and it is fairly smooth graphically, but the client isn’t designed for tablets, the on screen walk and turn icons are too tiny for finger touching, but once I turned on my Bluetooth Mouse it started working a lot better.

I tried playing Something’s In The Air on the tablet and made the mistake of running it in full screen mode. When it asked me to enter a name for my character, the pop-up keyboard would not pop-up. Bluetooth keyboard to the rescue this time, but I’m probably going to need to add a soft keyboard to the game to make it usable on tablets. (making an Android version is still on my to-do list)

There are a few games designed to be played on Windows Tablets available in the XBox store, and the previously mentioned Windows App Store but the pickings are currently slim.  I am still very happy that keyboard and mouse PC gaming is still very popular, and I hope it stays that way, but as Apple Apps and Google Play demonstrate, there is room for tablet based PC gaming too, but the big money is still on the “big phone” ARM based tablets, so that’s where all the tablet gaming development is going these days.  “Small PC” tablets are so very obviously the future of tablets, and it is only a matter of time the market will be addressed.

A few pro tips I have found:

Change the default settings on mp3 and mp4 files to play with Windows Media Player, or you will get spammed with ads whenever you play a song or video.
I manged to set up windows media player libraries using my NAS as a source, which is way better that installing PlugPlayer to access media on Android and iOS.
Install Java before installing iTunes, and it will work a lot better.
Set up shared folders on your PC and on your tablet for easy file swapping. If your wireless network is up to the challenge, you may not need to do this much, as the tablet can stream audio and video right off my PC without copying files over.