Minecraft: my new favourite game

Later to the game than many, my first experiences of Minecraft were on the Xbox 360 in 2013 and Windows Phone in 2014. By the time the Windows 10 Edition came out I’d started many worlds on both versions, but I hadn’t progressed any of them very far.

At the time my biggest complaint was that there were multiple versions of Minecraft and worlds could not be synchronised between devices. The loss of my favourite world – when installing an update on my phone – made me give up until I could play anywhere.

It was fun, but I just couldn’t put up with the multiple versions and lack of backups.

Earlier this year I took another look at all of the editions of Minecraft available at that time and decided to take a bet on Realms for the Windows 10 and Pocket Edition versions of Minecraft.

Realms are essentially private servers hosted directly by the folk over at Mojang. This drastically improves on-boarding and allows for a seamless experience in-game. The world is hosted behind the scenes in the cloud, rather than on devices – resolving my biggest complaint with the game and allowing me to connect from mobile and PC.

In the summer of 2017, I created a new randomly generated world inside Realms and called it Scrumptious Kingdom with the intention of having a long-term space for my future wife and I to play Minecraft together.

We built a dirt hut on a hill right next to the spawn point, and since then it has progressed into an always-improving house with multiple rooms expanding out to the infinite world around it.

Scrumptious Valley comparison, June and November 2017:

I picked this version of Minecraft because I knew it had a future – the Windows 10 and Pocket Editions have since been unified into single codebase (Bedrock) and updated to all work together seamlessly (Better Together).

Now I can play in my world on my phone, tablet, PC, and Xbox One – instantly appearing wherever I left off.

Having consistency is exactly what I wanted. Now I have a world worth investing time in, improving the house, mining for resources, crafting new items, and taking on new challenges to progress the game.

Recently we defeated the ender dragon and gained access to more freedom with Elytra wings and more storage possibilities with Shulker Boxes. (Organising in-game items! Bliss!)

Every time I play this game I am impressed by what it has to offer and I’m excited about what is going to come in the new Aquatic Update, due Spring 2018.

Avatars 2.0: ready for Mixed Reality

Nintendo was the first of the big three video game companies to have an avatar system on the market. Where Nintendo lacked in online services, they excelled in social and party games and the Mii avatars were used in games like Wii Sports, Wii Play, and Wii Fit in order to provide a consistent multiplayer experience across games.

Microsoft’s take on avatars were first added to the Xbox platform a couple of years later in 2008. Xbox Live Avatars were created by Rare as part of a wide reaching revamp of the user experience labelled as NXE (New Xbox Experience). The NXE brought aspects from the Media Center (and Metro) into the dashboard and it paved the way for the Xbox experience we know today.

Unlike Nintendo’s early attempts at connecting friends (12-digit numbers) there was already a well-established community on Xbox Live and the new avatars were quickly integrated into basic features like the friends list, but it was no coincidence that Microsoft’s avatar system came just before the Kinect came on the market.

Many of the games for the Kinect acted as direct competitors to Wii games and avatars were used in Wii-competitor games like Kinect Sport, as well as more online focused games like 1 vs. 100.

Arguably, the Kinect seems to have died with the Xbox One and the original avatar system has been left exactly as it was. Today, you get the same functionally we got ten years ago, essentially.

Existing avatars are pretty basic and there is a limited set of skin tones and hair styles. My avatar wears a hat… because there isn’t the right kind of bald, for example.

Fast forward about ten years and Microsoft is gearing up to launch a huge upgrade to their avatar platform and this time it’s coming to Windows first.

Watch the new Xbox Avatars announcement

These new avatars look incredible and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they are revamping their new avatar system at a time when Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality are starting to become a big part of Windows and Xbox.

We’ve seen examples of abstract avatars used as part of the Fluent Design System materials as well as the original introduction to the Windows Mixed Reality experience.

More recently, we have also seen less abstract representations. The examples above use live telepresence with Kinect and a basic scanned 3D representation.

You can easily see how these new avatars will fit right in into this spectrum of available avatars, but that’s not where it ends.

The new avatar system allows for a previously unseen amount of customisation and seem to be more human focused than anything we’ve seen before.

Human beings are most definitely a spectrum – we come in all ranges of sizes, genders, abilities, and conditions (temporary or otherwise). Having no choice on the number of limbs and only 17 choices of facial hair just doesn’t represent the beautiful range we have in reality.

You want to wear a floral dress?
No problem – Microsoft say there are no restrictions based on gender.

You want to have pink-but-slightly-purple hair?
No problem – Microsoft say there will be a free range of colour selection.

While I can’t find evidence that Microsoft has explicitly stated that these new avatars will also be used for Windows Mixed Reality, I think the very inclusive nature of the work they’ve done just proves that they understand the problem and are trying to solve it.

that the new Xbox avatars have been added in advance of a mixed reality push.

These new avatars have been created in Unity, which is one of the favourite development platforms for Windows Mixed Reality development.

The question of how someone wants to display themselves in Virtual Reality is an interesting one. Some prefer to see controllers floating in mid-air, others prefer to see renderings of arms.

Hopefully a range of abstract, realistic, and playful avatars will provide people with the choice they need to express themselves when using Windows Mixed Reality.

One thing is for certain: these new avatars are brilliant and I can’t wait to see what we can do with them.

Project Scorpio: The Next Xbox

Last year, I upgraded from my Xbox 360 to an Xbox One S. At the time, I knew that “Project Scorpio” was going to be coming in late 2017, but the time was right for me and I wanted to move onto the Xbox One platform.

The fact the Xbox One S and “Project Scorpio” were announced at the same time was an interesting move. Game consoles aren’t usually announced so early, but this current generation (often called the 8th generation) of consoles is likely to be around longer than others.

Watch the Project Scorpio announcement

Both Sony and Microsoft have adopted the x86 processor architecture found in PCs, and while they’re still highly customised, the development of this common architecture is good for the console makers and the software developers alike.

We’ve already seen an updated PlayStation 4, so an updated Xbox just made sense and we’ll likely see more hardware refreshes in the future. I bet that games for Xbox One will continue to be developed and enjoyed even longer than the previous generation. The Xbox 360 stayed on the market for 11 years and its games can be enjoyed through backwards compatibility on the Xbox One today.

The message is strong

Microsoft has been very clear that “Project Scorpio” is a mid-generation refresh, but this time it’s a performance boost to the machine itself while remaining 100% compatible with the all of the Xbox One games and accessories currently on the market.

“The most powerful console ever.
Holiday 2017.” – Microsoft

They’ve also been clear that “Project Scorpio” has been designed for the fans who want the best. Microsoft stated that they wanted to make the most powerful console on the market – and it looks like they’ve achieved it.

A high-end version of the Xbox One

The performance updates on the machine itself are designed to enable 4K gaming and new VR experiences, though it is expected that existing Xbox One games will also see a general performance boost, even when displaying on 1080p televisions.

Even though it has been stated that there will be no games which will be exclusive to “Project Scorpio”, I have no doubt that there will be some games that will take advantage of the extra power and will be best experienced on the new machine.

Forza on Scorpio

Some existing Xbox One games (Gears of War Ultimate Edition, Forza Horizon 3) already include 4K assets, so the work to upgrade the games to work on high resolution “Project Scorpio” would be minimal. I wonder how many other games have already got high resolution graphics ready for 4K on day one.

Microsoft have really come together

One of the most impressive things about “Project Scorpio” is that it has been built with the full power of Microsoft behind it:

There’s no doubt that Microsoft is a hardware company and their expertise has also allowed for impressive cooling and performance tuning throughout the machine.

Scorpio

DirectX is now built in to the hardware. This is really impressive and means that the hardware has to do less work for games built using DirectX APIs.

Existing games have been profiled for performance and the telemetry of the software has gone into the design of actual silicon. This is a really interesting technique for Microsoft and may help direct performance improvements for their Azure cloud platform in the future.

“Project Scorpio” has been in the works for a while

I recently re-watched the original Xbox One announcement – it was really bad. They announced it just before E3 and had a focus on TV, entertainment, and the use of Kinect.

Since then, the management of the Xbox operation has changed and they’re now way more focused on the feedback of gamers and developers alike.

This time, Microsoft have been talking to industry experts from Digital Foundry, for the tech specifics, and to Gamasutra, to showcase what they’re doing for developers. This way, the industry experts can ask the questions the fans want to know and tell the story as they see it.

This is a marked improvement from what can only be described as a fumbled Xbox One announcement.

This could be the start of something very different

I’m really excited about what “Project Scorpio” has to offer and I’m likely to get one at some point in 2018.

I have a feeling that there’s more to “Project Scorpio” than just a hardware refresh and I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see changes to the way the games are delivered too.

If the Xbox One platform is going to be around for a long time, why bother creating a new game every time? There’s no reason why a games franchise like Forza or Halo couldn’t be delivered as a service with constantly updated content and graphics.

We’ll hear more about “Project Scorpio” at E3 in June. This will likely include the final name and design.