A couple of years ago, the Xbox 360 had a fantastically successful MMO version of the television gameshow 1 vs. 100. It was fun, it was well written, it was well supported (both in software and in prizes), and it was free (hooray for advertisers!). Sadly, it was cancelled after two seasons, with the first considered only a beta of sorts. It was never really given the opportunity to fully reach its potential, if you ask me, but I digress - that show isn't what this entry is really about. The technology behind it, however, is a key ingredient.
The backend system the game ran on was impressive to me. Over 100,000 players could - and did - log on all at once for scheduled episodes (some of which were themed, graphically and all!), and all play together, and all have their stats tracked, and all see the action unfold live... it all just WORKED, and worked amazingly well. After the cancellation, Microsoft pointed out (through the likes of press releases and their on-console shows, such as the excellent SENTUAMESSAGE) that the technology behind it would be reused. And tonight, I experienced how.
Or more appropriately, I experienced how that fantastic technology was completely and utterly ruined.
You see, there's this new game on XBLA called Full House Poker. At first glance, it's just another implementation of Texas Hold'em - nothing new to the console, but it has definite charms. In particular, playing it single-player is surprisingly satisfying: there is a wide variety of AI opponents (over twenty-five of them), each with their own distinctive avatar and VERY distinctive play style. It's very human-feeling. It also plays a very intelligent High/Low game (Lowball-style, eight-high to qualify), while most poker programs I've seen don't even have High/Low as an option, much less play it well. I've played several High/Low tournaments against the AI and have found it a great experience every time. I also like the XP system - yes, XP for a poker game - and how it awards smart play regardless of the bankroll involved (which of course the game keeps track of as well).
But all this is tangential. I'm not here to review the game as a whole. I'm here to review its most
On paper - and in trailers - this sounds like an excellent idea, and given that the technology was already proven some time ago, one would wonder what could possibly go wrong. Apparently, that's where I come in.
Here's what the game is trying to do: players are grouped into "flights" of up to thirty contestants. They are seated at one of three tables - Diamond, Double Diamond, and Triple Diamond - appropriate to their previous record (or their XP level if this is their first Texas Heat). They have 25 minutes of constant play to earn as much XP as possible. At the end, players are awarded medals - and bonus XP and bankroll - for their overall standing compared to everyone else who participated that episode.
Each individual sentence of that previous paragraph fails to be satisfied by the game, each by an independent glitch. They get worse the further down you go, so let's start at the top, shall we?
- You'd think that with the game reporting over 10,000 players, it'd have little shortage of opponents for one to be matched up with. Well, apparently there is, as over half the time I played, I found myself being the only human among my flight, twenty-nine AIs filling the slots. Sometimes I'd have over fifteen players to start with, most or all simultaneously vanishing after a hand or two; sometimes the pre-show lobby would just spontaneously empty itself right before the show started. This isn't players dropping out - this is players being isolated. This isn't massively-multiplayer... this is massively-solitaire. Actually, the weirdest part about it is the habit to reduce flights to exactly TWO players just as often as to one player. At least I'd have a potential explanation as to what's going on if it were always complete isolation. I have NO idea what's doing this. Oh, and server load can't possibly be a concern, since 1 vs. 100 had OVER SIX TIMES THE COMPETITORS and no such issues.
- The persistence of standing from one episode to the next is one of the (hypothetical) hallmarks of the service: in addition to changing tables up and down during play (chip leaders from lower tables swap seats with bustees from higher tables), ending play ranking near the top or bottom of your table is supposed to shift what table you start at next time. [You can even earn a "life preserver" which can save you from a table shift in a later episode, a feature I can confirm works.] This seemed to work fine for a few episodes, but then - with my Triple Diamond status retained - for the start of the next episode, the system seemed to have trouble finding a seat for me, despite the fact that the game clearly had no difficulties giving me my own flight against my will previously. When the poker hall finally loaded, a message came up stating that I will be placed at the first available seat at any table. ...Wait, WHAT?! ANY table? Doesn't that, you know, defeat the whole purpose of the table-rating system? Why is this message even in the game?! The person who typed out the text for it should have realized table assignments are NEVER supposed to be random! Why did alarm bells not go off right away? And sure enough, the game sat me down at the (single) Diamond table, my status ignored. (I shamelessly responded by turning off the console. The system apparently remembered my proper status for a following episode. Cue road trip joke...)
- That twenty-five minute clock stops for nothing. That is as it should be - this is a live show, and the show must go on. But this is a show where the ranking is based on how much play takes place in that twenty-five minutes. And sometimes, through no fault of the players, play stops taking place. Between hands, and often before the first hand, the in-game dealer simply refuses to deal the cards. The players just sit there as the clock ticks down. If it affected everyone equally, it would just be a bloody nuisance. It doesn't, and is therefore gamebreaking. I personally witnessed multiple delays of this nature, one lasting nearly two minutes of that precious twenty-five. One report I read claimed a delay over TEN minutes. We've gone beyond quality of game experience at this point - we're now into the quantity being impacted. This is a LIVE SHOW, remember - no second takes, and all that time ticking off the clock while you're waiting for the dealer to wake up is gone forever. ANY delay is enough to guarantee you're not getting the XP you need to be competitive...
- ...which segues all-too-well into the final sentence. According to the game's own info screens, players are awarded bonus XP and bankroll based on what medal they earn, which is in turn based on what quarter of the overall rankings each player falls in - the top quarter get gold medals, the rest of the top half silver, and so on. This is where the 1 vs. 100 tech is supposed to shine, showing everyone right where they placed among the 12000-16000 competitors there for the live show. This is the ultimate goal of Texas Heat: the purpose of the whole affair and the objective everyone is told to strive for. You play your heart out, you do your best, you wait to see how well you did compared to thousands, and after all the numbers are crunched, here's what the game invariably tells you:
YOUR RANK IS -1
That's right: the ranking system doesn't work AT ALL. The very core of the service is completely non-functional. It seems it can declare a first-place, but if you're not number 1 you're number negative 1, and with that you get no medals or associated awards - or satisfaction, or sense your time playing was worthwhile. There's an Achievement for earning a gold medal, which is probably the most exclusive 15-point [whoopdy-shit] Achievement ever (assuming the winners are even getting it).
Oh, and by the way, all this is contingent on the game actually FINISHING. The last episode I tried to play - my eighth, for those doubting my due diligence - effectively ended for me with 6:33 left on the clock, with myself as chip leader at the Triple Diamond table, when the game crashed. Hard. Sound immediately ceased, and I couldn't even access the Guide - the entire console locked up but good. This is never acceptable, but at least in a game that knows it's shoddily coded and autosaves before all loading screens in case it does just that - like Torchlight - it can be tolerable. But for a game with live shows? It can't even afford that. I can't help but notice Krome Studios listed in the game credits, which of course reminds me of how every time they patched Game Room they made it worse in terms of both usability and stability, to the point where at present it WILL hardlock my console with 100% certainty every time I try to exit it... I thought they declared bankruptcy. When will this blight be wiped from the planet? But I digress, kinda.
Now, when an episode finishes, assuming there hasn't been a crash, a video displays between the end of play and the (failure of) revelation of stats. It currently shows tutorial videos, but the potential for it showing an advertisement video is painfully obvious. Like 1 vs. 100 before it, Texas Heat is free (beyond the ten-dollar price tag for Full House Poker itself), so I'm sure the hope is to get sponsors to fill that gap. Well, guess what: they're not going to find ANY company willing to have anything to do with this debacle as the word gets out, and with all the hype they built up over this - this is supposed to be the greatest feature of the game, remember - that word is getting out FAST, with thousands to spread it. I'm just one of them, doing my civic duty [places fist over heart].
Zotmeister Seal of Approval: NOT IN THE CARDS. [That pun doesn't get the Zotmeister Seal of Approval either - too easy and too trite - but I'm too annoyed to come up with something better right now.] I can't fault you for trying Full House Poker for its other features - I'm sure I'll be playing High/Low quite a bit more and enjoying it greatly - but Texas Heat was the biggest selling point, and if you were waiting to find out how it is before you spend the money on the game, well... now you know. Should they ever fix the bugs, I'll update this entry, but the review stands: hyping up something THAT broken is epic fail.
Someday, I hope to feel compelled to write a review for something I like, something that would encourage me to actually create a graphic for the Zotmeister Seal of Approval. I do know what it would look like. But at this rate, you won't be seeing it any time soon. - ZM