GameTap Early Review

Overall Vibe: Quite Positive

I finally decided to subscribe to GameTap after it was announced that they were redeveloping and launching Myst Online: Uru Live this February 15, and that the public beta program is already underway. I’ll get into more details about Myst Online later, but understand that it was indeed my tilting point for this service, and I think K shares my motivation in that regard. Others joined up at the same time for the episodic Sam & Max games — 3 so far. Still others, while being dragged into Myst Online for the first time, immediately noticed some of the videos that are also part of the service. There’s some original episodes, as well as some old favorite low-rent features like SeaLab 2021, Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast and Megaman. (Samples of my favorite new-to-me features, “A Day in the Extra Life” and “C0MPu73R L4B” are available behind that link.)

Paying Up and Getting Started You have to pay to play, which should not come as a surprise. What actually does come as a bit of a surprise to me is the actual pricetag; this service is priced to move. They are currently offering a special where you get the first month for $0.99 before the regular pricing of $9.95/month kicks in. (It’s $6.95/month if you buy 12 months at a time. Check their website or customer support for more up-to-date pricing information.) What’s even more surprising to me is that this is a family plan. While $10/month is worth it to me to play Myst Online plus all the other games they have listed, K is an Animal Crossing fiend, and even though she liked Uru well enough when we both played it a few years ago, I don’t think she pined as much for the missing online component as I did (or as did Tycho, for that matter.) However, when GameTap gives you up to seven sub-accounts for your family, getting my wife to play no longer requires an additional financial commitment. WHICH IS AWESOME. (A quick note about their sub-account system: You assign usernames for each account, and the system provides you with a random password for that account, which can be reset when that new user logs in for the first time. The primary account-holder then has the ability to restrict each sub-account in the following ways:

  • Maximum game rating (anything above this rating will not even be shown in the browser),
  • Maximum video rating (likewise),
  • Whether the user may publish an email address,
  • Whether the user may show his/her screen name,
  • Whether the user may use the built-in chat client,
  • Whether the user may play MMO games,
  • Whether the user may impose more game filtering,
  • Whether the user may install or delete games on this computer,
  • And on a game-by-game, video-by-video basis, what games and videos will be shown in the browser.

In addition, they include both ESRB and GameTap parental ratings for all game content, and GameTap ratings for all video content. The GameTap rating is 1:1 compatible with the ESRB Rating system, but replaces the letter system with a simple age designation: 3+, 6+, 10+, 13+, or 17+. Handy! I’d definitely be interested in using this as a family gaming service.)

You do need a credit card to set up the service, which some people may not like. I use the ShopSafe feature of my credit card to assign a unique card number amd credit limit for each online merchant I visit, so I am not concerned about any sort of fraud. If you’re reluctant to use your credit card online, I recommend using a card with the same service. (I also use a unique email address for each service I sign up for — if GameTap or anyone else sells out my address for spam, I will know instantly who did it, and I will post the gory details on this blog!) There is also an online Gift Card option on the GameTap site, so feel free to hook up the college student of your choice. The installer download clocks in just over 40MB, and it will have to update from time to time. This is not news to anyone who’s used Steam, or StarDock Central or any other online distribuation service, but it can occasionally be annoying. However, one of the things I like about GameTap is that they actually show you which games they’re adding with each update. Two problems arose during installation. Problem the first: There is Yet Another Redonkulous Shrinkwrap License to click through. This one is a mercifully short 7 pages, for which I guess I should be glad. There’s not much to be surprised about in this one, but it is a combination of three of the usual license flavors we all know by now — Game Software, Online Service, and MMO. (Mini-rating: “A great all-around read for paranoids and insomniacs alike! There’s nothing like reading a seven page non-negotiable contract when all you want to do is play a game!”) The other issue is that it did not run out-of-the-box on K’s laptop, which has an el-cheapo on-board SiS graphics adapter. (I will not classify this issue as a showstopper, even for that computer, until I have worked through it with Technical Support — more on them later.) Until we get that resolved, she is playing on a different computer. One more note about sub-accounts: it’s not clear from any of their documentation, so we experimented, and it is possible to log in from a sub-account on a separate computer at the same time that the main account is logged in. K and I can to play Myst Online together! Hooray! The Interface The first thing you will notice when you start up GameTap is either:

  • The fact that it’s designed to keep! your! attention! or
  • the 8-bit palette.

I’m not a big fan of either, but you can silence the first and get over the second pretty easily.

The 8-bit palette is actually kind of a drag, because it even affects the video playback. There are a lot of dithering artifacts as a a result… not that any of the streaming videos were really HD-ready to begin with. As I said, though, after a few minutes, my brain relearned how to compensate for this stuff (”What is that,” saith the brane, “Doth this be the Olde Schoole?”) and I was enjoying video and everything else. The attention-grabbing starts right after you log in. GameTap starts playing video right away on your intro screen. (Mine starts in with a Sam & Max “advertisement”.) Video will also start playing whenever you have to wait for a game download or some sort of decompression routine — basically any time you, the user, will be sitting still for more than two seconds, the video starts up. Normally, this kind of thing really bugs me, but it turns out that you can always stop the video, and even more importantly, that it’s playing its internal video. That means that the “advertisements” aren’t trying to sell you anything, but rather calling your attention to some of the featured games of the service that you can already play. Also, this is how I discovered some of their original video series — they started playing on their own while I was waiting for Chu Chu Rocket to download. So, I’ve decided to let this one slide, and chalk it up to an overexcited interface, not a pushy salesman. “Expand Your Playground” is the motto of GameTap, and they are pretty serious about that. At last count, their service supports 817 games. These include games for 32-X (Kolibri!), Arcade, Atari 2600, DOS, the DREAMCAST for goodness’ sake, Neo-Geo, Windows, and about twice as many more systems. (And yes, they provide a Dreamcast emulator. And yes, there is Crazy Taxi, although you shouldn’t expect it to run smoothly with a processor slower than 2400MHz, even though Chu Chu Rocket is fine.) These games are all searchable and browseable by game type or game system. The interface for doing this is a sort of virtual dome (rendered in full 3D, which may be good or bad, depending on your hardware — and probably the reason for the 8-bit palette) with rings for Search, Game Types, Game Systems, Gametap Picks (New Games, etc.), and My Favorites, where you can insert any of the games you encounter for easy location later. Each of these rings spins to reveal all of the games available there. The overall experience is sort of awe-inspiring the first time. K was watching over my shoulder at some point and asked, “Where are the price tags?” It’s kind of hard to believe that you can play any and all of these under a single fee. Here’s an excerpt from “My Favorites” for no good reason. I’m not going to link each of them to the GameTap site, so you’ll have to use their search features if you’re curious. :)

  • A couple of minigolf games
  • Chu Chu Rocket
  • Crazy Taxi
  • Dig Dug
  • Gunstar Heroes
  • Homeworld 2
  • Hydro Thunder
  • Magical Drop III
  • Megaman The Power Battle
  • Myst Online: Uru Live
  • Pac-Man
  • Planescape: Torment
  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Warrior Within
  • Puyo Puyo
  • Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo
  • Tetris
  • The Incredible Machine: Even More Contraptions
  • The New Zealand Story (AKA Kiwi Kraze)
  • Oregon Trail
  • Zork: Grand Inquisitor

Maybe you like one or two of those, too? Holy smoke, there are a lot of games in here. Which reminds me… I need to add RealMyst, Riven, Myst III: Exile, the Ghost Recon games, the Splinter Cell games…

Each game has brief instructions on its little game page, which is handy, and Myst Online in particular even has a video instruction and introduction that plays in the “Bonus Material” tab. “Bonus Material” also often has a little bit of game history, or a description of special features for the game. The amount of care that has gone into this interface is pretty impressive. One more thing to mention — a lot of these games are not Windows native. Which means emulators. Which, to a lot of us, means really poor controller configuration support. However, GameTap has stepped up to the plate, and has a Controls tab for each game. You can set the controls here for multiple players across multiple devices. It even knows enough about my Gamepad Pro to call out the buttons by color instead of button number, making this a very friendly feature. Kudos to their interface dudes, AGAIN. Technical Limitations, Technical Difficulties, Technical Support Let me cover these one by one. There are, of course, limitations to an online distribution system. The #1 limitation is going to be bandwidth. I am happy to say that GameTap has filled my intertube every time I’ve tried to download something. Granted, my connection is only 1600kbps, so that should not be too hard for these dudes, but I still appreciate it. Also, you are limited to downloading three games in the background, and one in the foreground (with videos) at once. Of course, if you’re human, you can only play one at a time, so this shouldn’t be too drastic, either. And you can play games while downloading others in the background. I did have some trouble with one of the games — the most important game — in that I could not get it installed. Even Homeworld 2 downloaded and installed just fine, but Myst: Online would download the entire content, then fail. And I’d have to start the download all over again. However, the app gave me some advice: restart GameTap, and if this persists, call this 800 number. I am a dude who is reluctant to call Tech Support, because more often than not, I am tech support, and could give the guy I’m asking for help some useful advice. But instead of speaking to a dude with a script in India, I spent my Saturday afternoon call on the line with a knowledgeable fellow in Tennessee. When the diagnostic app was having trouble, he actually started debugging at the Windows Firewall and then network level with me, until we got it straightened out. (It turns out that MO’s authentication mechanism will break if Internet Explorer’s settings tell it to connect through a Squid caching proxy, but maybe only if the port 80 -> 3128 redirect is an IPTABLES rule on your router. I couldn’t make any guarantees about the use of proxies with MO in general, but I’m willing to experiment for the benefit of others if it comes up. Also, if you didn’t understand that, congratulations! It probably doesn’t apply to you.) Along the way, we discussed the various network architecture decisions that could be affecting the game, as well as the salient details of what could be causing me trouble. This was perhaps the best Tech Support call I have ever had. Your mileage may vary, but I hope it doesn’t… unless it varies so much that you never need to call tech support at all. Overall, I’d say I’m enjoying the service, and so is K. It looks like there’s enough here for us to enjoy for quite a while, too.

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