Friday, March 31, 2006

MLB '06: The Show

In 1992, Atari released an arcade machine called "Relief Pitcher."

It blew me away.

I still remember the first time I saw the incredible (for 1992) graphics. And there was an announcer, which was just as incredible, and it was Jack Buck! You could play a regular game, but the real hook was the opportunity to play as a relief pitcher. You'd be sent into a game in increasingly difficult situations, under more and more pressure, until you failed.

It was just brilliant. It totally reworked traditional sports game mechanics and fit perfectly into the arcade. Each situation was almost a mini-game, and in two or three minutes you'd know if you were moving on to the next "level" or not. I pumped endless quarters into that game for months.

Here's a link to see the game: I laughed out loud when I got a look tonight at what I thought "photorealistic" graphics were in 1992.

After Relief Pitcher, I was always on the lookout for a baseball game with a career mode, and I had to look a long way--all the way to Japan. Career simulators are very popular there, and I played several baseball games on a Japanese PS2 just for the career experience.

Still, though, it was never quite the same.

Until this year, that is, when Sony released MLB '06: The Show. There are all the regular modes you expect, but there's also a career mode, and one of the options is to be a closer.

It's been a long wait, but man, it was worth it. This game is just phenomenal. It's easily the best baseball game I've ever played. And on the PSP, it even hides the fugly jaggies, not to mention the widescreen display, which is perfect for a baseball game.

I know what you're thinking: how does it compare to High Heat? Well, it kicks High Heat in the head. It's not close, even with all the great user mods that have come out over the years for High Heat. MVP? Not close--again, even with the great user mods. MLB '06 has a greater fidelity to reality, by far, than any other baseball game that has ever been released.

If you want to know why, the single biggest reason is that players move and act like baseball players. The animation is very close to the quality of the Winning Eleven series, which is generally considered as the gold standard for sports animation. The animation is beyond phenomenal--it's uncanny. If you love sports games like I do, thrilling is not an exaggeration. I've waited most of my adult life for a sports game to move so realistically.

Great animation wouldn't mean much if those well-animated players were idiots. The A.I., though, is also outstanding, far better than what I've ever seen in a baseball game. Again, it nearly matches the Winning Eleven standard. The CPU runs the bases better than has ever been seen in a baseball game (not perfect, but a vast improvement). Players back each other up properly. Fielders make good decisions about where to throw the ball. Those all sound like simple things, but they've never been done so well before.

It's the little things, too. On bunted balls near the baselines, umpires don't call fair or foul until the ball stops moving. That is just one of many small details that are totally accurate in this game.

And in some ways, even the Winning Eleven standard is surpassed. The commentary in MLB '06 is so good that there is nothing to compare it with. Nothing. As excellent as the ESPN Football announcers were, or NBA 2K6 was this year, the commentary in MLB '06 is leagues better. And the number of context-sensitive comments that are made as the game develops are exponentially more frequent (and accurate) than have ever appeared in a sports game before.

Yes, there are a few warts--in a sports game, there always are. Fatigue is modeled so that position players seems to need more days off than they should, and sometimes the pitching rotation is managed oddly. My ERA in career mode isn't calculated properly (it's lower than it should be). Some of the options for game adjustment are in strange places (some are set at the opening menu, but others are set in the in-game menu--and those in-game changes are saved as universal, which is totally counter-intuitive). Yet this game is so jaw-droppingly sensational that I can live with those issues.

Right now I'm in AA ball and getting my head handed to me in my second season as a closer. I've bounced back and forth between AA and AAA, and until I make it to the bigs, I've turned off the announcers (which feels much more authentic, since big league announcers wouldn't be calling minor league games). And it feels great, for once, not be in control of everything. I pitch, but I don't field. If I'm getting rocked, I can't take myself out of the game--I've got to get myself out of trouble or survive until the manager takes me out. I usually come into the game in the 8th or 9th inning, and the game is almost always on the line.

The game also does a nice job of giving you options in terms of how you want to play. You don't see the game until you enter, but once you're in, you can play out the rest of the game if you'd like, regardless of whether you get taken out or not. But--and I really like this--you don't have to. You can can fast forward to the end of the game.

It might seem a little boring to do nothing but pitch, but that's not what happens. While you're in the game, you can bat for your team (but again, you don't have to--you can fast forward to the next half inning). That's a great touch.

And I particularly like the career mode because playing a 162 game season in a baseball game is a grind. I've done it twice (Earl Weaver Baseball on the Amiga 500 and World Series Baseball for the Saturn), but I don't know if I'll ever do it again, and I don't know many people who have ever done it at all. Career mode is a great option to experience the game without having it turn into a huge time sink--I can play fifteen minutes a day and still feel like I'm getting somewhere.

I can only hope that this comes out for the PS3 in 2007, and that they just increase visual detail, improve roster management, and leave the rest of the game alone. It's just too good to change.

Ultima V: Lazarus

If you've never heard of Lazarus, here's a description from the website:
Ultima V: Lazarus is an exceedingly ambitious project that will greatly improve the graphics and sound in the PC version of Ultima V. However, that's not all. Rather than releasing an "upgrade patch" as happened with U4, what we're doing is a true from-the-ground-up remake of the gaming classic, Ultima V.

It will be built in the Dungeon Siege 3D RPG engine, which you can learn more about at
DUNGEONSIEGE.COM and it will have brand new graphics, CD-quality orchestral music (including re-mastered versions of the original U5 music plus some new pieces), improved and expanded dialogue, and a much more "alive" design for the Underworld, amongst other improvements.

It should give you an idea of how long this mod has been in development that the original Dungeon Siege engine is being used. But to play an Ultima game (and V was one of the best) in an upgraded engine, even an older engine, is a real marvel.

I've been waiting to write about this until the 1.2 patch was released, but now it has been, and you can get it here:

That's a File Planet link, which is the only place you can get it right now (registration required). However, there should be mirrors up fairly soon, and you'll be able to find them here:

If you've never played an Ultima game (which means you're much younger than I am), this is a chance to experience the series in one of its finest hours.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Enigma: For Sale

From Engadget

One of the most famous elements of the Nazi war effort was the Enigma electrical cryptography machine, which was adopted by the Germans in 1925 after they discovered how easily the British cracked their codes in World War I, and a rare example of which is now for sale on eBay for almost $16,000 as of this writing. The Enigma improved on older monoalphabetic ciphers (where letters are exchanged in a one-to-one fashion throughout a piece of text) by altering the cipher each time a new letter was encoded, giving the machine over 10,000,000,000,000,000 possible keys.

Wow. I never thought one of those would be up for auction. Here's the link:

And if you're curious about the Enigma machine, the Wikipedia entry is absolutely outstanding. Here's the link for that:

Links Buffet

All kinds of topics. All you can eat.

First off, a thorough article on the state of hardware physics acceleration over at Extreme Tech. When I was lauding Nvidia's plan to support physics acceleration via the GPU last week, I was premature. It appears that Nvidia is an "eye-candy" solution only, unless you want to take a significant performance hit. Here's an excerpt:
The neat thing about doing physics work on the GPU is that all those physically simulated objects would have to be rendered anyway. Now you can send the geometry to the video card once, it can perform the physics operations, and then it can immediately move to rendering the object without waiting to send it back to the main system RAM. The drawback of this is that the game no longer knows where those objects are, so this advantage limits Havok FX physics to eye-candy effects. We're told there is nothing to prevent the game from reading back the data from the graphics card, but this has an impact on performance.

It also discusses what ATI is doing in the same arena, as well as Ageia with PhysX. Here's the link:,1697,1943838,00.asp.

Here's something totally goofy that Dan Clarke sent me last week: the Monk-E-Mail. It's utterly ridiculous and completely funny. And you can use it to pester your friends. Here's the link:

From Jack Harper, a link to an article over at ZDNet about Digital Rights Management. According to author David Berlind, DRM should be renamed CRAP. That's Content, Restriction, Annulment and Protection. Works for me, and here's the link:

From Erik Noble, a link to a fly-through movie (courtesy of NASA) of the largest canyon in the solar system. From the video:
Mariner Valley is 10 times longer, 5 times deeper, and 20 times wider than Earth's Grand Canyon.

It's awesome, and here's the link:

From David Gloier, a link to a story about light-transmitting concrete. Amazing as well as beautiful.

Oblivion Stories (#1)

There's been quite a bit of talk about the "radiant A.I." of Oblivion. It's very clever, at times, and a very satisfying improvement from Morrowind, but it's still wonky on occasion. What these stories demonstrate is that there are times when the A.I. is absolutely, incredibly good, and there are times when it's relatively stupid. Overall, though, I think the effect is far more interesting than having everything scripted. And there have been truly funny, "great bad" moments that you guys have experienced.

First off, from Scott Ray:
I was in a goblin lair in complete sneak mode (very light boots and armor, LOADS of nightsight potions) - anyway, I get into the dungeon and run into a few goblins and whack them. Being the nut that I am, I have to loot EVERYTHING I come across. So I loot everything and then head up a very dark tunnel where I see some mushrooms. I have to harvest them, which makes me overburdened. I go thru my inventory and pick which stuff to drop. Upon dropping the gear, it hits the sloped floor and starts to roll downhill, making some racket. Luckily, I'm tucked away in the dark against the wall, as a Goblin Beserker heard the racket, and came running to investigate. He runs right by me and stops to look around, at which time, I sneak up behind him and land a 6x damage critical strike and then bust him with a cold blast spell and he dies. It was a simple event, but changed how I approached the dungeons. Also, the next time I came across a beserker, he whipped my ass in a straight up fight, so the critical strike was VERY important.

The other one was when I was out roaming around exploring...I found a herd of deer (3-4) that were running around the forest and hadn't spotted me, so I go into sneak mode and start to follow them trying to get to a point where I had a clean shot. Out of NOWHERE, one of them is blasted with a fireball and killed! Turns out there was a conjurer out there hunting deer, too. He killed two, then spotted me and came after me. He died. Anyway, I was completely shocked when the fireball lit up that deer--it was completely unexpected.

Next, from datter:
I am sneaking across a little bridge type thing underground and below me to my left I spot a Goblin shuffling along patrolling the area. His back is to me as he stops in a door. On my level on the opposite side of my bridge is a pile of logs, apparently part of a trap for anyone walking where the Goblin is one level below. Rather than shoot the Goblin right away I interact with the logpile dropping them onto the bridge below, completely smashing a section of it out in fact. This large log pile fell completely through the stone bridge not 30 feet behind the Goblin, and he didn't even flinch. He didn't look around to see what that horrendous noise was... he didn't even scratch his ass in contempt. He just stood there, so I shot him in the back with a steel arrow. I'm like that.

Second case in point, me in similar thief/sneak with a bow and arrow mode in some kind of bandit infested dungeon. In the distance of a large room I can clearly see two bandits. One near a fire, and another say 50ft away facing him. He walks back and forth a bit patrolling but is essentially in the same spot. For no real reason I opt to shoot the bandit near the fire first, and successfully dropped him with one shot. As it happened the other bandit was actually walking towards his buddy as the arrow lodged in the first ones throat, sending him sprawling across their little brokeback campsite. Now I don't know about you, but if I'm in a dungeon with my buddy and I see him take an arrow in the throat all of a sudden, I'm going to react (likely by crapping my pants). Our man in question however just stopped, turned and continued his preset patrol route. Satisfyingly enough I managed to off him a short time later with the same arrow I had just killed his friend with.

I find this sort of thing happens fairly often, perhaps because I'm sneaking and all... maybe if I was more of the Conan type and just ran in these gusy would raise an alarm and all come after me. As it is though, the more I'm feeling like all these guys are just placed here for me to shoot... which they are of course, but it shouldn't feel like they are.

From lpmiller of fame:
Last night I broke into this house trying to figure out this quest.

I got up to the balcony and saw I could leap over to the hotel balcony. So I did that and entered, but that set off the guard. Instead of going to jail or paying the fine, I decided to resist arrest. I ran out and leaped back over the balcony. He couldn't do that, so he ran down the street and started shooting at me with his bow. I'm sitting there holding off 3 guards from the balcony, and a stray shot from the guard hits this NPC. So she goes apeshit and starts wailing on the guards. I leapt down to help her out, and she gets hurt enough that she runs into the church. I ran after her, hoping to heal up a bit.

The guard ran in and immediately, the priests in there start chain casting at the guard. I'm standing behind a person, who ends up taking a couple of hits from a guard's bow and dies. As I loot her for keys and stuff, the whole town erupts and starts attacking guards all over the town. I ended up looting the bodies of a few guards, then I ran the hell out of town while the war went on. I made it to the main city, snuck in (the guards there were after me too) until I made it to the leader of the thieves guild. Through him, I paid off a few judges and was now considered free and clear. I went back to the town, and all any one was talking about was how they recently had an uprising against the guards.

I ended up quite rich, but the point is, damn, that was cool to see.

From DQ reader Steve:
I was screwing around and stole a horse. Another guard--on a horse--starts chasing me. Okay, Grand Theft Horse.

Amusing for a while. So I get off the horse, and so does the guy chasing me.

He comes after me but is attacked by wolves. He fights them off, and I just start running. Only to be attacked by... his horse.

And finally, a classic from DQ reader Bruce Hicks:
I go to an Inn and the proprietor wants me to clean out some nearby caves--a female Necromancer is causing problems. I climb up the hill to the nearby cave, enter it, and gradually work my way through, killing assorted baddies as I go. I finally come to the last big room and what do I find there? Not one, but two evil necromancers!

I have no idea which one is the Big Bad Chick so I just rush at one and chase him (as it turns out) around until he's dead. I spin around looking for the woman but can't quite find her. It's at this moment that I notice my health is getting fairly low. I decide to make a run for it and come back after I'm healed. She won't be going anywhere after all!

"She won't be going anywhere" .... except right on my friggin' ASS as I hightail it through the twists and turns of the cave. Bright blue bolts of electricity streak by me, lighting up the cave walls. I race through turn after turn and finally see the main exit up ahead. If I ... can ... just .. make it outside, I'll be safe...

I click on the exit and the load screen comes up. I heave a sigh of relief! Finally I'll get a chance to heal up before I go back in there. Whew...

I reappear outside the cave entrance and calmly start casting my healing spell. Hmmm ... what's that noise behind me?? I spin around and, holy shit, the Uber Bitch has followed me right out of the cave! WTF! That isn't supposed to happen in these games!!!

I glance wildly at my health bar. It's a mere sliver by now and I begin to resign myself to an early death. But wait! There is yet hope! Just down the hill from me I spy the Inn!! "A ha!" I say to myself -- "make a run for it!!" I speed down the hill, lightning bolts flying to the left and right of my madly zig-zagging form! I reach the side of the Inn, race around the corner towards the front and -- what the hell do I find blocking my path? Who put this HORSE here? Get out of my way, you stupid horse!!! As I circle frantically around the horse, a guard who has (apparently) been standing outside the door of the Inn, rushes by me in the other direction with some loud imprecation on his lips! I don't pause to listen but charge pell mell at the door of the Inn my hand slamming down on the space bar to enter --- finally -- the safety of the Inn.

Ahh, relief at last...

Inside the Inn I pause, with a half dozen startled locals gaping at me. I am scared out of my wits, but thrilled to have made it!

At that moment I hear the sounds of a wild battle outside. "Kill the bitch" I yell, rooting on the guard. "Give her what for!!" (Oh, if only I could see her get what's coming to her!) The yelling increases in volume and I sudden realize that --- OH ... MY ... GOD -- the Necromancer and the Guard are now INSIDE THE FRIGGIN' INN -- carrying on their battle!

Ok, here's the thing. I have absolutely no health left. If the bitch witch breathes on me I'm dead. I have no time to heal, no time to do anything -- but as half a dozen locals descend as one on the back of the evil Necromancer and with battlecries ringing in the air, despatch the hated enemy in 2 seconds flat! I stare in stunned disbelief. All of the sudden a message pops up on my screen congratulating me -- ME -- on killing the wicked Necromancer and thanking me for saving -- SAVING -- the poor people of the village!

Um .... okay ...

The crowd withdraws from the corner where the Necromancer was killed and I see her lifeless body slump to the floor, a single arrow protruding from her gut. I slowly turn to face the proprietor of the Inn. She is standing not three feet away, facing the scene of bloody carnage.

"So what's new" she quips cheerily, "killed that necromancer yet?"

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Beyond Oblivion

Okay, a couple of housekeeping notes. First, you guys have sent me excellent stories of the Oblivion A.I.--both good and bad--and I'll be posting some of them tomorrow. Second, I won't be writing about Oblivion every day for the rest of my life, so no worries if you're tired of hearing about it. I probably will be writing about it for a few more days, though, since most of you seem to be playing it about as hard as I am.

I was thinking today about how Bethesda has created not only a game, but an environment. First person shooters, no matter how finely they're crafted, narrowly define the experience for the player. Yes, Oblivion has a story line, but it's still a giant sandbox full of little treasures when you dig for them, and in that way it separates itself as a very unique experience.

And even if the A.I. is occasionally very funky, it made me start thinking about what would happen in the world if there were sliders for agression, motivation, and other A.I. characteristics. It would be a different world each time.

That led down the rabbit hole, which is where I spend a lot of my time, and here's what I wound up with. What if the world of Oblivion also featured different levels of war and territorial dispute between the different races and provinces? And what if when you started a game, you set how aggressive these races would be? In other words, you'd be setting up the world differently each time, much like you can in a real-time strategy game. And the world would then evolve on its own, whether you participated or not.

Of course, you'd probably want to participate, and there would be a political layer incorporated into the game so that you could acquire power either by the ballot or by the sword. And in this world, battles between armies would take place in a Total War kind of mechanic, so that large armies could engage in battle. Consider the game a kind of a trinity between Oblivion, Total War, and Europa 1400: The Guild.

I'd like to play that.

More Oblivion

I'm now at twenty-two hours of play in Oblivion, still ignoring the main quest, and still having a great time. I also find myself wanting to break away from whatever I'm doing and go play, even if it's only for fifteen minutes. That's always a good sign.

This game is also selling through the roof. All you have to do is look at the number of posts on the Elder Scrolls forums to know that. This game is a gigantic hit, and maybe it will breathe some life into offline RPG's, because clearly there's still an enormous market for them.

I'm working my way down from the Colovian Highlands to Skingrad through the Imperial Reserve, and I'm seeing places to stop so frequently that it's going to take hours of play time to get down there. There are hundreds of outdoor locations to explore in this game, and each one seems to have some meat on it. This is clearly the richest, most detailed game world ever created for an RPG.

I know there are strategies for fast leveling, skill maxing, etc., and there's apparently some sort of infinite gold bug. I see forum threads with these titles, but I've purposely ignored them. Sure, there are exploits in this game (like almost any large game), but I have no desire to use them. Oblivion is so beautifully constructed that I don't want to waste the experience--I just want to play.

Much has been made of the "radiant" A.I. I'm not sure if it deserves an extra adjective, but it's certainly interesting. I was away from my horse last night and heard a commotion. When I turned back I saw a wolf attacking my horse. I started running over there and arrived just in time to see my horse give the wolf a ferocious kick in the head--killing him. The idea that my horse can sometimes (but not always) defend himself is just outstanding, and it's one of many moments where people or creatures acted with an intelligence that I wasn't expecting.

Then there are the NPC's. Andy Stingel (DQ Hall of Fame charter inductee) sent me this note:
I just spent more than 30 minutes of real time tailing an NPC who happened to leave town at the same time as I did. He stuck to the road and was attacked a few times by wolves, which he killed. At one point we could hear sounds of combat in the forest nearby--he stood and listened for a moment, then charged in and attacked a bandit who was fighting another NPC. The bandit turned on "my" NPC and whoever he was attacking ran off. "My" guy killed the bandit and continued on his way.

It's those kinds of details, in a game that is full of them, that make the world seem so vibrant. Seeing hunters stalking deer, or bandits fighting each other in the forest, effectively blurs the line between an artificial world and a dynamic world so well that it's easy to get lost when I play.

One other cool moment: I sold some rare statues to a merchant. I'm standing outside the city gates (of a different city) when I'm approached by a man who says that word has gotten around that I'm selling the statues. He represents a collector in Imperial City who's interested in buying them from me if I find any more. The whole encounter had a very furtive, non-scripted feel to it (even though it was clearly a triggered event), and it just reinforced for me that Oblivion was designed and developed with a level of skill (and clearly, dedication) that is remarkable.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

2006 is not 2005

I said frequently last year that it was the worst year for gaming that I could ever remember.

What a difference a few months makes.

Here's what I'm playing right now:
--Oblivion (which will be considered one of the top RPG's of all-time)
--Guitar Hero (the funnest game I've ever played)
--MLB '06 (the finest baseball game I've ever played, and I'll be writing about it this week)
--Gal Civ II (which will be considered one of the top turn-based strategy games of all-time)
--Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (which is just totally spectacular)

That's not even including Civ IV, which could well be considered the best turn-based strategy game of all time. Yes, GH and Civ IV were technically released last year, but it's the addition of titles released in the first quarter of 2006 that puts this list totally over the top.

That's the best lineup of games at one time that I've ever played. I can't think of another group of games that was even close.

Right now, it's Oblivion and Guitar Hero in the study, with MBL '06 on the PSP when I go upstairs for the night. Gal Civ II and GRAW are getting hardly any time at all, even though I'd really like to be playing them.

I can't find time to play all the great games that are out right now? What a great problem to have.

Sons and Daughters

We've been watching a new show for the last few weeks, and I haven't mentioned it this week because I just couldn't believe it was so funny. After six episodes, though (two new ones each week), I'm convinced. It's called Sons and Daughters. No laugh track. Very dark humor, but it's also very, very personal at times, which distinguishes it from the incredibly shallow comedies littering American television now. Brilliant writing, and it's laugh-out-loud funny. It's on Tuesday nights on ABC, with two consecutive thirty-minute episodes each week.


I've been getting progressively more pissed off about Peer Schneider as the day goes along. Now let me get this straight: Kotaku has invoices establishing that Gamespot and IGN sell front page placement of thumbnails (and I think that fairly raises the question of what other kinds of product placement are up for sale), and when they ask Peer Schneider about this specific allegation (backed up by invoices, mind you), he responds by sliming other gaming sites and magazines with totally unsubstantiated allegations?

That must be a tactic taken straight from The Scumbag's Big Book of P.R., Vol. 1.

IGN and Gamespot--Just Scratch the Check, Baby

From Kotaku
...I was contacted by a former media buyer for various game publishers. This person was irked by the game media’s pretense that previews were pure editorial. But unlike their readers— or for that matter, me— my source had hard proof they were much more than that.

"I was the media buyer who made the purchase,” the source told me, “signed the insertion order, and then followed up to make sure that what we had been promised was in fact delivered.”

What was delivered, my source went on, was editorial placement on the two largest game websites for a sizeable fee.

Gamespot and IGN, in case you're wondering. I strongly encourage you to read the entire article, but here's a brief summary: publishers can purchase prominent placement of stories related to their games on the front page of both sites. In this specific instance, it's the "thumbnails" that appear on the front page, but I doubt that anyone believes it stops there.

Particularly entertaining is IGN's response:
First noting that the practice is “pretty common both in print and online”, Peer Schneider, IGN’s VP of Content Publishing, described their Spotlights as “‘sponsored’ slotting, sometimes called ‘digital reprint.’ This is a practice where advertisers want to make sure coverage of their titles is seen. For example, some magazines sell their cover image (or part of it) to the highest bidder.” Schneider insisted IGN and GameSpy don’t sell their “top story” placement to anyone. “We have, however, designated spots that can be ‘sponsored.’ What this means is that a publisher interested in exposing more users to a title (including games, movies, etc.) can book a one-day sponsorship in what we call ‘spotlights.’” Like Kasavin, Schneider enunciated a principle of strict separation between editorial and ad sales.

I don't know about you, but I've always loved the "Bobby beats dogs so it's okay if I beat dogs, too" defense. Classic. And the "Johnny beats horses--I only beat dogs" defense is also outstanding. How many sides of his mouth does Peer Schneider have?

Here's the deal: if someone is paying for front-page placement, isn't that what us marketing gurus call "advertising?" Shouldn't it say "sponsored" or something? Is that rocket science?

Whether it's "pretty common" or not is irrelevant. This isn't "kind of" dishonest. It's dishonest, period.

Gorilla In My Midst

Eli 4.7 wanted to go to McDonald's for breakfast on Saturday. I'm not crazy about McDonald's, really, but they have decent pancakes, which he loves, so off we go.

While we're there, somebody's little kid is knuckle-walking and pounding his chest like a gorilla. It's hilarious, but what a goofball.

Wait a minute. That's my goofball.

That's right. Eli 4.7 is knuckle-walking in the booth, then standing up to pound his chest. Oh, and of course he was snorting occasionally and sniffing the air for any sign of trouble.

Predators, you see.

He's been watching the Tarzan cartoon and has developed an affection for Kerchak, the leader of the gorilla family. So he thinks nothing of knuckle-walking in the park or in a booth at the local McDonald's. And, of course, he has to play on the playscape after breakfast, because he's, well, a gorilla.

The toy he got with his pancake breakfast was some kind of motion detector with an alarm--part of the Spy Kids series--and he quickly developed a gorilla-laser scenario where he rescued me while I was eating some hash browns.

Maybe I can teach him sign language.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Mr. Bossy

We bought a Tom-Tom for our spring break trip to Houston. Tom-Tom is the Tivo of GPS units, really--easy to use and very intuitive--and it was great.

You can get verbal instructions from the GPS program, and I chose an Australian voice that was named "Aussie Ken." When I told Gloria about Aussie Ken, though, Eli heard something slightly different.

"After...fifty yards...turn left," Aussie Ken would say.

"All right, MR. BOSSY!" Eli 4.7 would say. And so, Aussie Ken became the Bossy Aussie.

The Tom-Tom also provided me with an opportunity.

"We're 17.2 miles from the next turn," I'd say. "Now we're 16.7 miles from the next turn. Did you know we can make a wrong turn and this will re-route us in real-time?"

"Aren't you putting The Dork™ on?" asked Gloria. That's short for the Daylight Obscuring Recreational C(K)loak (which first made an appearance in the "Home for the Hellidays" post on December 5th of last year). It's basically me hanging my coat over my head so that I can play on the DS or PSP underneath it when we're on a car trip.

That was a golden moment--Gloria almost begging me to play games while she drove. Gloria used to get annoyed when I would read or play games while she drove. She wanted us to talk. So I would, but I did it so badly that now she just wants me to shut up and put a coat over my head.

That's what I like to call strategy.

We've never "done" spring break before because Eli 4.7 wasn't in school. So we figured we could go to the Houston Museum of Natural Science with no problem. Which is exactly what a couple of other million people thought as well.

Holy crap. I had two choices on Tuesday afternoon: become a member of the Houston Museum of Natural Science or wait in a forty-five minute line for regular tickets. So congratulate the newest member of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Eli ran into the dinosaur exhibit at full speed, like he always does. In front of him, for the first time in his life, was a full Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, and he was--also for the first time in his life--speechless.

So was I. A T-Rex skeleton is so fierce and imposing in person that it's hard to even describe. It will make your imagination dizzy. Eli's heard and seen so much about dinosaurs that it's hard to surprise him, but even he couldn't believe his eyes.

There was one nice thing about the massive line: ninety percent of the people inside the museum were still outside the exhibits. And on Wednesday, it was even worse. It was easily an hour and a half line, but once you got inside the exhibits, it wasn't crowded at all. And Gloria and I took turns going to see the Body Worlds exhibit, which is almost impossible to describe but absolutely riveting to see. Here's a link:

Our hotel had a pool on the ninth floor, and even though it was only twenty yards long, it felt totally luxurious to do a swimming workout on vacation. The only thing better than that was The House of Pies, which served exactly what you thought it would.

Oblivion Notes

I'll have more on Oblivion for you later today, but here are a few quick notes. First, Francis Cermak sent me a link to a very useful tweaking FAQ. It also includes a link to a mod that will remove the "area loading" screen, which was driving me crazy. It also has a thorough section on performance tweaking. Here's the link:

There's another mod that I installed last night that might be interesting to you. It's the "hunter" mod, and here's a description from the readme:
*Added 1 extra piece of meat to the inventory of Deer creatures and Boarcreatures.
*Created new meat types with full alchemy properties. Wolf Meat, Lion Meat & Bear Meat.(similar properties to other meat types)
*Created new animal hide items and increased the value of existing hides. Increase in values based on the creatures level. New hides include: Deer Skin, Brown Bear Skin, Black Bear Skin & Timber Wolf Pelt.
*Created new Deer Antler item that only drops on male deer corpses. Sells for 15 Gold.

It's a small but very enjoyable mod, and here's a link to the forum thread: Also, here's a download link:

Oak Island--Now For Sale

DQ reader Matt Haney let me know that Oak Island is for sale:
Oak Island, rumoured for two centuries as the home of hidden treasure, is being offered for sale to the Nova Scotia provincial government for $7 million.

That's seven million Canadian, in case you're wondering. Here's more:
[Owners] Dan Blankenship, 82, and David Tobias, 81, have agreed to shut down their business, Oak Island Tours Inc...200 years of searching has failed to yield any treasure. Blankenship and Tobias have spent almost 40 years in their search.

Forty years!

Here's also a link to a short video about the island:

Science Links

Some links to keep you from taking a sick day, since you're already at work.

From CNN:
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) -- Scientists in northeastern Ethiopia said Saturday that they have discovered the skull of a small human ancestor that could be a missing link between the extinct Homo erectus and modern man.

The hominid cranium -- found in two pieces and believed to be between 500,000 and 250,000 years old -- "comes from a very significant period and is very close to the appearance of the anatomically modern human," said Sileshi Semaw, director of the Gona Paleoanthropological Research Project in Ethiopia.

If it starts with "paleo," it's red hot right now. Stunning discovery, and here's the link:

From Sirius, a link to an article--believe it or not--about the grammar of whale songs. Here's an excerpt:
Using syntax, the whales combine sounds into phrases, which they further weave into hours-long melodies packed with information.

Although the researchers say these songs don't meet the linguistic rigor necessary for a true language, this is the first evidence that animals other than humans use a hierarchical structure of communication. Whales have also been found to sing in dialects.

...Humpbacks repeat short and long phrases multiple times to sing long songs — the longest known lasts 20 hours. They also sing in multiple layers, or scales, of repetition called periodicities. A short scale consists of six units, whereas a longer one contains 180 to 400.

I tried to learn whale, but could never master the subjunctive mood. Here's the link:

Here's a fascinating link from Michael Clayton to a speech given by Michael Crichton at the California Institute of Technology in 2003. Crichton has a thoughtful and provocative perspective on what political and peer pressure are doing to the pursuit of knowledge. Here's an except:
Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

It's a terrific read, and here's the link:

Not exactly a science link, but interesting nonetheless--from Daniel Quock, a seven minute time-compression video of the building of an Airbus A380. Here's the link:

From Sirius, a link to the greatest accidental discoveries in science.

From Brian Minsker, a link to an upcoming NOVA episode titled "The Great Robot Race," a documentary about the DARPA challenge. The episode is showing March 28 (this Tuesday) at 8 p.m. CST, but there are plenty of videos at this website already:

Friday, March 24, 2006

Follow-Up on Digital Cinema

From DQ reader David Gloier
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Movie theater operators hope to be screening live 3D sports events by 2007 in a bid to lure sports fans away from their home theater systems and bolster sagging mid-week ticket sales.

That would be "3D" as in "holy crap I'd like to see this." And again, if movie theaters go high-definition (with or without 3D), they'll start drawing people again. When you have high-definition at home, theater screens are just ass, and the number of HD sets being sold in the U.S. is absolutely exploding.

Gaming Links

Because you really don't to work this afternoon, anyway.

Here's a terrific link to a screenshot comparison of 1985 games with current games. It's a real eye-opener (thanks Kotaku). Here's the link:

From Sirius, a link to The Musee Mechanique, or "Mechanical Museum." From their website
Welcome to the Musee Mecanique, one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of mechanically operated musical instruments and antique arcade machines. We will take you on a journey from turn of the century hand cranked music boxes to modern video arcade games.

The Musee Mechanique is in San Francisco, and I've actually been there with Gloria--on our honeymoon. It's amazing to see an arcade machine simulating the seven-day cycling race (which were very popular in the 1910's).

From Extreme Tech, an excellent article by Loyd Case on building a quiet computer:

Also from Extreme Tech, their notes on the Game Developer's Conference:,1697,1941621,00.asp.

And now, in an entirely unexpected move, we veer away from gaming and into other interesting "stuff."

First, an article about the Money Pit, otherwise known as the Oak Island Treasure (thanks, Squid56). Here's an excerpt:
One summer day in 1795 Daniel McGinnis, then a teenager, was wandering about Oak Island, Nova Scotia when he came across a curious circular depression in the ground. Standing over this depression was a tree whose branches had been cut in a way which looked like it had been used as a pulley. Having heard tales of pirates in the area he decided to return home to get friends and return later to investigate the hole.

Well, 211 years later, the money's still there. It's a fascinating story, and here's the link:

Here's another one from Squid56, and it's just as interesting. It's about The Voynich Manuscript, and here's an excerpt:
The Voynich Manuscript is considered to be 'The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World'. To this day this medieval artifact resists all efforts at translation. It is either an ingenious hoax or an unbreakable cipher.

The manuscript is named after its discoverer, the American antique book dealer and collector, Wilfrid M. Voynich, who discovered it in 1912, amongst a collection of ancient manuscripts kept in villa Mondragone in Frascati, near Rome, which had been by then turned into a Jesuit College (closed in 1953).

It's an amazing story, and here's the link:

More Oblivion

Once I left the caverns at the beginning of the game, I thought about all the ways that the story could unfold--righting wrongs, saving the kingdom, fighting the ultimate evil.

And having thought about all that, I asked of myself: hero? Not so much. Save yourself, people. I'm tired of bailing you out of all your sorry-ass problems.

I'm the original Mr. Helpful when I play role-playing games, at least until now. I'm the dude who can always be counted on to clear out the sewers beneath town, to fix squabbles between merchants, to find cloth that will be used to make a beautiful dress for the daughter of the proud but poor family. Fifty wolf pelts? I'll get right on it.

Not this time. This dark elf, this thief, this witchhunter, has decided to look out for himself.

When I exited the sewers, it was clean and clear outside. I crossed a lake, then expored some ruins, found an abandoned fort, and saw deer running wild through the countryside. Then I headed northeast, bypassing Imperial City entirely, walking through the Heartlands, then climbing into the Jerral Mountains. As I worked my way upwards, I crossed several footbridges, and as I did I looked down and saw the forests extending down into the valley.

On my own.

I kept climbing until I reached the snow, then I worked east to Lake Arrius, then beyond to Cheydinhal. There I found my own people and enjoyed the city for a brief time before heading out again.

It's been about eight hours now. I still haven't touched the main plot--don't want to. And it all works out fine. My character's still progressing, I'm having a great time, and the world is unfolding without the story to guide me.

So if you're tired of saving the world, try discovering it this time instead.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Oblivion Dialogue Fix

DQ reader Fredrik Skarstedt solved my only complaint with Oblivion (the nasty, closely zoomed-in faces during dialogue exchanges). Here's the fix:

In “My Documents / My Games / Oblivion” you’ll find the “oblivion.ini” file. Do a search for “fDlgFocus=2.1000”. Raise this value to pull the camera back during conversations. I set it to 4 and it’s a LOT better.

I set it to 5 and it's a huge improvement. And I've got some good stories for you tomorrow.

Gibson SG Correction

Sorry, Jeff e-mailed me just now and I misunderstood him previously. The standalone guitar controller at Best Buy is NOT the cherry red Gibson SG. It's the same guitar that comes with the game.

Darwinia Wins at IGF

Darwinia took home a boatload of awards at the Independent Games Festival Awards last night. From Gamespot
SAN JOSE, Calif.--The Game Developers Choice Awards weren't the only hardware handed out in San Jose last night. The 2006 Independent Games Festival Awards were also given to celebrate the achievements of developers working without the financial backing of a major publisher.

The sci-fi real-time strategy game Darwinia took home top honors for the night, winning the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, Technical Excellence, and Innovation in Visual Art categories. Dad 'n Me, Braid, Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space, and Dofus also received accolades in one category each.

Good, because that game was genius. Hopefully this will get those guys more attention, because it's totally deserved.

Gamestop Earnings

From IGN
March 22, 2006 - Leading videogame retailer GameStop today reported record earnings of $85 million for the fiscal forth quarter of 2005, an increase of $50.5 million or 68% over the same period in 2004. Furthermore, the company revealed plans to open 1,600 more retail outlets over the next three years.

In addition to the significantly increased earnings, the company reported that sales had jumped in the same period to almost $1.7 billion when compared to $709 million for fourth quarter 2004 -- an increase of 135% -- though a large portion of this increase can be attributed to the integration of newly-acquired Electronics Boutique retail outlet sales into GameStop's financial reports.

I mention these earnings because I've said for about the last nine months that I expect
Gamestop to puke all over itself by the end of the year. And for the sake of accuracy, let me just say that at this point, I am totally wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

And they're going to open 1,600 new stores in the next three years? I already have one upstairs in the exercise room and two more within a hundred yards of our house. Some of these stores are already so close together that they could share employees--in real-time.

Now if this goes the way I expect it to, here's the sequence of events when they start to unravel.
1. They announce lower than expected earnings, announcing at the same time that planned store expansions are being cut back.
2. The next quarter, lower than expected earnings and the first wave of store closings are announced.

At that point, every analyst in the world jumps on their business model, saying it can't survive with both increased competition and a move by game makers toward digital distribution, which will start to eat away at the used games market.

Right now, though, they can claim that they've still got The Smart™.

Gaming Links + Info

First off, thanks to DQ reader Jeff McCormick, who let me know that Best Buy is now carrying the standalone Gibson SG controller for Guitar Hero.

Here's a link to the entries in the Photoshop Oblivion contest over at Bovine Conspiracy:

Please note the second picture on that page, which is from DQ reader Michael Byrd, who was robbed. Oblivion and Guitar Hero--two great tastes that taste great together.

Jonathan Flynn sent along a link to Will Wright's talk last year at GDC that includes thirty minutes of additional discussion. Here's his desription:
Most of that additional time is spent talking about games in general, not specifically on Spore. It's filled with valuable insights that really worth catching.

Here's the link:

Ian Dorsch let me know that the Gamers With Jobs podcast this week features an interview with Frank Klepacki (who composed the legendary Command & Conquer music). Here's the link:

Sony Notes from GDC

1UP.Com was part of a group that was able to ask some questions to Phil Harrison after his keynote address at GDC. Here's a link to the full article:

Most importantly, Harrison said that software was going to be region-free. Period.
It's possible for developers to put all the TV formats - PAL, NTSC, HDTV, and so on - on the disc.

Much better than consolidating region codes. Well done.

Then there was his answer as to whether the hard drive would be included with the console:
As head of the software studios I don't want to be the one comment on the hardware, but I'll say this: developers are all designing their games to support the hard drive. All of our games are absolutely using the hard drive.

That's a very furtive answer to what seems like a very simple question.

Here's another interesting question and answer:
Question: You've announced that you're going to soon offer PS1 games on the PSP via emulation. Will these titles see any sort of upgrades in the process?

PH: That's a good question, and I don't have any answers at this point. The PS3 is certainly going to offer high definition display when PS1 and PS2 games are played on it. Technically, it's possible, though the headroom is obviously less than what we can accomplish on the PS3.

Another excellent idea--converting your back catalog to the smaller screen. They won't look nearly as bad or dated that way. MLB '06 on the PSP looks so much better than it does on the PS2, just because the smaller screen hides quite a bit of the terrible aliasing that the PS2 is famous for.

Harrison also said there was going to be a new PS3 controller unveiled at E3. Good job, because the last one looked like ass. So long, batarang.

He also pumped up their online network. I have no idea how substantive it's really going to be, but at least they're going to have one, and only six months ago they were saying it wasn't needed.

At least we're getting some kind of information now out of Sony. That's a huge improvement over even a month ago. And I wonder if it had anything to do with the 360 coming out with two five-star titles in the last ten days?

Thanks to DQ reader Phoenix for sending me the link to the 1UP story.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Oblivion Impressions

I've played Oblivion for five hours. Here's what I can tell you: five hours isn't nearly enough time to post thorough impressions.

Here's why: Oblivion is really at least two different games, depending on how you want to play it. You can follow the main storyline, or you can just wander off and do whatever the hell you want.

I chose option #2. Which means I haven't really touched the main plot, other than the introduction and the tutorial. And I think it's strongly in the game's favor that I can wander off and do my own thing.

And there is plenty to do. It took me a couple of hours to fully explore two sets of ruins, and I'm going to keep doing that, just working my way across the country, building my character's skills and exploring the world.

That's one of the games of Oblivion. It can be a huge sandbox, full of things to explore and enjoy. There aren't many games around anymore that allow that--most give you a much tighter, more scripted experience--so I want to take the opportunity.

There are a few things, though, that I can tell you after only five hours.

First, I'm willing to bet that the worst hour in the game is the first hour. I thought the tutorial and the opening section of the game was relatively uninspired, and I was bored. As soon as I got outdoors, though, and just started wandering around, my interest level rose quickly and steadily. So if you're stuck in the tutorial and you're totally underwhelmed, just hang in there, and it will get much, much better.

Two, the interface is not perfect, but it's workable, and you'll be zipping around it fairly quickly. To make it easier, don't forget your hot keys (1-8, go into the journal, highlight an item, press a hot key number, then click on the item to put it into the hotkey slot). Also, you can bind a mouse button to perform the open (and close) journal action, which is very convenient. And if you want to run all the time, use the caps-lock key and you will.

Three, I've looked at both versions. I spent an hour with the 360 version, two hours screwing around with the settings on the PC version to get it to run more smoothly, and five hours playing the PC version. I've got an FX-51 with the Geforce 7800 GS AGP card (I broke down about a month ago, trying to fight off building a new system). So for an AGP system, it's fairly high end. I've got the recommended "ultra high" settings (from the game's analysis program that determines default settings for your rig), but I bumped the resolution to 1280x1024. It gets a little chunky in places, but overall it's acceptable. There's plenty of pop-in for grass and trees, unfortunately, which is annoying but livable. If you have a true high-end rig, though, it should look absolutely stunning, and you can change draw distance in the .ini file to get rid of that pop-in if your system can handle it.

I think the PC version, at 1280x1024 and the ultra-high settings, looks marginally better than the 360 version on the plasma screen. Having said that, I'd probably be playing the 360 version (for comfort and sound), except mouselook is just irreplaceable for me. As much as I like the 360 controller, using that right analog stick to aim instead of the mouse is just a pain in the ass. Plus, you know there are going to be some killer mods, and I'd like to have the option to play them. So if you have an HD set and a low-end gaming rig, I'd highly recommend the 360 version. If you're high-end with both, though, and you have a nice PC monitor, I think the PC version would be a slightly better option. But only slightly.

The world itself has a very vibrant feel to me. The first time you see deer running through the forest is just fantastic. Same thing when you see birds fly overhead. And just like Morrowind, the landscapes in Oblivion have a beautiful and organic feel to them. They look natural to me, and Oblivion's are significantly more detailed.

The Collector's Edition comes with a very nifty coin (I'm a complete sucker for something like that), a faux-leather bound book titled "A Pocket Guide to the Empire and its Environs" (which is excellent reading), and a DVD of bonus material (I have no idea what's on that). All in all, I'm glad I got the CE instead of the regular version. Hell, the coin alone was worth ten dollars to me.

One thing that was jarring when I started playing is that Oblivion is a throwback game. No matter how pretty it looks, it's an old-school RPG. It's huge. There are a tremendous number of things to do an explore. It's not going to be a thrill a minute. It's got a different vibe to it entirely than most of the frantic, scripted games that are coming out now.

And after about an hour, you realize that's a good thing.

The only thing that annoys me after the first five hours are the conversations you have with other characters. There was an unfortunate design decision made to zoom in on the character's faces way too tightly, and they look like hell from that close--great eyes, but the faces are pretty nasty in comparison. If they had just moved the camera position out a few feet in the game world, it would have been just fine, but for now, it drives me crazy.

I can live with that, though, because this is a game that feels like it was crafted. The architecture and the landscape design is just beautiful. It's a world that feels solid. It doesn't feel like tissue paper that will rip if you press too hard. And while it's not revolutionary, there's nothing wrong with taking what's worked and making it even better.

The State of Digital Cinema

From a DQ reader who wishes to remain anonymous (he obtained this information in an employed capacity and would like to stay that way), a detailed look at the current state of digital cinema. High-definition movies theaters could reverse the never-ending box office declines of the movie industry, but if you're wondering why more progress isn't being made, here's why.

As far as Digital Cinema goes, I'll give you the three word summary:

As far as digital cinema goes, right now, there are about seven players, all trying to get a foothold. In the end, you'll have three major players (just like everything else) - but I think that you may see some pretty big names not make the cut. You've got TI, Dolby, Kodak, Technicolor, Qube (big player in India, but a no-name in the states), Christie/AIX, and several others - everyone has their own take on things and what you can/can't do with the media and their projectors. Some require a specific projector, some don't care. Qube is in an interesting position as they've got about 160 developers & engineers in India working on hardware (PCI-Express boards, no less) that will allow you to stream in encrypted video into the board and then it will decrypt the video and then RE-ENCODE it and output it to a digital projector that has a key in it to decode it AGAIN. With so many players, everyone is scared to commit.

The studios are really pushing digital cinema, but they're also terrified that Joe Movie Hacker will be able to get the raw data and then make illegal copies of it, so they make all kinds of ridiculous requirements of the board manufacturers so that at NO POINT in the projection process is there a datastream exposed to software that isn't running in some chip that is on a board. On top of that, you have competing codecs - JPEG2000, Windows Media, MP4, etc...oh - your board/projector also has to watermark anything that runs thru it.

Beyond those issues, you have the distribution issues - right now, it costs about $1500 to produce a movie print on a can of 35mm film. The distributors ship the film cans (which weigh quite a bit) to the exhibitors which is quite spendy. With digital in its current form, you have distributors sending out Western Digital HD's to the various locations with digital projectors. Chicken Little was the last film that was really pushed onto the exhibitors as a digital film - so they're sending HD's out to theatre chains and then telling them where they can show it - and how often - and only giving certain terms on the actual film rental. So the theatre is stuck with a projector and digital media server that probably costs HUNDREDS of thousands of dollars and they really can't use it how they see fit - some guys feel that they should be able to charge a premium (usually $2/ticket) to see a film in its pure digital format...partially becuase of the better quality in picture and sound, and partially to recoup their investment in hardware, and partially to makeup for the shitty rental terms being forced on them by the studios. So now, you're paying $10+/ticket for a digital movie, but the HD's it is stored on aren't that great and you see about 1 in 6 HD's that either have corrupted data or won't even mount into the media system. On top of that, you can't really STREAM the movie off the HD - you have to upload it into the server and that process usually takes several hours. You also have issues with the theatres not getting the HD's in time to load them into the server before their first showing...At some point, they'd like to get to satellite distribution from a central location to the theatres, but that's a ways off.

Also, the exhibitor will probably be required to replace/repaint their screens, as you need a special paint & surface to ensure maxium picture clarity.

Depending on your media server setup, you'll have to have gigabit ethernet running from a central media server to your projectors, so you're going to have some pretty huge wiring costs, too.

Now, you have some of the big exhibitors saying that they're not going to spend the millions required to even put one digital projector in all of their theatres - they want the studios to subsidize it, but if the studios do that, they're gonna want more of the revenues. So you have that screwing things up as well.

Another issue is unions - in various states, the theatre Projectionists have unionized and they're concerned that digital projection will put them out of work, as all you do is plug a HD in either late at night or early in the morning - then at showtime, you push the PLAY button (which will probably be automated). Every 4-6 months, you'll have to focus the projector.

Oh - you also have various generation of projectors to choose from: 2k, 4k, and 8k - those are pixel counts of the projectors.
--2k looks nice, but not head and shoulders better than high end consumer stuff. Available now. Pricing seems to be $$$$.
--4k looks amazing. They're just now coming out and are quite expensive. Pricing: $$$$$$
--8k is THE SHIT and there's talk of it being able to do 3D stuff that wouldn't require glasses or something crazy like that - this is what everyone wants (even me), but the price is: $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

Again, there's NO WAY a cheap ass theatre owner is going to pay big bucks for a 2k when he knows that 4k stuff is out now, he really wants an 8k projector, but he'd have to have outside help in getting one and that help will want a part of the box office action. But box office numbers aren't what they'd like to be due to bad movies and shortening DVD release windows.

On that note, there's been LOTS of talk of the studios actually wanting to start having longer windows between the theatrical release and the DVD release, as they've seen a HUGE drop in DVD sales. Which is another reason they're looking toward the next gen DVD to generate another spike in sales - hoping that people will re-build their libraries in the new format (which I don't think will happen).

"Video Game Therapy--a New Frontier"

This is a fantastic story (from CNet, via Kotaku):
Doctors pronounced Ethan Myers brain dead after a car accident dealt the 9-year-old a severe brain injury in 2002. After he miraculously awoke from a nearly month-long coma, doctors declared he would never again eat on his own, walk or talk.

Yet, thanks partly to a video game system, Myers has caught up with his peers in school and even read a speech to a large group of students.

...Ethan and his parents attribute his most recent progress to neurofeedback training on the CyberLearning Technology system, which is often used to play car racing video games.

"In the last year, we've seen the Ethan we knew before the accident," said Howard Myers, the teenager's father.

...CyberLearning's Smart BrainGames system, which Myers still uses, targets symptoms arising from brain injuries, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities.

Users wear a helmet with built-in sensors to measure brain waves. That data is relayed to a neurofeedback system that affects the game controller.

Car racing games work best with the system, which rewards users by telling the controller to allow them to go fast and steer with control, doctors said. When patients' brain waves aren't in "the zone" the controller makes it harder to accelerate and steer.

Incredible, and here's the link:

Now Ethan, buddy, the pressure's on. When you hit your teen years, don't kill anyone. Because you know that shit will get blamed on us.

Seriously, though, if you've played Guitar Hero for any length of time, you can tell it's rewiring your brain. You can practically feel it as you get better. And even though all the game haters are going to find every conceivable reason to fight this, there's no question that games can have all kinds of positive uses.

As long as people are willing to look for them.

Science Links

Here are some science links for your reading pleasure.

First, from Sirius, a link to a story about a new type of sauropod. Here's an excerpt:
Scientists have identified a new dinosaur species that had one of the longest necks relative to body length ever measured.

A typical neck bone in this creature was about the size of two loaves of bread.

The species, Erketu ellisoni, belongs to the group of massive four-legged herbivorous dinosaurs called Sauropoda, the largest land animals ever to walk on Earth. This giant group also includes Brachiosaurus, Diplodocus, and the largest of them all, the 120-foot long Argentinasaurus.

The picture in the article is amazing, because this dinosaur's neck was over twice as long as its body. Here's the link:

Oh, and thanks to you guys for sending me dinosaur links. I don't miss a single discovery, thanks to you. And I read every one to Eli 4.7.

Next, from Geoff Engelstein:
Here's a link to a (technical) paper about a new micron-scale bar coding technique these guys developed:

Basically they figured out how to create small particles (about 50 micrometers across) that contain several layered nano-scale diffraction gratings. When illuminated by a laser you can easily read a diffraction pattern. By changing the grating size they were able to create a library of 68,000 unique tags.

These can be etched onto tiny polymer particles and used as markers for experiments -- biological, chemical, or genetic, as well as embed them for security or traceability.

That's right--nano scale bar coding. Here's the link:

From Brian Witte, a link to an interesting product: moldable plastic. That's right, and it's just as freaky as it sounds, and you can even buy some. Here's the link:

Cliff Eyler sent me a link to a story about a new ocean forming in Africa. Here's an excerpt:
Normally new rivers, seas and mountains are born in slow motion. The Afar Triangle near the Horn of Africa is another story. A new ocean is forming there with staggering speed -- at least by geological standards. Africa will eventually lose its horn.

Remarkable, and here's the link:

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Gaming Links

Ugh. 4:00 p.m. and still no Fed Ex delivery. So probably no Oblivion impressions tonight, but I'll have some for you tomorrow. In the meantime, here are some assorted gaming links to distract you.

First, thanks to Chris Vytlacil for letting me know that Episode 10 or Pure Pwnage has been released. As always, you can find it at

Jason Price of let me know that Ghost Wars, which I wrote about last May as one of the biggest surprises of E3, has undergone a name change. It will now be called "Field Ops" and is being published by Freeze Interactive. The game lets you jump into first-person mode to control units as desired, and it also had a visual look that was tremendously striking. Here's the official game site:

Thanks to Datter for pointing out that the manual for the compendium Morrowind mod I mentioned last week is available here:
It's also better written than most commercial game manuals. Blackhawk has done a first-class writing job.

The mod is so good and so full of features that it's making me want to play Morrowind again. And since Oblivion is out now, Bethesda has just released the TES Construction Set, so all you guys can get to work. Here's the link:

I linked to the Accordion Hero official game website last week. Now, there's an official post-mortem over at Gamasutra. These guys are very, very clever. Here's the link:

Nvidia Gets Smart

No, not The Smart™.

Take a look at this press release
NVIDIA Corporation, the worldwide leader in programmable graphics processor technologies, and Havok, the game industry's leading supplier of cross- platform middleware, will be demonstrating a physics effects solution that runs completely on a graphics processing unit (GPU) -- an industry first -- at this year's Game Developer Conference (GDC) in San Jose, California (March 21st through 24th).

Sometimes I see things coming, but this blindsided me. And it's a great idea. The dedicated PPU solution as a standalone card is a dead end--great concept, but the number of people who would buy an add-in card just for that is limited--but if you could offload those functions from the CPU to the GPU, it's just another reason to load up on high-end solutions like SLI, because you're not just loading up on graphics power anymore. Now, you're loading up on physics power as well.

Viva la physics power! Or something like that.

If your graphics technology has gotten so powerful that it's overkill in 99% of the games out there, you better find another function that can be assumed by the graphics card. And Nvidia is calling this "SLI Physics," so that tells you the solution they're pushing, even though it's usable with a single GPU.

Great, great idea.

The Smart™

"Daddy, are leprechauns real?" Eli 4.7 is pedaling along the sidewalk on his bike. He has the unique ability to pedal his bike slower than he walks, thanks to training wheels.

"No, little man, I don't think they are," I said. "But the idea of leprechauns is very fun. They're pranksters. Do you know what a prank is?"

"No," he said.

"Remember when we talked about putting whipped cream on mommy's hand when she was asleep, then tickling her nose so that she'd rub it and get whipped cream all over her face?"

"Oh yeah," he said. "Can we still do that? Because that would be GREAT."

"Well, that's a prank," I said.

"But my teacher SAID leprechauns are real." Time for some fast maneuvering here. I think I've stumbled onto one of the "not real but real for now" urban legends of childhood, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

"Well, what did she say about them?" I asked.

"She SAID that at the end of a rainbow, there's a pot of gold and there's a leprechaun. But they're not real, are they?"

"I don't think so," I said.

"But the pot of gold IS real," he said. "And maybe if we find a pot of gold, we'll find that leprechaun."

"Maybe we will," I said.

"And he'll try to trick me, but he can't, because I've got the smart," said Eli 4.7.

I like that--The Smart™.

"But would it be OUR pot of gold?" he asked.

"I think so," I said. "If we find it at the end of the rainbow, it's ours."

"But what about the leprechaun?" he asked. "Isn't it HIS pot of gold? Because he's standing RIGHT THERE."

Then there are the state's rights to consider, of course. Next week: Eli 4.7 gets introduced to the concept of eminent domain.

Five minutes after we wrapped up the leprechaun discussion: "Daddy, I think that when astronauts pee in outer space, it goes STRAIGHT UP. Isn't that GREAT?"

Five minutes after that: "Here's a question, Daddy: do you poop when you're dead?"

Total College Basketball Contest

Franklin Brown of let me know that they have an interview up with Gary Gorski, creater of Total College Basketball, and they're giving away a free copy of the game as well. So hit the link and head over to the Digital Stadium if you'd like to enter.

Ricky Gervais and The Simpsons

DQ reader Simon Chapman let me know that the episode of the Simpsons that Ricky Gervais wrote and stars in is airing this Sunday, the 26th. It's titled "Homer Simpson, This is Your Wife."

Monday, March 20, 2006

NCAA Data Wonks

If you're looking for interesting analysis of the NCAA tournament, go here: Choose the "blog" option.

Ken Pomeroy is one of the most interesting writers on college basketball today, in my opinion, particularly with his focus on data analysis. He also pioneered the use of "points per possession" and "points allowed per possession" as a truer measurement of real team strength. If you're into college basketball, it's a great read.

Oblivion Tuesday

“Big, big game coming out on Tuesday,” I said to Gloria at dinner last night.

“And you’re telling me because--?” She asked.

“Well, I’ll pretty busy,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be called upon to right some terrible wrongs and save a kingdom or something.”

“So this would be the ‘medieval kingdom’ setting instead of the ‘man in warehouse’ setting?”

“You know that games have more than two settings,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “I left out the ‘gritty life in the streets’ setting. That’s the third one.”

Tomorrow is Oblivion Tuesday. I’m getting both versions (PC and 360) of the game and will decide between them (I have a home for the orphan). I’ve already written content for tomorrow, so there will still be plenty to read, but I’ll be spending most of the day playing the game, and I’ll try to have some impressions up Tuesday night. If not, then Wednesday for sure.

I think the one factor working against this game is the unbelievable anticipation that’s surrounded it in the last few months. Offline RPG’s aren’t exactly thriving, to say the least, and it seems like we all have huge expectations for Oblivion after the brilliance of Morrowind. So I think that initially people will be picking the game to death, trying to find fault. I don’t expect it to be perfect—just fun—and that’s what I’ll have in mind as I write up impressions.

The Return of the Clownholes

The clownholes are back.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Dennis Zhidkov, PR manager for Starforce, Inc., and how he had e-mailed boingboing’s Cory Doctorow and threatened him with this classic blast:
Dear Sir, calling StarForce "Anti-copying malware" is a good enough cause to press charges and that is what our corporate lawyer is busy doing right now...Your article violates approximately 11 international laws. Our US lawyer will contact you shortly. I have also contacted the FBI , because what you are doing is harassment.

It was at this point that I settled on the term “clownhole”—an asshole who is also a clown.

Gal Civ II, which shipped without copy protection of any kind, has been selling through the roof, and Brad Wardell has been banging the drum about how the lack of copy protection hasn’t hurt sales of the game.

So in the Starforce forums, a forum administrator (not a random poster) posted a link to a pirate download of Gal Civ II.


If you want more details about that, here’s a link:

The link was taken down, and an apology was made. Here it is:
"In the end, on behalf of the whole StarForce I would like to tender our apologies to all people who have been working on creation of the game Galactic Civilizations II," wrote a moderator using the handle "SF shum." The moderator continued, "We have to officially claim that what has happened is just a mistake of our employee that was boosted into 'our planned PR action' by the people who hate StarForce."

Well, if you’re stupid enough to post links to warez on your site, gentlement, nobody has to plan anything. You’re just handing them big gift-wrapped baskets of dumbass.

Computer Gaming World also did an investigative piece…I know, you think that was some kind of early April Fool’s joke. As unlikely as it seems, though, they actually did do an investigative piece on Starforce in this month’s issue, and as an aside, they also appear to be attempting to become a legitimate magazine again (more on that later this week).

Here’s an excerpt from the Starforce article:
“Starforce doesn’t directly trash you rdrives of your IDE controller channels,” he [Nick Kallister, CGW’s desktop administrator] explains. “It can, however, cause Windows to step down to programmed input/output (PIO) mode, which could possibly damage some optical drives if they are run in that mode for an extended period of time.” Kallister also points out: [Although] Starforce is not a virus, it can act as a possible Trojan gateway, as malicious third-party applications could conceivably exploit its security holes to gain [system administrator] access.”

I think it’s fair to point out that, as far as I know, the Trojan gateway scenario is entirely theoretical at this point, and I’ve certainly had no issues with Starforce on my own system, but clearly, some people are having problems. CGW did a test and here’s an excerpt:
…an extended test of a 4X Memorex DVD-RW drive and a retail copy of Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell Chaos Theory proved [the problem], as the drive’s burn speed eventually dropped to a paltry 1X—only to return to its original speed once we removed the StarForce program.

So there’s no real question anymore that in some configurations, at a minimum, Starforce lowers the burn speed of your optical drive. And what did Starforce have to say about this? Well, clownhole Zhidkov was ready with a response:
The issue on Starforce is obviously sponsored by our competitors or organized crime groups that run CD/DVD piracy [operations].

The Russian mafia, maybe? Oh, that’s great. Yes, and the persecution of your company also fulfills an ancient Biblical prophecy, sir. Locusts! I see locusts!

I sense that this might be a turning point for these loony tunes. With it fairly clearly proven that Starforce, while it’s installed, can actually degrade optical drive performance, publishers are in a very awkward position if they want to use it. And the company itself sounds mental. How can anyone have faith in their technology when they can’t open their mouths without sounding like absolute idiots?

Space Rangers 2, the PC game of the year in 2005, unfortunately uses Starforce. I believe it’s still going to be used in the upcoming U.S. release. Space Rangers 2 is so brilliant that it will be a shame if that decision, which has nothing to do with the quality of the game, costs them the chance to reach a wider audience. And there are plenty of people, after the events of the last two weeks, who won’t buy anything that uses Starforce copy protection.

Sports: The NCAA Tournament

After the completion of the first round games on Friday, I think this year’s NCAA tournament featured the best opening two days I’ve ever seen. There weren’t a huge number of upsets, but almost every game was still in doubt with five minutes to go, and many went down to the last seconds.

It says something about the basic nature of the NCAA tournament that it still manages to be dramatic in spite of the incredible number of play stoppages. It’s nothing short of insane how often play gets stopped in the last minute. I doubt that it will ever change, because it really increases the amount of advertising that can be shown, but the NCAA would really improve the flow of the game if they did the following:
1) No consecutive timeouts in dead ball situations. That would end the ridiculous practice of coaches calling a timeout after they see how the other team lines up. I know coaches are generally control freaks, but good grief!
2) No timeouts to bail out the offense. If a team can’t get the ball in-bounds, tough. If they can’t get it across the ten second line, tough again. And no mid-air timeouts when a guy is flying out of bounds with the ball. In all these situations, the defense should be rewarded with a turnover.
3) No timeouts before or between free throws. Coaches “icing” a shooter is an idiotic practice. Let the kids play the damn game. If they want to call a timeout, let them do it after the free throws.

What’s happening now is that in the last sixty seconds of a game, there will often be three or four stoppages of play for timeouts, and since most of those will include commercial breaks, it absolutely kills what should be an incredibly dramatic situation. What I’d really like to see would be teams limited to one timeout each in the last sixty seconds of a half, but that will never happen.

One other thing. When a coach gets ejected from a game (any game—this generally only happens in the regular season), he should have to sit out the following game as well. This would stop Mr. Control Freak Genius from acting like a psychopath to get thrown out of a game to “spur on his team.” Uh, no thanks. Try doing a better job in practice, and maybe your players wouldn’t be playing like poodles during the game.

CBS has had generally good coverage (and the web live video from has been outstanding), but they do one thing with the HD games that drives me nuts. They put the tournament scoreboard at the top of the screen with a black background, and the way they frame the camera, on free throws the ball often disappears into the scoreboard. Um, maybe you guys could just have the tournament scoreboard move to cover the ball at all times, because it’s not like THE BALL is important or anything.

CBS did do one thing right, though. At the end of the Alabama-UCLA game last night, when there were about four timeouts in the last minute, instead of showing the players during the timeouts, they focused on the coaches’ wives. It was great to see the emotion on their faces, and showing them at every stoppage of play really drove home how agonizing it was for them. It was much more meaningful than seeing the players during the timeouts.

Oh, wait. No, it wasn’t. I don’t give a shit about the coaches’ wives, and neither does anyone else. Remember that kid who spent six hours a day playing basketball for since he was five, who played in the dark, in the rain, in the snow, and now is playing on the biggest stage in college basketball? Do you think it would be too much to show how agonizing it is FOR HIM instead of the person who bakes cookies for the team? How about showing them once and then focusing on the people who are actually playing the game? I know coaches’ wives suffer, but that doesn’t make them important in the context of the game.

That’s how crazy it’s gotten in terms of the way college basketball is marketed. First the coaches were elevated above the players. Now even the coaches’ SPOUSES are considered more important than the players.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Seona Dancing Video

Thanks to Richard Southwell for finding the link to the Ricky Gervais music video (from 1984), which is here: It's absolutely terrible, and if you like Gervais, absolutely hilarious.

And the band name is "Seona Dancing" (pronounced "Shawna"). When Nathan originally sent me the story, he mentioned that he hadn't actually seen the band name in the video and wasn't sure how it was spelled.

Also, more pictures here (this link also from Richard Southwell):

Correction on Blu-Ray Region Codes

So based on my e-mail (which I agree with), what I should have said was "that's a great, great, idea--as long as you don't live in Europe, in which case you're still screwed."

Blu-Ray Region Codes

DQ reader Jesse Leimkuehler sent me this interesting bit of information:
The new region codes for the PS3 and Blu-Ray discs are now as follows:

Region 1: North America, South America, East Asia except for China (India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia etc.)
Region 2: Europe and Africa
Region 3: China, Russia and other countries

This means the PS3 will be able to play Japanese import releases, and vice-versa. Also good news for Anime fans, as Blu-Ray players will be able to play Japanese anime directly on US machines.

That is a great, great idea, and long overdue.

OO Morrowind Mod

If you've played Morrowind, you're probably aware of all the mods out there. Some of them are amazing, but it's very time-consuming to sort through the huge number of mods and select the ones that are worthwhile.

That's where the Octopus Overlords mod comes in. It's a compendium of great mods. Here's an excerpt from the mod manual (yes, it's got a manual):
This disk is intended to take you from ‘CDs on your desk’ to a fully updated, tuned, copy of Morrowind, complete with a baseline of plugins upon which you can build your own personal collection. The goal here was to create a master basic list of plugins that would appeal to everybody.

...You will find bug fixes, empty houses, tweaks, visual and auditory improvements, extra clothing and armor, adventures, and a bunch of other things, but great care has been taken to ensure that, once you work your way through this list, your game will be, at its heart, the same great game that Bethesda Softworks gave to us back in May of 2002. The choices are not unbalancing, and were chosen for their quality and stability. Once they are installed you will have a nice, clean baseline from which you can add your own, more personal choices.

It's a great idea, and the execution is top quality. And even though Morrowind came out in 2002, I think it still looks terrific. Morrowind wasn't an innovative game, necessarily, but it was incredibly polished and a wonderful adventure. I still remember the first time I was enveloped by a dust storm, which was a gaming moment I'll never forget.

Here's the Octopus Overlords forum thread that discusses the project:

Here's a link to the torrent (due to the size of the file--over 600 megs):

And if, by some chance, you've never played Morrowind, I'd highly recommend doing so before you play Oblivion, because it's a very richly drawn, interesting world, and I think it will make your experience playing Oblivion even better.

And I Thought It Was the Rolling Stones

Eli 4.7 was singing a song yesterday. Quickly, but intensely.

Allsa bacon, yup, yup, yup,
Allsa bacon, yup, yup, yup,
Allsa bacon, yup, yup, yup,
You can be a tuba, too. Boo!

"Where did you hear that song?" I asked.

"I don't remember," he said. "I think it's Indian."

Your Recently Viewed Items

Sometimes Amazon reminds me of just how crazy my life gets. Last week, this was my "Your Recently Viewed Items" section:
1. The Master Plan : Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust
2. Disney Princess - Royal Style Belle Doll

Ricky Gervais absolutely everywhere, it seems. After The Office (one of the funniest series in television history) and Extras (very funny as well), he now has the most popular podcast of all-time--The Ricky Gervais Show. The real star is Karl Pilkington, who is allegedly just playing himself and is falling-down funny, but if it turns out that Gervais wrote every single line of his dialogue, I wouldn't be surprised.

Oh, and he wrote a children's book called "Flanimals" that sold 750,000 copies.

If you're interested in the podcast, just go to and search for "Ricky Gervais." There's a free preview available, and the entire first season of podcasts is only $4.95. And it's damned funny. Thanks to DQ reader David Gloier for sending me information about the podcast.

Now here's an e-mail from Nathan Walton:
I was watching “Spicks and Specks” last night (an Australian music quiz show – very funny) and they had a film clip of some horrendous 80's song. I thought it was David Bowie however at the end, they informed us that it was, in fact, Ricky Gervais. The band was “Shauna across the Dance Floor” but I can’t remember the name of the song. Anyhow, if you come across it, it’s a cringingly good laugh, though not for quite the same reasons as The Office or The Extras – though it does provide a bit of insight into the inspiration for David Brent’s singing career.

One of the funniest moments in The Office is the scene where David Brent (Gervais) brings a guitar to the office and sings "Free Love on the Free Love Freeway" to his staff. It's one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Total College Basketball

Since this has been the most exciting first day of an NCAA tournament in many years, it's a good time to mention Total College Basketball, a game by Gary Gorski and Grey Dog Software.

It's the gold standard for college basketball text-sims. Recruiting, which is the meat of any college sim, is deeper and far less linear than graphics-based sims like College Hoops. It's solid throughout, and Gorski has some interesting ideas for making text sims more accessible. For one, there are weekly magazine features, and there's also a selection show when the brackets are announced for the NCAA tournament. It adds atmosphere that most text sims sorely lack, and it's these kinds of features that can expand a text-sim's appeal beyond their traditional hardcore audience. The developer support for this game has also been excellent, and it makes me confident that this game has a very promising future.

There's a demo available over at Grey Dog Software (, and the game is also on sale until Monday. Check it out for your college basketball fix on the computer.

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