Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Party, the Third

Eli 6.0 had a birthday party at school today. This is his third birthday party in four days, and is all part of the Bataan Birthday Death March.

Gloria made cupcakes for all the kids and teachers, almost forty in all. She made both vanilla and chocolate cupcakes (at five, there's no point in making any other flavor).

We're sitting in tiny chairs eating pizza with the kids when Madeline walks up. Nominally, she's Eli's girlfriend, although that designation can change hourly. "Hi, Eli's Dad!" she said brightly, as she went to the sink to wash her hands.

"Hi, Madeline," I said.

"I got a chocolate cupcake," she said. "It tasted like CARDBOARD."

I almost did a spit take. Gloria was laughing so hard that I thought pizza was going to fall out of her mouth.

A few minutes later, Arjun Z walked up. "The cake was very tasty, thank you," he said, and walked off.

"I guess he got one of the vanilla ones," I said.

Henry, the boy sitting next to me at Eli's table, looked up at me. His mouth was wide open and it was absolutely jammed full of chocolate cupcake. "These are DELICIOUS!" he said, spraying crumps in a wide arc not unlike a rotating lawn sprinker.

Four kids in the class had their last day today, because they were all moving up to first grade. His teacher (Ms. Ali, who is a very kind woman) had each child sit beside her, and all the other kids would take turns saying something nice to the person who was leaving.

Eli got quite a few "I love you" and "you're my best friend" comments, which were very nice, but my favorite was something one of the boys said to a girl who was leaving. "You're my best friend--on Earth," he said.

Eli 6.0!

Gloria's camera was messed up, Eli was being a complete goofball, I kept getting the reflection of the flash on the door, and after about three pictures, I realized that meant it was an entirely normal day and the picture was perfect.

That's a picture with his friend Lewis at his pajama birthday party Saturday at Turnkey Party Warehouse (complete with inflatable slides and whatnot).

Since it's Eli's birthday, here are a few stories I've collected over the last few weeks.

This is what a standard conversation with Eli is like.

We walked out of McDonald's after Saturday breakfast two weeks ago and it was raining. Again.

On our way to the car, Eli said "Dad, what if I had a rain machine that could rain UP? My rain would stop THAT rain."

"Or maybe you could have a giant wind machine on your back," I said. "Then you could just lean over, point your butt at the sky, and the wind would blow all the rain back."

"Yeah!" he said, sticking his butt toward the sky and wiggling it. "Or maybe if I was as tall as a giant, I could reach up and just push the clouds away.

Then we talked about people who drop their cellphones in the toilet while they're peeing. We're worldly.

Eli went to the bathroom yesterday and came out shaking his hands back and forth wildly, flinging water everywhere.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"AIR DRY!" he shouted.

Last night, Eli was playing up in his room.

"Mom!" he said, clomping down the stairs.

"I can't find my red dinosaur."

"Did you look for it?" Gloria asked.

"Yes," he said heavily. "Well, look for it again," Gloria said.

"But Mom," he said, "I already looked for it again."

"Well-played," I said.

Eli, even at five (now six), is a notorious tightwad.

Last Tuesday he wanted to go to Dave & Buster's for dinner. He doesn't care about eating at Dave & Buster's, though--he just wants to play the games, collect tickets, and get some kind of toy.

"We went to Dave & Buster's just two weeks ago," I said. "I'll tell you what--for every dollar of your money that you chip in, I'll put in five dollars of my money."

I knew he at least had some change in his room, and I suspected that he might also have a dollar bill or two. He looked at me with mock regret, raised his hands, and said, "I have no money, my friend."

Monday, July 30, 2007

Console Post of the Week

I think the big picture this week is price cuts.

Sony may have enough 60GB units in warehouses to feed the U.S. until October (or longer), but it's completely infeasible to jack the price back up once those units run out.

Note that while I say it's infeasible, that doesn't mean it's impossible, because Sony has displayed a curious inability to think logically for well over a year. Even they, though, have to see the handwriting on the wall.

In this case, the handwriting on the wall is their recently released quarterly earnings report. The gaming division lost another $237 million dollars, which Sony's chief financial officer, Nobuyuki Oneda, said was better than they expected. Here's what he said in reference to PS3 sales:
"Actually, because the number of units sold was not as high as we hoped, the loss was better than our original expectation," he said.

How many PS3's does Sony say they sold in the last quarter? 710,000. That's a ledge number for Sony executives.

Sony also did something very interesting in their latest earnings report--they're now listing units sold for a quarter as opposed to units shipped.

Why did they do this? Well, because it gave them an opportunity for padding, I think. This analysis is going to be kind of a labyrinth (in a shitty, free-blog kind of way, mind you), but just stay with me, because there are some very, very interesting bits of information at the end.

Data points:
--they claim that they've sold 4.48 million PS3's worldwide (by the end of June--source here).
--they expect to sell 10.29 million units worldwide in the next three quarters (same as 4.48 source above).
--Sony shipped 5.5 million units by the end of their fiscal year in March 2007 (source here).
--they plan to ship 11 million PS3's this fiscal year (same source as above).
--the PS2 sold 2.7 million units in the fiscal quarter ending in June.

This isn't part of the analysis, but it's absolutely stunning that the last gen PS2 is outselling the PS3 by almost a 4-1 margin.

Let's look a that 4.48 million claim first. If they sold 710,000 units in the last quarter, that means they had to have sold 3.77 million units by the end of March.

Based on NPD numbers, the PS3 had sold 1.2 million units by the end of March in the U.S. In Japan (remember, Sony just cracked 1 million units there a few weeks ago), the number at the end of March was roughly 850,000 (maybe even less).

So to get to 3.77 million units, approximately 1,720,000 units had to be sold in the rest of the world. No problem, because the PS3 launched in Europe/Australia/New Zealand in March, right?

That's right--they did. And Sony trumpeted the news when sales for those territories reached one million units.

In June.

Here's your quote:
David Reeves, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe president and CEO, today confirmed that “Early last week we went through [a sell-through of] the one million mark on PS3. And we did that in nine and a half weeks.”

So what does that mean they'd sold in those territories by the end of March? Based on information here, I think 700,000 would be a decent (and possibly generous estimate).

That leaves them a million units short of what they're claiming to have sold.

Japan's numbers are relatively airtight. Sony themselves gave the numbers for the PAL territories, so they must be close. The U.S. has NPD numbers, and even if they're off, it's highly unlikely that they're off by more than 10-15%.

So who bought those million units? Canada? Don't think so.

Like I said, I think this was a one-time opportunity for Sony to "adjust" their numbers--the discrepancies are absolutely gigantic, so enormous that it's obvious.

Let's give them a half-million unit bonus and say they've really sold four million units. They'd shipped 5.5 million units at the end of March, and they're supposedly shipping 11 million units this year, so I have to think they shipped at least 2 million units in the June quarter.

That means that, even with generous estimates in Sony's favor, they have roughly 3.5 million consoles in inventory at retail worldwide.

They claim that they're going to sell 10.29 million units worldwide in the next nine months when they're selling 240,000 units a month right now.

Um, okay.

There are only two possibilities here: either Sony has one of the most massive misses in the history of the financial markets, or the price on the PS3 plummets over the next nine months.

Microsft believes that Sony is going to create a "low-end" with a 40GB hard drive, no integrated WiFi, no memory card reader, and no backward compatibility for $399. Selling by Black Friday (day after Thanksgiving in the U.S.). At least, they bet N'Gai Croal that it was going to happen.

This would not be an unreasonable strategy on Sony's part. But it needs to happen before Thanksgiving, or they'll miss a ton of shoppers who bought everything early.

Last Sony note. Hotshots 5 released in Japan last week and sold in the neighborhood of 200,000 units. It will be interesting to see if that drives PS3 sales up to the 35,000 range (or even higher), and if sales stay up there for more than a week.

Wait, one more. Jack Tretton gave an interview last week where he said that the PS3 was "surf and turf" (lobster and steak) and the Wii was a "lollipop."

Yes, and they've dropped 10 million lollipops on your lobster in nine months. Oh, and they don't have 3.5 million lobsters in the kitchen, either.

On to Microsoft.

Rumors of a 360 price cut to $349 on August are starting to appear credible. Scanned Circuit City and Toys R Us ads allegedly show the deal, and it's clear that Microsoft needs to take a pricing action here--the PS3 has "clearance pricing" on the 60GB units, and questions about reliability are still dogging Microsoft on a daily basis.

Here's the question, though: does this mean Microsoft is shipping the 65nm units now, and will we actually get any confirmation when this starts happening? There's just no way to tell, and if I was considering a 360 purchase now, there's no way in hell I'd want one of the "old" (aka "shitty") units.

There's no question, though, that Microsoft desperately needs a price cut. The 360 had very strong momentum last year at this time. This year, they've got an outstanding game lineup coming up, but they've been leaking air for months.

Peter Moore proved last week that not only Sony executives act like dickheads in interviews. Here's an excerpt from an interview with GameDaily Biz:
BIZ: It's a bit ironic, because when MS first got into the console business, critics laughed because MS is a software company at its core. It's not in the business of creating hardware. Now the company has discovered some faulty design in its 360 hardware, seemingly proving the critics right. What do you say to those critics?

PM: Those critics need to do their homework and look at some of the hardware product failures that this industry has seen in the past 30 years that maybe have not got as much publicity...

BIZ: You're saying that this is not an unprecedented failure for a video game console?

PM: Probably the size of it may be unprecedented, and certainly the financial implications, but if people say that previous consoles have all been perfect and not had failure rates, then they need to go get a history lesson.

That's great stuff. Thirty years? Seriously, is he so desperate that he's going back to 1977 to find a data point he can use? What, did the Atari 2600 or the Odyssey 2 have reliability issues?

Peter, we're not saying that other consoles were perfect and didn't have failure rates--we're just saying that the 360's failure rate is, oh, QUADRUPLE any other console in history.

At least.

Oh, and when people don't want to answer questions directly, one of the easiest ways to obfuscate is to misrepresent the question. Like you did.

Last note on Microsoft: Oblivion, with full language localization, released in Japan last week, and it will be interesting to see how many units it sells.

Lastly, here's a note on Nintendo. Skip Key noticed that Nintendo's earnings release included the projection that the Wii would sell 16,500,000 units in this fiscal year (which ends in March 2008). Backing out their first quarter sales of 3,430,000 units, that means they project selling 13,070,000 units in the next nine months.

Skip believes this indicates that a price cut for the Wii is coming. I don't agree--at least, I don't see it coming before early next year, at the soonest. I think it's more an indication that Nintendo believes that demand is basically still bottomless.

What it does mean, though, is that Nintendo is seriously ramping up production.

Finally (good grief, these console posts have gotten long), here is some additional information from Andrew Herron, who e-mailed me last week about the insane prices of consoles in Australia:
The Australian price of the Wii is A$400 (for the purposes of a true comparision with the price of the PS3, which is A$999. What's amusing is that with the weakening US dollar that now translates into US$353 for the Wii and US$883 for the PS3.

Remember, Sony is claiming that they're not cutting the price in the PAL territories. That's a staggering amount of money to spend on a console.

I believe the 360 Pro is A$599, in case you're wondering.

Andrew also mentioned that inventory was not the reason that retailer Harvey Norman hadn't been carrying the Wii (although they're in negotations now to do so). Take a look at this excerpt from an article over at Smarthouse (November 2006):
One of the hottest products in town the new Nintendo Wii will not be on sale at Harvey Norman Australia's biggest CE retailer after the Japanese games giant Nintendo pulled the plug on the mass retailer because they were asking for too much margin.

In Australia CE manufacturers are being asked to give Harvey Norman a floor margin of 17% on a product or service. On top of that they also want an additional margin of around 25% for meeting targets. In addition they also want money from vendors to advertise in their catalogues as well as up to $10,000 for an internal product training system.

What a difference ten million units make. I guess even Harvey Norman's finally figured it out.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Jennifer Lin

Neil Yamamoto sent me several video links a while back, and there was one I didn't listen to until today.

Much to my good fortune, it was mind-blowing.

The video is a performance by pianist Jennifer Lin, who was fourteen at the time this was filmed.

That's fourteen, as in eighth grade.

It's a performance at TED, and around the sixteen minute mark of the video, she has someone from the audience pick out five notes at random from a set of index cards. The notes are read out loud, Lin thinks for a few seconds, then improvs an absolutely astonishing piece of music.

The video is here, and in addition to playing three other pieces ("Bumble Boogie" at the end is incredible), she also speaks for a short while about the process of creativity and composition.

A note: if you want to move around in the video (there are no controls apparent), just move your cursor into the video--then you'll see a list of sections and you can move forward or back as you wish.

Friday Links And Your E-Mail

It's a gigantic mess o' stuff this week.

First off, several of you (Charlie Rosenbury was the first) e-mailed me about the story I posted this week about Jonathan Sullivan's daughter Chloe. Believe it or not, a fictional "Chloe Sullivan" is also a character on Smallville (a series about the adolescent life of Superman). Here's a note from Jess Moran:
Chloe Sullivan is a main character in Smallville, a TV drama about Clark Kent/Superman before he donned the cape and tights. In fact, Chloe is in love with Clark Kent through most of the show. That three year old Chloe doesn't like Superman at all struck me as funny. Also, Chloe develops superpowers of a sort due to exposure to Kryptonite.

I hope Chloe doesn't miss out on superpowers.

A very interesting e-mail, from someone who wishes to remain anonymous, contained some additional comments on the post I made about The Athens Affair last week. In short, it's not the first time something like that has happened, and the precedent was "The Black Chamber" in the 1920's. Here's an excerpt:
Funded by the Army and the State Department, MI-8, was disguised as a New York City company that made commercial codes for businesses. However, their actual mission was to break the diplomatic codes of different nations. A mission they were initially quite successful at completing, breaking codes from several foreign countries.

This organization was led by Herbert Yardley, who wrote a book about the program in 1931 (it had been shut down in 1929). It was an international bestseller and caused quite a scandal.

Here are a few links if you want to read further on this:
Wikipedia Entry
National Security Agency Museum
Yardley's Book (Amazon Link)

Devon Prescott sent me several links to the story of a man who almost no one in this country would recognize, even though he's done more to alleviate world hunger than almost anyone in the last century. His name is Norman Borlaug, and he both developed high-yield, disease-resistant varieties of wheat as well as founding the World Food Prize, which is the agriculture equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

In recognition of his achievments, Borlaug has won the Nobel Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal--a hat trick that has only been accomplished by four other people.

How important has Borlaug been? He's been credited with saving the lives of as many as a billion people.

Links for more information:
Des Moines Register
The Man Who Fed the World (Amazon link)

Vahur Teller sent in a link to a singular event in Estonia: a festival that commemorates "The Singing Revolution," and if you've never heard of it, here's a description from Wikipedia:
Night after night, since 1987, a cycle of singing mass demonstrations eventually collected 300,000 Estonians (more than one-fifth of the population) in Tallinn to sing national songs and hymns that had been strictly forbidden during the years of Soviet occupation, as rock musicians played. The Singing Revolution lasted over four years, with various protests and acts of defiance. In 1991, as Soviet tanks were rolling throughout the countryside in an attempt to quell the Singing Revolution, the Estonian Supreme Soviet together with the Congress of Estonia proclaimed the restoration of the independent State of Estonia and repudiated Soviet legislation. Estonians stood as human shields to protect radio and TV stations from the Soviet tanks. As a result of the revolution, Estonia won its independence without any bloodshed.

How incredible is that?

The Singing Revolution is commemorated every few years with a festival, and here's a link to this year's event: Song Festival. 7% of the population of the country turned out for this.

Here's one more related link, to a 1989 demonstration called the Baltic Way. Here's a description:
"Baltic Way" (also Baltic chain, Estonian: Balti kett, Latvian: Baltijas ceļš, Lithuanian: Baltijos kelias) is the event which occurred on August 23, 1989 when approximately two million people joined their hands to form an over 600 kilometer long human chain across the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). This original demonstration was organized to draw the world's attention to the common historical fate which these three countries suffered. It marked the 50th anniversary of August 23, 1939 when Soviet Union and Germany in the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact divided spheres of interest in Eastern Europe which led to the occupation of these three states.

600 kilometers long! The full Wikipedia entry is here.

Now, some quick hitters.

Sirius sends in a link (via Slashdot) to an article that describes, in algebraic terms, a Möbius strip. Read the abstract here, and if you don't want to get your math on, a more accessible explanation is here.

Sirius doubled up this week with a link--put down your lunch--to an article titled "Larvae Take Up Residence in Man's Head." The article is even more disgusting than the title, and you can read it here.

The best part? The infestation was caused by flies, and his wife's name--is Midge!

DQ reader Damon Caporaso, who saw my note on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sent in a link to a review of the book at his site (Fantasy Book Spot). Read it here.

From Taylor Materna, a link to an article that explains what many people may have previously suspected: the Grim Reaper wears fur. His name is Oscar, he's a cat, and he can (seemingly) identify with unnerving accuracy when elderly patients in a nursing home are near death. Read about it here.

Lastly, Michael O'Reilly sends in a link to an article by an ex-Rockstar employee about life at the company. It's an interesting read, and it's here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rock Band: The Possibilities

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about Rock Band and how it appears that it's changing the paradigm for music games--or, rather, how it could.

Guitar Hero appears to be traveling the annual sports game path, with a new release every year. And that's going to be very profitable for Activision, at least for a while.

Far more interesting, though, is what I believe Rock Band may be doing. I strongly believe that this is not going to be an annual release game

Instead, it will be a music MMO.

Don't call me crazy just yet. Let me explain.

Guitar Hero is incredibly popular. It would be suicide to compete with an established series on the same playing field. Sure, Harmonix took the code with them, but how many people know that besides us?

Almost no one. They're going to see "Guitar Hero" on a box and that's what they'll buy. And I fully expect Guitar Hero to outsell Rock Band this fall by 3-1 or even more.

Harmonix knows that. But if they're smart, it won't matter.

Rock Band, from everything Harmonix has said, is going to be a new way to experience music. It's a game, but the focus isn't on "game," it's on "music."

In other words, Rock Band is going to be a different experience than Guitar Hero, and I expect the Rock Band community to be more deeply involved with the game than the GH community.

Which brings us back to MMO.

Here's what I see Harmonix doing. First, they offer a monthly subscription fee for all downloadable content released that month. In addition, they'll have "special" tracks available only to subscribers.

I'd pay $19.95 a month to get a decent amount of downloadable content and some exclusive tracks. I know a ton of other people who would, too.

Two words: revenue stream. It's an MMO revenue model without having to maintain servers. Which, in a financial sense, is a beautiful, beautiful world.

With that revenue stream, do some easy expansion of the Rock Band world. Add some online lobbies with a few distinct subject areas, where people can meet and (if they choose) go play together. You can meet a session player there who will help you get past a particularly difficult song, and maybe in exchange you give them "status points" or something for their reputation.

For players who have a cumulative career score (all instrument scores combined) over a certain threshold, they might have an elite lobby available only to them.

The reason these lobbies could potentially work so well is that they're not random. People have a common interest and a common purpose. And the more time that people spend hanging out in the world of Rock Band, the more dedicated they become to the game. Time well-spent creates loyalty.

Oh, and if you're one of the top players based on your online scores, you could order official "elite" merchandise. It wouldn't look like a stupid-ass Madden ring, either.

I'm barely scratching the surface here, but the possibilities are almost endless. There are so many cool things you can do to make the game as much of a lifestyle as WOW seems to be. And if you get even 100,000 players into the subscription community (which I think is a very modest goal), with a $19.95 monthly subscription price, it's a revenue stream of almost two million dollars a month.

A la carte pricing would still be available for almost all of the downloadable content, for people who didn't want to subscribe. But it would be cheaper, obviously, to subscribe.

So you've got a two million dollar revenue stream plus all the revenue coming in from single download purchases. And that's with a subscriber base of only 100,000. Focus on the music experience and the future of the game would be very, very bright.

I've really done an inexact job of laying out my thoughts on this, but if I did it fully, it would be so long that no one would bother finishing (if, in fact, anyone bothered finishing this, either). So let me close with a few albums that would be my personal favorites to include as possible downloads:
1. Combat Rock, The Clash
2. Texas Flood, Stevie Ray Vaughn
3. Making Movies, Dire Straits
4. Beggars Banquet, The Rolling Stones

Obviously, there are several thousand other choices, and I left off Dark Side of the Moon because I don't think it would really be playable, but those would be my top choices. And I'd add Revolver or Rubber Soul, but I don't think the Beatles will be "gettable."

I'm very much looking forward to November.

What a Week

In what has been an absolutely horrible week to be a sports fan, I think the biggest story has slipped under almost everyone's radar.

We all know that Michael Vick is under federal indictment for his alleged participation in all kinds of heinous acts involving dogfighting. You can see a description here as well as the full text of the indictment.

Federal cases result in guilty pleas or convictions about 95% of the time, to the best of my knowledge. In other words, Vick has much more than his career (which may be over) to worry about--he could be looking at some serious time in a federal prison.

As I've been following this case, I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop--that shoe being that Vick isn't the only professional athlete involved in dogfighting, and isn't the only NFL player. Clearly, there are others, and more than a few, but the NFL is desperately trying to avoid that issue, because it would be reflect incredibly negatively on the league as a whole.

So far, they had succeeded. Then Deion Sanders wrote a column for a southwest Floria newspaper on Sunday. And Deion was stupid enough to tell the truth.

The column is being widely represented as a defense of Michael Vick, but that's not really accurate. Sure, it's nominally about Vick, but if you read it more closely, it's really about something else. Look at this excerpt:
I believe Vick had a passion for dogfighting. I know many athletes who share his passion. The allure is the intensity and the challenge of a dog fighting to the death. It's like ultimate fighting, but the dog doesn't tap out when he knows he can't win.

It reminds me of when I wore a lot of jewelry back in the day because I always wanted to have the biggest chain or the biggest, baddest car. It gives you status.

"I know many athletes who share his passion." There's the dirty secret, and now it's out, if anyone's paying attention.

Sanders isn't defending Vick--he's defending dogfighting.

I love how he says the "allure" is the "intensity and challenge of a dog fighting to the death." I guess you should know about death, Deion, because the last time you tackled a guy in the NFL, he died of shock.

This whole thing is so sickening it's just beyond words, really.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

All-Pro Football 2K8 (360)

These are easy impressions to write, really.

I'm not going to discuss the lack of modes in the game--we all know that already. I'm just going to discuss the one mode that IS available--season mode.

Before going into detail, though, here's the general tone: both geniuses and idiots worked on this game. The best moments are stunningly, wonderfully good, and the worst moments are bad enough to make you rip your hair out in frustration.

It breaks down very simply though.

For starters, the interface. It would be embarrassing in a freeware game, let alone a major release with a $59.95 price tag. It's just crap. Visual Concepts, when 99.9% of the world uses the "start" button to bring up menus, you're not being anything but goofy by using the "right stick flick" method. It's terrible design and it's completely unnecessary--you're trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

The interface is so incredibly bad that it killed my enthusiasm for the game before I even got to the game.

When you start actually playing, though, it's all different. Yes, the player models are too thin, but I never notice once they start moving, and when they move, the animation is glorious. It's the best animation I've ever seen in a sports game, period.

It's not just the regular animations (which are stellar). It's quarterbacks stumbling when they pull away from center, or punters slipping when they catch a snap in the rain. It's the incredible variety of tackling animations. It's the way players will take a second or two to gather themselves before getting up after a big hit. It's the way that players engage each other at the line of scrimmage. It's how players run to the line of scrimmage when running a no-huddle offense--not all at once, but individually.

One animation hitch: on incomplete passes, the ball bounces around for far too long (and off far too many players, frequently) before it hits the ground. Note to developers: incomplete passes should not deflect like the magic bullet in the Kennedy assassination.

Overall, though, the animation is fantastic. I played NFL2K5 for at least a hundred hours, and this animation far surpasses 2K5, which was already outstanding. And here's something to cry in your beer about: it's not like they worked on this game for three years. This is what 2K6 would have looked like if the NFL and EA hadn't screwed us over with an exclusive license.

Even after a three-year wait, though, it's still a visual feast, and even the stadiums join in, because they're spectacular, with tremendous amounts of detail.

Smart? Most of the time, the A.I. is brilliant. Blocking A.I., in particular, is superb. And the game models certain behaviors far better than I've ever seen. For instance, if you want to throw on the run, you better have that skill--if you're Len Dawson (who was about as mobile as a sofa during his career) and you try to throw on the run, almost every throw wil be off-target. The A.I. even seems to call a better selection of plays during the last two minutes of each half. It's not great, but at least it's not brain dead.

And there's one, glorious new change: kicking. After I've bitched for years about how kicking meters should have disappeared as soon as analog gamepads were invented, it's finally happened. To kick in APF2K8, you pull back the right analog stick to initiate the snap, then move the stick foward in conjunction with the kicker's leg.


It takes a few minutes of practice to adjust, and they could have easily gotten rid of the aiming arrow as well (by having us use the D-pad to change the kicker's alignment), but it's still excellent.

In general, the on-field action is filled with outstanding and memorable moments.

Then, as always with this series, we come to the Achilles Heel.

In NFL2K4 and NFL2K5, the end-of-half and end-of-game A.I. was either a gamekiller (2K4, which had the worst of end-of-game A.I. I've EVER seen in a sports game) or just poor (2K5, which seemed like a big upgrade in comparison). Now you'd think after Jeff Thomas shot his mouth off with the infamous "Just play the game and shut up" quote, they'd make sure that the end-of-game A.I. would be at least competent.

Unfortunately, if you thought that, you were wrong.

In only half a dozen games, I have seen repeated, absolutely egregious use of timeouts. Horrific. The A.I. seemingly has no idea how to use them properly in the last two minutes of a half. It's excruciating to watch, and in single-player mode, it may well be a gamekiller--too many critical moments in a game take place in the last two minutes for the A.I. to be an incompetent duff.

It's not like using timeouts properly is that difficult. It's just one of those things in this series that has been broken for years and never fixed.

If you play online, with friends, then the timeout A.I. is inconsequential, and this game will hold up for a long, long time. If you want to play single-player, though, it will drive you crazy--or, at least, it's driving me crazy.

Do I think season mode in APF2K8 will be better than season mode in Madden? Yes--I would be amazed if Madden were better. Is it worth paying $59.95 for what is essentially a mode instead of a game? That's a much tougher call, and because of that, I'd recommend renting first.

NCAA Football 08 (360): Impressions (#2)

I've played through my Junior season in Legend mode. It's still very interesting, and there are quite a few outstanding moments, but there are some missed opportunities as well. Here's a rundown.

On the positive side:
--turning off the announcers really helped me appreciate how good the crowd sounds are in this game.
--the stadiums just look phenomenal, even with the reduced graphics quality (which was worth the tradeoff, because the framerate is much improved). They did a particularly excellent job conveying the massive size of the stadiums.
--while the animations aren't of the same quality as All-Pro Football 2K8, they're significantly improved and quite good in general. Most notable area that needs improvement: defensive backs need to be tracking the ball with their head, not with their eyes in the back of their head.
--generally, the A.I. uses its timeouts in a reasonable manner.
--the BCS standings calculation, in my limited experience, has been much more accurately replicated.
--like I said previously, I can only speak for the MLB position, but the camera is totally playable and much, much more immersive than the ONE camera in Dynasty mode.
--playing as one player is really, really fun.

On the negative side:
--a bug: all my Legend games are starting in the mid-to-late afternoon. Every single one for three seasons, which is a huge drag.
--another bug: sometimes the sound will reset to a much lower volume during a game, and it stays that way until you reboot.
--two primary gameplay issues: too many interceptions and too difficult to run (on default All-American settings). I'm going to fiddle with these for the next season and see to what degree they can be improved.
--the wind rarely blows strongly. Playing as Texas Tech, the wind should be whipping across the plains on a regular basis.
--in Super Sim mode, change of possession plays don't pause for your input before the game continues. This means you see something flash up quickly and then you're on the field, wondering exactly what happened.
--the holder for field goals should not be looking back at the kicker when the ball is snapped. It happens often enough that it's not a rarity.
--the ESPN.com features have a clunky interface and aren't nearly as much fun as the Sports Illustrated covers use to be.
--in Legend mode, it's very easy to interfere with a pass receiver and not get called for interference.
--the "Pontiac Game Changing Performance" play is often completely meaningless to the outcome of the game. A little thing, but you notice.

I'd also like to a few changes for next year. I know it's highly unlikely that any of this will happen, but here goes:
--if I'm only controlling my player, then why are there still catch circles and that little yellow circle to signify drops? The graphics are good enough that we can see what's happening--we don't need those artificial visual clues. Same thing with the big-ass clown star at my feet--you could just change the color of my shoes or something without drawing me so far out of the game.
--I understand why my assignment is diagrammed on the field, but let me turn it off once I understand what I'm supposed to do. There's no reason to still have it up during the play.
--it's time to convert to big-boy timekeeping and add an accelerated clock feature. Don't make me play 5:00 quarters to get an accurate number of plays--that's totally goofy.
--it would be a significant improvement to Legend mode if mini-games were tied to the "evening events." For instance, when you see a message that a coach made you go to the gym for mandatory weight training, use something similar to the Combine weightlifting mini-game in Madden. Do that with as many of those evening events as possible and wind up with half a dozen mini-games or so.
--make practice meaningful by making it possible to improve your ratings based on your performance, even after you're first string on the depth chart.

I see more and more people complaining about this or that in Dynasty mode, which I'll probably be starting next week, but my experience in Legend mode has been tremendously enjoyable.

Superhero Chloe Saves The Day

DQ reader Jonathan Sullivan's daughter Chloe is three, and he sent in this story after reading about Eli's "vacation" to South Korea:
Chloe is very into superheroes right now; Spider-Man is a particular favorite, as are Batman and Supergirl (but not Superman -- she says he's "a bad guy," for reasons unknown and, perhaps, best left unexplored).

Last Sunday, she was showing me a tiny pocket Bible her grandmother had purchased her. It's a regular Bible, so there are no pictures to match the text and she can't read any of it. There is, however, a flyleaf page with some pictures of Jesus in the traditional pose -- little kids around him, He's holding a lamb, He has the non-lamb-holding arm extended in a friendly benediction. The illustrator clearly drew from the "hippie Jesus" school of drawing, because He's got longish hair and a look on his face that is completely mellow.

"Look, it's Jesus!" Chloe said.

"Cool. What's he doing?" I asked.

She looked at it, a little puzzled.

I tried to be helpful: "Is he teaching the kids?"

She thought for a minute, and then said the single most amusing thing I'd ever heard come out of her mouth: "No. They tied him up. Spider-Man's going to save him, and then they're going to eat that sheep."

Anyway, she could tell that I thought this was incredibly funny, so she's been making up stories involving Jesus and His SuperPals™. During the last week, I've heard gripping tales about how Batman and Jesus fought a dog, how Jesus punched a guy who stole Supergirl's purse, and how Jesus and his unidentified friend went fishing, but the friend left because "he didn't like Jesus." No word on whether Jesus' fishing buddy is Aquaman.

I don't consider myself a paragon of Bible learnin', but I'm pretty sure I haven't seen those before.

If I start using the phrase "and then they're going to eat that sheep," don't be surprised.

Total Pro Golf 2: Indie Postmortem at Gamasutra

Gary Gorski has a long feature over at Gamasutra about Total Pro Golf 2 and the development process. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it's a terrific game, and it's interesting to read about the kind of evaluation they went through between the first and second games.

Fair warning: I get mentioned, which is the least interesting part of the article. Otherwise, it's a good read, and you can see it here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Console Post of the Week (Supplemental): Apples and Oranges, Plus June NPD Numbers

Take a look at this story:
Microsoft's growing troubles with the Xbox 360 video game console appear to be catching up to the company. Sales of the gaming machine plunged 60% in the fiscal fourth quarter, Microsoft disclosed Thursday.

In its earnings statement for the quarter, Microsoft said it shipped 700,000 Xbox 360 units during the period, compared to 1.8 million in the fiscal fourth quarter of 2006 -- a fall off of 61%.

This is one of the sloppiest pieces of journalism I've ever seen. In the second paragraph, Microsoft says it shipped 700,000 360's during the fiscal fourth quarter of 2007. They shipped 1.8 million in the same period last year.

Remember, Microsoft says it SHIPPED that many units.

In the first paragraph, though, the author of the article says "sales of the gaming machine plunged 60% in the fiscal fourth quarter."

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's apples and oranges. What this actually means is that Microsoft really did stuff the retail channel between comprehension at the end of last year, and their shipments are much lower because there was a gigantic inventory overhang to work off.

Oh, and it means one other thing: Microsoft is trying to drain the retail inventory swamp of the "old" units--you know, the ones that have catastrophically high failure rates. Even if the new units aren't being manufactured in quantity yet, there's no reason to keep shipping what they know is likely to break.

Having said that, let's look at the June NPD numbers, then try to do a real comparison:
Wii: 381,780
PlayStation 2: 270,760
Xbox 360: 198,440
PlayStation 3: 98,470

I believe June was a 5-week data month, so the PS3 is still chugging along at 20k units a week. Like I said, I think that's the floor for them in terms of weekly sales at $599, so it will be interesting when the July numbers come out in a few weeks to see the effect of the "closeout" pricing on the 60GB model.

In terms of NPD numbers, the 360 is actually down 33% for the fiscal fourth quarter. Even if Europe had a substantially steeper drop, at most I'm guessing they're down 40-45%. If Europe dropped at the same rate, then they're down a third.

And having said that--Microsoft, WTF are you doing? Do you think you can afford a sales decline like that?

I've been thinking about all this, and here's what I believe is a reasonable explanation. Microsoft knows their sales have dropped sharply, but they didn't want to cut prices on the console until they'd fixed the design flaw. Until then, they'd just be churning consoles with an incredibly high failure rate--it would be a financial disaster.

Once they believe that the inventory pipeline is full of the new units, that's when they'll want to cut the price. And you know they must be busting their ass to get as many redesigned units into retail as possible before Halo 3 ships on 9/25.

I've been shorting Nintendo in these weekly posts, but I've got a few items this week.

First, thanks to Stefan Stirzaker for the news that one of Australia's largest retailers, Harvery Norman, is negotiating with Nintendo to carry the Wii in its stores. Harvey Norman is the leading retailer for the 360 and PS3 in Australia, but didn't carry the Wii at launch--in part, due to inventory availability.

A note of comparison (sent in by Andy Herron): the Wii is $350US. The PS3 is $867US ($999 Australian). Ouch--if you think people aren't going to want to buy a $599 console in the US, how many are going to want to buy what is nearly a nine hundred dollar console?

Next is a link sent in by Steven Davis to an article where Japanese television executives are blaming the Wii for--well, here's an excerpt:
...Japanese TV executives are claiming that Nintendo’s Wii is responsible for a major decline in television viewing figures during the economically critical “golden hour”.

Not one show on any commercial station managed to attain more than a 9 percent share of audience viewing figures last week, something that hasn’t happened for nearly twenty years, The Times

Executives are now suggesting it is the Wii that is largely responsible for the decline in prime-time viewing figures.

The full article is here.

Marc Klein sent in a link to an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto, who is just as fascinating as always. You can read the interview here, and it reminded me of another difference in terms of how Nintendo and Sony are handling public relations: Nintendo's developers seem to give far more interviews than their executives. With Sony, the executives do all the talking, and seem to far more adept at jamming their foot up their asses.

They do it so often, in fact, that it seems to have become a hobby.

One last note. We've heard over and over and over again that no third-party Nintendo games are going to sell. Here's the list of the top ten console games in the NPD game sales in June:
--Wii Mario Party 8: 426k
--Wii Play w/ remote: 293k
--Forza Motorsport 2: 197k
--PS2 Guitar Hero 2 w/ Guitar: 197k
--360 Guitar Hero 2 w/ Guitar: 177k
--Wii Pokemon Battle: 157k
--Wii Resident Evil 4
--360 The Darkness
--PS2 Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 2
--PS2 Transformers: the Game

I saw somewhere (sorry, don't remember where) that Resident Evil 4 sold about 150,000 copies.

It's clear from those numbers that Wii owners (remember, still only about 60% of the installed base in the U.S. compared to the 360) want to buy software. And unlike the Gamecube generation, no one seems to be complaining about the support offered by Nintendo.

If third-party developers are whining that Wii owners won't buy their software, maybe they should put out some decent games.

That's a "them" problem, so to speak. Not Nintendo's.

Monday, July 23, 2007

June NPD Numbers

Wii: 381,800 units
Xbox 360: 198,400
PS3: 98,500.

That's a five-week data period, I believe, not four, so PS3 and 360 sales were essentially flat from last month (on a sales per week basis), and Wii sales were actually down slightly.

Analysis will be up tomorrow morning.

South Korea and Newton Van Tootin

Eli 5.11 (version change on July 31), has been away from school for four weeks, all of which were jammed with various summer camps. He won't be going to this school in the fall--he'll be going into first grade--but he wanted to go back for a few last weeks (mostly, to get a birthday party at school, I'm guessing).

So last Monday, he went back to school. I always pick him up on Mondays at noon and take him to lunch, and when I walked out to the playground, his favorite teacher rushed up to me. "I am SO jealous about your vacation!" she said. She was just beaming. "South Korea, parasailing, skydiving--it sounds fantastic!"


Eli waved at me and started walking over. In the meantime, I saw his other teacher, and she said "Well, Eli had quite a summer vacation!"

Eli hugged me from behind, and we started walking toward his school building. I said "Buddy, what did you tell your teachers about a vacation?"

He immediately looked a little embarrassed.

"South Korea?" I asked. "Parasailing? Skydiving?"

"Um, yes," he said, with a sly little smile.

That's right. My son (and your Internet-adopted son) convinced both his teachers that he went to South Korea on vacation, and got to parasail as well as skydive. Even better, he drew a picture of himself parasailing (with a giant rainbow behind him) during art class. It's on our refrigerator now.

I explained to him that he had to be careful about who he tried to fool with made-up stories, but the whole time I was fighting my face, because I was a split-second away from bursting into laughter.

I told this story to my boss, and it was a good thing I did, because he told me a story about his brother George, when he was still a boy in the 1950's.

In the summers, George went to an exclusive boys sports camp in Mount Ida, Arkansas, called Ozark Boys Camp. My boss's dad was a printer, and he did all the printing for the camp, which he bartered in exchange for a camp session each summer.

This camp was a big deal, so renowned that kids actually came from outside the country just to attend the camp.

When George was twelve, he went away for his four-week session at camp, and when he came back, he told his mother that a Dutch boy had come to camp that summer.

A boy named Newton Van Tootin.

Van Tootin's father was an actual prince, and when Newton flew to the U.S., he was accompanied by both the family chauffeur as well as the family chef. Each afternoon at 3 p.m., his chef--driven by the family chauffeur--would arrive at the camp and give homemade ice cream to Newton and all his friends.

George's mother believed him.

A few months later, his mother saw the camp director at church. After exchanging pleasantries, this conversation began.

"I heard all about the Dutch boy," said the mother. "That must have been very exciting."

"Dutch boy?" asked the camp director. "We had several boys from France, but I don't remember anyone from Holland.

"You know," said his mother. "The one who got ice cream every day from the family chef."

"What?" asked the camp director.

"His father was a prince," said George's mother. The camp director just stared at her with a blank look on her face. "The Dutch boy," his mother repeated. "Newton Van Tootin."

The camp director smiled. "Did George tell you this?" He asked.

"Why yes, he did," said George's mother, and the camp director burst out laughing. It seems that George had quite a reputation for being a prankster at camp.

This, obviously, secured him a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Console Post of the Week: Microsoft

I've been thinking about the scenario of a full Xbox 360 recall over the last week, and I've come up with one more potential scenario.

A voluntary recall.

Don't want to send in your 360 for replacement? Fine--you still get the three-year warranty, and if it fails, it can be replaced then. If you do want to get it replaced with one of the "newly unshitty" units, though, you contact Microsoft, they check the serial number, and if your unit qualifies, it gets replaced.

The best part of this scheme, for Microsoft, is that they don't have to contact customers--we get the choice, but we also have the responsibility of contacting them.

Plus, if they announced this at, say, the end of January, it wouldn't cut into their holiday sales, and nobody's going to buy a console in February, anyway. If they get flooded with replacement requests in February, it's no big deal.

That seems workable compared to any other scenario I can envision.

The one downside in a profitability sense is if they just wait for consoles to fail, the BOM is steadily moving downward on the unit, so replacing one in June is cheaper than replacing one in February, for example.

As class action suits rain down on Microsoft, I think some kind of recall becomes a more likely possibility. And a voluntary recall would blunt critics quite effectively.

If you want to know some of the potential numbers involved, take a look at this outstanding analysis by DQ reader Skip Key, based on information revealed in the Microsoft conference call:

We know that $1.057B of that operating loss for the quarter was the one-time charge due to the warranty. So without that, the operating loss would have been $142m, which would put them well on the way to profitability, I'd think.

We also got further information on the $1.057b charge. It was about a 50/50 split on charges based on the existing warranty, and forward-looking charges, which they'd already announced. But the interesting thing was that 35% of that number is for 'existing inventory writeoffs'. And one of the analysts asked about that in the q&a section of the webcast. The inventory writeoffs are for returned 360s that can't be refurbed profitably. So that gives us approximately $370m in returned 360s that are essentially going to be junked.

So this gives us a pretty hard baseline for RROD (red ring of death) returns. Let's say that a core 360 without drive, controllers, etc. costs $250-$300. I bet it's less than that, but that's a good round number. So basically you'd be writing off any unit that cost more to refurb than that. At $300/per, that covers 1.23m xboxen. At $250/per, that covers 1.48m 360's. So using these figures somewhere between 10.6% and 12.7% of all shipped 360s were returned under warranty with this problem, junked so badly they couldn't be refurbed. What percentage of all the returns for this is that? Half? If it's half, we're right in the 21-26% return rate that I figured they had, and within spitting distance of the anecdotal 30%.

The main other interesting thing was the forward looking statements. For every other division they were projecting revenue increases for FY08 that varied by 1-2%. IE, they'd project a 12-13% revenue increase. But for the Entertainment division they projected a range of 10-19%, which is huge.

This got brought up in the analyst Q&A. And it was confirmed that the wide range on the guidance was because they didn't want to tip their hand on 360 pricing strategy. So lets take that 9% range and shrink it to 7%. As I figure that, they basically see that 7% range as the difference between different price cuts. 7% of revenues on this year is ~$426m. At this point, I doubt that they do a price cut before Thanksgiving, but I'd be shocked if they don't do one then. If the cut is in November, that leaves 8 months in the fiscal year. My guess is that this $426m range represents a $100 range on possible price cuts, which would imply that they expect to sell about 4.2m units from November through June. So what level of price cuts would give them 500k/month sales? I don't think $50 would do it. $100 might. So this probably represents that they plan to cut between $50-150 or between $100-200 on the price, probably after Halo 3, but before Christmas.

Let's take a closer look. Key points:

--$370 million of the $1.057b charge is for returned units that are just going to be scrapped instead of refurbed.

--I think the $250 BOM estimate is probably closer to correct (at this point) than $300, so the 1.48M (let's just round up to 1.5 million) number is probably the best estimate. So Microsoft is scrapping, potentially, a million and a half units.
--Microsoft gave a wide range on guidance for the Entertainment division so that future action on prices couldn't be divined by the guidance. So they are planning a pricing action, but the range makes it impossible to nail down with any certainly.
--Skip mentioned that a $100 price cut might get the 360 to 500k units a month in sales. I think it might double holiday sales, but expecting a permanent doubling of the weekly sales rate is less likely.

Here's the most interesting part of the analysis, and it's quite fun to speculate here. If the BOM for the 360 now costs $300 (which I think is fairly close), then it means that (Skip's calculation) about 1.25 million units will be scrapped, based on the $375M that's set up for "existing inventory writeoffs."

If the installed base is around 10 million units at this point, that projects to a staggering failure rate. Remember, they're not scrapping all returns, just the ones that can't be refurbished profitably (red ring of death units). Skip notes that even with a very high writeoff rate of 50% of returns, for example, it would mean that the overall failure rate (on a customer basis, not a unit basis) would be at least 25%.

Incredible. That's so far past "nightmare" that it doesn't even slow down as it passes nightmare.

Tomorrow, Nintendo.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows

I finished The Deathly Hallows Saturday night and it was terrific, a sensational end to the series. There were a couple of things I wish had been handled differently, but after reading these books for a decade, I was fine with whatever J.K. Rowling wanted to do.

Literary critics seem to enjoy savaging Rowling's writing ability, but I think that's totally unfair. Maybe they would be less critical if her books had sold 5,000 copies instead of 500 million. I don't think it's a sign of low ability that she wrote books that everyone could read, including children. All I know is that I've never looked forward to individual books more eagerly than hers, and during a story that spanned a million words over seven books, I was totally entertained for about 999,000 of them.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Lawsuit Ahoy!

The Console Post of the Week will be Monday. I have a ton of data points to work in, so I'm going to spend more time writing it than usual.

And in a non-gaming note, I swam today for the first time after surgery two weeks ago. I was only allowed to do 400 yards, but I still really enjoyed getting back in the pool, even though it hurt a bit.

Attention seeker Denis Dyack, founder of Silicon Knights, is now involved in a lawsuit against Epic, creator of the Unreal 3 engine. Here's an excerpt from the complaint (thanks Gamasutra):
The suit initially alleges that: "Rather than provide support to Silicon Knights and Epic’s other many licensees of the Engine, Epic intentionally and wrongfully has used the fees from those licenses to launch its own game to widespread commercial success while simultaneously sabotaging efforts by Silicon Knights and others to develop their own video games."

"Sabotage" is an ugly, ugly word.

In essence, what they're alleging is that Epic used an advanced version of the Unreal 3 engine to develop Gears of War, but purposely withheld this version for months from engine licensees.

Here's another excerpt:
A key point of contention is the E3 demo of Too Human, which was not well received - the suit alleges: "The final development kit for the Xbox 360 was released by Microsoft in early September, 2005, meaning that Epic was obligated to deliver a fully operable version of the Engine to Silicon Knights by no later than March, 2006."

"That delivery date is significant, since compliance by Epic would have given Silicon Knights time to prepare an appropriate demonstration version of its Microsoft Xbox 360 game, Too Human, for the very important industry trade show, E3, two months later in May, 2006."

It continues: "Epic apparently was able to achieve a very useable version of the Engine for the Xbox 360 – the version that it kept to itself, for use only on its Gears of War game (as discussed below), to the detriment of Silicon Knights and Epic’s other licensees, as set forth in more detail below. Epic’s plan to avoid its obligations and hoard all of the necessary functionalities not only harmed Silicon Knights and all of Epic’s other licensees in the industry, but also gave Epic a clearly unfair advantage in the industry."

This guy's starting to sound like Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, demanding the key to the strawberries.

This is the same Denis Dyack, mind you, who already bitterly complained about the E3 evaluation process, claiming that it was unfair to his game, which was greeted with a giant sucking sound.

It is unknown whether Mr. Dyack would have bitterly complained about the evaluation process if his game had been awarded Best In Show.

Here's Dyack's problem right now, though: in the interview where he bitched about E3, he was blaming someone else for something that already gone badly. By suing Epic before his game ships, he's making us all assume that Too Human is about to go badly.

That seems to be a very poor marketing strategy.

Oh, and if you were looking for Too Human this month, don't bother. EB Games now has it listed as a 1/1/2008 release, which is only a placeholder date. That just means the game isn't shipping this fall and no new ship date has been announced.

That's not a bad move, because with the games it was going up against, it was going to get absolutely crushed. Then I guess we'd get a scathing interview with Dyack in which he bitterly complained that the release schedule was unfair.

Having said all that, I'm not saying the lawsuit is without merit--I'm not in position to even comment on that. But Dyack is getting a reputation as a whiner the old-fashioned way--by earning it.

Friday Links!

A monster post today. Say good-bye to your morning at work.

The most interesting link today comes from Jess Moran, who sent me a brilliant article from Vanity Fair about Didier Drogba, a soccer player. Here's the opening:
A single soccer match achieves what five years of combat and negotiations could not: an apparent end to Ivory Coast's civil war. The man who brought the warring sides together was not a politician or a gun-toting strongman, but Didier Drogba, the star striker for Ivory Coast.

The story is fascinating, and you can read it here.

Cliff Eyler sent me a link to an article about evolution and butterflies. In short, the response of a particular species of butterfly to a parasite appears to have produced the fastest evolutionary change ever observed. Read about it here.

Here's an amazing link from Steven Davis: a how-to guide to building your own Enigma machine (it's called "Enigma-E"). I know, that sounds crazy, but just take a look and you'll be convinced. It's here. There was also an eBay auction this week for a fully-functional, museum quality Enigma machine this week, but it's been pulled.

Steven also sent in links to a story about the differential analyzer (an analog computer) used by Barnes Willis in WWII. It's the only original, complete differential analyzer in the world, according to the story, it's a great read, and you can find it here, along with an explanation of how differential analyzers work here.

Intel has introduced a new stepping for Core 2 Duo processors with absolutely insane pricing. They might as well be giving them away, and thanks to that crazy pricing, I'll be building a new system within about a month. You can see all the processor and pricing details here.

Roy Scorup sent in a link to an article about the recent flooding in China--which has displaced TWO BILLION rats. Don't be eating your breakfast while you're reading it, but it's fascinating and it's here.

Grifin Cheng sent in a link to an article about a new focusing technique called superlensing. Here's an excerpt:
Light cannot be focused on anything smaller than its wavelength—or so says more than a century of physics wisdom. But a new study now shows that it is possible, if light is focused extremely close to a very special kind of lens.

Read it here.

Sirius sent in a link to a remarkable article about what may be a new species of chimps. Oh, and they like to eat lion meat. It's a bizarre story, and you can read it here.

Here's an excellent sports link from Will: the Wages of Wins Journal. It's written by three economics professors (who also wrote The Wages of Wins book) who apply economic and stastistical issues to various sports topics--often, and most interestingly, the question of player value. It's a very good read, and you can find it here.

Jesse Leimkuehler sent in a link to an article about the strangest sights in Google Earth, which you can see here.

Rob sent in a link to an article about eight scientists who may dramatically change our lives in the future. Very interesting, and you can read it here.

From Doug Walsh, a link to a news story about a toilet paper thief who was arrested. Her last name, of course, was Butts. Two-play drama for your reading pleasure right here.

Mythos (a note)

DQ reader Simon Caters e-mailed with a very good point about Mythos (which I mentioned as flying under the rader yesterday):
...the new definition of “flying under the radar” now includes multi-page spreads in PC Gamer ( http://www.hellgateguru.com/2007/06/contentpalooza-pc-gamer-touches-mythos-and-likes-it/) and Games for Window Magazine (June 2007 – pp20-22). And both multiple page stories made reference to Fate.

I started laughing when I read his e-mail, because he's right. I remember reading those previews and promptly forgetting about them, even though I was very interested in the game. So Mythos hasn't been flying under the radar, really--it's been flying under my radar.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Note

For the first time in quite a while, I've gotten fairly behind on e-mail this week. Recovering from surgery, writing posts, and two new football games have almost done me in.

In a good way, obviously.

What's really done me in, though, is that for the last ten days I've been re-reading all the Harry Potter books in anticipation of the final book on Saturday. I finished Half-Blood Prince tonight, so I'm ready to go, but adding that to everything else was a backbreaker.

So if you haven't gotten a reply from an e-mail, it's coming. I'll be reading the new book almost non-stop until I finish it, and then everything will quickly get back to normal.

Seriously, though--two new football games, a new Harry Potter book, and a British Open all in the same week. It's got to be one of the greatest entertainment weeks of my life.

All-Pro Football 2K8 (360)

I was hoping to have impressions up today, but I need to wait until I spend a few more hours taking a look. Parts of this game are absolutely phenomenal--the animation, for example, which is the finest animation I've ever seen in a sports game (and a significant upgrade from NFL2K5)--and other parts are an absolute mess (the front end, which would embarrass a freeware program, is a good example).

I could get past the off-field issues, because the on-field action has generally been spectacular, but once again, the Achilles Heel of this series has reared its ugly head--game management in the last two minutes of a half. I've seen some A.I. decisions that have just been drop-dead stupid, and I want to explore this a bit more before I write up full impressions.


Fate was one of my top five PC games of the year in 2005. It has been described as a Diablo "clone," but that really doesn't do the game justice--it was quirky and full of personality, and it was just impossible to stop playing.

You can see the game's website here.

The game was created by Travis Baldree, who left Wild Tangent in 2005 to join Flagship Studios (Hellgate: London). At Flagship, Baldree was asked to create a game using the core technology of of Hellgate: London, but on a smaller scale, specifically to test the online component.

I probably butchered part of that description, but I think that's essentially what happened.

The game is called Mythos, and it's in beta now. Two DQ readers (at least) are in the beta, and their impressions are highly favorable. There's also a thread over at Octopus Overlords that includes impressions as well as participation by Travis Baldree himself. The game's website is here, and you can see screenshots there as well.

This game has really been flying under the radar, but based on the excellence of Fate, I think it has tremendous potential.

The Windbreaker of Pwnership

Here's an e-mail I received from DQ reader Tim Hibbetts in reference to the "Madden Championship Ring" post I made earlier this week:
In reference to the championship rings and other elite garb, I can distinctly recall my step-dad with his Windbreaker of Pwnership. It was the early 80's and if you could get a high enough score on the old Activision games (Pitfall, River Raid, et al.), you could send a photo of the game screen as proof to them and they would send you a patch. He did so and soon had a purple nylon covering fit for kings (kings of us geeks, anyway). He wore it with pride.

That's a great story by itself, but then Tim got his mother to send him a picture:

Pwnership, old-school.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Impressions: NCAA Football 2008 (360) (with a note about All-Pro Football 2K8 (360) as well)

It's been three years since I played a great football game.

Just for reference purposes, here is a list of the football games I considered great in their time:
TV Sports Football (Cinemaware, Amiga, 1988).
Front Page Sports: Football (Sierra, PC, 1992)
Front Page Sports: Football Pro (Sierra, PC, 1993)
NFL Gameday (989 Sports, Playstation, 1995)
NFL 2K1 (Sega, Dreamcast, 2000)
ESPN NFL 2K5 (Visual Concepts, Xbox, 2005)

Tecmo Super Bowl isn't on the the list because it was far less of a simulation (although it was really fun).

The point, though, is that I've played almost every football game that's been released for the last twenty years, and I've listed six as "great" titles.

In other words, it's a high bar.

So when I say that I strongly believe that NCAA Football 2008 AND All-Pro Football 2K8 might both get added to that list, I'm as surprised as you probably are.

Let me tell you how much I've played and what I've done in both games. It's still early, but I am deeply impressed by both.

Since I got NCAA on Saturday night (thanks JT!), and I've put in 6+ hours at this point, let's talk about it first. I'll have All-Pro Football 2K8 impressions on Thursday.

You guys know I'm a big Dynasty guy. I really, really enjoy the recruiting engine in NCAA (I've said before that I think it's the single best feature implementation in a team sports game), but the on-field action has never had the same quality (which I've written about in detail before).

This year, though, I decided to take Campus Legend for a spin first. I created a middle linebacker, and the game took me right to the high school playoffs.

I figured I'd be playing Dynasty mode in thirty minutes.

Here's how Legend mode basically works in-game. When you're on the field, the play is called for you, and you can't make changes. You also can't change your player, so if you get beat, there's no pressing a button and automatically changing to the player closest to the ball.

If your ass gets beat, then it gets beat.

The first thing I noticed, though, was that the camera angle was playable. In Madden last year, the camera angles in Superstar mode were shanked beyong belief--totally unplayable--so having a workable camera angle was not a given.

The camera is much closer to the field. Much closer. And because of that, the action feels much more intense.

The second thing I noticed is how difficult it was to play as a middle linebacker (All-American difficulty). Read a key wrong, get out of position, and you're done for the play, because you just don't have enough speed to catch up. It's the thinking man's position on defense.

The third thing I noticed was how excellent the sim options were. When you're not on the field, instead of the game playing in hyperspeed or something, you have multiple options: you can sim until you're back on the field, you can sim play by play (with a nice graphic overlay that is basically a drive chart with a play-by-play outcome in text), or you can watch one play at a time.
You're watching from the sidelines, though--literally. The camera angle is a few feet above what it would be if you were actually standing on the sidelines.

Giving us multiple options in terms of what happens when we're not on the field is good design. And it means you can sim play-by-play as long as you want, then watch a critical play or two near the end of drives. It's terrific.

The high school atmosphere was terrific, too, with small-town fields to play every game but the state finals. The finals (I was in a Texas high school) were in Austin at the University of Texas, which is a 90,000 seat stadium, and while the stands were full (not realistic, although 45,000 have attended high school games, believe it or not), it just felt exciting, not like a gaffe.

I had a huge number of scholarship offers, but I wanted to go somewhere and work my way up. Texas Tech (great offense, lousy defense), offered to let me come in as 3rd string, which was perfect, so I went there.

Once you're enrolled in school, you see a calendar view of the schedule. Monday through Friday, you have an afternoon practice and an evening activity (you can sim through them if you prefer).

Practice consists of ten plays, and by making plays (for a middle linebacker, it's tackles, sacks, forced fumbles, etc.), you earn points. You'll be told how many points you are away from the next level in the depth chart, and when you've earned enough points, you move up.

Ten plays is the perfect length of time, and the practices are fun, although you'll probably start simming them after you become a starter.

The evening activity consists of a situation where you have to choose a course of action. Not every night--some nights you just hang out in your dorm room and study--but quite often, you'll be given a choice. For example, you might need to choose between playing basketball with your friends or staying in your dorm room to study. Study, and your GPA gets a boost. Play hoops, and some of your physical attributes might increase, as well as your popularity.

You might also get hurt.

It's not complicated, but it also only takes a few seconds for each night, and I've enjoyed making decisions about the situations they present you with. It could be more fleshed out, but it's a good effort.

When the season started, I was still third string, and for the first game, all the action I saw was on special teams. I ran my ass ragged on the kickoff and punt teams.

This was also the only time the camera confused me, because when you turn to run downfield on a kickoff return, for example, the camera swivels to stay behind you, which means you're looking away from the defense until you turn back around. This is totally confusing at first, but as soon as you remember that left-trigger makes you strafe, you can turn the camera around whenever you want.

Before the second game, I managed to move up to second string, and I still played on the kickoff team but not the punt team. I also managed to get in a blowout for a few series in the fourth quarter. It was easy to notice the difference in speed and size between high school and college players (I noticed it right away in the first practice, actually).

After the fifth game of the season, I finally earned enough points in practice to start. No more special teams, either--when I got promoted to starter, my special teams days were over.

Playing as a single player, in a college atmosphere, is incredibly intense. It's amazing, really, how focused you have to be, particularly as a defensive player. Tech's defense is not good, and I had to make plays to stop drives. Make a mistake, and I didn't have five all-conference players to cover for me.

We played UT near the end of the season, in Austin, and UT was rated #2 in the country. Seriously, I was amped for the game. And we jumped out to a 13-0 lead. It was freaking great, and I was playing really well--I had four tackles after the first quarter, and seven at halftime.

In the third quarter, it was 13-7, and UT was on our three-yard line. Second down. They ran an option play, and I stuck the quarterback right between the numbers. I mean, I tatered him.

With 90,000 people in the stands, I'd just saved a touchdown and put a brutal lick on their quarterback.

The next play, I was assigned in man coverage to the tight end. Right before the snap, I cheated over just a couple of steps toward the middle of the line--I expected them to run the ball up the gut. The quarterback took two steps back and threw a strike to the tight end--my assignment--and they scored.

If I stop that play, it's going to be 13-10, at worst, and we would have still had the lead. Instead, UT took the lead, and they wound up going on to win the game.

That was the single most important play in the game, and I blew my assignment.

And it was great.

There's no sense of that kind of responsibility when you're calling plays, and always auto-switching to the man with the ball. You can always make it up later.

This time, though, I had to go to the sidelines and watch my offense puke all over themselves. I was totally helpless.

What you also get a strong sense of is how often you can influence a play without making a tackle. Sometimes just occupying the right space at the right time is enough to disrupt the flow of the offense, and disrupting the flow can blow up a play. It's a subtlety that video games almost never capture, but it's captured extremely well here.

During the season, I saw the offense score two touchdowns in 90 seconds to win a game that we had no business winning, and also saw them not even get a first down for the first quarter and a half against Oklahoma (I actually muttered "bitches" after their fifth three and out in a row). I have never--never--seen a game capture the "boom or bust" essence of Tech's offense that well. At times, it was downright uncanny.

I've always said that great sports games involve variety inside repetition, and my first season in Legend mode epitomized that. It was a phenomenal experience. I've had so much fun in Legend mode (now in the third game of my sophomore season), that I still haven't touched Dynasty mode.

The game looks much better than it did in the demo, by the way--surprisingly so. The animations have also improved significantly this year (particularly when players engage--I've been very impressed). The game also feels polished, and I can't remember the last time I said that about an EA Sports game.

Here are a few notes about exactly what I've done.
--I turned off the announcers. I'm on the field--not watching on television. It makes the game much more intense.
--I'm using five-minute quarters. If you're playing mostly on special teams and simming 90% of the plays, it will give you about 130 plays a game. If you're starting, it will give you about 115-120. That's below the real college average of around 140, but I prefer the slightly streamlined version.

If you're wondering why five-minute quarters work in this mode, it's because no time is taken off between plays except for pre-play time at the line of scrimmage when you're on the field.
--I adjusted some of the kicking sliders, and I think these are significantly better.
CPU and Human power on field goals=30
CPU and Human accuracy on field goals=60
CPU Punt power=60
Human Punt power=40
I haven't actually tested kickoff power yet, but it's too high. You might try 40, which would probably be about right.

Games in Legend mode, if you're not watching plays when you're off the field, take about 25 minutes (if you're simming play-by-play). That's if you're starting and it's not a blowout, because if you're way ahead or behind, you may get pulled from the game (another nice feature).

So far, it's been a thrill (another word I rarely use). I can easily see myself playing just this mode for 50+ hours, trying out different positions and playing through careers.

There's another 50+ hours, at least, in Dynasty mode. Or more.

By the way, the guys at Blog for the Sports Gamer are going to be putting up impressions, and they're always thorough and generally spot-on. Bill Abner has already noted that he really likes the changes they made to recruiting, which is a very good sign. Take a look at what they've put up so far here.

I'll be spending quite a bit of time in Dynasty mode, but it may not be for a week or so. Right now, I'm having too much fun to change over.

The Athens Affair

While I work away on NCAA and APF2K8 impressions, here's something to keep you busy.

Nathan Weber sent me a link to a story about something called "The Athens Affair," which I hadn't even heard of before. Here's an excerpt:
On 9 March 2005, a 38-year-old Greek electrical engineer named Costas Tsalikidis was found hanged in his Athens loft apartment, an apparent suicide. It would prove to be merely the first public news of a scandal that would roil Greece for months.

The next day, the prime minister of Greece was told that his cellphone was being bugged, as were those of the mayor of Athens and at least 100 other high-ranking dignitaries, including an employee of the U.S. embassy.

...Even before Tsalikidis's death, investigators had found rogue software installed on the Vodafone Greece phone network by parties unknown. Some extraordinarily knowledgeable people either penetrated the network from outside or subverted it from within, aided by an agent or mole.

The perpetrators haven't been caught, but this article details the investigation and the methods they used. It's an absolutely fascinating story, and you can read it here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


I certainly didn't see this coming (thanks Gamespot):
...Peter Moore, corporate vice president of the entertainment and devices division of Microsoft's interactive entertainment business, is quitting.

Electronic Arts has confirmed to GameSpot that Peter Moore has been tapped to become the new president of EA Sports. The move will put Moore in charge of one of the top third-party publisher's four divisions, which were established in a recent company-wide reorganization.

That certainly doesn't sound like a promotion.

I don't think it's unfair to make the assumption that Moore was forced out, but here's an interesting question: was he forced out because he was too slow to respond to the 360 reliability issues, or was he forced out because he pushed through the warranty extension to three years for the red ring of death?

Moore's departure comes as Microsoft continues to be hounded by reliability issues and questions. EB Games Australia recalled every unit they had in stock (see here), which, while it apparently wasn't related to the design issues that have allegedly been fixed, is still incredibly embarrassing. Also, the mainstream press is still hammering Microsoft about reliability, so it appears that the warranty extension has done little to make the bad press go away. As an example, here's an MSNBC article (thanks Sirius) and an excerpts:
Charles Rittlinger, of Wichita, Kan., bought his Xbox 360 last November. He waited a full year to buy his machine, and knew all about the hardware-failure problem, well-documented on the Internet by frustrated gamers.

When his own machine failed, Rittlinger discovered that reports of the Xbox 360 failure rate stretched well beyond the vocal hardcore gaming corners of the blogosphere. When he took his faulty Xbox 360 to UPS to return to Microsoft, he says the person at the counter had processed many similar returns.

Even the driver that returned the repaired Xbox 360 to Rittlinger's house was in on the joke, saying "Xbox calling," when he delivered the replacement unit. Luckily, the new unit is functioning just fine.

Since the Xbox 360 is such a complicated machine, there is no discernable method for consumers to spot a potential problem. Though the consoles coming off production lines now may be problem-free, what about the tens of thousands of units currently in retail circulation? Even if the new warranty will cover the red ring failure for up to three years, who wants to view their $400 Xbox 360 Premium as a ticking time bomb?

"Ticking time bomb." They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but that sure sounds bad to me.

N'Gai Croal had a provocative column last week where he opened up a new can of worms: what about a total recall?
Did Microsoft's zeal to have the Xbox 360 both launch first and turn a profit--after the first Xbox launched second and lost billions of dollars--cause it to cut corners in a headlong rush to market, resulting in the current debacle? What, precisely, are the factors causing Xbox 360s to fail? What is the failure rate? How many devices have been returned thus far over the flashing three red lights? Was Microsoft aware of the magnitude of this problem before it launched the Xbox 360 Elite?

In the absence of full and forthright answers to these questions--answers that are critical to restoring consumer confidence in the Xbox 360--it is our firm belief that Microsoft should strongly consider a product recall, or at the very least, offer to replace those machines whose batch numbers indicate that they were manufactured before the design flaws were corrected.

Given that the failure rate for the 360 may well be north of 20%, that's not an empty idea. Has there even been a consumer electronics device that has had failure rates this high? Ever?

So could you do it? That's very hard to answer. In theory, you could clear and replenish retail stock first, then start a rolling recall of all units in the field. In the meantime, you'd replace existing units that failed in the field with the new design.

Yes, that would guarantee that people would be bricking their units to get the replacement, but so what? They're getting replaced anyway.

With approximately 10 million units as the installed base, and another 1+ million units in inventory worldwide, that's at least 11 million units to replace--and you have to keep selling the new box at the same time.

It would take a year, at least, just to manufacture the needed units, let alone do the replacement.

The cost? Staggering. One billion dollars looks very cheap in comparison.

It should should give you some idea of how serious this reliability problem is that I believe Microsoft may well have given this idea serious consideration. That they were willing to extend warranties to three years for their major failure issue also might be a clue as to how desperately they want to avoid a recall.

Gaming Notes +1

Sorry, meant to include this with the gaming notes post this morning and just forgot.

Tim McGuire has been keeping me updated on an issue with Battlefield 2 that has been ongoing for over a month. Battlefield 2 has a detailed rank and rewards system (a primary feature of the game), but players are no longer getting points awarded properly after a round. Some servers work properly, some don't, and it's a giant train wreck in general.

That sounds like an obscure issue, but not if you're a hardcore player of the game, and Battlefield 2 has some extraordinarily dedicated players. EA's claimed on more than one occasion that the issue has been resolved, but it hasn't been--there are large numbers of people still having the same problems.

To make things even worse, even the Battlefield 2 forums are having issues--the primary post about stats issues has to be periodically "re-opened" as a new post. Just that single thread would be several hundred pages long if it hadn't been split up.

So if you're thinking about buying Battlefield 2--or playing it--you might monitor the forums here until the issue has been resolved.

Walking With Dinosaurs

If you've seen the BBC documentary Walking With Dinosaurs, I'm sure you remember the spectacular nature of the program.

Doug Walsh e-mailed me with the news that there is now a stage show version of Walking With Dinosaurs, and it looks absolutely incredible. FIFTEEN life-sized dinosaurs, including a brachiosaurus that is 45 feet tall and 75 feet long.

There's a newspaper article here, and the website is here. If you want to see some video, go to the website main page, choose "The Dinosaurs", then choose "Video." Quite a bit of the video is fluff, but the sections where they show the dinosaurs are freaking unbelievable. They use a combination of robotics and puppetry, and the movements of the dinosaurs are shockingly good.

This show is apparently starting a two-year tour of North America, so while only about a dozen dates have been announced so far, there should be quite a few more added.

I can't wait to see Eli 5.11's face when he sees dinosaurs face-to-face.

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