Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The San Diego Fires

DQ reader Ken Lautner sent me some incredible links to video of the progression of the fires in San Diego last week.

As it turns out, there are Internet cameras on top of Lyons Peak, which was an ideal location for observation. There are time-lapse sequences that show the progression of the fire, and believe me, it's absolutely stunning. There are videos from each direction on top of the peak, which you can see here. Ken recommended the South view, and I'd second that--it's some of the most remarkable (and emotionally exhausting) footage I've ever seen.

And, believe it or not, that was the "small" fire.

Ken also sent in links to maps of the damage, which you can view here. What's shocking (to me, at least) is the incredible size of some of these fires--there's one area on the map that looks like it's thirty miles by twenty miles, at least. Just incredible.

One last link, which is to a series "breaking news briefs" at the San Diego County Emergency Homepage here. If you scroll down to the bottom and read up, you'll get a sense for the unbelievable speed at which these fires spread.

One example: the Harris fire (no relation).
October 21, 9:23 a.m. PST--fire starts.
11:34 a.m.--fire is 100+ acres in size.
12:49 p.m.--fire is 500+ acres.
2:25 p.m.--fire is 2,500+ acres. That's not a typo.
7:34 p.m.--fire is 14,000 acres and 5% contained.

As you read through the breaking news, it's difficult to even imagine that many fires breaking out at one time--there were what seemed like a dozen fires or more, and they were spreading so fast (in the extremely high winds) that none of them could be contained.

Many thanks to Ken for taking the time to send in these links, because they are riveting.

Happy Halloween From Eli 6.2

Console Post of the Week

The Big Three announced financial results last week. Like almost everything else in what's come to be called the console wars, it was interesting.

First, from Nintendo:
Nintendo lowered expected revenue for the year from 550 billion yen to 510 billion yen ($4.8 billion), and its expected net profit to 54 billion yen ($509 million) from 60 billion yen. Its report attributed the downward shift to weakening sales of games and hardware in Japan, as well as the continuing rise of the yen against the dollar, which hurts the yen value of Nintendo's overseas sales.

Well, that's a surprise. I thought Nintendo was doing really well--oh, wait, that story I just quoted is from 2005.

Here are the results from the first six months of the 2008 fiscal year:
Kyoto-based game giant Nintendo reported its mid-year financial results today, posting a 132.5% increase in year-over-year sales to 694.8 billion yen ($6.072 billion) for the six months ending September 30.

...Nintendo's profits showed even greater gains, rising to 132.4 billion yen ($1.157 billion), a 143.7% increase over the first half of the last fiscal year.

If their projections for the rest of the fiscal year are accurate, their revenue will have tripled in two years. Tripled.

And their profits? Well, they print money.

Do you know what Nintendo's done in the last two years? They took chances. The DS was a big, big gamble, and I thought it was a mistake. Why split a screen in two? Why do you need a stylus? Well, I was totally wrong--the stylus is terrific. It changes how it feels to play a game.

The Wii? Same thing. The Wiimote changes how it feels to play games. No matter what kind of weak denial Microsoft and Sony want to put out, it really is revolutionary.

Everyone seems to complain in the gaming industry that innovation isn't rewarded. Now it has been, and the way everyone is whining and crying about it, you'd think the success of the Wii was some kind of travesty.

Now let's look at Microsoft--specifically, the games division. Here are the division-specific results:
The revenue of the Entertainment and Devices Division, under which the Xbox 360 (as well as the Zune and Windows Mobile) falls, increased 91% to $1.92 billion. According to Microsoft, PC and console game revenue in the quarter increased $895 million, or 148%, with some of the huge gains driven by Halo 3, which contributed around $330 million of revenue in that timeframe.

However, hardware also helped the company's revenues, as Microsoft shipped 1.8 million Xbox 360 units in the quarter, compared to 0.9 million in the same quarter last year. This led to a profit for the division of $165 million, compared to a $142 million loss last year.

Microsoft did blame the Xbox 360 for increased costs, however -- noting that there was a 99% increase in cost in revenue, or $584 million, primarily related to sales of the console, inventory write-downs and most notably
the warranty costs brought on by the console's technical issues.

Hey, the entertainment division made a profit! For the, um, first time in the 360 era. Halo is freaking huge, some units with the 65nm chip are now in stores, Guitar Hero III is going to sell in huge numbers, and November still has AAA titles to come.

Microsoft is also trying to appeal to the same audience they've dismissed previously--well, when they were buying Wii's, anyway. See this (thanks Eapen):
With Microsoft's announcement of the Xbox 360 Arcade, the anticipated device looks to be changing how the Xbox targets consumers.

According to a Microsoft representative, the company feels that "the timing is right to really focus and turn the spotlight on our family content and, yeah, we feel great."

Believe it or not, Microsoft has inked a deal with Warner Bros. to bring HD Looney Tunes to the Xbox Live Video Marketplace, and more games designed with children in mind will be coming down the pike with the help of this new console.

I think these are the same people who were supposed to buy 360s "when they grew up." Looks like Microsoft isn't waiting for them to grow up anymore.

Sony announced financial results this week as well:
TOKYO, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Sony Corp said the operating margin at its electronics operations is expected to beat its target for the year to March, but operating loss at its videogame unit will likely be double its initial forecast. Operating loss at its game unit, which offers loss-making PlayStation 3 game gear, is estimated to exceed 100 billion yen ($876 million) for the current business year, compared with its original projection of 50 billion yen, a Sony spokeswoman said.

That was from Reuters (here), and here's some additional information about the losses in the game division:

In Sony's game segment (the SCE division), sales did increase 42.9% year-on-year, primarily as a result of the contribution to sales from the PlayStation 3. However, an operating loss of 96.7 billion yen ($841 million) was recorded, significantly larger than the previous year.

According to a statement from the company: "This deterioration was primarily due to the loss arising from the strategic pricing of the PS3 at points lower than its production cost and the increase in PS3 inventory-related write-downs... compared to the same quarter of the previous year."

Sony sold 1.31 million PS3s worldwide in the three months ending September 30. Remember, this includes the initial price cut in the U.S.

Remember how I said a few months ago that Sony had backed itself into a corner? This is the corner. They have no choice but to lose massive, mind-bending amounts of money on the PS3 in the next six months, and that's just to stay in the game.

This is what happens when you launch a console that costs over $800 to build.

Sony is somehow projecting that their games division is going to lose only $876 million for the year after losing $841 million in the first six months. They are claiming that they're only going to lose $35 million over the next six months.

Whatever, Lebowski.

I'd go into all the reasons why this is totally ridiculous, but you know them all by now, so there's no need.

Having said all that, though, Sony is finally doing some things right. They've got a console that's far more reasonably priced now, they've got at least one stellar game (Ratchet & Clank is fantastic, and I'm going to tell you more about it in a few days), and they don't seem nearly as smug as they were a year ago.

Getting your ass kicked for 200+ days in a row can do that.

Most interestingly, the new 40GB units are apparently using a 65nm CPU, so Sony successfully moved from 90nm to 65nm in less than a year. It took Microsoft twenty months, and even now, the new 360s are a mixed mess of 90nm and 65nm units.

Last note, and this involves all three systems. Software sales have been a big X factor. The stereotype is that the 360 is for "real gamers," Wii owners only buy Nintendo software, and the PS3 has a diluted unit base because of the people who just bought it for a Blu-Ray player.

So if we could just get one game that was released across all platforms, a hugely successful and popular game, then maybe we'd have a little more data to talk about some of these issues.

Oh, and we do. It's called Guitar Hero III.

The sales figures for October should be very, very interesting.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lost on Purpose

DQ reader Will Holland is pretty damned talented as a songwriter/singer/musician, and his new CD is called "Not If But When." His music reminds me of both Elliot Smith and The Shins, but it also has its own unique flavor. His group is called Lost on Purpose, and the page for the new CD is here. You can also listen to three different tracks from the album (I particularly like "Pencil Without Lead" and "the 70's").

Wolverine Studios: Treats For Halloween

From the highly-talented Gary Gorski over at Wolverine Studios:
Wolverine Studios announces Draft Day Sports: College Basketball Pre-Order/Open Beta and Halloween Sale
Starting right now you can head over to our webstore and pre-order Draft Day Sports: College Basketball for 33.95 - a 15% savings on its 39.95 retail price! Pre-ordering now will allow you to lock yourself in at the discounted price PLUS you'll be able to participate in an open beta testing process for the game starting on November 5th.
More details on how you can participate in the open beta will be made available this week on our forums.

We're having a special Halloween sale on Draft Day Sports: Pro Basketball. It's now 10% off its original price of 34.95 in the webstore now through October 31st. We've also dropped the price on all of our other titles. Total Pro Golf 2, Total Pro Golf and Total College Basketball are all available at new lower prices.

Total Pro Golf 2 is now $19.95, and it's an absolute steal at that price. Check out the webstore here.

Guitar Hero III Impressions (From All Angles)

Since I haven't bought the full game, I'm relying on you guys for impressions, and here are two posts in particular that are very informative.

Before I get to the posts, though, the grumpy old bitches at Blog for the Sports Gamer (Glen, and Dan, at least--I don't think Bill has the game) both like GH III, and you can read their impressions from the main page here.

First off, here are some impressions from LP Miller, who plays mostly on Medium difficulty level:
Ok, I'm not seeing the problems with GH III that you are.

Keep in mind, I'm a medium player at best. For me, though, this is actually much better then GH2.

For one thing, it's a touch more forgiving. As to the guitar parts, it seems to me the guitar line is actually louder, which might be what isn't sounding right to you. You can actually adjust that in the game, which is nice. The covers are much better (except for Cream) than in previous versions. And the battle was actually fun. It's a made up song, so you are literally jamming, and the battle things are kind of fun. The backgrounds are much better; lips actually sync to the lyrics, and it actually looks like the character is playing the notes (or not, if you boff it), which makes it more fun for the people watching.

Also, unlike GH II, you actually get money/encores/battles on the Easy level. To me, this makes the game much more approachable to people like my wife, who can only play on Easy, but still wants to rock out.

I also really don't have a problem with the HUD at all. I like the note streak notices, personally, and I think star power works better too. I dunno, this seems even more polished than the second one, and that was a pretty polished game.

Don't get me wrong, I was totally dreading this, especially after I read your impressions of the demo. But The demo seemed fine to me, and the game so far is pretty damn good. I think the hardcore is too stoked about Rockband to give this a fair shake. Rent it or something, it's really actually a lot of fun.

At the ultra-high end of the skill scale, here's an e-mail from Matt Gindt, who is in the top 1500 on the Xbox Live Leaderboards:

I've put in a few hours now on GH III and there are some definite pros and cons to it.

On the pro side, the new guitar is excellent. It won't require any getting used to like the Explorer did. The buttons feel great and the strum bar is perfect. The on-line play is a ton of fun and it works really well. Even battle mode is fun when playing against someone online. The note charts are, for the most part very good. There are a couple that I don't like so far, but they are for songs I've never heard before, so I have to withhold judgment until I learn those songs.

On the con side, a couple of the songs are insanely hard. I have finished all of them on Expert except for "One" and the final battle with Lou. The song difficulty ramps up really fast in tier 7. Up to that point I 5-starred most songs on the first pass and 4-starred the others. I didn't 3-star a song until Raining Blood, which I failed several times.

A couple of the covers are really great, but some of them are just horrible. Pride and Joy is almost embarrassing to listen to.

Another downer is the leaderboard setup. They broke it. The GH II leaderboard system worked great. It's now a chore to find your score and ranking. They also took out the total number of players so you have no idea where you stand overall. You can get that info online now at the new website though, fortunately.

The first two boss battles were pretty easy, even on expert. I beat Tom Morello on the first try. The battle against Slash was a bit harder but I beat it after 4-5 tries.

So there are impressions from two different skill levels. I'm still holding out, but it's entirely possible that I'll cave at some point in the next week or so. It's just hard to justify spending $100 on a game and a guitar that I probably won't use after November 20 (and I wouldn't get the game by itself, because I'm really more interested in the guitar).

Armageddon Empires: Now in GFW Magazine

It is incredibly difficult for an independent game to get media coverage. Almost impossible, really, which is why I was so happy to see Armageddon Empires in Games for Windows magazine this month. Here's an excerpt:
This month, I'm throwing out a hard-core, board-gaming death-metal salute to a game called Armageddon Empires...Once you get past the learning curve, though, you'll find a deep experience that'll chew up days of your time.

Yes, it will, and in the best possible way. Page 27 of this month's issue--"Indie Pick of the Month."

And in case you somehow missed it the first ten times I wrote about it (close to ten, anyway), the game's website is here.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dwarf Fortress: New Version Released

It's been almost a year since the last version was released, and there are literally hundreds of changes and additions, so go grab the new version of Dwarf Fortress from the Bay 12 Games website here.

If you've never played Dwarf Fortress before, then please do. It's easily one of the deepest, most interesting games ever made.

One Million Dollars

"Dad, you can win a hamburger with a SLOT in it and MONEY comes out," Eli 6.2 said. He was examining the pictures on the McDonald's Monopoly prize board. "Dad, we can win ONE MILLION DOLLARS!"

"Little man, they only make one or two of the pieces you need to win a million dollars," I said.

"Yes! Then we've GOT A CHANCE!" he said.

"So if you win a million dollars, are you going to share it with me?" I asked.

Eli stopped to think for a minute. "Yes," he said slowly. "I'll give you--ten dollars."

"Ten dollars?"

"Hey, it's MY money," he said, laughing.

"Fine," I said. "Then I'LL charge you a thousand dollars every time I drive you to McDonald's on Saturday."

"Touché," he said.

He paused and thought for a few seconds. "How about four hundred thousand dollars?" he asked.

"That's very generous," I said, "but I'd be happy with twenty percent. That's two hundred thousand."

Eli extended his hand. "Deal," he said.

"So what about your mom?" I asked.

"She's not coming to breakfast with us," he said.

"So she gets nothing?" I asked.

"I'm already paying you!" he said.

"Well, we need to give her something," I said.

"All right," he said. "I'll give her--ten dollars."

The Foolish Man Sees Happiness In The Distance; The Wise Grows It Under His Feet

We're still playing Avatar: the Burning Earth together.

In spite of the frustrations, which are severe at times, Eli 6.2 is thrilled by being in the world of his favorite cartoon, and I really enjoy playing together. There have also been a few terrific moments when co-op really means something and we have to do something together to get through a level, as in a scene where Ang and Katara had to waterbend together to turn a stream of water into a cutting instrument. Using the Wiimotes, rhythmically moving back and forth together to keep the water moving, was just great.

So we were playing last night, and we were trying to escape from The Library (taken straight from Episode 30). There was a timed section near the end where you were trying to both evade Wan Shi Tong (who appears in the form of a giant Owl) and get out before the Library sank into the sand. We had sixty seconds, and we got out with less than one second left.

Which was great. We were both totally excited, and we had to work as a team to be able to get out, so it was a blast to succeed together.

One problem, though--it was 7:30 and time for Eli's bath, and instead of being at a save point, we were still somewhere inside the library.

Unless we could play to a save point, we'd lose about three checkpoints of work, which was about half-an-hour of game time.

I had a few options. I could leave the Wii on all night, just paused, and hope that there would be no glitches when we tried to play again tomorrow. I could try to disconnect Eli's controller and hope that the game would be smart enough to go immediately go into single-player mode (with the CPU controlling the other character), but no way did I trust this game to be that well-designed.

Or I could try to play the two-player level by myself, controlling both players.

I know--that sounds ridiculous. But the timed level we'd just finished had been very hard for us to pass--it took about six tries--and I really wanted to find a save point and not have to go through all that again.

So I took a look at the new level. It looked like it was going to be all jumping, and all left-to-right. It was a series of jumps where the characters had to keep moving, because the floor was collapsing underneath them.

I had to find a way to get through.

Thus began the great foot experiment.

I put the analog stick on the nunchuk between my big toe and second toe on my left foot. I put the Wiimote under my right foot, with my big toe above the "A" button. The analog stick moves the character, and "A" jumps.

I had one advantage. There are no insta-deaths from jumping in this game. Instead, in almost all cases, your character gets a very minor health penalty and reappears beside its companion character.

My theory was that I could just press the analog stick right and jump off all the ledges--even if I failed the jump, it would at least start the sequence for my "foot character" (Katara) to reappear close to my "hand character" (Ang). So I could just keep Ang moving through, and get Katara to jump off every ledge, I might make it past the level.

Incredibly, it worked, and on the first try. Katara even made a few of the jumps successfully. Once they passed reached the exit of that area, though, the level CHANGED to a top-down section, which meant I now had to move Katara down instead of right. No jumping here, just running, and I had to move her all the way to the bottom of the screen.

Oh, and the owl was chasing us.

We ran down a hallway in the Great Library, bookcases on either side of us, and I realized that this was absolutely impossible. Except that my feet still had Katara running, and I saw a book in a bookcase sparkle, which meant there was a hidden exit. I had Ang smash into the bookcase, and a small opening was revealed. I ducked him through. Meanwhile, I turned Katara in that direction, and she managed to make it through, too.

The next thing I saw was a cut-scene with Toph on the outside, trying in vain to keep the Library from disappearing into the sand, as Ang and Katara were leaping out from the top window. To safety.

And a save point.

"I DID IT!" I shouted in the general direction of upstairs.

"Did WHAT, Dad?" Eli shouted from the bath.


"WHAT?" A few seconds later, Eli was running naked down the stairs. "Dad, HOW DID YOU DO THAT?"

"With my feet!" I said.

"I CAN'T BELIEVE IT!" Eli shouted, laughing, and there was much celebration.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

This Almost Makes the End of the Cal-Stanford Game Look Boring

I never thought I'd see something crazier than The Play, but I think the last play of the Trinity-Millsaps game yesterday finally topped it. I counted fifteen laterals, and they were all legal. Watch it here.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Friday Links!

First off, from Ben Ormand, a link to a story in New York Magazine about D.B. Cooper, who may have finally been unmasked after all these years.

D.B. Cooper, in case you're wondering, was the architect of the only unsolved skyjacking in history. In 1971, he hijacked a Northwest Orient Airlines flight, released all the passengers when the plane landed in Seattle, obtained $200,000 and parachutes in ransom, then jumped out of the plane as it flew over southwest Washington, never to be found.

It was both an amazing and brilliant heist, and while the Feds publicly maintained that Cooper had died while trying to land in the dense forest, many people were hoping he survived.

Apparently, he did.

That's all I'm telling you, so you'll have to go here to read the full article, and it's a great read.

Shane Courtrille sent me a link to a carefully written and moving description of a Shinto funeral. I know, that that's well outside the realm of the regular link, but it's very, very interesting, and you can read it here.

Sirius sends in a link to an article about--believe it or not--the neurology of Alice in Wonderland. It compiles the "curious neurological symptoms" that appear in the book, and you can read it here.

Eric Lundquist (among others) sent in a link to a video of the last lecture of Randy Pausch, a professor of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie-Mellon University. Pausch has terminal pancreatic cancer, and his courage in the face of death is well beyond remarkable. See the video of his lecture here.

Here's an article about a master falconer who researches the flying abilities of falcons--by skydiving with them. It's a fantastically odd idea, but he's discovered some remarkable information, and here's a short summary: falcons are complete badasses. There are some mind-blowing anecdotes, and you can find them here.

Randy sent in a link to an article about the death of the deputy mayor of Delhi--by monkeys. What I find particularly interesting about this story is that the city's strategy for relieving its Rhesus macaques problem was to import bigger monkeys to chase the smaller ones away. It sounds like something out of a Ron Gilbert game. Read the story here.

Another link from Sirius, this one to an article titled "10 Most Bizarre Scientific Papers." My favorite: "The Effect of Country Music on Suicide." See them all here.

David Gloier sent in a link to "Eurobad '74: An Exhibition of Europe's Worst Interiors." It's cringe-inducing, and don't miss the horse. See it here.

The hat-trick for Sirius, and it's an article about scientists using muon detectors to scan Mayan mounds in Belize. Here's a brief description of how it works:
When cosmic rays hit Earth's atmosphere, they spark showers of muons and neutrinos that interact only weakly with intervening matter. The neutrinos are almost unaffected as they pass through our planet, but different densities of matter deflect the muons to different degrees. Thus, it's possible to build muon detectors to determine what those subatomic particles have passed through.

Read about it here.

Jeremy Fischer sent me a link to "Portal: the Flash Version," which you can play here. This is not a Valve project, but it's a fun time-waster at work, and if you like it and haven't gotten The Orange Box yet to play the real thing, leave work immediately.

Finally, from Dan Quock, a link to several articles about a town in Austria that's named--well, it rhymes with "ducking." The Wikipedia entry is here, and the Snopes page is here. This is probably NSFW, depending on how your employer feels about city names.

GH III Demo: One More Note

My friend John Harwood expressed this far more eloquently than I could:
GH/GH II made me feel like I was noticing nuances in the guitar line that I'd never noticed before. It's entirely possible that it was a combination of lead/rhythm lines, but it didn't matter because it sounded right. That was borne out by me listening to songs later that I'd never before heard on the radio and immediately recognizing some of the subtleties in the guitar line that I knew from the game. Aside from the various things that pull you out of the immersion in GH III and make it harder to notice the music, I get exactly the opposite feeling in GH3: I'm noticing that it doesn't sound right. Even when I'm playing the master recording of Even Flow, the guitar line doesn't sound right. Has to be right, but it doesn't sound right.

So regardless of the actual accuracy of the note charts, GH/GH II made me feel like I was hearing things that I'd missed hearing before. GH III makes me feel like I'm missing things I've heard before.

That is exactly what's been bothering me, but I just couldn't put my finger on it.

Boston College vs. Virginia Tech

"What IS a 'Hokie', anyway?" Gloria is sitting on the couch with me, watching the end of the Virginia Tech game.

"It's that little stick sweeper that restaurants use to clean the carpet," I said. "It's like a vacuum cleaner, but without a motor."

"Virginia Tech's mascot is a vacuum cleaner?" she asked.

"It's on their helmets," I said. "Right under the big 'VT'."

Of course, after I complain about ESPN missing snaps, they didn't miss one last night for the first time all season. Not that I'm complaining--it was a big improvement. After the game, though, in the SportsCenter opening, they were showing scenes from San Diego with the headline "Fire Affects."

Oops. Try "effects," guys.

Boston College convinced me last night that they should play for the national championship if they win out. Blacksburg is an incredibly difficult place to play, there was blinding rain for much of the game, the officials absolutely gave Virginia Tech a touchdown--and Boston College still came back and won in the last minute.

Yes, it's entirely possible that the ending was so exciting that I jumped off the couch and did the extremely rare "Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uhuhuh" victory dance. Allegedly.

"Hey! They don't have vacuum cleaners on their helmets!"

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Fun New Drinking Game

Every time ESPN misses a snap during a college football game, drink a shot. You'll get more drunk than if you played the Bob Newhart Drinking Game (a shot every time a character says "Hi, Bob"), or the Brent Mussberger Drinking Game (a shot every time he says "folks"), and if you drink enough, you might not be so pissed off about the "Worldwide Leader in Sports Coverage" treating the actual game like an inconvenience as it promotes its own network shows, interviews celebrities in the booth, shows five gratuitous close-ups between plays, features Todd Blackledge jamming food down his piehole at a local restaurant, and in general acting like the game is just the place where they all decided to hang out.


Oh, and if you're wondering, don't try this with another network. You'll still be stone cold sober at the end of the game.

Guitar Hero III Demo Impressions (360)

I've played the demo several times in the last two days, switching back and forth between GH II to get an idea of how the games feel different. And they do.

There are certainly a few improvements--most notably, that Star Power can now be reliably engaged every single time. The arenas and character models also look very, very sharp now.

Unfortunately, those are the only improvements I found, while there are quite a few areas that have regressed. Most importantly, I think the note charts are much poorer in this version. Songs in GH II had a very cohesive, readily identifiable flow, but in GH III, many songs have long sections of chords followed by a few seconds of incomprehensibly fast hammer-on/pull-off sections. To compensate for this, the timing for HO/PO has been relaxed significantly, which is something else I really don't like.

The result of this (subjectively) choppy note charts is that I don't feel as engaged when I'm playing a song, and immersion in a game like this is hugely important.

I also think that visually, the note charts don't look as clean. The "cap" for HO/PO notes is still white, but it seems fuzzed out just a bit (as a graphical effect). I don't want anything on the note chart softer--I want it razor sharp. It makes it more difficult to see the HO/PO sections, at least for me.

Another technical issue is the size of the Rock Meter. In GH II, when I get in trouble, the Rock Meter is large enough that I sense it flashing--I can see it well enough in my peripheral vision for it to register. It's significantly smaller in GH III, and I never see it before I fail a song. That's something I might get used to in time, but it's annoying, because other, totally unnecessary bits of information have been added that are actually distracting--primarily, that when you get to certain points in note streaks, a big "XXX Note Streak" message pops up. It takes you out of the "music" feeling, at a minimum, and it's also just not needed. Meanwhile, the piece of information I desperately need (deeply in the red) is so small that I don't even notice it.

Those are the technical issues, but there are a few subjective issues as well. The "plunk" sound that gets made when you miss a note is more intrusive than the sound in GH II. It also seems like it's more frequent, although it could just be that it's more noticeable now.

Lastly, and this is totally personal, they've really butchered Judy Nails (my favorite character). She's gone from cute rock chick to a muscular Goth who looks like she carries a cue ball in her purse in case she gets into a fight in a bar.

Did I like the demo enough to buy the game? No, at least not now. Maybe I'll feel differently when the game has actually been released, but I really wasn't impressed. Plus, with the relaxed note timing, I'm wondering if it will actually screw up my ability to play Rock Band songs (which, I assume, will have the old HO/PO timing or very close to it).

For now, no sale.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

One More Gaming Link, And It's a Doozy

Kato Katonian sent me a link to some screenshots he took in Halo 3--in 3-D. Here's an excerpt from the discovery process:
I was panning the camera back and forth looking for a good angle on my subject when it occurred to me: with full control over the camera, I can take multiple pictures from slightly different angles. This is the foundation of stereo photography. Since the screenshots aren't locked to the Xbox (I can download them to my PC via the Bungie website), I can process them into 3D screenshots!

That is sheer genius, and the screenshots look absolutely amazing. You'll need a pair of 3-D glasses, and be sure to click on the "Halo 3 Stereo 3D Screenshots Red/Cyan" link inside the article for a Flickr slideshow.

See it all here.

Gaming News and Links

Just as a note, both Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (PS3) and Zach & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure (Wii) are getting generally excellent reviews. On platforms that have a dearth of AAA content, getting an outstanding game for both in the same week is unprecedented.

Based on the e-mail I'm receiving on the Hellgate demo, you guys are as mixed on it as everyone else. It's running about 60/40 "meh" to "yeah." I think it's historically been a bad sign for high-profile games when the demo generates such a conflicted reaction.

Jamie Carlson sent me a link to an article over at The Independent Gaming Source titled "50 Really Good Indie Games." There are some real gems in the list, and you can check it out here.

Speaking of indie games, Dwarf Fortress is ever closer to a new release--Tarn is now indicating that it is still on track for the end of October. If you've never played this game, and you have a hard time grasping why it's so interesting, just go read the dev log. Just reading about what's being worked on is more interesting than the vast majority of the games I play.

From The Escapist, an article about the classic tale of Fansy the Famous Bard, and it's hilarious. Don't forget to click on the link in the second paragraph--lot's of funny stuff there, too. Read it all here.

Lastly, if you haven't played Portal yet, STOP READING NOW. If you have, though, and you want to know more about the infamous song, Jonathan Coulton has a post on his MySpace page that is full of detail. Thanks to everyone who sent this in (Derek Mirdala was first), and you can read it here.

Eli 6.2: Kinda Kinda

We had a foggy day in the morning a few Saturdays ago, and as we were walking to the car Eli said "I love days like this because it's easier to sneak up on people."

We went to Chuy's last week to eat, and during dinner a waiter dropped a plate, which shattered. Eli asked me how often that happened, and I said every day. He didn't agree, and we had a spirited discussion, and finally he said "DUDE! These are TRAINED PROFESSIONALS!"

Eli's been doing magic tricks (with his monthly kit from the magic club), and yesterday he was doing a trick for us on the kitchen table. The trick involved cards, and during his prestidigitation he dropped one of the cards and it went under the table. He reached down to retrieve it, then banged his head on the table as he came back up. "OW! Okay, that is NOT part of the trick," he said.

Last Thursday night, before he went to bed, Eli told me that we could never go to the Himalayas. I asked him why, and he said it was because there might be a Yeti there. I told him that was incredibly unlikely, and even if there was one, it was even more unlikely that we'd ever see it. He said "I DON'T WANT TO TAKE THAT CHANCE!"

We had a "behavior chart" for Eli for a few weeks. Since he and Gloria had, um, "conflict" during bath time, we made the chart and he got a star every time there were no problems. Once that went smoothly for a while, we stopped the chart, but he decided to create his own. "I get a star if I'm good," he said, "and I can get TWO STARS if I decide I'm really good, and I can get a HALF star if I'm kinda kinda."

Eli's been writing notes for the last few days and taping them all over the house. There's a full set on our bathroom mirror, all talking about how he loves his Mom. So it's nice walkind around the house, seeing all these little notes that he's written. Last night, as I walked up the stairs to go to bed, I saw this one:

It says "nice picture of me."

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rock Band Update: The Bummer Edition

All right, let's get his out of the way. John Harwood, who as I type this is probably working on a tri-state strategy to get Rock Band early, sent me a link to a series of videos called "How to Play Drums," which are here.

That's totally ridiculous, of course--just as ridiculous as me using my left hand for the mouse to build up my coordination for, um, playing the drums.

John Harwood: a bad influence.

There was one very good of news from Harmonix last week, and one piece of very bad news. The good news is that the official release date has been moved to November 20. Not only does this mean we won't have to fight the Black Friday crowds to pick up the game, it also means we could have the best Thanksgiving night ever.

Then there's the bad news. In a post in the official Rock Band forums, it was confirmed that Band World Tour, which is the mode I was most looking forward to, will not be online. That means if you want to have a band and play through this mode, all players have to be in the same physical location. You can still play online with other people in Quick Play mode, but it's going to really limit the band element of the game, at least for me.

I have no problem with this feature not being included--the game has a huge amount of content as it is--but it should have been announced sooner. Good grief, there's a dedicated forum called "Band Wanted" at the Rock Band forums--clearly, people believed this was in the game, and have from the outset.

If the feature was just cut a few weeks ago, then just tell us it was a late scratch. But if it was cut months ago, it should have been announced then, not now. Besides, now I have to buy snacks and cold drinks for John, because he'll be living at our house for a few weeks until we finish that mode.

Good Vibe, Bad Vibe

Sometimes, you just get a good vibe about an upcoming game. BioShock had a good vibe before it was released. Mass Effect has a good vibe. Rock Band has a good vibe.

Then there's Hellgate: London. Bad vibe.

What's interesting about Hellgate is that the bad vibe doesn't come from the game itself, necessarily, but it seems that the developers have spent more time thinking about the revenue models than the game, and those additional revenue streams have totally killed any desire I had to purchase the game.

To start with, there's the subscription model of paying a monthly fee to get additional content, as well as a slew of features for online mode that aren't available to the people who don't want to shell out more cash on a monthly basis. This has now bled over from affecting online only, though, to affecting the single-player game as well, because apparently the two highest levels of difficulty (Elite and Hardcore) will only be available to subscribers. See the Eurogamer preview here, which is where it's mentioned.

Then, there's the demo, which is a 1GB+ download for what has been universally described as very little playtime. Oh, and you also get Massive's adware downloaded as well. Could someone please explain to me how contemporary advertisements aren't disruptive in a post-apocalyptic environment? I don't understand how that can possibly work.

Besides the adware, reaction to the demo has been very mixed. I'm not even willing to try it out, because adware in a demo is ridiculous, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. If you're trying to convince me to buy your product, using me to increase your ad impressions is the wrong way to go about it.

Original interest level: high. Current interest level: zero.

Here's a fundamental marketing mistake: if people have spent the last six months spending more time talking about the game's revenue models than the game, then something has gone very, very wrong.

Avatar: The Last Airbender--The Burning Earth (Wii): A Tale of Two Cities

Since Eli 6.2 and I have watched all the Avatar: The Last Airbender episodes together, I picked up the new Avatar game for the Wii last week.

There are two sections to these impressions. The first I wrote up on Saturday after about an hour and a half of play--I wasn't ready to post them yet, but I had some things in my head that I wanted to get down. I was going to play for another hour or so, then make additions/changes and post them, but the experience changed so severely that I had to write an entirely new section.

If you don't have kids, or if you're not a fan of the show, then Avatar: The Last Airbender-The Burning Earth isn't for you. But if you do, and you are, then this game is very, very fun. All the voices from the show are used, they sound great, and the plot also seems to be ripped from past episodes of the show as well.

Like I said, for a grown-up, that might be boring. But for Eli, getting to play through the same situations he's seen in the show is a real thrill, and with a mix of motion-based and conventional control, he gets to physically do some "avatar gestures" as well.

Even better, the game has co-op, so we're getting to play through it together. Aang is always there (I think), but the support character changes depending on the chapter.

In terms of difficulty, it's been very easy so far, but again, the target market for this game really isn't adults. There's no insta-death from jumps, and if you die during a battle, you just choose continue and start from that spot again. It's entertaining without being frustrating, and that seems to be just right.

Graphics are very plain, although the characters are modeled nicely. They're probably significantly better on the 360, but we've really had fun with this version, paticularly when you can do combat moves with motion control.

Eli entered the Avatar state once and then talked about it for an hour. He was thrilled.

This game is like a heavy stick repeatedly whacking your balls.

Difficulty goes way, way up. The use of motion control gets spotty, and the amount of guidance you receive if you're having trouble is a big fat zero.

Good use of motion controls made the game much more immersive--at first. But if you're trying to use a gesture that's pictured on the screen, and you've tried it twenty times and it's not working, the game needs to give you at least a supplemental explanation of what you should be doing. And in boss battles, all of which seem to require entering the Avatar state to win, we shouldn't be fighting for several minutes, then have the entire battle come down to five button presses within a few seconds. At least, not in a situation where if you miss, you have to start the battle all over again. If we've gotten that far, drop us back into the battle 10-15 seconds before we need to enter the Avatar state. This game is for kids--repeating a boss battle three or five or EIGHT times is just going to lose us entirely.

Great idea. Great story. Sloppy as hell. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go look for a bag of frozen peas.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Console Post of the Week

May 26, 2006:
We have built up a certain brand equity over time since the launch of PlayStation in 1995 and PS2 in 2000. The first five million are going to buy it, whatever it is, even it didn't have games. --David Reeves, Sony Europe President and CEO

February 26, 2007:
...Sony isn't likely to make any price cuts for at least another two years, said Kimberly Otzman, a spokeswoman for Sony Computer Entertainment America. She noted a similar time frame for lowered prices for the PS2. "We probably expect the same for PS3," Otzman said...
--Kimberly Otzman

October 18, 2007:
...the goal was trying to reduce the price point of the Playstation 3, but keep all the features that we thought were incredibly relevant to the future going forward. We feel like we've been able to accomplish both at $399.
--Jack Tretton, Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO

October 19, 2007:
One piece of news that came out this week was that Sony pleaded with third-party developers not to abandon its struggling platform. That change in attitude is a marked difference compared to the arrogance of past years.
--Dean Takahashi, The Mercury News

It's one of the great humblings in corporate history, from unbridled arrogance to a massive price cut and "pleading" with developers not to abandon the platform.

In the first eleven months following launch, the PS2 sold 6.78 million units in the U.S. The PS3 has sold 1.86.

Think that's bad? It's much worse than that. How much bigger is the U.S. gaming market today than it was when the PS2 launched in 2000?

Nearly doubled.

That's why Sony is pleading. It's selling at just above one-quarter the rate of the PS2 in a market that has doubled. In other words, the PS2 was eight times as successful in its first eleven months as the PS3 has been.

That's why Jack Tretton (as N'Gai Croal wryly noted) used the word "relevant" ten times in a twelve minute interview.

I also suspect that's why Sony came to an agreement with Toshiba this week to sell its Cell production facility. Remember the old days, when the Cell was going to be the future of Sony? That was, oh, twelve months ago. But like I said a few months back, idle production capacity is very, very expensive. Sony spent (reportedly) 1.7B on production of the Cell, and they're going to sell to Toshiba for (again, reportedly) barely half that.

Here's the other news that's stunning, at least to me. Sony's price cut to $499 for the 60GB model in the U.S., in three months, generated 149,000 additional sales in excess of what had been their 20,000 a week sales rate. And September's weekly sales rate was only 24,000 units a week.

In other words, the effect of that price cut has almost vanished, and in only three months.

Okay, so I've been documenting how Sony has been screwing up for over a year now. We all know that they've acted like arrogant idiots. Here's the real question, though: can they pull out of it now?

If you're going to judge the success or failure of the PS3 by the PS2 sales numbers, then no, they can't pull out of it. They're not going to sell 100 million PS3s--at this point I think they'd be doing well to sell in excess of 50 million. Ignore what Sony says about this being a ten-year console--five years is much more likely, and 20% of that time has already been wasted.

Sony made two very fundamental mistakes. One, the price was utterly ridiculous. To some degree, that's been fixed--$399 for a console with a Blu-Ray player and other functionality is no longer unreasonable. Two, they didn't think they needed exclusives. Well, they do, and desperately, and they need them before 2009. Whether that's fixed or not, it's just too early to tell.

One last note: Tretton said last week that removing backward compatibility in the 40GB unit resulted in "no great reduction in cost." I believe that was a move solely made for developers, and developers only, who have been diverting resources to other platforms. It forces new PS3 owners to buy PS3 software, not used copies of hundreds (if not thousands) of PS2 games.

On to Microsoft. They sold over 500,000 units in September, thanks to Halo 3. The RROD issue seems to be resolved on new units. I believe they're still confident that they can compete with the PS3 at $349 (and the "Arcade" pack at $279). That's probably true, at least for a few months, but after that, they have some difficult choices to make. I doubt that they anticipated Sony putting pricing pressure on them this early, but they have, and it's going to cause some pain.

There was a rumor floated last week that Toshiba is looking to manufacture a 360 console with a built-in HD-DVD drive. From a business perspective, it makes perfect sense for Toshiba, because it can counter the Blu-Ray drive in the PS3. The sticking point, though, is that the HD-DVD drive needs to be able to read discs at the same speed as the other DVD drives used in the 360. If they can do that, and Toshiba is willing to subsidize the cost of the drive to gain market share, then it's good for Toshiba and great for us.

Nintendo sold over half a million Wiis in the U.S. in September as well. They're still a steam train, but they desperately, desperately need some high-quality third party games. The amount of greasy feces released for the Wii in the last ten months by third-party developers must be some kind of record. Zack & Wiki or Mario and Sonic: Olympic Games need to demonstrate that not just Nintendo can make a fun game for the system.

There was one excellent game announcement for the Wii last week, though: Okami. It's one of the most striking and beautiful games ever created, and the only reason I stopped playing it on the PS2 was because I kept thinking "I wish this was on the Wii," because the drawing elements in the game would be ideal for the Wiimote. And for most Wii owners, who have probably never even heard of the game, it will be a real revelation.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday Links!

Enjoy your weekend, which starts now.

First off, Shane Courtrille sent me a link to a fantastic story in the LA Weekly titled "The Life and Death of Jesse James." If you only look at one link this week, look at this one. It's an incredible story and a great piece of writing as well, and it's here.

From Steven Davis, a link to an article about an extraordinary new energy generation technology. Here's an excerpt:
Frayne’s device, which he calls a Windbelt, is a taut membrane fitted with a pair of magnets that oscillate between metal coils. Prototypes have generated 40 milliwatts in 10-mph slivers of wind, making his device 10 to 30 times as efficient as the best microturbines.

It's a brilliant idea, and it's very inexpensive to make. Read about it (and see the video) here.

Here's an interesting link via Slashdot to a CNN article about a high-res scan of the Mona Lisa and what it revealed. The technology was remarkable, and here's an excerpt:
The device scanned a 240-million pixel image using 13 light spectrums, including ultra-violet and infrared.

The resulting ultra-high resolution photograph of 150,000 dots per inch yielded a reproduction of the "Mona Lisa's" face magnified 24 times.

As to what that image revealed, you'll need to go here.

Here's another very interesting link from Shane, to an essay at Time titled "The Ethics of Erasing a Bad Memory." It's very well-written, and very haunting, and you can read it here.

From Juan Font, a link to a remarkable optical illusion called "Dragon." Check out the video, which is amazing, and you can also download a PDF file with all the instructions for making one of your own. Go here.

Rhys sent me a link to a Sony Bravia commercial that involves the Great Pyramids and thousands of spools of colored thread. It's a stunning piece of work, and you can watch it here.

From Edwin, a link to an article over at Technophilia titled "Discover the .EDU Underground." There are a HUGE number of interesting links in this article, to art and photography and history and language (and more), and you can see it here.

Mike Gilbert sent me a link to the discovery of a new dinosaur--Futalognkosaurus dukei. 105 feet long, the picture of the size of the bones is staggering, and you can find it all here.

From Steven Kreuch, a link to "The 30 Most Hideous Gaming Tattos." The commentary is NSFW, so be warned, but you can see them all here.

Ross Paton send me a link to the music archive at in response to the post I made about song poems last week. There is a ton of content here--music, images, and text--and you can see it all here.

From the Wired Science Blog (thanks Sirius), an article about a unique fish poison that causes some very bizarre symptoms? How bizarre? How about the feeling of loose teeth? That's not all, though, and you can read about it here.

September NPD Numbers

360: 528,000
Wii: 501,000
PS3: 119,000

September was a five-week reporting period.

Expect a long console post of the week on Monday. Those numbers are pretty revealing on several levels, though.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Portal (Part 2)

Now that I've finished, I can say that this is one of my favorite ending in two decades of gaming. I wish the same level of creativity (and downright whimsy) had been captured in the rest of the game, but given how brilliant the ending is, that's probably expecting too much. Not that the rest of the game wasn't entertaining, but the ending is epic.

Like I said: you need to play this game.


I wanted to finish Portal before I wrote it up (I'm on #19 now, playing it for 10-15 minutes at a time), but I'm getting so much e-mail about it that I'm going to broach the subject now.

Here's the easy part: if you haven't bought The Orange Box yet, it's mandatory. There is absolutely no way that you can skip this game (along with the other goodies in TOB).

Portal is mind-bending in the coolest ways imaginable. It's a funky concept, and it's a bit of a sterile implementation (nicely covered up by some absolutely outstanding humor), but in terms of creativity, it really is off the charts. It doesn't even belong on the chart.

Portal also excels at creating moments where you feel like a ten-year old, because there are so many times when you go "Wow!" as you discover what you need to do to solve a particular area.

I'm not going to describe anything in the game, to avoid any possible spoilers, but I will describe a portal. Portals are a way to connect two different points in space--in other words, if you walk through an entrance portal, you will exit at the point where you've placed the exit portal.

That sounds like a simple concept, but seeing it work is, like I said, unbelievably cool.

Rock Band (More)

There's a detailed preview of Rock Band over at Gamespot.

Here are a few of the highlights:
--in addition to individual song ratings and career scores in "World Tour" mode, you also have a fan counter. How many fans you win or lose at a concert will be influenced by both how you play and the size of the venue. And yes, the number of fans you have will be reflected in the attendence at your concerts.
--the game is far more open-ended now. Instead of playing a song at a venue tied to that song, each venue has a set of activities, and you can pursue any of them. So if you want to play one song, you can, but you can also accept challenges like playing sets where you don't know the song list in advance. With more risk, your potential reward goes up.
--there are also venue-independent activities, like finding an agent, getting signed by a record label, even poaching roadies from other bands.
--there are special events. Gamestop specifically mentioned "Battle of the Vans," where you're competing against other bands to win (you guessed it) a van. Winning that van lets you drive to out-of-town gigs.
--when you purchase downloadable content, you can play all of those songs in World Tour Mode as well.

The full preview is here.

Here's what Harmonix has been doing for the last several months, apparently--they've been establishing a direct connection with my brain in the "WHAT I WANT IN THIS GAME" area.

I think that's called the hippocamel. Or something.

Seriously, this is EXACTLY what I wanted--more depth and choices to make, but without disrupting the core gameplay. It's still skill-based, it's still focused around "playing" the songs, but there are more choices to make when you're not rocking.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Christmas and Kids

I know, it's only October, but I'm going to write this up before I lose the paper it's scribbled on and forget about it entirely.

Most of you have nephews or friend's children or hostages that you need to buy gifts for Christmas. And if you don't already have kids, you're probably clueless about what they might want. I know that I never had the faintest idea of what a little kid would like until Eli came along.

So, to make it easier for you, here are four guaranteed, can't miss Christmas gifts for kids in the 5-7 year old range.

1. Zoobooks and Zootles
Zoobooks are absolutely fantastic. They're monthly magazines, and they're jammed full of interesting stories (and absolutely no advertising). Each issue focues on a different animal, and the magazine is extremely well-written and has beautiful photos and illustrations.

Zoobooks is a gift for a kid (boy or girl) in the 5-9 year old range. Zootles is for younger kids (2-4). That doesn't exactly match the age recommendations on their website, but it's based on my experience with Eli 6.2.

One note: a one-year subscription is $22.95. That's not cheap, but it's a very good price for twelve issues of such a high-quality magazine.

Here's the website: Zoobooks.

Oh, one other note about children's magazines. I would specifically not recommend National Geographic Kids. Even though National Geographic is one of the best magazines today, National Geographic Kids is a big disappointment--it's packed with advertising and seems more interested in promoting itself than helping kids learn about animals.

2. Encyclopedia Historica
There are three books in the Encyclopedia Historica series: Dinosaurs, Mega-Beasts, and Sharks and Other Sea Monsters. They're pop-up books, believe it or not, but they are the most information-packed, elaborate pop-up books ever made. There are multiple fold-outs on every page, the pop-ups themselves are excellent beyond words, and they're outstanding science books for young readers.

Actually, they're totally fascinating for grown-ups, too.

You can take a look at one in almost any bookstore, because they've become very popular (and deservedly so). You'll be amazed by the artwork, the scientific detail, and the quality. We have all three, and I've read them multiple times to Eli, who still enjoys them as much as ever.

Also, using the term "pop-up" makes it sound like something very fragile, but they're not--the books are incredibly sturdy.

This is a gift for kids (boys and girls) in the 4-7 year old range, although I think boys would like it better overall, since it's about "monsters and beasts."

Each book is in the $15-$20 range, depending on where you purchase.

Amazon Links:
Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs
Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Mega-Beasts
Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Sharks and Other Sea Monsters

3. Rescue Heroes: The Movie
The Rescue Heroes cartoon was created by Fisher-Price to sell its line of Rescue Heroes toys, but that doesn't dilute it's basic awesomeness. No fighting and no violence, just characters helping others (via thrilling rescues) with a total focus on teamwork.

The movie is absolutely jam-packed with action, it's funny, and the overall quality is very high for an animated feature. Eli watched this movie many times over the course of the last two years, and we used to talk all the time about why the Rescue Heroes were successful (teamwork).

This is definitely more of a movie for boys. When Eli's friends who were boys came over, they were mesmerized. The girls were bored to death.

$10 from Amazon, and here's the link: Rescue Heroes-The Movie.

4. The Ultimate Magic Club
Okay, this isn't a cheap option for a gift--it's a montly subscription, and it's $13.95 a month. Having said that, though, getting a magic kit every month is pretty freaking fantastic, and the quality of the tricks they include is very high--Eli's learned some ridiculously cool effects that are totally convincing. It's all totally fun.

On the educational side, learning how to do the tricks helps in learning to follow instructions--no one's going to complain about following instructions if they're learning how to do magic. Some of the tricks involve math as well.

Like I said, not inexpensive, but if you want the title of coolest uncle (or aunt) in history, this will do it. The age recommendation on the website says 9-13, but I think that's very high--Eli 6.2 has no problem learning the tricks, and he's been in the club since his 5.10 days or so.

It's a blast, and you can see it here.

Gaming Links (+3)

I missed three very interesting links yesterday, so here's a supplement.

First is the trailer for Brütal Legend, Tim Schafer's new project, and it's ten different kinds of awesome. Watch it here.

Second is a story about the U.S. Express, a cross-country race that was the successor to the Cannonball Run. Basically, it consisted of driving across the country as fast as you could while trying not to get caught. The reason this is a gaming link is because in 1980, Will Wright won the race.


Not what I expected, but it's quite a read, and it's here.

This is N'Gai Croal's interview with David Jaffe, most particularly, this excerpt:
Sure, I care what people think. I'd love it if I could find a way to be honest and truthful and not give people the PR spin and at the same time be as liked as [Nintendo design legend Shigeru] Miyamoto and Cliffyb [Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski]. I'd love that. That would be awesome to have people who don't take swipes at me every five f---ing sentences I say. But I'd rather be honest than give you a bunch of PR bulls--t because that stuff makes me physically ill.

Conveniently, that excerpt is five f---ing sentences long.

Here's the thing. David Jaffe eats thousand dollar bills for breakfast--he just puts them through a paper shredder and sprinkles them on his cereal. He's been more than fairly rewarded for creating two enduring franchises (Twisted Metal and God of War) in the last fifteen years. Yet he still has a giant chip on his shoulder about criticism.

Here's the other thing. It's possible to be honest without being a dick. But Jaffe implies, quite clearly, that one of the reasons he's "not popular" is because he's being honest.

Yes, because we all hate honesty. Keep telling yourself that, dude.

The interview is here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Guitar Hero III

Michael Dunn sent me an interesting counterpoint to my Guitar Hero III/Rock Band post yesterday, and here it is:
I was at the Guitar Hero III preview event in San Francisco. Battle Mode was actually the most fun I had during the entire thing, and I came into it wanting to hate it. Yes, it does resemble Mario Kart a bit with the power-up thing, but to my surprise it was highly addictive and loads of fun. After some thought on the matter I realized that it took the Guitar Hero gameplay into a slightly more 'arcade-style' gameplay, it really seemed like something you would find in some quirky japanese arcade. In my opinion, it is the major feature that GH3 has that pulls away from it's predecessors (and from a guitar-only mode in Rock Band, possibly), and I urge you not to judge it too harshly before you try it. Also of note, each tier does not have a boss battle- there are only three in the whole game.

Well-spoken. I'm still gritting my teeth, but that's an eloquent defense.

Gaming Links

Tons of good gaming links have piled up, so here you go.

First off, Bill Abner has an excellent article in last wee's issue of The Escapist titled "The Stagnant State," and with that title, it's easy to guess that he's writing about sports games.

And boy, does he nail the entire state of sports gaming right on the head.

Annual release cycles. Exclusive licenses. The abandonment of the PC. Suck-ass "journalists" who entirely lack the faculty of critical thinking.

Okay, he didn't exactly say "entirely lack the faculty of critical thinking," but that's what he's talking about. I must have seen 30+ glowing previews of Madden, and where are all those ass-kissers now that the game's been out for over TWO MONTHS and there are serious issues (fumbling frequency and the free agent pool in franchise, just to name two of many) that have gone entirely unpatched. Why doesn't anyone ever ask EA about this? Do they only write about the game when they get handed a Powerpoint presentation?

Read Bill's article here.

In the same issue, Kieron Gillen has a piece titled Sensible Soccer: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Ball. It's an ode to both Sensible Soccer and the Amiga (more advanced compared to its peers than any console/computer in history), and it's here.

Next, from Steven Pubols, comes a link to The Activision Patch Gallery, a full set of images of the Atari 2600 achievement patches. And they look great! I'm still baffled as to why Microsoft (or Sony or Nintendo) isn't doing something like this. See them all here.

"Turgid Bolk" sent me a link to board game website called Vying Games, and it's pretty cool. The selection of playable games is interesting (Checkers, Connect6, Pente, Keryo-Pente, Phutball, Breakthrough, Othello, Kalah, Oware, and Footsteps so far), and you can play against bots or against a human opponent. This is a relatively new sight, but it looks like it has a good future, and you can see it here.

I've saved links to Level Up for last, because N'Gai Croal writes so damn much that I can't even keep up with him. What I like about him, though (and I may have said this before), is that he uses his high degree of access to prominent gaming figures to ask relevant and useful questions. That's unique, because there are plenty of journalists who, once they have a high degree of access, spend all their time preserving that access instead of being a journalist.

First off is an article titled "The Problem (and the Danger) of the Continued Infantilization of Videogames," including an appearance on CNN's American Morning program. He makes the point that we would never assume an "R" rated film was created for children, but many people assume that all games (including "M" rated) ARE made for children. This leads those people to make assumptions about games and gaming that are simply incorrect.

I think this problem will go away as the percentage of people who don't play games continues to fall, but this single misperception is probably responsible for 90% of the videogame legislation out there, and 100% of that legislation is created by people who don't play games themselves.

The full article is here.

Next is an article about the Great Satan purchasing Bioware and Pandemic last week, which you can read here.

Finally, you can read an excellent article on the recent defections from Microsoft Game Studios what it it means here. I think it's ironic and unfortunate that while MGS has delivered some outstanding, top-tier games, the Entertainment division is still hemorrhaging cash because the damn hardware was a complete POS for the first eighteen months.

Upside-Down RPG

I was playing Eternal Sonata last week, and I realized I was just tired of the entire concept of leveling.

The RPG formula: start out weak, kill some rats, add some skill points, kill bigger rats, add more skill points, kill wolves, etc. until I am bored to tears.

I enjoy that mechanic in some games, at least for a while, but even in excellent games it starts to get tired at some point.

So why doesn't someone turn this tired old mechanic on its head?

Here's the general concept. In the beginning of the game, your character is all-powerful. Absolutely nothing can stop him, even though he's battling powerful characters right from the start.

In every potential battle scenario, there are several ways to handle the situation, only one of which involves combat. Stealth (physical), or setting traps (mental), for example, could be used instead. And there would be situations where you might start out using stealth, then need to fight because you're detected, or the traps you've set aren't entirely effective, and you have to go in to finish someone off.

Why shouldn't you just bash through the game with your god-like character? Because every time you use your combat abilities, your character weakens. He doesn't gain levels from fighting--he loses them. By the end of the game, he's as weak as a child, but he still has to find a way to defeat Foozle.

Just think of the possibilities. In the beginning of the game, you're a god fighting other gods. By the end, though, you're as fragile physically as balsa wood, and you might well be battling something that would normally be entirely insignificant.

This could be a game that plays in one setting, maybe two or three hours long, so if you make mistakes in terms of using your combat abilities too often, it would be easy to restart. And I know that balancing the gameplay would be a nightmare, but the idea of turning convention upside-down is extremely interesting to me.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Rock Band and Guitar Hero III: the Separate Paths

Don Barree sent me this excerpt from a recent Gamestop preview of Guitar Hero III:
One of the big new additions to Legends of Rock is the two-player battle mode, so we spent some time investigating it. Battle mode is the most directly competitive multiplayer yet in a Guitar Hero game and felt a bit to us like Mario Kart because it focuses on wacky power-ups that you'll collect as you play by completing sequences of notes in the same way you gain star power. Some of the power-ups we used (or had used against us) included a broken string, which forces you to hammer on a particular button repeatedly before you can actually start playing notes again; a whammy block, where you have to wiggle the whammy bar quickly to resume playing; amp overload, which makes all the notes on your board start flashing randomly; lefty flip, which reverses the buttons on your board (and is darn near impossible to compensate for); and difficulty up, which temporarily raises your difficulty level by one. The game's hectic boss battles against such guitar greats as Slash and Tom Morello also play out with this battle mode setup.

Mario Kart?

From what I can tell, the boss battles are mandatory in the career portion of the game.

Conceptually, this is a problem. In both previous versions of Guitar Hero, your ability to advance depended solely on your skill. The game was gimmick-free. Now, though, even if you're a great player, the power-ups during boss battles could completely befuddle you--you could keep failing a song because Slash unleased a lefty-flip power-up.

Let me say it clearly: this is a huge mistake. We all know it's a huge mistake, that it's an abandonment of the core concepts of the franchise, and yet Neversoft has ignored us all. It wouldn't have been difficult to optionally include the songs that now feature boss battles as regular encores. I think this is going to alienate many people who would have otherwise been loyal to the franchise, and it's going to drive them to Rock Band.

Rock Band has made its own curious decisions in the last few weeks-namely, the release date. Releasing the game on Black Friday is a baffling decision. If it was in stores the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we'd miss the post-Thanksgiving hordes. There's just no coherent reason for releasing it on the Friday after Thanksgiving, which is why (to the best of my knowledge) no one's ever done it before.

It was also announced last week that Rock Band will only be available as a bundle until early 2008--in other words, you have to buy the full $169.99 bundle if you're getting the game this year.

That makes sense--I would imagine they're supply constrained when it comes to the peripherals, and retailers weren't going to give them floor space for four different bundles of the same game--but the decision to release a PS2 version without online capability is more puzzling. If you're supply-constrained, why release a version where consumers can't buy the downloadable content? That's where the real money is going to be made. If you can't supply demand, why shift peripherals away from a downloadable content platform?

So far, though, even with oddities occurring at the non-music level, the concept of the game and it's essential "music-ness" remain unmarred.

Here's one more thing to think about: the possible price of downloadable content. Thanks to an article sent to me by Marc Klein, we know that the fee iTunes pays to the music companies is .60-.70 per song. We also know that Microsoft takes roughly a 30% cut for Xbox Live Marketplace content.

If Rock Band downloadable content were .99 a song, and the licensing fees they pay are similar to iTunes, the profit margin would basically be zero. In other words, forget .99 songs--they're not happening.

Yes, there are some clever things MTV could do with licensing fees, showing how a band's CD and digital download sales go up (and by how much) when one of their songs has been included in a Guitar Hero (and, by implication, Rock Band) game. It's the long view, that reducing their licensing fees for downloadable content (and doubling the number of downloads because of it) is in their best interest.

In future generations of consoles, it will be interesting to see if that relationship is tracked more directly. Say, for instance, that there's a song in Rock Band that you really like, and you'd like to purchase it. There would be a link in the game that would take you to a download for that song on a digital marketplace, and you'd buy it right there.

In other words, make it as convenient as possible for someone to buy the song, and at the same time, establish a direct link between the game and the purchase of the song. That sort of concrete data could be very successful in getting licensing fees reduced.

Back to the real question, though: if the licensing fees are similar, is $1.49 a song possible? That still leaves a profit of roughly .34 a song, even with a .70 song fee and .45 for Microsoft.

I'm always going to argue that in a situation like this, lower cost and higher volume is the way to go. The more people that download the song, the more people there are to talk about it to their friends, maybe getting them to download it as well. Plus, Rock Band is in a competitive situation with Guitar Hero, and if one game's downloadable content is cheaper, it's going to create more loyalty.

The one thing Harmonix can't do is argue that downloadable content for Rock Band should cost more because there are multiple instrument tracks for the game. That's true, but nobody cares. Nobody. They're not going to get away with charging $2.49 a song just because there's a drum and vocal track. From a content producer point-of-view, that makes sense. But from a consumer's point-of-view, forget it.

This is kind of the mindset that has gotten Sony into so much trouble. They were looking at the market from the point-of-view of a hardware producer, not the consumer. That hasn't gone well for them.

At this point, I don't even know if I'm going to buy Guitar Hero III. That's a shocking statement coming from someone who easily put in 100+ hours each on both previous versions.

Rock Band? I'm first in line.

Tall Tales

Eli 6.2 is going through his topper phase--every time you tell a story, he has to top it with one of his own. Sometimes, he even feels the need to top his own story with a sequel.

We walked out of the house Sunday morning, and there was a wasp flying around near the bushes. When we were safely in the car, Eli said "I'm glad that wasp didn't sting us."

"Me, too," I said. "I got stung on the front porch a few years ago." I hadn't been stung by a wasp for years, and when it stung me on my finger, it felt like 10,000 volts were going through my arm--I'd completely forgotten how jolting a wasp sting can be.

"I'm pretty sure that wasp was trying to sting me," Eli said. "There was a wasp in the backyard yesterday that was chasing me."

"There was?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. He was quiet for a few seconds. "It wasn't ACTUALLY one wasp," he said. "It was four wasps, thirteen honeybees, and a WHOLE COLONY of fire ants."

Earlier in the week, Eli had told me that they were having a running contest during P.E. class. Everyone was going to line up and run for as long as they could.

The next day, he didn't say anything about it when he got home from school. After dinner, though, he came over and said "DAD! I WON the running contest today. I ran for FORTY MINUTES and set a lower-school record. And it was even a record for the MIDDLE SCHOOL!"

"That's great, little man!" I said. "Congratulations!" Just then, Gloria walked in to the room.

"MOM!" he shouted. "I ran for FORTY MINUTES in P.E. today."

"That's really something," Gloria said gently, "because P.E. only lasts for thirty minutes."

"Well, we ran a little over because it was a BIG CHAMPIONSHIP," he said. "I am SO PROUD of myself." He started doing a victory jig around the room, with lots of butt-wiggling and finger-pointing. I only wish I had a video.

I e-mailed his P.E. coach and explained that Eli was in a tall tale phase and asked him what actually happened.

Reality version: he ran for fifteen minutes. That was as long as they let them run. That's still very good, but it's not quite the Olympic triumph that had been chronicled.

I guess the medal ceremony and parade are cancelled.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Friday Links: the Whipsaw Edition

There is absolutely no reason for you to work today.

First off, from Jon Hui, a link to the mind-blowing phenomenon of sokushinbutsu. Here's an excerpt from the story:
In a small mountainside temple overlooking the Sea of Japan on Japan's west coast, a Buddhist monk slowly chants a mantra and raises the small curtain above a dimly lit altar. The ornate curtain rises to reveal the preserved body of the fourteenth century priest Kochi. Enclosed in a small glass shrine, Kochi is worshipped as a form of living god, or sokushinbutsu—a priest who practiced ritual self-mummification, effectively starving himself to near-death over a period of years, before being entombed underground while still alive.

And here's an excerpt of how this was done:
The process of becoming a self-made mummy is long, slow and excruciatingly painful, taking from three to ten years. The procedure the monks followed developed over a 900 year period, and though there were different variations, it generally consisted of three equal states, each 1000 days long. For the first 1000 day period the monk adopted a strict diet that consisted of only small amounts of soba (buckwheat) dough and walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg gathered from the surrounding forest. The diet served to reduce the ascetic's body fat dramatically, and as fat decomposes quickly after death, it increased the chances of successful mummification. In the second 1000 day period, the ascetic's diet became even more limited: only bark and the roots of pine tree were ingested. The monk became increasingly emaciated as his body fat reduced to nothingness and his body's water-content similarly declined. Though greatly weakened and increasingly skeletal in appearance, the monk continued to subject himself to long periods of prayer and chanting mantras.

Nearing the end of the second 1000 day period, the monk drank tea made from the juice of the Urushi, or Japanese Varnish tree. A caustic, extremely toxic sap—even its vapour can cause a rash—it is usually used to make a highly durable coating for Chinese and Japanese lacquerware. Drinking the tea caused the monk to vomit, perspire and urinate extensively, further reducing the fluids in his body, as well as causing a large build up of poisons. These poisons, however, played an important part of the mummification process, for they would also kill any organism that tried to consume the priest's flesh after death.

That was just a teaser, because the rest of the process is, if possible, even more painful than what happened in the first two phases. It's all absolutely unforgettable, and the article itself (by Chris Mathews) is totally fascinating. You can read it here (with pictures), and please note that if you're using Firefox, you're going to need to use the mouse cursor to highlight the text (all you'll see are pictures and a black background at first). Also, if you go to the home page of the website, you'll see additional articles written by Mathews, and they're all excellent as well.

Next, in the oddest link juxtaposition of all time, Chris Seguin sent in a link to a song titled "One Semester of Spanish Love Song," and it's hilarious. See the YouTube video here.

Shane Courtrille sent in a link to a gripping article in the New Yorker--about wine. Wine fraud, more specifically, involving bottles that allegedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson. It's an excellent whodunit, both riveting and amusing by turn, and you can read it here.

Meg McReynolds sent in a link to a story about a polar bear and its encounter with some sled dogs, which turned out to be remarkably playful. Confirmed as legitimate by Snopes, you can read about it and see the pictures here.

John Selzer sent in a link to a film made by a micro camera that shows how a four-stroke engine works--from inside the cylinder. Very cool, and you can see it here.

From David Gloier, a link to the "10 Most Improbable Celebrity Fistfights" in history, including this gem about Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts (f-bomb warning ahead):
The final straw was Jagger’s unscheduled wake-up call to Watts during a band meeting in Amsterdam in October 1984. Richards and Jagger had gone out boozing, returning to Richard’s room at five in the morning. Watts was fast asleep. Nevertheless, Jagger dialed his room, bawling "Is that my drummer? Why don't you get your arse down here?"

Watts reportedly got up, shaved, got dressed in a custom-made Savile Row suit, put on a crisply knotted tie and freshly shined shoes, came downstairs, and—in Richards' words—"dished him out a great fucking right hook." Jagger was knocked into a plate of smoked salmon, and Richards had to grab his leg to prevent him from sliding along the table, out the open window and into a canal 20 stories below. "Don't ever call me ‘your drummer’ again," Watts told Jagger. "You're my fucking singer."

The other nine are here (and they're not as good, but how could they be?).

From Juan Font, links to the story of Kamunyak, a lioness who adopted six oryx calves over the course of a year. That's right--oryx calves. It's an incredibly strange story as well as being incredibly sad, and there's an Animal Planet documentary called "Heart of the Lioness" that runs occasionally (this Sunday at 1PM CST).

One note: according to Juan's sister (who's seen the documentary), this is not something for little kids to watch, because it's very, very emotional in places.

The story is here, some pictures are here, and a transcript of a discussion with the "presenter" of the documentary is here.

From Sirius, a set of links that are excellent (as always). First, a gallery of "photomicrographs," and they're absolutely amazing. See them here. Next, a link to a future Darwin Award winner who tried to steal a LIVE copper cable. Yes, the phrase "charred beyond recognition" is used in this story, and you can read it here. Lastly, a story about elephants and their fear--of bees. Researchers have discovered that elephants have a strong fear of swarming bees (makes sense), and recorded sounds of attacking bees may be used in the future to help create barriers between elephants and villages. Read about it here.

Finally, from Greg V, a link to a spectacular video of a Chinese acrobat performing mind-altering manipulation--of a table. Get your mind out of the gutter. Seriously, this is a remarkable video, and you can watch it here.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Madden: Draft A.I.

In the Madden post last night, I bitched about the draft A.I., because it sucks, and after releasing this game every year since the late seventeenth century, Tiburon should have it rock-solid by now.

Maybe, though, draft A.I. is just some really complicated thing to program, right?

Well, not so much.

Here's a very simple version of how draft A.I. could work, and it would produce entirely reasonable drafts.

The equation:
Position Need=1+(Position Modifier)-(Difference from League Average at Position)-(Age Modifier)

The explanation:

--a team focus gets assigned to each team--examples would be passing offense, balanced offense, run offense, and defense. One focus per team.

--based on the team focus, a value modifier is assigned to each position. Positions are valued equally before determining the modifier. As an example, in a passing offense, a value bonus would be given to the QB, WR, and LT positions, while the FB value would be reduced. Or if a team was defense focused, the LB would be given a value premium, while WR might be reduced.

For the projected starter at each position, compare the player's overall rating with the league average of projected starters at that position. Calculate the difference as a percentage, so if your starting MLB has an overall rating of 72, and the league average for starters at that position is 80, that's a discrepancy of -10%. In other words, your MLB is below the league average.

Please not that you're subtracting the difference from overall need, so if a player is below the league average, that difference (which is negative) actually adds to the position need.

A very simple system to factor in player age would be to add 20% to a rookie's rating (to better represent his potential), then subtract 4% of that bonus every year. For example, after four years, you'd take the player's current rating and add a 4% bonus.

After year five, you'd start subtracting 3% from the overall rating for each year over five. So a nine-year starter's rating would actually be decremented by 12%. That would be capped at a 20% reduction.

Some positions, like running back, have much shorter careers, so they'd have a higher burn rate. Different rates could be calculated for each position, even.

The point of this is not to establish a player's absolute value but the need to find a replacement.
So an 80 rated QB who is 23 years old, for example, represents far less of a draft need than an 80 rated quarterback who is 35.

What you wind up with is a "need order" by position.

There's only one step remaining, and that's to consider backups. For the top ten positions of need, as an example, you'd look at the backup at those positions and see if their age-modified value is higher than the starter.

Why don't I just do that with all positions right off the bat? Because by limiting it to the top ten positions, I have to look at fewer backups--and do fewer calculations overall.

If the backup's rating, age adjusted using the age modifier, is higher than the starter's, then the backup's values are plugged into the equation for that position. That can change the need order inside the top ten.

That's it.

Draft based on need, and when a player is drafted for a need, it gets removed from the top ten. A very simple drafting procedure would be that any of the top three current needs could be addressed with the next draft pick, based on overall player ratings.

Sure it's not comprehensive, but it would be easy to improve, and as a base, it would work. Plus, since Tiburon wrote the player progression system, they could tie in the age variables to match how the player progression system actually works (peak age, for example).

So did it take me weeks to put this together? No, it took an hour to think about it and an hour to write it up.

In other words, there are absolutely no excuses for Tiburon's draft A.I. to be so poor. None. It's just not that hard to create a reasonable system.

Well, Yuck

From Gamasutra:
Electronic Arts has announced an agreement with Elevation Partners to acquire BioWare and Pandemic parent company VG Holding Corp for $620 million plus an additional $190 million in other charges, bringing the 800 employees of the companies under the EA Games wing.

...EA will pay up to $620 million in cash to the stockholders of VG Holding Corp. and will issue up to an additional $155 million in equity to certain employees of VG Holding Corp., which will be subject to time-based or performance-based vesting criteria. EA will also assume outstanding VG Holding Corp. stock options. In addition, EA has agreed to lend VG Holding Corp. up to $35 million through the closing of the acquisition.

The Song Poem

During the NPR Training Program, I was listening to an episode of This American Life (#73, "Blame It On Art," which you can listen to here), and the third act (from about the thirty to forty-five minute mark of the episode) was about a jazz saxophonist named Ellery Eskelin.

Actually, the episode was really about Eskelin and his father, a man named Rodd Keith--a man who Eskelin had known only during the first eighteen months of his life. Keith passed away in 1974.

Eskelin had been told for years that his father had been a fantastic musician, and after Keith's death, his grandparents sent him a cassette tape when he was in his teens. He played it and it was his father singing a song called "Hippie Happy Land."

He was, to say the least, disappointed.

As the story develops, though, it turns out that Rodd Keith had been considered a musical genius--of the song poem.

I'd never heard of a song poem before, but when I found out what they were, it was one of those "down the rabbit hole" moments for me (and maybe for you, too).

For over a century, companies have been placing advertisements like this in magazines and newspapers:
POEMS Urgently needed to set to music!
Write clever poems, catchy rhymes, Achieve
fame, money in popular music field! Send
sample poems. Free evaluation.

That was from the March 1955 issue of Popular Mechanics (you can see a scan of the ad here).

This was all a scam, of course. There was no "fame" to be had. Someone would send in a poem, the company would record it as a song (complete with musical arrangement), and they'd send the recording to the customer. It was the work of a true genius, of course, and for an additional fee, the company promised to promote the record. It was no surprise that these promises were rarely fulfilled, and the industry and practices were generally referred to as "song-sharking."

Thousands and thousands of these poems have been turned into songs, though, and one of the pre-eminent musicians of the industry was Rodd Keith. He recorded up to thirty songs a day, writing the arrangements, playing the instruments, and singing.

Fifteen years after hearing "Hippie Happy Land," Eskelin found an advertisement in a music catalog for a CD compilation of his dad's performances. When he received a copy, he began to realize that his father really had been a musical genius, in his own way--he was taking these mostly very bad poems and giving them as much life as he could, often in very skilled and innovative ways.

The story was so fascinating that I've been trying to find additional information on song poems, and there are some excellent resources to read. The best one I've found is The American Song-Poem Music Archive, where you can see scans of song poem solicitation mailings here, along with dozens of links leading to additional information here. It's an excellent way to while away an afternoon. Or two.

Wikipedia, of course, has an entry, and it's here.

Ellery Eskelin has also created a website that chronicles the life and recordings of Rodd Keith, and it's full of interesting information as well. You can see that site here.

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