Friday, November 30, 2007

E,G, K&L, and IM (Update)

From Valleywag (thanks Kotaku), a link to comments from someone who claims they work for Gamespot, and their comments are specific enough to seem credible. Here are a few excerpts:
We're very clear in our review policies that all reviews are vetted by the entire team before they go live - everything that goes up is the product of an entire team's output...If there was a problem with his reviews, then it would've been a problem with the entire team. Firing him without telling anyone implies that anyone else on this team can be fired at the drop of a hat as well, because none of us are writing any differently or meaner or less professionally than we were two years ago before the management changed.

...Over the last year there has been an increasing amount of pressure to allow the advertising teams to have more of a say in the editorial process; we've started having to give our sales team heads-ups when a game is getting a low score, for instance, so that they can let the advertisers know that before a review goes up. Other publishers have started giving us notes involving when our reviews can go up; if a game's getting a 9 or above, it can go up early; if not, it'll have to wait until after the game is on the shelves.

If this is true, and again, it seems extremely specific for someone to just be making it up, then Gerstmann's firing was complete bullshit. If the entire team vets all reviews, then there's no such thing as a "one writer" problem. In fact, that kind of policy is put in place exactly to prevent someone from becoming a loose cannon.

At this point, it looks like Penny Arcade was dead-on with their strip, and Gamespot is a laughingstock. Well, a laughingstock in a sleazy kind of way.

Eidos, Gamespot, Kane & Lynch, and Internet Meltdown

Fridays are usually pretty quiet, but not this week.

Most of you have probably already heard about this, but let's do a quick review.

Last night, Penny Arcade put up their usual Friday comic one day early, which you can see here. The subject of the comic is Gamespot's firing of Jeff Gerstmann, allegedly for a video review on November 13 that Gerstmann did of Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, which was both very negative and gave the game an overall score of 6.0.

Here's your chance to see Gerstmann's review for yourself.

Why did this story go thermonuclear so quickly? Penny Arcade's comic, although rumors had apparently been circulating for most of Thursday, and this story would have bubbled up eventually, whether PA did a comic or not.

Here's the claimed sequence of events. Eidos had a huge advertising campaign lined up with Gamespot for Kane & Lynch. This campaign skinned the front page of Gamespot as well as allowing users to create their own Kane & Lynch Trailers.

Lots and lots of money spent.

Here's an excerpt from Tycho's news post today:
After Gerstmann's savage flogging of Kane & Lynch, a game whose marketing investment on Gamespot alone reached into the hundreds of thousands, Eidos (we are told) pulled hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of future advertising from the site.

In the aftermath, Gerstmann was fired.

Again, this is the claimed sequence of events.

Besides Penny Arcade, Rock, Paper, Shotgun posted this today:
We have a reliable source who tells us that while Gerstmann wasn’t the most popular man with the CNET owners, it was his Kane & Lynch review alone that allegedly saw him lose his job. We’d like to stress for reasons of balance, clarity, and fear, that this may be completely wrong.

Then there's this. Stephen Totilo asked this question to CNET's director of public relations Leslie Dotson Van Every:
Separate from Gerstmann, there is the question of whether Eidos’ advertising deal with Gamespot/CNET would have involved any stipulations or expectations regarding the nature of Gamespot’s review of the Kane and Lynch game. Can you comment on whether there was Gamespot/CNET agreed to any restrictions on how Kane and Lynch would be reviewed on Gamespot?

Her response:
“GameSpot takes its editorial integrity extremely seriously. For over a decade, GameSpot and the many members of its editorial team have produced thousands of unbiased reviews that have been a valuable resource for the gaming community. At CNET Networks, we stand behind the editorial content that our teams produce on a daily basis.”

Ouch. There's your textbook non-denial denial. She spent an entire paragraph specifically not mentioning Kane & Lynch or Eidos, or any details of the question Totilo asked her. It's just not that hard to say "Advertising has never had an effect on our editorial content, and it never will."

This leads me to believe, very strongly, that Penny Arcade is correct.

What's most ironic is that Gerstmann, in my mind, has done far more inflammatory and controversial reviews than this one. He pretty clearly explains what he thinks is wrong with the game, and his objections are in line with what most other reviewers wrote. I don't think the review is objectionable at all. I will say, though, that video reviews are much more likely to come off as extremely negative than print reviews, because in addition to words, tone and expression can make an additional impact, and people will say things that they would never write.

But what exactly is the point of having a reviewer if they can't give their opinion, even if those opinions are negative?

I think all of us outside the industry (and plenty of people inside it) have always had an uneasy view of the possible relationship between advertising and review content in the gaming press.

Look at it this way. There was an absolutely gigantic scandal on Wall Street just a few years ago when analysts were pressured to give companies "buy" ratings on their stock because the investment banking side of the house had a lucrative business relationship with those same companies.

Does anyone seriously think that if this could happen on Wall Street, it couldn't happen on Joystick Avenue?

Do I think it happens all the time? No. Do I think it happens? Yes.

Now if Gerstmann was fired because he didn't actually play the game, or he completely misrepresented how long he played the game, that's a different issue entirely. His review, though, seemed much more detailed than that.

I think the way this is usually done is far more subtle. Say Company X wants to do a huge advertising campaign to support Run Shoot Kill 5, and they choose Gaming Website Z. It's awkward for them to say "we're going to spend $250,000 with your site, so the review better not be shitty," but they don't have to--the review will be assigned to someone who has been identified as clearly sympathetic and responsive to the game. Do you think it's an accident that "world exclusive first reviews" are almost always higher than subsequent reviews?

I'll update this post if more information comes in today or over the weekend.

Friday Links!

I'm officially announcing today that you've all been given the month of December off, so enjoy your last workday of the year.

First off, you desperately need to see this video. It shows men in wingsuits, and the only way I can describe them is to say that it makes you look like a giant flying squirrel. So these guys basically jump off cliffs and glide along at absolutely insane speeds. It's breathtaking. Thanks to Jonathan Arnold for sending me the link. Oh, and if that wasn't enough, here's another video that's just as crazy.

John Rodriguez sent me a link to a website called Strange Maps, and it's exactly what you think it would be--a collection of unusual and obscure maps. And it's excellent.

Here's something you need to see for yourself--the Temples of Damanhur. Located thirty miles from Turin, there are nine ornate temples build a hundred feet underground. Actually "ornate" doesn't even begin to describe their elaborate, intricate beauty.

Who is responsible for these marvels? A fifty-seven year old former insurance broker.

The article tells an amazing story, and believe me, you want to see these pictures. Thanks to several of you who sent me the link.

Sirius sent me a link to a fantastic website called Curious Expeditions, and there's a video of a trip to a luminescent cave (known as a "blue cave") in Croatia. The water has a stunning blue hue, and it's a spectacular video. The website is full of interesting stories as well.

From Geoff Engelstein, a link to an article about phantom limb pain and how a mirror can help relieve pain. Here's an excerpt:
Viewing the reflected image of an intact limb in a mirror can fool the mind into thinking that a lost leg or foot still exists, dramatically relieving phantom limb pain, researchers reported on Wednesday.

Here's a second link from Geoff, this one to a spectacular eight-minute animated film that "illustrates unseen molecular mechanisms and the ones they trigger, specifically how white blood cells sense and respond to their surroundings and external stimuli." This is not your father's filmstrip from the 1950s, either--it's nothing short of incredible.

There's a fascinating article over at MSNBC about heroism and what motivates people to perform heroic acts, often without any chance of recognition. It's an excellent read.

From Steven Kreuch, a link to the "World's 10 Most Famous Uncracked Ciphers." Each of the ten are amazing mysteries in their own right.

From Cibby Pulikkaseril, a link to a fan-created map of the Star Wars galaxy. The detail is absolutely meticulous and staggering.

Here's an interesting product announcement from Eizo: a 24-inch LCD monitor designed specifically for colorblind users. It uses "uses different color schemes and shapes to help colorblind users distinguish between different colors," and it's shipping in December.

From the BBC, an article about a new kind of scanner that can do a full-body scan in less than a minute, and with astonishing detail. It's a 256-slice CT machine known as the Brilliance CT,, and it also reduces radiation exposure by 80%. The pictures included with the article are stunning.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gaming Links and Notes

Hey, it's a link for that other guitar game! Matt Peckham linked to two videos of "wuLFe79" over at PC World, and they're both insane. The first is a 100% performance of "Cliffs of Dover" on Expert, and the second is breaking 1,000,000,000 points in co-op on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." That Cliffs of Dover video is sick and wrong. Thanks to Andy Herron for the link.

Sleater-Kinney's guitarist Carrie Brownstein actually tried out Rock Band, and she wrote two interesting columns about the experience. In the first, after being entirely dismissive of the possibilities of the game (and winding up liking it), she writes this:
I suppose it's pointless to try to break it down in this way, into a dualistic Rock Band vs. real band. Not even the creators of Rock Band could possibly believe that playing the game is tantamount to making your own music. There is, however, a sad similarity between Rock Band and some actual bands, and that is the attempt at realness. With so much of music blurring the lines between ersatz and authenticity, at least the Rock Band game is a tribute to rock, rather than an affront. In the realm of fakery, I would choose Rock Band over American Idol or over any of the other flimsy truths masquerading as music. With Rock Band, you can play along to Black Sabbath or Nirvana and possibly find new ways of appreciating their artistry by being allowed to perform parallel to it. Rock Band puts you inside the guts of a song.

These days, it might be easier to exalt the fake than to try to make sense of the genuine. But maybe by pretending to be in a band, there will be those who'll find the nerve to go beyond the game, and to take the brave leaps required to create something real.

The second column is just as interesting:
Part of me feels that Rock Band is yet another example of our culture's increased tolerance of phoniness, whether for the sake of simplicity or out of sheer denial. It's certainly easier to pretend to make art or to speak the truth than to actually do either.

But it is also unfair to hold Rock Band, a video game, to the same standards that I do artists, or politicians for that matter.

...So, do I like Rock Band? In short, yes. If people listen to David Bowie or Black Sabbath because of the game, if they get even one glimpse of Keith Moon's frantic genius or feel how Kurt Cobain's guitar lines were as expressive as his hoarse cry, then Rock Band is better than listening to most of the awful music out there. And, the truth is, not everyone should form a band. Any stroll on MySpace or visit to a modern rock station will tell you that. There are probably a handful of bands who would be doing the world a favor if they broke up and played Rock Band instead. They might actually learn a thing or two.

N'Gai Croal has a thoughtful post over at Level Up about "social sanctions" in games, and he writes this:
...while videogames have become fairly accomplished at making us feel good about what we're doing, there's a whole lot more they could explore by making us feel bad about our actions.

I think that's going to be a breakthrough moment: when a game makes you feel awful, truly awful, about what you've done.

Here's a very entertaining article about Harvey Smith and his comments about what went wrong during the development of Blacksite: Area 51. Here's my favorite excerpt:
"This project was so f***ed up," said Smith, by way of explanation.

+10 for candor, which is a rare quality when it comes to discussing bad games. He says much more, though, and it's a good read.

Here's what I can't understand about Blacksite. It was SUICIDE to release it when they did. Holding it until February would have given the team two more months and it would have sold more copies just by virtue of it being almost alone on the release schedule. What was Midway thinking?

Gamasutra has an opinion column titled "Cloning Created the Casual Game Business," and one excerpt in particular was particularly interesting:
The Casual Games industry is growing chiefly because game types are more popular than games.

That's often true in the "regular" games industry as well.

Pete to the Rescue

Pete Thistle let me know how to turn off those heinous pop-up headline lists at MSNBC. Just below the "Categories" section in the left pane of the front page there is an option that says "Disable Fly-Out." Select that and you're good to go again.

MSNBC: Through the Looking Glass

I've always like MSNBC as a Web source for news, but their headlines and story juxtaposition have become increasingly strange. Today, the lead story was "Late Shift Linked to Increased Cancer Risk." A few headlines below that, I saw "The Body Odd: Why Do Dudes Like Big Boobs?"

I understand putting headlines in groups--for example, something like this:
I.Q. Under 50? This Is For You!
Jenna's Jubblies Cause Consternation At Dedication
Emancipation Proclamation Written With Constipation, Lincoln Historian Reveals
Chimp Chucks Chips At Cranky Keeper

But can I keep those big boobs out of my news, please?

Plus MSNBC has redesigned their site navigation to bizarre effect. Now, if you ever accidentally move your mouse across the news categories in the left-hand pane, huge menus of stories pop up automatically, so unless you position the cursor in the center of the page--and keep it there no matter what--you wind up with story lists popping up all over the place.

As hard as I have to try to keep that cursor in the right place, I don't know if I'm reading a website or trying to crack a safe.

Rock Band Post #9,000

I won't have a Rock Band post every day, even though it seems like that now. Well, it seems like that now because I AM having a Rock Band post almost every day. So many of you guys are playing it, though, that it seems like a natural discussion topic.

Plus, I've been playing it a bit, as you know.

In solo mode, my guitarist is named Ron Obvious, and if that doesn't ring a bell, you should watch this Monty Python skit (starts at about 2:10 of the video). It's classic Python comedy, and the name has always stuck in my head.

As you progress in solo mode, you'll start seeing your character's name on buses and airplanes. There is no way that seeing "Ron Obvious" on the side of an airplane is EVER going to get old.

I've also finally thought of a name for the band I'm going to be in with John Harwood. Sonora 64 even sounds like a band name, but it's actually the name of a dwarf wheat variety developed by Norman Borlaug that enabled countries like Mexico, India, and Pakistan to become self-sufficient in wheat production. Borlaug is one of the most important (and least-known, at least to the general public) figures of the last half of the twentieth century, and I would never have known about him if DQ reader Devon Prescott hadn't brought him to my attention a few months ago.

I finished the guitar solo career on Hard last night, and finished drums on Medium today. There's no question that Hard in Rock Band is less difficult than Hard on Guitar Hero III, but I think the note charts and songs in Rock Band are far more fun to play. And drumming, even on Medium difficulty, is an amazing experience--it's an entirely new way for people to experience music, and it's already changed how I hear songs when I listen to them on the radio.

I think that's what people who dismiss games like this are missing--yes, they're games, but they're also a new way to experience music, and they add an entirely new dimension to our appreciation of songs we may have already heard for decades.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Rock Band: the Replacement Stratocaster

DQ reader JC Fedorczyk received his replacement Stratocaster controller for Rock Band today, and instead of playing for five straight hours (which is what I would have done), he thought of us instead and snapped some pictures.

First off, here's a picture of the old strum bar:

And here's a close-up:

Today, when the new guitar arrived, he took a few pictures.

First, a standard view:

Now, a close-up:

So the original needed two pieces of metal to touch to complete the circuit. This new one, though, looks magnet-based (at least it does to me, and if I'm wrong, I'm sure you guys will let me know).

Here are JC's comments on how the new controller plays:
It feels a little "stiffer" then the old one but not in a negative way. I'm not sure if that is due to it being new and the foam hasn't been broken in yet. Seems to react just fine with strumming and may even be slightly more responsive, but that's hard to say without being able to compare an old and new working one side by side. I played for about an hour on hard and it was smooth sailing.

Many thanks to JC for taking the time to take the photos and write up his impressions.


I went to Subway at lunch for a turkey sandwich.

Hey, you eat what you are.

When my beloved Badtz-Maru wallet finally disintegrated after nearly a decade of use, I replaced it with a Ninja wallet. If you're too lazy to click on that link (I assume you are), the wallet shows a spotlight and a ninja (complete with black costume and a black face mask) leaping in mid-air.

So I opened my wallet to pay for the sandwich, ninja portrait exposed, and the woman at the register said "Oh, that's a neat wallet."

"Thanks," I said.

"Do you do that?" she asked.

"Not since I fell off a roof on a moonless night while I was waiting to assassinate the Emperor," I said.

ESPN NFL2K5 Now 360 Compatible

This was widely reported yesterday, but ESPN NFL2K5, the most enjoyable football game I ever played, is now compatible with the 360 after the latest backward-compatibility update.

Harmonix and Rock Band Guitar Controller Issues

From 1UP:
The launch shipment of Rock Band guitars have certainly run into their fair share of issues. A large number of gamers have been reporting problems with the guitar's strum completely breaking down within a few days -- or less -- of use. Electronic Arts' warranty program has been reliably fast for most people so far, albeit now a bit backed up from all the guitar swapping going on, and Harmonix has now released a statement admitting some early guitars may suffer from this issue.

"Many of you have contacted us regarding your guitar controllers. As sometimes happens when new products first go into manufacturing, we discovered an imperfection with the strum bar in an early production run of guitars that were shipped at launch. We want to inform you that we have since identified and fixed the issue in all subsequent production runs of the guitars," said the studio.

"If you are experiencing a problem with your guitar or any of your other Rock Band instruments, simply visit the
customer support website and we will send a replacement immediately. Harmonix is dedicated to creating 100% customer satisfaction and to those of you who've encountered any hardware issues, we are sorry for the hassle."

That's the right thing for Harmonix to do--acknowledge the issue quickly. Pretending that there wasn't a problem or issuing vague non-denial denials would have been a waste of time.

The question now is how effective is the replacement program. I've asked a few of you to contact me when you receive your replacements, so I'll keep everyone updated.


There's an interesting article about NCsoft in the Korea Times (thanks Kotaku). Here are a few excerpts:

NCsoft Shifts to Non-Game Internet Services
NCsoft is slowly but steadily expanding to the non-game Internet service sector, while its cash-cow game business is losing vigor. Korea's largest game company this year has released a series of social-networking services from Openmaru, an in-house software studio, with strong support from its CEO Kim Taek-jin.

Meanwhile, its stock price almost halved over the past two months, as investors raised doubt about the prospect of its online games business.

CEO Kim said Wednesday that the firm will increase investment in the online services sector...its online game business is showing signs of decline.

... The sales heavily depend on two PC games, "Lineage'' and "Lineage II.'' Both have earned the company more than 1.5 trillion won since 1997, but are gradually losing subscribers. In the second quarter alone, its revenue fell by 16 percent.

To create a new momentum, the firm has spent enormous amounts in hiring renowned game developers in the United States and gave them the freedom to create anything for the past six years. But the resulting product, an MMORPG named "Tabula Rasa'' which was released earlier this month in the Untied States, is far from convincing anyone.

In one example, MSNBC's Scott Taves reviewed the game that it "tries, but comes up short'' and "it's just not compelling.'' It is ranked eighth among recently released PC games in the United States according to, an online site that evaluates new games ― a fair performance for ordinary games but not for a six-year money-devouring project.

NCsoft said that it will take some time to check the U.S. sales, but added that there have been "ups and downs'' in sales in local retail shops.

What I find most interesting about this article is the extremely negative tone it takes toward Tabula Rasa, as if it's already been determined that the game is a white elephant. I haven't played it, so I can't comment on the quality of the game, but it's interesting that the tone is so negative before even initial sales numbers have even been released.

What's also quite interesting are what appear to be the expectations from the Korean media for the game. Let's look at this again:
To create a new momentum, the firm has spent enormous amounts in hiring renowned game developers in the United States and gave them the freedom to create anything for the past six years.
Absolutely no one in the U.S. thought Tabula Rasa was going to be a massive hit. It has the potential to be a niche MMO, develop a loyal following, and last for quite a while. What it sounds like from the Korean side, though, is that NCsoft thought they were obtaining a huge growth driver, a mega-hit, when they signed Richard Garriott. Or, at least, that's what they expected after six years of development--the next Lineage.

Um, sorry about that.

Far more serious, though, is the apparent hemmorhage of revenues from the Lineage games, which are NCsoft's money machine. Down sixteen percent in one quarter? That's a crisis. And in case you're wondering about the stock, it's lost almost half its value in the last seven weeks.

That's not a decline--it's a plummet.

NCsoft countered the next day with a statement that flatly denied the article's claims (again, thanks Kotaku):
For over ten years, the core business of NCsoft has been Online Games. NCsoft has no intention of moving focus away from online gaming...Gaming is clearly the core of NCsoft's business and will continue to be that way for years to come.

That may be be true, but if the MMO revenue line continues to go down, while the social networking revenue line keeps going up, it may force their hand.

When a publicly-traded company makes its name on one product, like NCsoft did with Lineage, it's both hugely profitable in the present and very dangerous in the future. Look at it this way: a company grows at an incredible pace because of one game, so the entire company is focused on that one product. Revenue and profits soar, and so does the stock.

At some point, though, growth of that one game (and its descendants) is going to tap out, and when a publicly-traded company stops growing revenues, it costs anyone who owns stock in the company money, because the price-to-earnings ratio of the stock is going to begin to contract. So publicly-traded companies are under tremendous pressure to continue to grow.

The catch-22, though, is that to continue to grow, NCsoft had to become something they weren't, which was a diversified company with many MMO properties. Very few companies in any industry manage that kind of transition successfully

I was wrong about them exiting the U.S. market (at least for now), but a company with major issues like this are almost guaranteed to significantly change how they do business.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rock Band Hardware

Andrew Martin let me know about a thread over at the Rock Band forums that indicates there are multiple versions of the strum bar for the Stratocaster guitar controller. That forum discussion includes images of the different versions. There's also information that there may have been a hardware revision to the drums as well.

Does it matter? Not if they all have the same failure rate. I think it's fair to ask questions about this, though, since there seems to be persistent complaints of hardware failures for both the guitar and drums. The number of reports of hardware failures I've seen is well above the "no real problem" level.

Harmonix needs to jump on this and make sure it doesn't become anything serious in terms of a customer satisfaction issue. I don't see anything else that could derail this game, but hardware reliability issues would be a real albatross.

Oh, and there's an interesting thread over at Quarter to Three about how you might be able to fix the Stratocaster strum bar, if you're feeling brave. The usual caveats apply.

Guitar Hero II: Arcade?

Nate Carpenter sent me this picture from an arcade in Ocean City, Maryland:

What the...? A Guitar Hero II arcade machine?

Is it official? I have no idea. According to Nate, though, it was $2.50 for five minutes, and I bet it raked in some big money this summer.

Rock Band: Your Stories

A few notes and then a couple of stories from you guys.

There are a few details in this game that are so off the hook. One is when you're playing in a small club, and from the perspective of the audience, you can see the street through a window behind the band.

Big deal, right? Well, it is until you see traffic driving by. That's the kind of tiny detail that has a huge effect on how I perceive the game world.

Another detail is hearing the crowd singing along when you're really nailing a song. I will never get tired of that--it's a great, great bit of detail.

Several of you let me know that the screen turns blue during a guitar solo. I've never even noticed, but that would really help me know when to move my hand to the neck, so I'll start paying attention. The Strat actually has some nice little bits of tactile feedback to help you know the borders of the button group, but I'm so busy playing the song that I don't notice that, either.

I still haven't played Band World Tour yet, although I'm sure I will this week. I'm through about 40 songs on the Drums on Medium, and it's been fantastic. So many of the songs, even on Medium, are incredibly fun to play, and the experience of playing the drums is so fundamentally different from playing the guitar that it's given me a huge appreciation for what real drummers actually do.

Plus, it's unbelievably demanding physically. If I play six or seven songs in a row, my arms are tired. I swim 10,000 yards a week (thank you, NPR), so it's not like my upper body is soft, but drumming noodles me. I can't even imagine how strong drummers in real bands must be.

My main problem on the drums at this point is the kick pedal. I still have a hard time timing it, and of the notes I miss, the vast majority involve the pedal. I keep it pressed down, which is much easier physically, then lift it and depress it as needed, but I'm still not doing very well yet.

I'm playing guitar as well (through about 30 songs on Hard, and about 15 on Expert), and it's definitely easier than the Guitar Hero note charts, although I think quite a few of the Rock Band note charts are more fun. The timing, though, is considerably tighter in Rock Band, so it rewards precision as much or more than speed, at least so far.

Okay, here are a few of your stories. First off, from Keith Marsteller:

A friend of mine actually managed to get a copy of Rock Band (360),and had an after-work party last night for a few of his closest friends. You probably already know this, but HOLY S--- this game was just so much straight-up fun!

At least, it was fun right out of the box for the first six hours with five guys/girls tearing it up and switching instruments every song! We'll have to see how it holds up, and what the online play is like,but last night it was loud, it was chaotic, it was a blast, and we all totally wanted more. I looked around at one point and realized that everyone was smiling or giggling. Awesome. I even got up and sang a few tunes, which would be scary to you if you knew what my voice sounds like (think the Brady Bunch kid when his voice changed, only permanent). But I didn't care how bad I sounded, we were having a blast! There was jamming. There were "alternate lyrics" to songs. There was lots of showmanship. I got to scream, "THANK YOU, CLEVELAND!" at the end of my song.

Next, from Logan Griffall:
Oh wow, I just got done with a 6 hour session of Rock Band with 3 other people. THIS IS THE FUNNEST GAME OF ALL TIME!!!!!!!!

We started our band with the awful name '**** Jobbers' and named all our characters after Snack foods (ding dong, ho ho, nutty bar, and snoball). Since we are all just medium players, the first thing (that was not epic) was we found ourselves maxing out how many fans we could get. So having all expert players will allow your band to get bigger, but you can still play everything and every event (well, so far anyway, and we played 100+ shows).

The best part was when we developed a strategy to use the overdrive, basically it all depends on the drummer. Every one saves up their overdrive until the drummer and get his power ready, when he hits his solo we would all activate and get the band 8x. I didn't even notice the chime you mentioned, but then again we had 2 guitars, the drums, and someone singing the song. You absolutely need to get 3 people together and play this game!!!

Our lyricist would occasionally interject new lyrics into the songs causing us to screw up our parts laughing. I also flung one of my drum sticks on accident, and had to use my hand to finish out the song. We also reveled in the little awards you get at the end of every song, most sought after was 'Savior' which you get if you save a couple people after they fail out of a song, since we had plenty of those, lol.

Finally, here's a classic from Chris Kessel:
I walk in the door with Rock Band and my 2 sons take the box and eagerly set up the drums and get ready. Jack (15) has played with me a lot in Guitar Hero and is better than I am, but Ryan (13) never played much. Ryan is stoked about the drums though. A short while later we’re in the menus and setting up a band to tour.

“What should the band name be?”, I ask.

“Ryan is awesome!” shouts Ryan.

I chuckle. Fine, we’ll go with that. I can pick something else for the single player mode or a different band later. We play a couple songs and my daughter comes home and she becomes our singer.

An hour later, we get the tour bus and all crack up as Ryan points at the screen and shouts, “Look!” On the side of the bus it says, “Ryan is awesome!” Later, in a venue, in lights it says “Ryan is awesome!” My daughter flips out her phone and takes a quick picture of the TV proclaiming Ryan’s awesomeness, which he vows to send to all his friends.

4 hours later, we’re exhausted. Probably the most time we’ve spent together as a family in along time. And, we all are anxious to see the next in-game proclamation that Ryan is Awesome.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Impressions (Wii)

I've been playing Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games with Eli 6.3 every day for several weeks. Our experience departs pretty significantly from the reviews I've seen of the game, so I wanted to explain how and why.

Initially, I was very disappointed. There are different controls for every event, there are many screens of instructions (though there's usually only a sentence or two on each screen), many of the events were locked, there were too many loading screens and too much loading time, and it seemed like there were way too many awards ceremonies that I was clicking through.

After an hour, I had zero desire to play the game any more.

Eli, though, asked to play again. So we did. And we played the day after that.

After four or five days, when we started to get used to how the game worked and what we could do, a funny thing happened. We really started having fun.

I don't mean "fun" in lowercase letters, really. I mean shaking the controller like mad, arms aching, laughing our asses off FUN.

I've only had that kind of feeling one time before, and that was with one of my favorite arcade games of all-time: Track & Field.

Track & Field was released in the U.S. in the early 1980s, and I spent many, MANY hours playing with a good friend of mine. In case you don't remember, the control layout consisted of two buttons that you pounded madly (to build speed) and a third button for jumping.

This game was famous for two reasons: one, it was totally, hopelessly addictive, and two, the pencil trick. The speed buttons were close enough together that you could rest your index or middle finger between them, rest a pencil on the finger, and tap one end of the pencil (like a seesaw) to hit both speed buttons.

I think that could be called the "technician" approach.

My hands would get fried playing this game, even using the pencil. The game was well-balanced and always challenging and it was one of the most fun arcade games ever.

There were six events: 100 meter dash, long jump, javelin throw, 110 meter hurdles, hammer throw, and high jump. They were all excellent, and the sequel--Hyper Sports--had seven more events, including the 100 meter freestyle swim, skeet shooting, gymnastics vault, archery, triple jump, weight lifting, and pole vault.

I still have incredibly vivid, fond memories of both games, and to have those feelings evoked again with Mario & Sonic is just great. Seeing Eli 6.3 frantically waving his arms and shaking his skinny little booty is absolutely hilarious.

All this game is missing, at least compared to Track & Field and Hyper Sports, are easter eggs. Both games had some outstanding easter eggs. In the javelin throw, for example, if you threw the javelin high enough, you would see a bird plummeting to the ground. In the high jump, if you took off at just the right moment, a photographer would take a picture. Both of these were worth bonus points, and that's really all that Mario & Sonic is missing.

If you're wondering how many of the thirteen events from Track & Field and Hyper Sports are in Mario & Sonic, the answer is twelve. The only event missing is weight lifting.

Many of the events consist of building speed, then throwing or jumping. All of them are fun, but there are a few other events that have a very cool and nuanced set of controls. The 4x100 relay, for example, is terrifically fun, particularly if two players are playing on the same team. When the runners are in the ready position, player one holds down the B button to build up the power of his start, then when the gun sounds, he releases the B button and moves the Wiimote down to start. To build speed, the Wiimote and Nunchuck are moved up and down as fast as possible. After about 70 meters, the speed is locked, and as the leadoff runner approaches the baton relay zone, the second player presses B to start his runner. The baton pass is executed by moving the Wiimote up. That same pattern gets repeated until the end of the race. It requires plenty of coordination and timing, but it still intuitively makes sense.

There are twenty-four events, and the only event where I really dislike the control is table tennis--it's just not responsive enough for my tastes. Almost everything else, though, is very, very good.

You can play single events, a pre-defined "circuit" of four or five events, or a "free" circuit that consists of events that you choose (either four or eight). You'll be competing against other characters from the Mario and Sonic universe, and it's all surprisingly well-animated and very faithful to the actual events.

This game will also wear your ass out. It's a very physical game, which has made it much more fun for both of us. I can't imagine playing this game with a regular controller--it would be missing a huge amount of its appeal.

So why did almost everyone who reviewed this game give it such poor scores? Well, based on some of the comments I saw in the reviews, many of the reviewers just didn't play it for very long. I know I'm beating the drum again here, but a mandatory element of every review should be how much time the reviewer spent playing the game. There's no question that this game seems kind of bland for the first couple of hours. It seems shallow as well. The more you play, though, the deeper it gets, and as more events get unlocked, it gets to be more and more fun.

Is it more fun when someone plays with you? Yes, just like Track & Field. This kind of game is tailor-made for playing with a friend or a family member. I've played it by myself, and it's still fun, but getting to see someone else going as crazy with the controller as you are is a blast.

If you have kids, or friends who game, it's a must-buy. And if it seems superficial at first, just hang in there for an hour or two. It's much, much better than that.

I've noticed one bug that you should watch out for if you're playing one of the circuits. If more than one of you is playing, the high jump event doesn't allow you to set your jumping height (it's predetermined), and if one of you can't jump a height, it automatically knocks out the other player as well.

The high jump is also one of the few events that doesn't conform to the standard event rules. In real-world high jump contests (if I remember correctly), contestants who have jumped the same height are ordered based on number of misses. That's not what's done in Mario & Sonic. Also, if a jumper misses a height, he has the option to pass on that height and move the bar up--he can't miss three consecutive jumps, but those jumps can be at more than one height. Again, in Mario & Sonic, you can't do this--you're locked into the same height after one failed jump until you either pass the height or miss three times in a row.

One more note: if you're wondering how to unlock more events, the way to do it is to win a medal on the different "circuits." You unlock additional circuits by medaling, and many of the new circuits will include new events.

Child's Play

Penny Arcade's annual charity drive, Child's Play, is in full swing, and here's the page for donations.

Console Post of the Week

Here's what I think is the most compelling story of the week: Wii prices on eBay.

A year after launch, in a twelve-month period when Nintendo averaged over 425,000 units a month in the US, the Wii is still selling for $249.

On eBay, the average closing price of ten consecutive auctions tonight was $380. No extra controllers, no extra games, just auctions for the base package of Wii+controller+Wii Sports.

The Wii is still selling at a premium of over 50%.

That's beyond staggering, particularly when you consider that Nintendo may well sell one million Wiis in the U.S. in November.

Nintendo said recently that they're now manufacturing 1.8 million Wiis a month. Incredibly, that's not enough to satisfy demand, at least not during the holiday season.

On to Sony, which had another strong week in Japan, selling over 39,000 units and outselling the Wii for the second straight week. It's still a bit early to call it a trend, but if this continues, it certainly looks like in Japan, at least, Sony has pulled themselves out of the ditch.

How much is Sony losing on the hardware at the $399 price point (and lower in Japan)? No one knows, but they were a boat anchor before, so it doesn't really matter. They had to cut the price dramatically, and they would have lost even more money if they waited.

Look at it this way. If Sony is losing a ton of money on the hardware (they are), but in exchange they can sell a ton of units and lots of software, then everyone else can be healthy, and that health, over time, can have the collateral effect of making Sony well. It's a contained problem.

On the other hand, if Sony had refused to lower the price so that they could lose less money on the hardware, then a miserable number of units would have sold, software sales would be low, and everyone would be sick. That's an uncontained problem, and that kind of problem kills consoles.

Plus, it wasn't just software developers in the gaming industry--it was anyone who was publishing movies with the Blu-Ray format as well.

So Sony made the right decision--I just don't know if they made it soon enough.

Microsoft is selling a ton of consoles in the U.S., having (by far) the most successful months, in video gaming terms, in their history, but there's one question that no one has answered yet: is the failure rate for repaired consoles using the new heatsink design significantly lower than the failure rate prior to that engineering change?

That's the number we need, really. It's safe to assume that the new consoles incorporating the revised heatsink have failure rates in line with industry expectations, but that doesn't help people who bought one before the new heatsink was used.

Since it's highly unlikely that Microsoft is going to tell us, where could we find out? I'm guessing that their quarterly earnings reports might tip us off. They anounced in July that they were taking a $1.05 billion to $1.15 billion charge for their expansion of the 360s warranty. If that number continues to be adjusted upwards in subsequent quarters--particularly the fourth quarter, when the charge is going to be "assessed" for revisions--then it will be an indication that there is further trouble.

Friday, November 23, 2007

One More Link

If you don't live in the U.S., then the idea of one incredibly huge shopping weekend probably seems very strange. The day after Thanksgiving is called "Black Friday" here--and if you're wondering how that term originated, several DQ readers last year explained that it represents the day that retailers supposedly go from being "in the red" for the year (a loss) to "in the black" (a profit).

So it's totally crazy, and I saw an article at the NY Times this morning that gives some details, which you can read about here. Basically, millions of people across the country get in line outside these stores in the middle of the night so that they can be first in line for specials that the retailer is promoting just for Black Friday. And almost all these stores are opening at 6 a.m. or sooner. It sounds crazy even as I type that description.

Friday Links!

A "Nobody Wanted to Come in to Work Today" Edition of Friday Links, so punch in, tune out, and start reading.

One Rock Band note: Jacob Pursley let me know that Tribe (who I've written about on multiple occasions) has a bonus song in Rock Band. Now if they'll just add Supercollider, I'll be set.

From Sean Hoyt, here's a link to a video of a jet plane hitting a wall--at 500 MPH. It was all part of a controlled test, it's spectacular, and you can watch it here.

Here's an excellent link from Sirius to a story at Wired titled "10 Great Snake-Oil Gadgets." This is my favorite quote: When it comes to gadgets, perpetual motion machines are bullshit's bread and butter. See the article here.

Also from Sirius, a link to "7 Incredible Natural Phenomena You've Never Seen." They're spectacular, and they're here.

And the hat trick from Sirius, and it's particularly appropriate link around Thanksgiving. It's called "Turkey Day Chemistry In the Kitchen," and it's a series of Popular Science articles that you can read here.

Here's another holiday-food related article, this one from the NY Times, and it's about an easier way to carve a turkey. It's the "butcher's method," and you can read about it here.

From Tim Lesnick, a link to one of the most amazing case mods I've ever seen--it's wooden and hand-carved. Amazing, and you can see it here.

Mitch Youngblood sent in a link to an article titled "The Most Sensuous Car Shapes Ever Designed." There are some fantastic pictures, and it's here.

From New Scientist, a link to a story about an imaging machine--buried in ice at the South Pole. Here's an excerpt:
A giant imaging machine buried in ice at the South Pole could one day create pictures of the Earth’s core...Currently under construction, IceCube is designed to detect subatomic particles called neutrinos, which are so evasive that they can slip quite easily through the body of the planet.

The machine consists of thousands of detectors and will eventually fill a cubic kilometre of ice. The detectors look downwards, watching for the distinctive flash of blue light that means a neutrino has come through most of the planet only to get snagged in the Antarctic ice.

The main aim is to look for neutrinos from exotic objects in deep space, such as the giant black holes in galactic cores, using the bulk of the Earth as a shield to screen out unwanted noise from other cosmic particles.

Read about it here.

From Garrett Alley, a link to the discovery of ancient sea scorpions that were larger than men. And we thought the Japanese film industry was just making it up. See it here.

David Gloier sent in a link to a story about cockroaches--the robotic variety. They can even fool real cockroaches, and you can read about it here.

From John DiMinno, a link to a video that demonstrates just how important music can be, and that's all I'm going to tell. Well, except for telling you that it's a video about hamsters. See it here.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Rock Band (360): Notes and Video

First off, if you want to know how complicated the drums can get, there's a mind-blowing video on YouTube of a guy 5-starring "And Justice for All." He's rated #1 on the leaderboards as of this afternoon, and he hits 98% of the notes on what loooks like a tremendously difficult song. Watch the video here, and be sure you're sitting down.

I've also figured out why I was struggling to get adjusted to the Stratocaster controller. It's the lag setting for my screen, which can be adjusted in the calibration menu. As it turns out, the idea setting for my screen is the same as it was for GH II--25ms. I had a 399-note streak this afternoon, so I'm assuming I'm fully adjusted at this point, and I still love that there's no "clicking" sound on the strum bar.

One thing I have noticed is that the designated solo sections, which can be played on the neck buttons without strumming, are impossible for me to see coming. I don't know they've started until I see the big percentage indicator come up on the screen, so they're really difficult to play on the neck. There needs to be some kind of easy-to-see visual indicator, like a wide band across the screen, when a solo begins. That way, we could see it "dropping" from the top of the screen and get ready.

That sounds minor, but it's one of the ways that the Strat has an advantage over the Les Paul, and it's a different technique from anything available in GH III, so it's in Harmonix's best interests to make sure people explore that style.

Eli 6.3: Holiday Edition

Since it's Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., here are a few Eli stories that are hopefully for your amusement.

Last night we were playing Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. Eli's fascinated by the instant replay feature, or rather, that when there's a replay of a javelin throw, you can also see the replay on the giant stadium screen at the same time.

We had been playing for about thirty minutes, and it was time to stop, because Eli needed to go upstairs for his shower. "Eli, let's go," Gloria said.

"Just a minute, mom," he said.

"No minute," she said. "Let's go."

"Mom!" he said, looking at the television and pointing to the stadium screen in the background. "I'm watching my REPLAY. I'm on TELEVISION."

This story won't make any sense if you're not familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender.

On Tuesday afternoon, there were squirrels in our backyard, and both George and Gracie's tails got bushy from all the excitement. Eli was about to pet George as he walked by, and Gloria said "Eli, that's not a good idea. I wouldn't pet George when his tail is bushy."

"Why not?" Eli asked.

"Cats are a little nervous when their tails are bushy," I said. "They get excited and really can't control what they're doing."

Eli thought for a few seconds about this. "Oh, I get it," he said. "It's like they're entering the Avatar State!"

"That's right," I said.

"And they can't control themselves, just like Aang," he said.

"It's the Catatar State," Gloria said.

Last night, we went to Macaroni Grill for dinner, and Eli saw three little boys sitting at a table near us. "Dad, look at those triplets," he said.

"Those aren't triplets," I said. "They look like they're all different ages."

"Oh," he said. "How do they watch THREE kids when there are only TWO of them?"

"Well, it's like this," I said, taking out a crayon and drawing on the butcher paper that covered the table. "Let's call Mom 'M' and Dad 'D'. Kids will be a 'K'."

"Got it," he said. I drew a D, an M, and a K on the butcher paper, and drew arrows to the K.

"With one kid, plus a mom and dad, how do they watch him?" I asked.

"They both watch him," he said.

"That's right," I said. "That's called a double-team." I drew another K. "Now what do they do?"

"They each watch one kid," he said.

"Yes," I said. "That's called man-to-man." I added one more K. "What do they do with three kids?"

"I don't know," he said. "There's one extra kid."

"That's why they can't play man-to-man," I said. I drew two circles near the D and the M. "With three kids, Mom and Dad each have an area they watch, and they watch all the kids that come into their area. This is called a zone."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

More Rock Band Notes (360)

I'll have a higher-level impressions post in a few days, but for right now, I'm just going to put out notes as I go.

--JC Fedorczyk let me know (and I confirmed with my copy) that Dolby Digital is, by default, turned OFF. Go into the Options menu and enable it if you have a Dolby Digital-capable receiver. If you thought the game sounded good before, just wait.
--playing drums on "Gimme Shelter" is a pure gaming heaven experience. Even on Medium.
--the song order is different for guitar solo tour than it is for drum solo tour.
--I was missing more notes than I should have been yesterday, and I was having a hard time adjusting to the guitar. I had a 198 note streak just a few minutes ago, so I think I'm getting used to the different feel.

My e-mail is absolutely packed with comments from you guys about the game. I'll try to sort through it and use as much as I can over the next few days.

One last note. The number of auctions on eBay was up to 3,500 last night, and prices plummeted. I've seen auctions close today anywhere from $150 (below retail) to $220. The number of auctions has gone down to 2,700, and I'll be curious to see what happens to auction prices when that drops below 1,500, because it will. I expect prices to go back up into the $250-$300 range, but then, I didn't expect prices to drop today, either.

With limited supply and people raving about Band World Tour mode, I don't see how auction prices are going to do anything but go up.

By The Way

Jane at Game Girl Advance wrote a better post about the comic than I did, and you can read it here. Just look for the "Jade Raymond is Real" post on November 16.

In Defense of Jade Raymond

I saw something earlier this week that really made me angry.

I try to wait to write about something if I'm angry. I'll take a couple of days, cool down, and try to approach it from a more reasoned angle.

After four days, though, I'm still angry, so here goes.

There was a webcomic created last week about Jade Raymond. If the name doesn't ring any bells, she's the producer of Assassin's Creed, which was just released last week.

There's been an ongoing "controversy" for months over whether Ubisoft has used Raymond's looks (she's pretty) to promote the game. There have also been allegations that Raymond was unqualified to produce the game and her looks are what got her hired.

So this comic (which I'm not linking to) was created last week, and what it shows is a cartoon version of Jade Raymond performing sexual favors for gaming nerds in exchange for them buying the game.

In a word, the comic is vile.

That's a word I never used to describe anything when I was twenty-five, but maybe things seem more outrageous when you get older.

I must have missed all the interviews that Jade Raymond did wearing a tube top and Daisy Duke shorts. I guess I didn't see her suggestively crossing and uncrossing her legs while she was discussing the game. All I've seen is her be completely professional and entirely knowledgeable when she discusses Assassin's Creed, which, by the way, kicks ass.

[Turn off the HUD elements in the Options menu. Just a recommendation.]

So the game is excellent, and it's selling extremely well for new IP, and in the sports world that would be called scoreboard for Jade Raymond and anyone who worked on the game. Good grief, why is that people assume that attractive women are incompetent?

Ubisoft made the situation ten times worse by serving Something Awful (where the link was posted) with a cease-and-desist order. That gave this stupid comic far more attention than it ever deserved.

Yes, I know that satire is protected as free speech. Hey, I love the First Amendment. Right next to pictures of Einstein and The Three Stooges in my study, I have the First Amendment. It's my hero.

I think many people forget this, though: the First Amendment is not a Dick License.

Here's one final reason why that comic was pathetic: it's not funny.

You know what have been funny? After performing the sexual favors, a Ubisoft executive could have unzipped a Jade Raymond costume, then stepped out of it, saying "Man, I hope this game ships soon."

THAT would have been funny.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Rock Band (360): Initial Impressions

I've played for about three hours, and here are some initial impressions.

First off, the drums are a hundred different kinds of awesome. I can't overstate how fantastic and fun it is to be playing the drums. It's hard for me, even on medium, but it's still a blast.

I've spent most of my time in guitar solo mode (I finished the first set on Hard and Expert), so let's talk some nuts and bolts. Here are some data points:
--I like the feel of the guitar, but it's very, very different from the feel of the Red Octane controllers. It's larger and there's zero click. I don't want to play with the Les Paul anymore at this point, but it's a significant adjustment (NOTE: the PS3 version of Rock Band is not compatible with the Les Paul--no word yet on why).
--hammer-on/pull-off sections are designated by the HO/PO notes being not as wide as regular notes. I can see why they did it this way, because if you did it with colors, it would make the game unplayable for people who are color-blind, but it's very hard for me to see HO/PO notes. It would have been better to make them thicker, which would have both made them easier to see (since they would be bigger than regular notes) as well as emphasizing HO/PO (which is an integral part of higher-level technique).
--the timing of HO/PO is tighter than GH II, seemingly, which means it's way, way tighter than GH III.
--the solo sections where you can use the neck buttons to play without having to strum are totally cool. The neck buttons are more narrow, and I'm fumbling around with my fingers at times, but it's a good change of pace as well as a strategic decision (you don't have to strum, but you have to move your hand way down the guitar and get positioned, which is hard to do, so there's a risk involved).
--be sure to calibrate the game for your screen (look under Options). This can make a big, big difference in accuracy.
--there's a little "chime" during the song as you pass each star level, so when you go from a two-star performance to three-star in terms of scoring, you'll hear a chime. Crap, I hate that. It's a small thing, I know, but we should be able to turn it off, because it runs counter to Harmonix's design philosophy of providing a musical experience instead of a gaming experience. I'd also like to be able to remove the little circle that fills up as you approach a scoring multiplier. Let us take all the HUD elements off the screen that we want to--it's easy to tell from the crowd reactions if you're getting close to failing a song.
--another feature that's needed (and this is an important one) is to allow us to set the transparency of the HUD elements. I don't mean the note charts, but there are several very bright white elements on the screen, and for people with HD screens that have any chance of burn-in, this is needed.
--training mode now has speed set at 10% intervals, which is much more flexible than in GH II.

That's it for now. So far, I'm having a great time, and I'm looking forward to starting a band to explore World Tour mode.


I'm very late to the party on this, but I finally watched Bloodspell this week.

Bloodspell is an animated feature with top-notch writing and voice-acting, but there's a twist--it uses the Neverwinter Nights engine, believe it or not. At first, the contrast between the writing/voice-acting and the grahics is jarring--using a game engine greatly reduces the cost of creating an animated feature, but it also puts a ceiling on visual quality. In spite of this, Bloodspell still manages to be extremely compelling.

Even with current limitations in visual quality, though, machinima is clearly the future. In-game engines are becoming incredibly sophisticated, and I've written before about democratizing the creation of animated films. We're all going to be stunned by what "amateurs" are going to produce some day. Sure, 99% of it will be crap, but just like games, that doesn't matter. What matters is the other 1%.

If you're wondering about the process of creating an animated feature using a game engine, there are two very interesting articles about the Bloodspell creation process here and here. The website for the animated film is here, and you can download the film by episode or as one file (choose the "watch" option from the top of the homepage--that will take you to the downloads).

Things To Do In Wal-Mart When You're Dead

I called Wal-Mart at 10:30 last night.

Actually, I called two. The first gave absolutely incomprehensible information over the phone in response to my question about them selling the Rock Band bundle at midnight. "Um, people...walking around store...lots of line...list...I like pie..."

From what I could gather, which wasn't much, they hadn't figured out that they needed a line, so people were just wandering around the store, circling like sharks as they waited for the line. What I really wanted to do, just as a social experiment, was show up and ask the guy where the line would be forming when it did form. Then I would go stand there.

I was more concerned about hunting down a second copy of the game than I was with my second career as Margaret Mead, though, so I passed.

There's another Wal-Mart two miles further down the road, and when I called them they said they had one 360 copy that hadn't already been claimed. They actually had a list, so I hopped in the car, made it up there in about fifteen minutes, and got my name on the list. I just needed to come back at midnight.

It was 10:50 p.m.

I thought about going to get something to eat, but I wasn't hungry. I fully intended to bring a book, because I had one about a serial killer, and I figured that was a sure way to cut down on in-line conversation, but in my rush to get out of the house, it had been forgotten.

So what do you do when you have over an hour to kill at Wal-Mart? Well, the first thing you do is buy a pair of Dr. Seuss boxer shorts that say "THE ONE AND ONLY" and an arrow pointing to The Grinch on front, and "MEAN ONE" on the back. Oh, and you buy them in size XG, which is for for a 40-42 inch waist. Yes, I know your waist is a 33, but you were so blown away by the artwork on the boxer shorts that you didn't even think to check the size.

Then you discover that Wal-Mart carries Cinammon Roll flavor pop tarts, so you stock up.

Then it's 11:10.

What are two-year-olds doing in Wal-Mart at 11 o'clock? And why do they have more energy than I do?

About 11:35, the guy who was on the list for the other 360 copy (they only got two) showed up. This turned out to be excellent, because he had finished both GH I and II, was disappointed in GH III (relaxed note timing), and was a really nice guy besides. So we chatted about the game and playing techniques until midnight, and I was out the door and on my way home at 12:05.

I'm not a big fan of tracking down stuff at midnight, but I figured the chances of a rolling fail were pretty high today. That's when you go to Fry's at 8 a.m., and there are already more people in line than they have copies of the game. So you hit Target at 9 a.m., then Toys R Us and Best Buy at 10 a.m., and you never wind up getting ahead of the line.

The reason I needed a second copy is that I wanted to have a suitable prize for the band name contest next week. Yeah, I know the shipping charges are outrageous, but there are going to be almost no copies of this game available for the next six weeks, so I know that plenty of you guys who didn't find a copy of the game wouldn't mind paying for shipping. So we'll do that one day next week.

Monday, November 19, 2007

I Hope I'm Wrong About This

I'm expecting it to be very, very difficult to walk into a store tomorrow--anywhere--and pick up the Rock Band bundle.

The reason why is pretty simple: in the eBay era, when supply doesn't meet demand, profiteering goes wild. Even now, I'm seeing most eBay auctions for the game--incredibly--closing in the $240-$300 range. And I fully expect those prices to rise after tomorrow, so waiting in line for a copy and eBaying it is an easy way to make $100+. In that situation, people will come out of the woodwork to gouge us.

Band Names

Future Nobel Prize Winner Brian Pilnick sent me a link to a very clever band name generator, which you can see here. It's much funnier than any other one I've ever seen.

I'm still trying to lock on a band name before Tuesday. I used Gorilla Concept Manifesto in Guitar Hero II (I couldn't use "Guerilla" because it was too many letters, but I like gorillas, so that substitution worked out really well). I'm using Hole Control in GH III, which has the added benefit of sounding vaguely obscene, even though it's not (it's a term about city maintenance-something-or-other that I read about a few months ago).

Here are a few names the band generator came up with (both purely generated and cobbled together from multiple names), plus a few oddities from my current list.

Bitter Plastic Sunshine (this is my current #1 on the list)
Misspent Nitrogen Regime
Morbid Waste Alliance
Picasso's Frostbite Glee Club
Digitized Clown Believers
Ghastly Love Exhibition
Small Metaphor League

Discarded Puppet Subway
Northernmost Tugboat Engima
The Edmund Fitzgerald Experience
(a Gordon Lightfoot reference)
Young Waterbed Detectives
Dinosaur Attack Force
(an obscure Japanese culture reference)
The Groovy Band League
Pretty Man Factory
(you'll need to use a headset mic with this band name)
The Culprits
The Sanctions
The Disappointments
The Human Genome Project
Four-Eyed Cartoon Monster
(a very obscure Stevie Wonder reference)
East Indiana Trading Company
The Smells

Last Free Exit (that's Gloria's)

You can also add Federation, Project, or Experience to any band name to tart it up immediately.

These suck compared to what you guys would come up with, which is why we're (hopefully) going to have a band name contest next week.

I Totally Forgot

I can't believe I didn't even mention the best part of going to see Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, which was the fight we saw.

In the parking lot.

After the movie, we went out to the car, and as I was buckling Eli 6.3 into his booster seat, I noticed a man sitting in his car. What was unusual about this was that he was actually in the lane between parked cars, so he was parked in the middle of the road, basically. The car was running, and he was looking out his opened window and staring. I followed his glare and saw a woman standing in a parking space with her arms folded across her chest.

The parking lot wasn't crowded, so it's not like she was saving him a space. It was some kind of bizarre parking lot standoff, and neither of them were saying anything.

"Dude," I said, "I think those people are having a fight."

"A fight? Where?" he asked.

"Right there," I said, nodding to the car (which was only about twenty feet away from us). "I think that lady is mad at him and won't get in the car."

"She's just standing there?" he asked.

"Looks like it," I said.

"That is AWESOME!" he said.

"We're definitely coming back to check on this " I said (we had an errand to run in the same shopping complex).

Right as we started to pull away, the woman pulled out the nuclear option. She squatted in the parking space.

"Dad, she's SQUATTING!" Eli shouted, laughing. I know, it was a fight, but the looks on their faces really did make it funny. They were glaring at each other like cartoon characters.

We came back fifteen minutes later.

"Do you see her?" Eli asked, scanning the parking lot.

"Look in the trees," I said. "Maybe she climbed one and won't come down."

"Dad!" Eli said laughing. We looked, but they were gone.

Hopefully she's not squatting on their driveway right now.

Eli watched Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein on Friday night. It had Frankenstein, and a theme park, and a mad scientist, and the chipmunks were trapped inside for a while. On our way to breakfast Saturday mornining, he was asking whether the chipmunks had really been in danger. "Well, it was a cartoon," I said, "so it's not real."

"I know that," he said patiently. Talking to grown-ups can be frustrating.

"Inside the movie, though, I don't really think they were in jeopardy," I said.

"WHAT?" he said. "In a theme park? With a mad scientist? OF COURSE THEY WERE!"

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Eli 6.3 has a long-ass Thanksgiving break from school that started today, so we went to see Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, owner of a less-than-stellar 36% over at Rotten Tomatoes.

If a movie has a 36% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, it's basically a recommendation that if you get to choose between seeing the movie or stabbing yourself with an ice pick, then you should learn how to hold an ice pick.

Much to my surprise, the movie was quite a bit better than I expected--with one exception. Seeing Dustin Hoffman, one of the great actors of his generation, create a character that consisted entirely of bushy eyebrows, teased hair, and a lisp was excruciatingly painful.

Besides that, though, the world inside which the movie takes place was fantastic. The way the set designers created the toy store, and the way the toys came alive, was really, really fun. If your son or daughter is under ten, they'd probably have a good time. Eli 6.3 certainly enjoyed himself.

As for yourself, have an ice pick handy. When Dustin Hoffman says something, you'll need it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Friday Links!

8:33 a.m. and time for you to stop working for the day.

First off, the featured article of the week is from Julian Murdoch (who you will recognize as one of the many excellent writers over at Gamers With Jobs), who sent in an article titled "The Nerd Handbook." It's a guide for others--to explain us. I read it, immediately sent the link to Gloria, and said "This explains me better than I ever could." And you, too, probably. Read it here.

Jesse Leimkuehler sent in a link to a mind-blowing, HD image of Jupiter and Io. It's stunning, and you can see it here.

Matthew Teets sent in a link to Wired's "Saddest Cubicle Contest," and there are some real classics among the winners, which you can view here.

I've told this story before, but here's the short version. I was working at a computer company (no longer in business, which is good for everyone, believe me) in the early 1990s, and the founder/owner/president became obsessed about Japanese business efficiency, which was all the rage back then. So he installed what he said were "Japanese-style" cubicles, which were so narrow that there was less than a foot of space between my shoulders and the outside walls of the cubicle. And I was skinny. They were highly efficient in a space-saving sense, but they were so claustrophic that we never went into our cubicles anymore. So we doubled the number of people in that space and reduced our total work output by a factor of ten.

Jim Olson sent in a link to "The Alternative History of Public-Key Cryptography," which is about a hundred times more interesting than it sounds, and you can read it here.

From Josh Catania, a link to a video about something I never thought I'd see: a baloon pipe organ. It's brilliant, and the sound is completely haunting, and you can see it here.

Claudine Martin sent me a link to an article about "the tree man." The subject line of her e-mail? "A man who won't ever forget his roots." Comic genius. It's hard to describe what you're about to see, except that it's strangely riveting and you shouldn't be eating anything when you click on the link. See him here.

From Steven Kreuch (along with Matt, the Official Brothers of Dubious Quality), a link to a new music search engine called "Seeqpod." Here are two excerpts from the FAQ:
What is SeeqPod?
SeeqPod is the home for playable search results. SeeqPod's vertically targeted crawlers crawl the deepest parts of the web to enable internet-wide search & discovery of anything that can be played or shared with friends.

What is SeeqPod Music?
At SeeqPod Music, you can search for music, music videos & podcasts by artists you like, as well as discover other artists and songs you were not familiar with. You can generate countless playlists of songs and videos, save them for future enjoyment and share them with friends by e-mailing or embedding a player and playlist in a web page.

Very cool, and you can check it out here.

Steve Davis sent in a link to something I don't see very often (or ever)--archaeology comedy. It's titled " Zombie Attack at Hierakonpolis," it's very funny, and you can read it here.

From Edwin Garcia, a link to another segment of the brilliant Top Gear show. This time, it's a race between a Bugatti Veyron--and a Eurofighter Typhoon. It's fantastic, and you can watch it here.

David Gloier sent in two terrific links this week. The first is to a "trailer" for Italian Spiderman, a spoof of low budget foreign films from the 1970s, and it's absolutely hilarious. Watch it here.

Finally, here are a few gaming-related links.

First, from Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to an article at The Consumerist titled "28 Confessions of a GameStop Shift Supervisor." What really stook out like an exclamation point for me was his explanation of the "checkout" policy:
Gamestop policy is, for better or worse, that employees may check out new games that are more than two weeks past their original release so long as they are returned in mint condition.

Good grief, you've got to be kidding me. How exactly is that legal? Rev up the disgust engine and read it here.

N'Gai Croal has two interesting articles over at Level Up. The first is an interview with Ratchet & Clank Future Creative Director Brian Allgeier, who discusses the five critical features he looks for in an action/adventure game. I've groused about Ratchet & Clanks jumping insta-deaths and the location of the restore points (occasionally, "way the hell back there"), but the creative level of the game is absolutely stellar, and the article is an excellent read. See it here.

The second article is titled "Expansion Pack: Which Would You Rather Lose, a $60 Videogame Or a Save File?" In it, the personal value of game saves (high, obviously) is discussed, plus an ingenious idea for an "online storage locker" for saves. Read it here.

Here's a link to an article titled "The World's Most Expensive Games" over at Game Snipes. The article is here, and there are a ton of interesting articles and pictures about retro gaming at the site.

From Geoff Engelstein, a link to a remarkable demonstration of a "multi-touch" interface using the Wiimote. Very "Minority Report," very cool, and you can see it here.

Dave McLeod sent me a link to an article over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun about MMO design by Jim Rossignol. It proposes breaking down some of the conventional leveling mechanics, it's a good read, and it's here.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

CPotW (addendum)

I just saw weekly hardware numbers for Japan (thanks Kotaku), and the PS3 had a huge week with the introduction of the lower-priced 40GB model and Shin Sangoku Musou 5 (Dynasty Warriors in the U.S.). The PS3 sold 55,924 units, which is its biggest week since January, and to give you an idea of how big it really is, the PS3 has barely been averaging over 55,000 units a month in Japan since April.

The PS3 also outsold the Wii by over 20,000 units. I still don't know if Japan is having supply issues with the Wii, but either way, those numbers should get Nintendo's attention.

If you're wondering whether there's an October-November ramp that's similar to the U.S., there doesn't appear to be. There are certainly years and platforms that have a huge spike in sales from October to November, but it's wildly erratic--some years seem to have very little effect at all, at least from 2002 forwards.

December, though, is a gigantic month.

Console Post of the Week: October NPD Numbers

From NPD:
Wii - 519,000
Xbox 360 - 366,000
PlayStation 2 - 184,000
PlayStation 3 - 121,000

These are dead numbers in terms of trends, because the $399 PS3 40GB unit wasn't available until this month. Still, there are some interesting numbers here.

First, the 360 sold 61,000 more units than the PS2 and PS3 combined, and it tripled PS3 sales.

Sony's reporting that PS3 sales have more than doubled in the last two weeks (both in the November NPD period) with the price cut to $399. "It's the breakthrough we've been anticipating," Howard Stringer.

What they're not saying, though, is what they already know about the traditional holiday sales ramp, so let's take a quick look. Compare the numbers for the PS2 from 2002 through 2006.
2002: 500k (Oct), 1.3m (Nov)
2003: 300k (Oct), 850k (Nov)
2004: 330k (Oct), 690k (Nov)
2005: 240k (Oct), 660k (Nov)

Wow. Sales were roughly 2.5x in November compared to the previous month. Is this isolated to the PS2? Let's look at the Xbox.
2002: 240k (Oct), 470k (Nov)
2003: 170k (Oct), 480k (Nov)
2004: 210k (Oct), 700k (Nov)
2005: 110k (Oct), 200k (Nov)

Same deal, basically. And the 360 last year went 218k-511k. That ramp is money every year. So when we look at November NPD numbers in a few weeks, we'll be looking at what Sony sells above 300k, not above 120k, because that's the normal ramp. That will give us a much, much more accurate look at what the price cut is really doing.

By the way, even though Microsoft cut the price several months too late, they have to be pretty pleased with that October number. That translates into roughly 900k consoles in November.

Oh, and if you're wondering about December sales, they roughly double November's sales. So December unit sales are roughly five times October unit sales.

That means Nintendo could sell 2.5 million Wiis in December--if they had the manufacturing resources to supply that many. I don't think they do, so it will be interesting to see how much that limits their sales. If you're thinking that's a ridiculous number, just remember that the PS2 sold 2.7 million in December 2002.

So, based on historical trends, and without accounting for supply constraints or price cuts, the November numbers would look like this:

I think that gives us a much better frame of reference to evaluate what's really happened in November when the numbers get released.

Extra Bits

As unlikely as it sounds, I have a guest post over at Level Up, which you can read here.

There's some additional information that didn't make it into the post because I couldn't quite fit it into the narrative, and most of it comes courtesy of John Harwood, who has this all-encompassing knowledge of gaming history--a mile wide and a mile deep.

We were talking about the article, talking about Street Fighter II, and then he started talking about squishies.

I had totally forgotten about the squishies.

The ultimate control scheme in the Street Fighter series was a bit of an accident, really. The original Street Fighter cabinets had pressure sensitive pads (you can see a picture of them here) that felt squishy. You pounded on these pads for punch strength, and the pads could detect three different levels of force.

This control system, obviously, was conceptually perfect for total abuse, and the machines kept breaking down because they were getting pounded on all day long. The reliability issues resulted in the games getting retrofitted with the six-button panel.

John also had some fantastic stories about the Intellivision era, because he gamed with his family: father, mother, and sister. Gaming tournaments were big for a few years back in the 1980's, and they entered them together--and won. His family's experience is a treaure trove of stories from that era, and he's promised to write them up so that I can share them with you guys.

I also didn't mention this in the Level Up post, but several years before Street Fighter, there was a game called Karate Champ. It used dual joysticks, which made it possible to perform a wide variety of kicks and punches, and the animation was very advanced for the era. So if any game can claim to be a conceptual ancestor of Street Fighter, it's probably this game. It was also one of my favorites, although I was never very good.

Karate Champ was also the only game I can remember that included a bull. The in-round fighting was not nearly as over-the-top as Street Fighter, but in one of the bonus rounds, a bull (complete with snorting breath, if I remember correctly) came charging at you and you had to stop him with a punch. Some pictures of the game are here.

One last thing. Arcade games like Pac-Man and Street Fighter II are polar opposites in terms of complexity, but they were both incredibly popular. I think the real genius of the the first two Guitar Hero games is that they were able to be both. On Easy and Medium, it's Pac-Man. On Hard, though, when the hand slide has to be mastered and hammer-ons/pull-offs becomes increasingly important, it turns into Street Fighter II. Any game that can be both is a real masterpiece of game design.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Rock Band DLC Pricing

From Gamespot:
Rock Band will still feature pre-selected three-song packs for download, but they will instead cost $5.49 (440 Microsoft points on Xbox 360). Songs will also be available individually for $1.99. Harmonix has said future songs will be sold individually for as little as $.99 (80 Microsoft points), and as much as $2.99 (240 points). However, "the vast majority" will come in at the standard $1.99 price point. The developer did not say how much full-album downloads would be, or when the first albums would be released.

Harmonix also detailed its release schedule for the first five weeks after Rock Band launches. The opening week will be highlighted by track packs from Metallica, The Police, and Queens of the Stone Age, with individual songs from Creedence Clearwater Revival, Foreigner, T-Rex, and more. Downloaded tracks will be integrated into all of the game's modes, and will be playable online only if all players have purchased the songs.

You can see the exact release schedule here.

I would have really liked to have seen the songs at $1.49 each, but the song packs are cheaper than Guitar Hero DLC and they include two additional note tracks (drums and vocal). It's hard to complain about that.

What band is worth $2.99 a song (at the top end of the pricing scale)? I don't know, but I'm hoping that it's someone who's never been included before--like Led Zeppelin. And it will be a very tough sell at that price, no matter the band.

No word on album content, but I hope Who's Next hasn't been delayed.

The Gum Reporter

Eli 6.3 went with his mom to the mall last week to shop for clothes, and they shopped at "G-A-P" (which is what Eli calls it). While the route from A to B is not entirely clear, he somehow wound up in the display window with the mannequins.

You know what they say about "when in Rome."

So he froze. Then, every once in a while, he'd move when someone walked by. Which he did until a girl saw him and screamed.

Good times, good times.

We went to dinner last night at the Domain, and he described his day. "Dad, Gina tried TO KISS ME on the CHEEK in SCHOOL. Argghhh!" he said.

"That's a good problem to have," I said.

"WHAT? It's a TERRIBLE problem!"

"Would you rather have all the girls ignore you instead?"

He paused to think. "Okay, no," he said, then ducked his head under the table to change the subject. "There are two pieces of gum, and one of them is big," he said.

I'm not sure when this happened, but Eli's turned into a completionist when it comes to cataloging the amount of gum under any table where we happen to be sitting. He found a piece of gum a few months ago, and when I explained to him that people from Crazyville stuck their gum under tables in restaurants, it fascinated him. Now he's become The Gum Reporter. He says "There is NO gum under this table" with the gravitas of Walter Cronkite.

It is highly unlikely that I will ever use the word "gravitas" again. Don't give me shit about it.

Eli also successfully completed one of the great quests recently. He walked up to me, held up a paper with rows of marks on it, and said "Seventy-four."

"Seventy-four what?" I asked.

"Seventy-four licks to the center of a Tootsie Pop," he said. He held up the paper as proof. I only wish I'd scanned it so I had a copy.

Earlier this week, he walked in from school and said "Dad, can you give me some money? I'm jumping rope for heart attacks."

"Preventing them or causing them?" I asked.

"Preventing them for money," Gloria said. "He causes them for free."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

So That's Why There's A Hole In The Side Of My Head

I've written about this before, but one of the reasons I'm looking forward to Rock Band so much is that Harmonix gets it. It's like they have a direct connection into my brain, and every time they add something I really wanted, I'm reminded again.

I wrote this on July 16:
I'm writing a long post on the potential of Rock Band this week, and one of the specific things I was going to mention was this exact scenario--if someone finished the game on expert, particularly if they finished two different instruments, the game should generate a code that would access a website where you could order exclusive Rock Band gear--t-shirts, jackets, whatever. The gamer would still have to pay for the merchandise, but he wouldn't even have access unless he was in a very elite class of player.

On November 1, I wrote this:
Harmonix also could have unveiled the gear that people could purchase if they reached certain levels in the game. Five-star every song in the game on expert? You'd be able to purchase a custom-designed leather jacket, and there would probably only be a thousand people in the whole country who would be good enough players to earn the right to wear one.

There would be gear that could be purchased at all different skill levels, but it would all be related to your skill in the game. You would get to wear your achievement, so to speak, and I think a ton of people would really enjoy doing that.

Here's what Rock Band's Alex Rigopulos had to say to OXM in an interview that was published on their website today:
So if you create characters in a band in the Rock Band universe, you can actually create a band page in the PC-based universe of that tracks all of your progress, your world tour and your game achievements. So for example, the game has a really deep sophisticated character creation system for your Rock Band avatars...There’s also a band logo creator, so when you name your band, you can create your band logo and edit the graphical style. So all of that stuff, we’re going to be able to export to your web pages, and from there you’ll be able to take your band avatars, pose them, create album covers with your band logo and different scenes with your avatars. And then you’ll be able to turn that into real world stuff. For example, figurines based upon your Rock Band avatars, t-shirts with your fake band’s album art and your tour dates on the back from your accomplishments within the game, bumper stickers, old records, things like that. Really cool real-world merchandise based on this fictitious band that you’ve created in the game.

So they're doing what I wanted, but they're doing it 10X better than I ever imagined. Customized merchandise that includes your band's name and your avatar? Bumper stickers? Figurines?

Actually, um, I'd prefer to call them "action figures."

By the way, is it the 20th yet?

What a Year


I know I bitch about in-game ads, and shoddy product, and DRM, and people acting like dicks. All true.

In spite of that, though, when you just look at the best games in 2007, it's been a banner year.*

That * is important, unfortunately. It's only been the best year in gaming history if you owned multiple gaming platforms. If you did, you could choose from Armageddon Empires (PC), Dwarf Fortress (PC), BioShock (PC, 360), The Orange Box (PC, 360), Puzzle Quest (pretty much everything), Halo 3 (360, not really my deal but I hear about five million other people like it), Ratchet & Clank (PS3), NHL 08 (360, PS3, PC), Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbados' Treasure, and Total Pro Golf 2 (PC). I'm leaving out at least a dozen more games that probably belong in that list as well.

What usually happens in a typical year is that there will be one day--historically, usually in October--when three or four AAA games land on the same day. After that, the releases drop off, and from mid-November to January, it's quiet. Consoles launch in late November, but the number of excellent games is pretty low.

Not this year, though. Call of Duty 4? Absolutely outstanding. It's so good it kind of creeps me out, really--the level of immersion is off the charts. Today, Super Mario Galaxy came out, and I spent thirty minutes with it and still haven't recovered. It's vibrant and colorful, the controls are excellent, and the fun factor is very, very high. I can't wait for Eli 6.3 to get home so we can try out the co-op mode.

Tomorrow? Assassin's Creed and Crysis. Next week? Mass Effect and Rock Band.

Seriously, it's insane. And that's not even including games for the DS and PSP.

The flip side to this is that some games are just going to get buried. Midway (which has an Austin studio within walking distance of my house) released BlackSite: Area 51 this week, which is absolute suicide. I have no idea how that game is expected to sell when it's fighting Crysis, Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty 4 and Mass Effect in the same 10-day window.

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