Thursday, January 31, 2008

Your E-mail (and My Embarrassment)

Mark Lahren just sent me an e-mail with the subject "Not To Pick Nits, But...":
Wasn't "T2X: Shadows of the Metal Age" released back in May 2005?

Okay, I wouldn't call two-and-a-half years a "nit." I'd call it more of a "massive oversight" on my part, even though there was a version 1.1 (the final version) released in February of last year. Which was still almost a year ago.

Thank you in advance for not sending me a link to the SNL skit where the game show contestant doesn't know that we walked on the moon.

This second e-mail isn't a massive oversight on my part (much to my surprise), but an interesting piece of gaming history (as well as a nice story about being a kid), courtesy of Little Mike. This is in reference to the recent post about the used game market.

Back in the 80's when I was a wee lad (I'll be 32 this June) my mother was a front end supervisor for a toy store called Child World. Child World was no small operation, back then it was Toys 'R Us' main competitor. As such they carried all the latest and greatest toys and games, including every NES title available. Now being that my mother was the front end supervisor, she dealt with returns and broken merchandise and all kinds of things of that sort. As an aside, a FES was essentially a manager, that's just the company title they used. Anyway, it worked out great because I got to go to work with my mom a lot (and what kid doesn't like hanging out in a toy store), and I got to learn about the ins and outs of the industry. One of the best perks was that when merchandise was damaged (the box torn and ripped, pieces missing, etc.) the distributor just required the SKU in order to issue credit. So the toys were all discarded, or more often than not, I got to keep them because they were only being thrown away. Hey, so what if He-Man was missing his sword, or he was a little banged up, it was free. Anyway, I digress.

I think we can agree that one of the most industry changing game systems to be released was the Nintendo Entertainment System. When it was first released, games were able to be returned for a full refund. However, a few years later this changed. This started around 1987. I can tell you this definitively and I will explain in a moment. In 1987, The Legend of Zelda for the NES was released. One of the most widely successful properties Nintendo has ever owned, and a testament to the genius that is Miyamoto. Shortly after the release of Zelda, there was an influx of returns. Now you may be thinking that this made no sense because the game received accolades for its superb storyline and gameplay. You would also be absolutely correct. But there was something amiss here and we didn't realize it until people like my mother got a company memo from the distributors.

Apparently what was going on was that some clever gamers were dismantling the Zelda cartridges, removing the ROM chip from it and then taking an older, cheaper game that wasn't nearly as good like Popeye (Popeye retailed for around $30 back then and Zelda was a whopping $50), and they would swap the ROM chips. Then they would reassemble the cartridges and then return Zelda for a full refund, getting their $50 back, meanwhile keeping it by having the ROM in the Popeye case.

I don't think I have to tell you how infuriated the distributors and then Nintendo became over this.

Shortly thereafter, Child World received a company-wide memo that no video game cartridge was to be accepted for returns from that point forward, and understandably so. So I don't know about the rest of the country, but in New York, the inability to return console games started in 1987, long before Gamestop was founded in 1994.

That's a very interesting piece of history that I'd totally forgotten, but the part of the story I enjoyed most was imagining being a kid and getting to keep returned merchandise that was slightly dinged or missing pieces. Just the though of sorting through a box of those toys and deciding what to keep is a great memory of childhood.

Haunted Houses

This seems like an appropriate day to mention this, since I just discussed Fatal Fame in the previous post. I was listening to an episode of This American Life while I swam on Tuesday (I'm back to 2006 now), and as part of a Halloween episode, they mentioned that many of the "manifestations" of supernatural phenomena that occur inside houses are almost identical to the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. They also mentioned multiple reportings of "haunted houses" that, when checked, showed very high levels of carbon monoxide, and when the ventilation systems were fixed, the manifestations went away.

The person they were discussing this with also strongly believes that's why reports of haunted houses have gradually decreased over time. He said that particularly in the gaslight era, carbon monoxide levels inside houses were often at dangerous levels.

Here's an excerpt from a Wikipedia entry on haunted houses:
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include listlessness, depression, dementia, emotional disturbances, and hallucinations. Many of the phenomena generally associated with haunted houses, including strange visions and sounds, feelings of dread, illness, and the sudden, apparently inexplicable death of all the occupants, can be attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

I also found a website with a story published in the American Journal of Ophthalmology in 1921. In it, a doctor describes a patient who lived in a house that was, by any measure, extravagantly haunted--over half a dozen people living in the house described terrifying (and repeated) incidents.

The furnace, as it turns out, was pouring fumes into the house instead of out through the chimney, and once it was repaired, the haunting stopped. The story is here, and it's a very good read, because the account is so vivid.

Fatal Frame Wii

Regular readers of this space know that I believe Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly -Director's Cut is the most frightening game ever made.

Not "scary." Frightening.

I've also mentioned that I've been playing No More Heroes, and while I'll write about it in depth on Monday, I will briefly say here that it is astoundingly fun and has one of the strongest senses of style I've ever seen.

The developer of No More Heroes is Grasshopper Manufacture, who you might remember as the developer of Killer7, a Gamecube title (also with a remarkable sense of style) that had one of the most extreme review score skews in history (of 57 reviews at MetaCritic, 8 were 50 or below, and 9 were 90 or above).

The CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture is Goichi Suda, or "Suda 51." He has one of the most unique backgrounds in gaming, because at the time he was originally hired by Human Entertainment, he was working as an undertaker.

That's according to his Wikipedia entry, anyway, which you can read here.

Yesterday, it was announced that the next installment of the Fatal Frame series is being developed for the Wii. The developer? Grasshopper Manufacture.

That's the equivalent of someone baking me the perfect pumpkin pie, then as it's cooling, a tanker truck full of Cool Whip pulls up into the driveway.

Here's something else, and I haven't heard anyone mention it. In 2004, Grasshopper Manufacture made a game (that was only released in Europe and Japan) titled Michigan: Report From Hell. It was a survival horror game with a first-person perspective, and that perspective was seen through the lense of a television camera.

In other words, a perfect match with the first-person mode of the Xbox version of FFII, where a camera was your only weapon.

By the way, here's the Wikipedia entry for Michigan, and based on the description, I seriously regret that it wasn't released in the U.S.

The link to the 1UP story I saw yesterday is here, and I can't wait.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


I recently finished reading two excellent books, so here are descriptions and links.

The first is Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.

That may sound like an unlikely subject, but it's a fascinating book, and here's a good way to know if you want to read it: the author, Dan Koeppel, also wrote an article for Popular Science in 2005 titled Can This Fruit Be Saved? I linked to it back then , because it was exactly the kind of writing I like to read, and if you like the article, then you absolutely need to read this book.

Banana plantations had an incredible (and shocking) effect on the economic and political development of Central. If you ever want to understand what the phrase "banana republic" means, then this book is for you.

Amazon link: Banana.

The second book is American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China.

Matthew Polly, a Princeton student, decided to go to the famous Shaolin Temple in China and study under the Shaolin monks. Incredibly, he did, for two years. His ability to speak Chinese and his wry sense of humor makes the story of his travels and studies tremendously entertaining. It's both fascinating and extremely funny, and if you have any interest in martial arts or China--or just good writing--then this is a good choice.

Amazon link: American Shaolin.

Gaming Links and Notes

I ordered some replacement drums two weeks ago. Over time, the yellow drum pad had gotten progressively worse about registering hits. I had the new drums in three days and they made a huge difference--I'm trying to five-star all songs on Medium, and I did eight in a row with the new set the first time I used them.

Run to the Hills on Hard? Not so much.

It's just not fun to keep practicing the same song over and over, particularly when it's just a basic skill issue. So I've been working my way through the early tiers on Expert, trying to four-star or five-star everything else on Hard, then dropping down to Medium for a few songs (I've five-starred everything except the last two tiers).

The amount of downloadable content for Rock Band has been nothing short of insane, and here are two links that help keep it all straight. The first was sent in by Matt Gindt, and it's simply called Rock Band Content. It allows you to view the difficulty level for any song in the game, by instrument, on a scale of 1-10. When available, videos are also listed, both for the full song as well as in-game videos by instrument.

Then there's Rock Band Downloadable Content Previews, sent in by Edwin Garcia, which inclues audio previews for all DLC songs as well as links to web pages for each band. I found that the audio previews were more than long enough for me to decide whether I wanted to purchase the song.

Now, let's look at a few other gaming links.

First off, and this is a ridiculous bargain, Big Fish Games is running a special where you can get any game for $10 off. That means you could get Puzzle Quest AND Fairway Solitaire, for example (two of the best games of 2007), for $10 each. Use the coupon code "DETECTIVE" (thanks to Brett Kugler for the tip).

N'Gai Croal has an excellent series of articles over at Level Up about the design of Burnout Paradise--in particular, the dynamic nature of the game world, which feels more like Test Drive Unlimited (which, in spite of less-than-stellar sales, was a brilliant and groundbreaking piece of design) than previous games in the Burnout series. The articles are in the "fight" format (with Stephen Totilo), and you can see round one and round two.

I think the design concept of selecting races while inside the game world is here to stay. Even with its potential annoyances, it feels so much more organic than exiting to a menu system to select races and I think it provides a far more immersive experience.

I would have written up some impressions on Burnout Paradise already, except I'm spending all my time playing No More Heroes. Which is utterly fantastic, and I'll tell you about it next week.

Kato Katonian sent in a link to a tremendously cool application he wrote that sends Halo 3 stats directly to your iPhone. It's called IHaloStats, and both the interface as well as the program screens are first-rate. Even if you're not into Halo, it's a very slick piece of programming.

Theohall sent me a link to a new, fan-created expansion for Thief 2. It's called Thief T2X: Shadows of the Metal Age, and it was five years in the making. Here's a link to the trailer as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Inkblot

Kieron Gillen has an excellent interview with Vic Davis, the creator of Armageddon Empires, over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Kieron is always thoughtful and interesting, and so is Vic, so it's an ideal combination.

Here's an excerpt where Vic discusses his next project:
The next game is a project that I’ve code named Brimstone. It’s a turn based strategy game with a unique theme and lots of board game mechanics. It’s going to have simultaneous turns so it will be ideal for PBEM. I’m not going to skimp on the single player experience though as coding the AI is one of my favorite parts of development. The game is an eclectic cross between Diplomacy, Dune, A Game of Thrones and Ticket To Ride. It’s got a structured diplomatic system that is sort of a variant on a feudal system where the use of force is regulated by higher authority and formal protocols. And it’ll have hexes of course.

Two words: I'm in.

Clearly, Armageddon Empires has won the indie game derby. By that I mean it's the single best example in 2007 of an indie game that not only kept gathering players, but also received highly positive coverage in the gaming press as well.

In the last three years, I can think of three independent games that have clearly "broken through," so to speak: Dwarf Fortress, Mount & Blade, and Armageddon Empires. Even though these games--as games--are totally different, the approach used by their developers in terms of reaching a market has some important elements in common, and I think it's worth discussing.

Here's the easiest way I can explain what I mean.

Take a piece of red construction paper and a pair of scissors. Cut out a circle.

At that point, you're holding 90% of games in your hand. They are clearly defined. There are a certain number of things to do, but when the circle has been cut out, it's finished. Almost every game EA has made in the last five years is like this this. Pick a shape, get the feature set in as best you can (given the time you have to work with), and ship the game.

It's not really any surprise that big publishers work like this. What I've come to realize, though, is that many indie developers work like this, too.

There's anther kind of game, though. Find a white napkin, then find an ink pen or a Flair(or any kind of pen with ink that seeps).

Touch the pen to the napkin and just wait.

It doesn't happen quickly, but ink will seep out of the pen and into the napkin, and over time, the ink will spread to a larger and larger area.

That's what Dwarf Fortress, Mount & Blade, and Armageddon Empires all have in common: they're inkblots.

All of these games have been in development for an extended period of time. With DF and M&B, they've been in development for years and they're still not "finished." With Armageddon Empires, the game was in design and development for over two years, and since it was released Vic has spent over six months meticulously improving the interface and the game experience in general.

Continued development of these games is a lifestyle, not a job. For DF and M&B, it's obvious. In the RPS interview, Vic tries to deny that he's like that--he says "I’m not driven to design by a personal muse like some people. I’m a plodding workman but it beats a lot of other jobs"--but he also says "I’ve actually written an opening chapter of a book about an Imperial Consul named Ulysses Starke who appears as a hero in the game," and he mentions that he'd love to see an "anime style film" done in the game's universe.

Nice try on that "plodding workman" claim, Vic, but no soap. Clearly, he spends much of his time thinking about the game world far beyond the feature set of the game.

So is it any wonder that each of these game worlds is incredibly evocative? It would be very easy to write fiction set in any of the three game worlds--it would be easy to write fiction just based on experiences generated in playing the games.

Some games generate stories, and when they do, gamers will tell these stories to each other, and over time, these stories turn into lore. Inkblot games are far more likely to have lore, because that's how the developers think about their own game. It's a natural result of thinking about a fictional world for thousands of hours.

All three developers also have a strong partnership with their communities, and ironically, the communities themselves have provided "ink," so to speak. I wrote about this a while back, but the people who play a game almost always want to help make the game better, if developers would only let them.

What happens with a conventional release, though, is that after the game launches, there's a short period of time when forums are active, maybe a patch or two gets released, but then the developer moves on (if there were ever any developers active in the forums to start with). And all the energy that players still have and want to contribute to improving the game starts to waste away as soon as the developers stop being active.

If that relationship continues, though, interest in the game continues as well, and the community can have a hugely positive effect. Armageddon Empires was a terrific game to begin with, but Vic Davis was active in multiple gaming forums (and continues to be), and much of the interface streamlining and feature enhancements were suggested by members of the gaming community. That's true of DF and M&B as well--the developers have an ongoing, long-term relationship with their community.

It's incredibly difficult for a developer to make this kind of commitment. There are bills to pay, and they have ideas for other games, and it takes a tremendous amount of both faith and patience to invest so much into a single game. But based on the last few years, if an indie developer really wants to succeed, it seems like a commitment that he or she must be willing to make.

There's another element as well, and that's media coverage. Media coverage for an indie game is going to be nonexistant when the game gets released.

Why? Well, to be blunt, no one cares. At first.

Coverage is still going to be nonexistant for months after release. Still, no one cares.

But if the community around the game is loyal, and if the developer is loyal to the community, someone will notice. And since just about everyone in the gaming press seems to know each other, if even one writer tries the game and likes it, he or she will tell other writers, and they'll try it as well.

Seepage, in other words. Discussion of the game spreads outwards.

If the game is really, really good, all these people trying the game and talking about it reach critical mass, and suddenly everyone seems to be covering it at once. That's how games with zero marketing budgets get attention.

On a personal level, this inkblot approach has always had a deep appeal to me, because it distinguishes games from any other kind of media. Could you ever imagine a book or film getting released, the continually being revised and polished based on end-user input? How about an artist having twenty revisions of a painting based on early viewings?

That's just crazy.

So a game like Dwarf Fortress, which is very much a result of the unfathomably deep imaginations of Tarn and Zach Adams, is still not a discrete work of creativity. There is a collaborative aspect that makes games entirely unique from any other kind of entertainment.

Which is one of the many reasons I consider them special.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Anatomy Lesson

Sock monkeys do not have penises. That's a tail. Thank goodness.

A Reign of Tyranny, Hoops, and Lords of the Dance

"Your reign of tyranny is over!" Eli 6.5 shouts as he drops a crocheted blanket onto a little stuffed puppy at the bottom of the stairs. The blanket has twine tied to the corners to create a homebrew cast net, albeit a warm, soft one.

This is the new family craze. After seeing an episode of Avatar where Toph is captured, Eli's been dropping his "net" from the stairs to capture almost all of his stuffed animals--the puppy, a penguin, a sock monkey.

There's nothing like coming down the stairs at 7 a.m. on Saturday, still sleepy, and hearing "AGGHHHHHH!" as he leaps out from behind a corner and flings the blanket on you. Or tries, to, anyway.

"Dad, why can I never get the net on you?" he asked after another failed attempt. "I can get mom every time."

One of my many superpowers is anti-capture," I said.


Eli is in a basketball league at the YMCA to while away the time between soccer seasons. Soccer has been great, but basketball, not so much. For one, the rules are this crazy bastardized hybrid that create total chaos. No traveling--if a kid picks up his dribble, he just waits a few seconds, runs a few steps (or quite a few, frequently), and starts dribbling again.

Because of this rule, the league motto is "I Think I Can Get A Shot Off." When surrounded by four defenders (a less-than-rare occurrence), players will frequently wait a few seconds, then shoot anyway.

The other league motto is "I'm Open!" So you have one kid, surrouned by everyone on the other team, thinking I can still get a shot off, and the other kids on his team all yelling "I'm open!" In other words, kind of like the Philadelphia 76ers when Alan Iverson played for them.

This is a league for first and second graders, and since Eli is a young first grader, there are plenty of kids in his league who are more than a year older than him. That means he's one of the shortest kids on the court, and he's not in the middle of all the action like he was in soccer.

He is, however, leading the league in assists. At least, I assume he is, since he had two in Saturday's game, which is probably a league record. I don't think anyone in this league has ever had two assists in one game--I thought they were going to stop the game, give him a new car, and show him videotaped highlights of his career. And he should have had four assists, except two kids missed shots from about three feet.

Yesterday, they had practice, and since a few kids didn't show up, parents were drafted to help during the scrimmage. Including Gloria, whose basketball experience is only slightly less than the dolphins at Sea World.

"I thought you played well," I said after the scrimmage. "Six points and a block."

I didn't KNOW we weren't supposed to shoot," she said, laughing. "How high is that rim, anyway?"

"Eight feet," I said. "Oh, and you're not supposed to hang on it after you dunk."

"Stop it," she said.

"And that block was great," I said. "Especially when you yelled 'MY house, bitch!' "

"Not listening to you," she said.

"Come STRONG or go back to Kindergarten," I said.

When we were in Shreveport after Christmas, we stayed with some of Gloria's friends from high school, and we were in a room that was usually used by their nieces.

On one of the shelves in that room, there was a little "Polly Pocket" music toy. You turned this tiny "turntable" (part of a "disco stage"), an outrageously funky bass line started, and a song played for about five seconds. The lyrics were "Pa-la-la-la-Polly."

It was quite the groove.

Eli 6.5 was just fiddling with the toy and turned it on by accident, but when he heard the song, he immediately started dancing. It was so funny to see him standing there, wiggling his butt and jumping around in front of a tiny pink disco stage.

So the next time he did it, of course, I danced, too. So did Gloria.

For the three nights we stayed there, anytime Eli turned on the song, we all danced. Like I said, it only lasted a few seconds, and we all got used to being in the middle of something, hearing the song start, dancing for five seconds, then going about our business.

A few days after we got home, I realized something quite unexpected: I missed the dancing.

"Hey, Eli," I said, sliding next to him on the couch, "do you miss dancing to Polly Pocket?"

He laughed. "I do," he said. "I REALLY miss it."

"I think we need to order one for ourselves," I said.

"Oh, no--Polly Pocket?" Gloria asked.

"Honey, it's important for us to be constantly interruped and forced to dance--as a family," I said.

Now we have our own "Polly Pocket Groove 'N Dance Disco," and anytime one of us starts the music, no matter what we're doing, we have to dance.

House rule.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Cooper Lawrence Comes Clean

A rare Saturday post today, thanks to a statement that Cooper Lawrence made to the New York Times. Here it is:
In an interview on Friday, Ms. Lawrence said that since the controversy over her remarks erupted she had watched someone play the game for about two and a half hours. “I recognize that I misspoke,” she said. “I really regret saying that, and now that I’ve seen the game and seen the sex scenes it’s kind of a joke.

“Before the show I had asked somebody about what they had heard, and they had said it’s like pornography,” she added. “But it’s not like pornography. I’ve seen episodes of ‘Lost’ that are more sexually explicit.”

The cynical among us will say that she made her statement because of this:
Irate gamers have flooded the page on selling Ms. Lawrence’s most recent book, “The Cult of Perfection: Making Peace With Your Inner Overachiever,” sending its user-generated rating into oblivion.

By Friday afternoon 412 of the book’s 472 user reviews were the lowest possible rating, one star. Another 48 ratings were for two stars. Only 12 of the ratings were for three stars or higher. In addition, 929 Amazon users had tagged the book with the keyword “ignorant.” Tied for second place with 744 tags were “garbage” and “hypocrisy,” while “hack” and “hypocrite” tied for fourth place with 710 votes. Gamers have also attacked the book on the Barnes & Noble Web site.

"Hack." I like that.

However, I still think that admitting she was wrong, without equivocation, is a stand-up move on her part. She could have issued a mealy-mouth, watered-down apology, but her statement was very clear and straightforward. For that, I think she deserves credit.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Fox News: Now With Extra Weasel

So here's how Fox News responded to EA's request for corrections (thanks MTV):
“Fox News Channel has extended several invitations to EA through a company representative to appear on ‘Live Desk With Martha MacCallum’ to discuss ‘Mass Effect’ and the segment which aired on Monday. We have received no response.”

That's like inviting someone to appear on a news program, accusing them of murder (they're innocent), and when they ask you for a correction, you invite them back onto the program so that you can discuss what drove them to kill.

Friday Links!

Shut your door. Forward your phone. These will keep you busy for a long while.

Leading off this week is a brilliant article by David Kushner in Wired Magazine titled Two AI Pioneers. Two Bizarre Suicides. What Really Happened?. The article is about Pushpinder Singh and Chris McKinstry, and it's a terrific piece of writing.

Here's a remarkable but sad article about the unbelievable rate of painkiller addiction in western Virginia.

The Edwin Garcia link machine rolls on. First, a new treatment for Alzheimer's that dramatically improves symptoms within minutes of treatment. There's also a direct link to the scientific paper the article discusses. Then there's footage of an actual jet crash during a Thunderbirds performance, and seeing the pilot eject (and live) is incredible. Finally, here's a link to photographs of peculiar street sculptures, and most of them are fantastic.

From Garrett Alley, a link to The Diary of Samuel Pepys, a 17th century figure of considerable controversy. You can also look at the Wikipedia entry for Pepys. He left a lengthy and extremely interesting diary, and it's being published as daily blog entries.

Zillah sent me a link to the fascinating story of Jasper Maskelyne, who allegedly was responsible for some of the most outrageous acts of large-scale deception in WWII, using his skill as a stage magician to design apparatus to hide both Alexandria and the Suez Canal. Maskelyne was also a tremendous self-promoter, and there is serious doubt whether many of these events actually happened. There's a website devoted to a series of articles that purports to debunk Maskelyne's claims, and it's an excellent read.

From Joe Kaplan, a link to a photo set on Flickr titled News in the 1910s. There are FIFTEEN Hundreds photos in this set, and here's a description:
This selected set of 1,500 photographs is from a large collection of almost 40,000 glass negatives. The entire collection spans 1900-1920 and richly documents sports events, theater, celebrities, crime, strikes, disasters, and political activities, with a special emphasis on life in New York City.

Scott Ray sent in a link to a demonstration of a Surface-like interface that utilizes the Wiimote. Incredibly, it took only eight days for the dev team to get to the stage shown in the video.

From Mike, a link to a brilliant and hilarious satire titled Child Bankrupts Make-A-Wish Foundation With Wish. The wish list of the kid is absolutely classic, and if you're wondering why it reminds you of The Onion, it's because they made the video.

From George Paci, a link to another interesting entry over at Strange Maps--this one, a map of U.S. states, renamed for countries with similar GDP's. California? It's France now. Texas? It's Canada. Take a look.

There's a new program coming to The Smithsonian Channel titled "Timewatch - Bloody Omaha" (an episode of the BBC series "Timewatch"). Gerry Palmer sent me a link to a video that explains how the footage of the D-Day invasion was created for the show. Basically, it was a Volvo station wagon full of equipment, three guys dressed as WWII soldiers, a couple of cameras, and lots and lots of ingenuity. It's incredible, really, what they created, and the video shows the process very well.

From Devon Prescott, a link to a supplemental quiz for the Look Around You Maths video I linked to last week. And Duncan Botwood sent in a link to the Look Around You Music episode, which is hilarious as well.

DQ Fitness Consultant Doug Walsh sent in a link to a story about a 16-year old who built a wooden bicycle. Frame, wheels, gears, everything.

"There Will Be Blood" has been universally acclaimed as a film, and Daniel Day-Lewis is a heavy favorite to win an Oscar for his role. In the Daily Mail, an article about his life paints an interesting and strange picture of his life. He's a brilliant and very odd fellow.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, two interesting links. First, a new book titled Touch the Invisible Sky. Here's what makes this book so cool:
"Touch the Invisible Sky" contains 60 pages of color images of nebulae, stars, galaxies and a few of the telescopes used to capture the pictures. The authors added embossing of lines, bumps and other textures to each image, rendering colors, shapes, and other details in a third dimension. Descriptions that accompany each of the 28 images in the book are supplied in Braille and large-print text, making the information accessible to readers having differing visual abilities.

The second link from Jesse is to an article about something never before observed: old stars capable of a second generation of planet formation. The article is titled Amazing Old Stars Give Birth Again.

From George Paci, a link to a story about an octopus in love--with Mr. Potato Head. Don't take my word for it--go look at the picture.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

One More Note On When Stupid Attacks

I totally forgot to mention that EA sent the following letter to Teri VanHorn, producer of the Live Desk with Martha MacCallum (so that's the name of the show--I thought it was The Dunder Years).

Here are a few excerpts (thanks Kotaku):
"As the parent company of BioWare, the studio which created the game, EA would like you to set the record straight on a number of errors and misstatements which incorrectly characterize the story and character interactions in Mass Effect."

...Your headline above the televised story read: "New videogame shows full digital nudity and sex."
Fact: Mass Effect does not include explicit or frontal nudity. Love scenes in non-interactive sequences include side and profile shots - a vantage frequently used in many prime-time television shows. It's also worth noting that the game requires players to develop complex relationships before characters can become intimate and players can chose to avoid the love scenes altogether.

FNC voice-over reporter says: "You'll see full digital nudity and the ability for players to engage in graphic sex."
Fact: Sex scenes in Mass Effect are not graphic. These scenes are very similar to sex sequences frequently seen on network television in prime time.

FNC reporter says: "Critics say Mass Effect is being marketed to kids and teenagers."
Fact: That is flat out false. Mass Effect and all related marketing has been reviewed by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and rated Mature - appropriate for players 17-years and older. ESRB routinely counsels retailers on requesting proof of age in selling M-rated titles and the system has been lauded by members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission. In practical terms, the ratings work as well or better than those used for warning viewers about television content.

...The resulting coverage was insulting to the men and women who spent years creating a game which is acclaimed by critics for its high creative standards. As video games continue to take audiences away from television, we expect to see more TV news stories warning parents about the corrupting influence of interactive entertainment. But this represents a new level of recklessness.

...This isn't a legal threat; it's an appeal to your sense of fairness. We're asking FNC to correct the record on Mass Effect.

Well, that seems specific and well-spoken. Let's see if Fox News just ignores it or makes up some more non-fact facts to avoid taking responsibility.

Sir Edmund Hillary

I think the single thing that's bothered me most about the last few years is that people always seem to act so small. I almost never see a story about unselfishness, or someone doing something noble.

Which is why I was so struck with a story about Sir Edmund Hillary, who passed away on January 11th. He, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, reached the summitt of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953. They were the first in history to reach the summit, and it was a monumental, incredible achievement.

Here's an excerpt from a Sports Illustrated story that appeared in last week's issue:
When he and Norgay did reach lower terra they allowed the story that Norgay had actually reached the summit first. Hillary was happy, too, for it gave greater pride to the Nepalese, whom he loved and dedicated most of the rest of his life to with good works.

...After Norgay revealed, just before he died in 1986, that in fact Hillary had reached the summit a few steps before him, Hillary also acknowledged the fact. But, he said, it really didn't matter who was technically first. It was a team game.

So for over three decades, Hillary gave the ultimate recognition to his partner, even though he had actually been the first to reach the summit, and he did so because of what he knew it would mean to Nepal.

That has to be one of the most gracious gestures I've ever seen.

When Stupid Attacks (Follow-Up)

Here are a few items following up on yesterday's post.

First off, that segment was a picture-perfect example of the enormous cultural gap that exists between people who do play games and people who don't. It's not that video games are for "adolescent boys" and "adults" have better things to do with their time, even though that's what Ms. Smarty Pants so smugly implied. Gaming's demographics in the U.S. are so widespread at this point that to claim it's limited to teenage boys is just absurd.

Maybe ten years ago someone could have claimed that people who play games and people who don't represent two separate countries. Today, though, it would be more accurate to say that the people who don't play games live on an island, and that island is shrinking every day. So it's not surprising that all those people from Fox sounded so out of touch--they are out of touch.

These people are no different than the people who refused to have a television in their house because television programs were "trash." It's the same attitude--paint an entire form of entertainment with the broadest, least-nuanced brush possible so that it can be uniformly dismissed as inferior.

What happens when someone does that, though, is that any discussion they have about that medium has to be at the vaguest level possible, because they can only condemn the medium through generalities.

That's why it was so funny to see Geoff Keighley obliterate their generalities with facts. And what did they do in response? Ignore him! They had to ignore the facts, because if they didn't, they would have had absolutely nothing to say. Or, in the case of Cooper Lawrence, just make up a "fact" in response.

Please don't think the gaming industry should get a free pass here. Way, way too many underage consumers are still able to buy ratings-inappropriate games (which is why the wing of hysteria can use the phrase "marketed and sold to children"). But the film industry and the music industry shouldn't be getting a free pass, either. Take a look at the most recent FTC report (released April 12, 2007) on Marketing Violent Entertainment To Children. Here's the table with the relevant data:
Percent of Children ABLE to make the Puchase Unacommpanied
R-Rated Movie Theater Ticket.........46%........48%......36%.....39%
R-Rated Movie on DVD....................N/A..........N/A........81%......71%
Unrated Movie on DVD....................N/A..........N/A.........N/A......71%
Explicit-Content Labeled Music.......85%.......90%.......83%.....76%
M-Rated Electronic Game................85%.......78%......69%.....42%

What? You mean the Federal Trade Commission data shows that when a kid walks into a store, it's almost twice as easy for him to buy a DVD or music CD that's inappropriate for his age than a game?

Funny, I never hear anyone mentioning that.

Like I said, I don't think the gaming industry should be getting a free pass just because everyone on that Fox panel was totally incompetent. I absolutely believe that there needs to be a serious discussion about racism, sexism, and homophobia in games. The people who are qualified to be involved in that discussion, though, need to be specific and factual, and most importantly, they need to be rational. And this discussion needs to include films and music as well.

We just need to do it without the shrieking.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When Stupid Attacks

Geoff Keighley participated in a discussion of the "scandalous" Mass Effect on a Fox News program. The video of the segment is here (please watch it), but it's so astounding that I wrote up a full transcript (starting with an edited version from Game Politics, which saved me some time). Here's the full transcript.

Segment Title Screen: “Se"Xbox? New Video Game Shows Full Digital Nudity and Sex

MacCallum (host)

It's pretty amazing stuff, I was looking at a little bit of it this afternoon. It's a new roleplaying video game that is leaving NOTHING to the imagination. Mass Effect is what it's called, it's made for Microsoft's Xbox system,and it features, in some parts of this, you’ll see full digital nudity. Imagine! And the ability for the players to engage in graphic sex and the person who’s playing the game gets to decide exactly what’s going to happen between the two people, if you know what I mean. The game is rated "M" for Mature,however, critics say that Mass Effect IS being marketed to kids and to teenagers.

Microsoft responded to these claims and said that they were innacurate. They released this statement, that says in part, [reads statement by Microsoft]
"we actively support and abide by all video game rating systems...and provide built-in, industry-leading technology such as parental controls and a Family Timer that empowers parents and their caregivers to monitor their children's experience with video games notably with respect to content, online interactions and amount of time spent."

Cooper Lawrence is a psychology specialist, radio talk show host, and the author of the new book "The Cult of Perfection," and Geoff Keighley is a game expert with Spike TV. Welcome to both of you.

You know, Cooper, it really cracks me up, right here, when I hear these companies say that there are all these controls in there, that you can monitor the time, but basically, Pandora’s Box is open. I mean, kids have access to these things, and unless you're hovering over them every second, they're going to find ways to see this stuff on the Internet. How damaging is it, really?

Well, it's the whole concept that it's thirteen-year olds who have never seen Playboy because they're not supposed to. It's the idea that, let's talk about who the video game's FOR. It might be for adults, but if you look at the statistics, who's playing video games but adolescent males, not their dads. So that's the first thing.

The damage is this. We know that all the research shows that violence has a desensitizing effect. Well, sexuality does too, because this is when the developing mind is happening, this is when they're first deciding who they're gonna be, who they're going to be. This is when social development is happening. And here’s how they’re seeing women. They’re seeing them as these objects of desire, as these hot bodies. They don’t show women as being valued for anything other than their sexuality. And it’s a man in this game deciding how many women he wants to be with.

All right, let's get Geoff in on this.

That’s completely incorrect. First of all, you can actually play as a man or a woman in the game. Cooper, have you ever played Mass Effect?

Lawrence (giggling):

Right, well I think the fact that, another thing you mentioned is that it has full graphical nudity, that’s completely incorrect. There’s no full nudity in this game--there’s the side of an alien boob which can be seen. It’s a small sexual situation in this game which is about two minutes out of a thirty-plus hour experience.

Jeff, let me ask you a question. I have not played this game. I went on the website today, I clicked on a lot of different trailers, I tried to learn as much as I could about it before we were going to do this. It's interesting, when you click on it it asks you your age--it says you must go through a scanning process. So I thought "oh, this is going to take forever." Okay, so I put in my age and then BOOM, you're in, no problem. So that is a pretty easy screen to get past. There's nothing graphic that I saw on the pages that I looked at on the Internet, but it does beg the question, you know, what it does to kids in terms of how they think about violence and sexuality, because you know, they're engaged and blowing people away.

Well, I think that's what's interesting about this. We talked about sexuality and the media. One of the great things about Mass Effect--people who have played it know this--it's sort of a choose your own adventure story. And it doesn't force you down any situation. You can actually play through this game without the sexual situation ever happening--

Lawrence (interrupting):
Right, and a young boy’s going to be choosing not to have sex. That’ll be what they choose. I mean, let’s be realistic here--

Cooper, it’s not a simple choice. You don’t turn on the game and it says, “would you like to have sex or not?” It’s through the evolution of a relationship with characters and the fact that this game has incredible artificial intelligence. You can actually fall in love in this game. It’s just like modeling your life, and I think that's a much more powerful form of media--

Lawrence (interrupting):
Darlin', I gotta go with the research. And the research says there’s a new study out of the University of Maryland right now that says that boys that play video games cannot tell the difference between what they’re seeing in the video game and the real world if they don't have a real experience.

You’re completely misrepresenting the game.

Thank you. Jeff, it was a completely fascinating game I was amazed by the artistry and what it looks like.

Let me at him, Martha.

It’s a fantastic game and sex is a small, little part of it.

Thank you very much, Jeff and Cooper, let's go very quickly to the panel and get your thoughts on this.You know when you buy video games, which I just had my first experience doing recently, because I swore them off until this past Christmas when I said 'Okay, I'm going to break down,' but you have to pick up the box and look at the back for the rating and then, I mean, you have to be involved in what your kids are looking at. What do you think about that?

Man digitally inserted from a 1950's newscast:
Absolutely. Just last week I bought "Princess Enchanted Bride's" for my six-year old daughter, and I'm not very good at these games. I'm like with this Princess Whoever, trying to get to the next stage, and you just have to figure it out. I'm never good at it. But I will say this. Look, who can argue, possibly, that,you know, Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas is a good thing. It’s not. It's just not good. And I’m definitely not going to let Mass Effect in my house.

And then the thing is, once it's in the house. There's a lot of grown men that love video games, let's be honest here, but once it's in the house, we live in a day and age where our children aren't always supervised. It's not the days of the Playboy magazine where a lot of moms were at home for the majority of the day. Many kids let themselves in after school, they have time--what do you think a young boy's gonna do? "I want to play my dad's video game while he's not here." And I think that's dangerous. We really have to watch this.

Female #2:
I’m not sure why it didn’t get an Adults Only rating. That’s the highest rating it can have. So, first of all, this board that rates them needs to have their head examine And this made me feel old watching this. What happened to Atari and pinball and Pac-Man?

This is incredibly sophisticated. It's like watching a full feature film, basically, it's incredibly sophisticated.

2nd Male Panelist:
But we have to careful here. Let's face it, there's all kinds of bad stuff coming through the Internet through video games. And the reality is, I would argue that the governement cannot and should not censor everything coming across the web and in video games. At the end of the day, it's just like Chet said--it's up to parents to control what their kids are seeing.

It is, unfortunately, and it makes being a parent a much harder job than it used to be, because there's such a flood, and also, you can access things on the Internet, and download them, so you're thinking "if I don't buy it, it'll be okay,' but there's all kinds of ways to access this, even on your phone to access this stuff. So it's tough to be a parent, but interesting.



It's a good thing Geoff Keighley wasn't in the studio, because if he had been, the overwhelming gravity of stupid might have compressed his lungs like a boa constrictor. Good grief, I practically get dizzy just reading this.

I'm not going to hit all the high ("low") points in the transcript, but let's look at a few. First off, it's clear that no one except Geoff has played Mass Effect. At all. And it's also clear that none of their assistants played Mass Effect and gave them any details on the game.

So where, exactly, did they get their information? That's an excellent question, and one I can't answer. But it's incredibly clear that none of these people, except Geoff, have any idea what they're talking about.

Then there's Cooper Lawrence. The pop psychologist flavor of the month has an interesting website, saying that she is a "relationship and psychology expert with a master’s degree in developmental psychology. She is currently finishing her doctorate in psychology at Fordham University."

Boy, I'd love to find out where she got her undergraduate and master's degrees, and whether she's actually taking classes at Fordham. Why? Because so many radio personalities who are "experts" have grossly inflated their academic credentials, and her utter lack of knowledge in the interview certainly made some alarms go off.

Yes, she was wrong about the demographics of gaming and about the content of Mass Effect, but what really should be embarrassing is that she absolutely butchered the Maryland study she mentioned as her triumphant trump card (after uttering a patronizing "darlin' " to Geoff). She said that the study shows "boys that play video games cannot tell the difference between what they’re seeing in the video game and the real world if they don't have a real experience."


Here's an excerpt from a Washington Post article about the study. Here's how it worked:
Killen and fellow researchers at the University of Maryland's Human Development Department interviewed more than 100 college students, whose average age was 19, for 45 minutes each. They showed them images from a series of imaginary video games, each one modeled on a familiar genre in the gaming industry.

Here's an excerpt from one of the interviews:
..."The game doesn't make people violent -- it's just a game," said one subject, a 19-year-old woman, in a confidential interview with Killen's research team. "If they're violent, it's something wrong with them."

Here's another:
"You're not really going out and killing people," one 19-year-old man told his interviewers. "So, I mean, it's just like fantasy."

Those seem like remarkably reasonable perspectives to have on entertainment.

The researchers, though, are convinced that they're wrong.
Killen's research found that most subjects understood that the two over-the-top games depicted negative themes and harmful stereotypes. But they failed to see how that content could harm them.

In other words, the researchers say the content IS harming them, even though the subjects don't agree. It seems like the 19-year olds have a better understanding of "pretend" than the researchers.

Let's circle back to Lawrence. Does anything in that study sound like it's saying that boys cannot distinguish between video games and reality? That's exactly what they ARE doing--saying that video games aren't reality.

Well done, Ms. Lawrence. I'm sure you'll have a fine career in imaginary expert talk radio. Oh, and if you're really trying to offer an "intelligent, entertaining, respectful radio show for women to make them think," maybe you should try to understand that "snarky" and "knowledge" are not equivalent terms.

Then there's the "panel"--sort of the Buffoonquin Round Table, if you will. The first panelist, who looks like he was ripped right out of a black-and-white newscast from the Korean War era, came up with what must be one of the greatest lines in television history: "Look, who can argue, possibly, that, you know, Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas is a good thing."

Absolutely. Um, WTF?

I have no idea what this man is talking about, and neither does he. Again, this is a group of people talking about a subject that they know absolutely nothing about, so instead of offering actual information or intelligent opinions, they read their scribbled money shot off their notes and hope it doesn't go flat.

It's painful, and it's particularly painful if you watch the video, because most of them are tremendously patronizing and smug--again, being smug without actually knowing anything about what they're talking about, which is an ironic combination.

At the very end, there is one panelist who appears to actually be capable of thought, and he says that parents should be responsible for what their kids play.

Now THAT is a novel concept.

I could write far, far more about this, but really, it's not necessary. When stupid, uninformed people try to discuss something with smart, informed people (Geoff Keighley, in this instance), the stupid people are going to look, well, stupid.

Geoff Keighley, by the way, should get full credit for his preparation. He knew he had limited time in which to speak, and he immediately got to the point: that this imaginary controversy is over two minutes of content in a thirty-hour game, and that even those two minutes have to be misrepresented to create any controversy at all. He also immediately established that no one else in the discussion had actually played the game.

I've written this before, but the best response to stupidity, by far, is accuracy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Album Covers

First off, I told a bunch of people that I'd post their album covers, but I got so many that not everyone is included. If you were left out, I apologize.

First is DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh:

Sun-Dial In the Shade is a ridiculously fantastic name for an album.

Next, from Future Nobel Prize Winner Brian Pilnick:

What a great album cover in conjunction with the album title!

Next, from Justin:

That's a terrific album cover and album name.

From Joe Fourhman, and again, it's a poignant combination:

Here's one more, from Ben Younkins, and I'm sure this is an indie band:

Again, that's a great album title in conjunction with the album cover. If I saw that in a store, I'd be tempted.

Okay, the band name might need a little work.

Gaming Links

Man, they're piling up, so here's a slew for you.

Hmm, looking over this list, it's a few chuffs short of a slew. Or so they say in, um, somewhere.

John Harris wrote a very interesting piece over at Gamasutra titled Game Design Essentials: 20 Mysterious Games. Lots of old-school goodness.

Edwin sent me a link to Portal: A Day In The Life Of A Turret, and while the language is NSFW, it's frequently hilarious.

Also in the Valve satire world, David Gloier sent me a link to Gordan Freeman Calls Coast To Coast AM, which is a wonderful, clever, funny spoof.

Sam Kennedy wrote a lengthy post at 1UP titled GameSpot's Sad State of Affairs, and regardless of the competitive situation he's in with GameSpot, I think he presents more details about what happened to GameSpot in the last eighteen months than anyone else.

Here's a nicely nostalgic bit of writing about one man's experience with a lifetime of gaming consoles. Part one is titled A Very Weird and Blocky Future. Thanks to Nate Carpenter for the link.

JJ Hendricks has a site devoted to used video game prices, and it's quite interesting--there's information on individual games, games by publisher, even hardware prices. It's very intersting to just poke around the site and look at all the available information. The site is Video Game Price Charts.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

I finally got to watch the HD-DVD version of Blade Runner last night.

You know, the dead HD format and everything.

Everything I say, though, should apply to the Blu-Ray version as well, based on what I've read about its image quality.

Blade Runner, to me, is one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, and a brilliant examination of the question at the core of all great science fiction: what does it mean to be human?

I've seen the movie at least ten times in its various incarnations over the last twenty-five years, which means I've seen it more times than any other movie ever made. Every single time I watch it, though, I notice something new.

This time? An origami chicken. I can't believe I missed that so many times, particularly in the context in which it was presented.

This high-definition version is, finally, a transfer worthy of the film. It was a thrill to see such stunning clarity in the print--truly amazing for a film of its age. And it "feels" like the most complete version, at least to me.

If you've never seen this film, you're missing out on a critically important piece of cinematic history. And if you have, you owe it to yourself to see this version in all its high-definition glory.

Amazon links:

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Wayback Machine: MLK Day 2006

DQ reader Sean asked me to link to the post I made in 2006 on Martin Luther King Day. It was one of those moments when I really felt heavily the responsiblity of being a father. I think that post sums up my feelings about Martin Luther King Day better than anything else I've ever written, and I should link to it every year, starting now.

Console Post of the Week

As a starting point, here are December NPD numbers:
Nintendo Wii--1,350,000
Xbox 360--1,260,000
PlayStation 2--1,100,000
PlayStation 3--797,600

Nintendo has sold more than seventeen million Wii's worldwide. Back in December of 2006, it was estimated that the Wii cost Nintendo $160 to manufacture.


So Nintendo, at launch, may have been been making $90 a unit. What do you think it costs Nintendo now, after selling over seventeen million units? Yes, I know that some people say Nintendo has made a mistake by not fully supplying demand, but it's hard to argue with those economics.

I think there are two very, very important lessons that can be learned from the Wii:
1. Innovation does sell--if it doesn't cost too much.
2. A console should never, ever ship without a pack-in game.

Seventeen million dedicated game machines. Thirty million by the end of this year, easily--maybe even thirty-five million. Oh, and developing a game for this system costs well less than half what it costs to develop for the competitors.

It's hard to see any scenario where Nintendo doesn't continue to dominate in 2008. I certainly don't see one.

Oh, and Nintendo's biggest contribution to the future of techology? It's not the technology behind the Wii and the Wiimote--it's their cost. Nintendo created innovation for the consumer without making them pay the usually sizable early-adapter surcharge. That's probably even more revolutionary than the motion-sensing controller.

This is a different way of looking at new technology. Instead of just asking "what can it do?" Nintendo asked "what can it do that people can still afford?" That is a huge paradigm shift.

Sure, it would have been really, really nice if the Wii had supported HD graphics. But if it did, it cost $400, and they'd only sold five million units in the first year, would anyone still be talking about it? And if they were, would anyone be asking anything but 'can it survive'?

How do I see them selling in the U.S. this year? Over 80,000 units a week, and that's probably conservative.

On to Sony.

Sony released the biggest piece of bloatware in console history in November of 2006 and priced it at $599. It sold well everywhere at launch, and then sales everywhere fell off the cliff.

Sony continued to demand that they didn't have any real problems other than "consumer education," but they released a $399 unit in time for the holidays. Funny how that happens.

The question is not how bad 2007 was for Sony--by any normal standard, it was catastrophic--but what are their prospects going forward?

1. Blu-Ray's apparent victory in the HD format wars.
2. A far more reasonably priced PS3 model.
3. Sony's name, although clearly tarnished after 2007, still carries weight.

1. The game library is far inferior to the 360, and that gap is not going to be closed anytime soon. 2. In terms of gaming, the PS3 installed base is hopelessly diluted by units purchased as Blu-Ray players only. This will make it hard for developers to actually establish their potential sales base. 3. Even with the price reduced to $399 and unlimited availability, the PS3 sold over 330,000 units less in December in the U.S. than the 360 did last year (at an equivalent time in their lifespan).

If you think the numbers are really lining up nicely for Sony in terms of increased sales, think again. Let's look historically at the second Christmas of sales (usually the 14th-15th month in the lifecycle, using December NPD numbers) in the U.S. for other consoles:
PS2 (2001): 1,940,000
Xbox (2002): 1,040,00
Gamecube: 600,000
Xbox 360: 1,130,000
Wii: 1,350,000

The PS3? 798,000. And this is with a one-month old price cut and 100% availability.

There was an article last week, linked in many places, that claimed the PS3 manufaturing cost had been "halved." This was all attributed to a single analyst in Japan.

If true, this is a big deal. It means that Sony might have room to make additional price cuts in 2008, and they need to, because the PS3 (no matter its features) needs to reach $299 as quickly as possible. I'm skeptical, because that seems like a disproportionate reduction in manufacturing costs, even with the reduced unit functionality, but it's certainly possible.

Think about this, though: if the PS3 halved its manufacturing cost after one year, what does that say about the Wii manufacturing cost, when Nintendo sold over twice as many units? That's scary to even consider.

Here's what I see happening in 2008 for Sony. As a gaming machine, it's not going to do very well. The other consoles offer more fun at a lower cost.

However, as a Blu-Ray player, the PS3 will do just fine. By all accounts, it's both an excellent Blu-Ray player as well as an excellent upscaler of standard-definition DVD's. From that standpoint, it's a value.

I would be surprised if the PS3 consistently sells over 40,000 units a week in the U.S. this year unless there's another price cut.

On to Microsoft, and there was an interesting article over at 8Bit Joystick this weekend (and I think Skip Key was the first person to send it to me, although so many of you guys sent it that I'm not even sure). It purports to reveal the "truth" about the 360 hardware failures and why the system launched with what, clearly, seems to have been a defective design. It's very specific, it seems relatively credible, and it's an excellent read. Here's an excerpt:
First, MS has under resourced that product unit in all engineering areas since the very beginning. Especially in engineering support functions like test, quality, manufacturing, and supplier management. There just weren't enough people to do the job that needed to be done. The leadership in many of those areas was also lopsided in essential skills and experience. But I hear they are really trying to staff up now based on what has happened, and how cheap staff is compared to a couple of billion in cost of quality.

Second, MS was so focused on beating Sony this cycle that the 360 was rushed to market when all indications were that it had serious flaws. The design qual testing was insufficient and incomplete when the product was released to production. The manufacturing test equipment had major gaps in test coverage and wasn't reliable or repeatable. Manufacturing processes at eall levels of suppliers were immature and not in control. Initial end to end yields were in the mid 30%. Low yields always indicate serious design and manufacturing defects. Management chose to continue to ship anyways, and keep the lines running while trying to solve problems and bring the yields up. Whenever something failed and there was a question about whether the test result was false, they would remove that test, retest and ship, or see if the unit would boot a game and run briefly and then ship. 360 is too complex of a machine to get away with that.

That kind of attitude will bite you in the ass, and it has, to the tune of billions of dollars. Incredibly, though, Microsoft seems to have survived an eighteen-month rate where their defect rate approached 30% (I believe that's a good ballpark estimate), as well as periods where their repair times stretched to four weeks or more (I've received several e-mails indicating that people have had a better experience in the last month).

I think Microsoft has one more PR nightmare ahead of itself in 2008, and the 8bit article explains it quite clearly:
I imagine the next big outrage will be when some of the folks who waited till Falcon to buy a console for reliability reasons, and has to send it in for service, gets a Xenon back!

That's another lawsuit waiting to happen, and if Microsoft wants to stay in front of this, they need to issue some kind of statement that owners of Falcon consoles (cooler, quieter, and far more reliable) will not receive Xeon units if their console needs to be repaired. This is guaranteed to be a mess, it's entirely avoidable, and Microsoft (for once) needs to get out in front of a reliability issue and defuse it before it blows up in their faces.

Going forward? Without a price cut, I think 360 sales will be in the 55,000 units a week range in the U.S. That's about 35% over the PS3 sales, and I think that's the high-end for the 360 without another price cut.

However, and this is an important however, if sales start to drop below 50,000 units a week, Microsoft has to cut the price, and they have to do it immediately. They can't go through four months of weak sales like they did in April-July of 2007.

The good news for us is that competition, again, is going to be fierce in 2008, and as consumers, we'll all benefit.

Boy, that was a crappy bailout ending, wasn't it?

Martin Luther King Day

Today is a national holiday in the United States to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. If you want to learn about the kind of hatred and stupidity that King was fighting against, a good place to start is with the history of the Jim Crow laws in the United States. The Wikipedia entry for Jim Crow laws also has detailed information. And the Wikipedia entry for King is here.

Here's what Eli asked me last year.

"Dad, where did Martin Luther King live?" he asked.

"He was born in Atlanta," I said. "He lived in Alabama and Georgia as a grown-up."

"No he didn't," Eli said quickly.

"He didn't?" I said.

"I'm pretty sure he lived in Costa Rica," Eli said.

"I'm pretty sure he didn't," I said.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Friday Links!

Friday productivity ends here. There are enough links to keep you busy for several hours, at least.

I linked to an article a few months ago about Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter who has run incredible times in the 400 meters. The International Olympic Committe commissioned a test of his artificial limbs (called "Cheetah" blades) to determine if he would be allowed to compete in the Olympics if he met the qualifying standards. Here's an excerpt about the study's findings:
Brueggemann found that Pistorius was able to run at the same speed as able bodied runners on about a quarter less energy. He found that once the runners hit a certain stride, athletes with artificial limbs needed less additional energy than other athletes.

The professor found that the returned energy ''from the prosthetic blade is close to three times higher than with the human ankle joint in maximum sprinting.''

Not surprisingly, based on these results, the committee vote went against Pistorius, although he's appealing the decision. Take a look at the full article, and thanks to Geoff Engelstein for the link.

Here's a fantastic link from Steven Kreuch to Real Life Sea Monsters-24 Bizarre Creatures of the Deep. The pictures are nothing short of incredible.

From Edwin Garcia, a link to a photography exhibit titled Living in Three Centuries: The Face of Age. There are some absolutely remarkable photographs in this collection.

Another link from Edwin, this one to a video titled Look Around You Maths.

And the hat trick, with a link to 5 Unbelievably Cool Research Facilities. The photographs alone are worth the click.

Liz Watson let me know that the chemical reaction I linked to last week (a solution that cycled through a series of colors) has a name: the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction. She also included a video link here, and that reaction is happening in real time.

Here's a tantalizing research result (thanks Sirius): the lifespan of yeast was increased tenfold by DNA modification and caloric restriction.

Hey, I've been telling yeast that for years. Lay off the cheese, mix in a salad, and who knows how many years you can ferment?

Nate Carpenter sent me a link to a wonderful short film titled People In Order. It's people from ages one to one hundred, in sequence, hitting a drum.

It's back. The ageless, endless subtitled clip from a Hitler movie is back again, and this time, Hitler is in charge of HD-DVD. Some NSFW subtitles (although no one will know unless they're standing over your shoulder). See it here and thanks to Mark Lahren for the link.

From Bethanne Larson, another link with a bit of NSFW content in text, but it's a beauty: The Battle of Pelennor Fields--recreated with candy.

From Anthony Salter, a link to a multi-part article titled What's Noka Worth? Noka, in case you're wondering, is the most expensive chocolate in the world. If you're wondering what that means, try over $300 per pound, and in some cases, over $1,000 a pound. This article investigates why it costs so much and whether it does have some kind of special value over other premium chocolates. This article is a very good read, and it gets more and more interesting the deeper you get.

From Juan Font, a link to a video of a contest in a Korean Freestyle Slalom Rollerblading competition.The contestant is a young girl, and her grace is spectacular. It's definitely channeling Monty Python, at least mildly.

Here's a bizarre story: a nature writer finds that some of her work on meerkats has been plagiarized--by a pulpy romance novel.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a story about the source of antimatter.

From Steven Davis, a link to a story about the Hubble telescope finding double Einstein rings. Here's an excerpt:
The phenomenon, called gravitational lensing, occurs when a massive galaxy in the foreground bends the light rays from a distant galaxy behind it, in much the same way as a magnifying glass would.

When both galaxies are exactly lined up, the light forms a circle, called an “Einstein ring”, around the foreground galaxy.

If another more distant galaxy lies precisely on the same sightline, a second, larger ring will appear. The odds of seeing such a special alignment are so small that Tommaso says that they “hit the jackpot” with this discovery.

“Such stunning cosmic coincidences reveal so much about nature. Dark matter is not hidden to lensing,” added Leonidas Moustakas of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, USA. “The elegance of this lens is trumped only by the secrets of nature that it reveals.”

From The Economist, a story titled Charts--worth a thousand words. This story includes Charles Joseph Minard's chart of Napoleon's Russia campaign of 1812. It's been cited as the best graphic display of information ever (by Edward Tufte, in particular), and here's an excerpt that explains why:

Minard's chart shows six types of information: geography, time, temperature, the course and direction of the army's movement, and the number of troops remaining. The widths of the gold (outward) and black (returning) paths represent the size of the force, one millimetre to 10,000 men. Geographical features and major battles are marked and named, and plummeting temperatures on the return journey are shown along the bottom.

If you've never seen this chart before, you can easily spend half an hour or more absorbing its detail.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

December NPD

Analysis on Monday, but here are the numbers:
Nintendo Wii--1,350,000
Xbox 360--1,260,000
PlayStation 2--1,100,000
PlayStation 3--797,600

Dwarf Fortress Update

It's always a pleasure to see new information about Dwarf Fortress, and there are two interesting links this week.

The first link was sent in by Steven Davis, and it's a link to an interview with Tarn Adams over at Front Row Crew. It's in MP3 format, and it's long--which is good, because Tarn is just more interesting than 99.9% of the rest of the world.

The second links is from Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which continues to put up a ridiculous amount of good information on a daily basis. The story is The Dwarf Fortress Graphical Itch, and it includes a few mock-ups of what DF could look like from an isometric 2D view.

In the same story there's a link to a graphics tileset created by Mike Mayday, and it looks quite good. The link to the tileset is here, and there's discussion about the set at that location as well.

The Daily Scott Halpin Post

You guys have come up with the greatest series of links concerning Scott Halpin. Today, Marc Klein sent in a link to a radio interview with Halpin on NPR that provides more details of exactly what happened the night he stepped on stage and played drums with The Who. It's only about three minutes long, but still well worth a listen, and it's here.

A Surprise

Yesterday, I listed the primary people who worked on Fairway Solitaire.

One of them was "John Cutter."

Steve e-mailed me and suggested that "John Cutter" and the John Cutter of Cinemaware legend were the same person.

As it turns out, they are.

Ouch. How could I miss that?

Here's the deal. John Cutter was my single favorite designer of the 1980s. He put out brilliant game after brilliant game with Cinemaware: Rocket Ranger, TV Sports: Football, TV Sports: Basketball, TV Sports: Boxing, The Three Stooges, and Wings. They all featured outstanding design--Cutter just had an unerring sense of what was fun.

One of those designs would have been a nice career for most designers. He did all of those games in five years.

Oh, and a little game called Betrayal at Krondor in 1993.

From 1987-1991, during the "golden age" of Cinemaware, I easily spent (and this is no exaggeration) over five hundred hours playing the games he designed. It could easily be argued that John Cutter was the single most influential designer in my gaming life.

So it's no wonder that Fairway Solitaire has such a brilliant, flawless design. It's the same kind of quality and skill that John Cutter has demonstrated many, many times throughout his career.

Here's how great John Cutter is as a designer. I was able to find eight games (thanks MobyGames) where he was listed as a designer (the seven I've listed plus GBA Championship Basketball: Two-on-Two in 1986), I've played them all, and every single one is at least an "A" game. Every single one. And four of them (Rocket Ranger, Wings, TV Sports: Football and TV Sports: Basketball), are "A+" games.

That is an astounding record as a designer.

Oh, and Fairway Solitaire? A+. Again.


Gloria usually looks at the Weekend section of Thursday's local paper to find something that Eli 6.5 might enjoy doing. She was flipping through the paper today, and she stopped and wrote something down. A few seconds later, she wrote something else down.

"So this weekend," she announced, "we can either go see a water-skiing squirrel or a dog that can jump rope and juggle."

"That's why the term 'win-win' was invented," I said.

"THIS is why we live in a big city," she said.

A Modest Proposal for Mr. McCullough

It's time for our Asshat Of The Week.

Kevin McCullough, a columnist for "Townhall" (where facts are no excuse for the truth), wrote a column about Mass Effect earlier this week.

Not surprisingly, he had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Here are a few excerpts (thanks Game Politics):
It’s called “Mass Effect” and it allows its players… to engage in the most realistic sex acts ever conceived. One can custom design the shape, form, bodies, race, hair style, breast size of the images they wish to “engage” and then watch in crystal clear, LCD, 54 inch screen, HD clarity as the video game “persons” hump in every form, format, multiple, gender-oriented possibility they can think of…

…And because of the digital chip age in which we live - “Mass Effect” can be customized to sodomize whatever, whoever, however, the game player wishes.

Wow. That's a spectacular amount of misinformation. How could this idiot not know that every game has a sodomy scene? Who among us can forget the sodomy scene in Pac-Man? Or King's Quest?

I don't know about you, but when I saw that sqiggly-shaped green piece force the red block to "submit" in Tetris, it changed me forever. Something in me died that day.

Is it asking too much that one of these clowns actually do research before they just start making things up? If he had, maybe he would have realized that anything you can see in Mass Effect doesn't even rival what you can see on the major networks almost every night?

Here's what I really regret about all this. I desperately wish the the designers had given the aliens multiple sex organs. I mean--they're aliens, right? So why not?

If they had, then we could have listened to McCullough saying something like this:
…And because of the digital chip age in which we live - “Mass Effect” can be customized to sodomize alien beings with multiple vaginas and other sexual orifices. And because of this, our children will soon be walking the streets, looking to "hook up" with aliens.

Oh, I only wish.

Here's one more salvo from McCullough:
If a pre-teen, teen, young adult, or adult male plays such a game in which the women DO submit without choice, are made to appear as Barbie streetwalkers, and perform whatever act can be imagined, what’s to stop that same male from assuming that the women in his “other world” shouldn’t be forced to do the same.

I'd say "parents" and "common sense," but it's not an unreasonable question. Here's one for you, though, Mr. McCullough: if a pre-teen, teen, young adult, or adult male reads a column where the asshole who wrote it makes outrageous accusations but did absolutely no fact-checking to verify his claims, and this asshole gets a huge amount of publicity, what's to stop that same male from assuming that he should do the same?

Here's a crazy thought, Kevin (you don't mind if I call you Kevin, do you? My only other choice was "dickhead"): maybe you should actually do "research" before you write a column. Maybe you could actually try to see what you're going to write about before you actually write about it. Having at least a bare acquaintance with the facts would be a big improvement.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Scott Halpin: In Concert

Believe it or not, video footage exists of Scott Halpin playing drums with the Who, and Chris Hornbostel sent me the YouTube links.

What's remarkable is how Halpin doesn't look nervous at all. He's just playing the drums and having a good time.

Two videos:
Smokestack Lightning
Naked Eye

"Naked Eye" was the last song of the night, and when they line up to bow, they bring Halpin in with them, which must have been one of the coolest moments of anyone's life.


For some reason, I really like how the exclamation mark can really "punch-up" a title. It generates enthusiasm. For instance, if a post has the title "My Ass is Hurting," it sounds like a medical post. But if it's "My Ass is Hurting!" it almost sounds like a celebration.

Which would be, well, odd.

So here are impressions of four books, in order of how much I enjoyed reading them. They were all worthwhile, though.

1. C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America, by Geoff Williams
This is a phenomenal piece of research and writing. It's the story of the 1928 Run Across America, which is one of those fascinating little rabbit holes of history. 199 men entered the race, and first prize was $25,000--an epic sum for the time. The race lasted for 84 days, averaging over 40 miles a day, and it was full of intrigue and whimsy and borderline fraud.

Leading this circus was promoter C.C. Pyle, who was sort of a poor man's P.T. Barnum. Endlessly self-aggrandizing, always on the edge of financial ruin, he is an incredibly vivid character--if he wasn't real, someone would have created him.

I stayed up late several nights in a row to finish this book. It's meticulously researched and full of detail, but the detail never gets ponderous. Geoff Williams is truly a terrific writer, and it clearly shows in this book. It's one of those books that is just a wonderful experience to read.

Amazon link: C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America .

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby
A description from the back cover of the book:
In December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43-year-old editor of French Elle, suffered a massive stroke that left him completely and permanently paralyzed, a victim of "locked in syndrome." Once known for his gregariousness and wit, Bauby now finds himself imprisoned in his inert body, able to communicate only by blinking his left eye. The miracle is that in doing so he was able to compose this stunningly eloquent memoir.

This is a remarkable, poignant book. It's staggeringly well-written, and I mean that not grading on a curve--it's just good, heartfelt writing.

It's also painful to read, given Bauby's circumstances. The idea that someone could be almost totally paralyzed, yet still be able to think with absolute clarity, is such a cruelty that it's difficult to even consider.

The book was recently made into a well-regarded film, but I think the impact of reading his own words would be difficult to match.

Amazon link: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

3. Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, by Steve Martin.
This is an autobiography of Martin's life that focuses on his years as a stand-up comedian.

If you're younger than I am (no great feat), it may be hard for you to understand how anarchic Steve Martin was when he first burst onto the scene. He didn't push the envelope--when he performed, there really wasn't an envelope at all. As he described it, he gradually came to the realization that he wanted to do a stand-up routine that had jokes but no punch lines, so that no one would really be sure when to laugh.

What makes this book really interesting is that Martin very carefully recounts how meticulously he honed his act over the course of hundreds of shows. Yes, you have to be funny to create a joke, but what I never understood until I read this book was just how analytical a comedian needs to be to improve his act. What looks random on stage has been refined, to the second, over a long period of time.

This is also a very personal book, and Martin discusses his life very frankly, particularly his anxieties and his relationship with his family.

It's well-written and engaging and very interesting, and if you have any interest in either Steve Martin or stand-up comedy, it's an excellent read.

Amazon link: Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life.

4. The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star
I don't know anything about Motley Crue (sorry--my umlaut machine is broken), and I don't know anything about "Nikki Sixx," except that his name sounds riddicculous.

This book, though, is interesting.

Sixx was a long-term heroin addict (among other things), and during one year of this addiction (1987) he actually kept a diary. So this book is both a publication of that diary as well as inserted excerpts from people who knew him during that period.

It's not pretty. Some of the entries are jaw-droppers in terms of what addiction can do to someone. Seeing it all "from the inside," though, makes for compelling reading.

If you want to know how far gone he was, let me just tell you one story. On December 22, 1987, Sixx overdosed and actually died. Word had gotten out from the people he was with when he OD'd, and local radio stations in Los Angeles were announcing that he'd died.

Except, of course, he wasn't actually dead--the EMT's had managed to restart his heart in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

He woke up in the hospital with an I.V. in his arm. He ripped out the tubes and walked out of the hospital. There were two teenage girls in the parking lot, crying--they were holding a candlelight vigil outside the hospital because they'd heard on the radio that he was dead.

They gave him a ride home, and on the way he heard his obituary on the radio.

So he gets home, goes into his bedroom, immediately shoots up, and passes out.

Seriously, there's stupid, and then there's STUPID.

This is good reading in a voyeuristic sense--if you ever wanted to see the wild ride, here's your chance. It seems honest as well, and some of the interviews with his friends from that time period significantly enhance the narrative.

One note: someone thought it would be a good idea to present all this with sort of a Ralph Steadman vibe, which would be fine, except they don't actually use Ralph Steadman's drawings. So the presentation is actually quite distracting, although I got used to it after the first few chapters.

Amazon link: The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star.

Rock Band: The Lego Effect

For several weeks, I've been thinking about Rock Band and why it's always so interesting. Yesterday, I think I finally figured it out.

The easy distinction is clear: Guitar Hero III is a game that happens to have music. Rock Band is a musical experience that is presented in the context of a game.

There's something more, though. When you factor in the four difficulty levels, the four instruments, the ability to play solo or in a band, the downloadable content, the game becomes something else.

Rock Band is a musical Lego set.

Is it absolutely free-form, like Legos? No, not yet. But there are nearly infinite combinations of what can be done with the blocks (songs). And it's the variety that reminds me so much of Legos--I can take a pile of Legos and build almost anything I want. I can take a Rock Band song and do almost anything I want, too. I think it's that variety that's so obsessively attractive.

The note charts also give you insight into how individual songs are built, piece by piece. It's the kind of thing I never thought about before, but because of this game, I think about it all the time now. I certainly appreciate music on an entirely new level now.

So of course I play Rock Band all the time. I love music, and I love Legos. For many of us, that's a perfect match.

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