Monday, March 31, 2008

Gaming Links

Kotaku has a link to an excerpted episode of G4's Attack of the Show that clearly demonstrates how Rock Band is universal goodness.

Kevin Periera, who can apparently play the drums on Coheed and Cambrias's Welcome Home with 89% accuracy on Expert, first interviewed the band, then got to play the song with them. On a real kit. And he sounded freaking great. Take a look here.

N'Gai Croal has post today concerning the potential EA acquisition of Take-Two with comments from Justin Blankenship, who worked at the Federal Trade Commission as a lawyer from 2001 to 2004. His comments are provocative, and here's an excerpt:
Although EA/Take-Two wouldn't have a clean monopoly in a broader market of sports videogames, the merged entity seems to be reaching critical mass. In addition to the new exclusives in NHL games and NCAA basketball games, and the third-party exclusive for NBA games, EA/Take-Two would also acquire 2K's third-party exclusive license for MLB games. Add that to a portfolio that already includes exclusive licenses for NCAA football, the PGA, NASCAR, FIFA, and the NFL, and you've got a juggernaut in the sports videogame market and a wall of exclusive licenses preventing any other developer from competing on equal footing.

Even without a total monopoly, one could expect that a publisher with that many sports titles under its belt could potentially abuse that market power to the detriment of its few smaller competitors. The concentration levels in a sports videogame market would be well over the thresholds of concern defined in the DOJ/FTC

...Do I think this is a deal that the government would sue to block? Not really. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if they required EA to divest its license agreements with certain sports leagues, and maybe spin off some of the talent behind those games to a competitor. And if that happens, does this deal still have the appeal to EA?

I'm not sure what EA wouldn't have a monopoly on after the deal--curling, maybe. Justin's full comments are well worth reading.

I've mentioned Gametab in the past as being indispensable for keeping up with gaming news. What I didn't know is that Reed (sorry, don't know his last name), Gametab's founder, has a new site called Evo Tab, and it's totally slick. Right now, only gaming feeds are available, but the layout is incredibly clean, and he mentions on the site that news feeds will be added later. In addition, you can even add additional gaming feeds easily. All in all, it looks like an excellent way to keep track of loads of content.

Eli 6.8

I'm still working on transcribing the Big Adventure audio tape, but here are a few Eli stories for you in the meantime.

Eli's a notorious staller in the morning before leaving for school. Plus, he's always outraged when Gloria tries to get him to quit stalling. Here are two of my favorite lines from last week:
"Mom! I was just making a SAFETY RAFT!"

"I JUST wanted to find a pole vault!"

We were eating at Bear Rock on Saturday. "Dad, if you get leprosy, do your fingers fall off?"

"I don't think so," I said. "I don't know a lot about leprosy, but I do know it's treatable with certain antibiotics."

"But if you were out hiking or something, your fingers would fall off," he said.


"If you were out hiking," he said patiently, "you might be miles from civilization, and if you rubbed against a tree and caught leprosy, you couldn't get medicine soon enough."

"You can't get it from rubbing against a tree," I said. "I think you get it from contact with other people who have it."

"SO," he said triumphantly, "if you WERE hiking and the person you were hiking with HAD leprosy, you would catch it and your fingers WOULD fall off."

"Touche," I said.

On Saturday, Eli went to Main Event with Gloria to do some rock climbing. When they came home, I asked him how it went. "Dad," he said breathlessly, "GIRLS were APPLAUDING."

I laughed, then looked at Gloria. "They were," she said, laughing.

He was apparently climbing up the wall so fast that some girls (ten-year olds, Gloria guessed) started watching him, and when he'd reach the top and ring the bell, they'd applaud.

Charisma. It's what's for breakfast.

Today, we were driving home from school, and I was telling him about the trip his best friend's parents took last week. "So Mary and Jack and kayaking on Caddo Lake in East Texas," I said. "There were cypress tree groves in the lake, and it's supposed to be pretty creepy paddling through there."

"Are there witch doctors?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said,"but I know that in southern Louisiana, in the swamps, there are supposedly still witch doctors and people who practice voodoo."

"I know where witch doctors come from," he said.

"You do?" I asked.

"Hawaii," he said.

"I'm pretty sure voodoo comes from West Africa and Haiti," I said. "I'm not sure about witch doctors."

"Dad, I know ALL ABOUT boodoo," he said.

"You know all about what?" I asked.

"BOODOO," he said.

"It's voodoo," I said. "With a 'v'."

"Oh," he said. "Well, witch doctors STILL come from Hawaii."

"Dude, watching the 'Aloha, Scooby Doo' movie is not an accurate representation of voodoo culture."

"Oh," he said. "Sorry about that."

Friday, March 28, 2008

Friday Links!

First off, this must be one of the craziest ideas I've ever seen (thanks Sirius): flying a paper airplane into space. Here's an excerpt:
Japanese scientists and origami masters hope to launch a paper airplane from space and learn from its trip back to Earth.

It's no joke. A prototype passed a durability test in a wind tunnel this month, Japan's space agency adopted it Wednesday for feasibility studies, and a well-known astronaut is interested in participating.

...In a test outside Tokyo in early February, a prototype about 2.8 inches long and 2 inches wide survived Mach 7 speeds and broiling temperatures up to 446 degrees Fahrenheit in a hypersonic wind tunnel — conditions meant to approximate what the plane would face entering Earth's atmosphere.

In theory, this could improve the design of re-entry vehicles, but there's a catch:
At this point, the proposal faces just one challenge, but it's a potentially crippling one: There is no way to track the paper craft or predict when or where they may land.

Um, oops.

From John D'Angelo, three interesting links. First, a link to an image from the latest space shuttle mission. Then, a fascinating story that I'll let him explain:
One of the podcasts I listen to is about astronomy, and as I was catching up on old shows, one of the episodes talks about gravitational lensing. If you don't know what that is, its where light is actually bent by the gravity of massive objects, sometimes acting as a magnifying glass or redirecting light along a bent path. Anyway, I had heard of lensing before, but in episode 37, they talked about something that blew my mind and I had to listen to it 3 or 4 times to actually wrap my head around it.

Apparently, there are these two quasars in the northern sky that are actually one quasar, which astronomers call "Old Faithful" (Not very original). Besides the light that comes right at the earth, there is a galaxy cluster off to one side of this object with enough gravity to redirect some of the light passing by from the quasar back at the earth. This cluster is far enough away from the original quasar so that we see the bent light as a second its the same quasar twice in our sky. Not only do we see two of the same object, but because of the distances involved, the "lensed" quasar's light is delayed around 1 year from the light coming straight at us. This allows astronomers to watch whatever happens in the quasar twice; once now, once in a year. As one of the hosts of the podcast said, its like a TIVO for the universe. The whole idea of the distances, sizes, masses and physics involved is just mind boggling cool.

Here is a link to the show where they talk about it, and another link to the wikipedia article on it.
Wikipedia entry

From Scott Zimmerman, a link to the Aptera, an electric car that is just ridiculously cool. Also, a link to Modu, the world's lightest cellphone (1.41oz, believe it or not). Then there's a new ship design for cargo chips being developed at the University of Michigan that would be ballast-free. Why should we care? Here's why:
At least 185 non-native aquatic species have been identified in the Great Lakes, and ballast water is blamed for the introduction of most—including the notorious zebra and quagga mussels and two species of gobies.

Gobies. Those bitches.

From Sirius, a link to a story about the solution of the Road Coloring Problem, a mathematical puzzle that has remained unsolved for almost forty years, now solved--by a sixty-three year old mathematician.

Also from Sirius, a link to a story titled "Are you a ferocious T. rex — or just chicken?" It's not an easy story to summarize, but it's interesting.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a stunning series of photographs about pollution and climate change. They are remarkably striking. Next, an insanely fun episode of Top Gear, which involves shooting machine guns and rockets at launched cars. That's right--launched cars.

From Jessie Leimkuehler, a link to What Will Life Be Like in 2008?, from a 1968 issue of Mechanix Illustrated.

From Ryan Shalek, a link to a demented series of cover letters for resumes titled Overqualified.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Recent Topics: Your E-mail

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, as always.

You guys have sent me some excellent e-mail, and here's a sampling.

First off, from a source who wishes to remain anonymous, a comment on Brad Wardell's contention that developers are more concerned about being "rock stars" than making games:
I think Brad's point about "rock star developers" is spot on. That was one of the main reasons I left the game development world - it was too immature and everyone at [studio name deleted] just wanted to make something "cool" and damn the torpedoes if it wasn't cost effective. We wasted untold amounts of time (literally months) while trying to get some of the more esoteric physics to work "just right", while I'm pulling my hair out in the background screaming that it just wasn't worth it. At [studio], it wasn't necessarily 'rock star popular' to the general populous, but rather to the interbred game developer world they were aiming at. A ridiculous waste of time which ended up sinking the studio in the end.

That's an interesting distinction, that developers aren't trying to be "rock stars" to the gaming magazines or the general public, but to each other.

Loyd Case e-mailed me with two thoughts:
First, content protetction software is a black box supplied to the developer -- and often decreed by the publisher, not the developer. You typically cannot customize the message when the copy protection check fails.

Second, if you were able to give the user a message that the copy protection kicked in, then the user will know where the content protection check resides in the code. It makes it easier for them to patch it out. It's a dance between the content creators and the people who crack the copy protection. Ideally, they just want to keep the game protected for a relatively short period of time, since early sales are often the biggest volume. Even so, day one cracks, as happened with Call of Duty 4 for the PC, occur.

That's an excellent point about copy-protection being a black box supplied to the developer. When publishers claim that such a high percentage of PC games are being stolen, though, it seems like it would make sense for them to be more creative in terms of working with the developer. What's being done now just isn't working.

His second point, about the message giving a clue to the hackers, is true, but I still wonder if a random time interval would throw them off. It's entirely true what he says about publishers just trying to protect a game from being cracked for as many days as possible--Ken Levine mentioned this after BioShock was released. In the end, they all get cracked.

Loyd also discusses this issue in an article over at Extreme Tech.

Brock Wager sent me a link to a story about what happened when Final Fantasy Chronicles: Ring of Fates (DS) was released and almost instantly cracked:
Mere hours after Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates hit store shelves today, pirated copies of the game appeared in the shady corners of the internet, posted for all the picaroons out there to download and transfer to their flashcarts.

Twenty minutes or so into the
ARPG, however, many of those pirates found themselves greeted with this "Thank you for playing!!" screen and unable to progress. Players have the option of restarting the game from the last save point and playing on, but the screen reappears at random intervals.

It's not a PC game, but that's a clever approach to piracy. And the random time interval seems like it would make the security check more difficult for a hacker to find.

Finally, several of you e-mailed about the subject of convenient access. I think the moment when the music industry completely went off the rails was when it become much easier to share music among various devices you owned if you downloaded the music illegally instead of paying for it. At that point, what the music industry was doing with copy protection was guaranteed to fail.

Now, they seem to be figuring that out. What should have been an opportunity to have people listen to more music, though, instead became a horrifically expensive business lesson.

Rock Band DLC: Boston

There's a new patch out for Rock Band that includes support for an in-game music store (well done), plus a new download pack of Boston songs: More Than a Feeling, Peace of Mind, Smokin', Rock & Roll Band, Something About You, and Hitch A Ride. That means every song on Boston's debut album, with the exception of Can I Take You Home Tonight.

Boston came out in 1976, and it still has to be regarded as one of the greatest debut albums of all time. I think everyone I knew in high school had that album, and we all played it constantly. Every song made me feel good--I don't think anyone could listen to that album and be in a bad mood.

Back in 1976, Boston had a unique sound. Actually, even today I think they sound unique, and the album has aged unbelievably well. Many bands have a signature guitar sound or a signature vocal sound, but very, very few have both.

Plus, the band had a mystique about them. Back then, we heard that one of the band members graduated from MIT (Tom Scholz--true), and then, when they disappeared after their second album, one member had designed an amp and made a fortune(again, Tom Scholz--the Rockman, which was an awesome piece of gear). For years, they were kind of an elusive legend in rock.

[As a complete tangent, I mentioned their debut album as one of the best debut album of all time. My favorite, though would be Dire Straits, which is an absolutely stunning album.]

If you're wondering about the quality of the note charts for the Boston DLC, it's excellent. I think these are, by far, my favorite DLC songs--both guitar and drums are very fun to play, and Boston's songs are extremely well constructed for Rock Band.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Draft Day Sports: Pro Football

Here's a press release from Gary Gorski, founder of Wolverine Studios:
Wolverine Studios, a developer of sports simulation games, is proud to announce a brand new title, Draft Day Sports: Pro Football is now in development. Gary Gorski, developer of Draft Day Sports: College Basketball, Draft Day Sports: Pro Basketball and Total Pro Golf 2, will serve as lead developer, with Tim Plum taking on the role of Associate Developer for this exciting new title.

Draft Day Sports: Pro Football will give you the opportunity to play one or multiple roles within a professional football organization as you scout and draft players, make roster decisions, and coach your way to championship glory. Draft Day Sports: Pro Football will feature a 2D game display, play editor, interactive and entertaining draft experience, robust almanac for rich historical stat tracking, dynamic player and team personalities and interactions, customization options such as multiple league sizes, multiplayer league capabilities and much more.

More details and discussion about the game will be available from Wolverine Studios’ company website at

Copy Protection and the Brave New World

In the 1970's, when I went to high school, we stole music.

All of us.

We borrowed records from each other and made copies on 8-track tapes, or cassette tapes. Most of us made mix tapes, and they always had a name like "Johnny's Legendary Rock Mix" or something like that.

It was a personal kind of thing, really. You borrowed albums from your friends, and they borrowed yours.

Back in 1979, when I was a senior, if you had told me what the future was going to be like, I would have laughed at you.

Is it an overstatement to say that the Internet, and peer-to-peer networks in particular, have had as much of an effect on the distribution of information as Gutenberg and the movable type printing press? Books were copied by hand. We made copies of albums by hand. The printing press made it possible to make thousands (or millions) of copies of one book. The Internet made it possible to make thousands (or millions) of digital copies of one album.

Maybe peer-to-peer networks don't have the impact of Gutenberg, but at the least, they've been seismic.

Because of this, in the last decade, what we're actually paying for when we buy digital media (music, games, films) has become a more complicated question than it seems.

It's not a question for people who are completely honest. They're buying the content.

For everyone else, though, it's not such an easy answer.

Think about it. If I wanted to take the time to research peer-to-peer networks (I don't), and I wanted to get something free instead of paying for it (I don't), I think it's true to say that I could download everything.

Everything. Every film I ever wanted to see, every game I ever wanted to play, and every song I ever wanted to listen to. For free.

Some people do this. And some of them start the stupid-ass "content should be free" argument that indicates a severe lack of mental dexterity on their part. Their argument doesn't matter, though, because in this digital world, they can take whatever they want.

Welcome to the new hobos of the twenty-first century. The content hobos.

It's impossible to determine the real rate of piracy, but in communities that are already highly collaborative in nature (university campuses, for example), I think it's fair to assume that there are no social disincentives to downloading whatever you want.

So if the content, in theory, is free, what ARE we paying for?

Well, I think we're paying for convenience of access. And I think that's what the music industry and the gaming industry have completely failed to understand.

Look at it this way. If it's easier and more convenient to pay for downloadable content than it is to download it for free, then the only people who will put up with the extra hassle are the people who have much more free time than money. And the more the ease-of-use ratio tips toward legitimately purchased content, there will be fewer and fewer people who will steal it instead.

The question for the entertainment industry, then, is how can that be done?

Instead of trying to answer that question, though, the entertainment industry committed a classic error of thought. Because trying to stop the theft of content is just and moral in a macro sense, they believed it entitled them to be unjust and immoral in a micro sense.

Here's the problem, though: morality isn't just defined in the macro sense. And unbearable, heinous atrocities have been committed at regular intervals throughout history by people who believed that their "moral purpose" allowed them to become monsters for the greater good.

It's easy to believe in something moral and be immoral every step of the way to be sure it triumphs. It's almost impossible, though, to be consistently moral at the micro level and not be moral at the macro level.

That was the fundamental mistake of the music industry, the RIAA in particular. They've so butchered the process of stopping the pirating of music that they're now wrong, even when they're right. They believe that anything is justified at the micro level, not matter how grotesque, because they're correct at the macro level.

Maybe there was a point in history where this worked. Certainly, there was a time in history when this worked. With the way that information distribution is decentralized today, though, this is guaranteed to fail, and the RIAA, unquestionably, has failed. Almost every slimy thing they've done to consumers has eventually been exposed.

Let's go back to the convenience of access concept. Is digital rights management (DRM, otherwise known as "copy protection") discouraging anyone who wants to steal? Sure, because some people want to steal less than others--even a low barrier to entry would stop them. But if that same copy-protection scheme is intrusive to people who have no intention of stealing, the convenience ratio isn't really changing, or it could even be changing in the wrong direction, and that could incent more people to steal.

This is true for gaming as well. Starforce is the classic example, because it was like an octopus--it was almost impossible to completely uninstall (and required registry edits to do so), and over time it could affect the speed of your optical drive (CGW had an investigative article on this a few years ago, if I remember correctly). If anything, Starforce was incenting people to steal, not stopping them. At the very least, it was preventing some people from buying games they wanted to play.

SecuRom and BioShock? Another disaster. Here's what I wrote last fall in response:
I should receive notification when a copy protection program installs itself. I should be told its name. I should also receive notification every time it connects to the Internet, and if it sends data, I should be told what it's sending. If I uninstall the game, and I have no other game using this method of copy protection, then the copy protection program should be fully and completely removed from my system. Completely.

Part of convenience of access, to me, includes full disclosure. Look, if you want to be sure I have a legitimate copy of a game, fine. Just don't install shit on my system without telling me. Don't do anything on my system without telling me.

Here's what I'm sure is a very naive question: instead of focusing on copy protection, why don't these companies spend more time focusing on copy distribution? It's already guaranteed that the game is going to get cracked. Make the protection on the game less intrusive to the paying customer, but spend far more time focusing on how to prevent high-volume distribution.

It's difficult to have this kind of discussion in the current environment, though, because we're all pissed off. Media companies are pissed off about people stealing content, and we're pissed off about rootkits and Starforce and shit on our system that does all kinds of things without telling us. Everybody's angry.

When a company's customers are angry, though, it's likely that the company is making a mistake. They need customers to be loyal, not angry.

Because of the increasingly intrusive nature of copy protection on PC games, I usually buy the console version of a game instead. With the gap in visual quality between consoles and PC's almost disappearing in this last generation, it's just no contest. The copy-protection on consoles is far more effective against thieves, but it's also far less intrusive to me as a consumer. I know--the PC is an open development platform with no universal copy-protection standard. As a consumer, though, I don't care about why. I just know the consoles are convenient and easy.

Here's a simple way to conclude. If the rate of piracy is really as high as music and gaming companies claim, then their conceptual approach is failing. They have fundamentally misunderstood the relationship between copy protection and piracy, because if you believe their numbers, the vast majority of their product is being stolen.

In other words, they need to start over and think about what they're really trying to stop.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Quite Lengthy And Yet Still Not Finished

Good grief, this post got long.

I was going to have one more section about content and what we're paying for versus what we paid for twenty years ago, but this is already so freaking long and I'm going to hold the last section until tomorrow.

I saw two long posts recently by people in the gaming industry that intertwine in strange and interesting ways.

Brad Wardell had some interesting comments recently about the PC gaming market, which you can read here. Wardell is CEO of Stardock, developers of the Galactic Civilizations series as well as publishers of Sins of a Solar Empire.

Brad's comments tend to get a lot of run now because Stardock definitely has scoreboard--both Gal Civ II and Sins of a Solar Empire have done extremely well, and they both have absolutely zero copy protection.

I'd like to discuss a few things that Wardell wrote in his recent post, but I encourage you to follow the link and read the full text first.

Here are a few excerpts:
So here is the deal: When you develop for a market, you don't go by the user base. You go by the potential customer base. That's what most software companies do. They base what they want to create on the size of the market they're developing for. But not PC game developers.

PC game developers seem to focus more on the "cool" factor. What game can they make that will get them glory with the game magazines and gaming websites and hard core gamers? These days, it seems like game developers want to be like rock stars more than businessmen. I've never considered myself a real game developer. I'm a gamer who happens to know how to code and also happens to be reasonably good at business.

They do? I know there are developers that have certainly taken this approach, but I don't know many rock star developers. I think the reason that developers want "glory" with gaming magazines and websites is that publicity draws attention to their product, and that attention is likely to result in higher sales. Any effort to front a developer or producer as a "rock star" (you could argue that Ubisoft did this with Jade Raymond) is a business decision designed to increase interest in the game.

In other words, it's not a non-business approach--it's just a different approach. Wardell's implication, though, is that "other" game developers are ego-driven, which I think is both unfair and patronizing.

Wardell's lynchpin is generally copy-protection, and he discusses it here:
The problem with blaming piracy
I don't want anyone to walk away from this article thinking I am poo-pooing the effect of piracy. I'm not. I definitely feel for game developers who want to make kick ass PC games who see their efforts diminished by a bunch of greedy pirates. I just don't count pirates in the first place. If you're a pirate, you don't get a vote on what gets made -- or you shouldn't if the company in question is trying to make a profit.

The reason why we don't put copy protection on our games isn't because we're nice guys. We do it because the people who actually buy games don't like to mess with it. Our customers make the rules, not the pirates. Pirates don't count. We know our customers could pirate our games if they want but choose to support our efforts. So we return the favor - we make the games they want and deliver them how they want it. This is also known as operating like every other industry outside the PC game industry.

...When you blame piracy for disappointing sales, you tend to tar the entire market with a broad brush. Piracy isn't evenly distributed in the PC gaming market.

Blaming piracy is easy. But it hides other underlying causes. When Sins popped up as the #1 best selling game at retail a couple weeks ago, a game that has no copy protect whatsoever, that should tell you that piracy is not the primary issue.

In the end, the pirates hurt themselves. PC game developers will either slowly migrate to making games that cater to the people who buy PC games or they'll move to platforms where people are more inclined to buy games.

In the meantime, if you want to make profitable PC games, I'd recommend focusing more effort on satisfying the people willing to spend money on your product and less effort on making what others perceive as hot. But then again, I don't romanticize PC game development. I just want to play cool games and make a profit on games that I work on.

I think that sometimes Brad hurts his own cause because he comes off as lecturing and snotty, and I think he does here. That's not what I think is interesting, though. What I think he's describing is a business model that works extremely well for Stardock, but let me play devil's advocate for a minute.

Who plays those "hot" games that he describes so derisively? A wide demographic, and one that, most importantly, includes younger gamers. Would these younger gamers ever get exposed to PC gaming if all they had to play were games like Gal Civ and Sins?

I doubt it.

Making games for a generally older audience that is less inclined to piracy is absolutey a sound business decision for Stardock, and DRM-free games are wonderful, but I think it would be ruinous for PC gaming if everyone adopted the Stardock model. Yes, the so-called hot games get pirated at a much, much higher rated, but they're still attracting more people to PC gaming in general. I think it's fair to say that piracy generally skews younger, so as they get older, they're likely to buy more and steal less.

Let's say that a bowling alley is really having trouble with its teenage customers. They're loud, they're rude, and they're generally disruptive. There are a lot of them, but they seem to spend much less per hour than older customers. So the bowling alley decides to stop having promotional nights for teenagers. Instead, they focus on their senior citizens, because they spend more money per hour and cause none of the problems that teenagers do.

Now if every bowling alley did this, the customer base would continue to shrink as bowlers retired or died, because there would be no one at the front end to replace them. Eventually, the bowling alley would be forced to close. If other bowling alleys, though, continued to market heavily to younger people, then that bowling alley could do really, really well.

Like I said, that's a devil's advocate position, but I think it's worth thinking about.

The other post was by Michael Fitch, Director of Creative Management at THQ, after Iron Lore Entertainment (Titan Quest) announced that it was closing. Fitch posted in the Quarter to Three forums, and what he says is an interesting counterpoint to Wardell. Again, I encourage you to read his full post, but here are a few excerpts:
It's a rough, rough world out there for independent studios who want to make big games, even worse if you're single-team and don't have a successful franchise to ride or a wealthy benefactor. Trying to make it on PC product is even tougher, and here's why.

Piracy. Yeah, that's right, I said it. No, I don't want to re-hash the endless "piracy spreads awareness", "I only pirate because there's no demo", "people who pirate wouldn't buy the game anyway" round-robin. Been there, done that. I do want to point to a couple of things, though.

One, there are other costs to piracy than just lost sales. For example, with TQ, the game was pirated and released on the nets before it hit stores. It was a fairly quick-and-dirty crack job, and in fact, it missed a lot of the copy-protection that was in the game. One of the copy-protection routines was keyed off the quest system, for example. You could start the game just fine, but when the quest triggered, it would do a security check, and dump you out if you had a pirated copy. There was another one in the streaming routine. So, it's a couple of days before release, and I start seeing people on the forums complaining about how buggy the game is, how it crashes all the time. A lot of people are talking about how it crashes right when you come out of the first cave. Yeah, that's right. There was a security check there.

So, before the game even comes out, we've got people bad-mouthing it because their pirated copies crash, even though a legitimate copy won't. We took a lot of shit on this, completely undeserved mind you. How many people decided to pick up the pirated version because it had this reputation and they didn't want to risk buying something that didn't work? Talk about your self-fulfilling prophecy.

...Two, the numbers on piracy are really astonishing. The research I've seen pegs the piracy rate at between 70-85% on PC in the US, 90%+ in Europe, off the charts in Asia. I didn't believe it at first. It seemed way too high. Then I saw that Bioshock was selling 5 to 1 on console vs. PC. And Call of Duty 4 was selling 10 to 1. These are hardcore games, shooters, classic PC audience stuff. Given the difference in install base, I can't believe that there's that big of a difference in who played these games, but I guess there can be in who actually payed for them.

Let's dig a little deeper there. So, if 90% of your audience is stealing your game, even if you got a little bit more, say 10% of that audience to change their ways and pony up, what's the difference in income? Just about double. That's right, double. That's easily the difference between commercial failure and success. That's definitely the difference between doing okay and founding a lasting franchise. Even if you cut that down to 1% - 1 out of every hundred people who are pirating the game - who would actually buy the game, that's still a 10% increase in revenue. Again, that's big enough to make the difference between breaking even and making a profit.

Titan Quest did okay. We didn't lose money on it. But if even a tiny fraction of the people who pirated the game had actually spent some god-damn money for their 40+ hours of entertainment, things could have been very different today. You can bitch all you want about how piracy is your god-given right, and none of it matters anyway because you can't change how people behave... whatever. Some really good people made a seriously good game, and they might still be in business if piracy weren't so rampant on the PC. That's a fact.

Let's dig a little deeper there. So, if 90% of your audience is stealing your game, even if you got a little bit more, say 10% of that audience to change their ways and pony up, what's the difference in income? Just about double. That's right, double. That's easily the difference between commercial failure and success. That's definitely the difference between doing okay and founding a lasting franchise. Even if you cut that down to 1% - 1 out of every hundred people who are pirating the game - who would actually buy the game, that's still a 10% increase in revenue. Again, that's big enough to make the difference between breaking even and making a profit.

So Fitch, seemingly, is proving Wardell's point. Seemingly. I believe, though, that there are spaces in-between.

First off, and this is tangential, what exactly is the "research" that Fitch has seen? Every time I see a piracy number from any industry, it's astronomical, but what I never see is any discussion of methodology. Industries throw gigantic numbers around, but I never see anything to back those numbers up. I'm not saying that piracy isn't a problem, because clearly, it is, but I tend to be skeptical of any number that is arrived at by black box methodology.

Here's what I find particularly curious, though, and it's what led to me believing that there was some "space" between Fitch and Wardell. Titan Quest, according to Fitch, simply crashed when someone playing a pirated copy reached a certain point in the game.
...the game was pirated and released on the nets before it hit stores. It was a fairly quick-and-dirty crack job, and in fact, it missed a lot of the copy-protection that was in the game. One of the copy-protection routines was keyed off the quest system, for example. You could start the game just fine, but when the quest triggered, it would do a security check, and dump you out if you had a pirated copy. There was another one in the streaming routine. So, it's a couple of days before release, and I start seeing people on the forums complaining about how buggy the game is, how it crashes all the time. A lot of people are talking about how it crashes right when you come out of the first cave. Yeah, that's right. There was a security check there.

So, before the game even comes out, we've got people bad-mouthing it because their pirated copies crash, even though a legitimate copy won't. We took a lot of shit on this, completely undeserved mind you. How many people decided to pick up the pirated version because it had this reputation and they didn't want to risk buying something that didn't work? Talk about your self-fulfilling prophecy.

That seems incredibly self-defeating. You want to stop pirates, not piss them off. The people stealing the game still post on message boards, and there's no skull and crossbones beneath their avatar. They are still part of the word-of-mouth about your game.

Actually, that approach isn't self-defeating--it's downright idiotic. Why in the world wouldn't there just be a message about the copy not being legitimate, then having an unskippable 30-60 second trailer to show them all the cool stuff they're missing? And if there are concerns that doing so would pinpoint where the security check was occurring, why not just store the results of the security check, then pop up the message and the cut scene based on a random time variable?

That approach seems like a way to treat pirates not as customers, necessarily, but as influencers, because they are--like it or not, they help shape opinion on a game.

As strange as it sounds, they have value.

So at the same time a developer is trying to stop piracy, they should also be doing everything they can to shape the pirate's opinion of their game.

Like it or not, they do count.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Portal, With Jonathan

Brandon Cackowski-Schnell let me know that he's auctioning off a Portal t-shirt signed by Jonathan Coulton, and the proceeds are going to Child's Play. That's a great deal all around, and you can bid here.

The Big Adventure

It's taking me much longer to transcribe the audio tape than I thought it would, but I'll give you a general description of how it went today, with some specific dialogue sprinkled in later this week.

Let's see. On Friday morning at 5:20 a.m., I was driving in the darkness in Wells Branch, totally lost. I was trying to find a cul-de-sac that had a park entrance right by the designated treasure location, but I got all turned around (very sleepy plus a terrible sense of direction in the dark). A few minutes later, having stumbled back to the proper street, I was sprinting through wet grass between houses in a highly unauthorized manner to get into the park close to the dig spot. I buried the treasure box at the bottom of a gravel pit (about 12" deep), then got back home around 6 a.m.

So, pretty much a typical morning around our house.

Eli 6.7 was all in from the minute the Fed Ex package "arrived" on our doorstep on Thursday. Having it be a Fed Ex delivery immediately gave the contents total legitimacy. And having the "will" printed on brown parchment (appropriately aged by crumpling, uncrumpling, and re-smoothing) made it look totally authentic, at least to a six-year old (and a smart one at that).

That's all it really took to convince him. And he was as excited as I've ever seen him. If there's such a thing as infinite excitement, six-year-olds have it, and Eli definitely had it on Friday morning.

When we got to the park, just after dawn, I stopped the car right in front of the two buildings that were in the will. I wondered how long it would take him staring at those buildings to realize that they matched the pictures--about five minutes, as it turns out.

Once he found the buildings, we were off. Our dialogue, even by Eli's usual high standards of comedy, was hilarious, and I'll try to have excerpts transcribed for you sometime this week. He got progressively more excited as we worked through the clues, and when we got very near the end, he was giddy.

As we reached the gravel pit (and found the "ears" and the "Foolish Guardians"), he wanted to start digging, but I warned him about the blank page and said it looked like a trick. I had brought one of those charcoal lighter wands as part of our "supplies," and I told him the page might have secret writing on it. I walked to the other edge of the pit so that he "wouldn't be close to the fire," then turned my back and substituted a page I'd written the night before in vinegar that had been revealed by being just above a flame.

When he saw the secret writing, he was amazed. He kept saying "Dad, those Foolish Guardians aren't real. I don't believe I could turn into a tree."

I said "I don't think so either, little man, but if I were you, I'd dig really fast."

And he did. He dug so fast that he was spraying gravel onto me, and when his shovel struck the wooden box, he yelled "HOLY SNOT! I FOUND SOMETHING!" Then he had to struggle to get the box out of the gravel, because every time he dug out more, the gravel on the sides would just fall back in. So there was this incredibly dramatic minute or two where we saw the box, but couldn't get it out.

When we finally did, I gave him a screwdriver to pry open the lid, which I'd nailed down. When he got the lid off and saw the treasure chest inside, he was thrilled. And when he opened up the treasure chest and saw all the coins inside, I'm surprised he didn't pass out like he said he would. "We did it, Dad! We FOUND the TREASURE! I CAN'T BELIEVE IT!"

On the way back, every time someone passed us on the trail, Eli would lift up the lid of the treasure chest and say "I CAN'T BELIEVE WE DUG UP THIS TREASURE FROM THREE HUNDRED YEARS AGO!" He was also saying, almost constantly, "No one at school is going to believe this!" He was so elated. The impossible had become possible.

Which is when I started to feel guilty.

I know. It was one of the best moments in Eli 6.7's life, he was overjoyed, and everything was perfect.

Except, of course, that the cake was a lie, so to speak. He got cake, but it wasn't eighteenth century cake.

We've never lied to Eli, not even for convenience. I'm not sure I've told him a single lie in his whole life. He knows that he can always, absolutely, depend on us to tell him the truth. And now I'd told him a series of absolute whoppers.

I always intended to tell him the truth at some point, but it was fuzzy as to exactly when I should do that. As he kept talking about school, though, and saying "Who do we call to be famous?" (which cracked me up), I started wondering at what point this might cross over from being a great adventure to a situation where he might be embarrassed. Even in first grade, kids are pretty savvy, and I suspected that someone in his class would call bullshit. Then he'd come home from school, say "Dad--it was real, wasn't it?" and I'd have to tell him he'd be tricked.

I was trying to create an illusion for his enjoyment, not embarrass him.

So at a time when I should have been feeling great, when I'd made my son so happy, I felt like a heel. I think this says more about me than anything else, because I have a tendency to find a way to be critical of myself. It's a hobby.

We got home and, of course, the treasure was all Eli could talk about. His Nana was coming in for the weekend, which normally thrills him, and he hadn't even mentioned her.

I realized that instead of waiting a few days, I was going to have to tell him very soon, and I wished I'd given it more thought when I was planning things out. I'd written an additional page to the will, which read like this:
And now, me lad,
A big hug for your Dad,
Who, with pen and quill,
Wrote these clues, and my will.
May fair winds fill your sails, and your skies always be bright.
With good mates to tell tales on the darkest of nights.
Pierre L'Orange

I kind of forget about it, though, because I thought it would spoil it for him if he found out it wasn't real after he found the treasure. Ironically, of course, I was about to do the same thing.

So I explained it to him (I wish I had an audio tape, but I didn't record it). He didn't quite understand at first, because the realness was firmly in his head, but then the light bulb went on. He looked at me and said "Dad, you made all that up? That is AWESOME!" and he gave me a big hug. I told him the story about getting lost on the way to the park and running through the neighbor's yard, and he made me tell it a second time because he was laughing so hard.

That was all great, and I felt like everything had gone as well as it possibly could. Later, though, Gloria said "I think Eli is kind of disappointed that the treasure wasn't real," and I felt like a heel again.

We all went out to dinner, and I walked outside with Eli while we were waiting for the food. He sat in a chair in front of the restaurant, and I kneeled beside him. "Little man, I'm sorry that the adventure wasn't real," I said. "I wanted you to have a big adventure, but there just aren't any real pirate adventures near our hourse."

"Dad," he said, putting his hand on my shoulder, "it's no big problem." I was very touched that he could be so incredibly gracious, even kind, because I knew that he was disappointed.

What I hoped though all this, though, is that he would eventually understand that if I created one of these adventures for him, I could create more.

On Friday, that didn't register. On Saturday, he took his treasure chest absolutely everywhere with him, and I felt a little better. Then, that night, he said "Dad, could we go on ANOTHER adventure?"

"Sure, little man," I said. "What kind of adventure would you like to go on?"

"Ghosts!" he said. "With a tomb! And a knight quest. And an adventure on the beach!"

"Well, just make a list of the adventures you most want to go on," I said.

On Sunday morning, we made an unscheduled trip to Krispy Kreme, and on the way, he started talking in the backseat:
"On a ghostly night,
On a beach at sea,
We walked into the graveyard,
Of Zin-Twa-Zee."

That was the start of his next adventure, of course, only he wrote a better opening than I ever could have. We agreed to write the first part together, but after that, I'd write the rest and it would be a surprise.

We wrote more while we were eating doughnuts, and we agreed to work on it every week until this summer.

Zin-Twa-Zee should guard his treasure well, because we're coming.

EA CFO Resigns

Announced this morning (thanks Gamasutra):
Publisher Electronic Arts has announced that the company's chief financial officer Warren Jenson will be leaving the company amidst its ongoing bid for rival publisher Take Two.

Jenson, who has served as CFO since 2002, gave no explicit reason for leaving the company, but said in a statement that the time had come "to write the next chapter in my career."

So a CFO resigns with no warning in the middle of a major and possibly controversial acquisition?

If anyone would want to put distance between themselves and an acquisition of Take-Two, it would be a CFO. Take-Two's spotty (a charitable term) accounting history and long-term history of problems with the SEC would give anyone in a financial role serious concerns.

Here's a quiz. See if you can identify these numbers: 3.091, 2.951, 3.129, 2.957.

In billions of dollars, that's EA's revenue for the last four fiscal years. Which one is which? It doesn't matter--they're all almost the same. In other words, EA isn't growing anymore.

Here are four more numbers: 76, 236, 504, 577. That's EA's total net income for the last four years, and this time, the order does matter, because total net income has decreased each of the last four years (most recent year was listed first, then continued in order).

So EA isn't growing, and their profits have declined by over 85%.

Hoping to spur growth and improve profits, they're trying to acquire Take-Two. Look at Take-Two's operating revenue for the last four years (in order, with most recent listed first):
981.79, 1,037.84, 1,201.22, 1,127.75.

That's in millions, so they've gone from 1.127 billion to 981 million over the last four fiscal years. They're not only not growing, they're contracting.

Now look at total net income (again, in order, with most recent year listed first):
-138.41,-184.89, 35.31, 62.12.


So EA, which is stagnant in a growth sense and tepid in a profit sense, is buying a company that is actually contracting and has a net loss of over 300 million dollars in the last two years. Oh, and this company has had serious accounting issues in the past (which may be ongoing).

If I was CFO, I would have resigned, too.

Does this mean it's a bad deal for EA? No, but I think it gives you a gigantic clue to what EA would do to Take-Two once they acquired the company. In short, they'd immediately gut anything that wasn't contributing a significant amount of profit or prestige. They would keep Rockstar, Irrational (Ken Levine), and Firaxis (Sid Meier).

I'm sure I'm forgetting someone, but I'm not sure what else would be seen as contributing franchises from EA's perspective.

Friday, March 21, 2008

More On Monday, But...

If you're wondering what someone's smile would look like after they just dug up what they believed was pirate treasure buried in the eighteenth century, I think it would look like this:

I'll have some good stuff for you monday--I made an audio recording, and Eli 6.7 was in fine form.

Friday Links!

If you didn't already call in sick for the NCAA Tournament, then have an in-office sick day and start reading.

Of all the links I've ever put up on Friday, this may qualify as the best. David Alpern sent me a link to a documentary about North Korea. There are twelve episodes, but they're only 3-4 minutes long each, and each one is utterly fascinating. It's one of the very few Western documentaries in existence that look at the surreal madness that is North Korea. Episode one begins the series, and episode three is the first footage from North Korea.

From Chris Meyer, a link to a fascinating article about how the resurgence of nuclear power may be stifled--by the industrial capacity a samurai sword maker. Here's an excerpt:
March 13 (Bloomberg) -- From a windswept corner of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, Japan Steel Works Ltd. controls the fate of the global nuclear-energy renaissance.

There stands the only plant in the world, a survivor of Allied bombing in World War II, capable of producing the central part of a nuclear reactor's containment vessel in a single piece, reducing the risk of a radiation leak.

Utilities that won't need the equipment for years are making $100 million down payments now on components Japan Steel makes from 600-ton ingots. Each year the Tokyo-based company can turn out just four of the steel forgings that contain the radioactivity in a nuclear reactor. Even after it doubles capacity in the next two years, there won't be enough production to meet building plans.

Japan Steel Works Ltd. also makes--you guessed it--samurai swords.

From Scott Zimmerman, a link to hair analysis as a forensic tool, but with a twist--now, it can be used to tell where you're from, which is totally remarkable.

Here's a story from Daily Tech about a cooling fan that is solid-state and moves 35 times more air than conventional coolers.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to a video about Direct Note Access, an amazing piece of technology that does this: "for the first time in audio recording history you can identify and edit individual notes within polyphonic audio material. The unique access that Melodyne affords to pitch, timing, note lengths and other parameters of melodic notes will now also be afforded to individual notes within chords." Second, a link to a photo study of Miami, and the images are rich and beautiful. Finally, a link to a news story about a women who recently had butt implants, and the news anchors do everything but fall off their chairs. After seeing the video, so did I.

From Pete Thistle, a link to an excellent article titled The Muscle Men: Inside the "Rejuvenation Centers" at the heart of the nation's largest illegal steroid and HGH operation.

From Cliff Eyler, a link to an article about the Queenfish, a submarine that mapped the Siberian continental shelf in 1970. Right in the middle of the Cold War.

From Michael Gilbert, the discovery of a mummified dinosaur.

From Leimkuehler, Jesse, a link to an article about environmental testing of Hubble components.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Big Adventure (Update)

My three favorite Eli 6.7 comments after he talked non-stop for an hour and a half about the contents of the mysterious Fed Ex package.

"Okay, this is AWESOME!"

"I cannot BELIEVE this. I have been waiting my WHOLE LIFE for this to happen."

"Mom, if we bring back some treasure tomorrow, I'm gonna faint."

We seek the fortune at dawn.

Armageddon Empires Expansion Pack Released

Version 1.07 of Armageddon Empires (my favorite PC game of 2007) has been released, and it includes the Cult of the Wastelands expansion pack. Read all about it on Vic's blog Forgotten Lore.

The Big Adventure

Here are all the documents I'm using for The Big Adventure with Eli 6.7, and I'll walk you through everything as we go.

This afternoon, around five, I'm going to put a Fed Ex box (complete with airbill) on the doorstop and ring the bell (when Eli can't see me). Eli's used to Amazon deliveries and whatnot, so he'll hear the doorbell and tell Gloria that there's a package. She'll get the box and hand it to me, and this letter will be inside:
Dear Bill,
I’m sure you don’t remember me, but you did me a great favor once when we went to college together many years ago. I’ve always felt that I owed you a great favor in return, so when this curious document came into my possession, I felt that it was a chance to show my appreciation. I also remembered what a very clever fellow you are, and if anyone could solve this, it would be you. Best of luck and I hope you are rewarded many times over for the kindness you showed me.

I had a friend of mine at work write this by hand, and it looks great. After I read it to myself, muttering a few comments like "You've got to be kidding me" and "Holy cow," I'll hand it to Gloria and say "Read this." Then she'll do the same thing.

Eli will be driven crazy this whole time, because he'll be saying "What is it? What?" every five seconds--he can't stand to have something happening that he doesn't know about. After Gloria finishes, she'll say "That's really something," and then I'll read the letter out loud to Eli.

When I'm done, I'll look inside the package, and there will be a document inside a big zip lock bag. It's printed on 24 lb (high fiber) paper that looks like parchment, and as JC Fedorczyk mentioned, if you wad up this kind of high-fiber (and stomp on it a few times for a good measure), it softens and "weathers" the paper. So the document looks very old and very fragile.

First off, there's a two-page letter from "Pierre L'Orange" (boy, is that name fun to say). Here it is:

I'm hoping that he'll be close to passing out from excitement at this point, because it seems like a real letter from a real pirate.

And if he was excited at first, the mention of treausre should make his eyes pop out of his head.

But what would a treasure hunt be without danger?

(that's not a full page, which is why there's a gap here).

After he decides that he IS brave enough, there's this:

Conveniently, there's a full moon tonight, and Spring officially started this week. "Five days" is how long I'm guessing it might have taken to go from the Gulf Coast to Austin back in the eighteenth century, if there was a road.

"Water and wood" is a clue for the city north of us where the park is found--Wells Branch. These are sketches of buildings in the park that were supposedly recreated to resemble early settlers (boy, that's really convenient). I took pictures of both of these, created line drawings in Photoshop, then cleaned up the bitmaps manually.

When we're looking at this tonight, I'm going to mention that I'm almost certain I've seen these buildings before, and maybe I can remember if I think about it for a while. Then, when he's getting ready for bed, I'll take the "will" upstairs and tell him that I think these are the buildings in the park. He's seen them before, too, so he may recognize them after I say this.

What this means is that we do have a real treasure hunt, but we can't start until tomorrow morning, which should give him something to think about tonight.

So after we walk the hundred paces, there are five trees that are pretty distinct.

It's a dry creek bed, but that seems reasonable after almost three hundred years. And the trail is a park trail, but I'm going to say that many times, parks use trails that existed long before the park was created.

The "twins" on the next page are two very tall trees that stand well apart from everything else.

These pages aren't breaking up in the ideal way for me to describe them, but Redbeard is a truly awesome tree trunk about twenty feet tall. As we walk toward it on the trail, there are two knotholes up high that look like eyes, and on the back is a piece of wood that looks like a hook (it's not a peg, but I just noticed that--oops--and I'll wing it), plus a piece of wood on top that looks like a feather.

The pink lady and the grandfather are a small flowering tree (only in Spring, remember?) and a huge, ancient tree about forty yards further down.

Just past that, there are a few low palm trees (or something--they have palm leaves).

The "ears" are pretty amazing: two tree trunks, ground flat, that really do like like huge ear.

The "Foolish Guardians" are about eight trees lined up in the distance, and they really do look like sentries, with a little imagination. The "hand spyglass" is based on an idea from Shawn Wignall.

The paces will take us to the edge of a play area that has gravel instead of sand. It goes down about 12", and I dug another 6" earlier this week.

Another partial page, hence the space.

I'm hoping that Eli will be all fired up about digging now, but there's a blank page with nothing written on it at the end of the will. And I'm going to say that since this is a pirate, and since many others got this far and failed, that there must be a trick.

The trick, of course, is that there is writing on the page, but it's invisible (Meg McReynolds was the first to suggest invisible writing). I'm either going to have to take a match with me to make the lemon juice writing show up, or switch pages with some kind of subterfuge, but here's what the page says:

So that explains why everyone else failed: they only had five minutes, plus the youngest member of the party had to dig, and no one realized it because they were tricked by the blank page. I'm hoping it puts some real drama into the dig, knowing that he only has five minutes, and that I can't help him.

Oh, and "the shovel hits the mast" means that he should find a wooden box (made from the mast of the pirate ship). Here's what he'll find:

The flash made that box look much lighter in color--it's actually a ratty-looking piece of wood with plenty of knotholes. It's nailed shut, and after he pries it open, here's his treasure:

Those coins are replica pieces of eight, etc., and they're not plastic, so they feel like real treasure. The treasure chest is about 6" wide and a few inches deep, so those coins fill it up almost all the way.

I'm going tomorrow morning about 5:30 to bury the box, and I'll be back by the time he wakes up and starts bouncing off the walls (about 6:00, I'm guessing).

So that's it. I hope he has a great time and does this with his own son someday.

I've got the will in a Word file, so if any of you want a copy, just e-mail me.

I'll let you know on Monday how it all went. I may even have a few audio highlights.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Haze Promotion Update

Very interesting (thanks MTV Multiplayer):
The flyer reads: “PLAY HAZE FOR A WEEK: Pre-purchase Haze and get full in-store credit back when you trade Haze in within one week of pick-up!”

Was it real? Yes. Is it still being offered?

A Ubisoft representative told me yesterday: no.

...What I was told by a member of the Ubisoft’s PR team in the U.S. yesterday was that there had been a miscommunication between the publisher’s Canadian arm and the EB Games retail chain in Canada. Furthermore, the issue has been rectified some time in the last week and the promotion has been cancelled. I was unable to get further details on how this miscommunication happened.

Let's see. This story first surfaced on March 12, and it took a WEEK for Ubisoft to respond with this statement. But it was all just a mix-up.


I find it interesting that any publisher would try this, but it seemed like an excellent way to get more attention (and pre-orders) for the game. Too bad that it's not going to happen.

Dostoyevsky, Turning Slowly

We were having dinner Saturday night at Macaroni Grill.

"I saw Kate telling John exactly how to do something at the park," I said. I lowered my voice and whispered, "I think she may be a bit bossy."

Gloria started laughing. We know Kate's a bit bossy. Kate knows Kate's a bit bossy. "Why, what makes you think that?" she asked, smiling.

"A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens, but by how it treats its criminals," I said," and it's true for how wives treat their husbands as well."

Gaming Links and Notes

Eli 6.7 won't be going on The Big Adventure until Friday, but I'll share the documents with you tomorrow. If you have one-tenth as much fun reading it as I did writing it, then you'll have a very good time.

N'Gai Croal has a terrific feature over at Level Up where he's asked different individuals to talk about their experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons. So far, he has sections with Todd Howard (two words about Todd Howard: "kick ass"), Harvey Smith, Dennis Dyack, and John Smedley, with more coming. Head over to Level Up, and also check out So Long, Dungeon Master.

GameShark has a nice feature with Gary Gorski (Wolverine Studios). Gary is a very talented designer, and I think he's doing more to make sports text sims more approachable than anyone else out there. Here's the interview.

The Blog for the Sports Gamer as a bracket challenge contest for the NCAA Tournament, and there are plenty of prizes, so go win something.

Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)

Here's an embarrassing admission for someone who loves games so much: I'm not a Mario guy.

I was a full-on computer gamer in the Mario era, from the Apple IIC to the Apple IIGS to the big prize: the Amiga 500. It was an entirely different track, and all my friends who gamed were on that track.

I saw Mario and it looked primitive. I even played a few levels, but it never grabbed me.

Starting with the SNES, I played every Mario game, at least for a few hours. Still, compared to the computer games I was playing at the time, Mario games never seemed to be as interesting.

I just didn't get it.

Last week, we finished Super Mario Galaxy. I played with Eli 6.7 the entire time, and now he's playing the game again, on his own (with occasional help from me as a wingman).

It's not an exaggeration to say that this is the most creative game I've ever played. It bends reality--and gravity--in so many wonderful ways that I burst out laughing on many of the levels. Yes, it's a childlike world, and children can play, but there's this unmistakeable sense of anarchy running through the level design, a bit of twisted genius involved, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The graphics are bright and stunningly beautiful. The controls are flawless. The animation is outstanding. The sound is fantastic.

Most importantly, the gameplay mechanics are wonderful. Just wonderful. Mario runs, he jumps, he swims, he surfs (on the back of a manta ray), he skates, he flies--he does so many things that I can't even remember them all.

Oh, and he turns into a bee. Seriously.

This game appeals very much to the big part of me that is still eight. In many ways, though, it appeals even more to me as a grown-up, as a quite beautiful demonstration of unparalleled creativity. It's a work of art that I see all around me as I move through its world.

When Eli first started watching television, I was fascinated by how he did it. He'd watch a show once, then, if he liked it, he'd watch it over and over again over the next few days.

This puzzled me. It seemed boring. Why would he watch the same show over and over again?

It took me a while to realize the answer: he wasn't. The first time he watched a show, he grasped very little of what was going on--just enough to know that he was having fun. Each successive viewing filled in more of the blanks, like laying down tracks on a recording. It was only after half a dozen viewings or more that everything was filled in and he truly understood what he was watching.

Remarkably, that's how Super Mario Galaxy works. The first time we played through, we discovered all kinds of awesome things, but I've noticed as Eli plays through a second time, he's discovering even more surprised. There are so many different techniques that can be used to get through a level, so many surprises, that the game gives you its meaning one track at a time.

This is not a game, by the way, where the Wiimore controls were just tacked on. The Wiimote is an integral part of the game, and playing with a regular controller wouldn't have been nearly as satisfying.

One last note: the co-op mode is one of the best I've ever seen. Interestingly, though, it doesn't seem like it at first. The second player doesn't control a character. Instead, he collects "star bits," which just require the player to point the Wiimote at them. The second player can also make Mario jump, or jump higher. Most importantly, the second player can freeze many enemies by pointing at them with the Wiimote and pressing a button.

That sounds boring when I write it, and for the first half of the game, it actually was pretty boring. The more we played, though, the more we realized that the second player really acted as a kind of shepherd to help the first player through the level--freezing enemies and moving obstacles, collecting star bits to procure extra lives, even blowing up enemy attacks that involved projectiles.

That made all the difference, really. Once we realized that the second player wasn't an assistant--he was, in effect, the guide--we both got very involved in playing as the second player, and it became two players playing together as a team, not two people playing as single players next to each other.

Eli discovered one other important aspect of playing as the second player, and that relates to exploration. Since the second player can't die, it leaves them free to look around and think about what's happening on the level, and there were many times when he saw something important that I had totally missed.

In the final battle, we were beaten several times, and Eli wanted to give up and go look up the strategy on the Internet. "No," I said.

"No? Why?" he said. "We've done it before." We did do it at three other points, because I didn't want him to get too frustrated.

"Because this is the last boss battle, and it's going to mean more to us if we do it ourselves," I said.

"But I don't know how!" he said.

"I know," I said. "Think."

I was playing as Mario (I usually played the most difficult sections), and we were getting our tail kicked. We couldn't figure out how to start the sequence of damaging the boss, which required something specific to happen.

"I got nothing," Eli said.

"Keep thinking," I said. "I know we're missing something."

A few seconds later, he discovered what we needed to do. Not me. And when we defeated the boss, we were high-fiving and shouting and laughing.

Now, I understand.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

MLB 08: The Show (#4)

As my Road To The Show pitcher is still scuffling in AA ball, I had an understanding of something I've never quite gotten before.

Road To The Show mode has a strong RPG angle to it. There are well over a dozen categories of ratings related to pitching and fielding, and there never seem to be enough training points to increase them at the rate I want. Either I'm not getting enough work, or I'm just blowing opportunities. Plus, all of these skills degrade over time, which makes them even more difficult to manage.

I normally earn 60-80 training points in a good outing. That sounds like a lot, but it's really quite small in terms of the ratings improvement it will give you. After a recent outing, I was sitting there wondering what it would be like to have 500--or even 1000--training points that I could use as I wanted. It would take me from AA to AAA almost overnight, maybe even right to the threshold of the major leagues.

That's when I understood steroids for the first time. When I saw them as training points, it helped me understand why people would take them. That doesn't make it right, and steroids and the drug culture have permanently turned me away from real baseball, but it helped me see the temptation.

Not something I expected a baseball videogame to help me understand.

By the way, after playing compulsively for a week and a half, there is no question in my mind that this game has the best animation ever seen in a sports game. Any sports game, no matter the sport. The number of animations and the seamless transition between them has never been approached, at least not to this degree.

February NPD: Another View

Matt Matthews has another excellent piece of analysis dissecting the latest NPD numbers over at Next-Gen, which you can read here. I think Matt is doing the strongest analytical work, by far, of anyone covering the gaming industry.

Rock Band #105

I can't remember if I mentioned this previously, but I had several conversations with my good friend John Harwood about how much fun it would be to play the Rock Band songs on real drums. Not a real kit modified to work with the game, just a kit where you could play along with the song in practice mode. You wouldn't get a score, but you'd get to see how the "Expert" line sounded compared to the real song.

Well, someone has now, and there's a forum thread and videos here. The fellow states up front that he's not an expert drummer, but it's still fun to see the videos, and he does pretty well.

I'd really like to see one of the top five drummers do this with a real kit on the Metallica songs (or Won't Get Fooled Again) and see what it sounds like.

I still have 12 songs on Hard (drumming) that I haven't 4-starred or 5-starred yet, and I'm guessing that some of them are just going to stay out of reach. I'd be pretty happy if I could get it down to 5.

Eli 6.7

Here are a few Eli 6.7 stories for your amusement.

My mom's birthday was last Wednesday, and she came over to have lunch and cake. That morning, Gloria said "Eli, you need to go upstairs and get dressed. And pick out something that matches."

"Matches what?" he asked.

Eli came into my study Thursday night, and he was holding a pen. "Dad, I've GOT to show this to you," he said. "Look!" He held up the pen. "It's the Operation GAME," he said, "but it's a PEN. I got it at Toys 'R Us. GENIUS!"

We went to see Graham Wilkinson & The Underground Township on Friday, and Eli drew a picture of Graham that he showed him before we left. Eli decided that he wanted me to scan the picture and send a copy to Graham. "Do rock stars check their e-mail every day?" he asked.

Eli had fifty cents burning a hole in his pocket, and he saw one of those toy vending machines today, except this one was a candy necklace machine. "Dad, look at this!" he exclaimed.

"Little man, I don't think you'd be getting much for your money," I said.

"Dude," he said patiently, "I can wear it AND I can EAT it."

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Big Adventure #2

I went to the park this weekend and found everything I needed for the Big Adventure. There are tons of distinctive looking trees, including one huge, standing trunk of a dead tree that has eyes, a pirate hook, and a feather plume (with only a little imagination required).

That's a dead pirate who failed to recover the treasure, of course, and because of his failure, he was cursed.

I also found two trunks, near the dig site, that are cut all the way down to the ground and look like giant human ears. Heh.

I took photos of everything, and I'm going to try to convert them into line drawings via Photoshop. If I can do that, and remove the the excess (cars, etc.), then I can put them into the will instead of having to draw them (my art talent=zero, and thank you for not deleting the word "art").

The "will" of Pierre L'Orange (the silliest name I could think of) is going to say that the dig can only be attempted the morning after a full moon, so I'll have him read the FedEx envelope on Thursday, because with a full moon that night, we can go searching on Friday morning (a school holiday).

South By Southwest

We have a little music festival in Austin called South By Southwest.

1,700 bands over a five day period. That translates into 2,500+ shows, because most bands play twice while they're down here. It's insane--here's the band schedule.

Of course, no one who lives here actually goes to South By Southwest.

Here's the same basic conversation I have every year with Gloria:
"Hey, do you want to go see Damnation Troubadors during South By Southwest?" I ask.

"Sure," she says. "When are they playing?"

"3 a.m. on Thursday morning at a gas station," I say.

"Oh," she says.

"We could park at the shuttle lot and ride the bus in," I say. "Then two donkey carts and a pedicab ride and we'll be there."

That's one of the things about South By Southwest: if you're going, you need to stay in a hotel downtown where you can walk everywhere, because with 100,000 extra people, good luck getting into downtown.

Plus, of those 100,000 people, at least 10,000 will be wearing black leather pants. This just isn't a leather pants town, mostly because they'd have to use the Jaws of Life to peel them off you because of the heat. So even though a ton of totally cool people (I'm not including myself in this category, believe me) live here, none of them wear leather pants.

Another 10,000 of the people here this weekend look like they were in Duran Duran. Again, not a look that thrives down here, even though there are hundreds of live music shows every weekend representing every possible genre. So even if you play music like Duran Duran, you don't look like Duran Duran.

Every band you ever desperately wanted to hear played at South By Southwest--the year before you wanted to see them. Flight of the Conchords? Last year. Peter Bjorn and John (for whom I have an odd affection)? Last year.

In the next year, I'll "discover" half a dozen or so fantastic bands, all of whom are playing at South By Southwest.

This year.

Console Post of the Week

First off, let's look at those February NPD numbers again:
Wii - 432,000
PlayStation 2 - 351,800
PlayStation 3 - 280,800
Xbox 360 - 254,600

As bad as January was, February has been stellar. Look at February 2007:
Wii - 335,000
Playstation 2 - 295,000
Playstation 3 - 127,000
Xbox 360 - 228,000

Up over 33%? That is amazing.

What console "races" become after about a year are chess matches. In this generation, Microsoft and Sony are at the table. Nintendo is playing in another tournament, having crushed them both.
Sony's first big move was the 40GB unit for $399 in November. Here's an idea of how desperate they were for that SKU--Sony sold 711,000 PS3's in the U.S. in the preceding six months.

I mentioned last year's 360 sales as a good comparison for the perceived value of the PS3 at the same price (for the primary 360 SKU). Well, for the first two months of 2007, Microsoft sold 522,000 units. In the first two months of this year, Sony 550,000 PS3's. Again, though, this year contained an extra week in January, so it's nine weeks of data for the PS3 compared to eight for the 360.

On a weekly basis for January and February, the 360 sold 65,250 units. This year, the PS3 sold 61,111 units.

That's remarkably similar. So for now, I think it's fair to say that Sony's demand at $399 resembles Microsoft's, and the perceived value-add of Blu-Ray is somewhat negated by the quality of Xbox Live and the game selection.

There's one important point to add, though. In 2007, Microsoft's sales per week actually declined by about 16,000 from January to February. Sony's weekly sales, in contrast, increased by about 16,000 from January to February this year. So while the weekly rate looks very similar for the first two months, the momentum looks to be significantly different.

Here's a question: how the hell could Microsoft sell 91,000 fewer 360's this year than last, even with a $349 Premium and an extra week? Good grief, if you calculate per week sales, they're down 20%.

Microsoft is claiming "supply shortages." Are they high? This is the third year of the console, and they can't support sales in the U.S. at a higher level than 20% down from the previous year?

That's why I believe I was incorrect when I said manufacturing issues were the most likely suspect for the inventory problem. Not with these kind of shortages. I'm almost certain at this point that Microsoft will be introducing a new SKU within the next four weeks.

Like I wrote last week, this new SKU needs to include a larger hard drive (60GB) and a $50 price reduction to $299. If all they do is add a larger hard drive, that would belong to the category of "dicking around." If they add a larger hard drive and lower the price, though, then they're serious.

Oh, and if they have some kind of bundle that includes a larger hard drive and a game, but is still $349 for the Premium unit--still dicking around. Microsoft's hurt themselves by trying so desperately to hold onto their price point. They brag about how long the $399 price held, when all it really did was expose their fundamental lack of understanding of how consumer demand in the console market works.

I believe demand after a $50 price cut in the U.S. would settle at a level about 25% above Sony. Then it's Sony's move. And, if I remember correctly, two months ago I believed that the 360 would have be close to having that kind of advantage without a price cut, so Sony's position has improved.

Nintendo continues to own the world. Not much to report there. And Super Smash Brothers Brawl has an average review score of 95 on Metacritic, so it looks like another huge hit. Well, "looks like a huge hit" is misleading--according to Nintendo, it sold 1.4 million units in the U.S. in its first week. So "is a huge hit" is more accurate.

One note of discord (thanks Red): some consoles are having trouble reading the double-layer disc that holds the SSBB data, and Nintendo's explanation (disc drive lens contamination) seems dubious. However, they're offering repairs to Wii's with this problem, and there is no charge for either the repair or the shipping charges. Good customer service FTW.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Friday Links!

Link of the week goes to Andrew Borelli, who sent in a link to an ad for a 16k ram card. Be sure and take a look at how much they're charging for burn-in.

I linked a few months ago to the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2,000 year old mechanical calculator. Sirius sent me a link to the news that scientists have unraveled some of its mysteries, and here's an excerpt:
Since its discovery, scientists have been trying to reconstruct the device, which is now known to be an astronomical calendar capable of tracking with remarkable precision the position of the sun, several heavenly bodies and the phases of the moon. Experts believe it to be the earliest-known device to use gear wheels and by far the most sophisticated object to be found from the ancient and medieval periods.

Using modern computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning, a team led by Mike Edmunds and Tony Freeth at Cardiff University peered inside fragments of the crust-encased mechanism and read the faintest inscriptions that once covered the outer casing of the machine. Detailed imaging of the mechanism suggests it dates back to 150-100 BC and had 37 gear wheels enabling it to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the moon. The motion, known as the first lunar anomaly, was developed by the astronomer Hipparcus of Rhodes in the 2nd century BC, and he may have been consulted in the machine's construction, the scientists speculate.

Remarkably, scans showed the device uses a differential gear, which was previously believed to have been invented in the 16th century. The level of miniaturisation and complexity of its parts is comparable to that of 18th century clocks.

Some researchers believe the machine, known as the Antikythera Mechanism, may have been among other treasure looted from Rhodes that was en route to Rome for a celebration staged by Julius Caesar.

One of the remaining mysteries is why the Greek technology invented for the machine seemed to disappear. No other civilisation is believed to have created anything as complex for another 1,000 years.

Wow. Just wow.

As an aid for people with certain kinds of blindness, MIT has developed a "a bio-electronic implant that delivers images to the brain via a connector the width of a human hair."

More from Sirius. First, a link to a remarkable discovery: butterflies remember what they learned as caterpillars. And a second link, to the discovery of feathers preserved in amber. Feathers that are a hundred million years old.

From my friend David Potter, a link to a story about a 101-year old man--training for a marathon! And I suspect the same fellow was boxing as late as last year.

Tim Hibbets sent me a link to a Schweppes commercial that shows water baloons bursting--at 10,000 frames a second.

From Nate Carpenter, a link to a thought-provoking piece of art--a balloon tank. Be sure and view the image sequence.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to a story about a lake that is called The World's Largest Natural Mirror. Next, a link to a video of an amazing artist--Christine Cambreau. Her website, by the way, is here, and the process by which she creates her pieces is mind-blowing.

Tom Ross sent me a link to a spectacular series of pre-flight images of the Space Shuttle.

From Lenard Burgess, a link to a story about a meteor made of rock that struck Peru. Rock, not metal.

From Jeff Pinard, a link to what must be one of the greatest local news videos in history. The ending, in particular, is a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to do a live feed.

Two excellent links from this month's National Geographic. The first, a story about animal cognition, and be sure to look at the "Gallery" links in the upper left for some fascinating information. Second, a link to a story about the Large Hadron Collider.

Vahur Teller sent in a link to a series of beautiful images of abandoned Russian homes. The architecture is remarkable.

Damon Caporaso sent me a link to an NCAA basketball style tournament over at Fantasy Bookstop--but there are fantasy books instead of basketball teams. The announcement says 2007, but it's for this year, and you can see the forum thread here.

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