Thursday, July 31, 2008

I Couldn't Even Make Up Anything This Stupid

There are no CPU sliders in Madden.

Here's an epic response by a Madden senior designer to a thermonuclear thread over at Operation Sports:
There are in fact no CPU sliders. I discovered this myself about 2 weeks ago as well, and was kind of wondering when I should break the news. I wish I had an explanation, but I don't. There's not all that much more I can say about it...

There's one other bit of bad news that I discovered at the same time, and that is there is no custom controller configuration any more. Again, I don't really have an explanation.

PS - In the build where I was adjusting sliders, I was adjusting User INT's to zero - so the human wouldn't pick off the QB as much (since I know people were originally concerned that the CPU QB threw too many picks).

(ducks out of way of flying chairs)

So anyway - I don't know what else to say really.

So here's the situation: Tiburon has never been able to balance gameplay out of the box, and now they've taken away the only tool we had to make the game better.

Believe me, this is not going to go over well. After NCAA, where the CPU sliders don't even work, can it get any more pathetic than this?

Oh, and incredibly, Bill Abner (again!) is one of the first people on the planet to get a copy of the game, and he's writing impressions here.

Gaming Notes

Here's some news on Mount & Blade's official release date (thanks Blue's):
NEW YORK- July 30, 2008 – Paradox Interactive today announced the release date for their highly anticipated upcoming PC medieval, action-RPG title, Mount & Blade. Mount & Blade will be released in North America on September 16 and in Europe on September 19, 2008.

If you haven't played Mount & Blade, it's just full of awesome. The game's official website is here, and it does things that games with 1000X the budget haven't done nearly as well.

Telltale Games (Sam and Max episodes) announced this week that they'll be developing Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures, and here's a trailer. It will be very, very tough to do justice to the franchise, but I think Telltale is a good choice to try.

Tarn Adams recently had an interview with Kwanzoo, and, as always, he's thoughtful and interesting. I still think Dwarf Fortress is one of the most intelligent games ever created, and when I say "one of," I mean that conceptually, because I can't actually think of anything else that compares.

Eli 7.0

Please note the toe socks. With BADASS FLAMES on them.

Eli's been talking about Star Wars for much of the last year, and this week he got to see A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back for the first time. Tonight, Return of the Jedi.

He's not going to see the prequel trilogy until he's at least ten (because they're darker and more intense), but the original trilogy was fine, and he was thrilled by The Empire Strikes Back (my favorite, too, and Gloria's as well).

Gloria's the Star Wars expert in our house. I've seen all six, but somehow Star Wars isn't my thing. To me, you're either a Star Wars guy or a Blade Runner guy--it's one of those universal fault lines that the world arranges itself around. I'm 100% a Blade Runner guy, and while I enjoy the Star Wars films (they're much funnier, in particular, than I remember), I think Blade Runner is more interesting than all six Star Wars films put together.

Eli's at least six years away from watching Blade Runner, though, and maybe more, so I'm glad he's enjoying Star Wars so much. He's actually having a "lightsaber" battle upstairs right now, and the soundtrack from The Empire Strikes Back is playing.

I need to make a list of all the things I want Eli to be introduced to over the next few years: the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Monty Python, Billie Holiday--good grief, there would be hundreds of items. Maybe we'll have a collaborative project for all this, and you guys can use it with your kids, too.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Console Post of the Week: Earnings

Everyone released earnings in the last week: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Let's take a look at what's interesting.

First off, Sony said that they shipped 1.56 million PS3s to retailers in the last quarter, while Microsoft said they shipped 1.33 million.

Nintendo? 5.17 million. Holy crap.

Again, that's all shipped to retailers, not necessarily sales to consumers. However, let's do some poking around by using the consumer sales numbers we do know.

U.S. sales in the last quarter (NPD):

Japan sales in the last quarter (Media Create):

Totals for the two regions combined:

No, the 360 doesn't need a price cut. Not at all! It's just going to continue to wallow while Robbie Bach touts the addition of another 172 features to Xbox Live:
And I said earlier that the goal in the gaming business was to expand our audience and to reach out to new customers and to new people. And one of the ways which we just announced that we're going to do that is we really are going to create a whole new interface for Xbox. And you see here a graphic representation of multiple screenshots of what that new interface will look like. This is an interface that will be more comfortable for casual gamers, for people who aren't into serious hard-core games, and at the same time will be a great way for serious gamers to have avatars, to create a social experience, to dig deeply into Xbox Live and really reach into the depth that is the Xbox experience. So we are adding avatars, we are adding something called Xbox Live Primetime, which is basically television shows brought to a gaming environment. And the idea that you could play a game like “1 vs. 100” on Xbox Live with other Xbox players is actually a very rich and powerful idea, and we're going to bring that to market later this year.

We've also announced an arrangement to expand our video offering with Netflix. We've announced arrangements with NBC, Universal, and Constantin internationally to expand that in Europe, again expanding the breadth of the customers we can reach and really reaching out to those new audiences.

That's excellent, because the reason you guys are puking in terms of consoles sold has everything to do with millions of potential customers waiting until you had a deal with Netflix and dumbed down an interface that a six-year old could already navigate and nothing to do with the price of the unit.

That was an aside.

So if we look at how many units are "missing" (shipments reported - known sales in U.S. and Japan), here's what we get:

Hmm. So the PS3 outsold the 360 by over 60% in the last quarter in Japan/U.S. combined, but Microsoft has 150,000 more units "missing" for the rest of the world than Sony? Either Microsoft is doing much better in Europe than is generally being reported (and Sony is doing much worse), or Microsoft is stuffing the channel again (which would be odd, because at this point, there should be somewhat of an inventory equilibrium reached).

Either way, though, both Microsoft and Sony are doing incredibly poorly in terms of unit sales. Microsoft's June sales in the U.S. were only 22,000 above last year, when every analyst was screaming for a price cut. It's hard to understand why they're not doing that now.

The Wii? In the glory years of the PS2 (2002-2005), here were the January-June sales totals in the U.S.:

The Wii from January-June this year? 3,483,300.

That's right: the Wii sold 39% more consoles in the U.S. in the first six months of 2008 than Sony did in the best year for the PS2. That's incredible. Analysts still don't seem to be saying that Wii sales are "historic," but the numbers need to be put into proper context. What we're seeing is absolutely unprecedented.

Does Nintendo have any exposure at this point? I don't see how. I'm not thrilled about their first-party lineup this fall, to say the least, but I think we're going to see third-party support improve significantly (the recent release of Order Up, which is an excellent little game, is a good example). They're still selling everything they make, there's still unfilled demand, and they still haven't needed to even think about reducing the price (and anyone who says they need to is crazy).

Nintendo as the juggernaut and Sony and Microsoft as two also-rans. Who would have believed that two years ago?

The Ludovico Technique

Peter Moore recently made an entirely nauseating blog post, and here's an excerpt:
We’d love it if every game was perfect, but in all my years in the industry I’ve never seen a game with zero bugs. Because of the fans, we’ve already addressed a handful of issues in NCAA Football and NASCAR...

Damn, Peter, how big are your hands?

It's a nice bit of verbal sleight-of-hand to say that he's never seen a game with zero bugs. Please note the galaxy-sized distance between "zero" bugs and "major problems with every area of gameplay."

Here's what Peter Moore desperately needs: the Ludovico technique from A Clockwork Orange. Instead of being forced to watch violent films, though, he should be forced to watch EA Sports World videos of the idiotic A.I. in NCAA 2009.

That's right--he gets to watch the pursuit angles on punts one thousand times in a row. That would break anyone.

Then, after he's shrieking "No more! No more! I admit we have a problem!", he has to watch a full week of MLB 08: The Show. You know, a game with superb animation and excellent A.I. And after every inning, the message EA SPORTS DID NOT MAKE THIS GAME should be flashed.

Yesterday, during EA's quarterly earnings conference, CEO John Riccitiello had this to say:
"Quality...that's up," Riccitiello said. "We expect this trend to continue as we launch the rest of our sports slate... Madden is looking particularly strong."

He offered a special thanks to EA Tiburon for "stepping up innovation" on football titles in particular.

Ludovico, Riccitiello. Ludovico!

What I find incredibly ironic about this is that EA actually DOES have a sports studio that is capable of making excellent games--in Vancouver. They get zero love from these honks, while the studio incapable of finishing a game is getting all kinds of kudos.

Oh, and on a related subject, congratulations to Bill Abner for reviewing NCAA Football 09 with the kind of thoroughness that has made him the dean of sports game reviewers. It's over at Crispy Gamer. On the blog he shares with Todd Brakke--The Nut and the Feisty Weasel--he also has links to some very funny videos showing just bad the A.I. is in NCAA this year. In particular, and it's absolutely not safe for work (f-bomb dropped roughly once per second), this video is hilarious.

There are a couple of outstanding elements in NCAA this year. The sound is absolutely fantastic, and the weekly ESPN news headlines have an excellent and clever design. The graphics and animation are not always perfect, but they're more than good enough. But every single line of A.I. in that game needs to get ripped out, and someone besides Tiburon needs to rewrite the code.

And yes, the Ludovico technique will be a standard prescription in the future for developers or executives who are touting how brilliant their game is in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mike Clark

I went to a drum clinic with Mike Clark last night at the shop where I take lessons.

I'm embarrassed to say I didn't even know who Mike Clark was, but here's his Wikipedia entry:
Mike Clark (October 3, 1946) is a jazz and funk drummer who is most noted for playing in the Headhunters band headed up by Herbie Hancock in the mid-1970s. Clark's performance on Hancock's album Thrust, and particularly the song "Actual Proof," is often cited as one of the finest examples of the linear funk style of drumming. He was also a member of the UK jazz-fusion outfit Brand X, alternating behind the kit with Phil Collins between 1978-80. Clark has also performed with many top musicians from the worlds of jazz and funk, including Chet Baker, Vince Guaraldi, Fred Wesley, Les Claypool, and Charlie Hunter. Clark is also known as one of the most sampled drummers in contemporary music. His beats have appeared on records by Prince, NWA, De La Soul, and Janet Jackson, among others.

In other words, Mike Clark is a legend, and it was totally amazing to see him in person. Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed being there, it was kind of tragic. I still know so little about the drums that I just couldn't absorb anything he was discussing in terms of technique. It was like watching Shakespeare give a clinic on writing for the stage--in French.

My knowledge of jazz (and later, funk) is very shallow, because I'm fine up up to the late 1950s Miles Davis recordings ("Kind of Blue," in particular). With "Bitches Brew," though, which was released in 1969, I lose the thread. I know that Bitches Brew was seismic, and I can even feel that impact when I listen to it, but I just don't like it nearly as much.

At that point, I start to lose the lineage of jazz. I can't connect up who influenced each other beyond that point, so I get lost. I know Herbie Hancock played with Miles Davis, though, and I know (now) that Mike Clark played with Herbie Hancock. So on the way home from work, I stopped and picked up two Herbie Hancock albums: Head Hunters and Thrust. Head Hunters was a landmark funk album, selling more than a million copies, and it was the album immediately before Thrust, which was the album Mike Clark played on.

I'm listening to Head Hunters as I write this, and trying to get from Kind of Blue to here is a mind-blowing experience. Next, I'm going to listen to Thrust and see if I can understand the difference. Different music genres are individual languages, really, so I'm really struggling trying to put this together in my head [insert your punch line here].

Back to the clinic. I tried very hard to watch his technique closely (I was about twenty feet away), and it was incredible how little his arms moved. At times he was playing at light speed and his wrists weren't even moving--all the velocity came from his fingers.

He told a few stories, and they were just as remarkable as his technique. He played onstage for the first time when he was four (with a real band), and he played with Albert King when he was fourteen.

His philosophy about the drums was also interesting. He said "my job is to make things happen for the band." He said there was plenty of room to be challenging and enjoy what you're playing without disrupting what the band is doing. Given his staggering level of ability, that kind of unselfishness was something I didn't expect.

On the drive home, I was thinking about drum lessons and Rock Band, and I was thinking how much I'd enjoy a more challenging and instructional environment in the game than just playing songs at different speeds. That made me think about Rock Band 2 and the drum training module, so I poked around and found this video ("Rock Band 2 Drum Trainer@ E3 2008").

Again, Harmonix is inside my brain. There's instruction in playing basic rock beats, and you'll be able to learn some basic technology that I only picked up through my drum lessons. Plus, one of the features I really wanted in practice mode was to be able to play faster than 100% speed, and that's a new feature--playing at up to 120% in the drum trainer.

If you've played the game much, you know why: it rewires your brain. I'll always warm up with a very fast song, because after that, anything else seems slow in comparison. So being able to play beats at 120% is really going to improve our ability.

There's one other practice feature I was hoping for, and given that Harmonix is always in my brain, maybe it will be added someday. I want the option to play with more rigorous note timing than the default. "Championship" timing, for lack of a better description, because I think it would greatly improve our skill level. I don't know if limitations on controller input would make this not possible technically, but if it can be done, I think it's another tool for improving our ability to play.

Oh, and now I'm listening to Thrust, and even on the first two songs, it's pretty amazing how the drums on this album come from the core (in terms of compositional focus) instead of the back.

The Internet is a Series of Tubes, and I Expect to be Paid for Every One of Them

Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose 2006 comment about the Internet being "a series of tubes" will live forever, was indicted today on seven counts of various scumbaggery, which you can read about here, if you'd like.

Biography updated to include "criminal" as well as "clueless."

Monday, July 28, 2008

Eli 6.11

Eli 6.11 was getting ready to go to the pool last week, and Gloria walked out of the bathroom wearing her swimsuit.

"Hey, it looks like you put on a couple of pounds," Eli said. Then, seeing Gloria's reaction, he immediately said, "...and by that, I mean you look PERFECT now."

Yesterday, we were talking about his upcoming birthday (version 7.0 gets released this Thursday). He asked about a movie he wanted to see, and I told him he'd need to be at least sixteen. He said, "I can't wait until I'm EIGHTEEN, and then nobody can tell me what to do." Then he smiled, as if seeing a beautiful future.

"Well, not exactly," I said. "By then, you'll have a job, and your boss will tell you what to do all the time. There's almost always going to be someone in your life who will tell you what to do."

"Oh, that is HORRIBLE," he said.

I didn't even mention marriage. Heh.

Space Camp

After mentioning "astronaut camp" last week, several of you e-mailed to remind me that not only does a space camp exist, but I've even linked to it in the past.

Space Camp is at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and from the camp descriptions on the website, it's about a hundred different kinds of awesome. Plus, they have camps for adults.

Here's an excerpt from the camp Eli could go to when he's nine:
Space Camp uses space to excite and educate children ages 9-11 in the fields of math, science and technology. Teamwork, self-confidence and communication will be achieved through state-of-the-art simulations, missions, rocket building and robotics. Cost includes meals, lodging, materials and activities.

Everything you need to know about Space Shuttle Systems and life aboard the Orbiter and Space Station. Try out space food, learn to sleep in space and even how to go to the bathroom in space!

Astronaut training will continue on the Multi-Axis trainer that spins you all around, just like the Mercury Astronauts. You will take a turn on the 5-Degrees of Freedom Chair (it's like a chair floating on air) training just like the Gemini astronauts. Next, you will train like Apollo astronauts did for their trip to the moon by taking a walk in the 1/6th Gravity Chair! And finally, campers strap on our own version of a jet pack--an MMU, that's NASA talk for a Manned Maneuvering Unit--and maneuver around on a cushion of air. Campers will take time off from a busy training schedule for water activities, but not too much, because it's off to rocket construction to build and launch your own one-stage model rocket.

That's just the entry-level camp. There are two additional levels for older kids which include learning tracks for avation, space, and robotics.

I never thought I'd go to Huntsville, unless I was kidnapped, but I'm packing my bags and we can't even go for two more years.

Music Wars Rebirth

From Gary Gorski and Wolverine Studios:
Wolverine Studios, a developer of simulation games, is excited to provide the first details about our upcoming music industry simulation Music Wars Rebirth.

Music Wars Rebirth will contain the following features:
--Check out the “interactive mode” and see how critics and audiences react to your artist’s material.
--Realistic record sales across six locations - sales are influenced by population, economy and seasonal trends.
--Send your artists into the studio to craft an award winning record or strategically have them rush out their next release to capitalize on market trends.
--Extensive discography and history of bands to track any artist’s career from start to finish.
--Arrange your band’s next local or international tour or have them participate in music festivals in hopes of reaching new audiences.
--Detailed and realistic music charts to track the weekly progress of your record releases.
--Release your greatest hits, albums, and singles across six regions (USA, Canada, UK, Europe, Australia, and Japan.)
--Executive control over your band’s writing process; choose the song writers, the genre, subject and more.
--Manage every detail of the recording process from the studio to the producer and decide which songs make the final cut.
--Strategically decide the best way to promote your upcoming releases whether it’s a costly advertising campaign, a national tour or a run through the media circuit.
-- Oversee the financial aspects of your record label and see what you need to do to stay out of the red.
--In game editor that allows you to create and mod your own music universe. Customize everything from artists to song titles.

Antuan Johnson is the developer of Music Wars, and the features remind me of a sport sim version of the music industry. No word yet on release dates.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Friday Links!

It's summer. I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to be working.

From Shad Price, a link to an incredible series of photos documenting a leopard attacking a crocodile. Stunning.

From many of you, a link to a story about drumming and exercise. Here's an excerpt:
It was found that the drummers' heart rates were raised to as high as 190 beats per minute and they could burn off 600 calories in a performance.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to a story about destroying a skycraper--one story at a time (and the video is very cool). Next is a link to inside the Lego factory, a multi-part video tour of the amazing facility that makes Legos. Then we have a link to a story titled Christian, the lion who lived in my London living room, which is both fascinating and surreal.

From Sean, a link to a landlocked ship in the middle of Hong Kong--that's a shopping center.

From MSNBC, a link to a story about the discovery by NASA of the source of the aurora borealis (Northern Lights). Here's an excerpt:
NASA's five THEMIS spacecraft in different orbits around Earth spotted the trigger for the substorms, powerful energy bursts in the planet's magnetic field that can interfere with satellites, power grids and supercharge the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights.

From Sirius, a link to an article about fossilized feathers and what's now been found in them. Here's an excerpt:
Traces of organic material have been found in fossil feathers that are remnants of the pigments that once gave birds their hue, according to Yale University scientists who believe that fossilized fur should be able to yield its colour too.

Also from Sirius, a link to a disturbing article about DNA matching. Remember all those prosecutors who said that an "exact match" with a defendant was a fifty million to one shot? Well, not exactly.

The hat trick for Sirius with a link to an article about a tongue drive system to control a wheelchair. Absolutely brilliant.

From John Catania, a link to a remarkable series of tilt-shift miniature photographs. Here's a description of how it works:
The technique of tilt-shift miniature faking makes the life-sized look like a miniature scale model. The process involves using Photoshop to fake a shallow depth of field and punching up the color saturation.

From Steven Davis, a link to a story about a three-gram flying vehicle called the DelFly Micro.

Next is an article about the center-pivor irrigator, and even if you've never heard of them, it's still an interesting read.

From George Paci, a link to a remarkable invention: an acoustic drum machine.

From Steve Nygard, a very silly and entirely entertaining video about a new way to enjoy escalators. Kids, don't try this at home.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Yes, You Did (or, at a bare minimum, were quite helpful)

In case you were wondering: Juniper Lane is opening for Coldplay. That is just tremendous.

You Knew This Was Going to Happen

In reference to Tuesday's post about the news article "Men sentenced for setting friend's crotch ablaze," we have BOTH a haiku and a limerick.

First, the haiku, from Jim Salmon:
Hanging Tears
What a spectacle
A fire breathing receptacle
Crying testicles

I think that might be 5-8-5 instead of 5-7-5, but an outstanding effort nonetheless. Next, a limerick from Lummox JR:
A duo of drunken young fools
Decided to roast their friend's jewels.
While he heals up his scars
At least they're behind bars.
Lesson learned: Always lock up your tools.

Come for the NCAA analysis, but stay for the wienie limericks.

NCAA Football 09: The Disconnect Between Reality and Review

Yesterday, I discussed the gameplay of NCAA Football 09, which is unfortunately badly broken. To review, let's take a quick look at the list:

Game design:
--speed differences are greatly exaggerated (breaks basic gameplay)

Special teams:
--kickoff and punt coverage (horrendous)

--CPU quarterback completion percentage (way too high)
--CPU quarterback pass selection (almost no deep passes)
--CPU quarterback response to blitz ("psychic" power)*
--CPU quarterback (ineffective as runner)
--CPU running game (ineffective)
--CPU running backs (overuse of jukes and special moves)*

--CPU defensive line (unable to pressure quarterback)
--CPU defense (unable to play man-to-man coverage)
--CPU defense (pursuit angles totally broken)

--penalties (almost none called)

Please note the * by two items: QB response to blitz and RB overuse of special moves. These are subjective evaluations, and hence have a different designation than the other items, which are easy to objectively document.

It's not difficult to see all of these gameplay issues. It doesn't take an expert or a perfectionist. All it really takes is some basic familiarity with college football and an open pair of eyes, because these issues are very, very obvious. Bill Abner (the dean of sports game reviewers) was one of the earliest people in the country to have a final copy of the game, and he quickly documented many of these problems.

If you go to Metacritic, though, the average review score is 84, based on 12 reviews!

84? What?

Out of curiousity, I read these 12 reviews, and noted how many gameplay issues were mentioned. As a reference, I listed 12 separate items in the post yesterday. Take a look:
1UP (score 9.1):
--"What's with the tackling angles? Instead of pressing us to the sidelines on All-American difficulty, we'd sometimes score an extra 20 yards."
--"CPU players sometimes wander out of bounds even with 10 yards of daylight."
--"One thing we're not high on: The new Ice the Kicker feature. If you call a time-out before a game-deciding field goal, the camera angle will change and the meter will literally show ice on it, making it harder for the kicker to hammer it through the uprights. Problem is that the angle goofs up a clear look at the goalposts, which is a bit strange."

Games Radar (90): none. Not a single word of criticism, actually.

ME Gamers (86):
--"The runner sometimes seems to run in the opposite direction for a moment while taking over the defence."

Gamer 2.0 (8.6):
--"There are some minor issues, such as pass defense being rather non-existent when in control of your defense on All-American difficulty or higher.""

Xbox Addict (8.5): none.

Official Xbox Magazine (85): none.

Team Xbox (8.5):
--actually, they throw this in as part of a larger quote praising the game: "The good news for all of you frustrated 08 players is that NCAA Football 09 is a much more dynamic and realistic affair from play to play. We’re not talking engine reinvention, of course. Yes, there are still stick-‘em catches, choppy animation breaks that upset individual player control and some underhanded tactics by the rubbery AI. Even non-elite running backs can drag their way to a first down in two plays. But it will still be clear a few plays in that a fair amount of work went into making NCAA Football 09 feel more like a real college contest looks on-camera."

IGN (8.5):
--"some cuts won't always be as smooth as you'd like them to be, particularly if you're moving laterally during an option. As a result, you'll find that either your player will sometimes move backwards during a juke or spin before they run forwards, making you lose yardage even if you're pushing up on the analog stick to direct the move. Additionally, their momentum will sometimes carry them out of bounds instead of making a cut up the field for a gain."
--"'ll find that a number of times your players will drag their toes near the sideline even though they've still got a couple of feet to go before they near the sideline."
--"You'll also find that many offensive receivers or halfbacks will get stuck on teammates as they go into motion, making it a little trickier to effectively pull off these plays because the timing of the play is thrown off."

Cheat Code Central (84): none.

Game Informer (83): review not online.

Gamespot (75):
--"When the game's on the line, you can now call a time-out to "ice" the kicker. This moves the camera down behind the kicker, which makes it tough to aim and literally puts ice on the kick meter. It's extraordinarily difficult to make even a short kick if you've been iced, which is completely contrary to what happens in real life, where the tactic has a minimal effect on the kicker."
--"Defenders seem to have been slowed down a bit, so you'll see a lot of long touchdown runs if the ball carrier gets past the first wave of defenders, the secondary simply can't catch up."
--"Huge plays are also common because there are too many broken tackles. Players often slip out of defenders' arms as if they've been coated in oil or bounce off 300-pound linemen like they're made of rubber."
--"You'll still get stuck in long animations and sucked into defenders by some magical, invisible force even if you're madly pressing buttons."
--"'ll be victimized by receivers who have an uncanny knack for getting open and who almost never drop the pigskin."
--"Although receivers have no problem getting open, they still have the propensity to catch the ball short of the first-down marker..."

GameDaily (70):
--" On offense, your team can put on a showcase, giving you wide-open routes to run into the end zone. Play on defense, however, and you'll occasionally find yourself cursing at the screen after letting a receiver slip right through your fingers when you swear you had him in your sights."

Many of these reviews sounded much more like previews, barely even mentioning the reviewer's own experiences while playing the game. Good grief!

What's particularly amusing (and discouraging) is that some of the highest scores were given by reviewers who both touted the brilliance of the online dynasty feature AND couldn't possibly have tested the online dynasty feature, because the servers weren't even up before their reviews were published.


The reason this is such a problem is that by (in many cases) writing glorified previews and slapping an "85" or higher on the game, it gives EA an escape hatch. Why, the game's getting excellent reviews, so there must only be a "few hardcore gamers" who aren't satisfied. That quote should be coming out of the gaming equivalent of a diploma mill shortly. The people doing these reviews, in large part, are screwing us, because nothing is going to change as long as they keep ignoring gameplay.

A few of the game's developers have been answering posts in the Operation Sports forums, and that deserves credit. I'll give them more credit if they release a gameplay patch that addresses most of these issues, and do so before it's so late in the season that nobody cares. Two questions remain, though: how in the world was the game shipped in this condition, and how in the world have almost all reviewers missed or ignored these problems?

3-D: Standards

The future, on its way:
The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers is starting a significant initiative that could help to propel the stereoscopic 3-D home entertainment industry forward.

The international standards-setting body will create 3-D mastering standards for content that will be viewed in the home -- for all devices and delivery methods.

...According to the SMPTE plan, the society will first establish an industry task force to define the parameters of a mastering standard for 3-D content distributed via broadcast, cable, satellite, packaged media and the Internet, and played-out on televisions, computer screens and other tethered displays. In six months, the 3-D Home Display Formats Task Force will produce a report that defines the issues and challenges, minimum standards, and evaluation criteria.

The society will then form a standards committee, which will use the report as a working document for standards setting efforts to follow. This is a complex process that takes time, and Aylsworth -- who is vp, technology at Warner Brothers Technical Operations -- estimated that the standard is at least a year and a half away.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Armageddon Empires: Tip of the Spear

A new expansion pack has been released for the already-outstanding Armageddon Empires, and you can grab it here.

NCAA 09 (360): Gameplay Discussion #2

Today, let's delve deeper into the specific gameplay of NCAA Football 09.

[please note: when I refer to slider settings, those settings are the same for both Human and CPU, because right now, the sliders are broken. If you change the Human sliders, they change the CPU sliders as well.]

Based on my own observations after playing the game for a little over five hours, I identified the following areas as "broken":

Special teams:
--kickoff and punt coverage

--CPU quarterback completion percentage (way too high)
--CPU quarterback pass selection (almost no deep passes)
--CPU quarterback response to blitz ("psychic" power)
--CPU quarterback (ineffective as runner)
--CPU running game (ineffective)
--CPU running backs (overuse of jukes and special moves)

--CPU defensive line (unable to pressure quarterback)
--CPU defense (unable to play man-to-man coverage)
--CPU defense (pursuit angles totally broken)

--penalties (almost none called)

If you're wondering if that represents all the gameplay--yeah, it pretty much does. Essentially, it's all broken. And I'm not even discussing rare situations that only happen occasionally--these are every-game occurrences.

To demonstrate what's happening, let's look at a classic matchup: Florida versus LSU in Death Valley. Heisman difficulty. Again, this is in CPU vs. CPU mode, which I use to document issues I see when I play the game.

Florida won 24-7, in case you're interested. Now, let's look at the numbers.

There were 91 total offensive plays in the game (that doesn't include special teams plays), which is low, but for our purposes, it's more than enough. Let's review the gameplay list in order.

Special teams:
1. Here's how far away the nearest tackler was when a punt returner caught the ball: 33 yards. Oh, except when it was 40 yards, which happened sometimes as well. 33 freaking yards. Really, that's so bad that it's stunning.

1. CPU completion percentage: there were 52 passes in the game, and 36 were completed, for a 69% completion rate. That's with the QB accuracy slider reduced to 45 from the default of 50, and the "catch" slider at 0.
2. Deep passes: Of those 52 passes, 3 were thrown more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, or 5.7%. This is with the fastest wide receiver in the game playing for Florida.
3. CPU QB "psychic response" to pressure: I don't collected data for this, but it's amazing to see how often a quarterback under blitz pressure will find the open receiver and throw a strike. Almost every time, seemingly.
4. CPU QB running: Tim Tebow, the best running quarterback in the country, had 9 rushing attempts for 11 yards. His speed is rated at 85, which makes him absolutely useless, because he's running so slowly that he can't get into the open field.
5. CPU running game: 39 total rushing attempts for 85 yards, or just over 2 yards a carry. There will be games where you see much higher rushing totals, but they'll always be from one or two 60+ yard runs. There's no such thing as a consistent ground attack, at least not what from what I've seen.

Oh, and that's with run blocking at 80 and running back ability at 75, by the way. Sliders aren't going to fix this.
6. CPU jukes and special moves: another observational point. It's remarkable to see how many special moves the CPU running backs will make when a defender isn't even close enough for it to matter. This includes jukes that actually take them out of bounds (oops).

1. Defensive line pressure on passes: with 52 passes in the game, let's assume that half of those pass plays were facing a 4-man defensive line, while the other half faced a 3-man line (that's conservative, because I think most of the passes were against a 4-man line). In other words, there were 3.5 blocks on defensive lineman per pass for 52 attempts, or a total of 182 on-one-one situations between an offensive and defensive lineman in pass situations. How many of those confrontations resulted in a defensive lineman defeating the offensive lineman and running free toward the quarterback?

5 out of 182 times, or 2.7%. With the four starting defensive ends for the two teams rated at 95,92,89, and 89 overall.

Think sliders can fix this? That's with Pass Blocking at 0 and Break Block (for the defense) at 100.

Now a knockdown would count as pressure, because it results in an incomplete pass. I put the Knockdown slider at 100, and there were 2 knockdowns out of 52 passes.
2. This is observational, but on almost every occasion where I saw a defense playing a man-to-man defense, they got burned. With the speed differences so exaggerated this year, it's money.
3. Defensive pursuit angles are comical this year--there's no other proper word to describe it. Here are two videos that show it perfectly. In this link, go to post #322 on the page and watch:
I don't want to tackle you

That was bad, but this is EPIC. Go to post #371 and watch this:
we don't want to tackle you

I'd describe those videos, but they are so incredibly embarrassing that you need to see them for yourself. Really, they're staggering. There are many times in NCAA 09 were the pursuit angles look like they were copied from Ten-Yard Fight. Seriously.

1. There were 2 penalties called in the entire game. That's with all penalty sliders at 100.

See what I mean? We're not talking about minor problems with gameplay here--we're talking about major, fundamental problems across the board.

That's what happens when you ship an early beta, because no one could play this game for more than a couple of hours and think it's anything more than that.

If you think I cherry-picked two teams and set this up just to get the numbers I wanted, you would be incorrect. Maybe you'll get lucky and occasionally see a game where the CPU runs effectively, or you'll see 6 penalties called (which is still too low), but you'll see all of these problems in the vast majority of games that are played. These issues aren't rare flukes--they're endemic.

Tomorrow: don't even think I'm done yet. It takes multiple days to document everything that's broken in this game.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

NCAA Football 09

Most team sports, strategically, boil down to this: creating and controlling space.

Football. Basketball. Hockey. Soccer--creating and controlling space. So as I discuss the train wreck, the utter ineptness, of NCAA 09, keep the idea of space foremost, because it's critical to understanding why this game is so embarrassingly poor.

Also, as I describe how this game is so totally broken, I'm going to discuss data gathered by watching CPU vs. CPU games. Once I see that something is wrong as I'm playing the game, I'll usually confirm my observation by watching the CPU play itself. Even if I'm playing , over 95% of the players are being controlled by the CPU at any one time.

Here's a core requirement for a sports game: have players run at the correct speed. Not just the correct absolute speed, mind you, but the correct speed in relation to each other. One of the first things I noticed as I started playing NCAA this year was that some players seemed to be running in quicksand--they were so disproportionately slow that it looked ridiculous.

I decided to test what I was seeing, so I went into practice mode and tested how fast various players could run the 40-yard dash, using the streak route (with no defense). In all cases, the players appeared to be sprinting with maximum effort.

The fastest player in the game? A receiver from Florida (Percy Harvin). 98 speed, 99 acceleration. His 40 times? Between 4.6 and 4.7.

That seems a bit, um, slow.

Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech? 94 speed. Five timings. Between 4.7 and 4.8 every time.

Here are more 40 times for different speed ratings.
90 speed: 5.2 to 5.4
85 speed: 5.5 to 5.7
80 speed : 5.9 to 6.2
75 speed: 6.1 to 6.3
70 speed: 6.5 to 6.7

Acceleration will affect those times as well as the speed rating, so I tried to find players with proportional acceleration ratings (for instance, a 90+ speed player with acceleration of 90+ as well).

Here's some context for those numbers:
--roughly 10% of the linebackers have speed above 85
--almost no offensive lineman have speed above 70.
--nine defensive ends have speed above 85
--one defensive tackle has speed above 80

In other words, a bunch of guys look like they're running in quicksand because they ARE running in quicksand. Take a look at real NFL combine 40-yard times times from this year:
QB: 4.55 to 5.03
RB: 4.24 to 4.83
TE:4.53 to 5.04
WR: 4.31 to 4.76
OL: 4.98 to 5.56
DT: 4.88 to 5.49
DE: 4.57 to 5.36
LB: 4.47 to 5.12
DB: 4.31 to 4.80

It's absolutely fair to say that combine times aren't the same as in-game times, because guys run at the combine with track shoes on an artificial surface. The difference shouldn't be nearly half a second, but they're not going to be as fast.

The problem, though, is the gap between fast and slow. The fastest offensive lineman in the combine was .67 slower than the fastest wide receiver. In NCAA 09, that gap is over 2 seconds for over 99% of the lineman. With defensive tackles, it's .57 in the real world, and over 1.2 seconds for almost every player in the game.

Think this doesn't matter? Let's look at how these kinds of sizable inaccuracies affect the game, notably in the area of pursuit.

It's been noted (and I've observed) that playing man-to-man defense in this game is usually a deathwish. It's also been noted (and I've observed this as well, repeatedly) that quarterbacks have insanely high completion percentages (70%+ is common, and I rarely see anyone below 60%, even with the Accuracy slider reduced below the default setting).

Well, speed disparities are why that's happening. A linebacker covering almost anyone is going to be left in the dust (with rare exceptions). The speed gap is so exaggerated that it essentially obsoletes half the defenses in the game.

The CPU will keep calling those defenses, though, and quarterbacks will roast them, which partially accounts for the high completion percentages (the quarterbacks are also psychic this year, but I'll talk about that tomorrow).

Kickoff and punt coverage is hideous this year. Why? Speed disparities. Lineman are slogging downfield so slowly that huge running lanes are opened. There's also a blocking issue, which I'll discuss tomorrow, but speed is a big part of the problem.

Many of the specific bugs I'll discuss tomorrow could, theoretically, be fixed. The problem with speed, though, is a design failure. It's not going to get fixed.

How often will you notice this speed issue? All the time, and particularly on plays where defenders should have an angle on an offensive player, but don't because they're so slow. In the open field, most defenders have absolutely zero chance of ever making a tackle because of the difference in speed. It's done to create more big plays and amp up the offense.

In short: design cheese.

If this was the first year of using a new engine, I could see having some speed issues. Tiburon, though, will have something right, then break it the following year. They seem to be unable to determine what works and what is good versus what is broken.

Tomorrow I'll look at the stunning number of gameplay issues not related to speed--basically, every single aspect of gameplay has major issues, and we'll discuss them using a game between two premiere teams: Florida and LSU.

The Hungry Years

I recently read a superb book on the Great Depression titled The Hungry Years. T.H. Watkins has written a gripping narrative of an era where very few had much and many had nothing at all. It's one of the most detailed histories of this era that I've ever read, and it is both meticulous and thorough while retaining its readability.

It's difficult to understand what the 1930s were like from a distance, and the seismic impact they had on people who lived through the era. My grandmother had a little sweater that she liked to wear around her house. It was in tatters, not even really a garment any more, and she still wore it every day.

In her closet, side by side, were three brand new sweaters.

I never understood that, but reading The Hungry Years helped me understand that her reality encompassed a different world than mine.

It's a Good Thing They Were Friends

Here's a headline you just don't see every day (thanks MSNBC):
Men sentenced for setting friend's crotch ablaze
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. - Two practical jokers are behind bars for setting their passed-out drinking buddy's crotch ablaze while boozing in Grover Beach. Matthew Craig Pillers and Jack Brent Nicholas Keiffer pleaded no contest to a felony great bodily injury charge.

...Elliot Tuleja was passed out when the men poured cologne on the man's groin and set him on fire on Jan. 18. Tuleja had second-degree burns on his testicles.

Friend? I don't know about you, but a man who pours cologne on my crotch and sets it on fire is no friend of mine.

Now I'm required by law to mention that two near-rhymes of "testicle" are "spectacle" and "receptacle." Do your worst

Monday, July 21, 2008

Lund Bros.

DQ reader Gwon Chang's band, Lund Bros., is in a contest that rewards the winner with a gig at the Austin City Limits Festival.

I listened to their contest entry song, and it's damn good. They remind me very much of a group whose name I absolutely cannot remember, and it's driving me crazy.

Voting is open until August 22, so please help them out. Oh, and here's a link to their MySpace page.

No, I will not be announcing a new blog that exists only to get musicians into opening gigs and festivals.

Magic Camp

Eli 6.11 was in magic camp for the last two weeks.

MAGIC camp? Is that even possible?

Well, it wasn't possible when I was a boy (back in the late 1800s), but it's entirely possible now, and Eli had two of his best weeks ever. He went to the Kent Cummins Magic Camp, and he learned more magic in two weeks than I ever thought possible. Every day, he brought home a new magic item in a little cardboard box that he decorated and used as a “Magic briefcase.” As it turns out, he's uncommonly good at sleight-of-hand, and it's totally fun to watch him perform tricks and listen to his patter.

This camp is famous for the number of people who return each year, and all the counselors are former campers. I picked Eli up a few days, and I understand why. Other camps have lots of rules about how you need to behave, but the kids were so absorbed learning magic that very few rules seem to be needed. Basic card tricks, sleight-of-hand, juggling, even riding a unicycle--it was all part of the coursework.

Plus, the counselors are just great. Think "Band Nerd x 100" and you'll know what they were like, and I mean that in the best possible way. There was no vanilla in them at all, and they were smart and funy and very personable.

The best part, for me, was how incredibly enthusiastic Eli 6.11 was every single day of the camp. He always wanted to go in the morning, and he never wanted to leave when camp was over for the day. He'd show us the new tricks he’d learned, and they were so much better than what I expected to see. He's already talking about going back next year.

The only camp I can think of that could possibly be cooler than magic camp would be astronaut camp, and somehow I bet one of those exists in Austin, too.

Rock Band #115

Here are a couple of Rock Band notes. Oh, and here's a horrifying thought: what would happen if Tiburon developed Rock Band?

First, here's an excellent interview over at The Onion A.V. Club with multiple Harmonix exployees, including a few that I've never seen interviewed before.

Second, I've started playing a bit of guitar solo career again, mostly because never having passed Flirtin' With Disaster on Expert annoys me. I've been experimenting with the solo buttons, and I'm trying solos with both hands on the solo buttons--index and middle finger of my left hand, plus index, middle, and ring finger of my right hand. That way, the only "weak" finger is on the orange fret, with is probably the least used, anyway. It's a bit strange at first, trying to retrain your brain to use both hands, but it's also much faster than I could play with one hand.


I'll have a post in detail tomorrow, but in the meantime, don't buy NCAA Football 09.

Why not? Because it's shit.

It's an early beta, at best, and there are endemic issues that I seriously doubt any patch will ever fix.

This is what EA's "new commitment to quality" has gotten us--an unplayble mess. Well done, Peter Moore.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday Links!

Bask in the warm glow of Friday links and enjoy your weekend.

From Jason Maskell, a link to a story about the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension exercise program (first marketed in 1922). Author Todd Levin decided to follow the program for a month, and finds out that exercises were only part of the plan.

Steven Kreuch sent me a link to the Unbreakable Fighting Umbrella, and the video is quite impressive in an "oh, shit" kind of way.

From Scott Ray, a link to Eight Natural Wonders that have been added to the UN Heritage List.

From Sirius, a look at bugs who bite--in extreme close-ups, and the pictures are spectacular. Next is a sand artist, and I don't mean castles. Just take a look at these incredible images. And the hat trick, with a link to an article about about the "parachutes" of ancient reptiles.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine (who I met last weekend, and he's every bit as entertaining as his links), a link to Western Spaghetti, a stop motion film that is totally outstanding. Also from Edwin, and it's classic, is a video of a driver accidentally destroying a bank drive-through. It's only about fifteen seconds long, but you'll watch it more than once. And in a week devoted to videos, here's an absolutely astounding video of a non-Newtonian fluid on a sub-woofer.

Andrew Shih sent me a link to a story about the plasma scalpel, and you might want to put that snack down while you're watching the video. The website where that story appeared, Science Punk, has a ton of interesting videos to watch as well.

From DQ Film Advisor and Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand, a link to a story about ReCaptcha, which basically uses those "identify this text" boxes when you fill out Web forms to assist computers in recognizing faded ink or blurry words. I did a very poor job of describing it, but it's an interesting story and an ingenious idea.

From Michael O'Reilly, a link to proposal for utilizing the International Space Station that's very provocative. In short, let's send it somewhere.

I've mentioned the conversion of 2D photos into 3D images before, but Kadunta sent me a link to Make 3D, a Stanford website where you can convert your own photos.

From Geoff Engelstein, a link to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, and it's both really clever and really funny (and written by Joss Whedon).

From Gregg Bornwright, a link to two concept art sits (linked earlier by Penny Arcade): ships and robots. The art is fantastic and the designs are jaw-dropping, so take a look.


Posters over at Operation Sports (and Tiburon developers have confirmed) that the sliders are broken--adjusting the Human sliders also adjust the CPU settings, and the CPU setting don't to do anything. Here's a comment from an NCAA 09 designer on the OS forums:
What the testers seem to think is CPU sliders don't do anything. The Human sliders change the Human AI and the CPU AI concurrently. They are now updating their test plans to cover this better so bugs like this will get caught in the future.

Let me get this straight. This game has come out annually since 2001, and Tiburon has been the developer for six out of seven years (NCAA 2004 was the exception, I believe). And their test plan didn't include making sure the sliders worked?

Do you see why I think this series (and Madden) should be taken away from Tiburon?

Let's see how long it takes to get this fixed via a patch. If it's like last year, the over/under is two months. Plus, since roster editing is DOA out of the box, and they've already said they're going to fix that with an emergency path, sliders aren't even at the top of the list right now.

Thanks to Dan Spezzano for letting me know about this.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

NPD June Numbers

NPD June numbers:
Wii: 666,700
PS3: 405,500
360: 219,800

Um, Microsoft? Might want to wake up.

Nice pop for Sony from Metal Gear Solid 4, and it will be interesting to see if it lasts for more than one month. June is a 5-week tracking period, though, so on a per-week basis, it's a gain from around 52k/week in May to 80k/week in June, or about a 50% increase.

Track those Microsoft numbers for the five-week period, and they're only selling 44k a week.

Oh, and Nintendo beat both Sony and Microsoft combined. Again.

NCAA 09 Sliders: Initial Info

If you want to know how difficult it can be to work with the NCAA sliders, look no further than the QB Accuracy slider. I did some preliminary testing this afternoon, and here's a brief summary.

First off, it's a hybrid slider, affecting both accuracy and throwing power. As an example, if you set the "accuracy" slider to 100, quarterbacks can throw a pass 70-75 yards. That's not just quarterbacks with high throwing power--that's guys with popguns for arms, too, which makes me wonder why there's even a rating for arm strength.

Lower that "accuracy" slider to 0, though, and the longest pass goes from 75 yards to 32-35 yards. WTF?

Yes, it makes the quarterback less accurate, and almost comically so if it's set to 0. Their passes can go so wildly off target (literally, 20-30 yards) that it's completely ridiculous. And again, there's very little difference between the top-rated QB's and the worst.

However, if you don't min/max the accuracy slider, and set it to 60, quarterbacks can still throw 60-65 yards, but they're not as accurate, and I did see a difference between high accuracy and low accuracy ratings.

Like I said--it's screwy.

I also tested a few kicking sliders, because inaccuracy in those sliders drives me particularly crazy, and here are some recommended settings:
FG Power: 55 (both CPU and Human)
Punt Power: 40 (both CPU and Human)

Please note: the field goal accuracy and kickoff power sliders have been removed because it has been proven (and I confirmed this morning) is that the CPU sliders aren't having an effect. Changing the Human settings changes both.

I didn't see this last night because I adjusted the CPU slider to a certain point, then adjusted the Human slider to what I thought was a match in terms of kickoff distance, but I didn't go back and test the CPU again (because it had already been tested). However, since the sliders are FUBAR, that adjustment to the Human setting also adjusted the CPU's kickoff power as well, which means they still don't match.

Well done, Tiburon.

I don't have a Punt Accuracy setting--I'm just leaving it at the default (50) for now.

By the way, the Digital Sportspage Blog has some excellent, thorough explanations of the kinds of widespread gameplay issues people are seeing, and there are videos as well. If you're interested in the game, they're well worth reading.

Patrick Hruby Goes Deep

Thanks to Dan Clarke of The Blog For The Sports Gamer for sending me a link to Patrick Hruby's ESPN2 column titled Why Can't Sports Video Games Get It Right? It's the single best piece I've ever read in the mainstream media about sports video games, and obviously Patrick plays them in depth, because his list of sins and omissions is incredibly thorough.


WALL-E, Journey To The Center Of The Earth, and The Horde

I haven't mentioned WALL-E, which we went to see two weeks ago, but in a word, it's wonderful.

No, it's not the great breakthrough it could have been. For the first half hour, I really had the sense that I was watching a movie that was deeply, deeply personal. It was in landmark film territory, not just landmark animated film.

Then they stopped taking chances and it became recognizable as more standard Pixar fare (which was still fantastic), including the obligatory Chase Sequence That Lasts Fifteen Minutes Too Long. It went from being deeply personal to being personal, at a distance.

In spite of that, though, it was funny and wildly entertaining. I'm just greedy when it comes to Pixar--I see flashes at times of a kind of brilliance I wish they would explore more deeply.

Yesterday, we went to see Journey To The Center Of The Earth. In high definition and 3D, of course. It must be the most wildly implausible and ridiculous series of sequences ever constructed for a film, and I thought it was fascinating that three people could fall to the center of the earth, muck around, and still never actually get dirty.

Here's what's more important, though: Eli 6.11 loved it. The 3D was excellent, it was goofy fun, and he said that it had now supplanted Speed Racer as his "number one movie of all-time." So if you have a son or daughter in the 6-10 range, I think they'd have a great time.

As a grown-up, by yourself? Not so much.

Eli had on the huge 3D glasses and looked absolutely hilarious. I'll try to put up a picture on Monday.

One of the things we noticed when we reached the theater was that it was jammed. Our movie day this summer is Wednesdays, and we always go about four p.m., so we were baffled. Then we saw people lined up against a wall. And another wall. And another.

These people were hardcore liners, too. They were geared up. I'm surprised we didn't see a microwave oven, and that might have been because we just didn't look hard enough.

The manager was working the concession stand, so we asked him what was going on. As it turns out, there was a special preview showing of "The Dark Knight" starting in three hours.

Three hours to see a movie a few days early? That didn't seem unreasonable, particularly for one that has such huge buzz right now. Then the manager said that some of the people had been waiting in line since seven a.m.

I'm guessing this movie is going to, um, do pretty well.

Seriously, You Guys Are All Kinds Of Awesome

Last night, Juniper Lane had about 6,400 votes and was 1,800 votes out of the lead.

Eighteen hours later, they've got 10,254 votes and they're in the lead by 900. I don't know how much credit we can take for that, but that's a 2,700 vote swing in less than a day. Tim Frederick's brother owes you guys big time.

There is absolutely no question that we will be having a big contest in September, and thank you very much for helping out. And if you haven't voted yet, thank you in advance for doing so.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Like Gravity, You Can Influence Coldplay

Long-time reader Tim Frederick let me know that his brother's band, "Juniper Lane," is in a contest to open for Coldplay this summer. The contest page is here, and the band is about 2/3 of the way down the page (the video with the female lead singer is theirs, it's above their name).

They're in third place right now, but you guys can change all that. Right now they have 6,178 votes. If they get above 9,000, we'll have a special contest in September for either a copy of Rock Band 2 or Guitar Hero World Tour. No, wait--there will be copies of both.

Thursday is the last day of the contest, so thank you for taking a minute to go vote.

NCAA Football 09 (360)

Here's the ironclad, 100% guarantee on Tiburon, who developed this game: they don't finish. They've never been able to completely finish a game on a next-gen console in their history, and they won't this time. That means that there will be plenty to like about this game--in NCAA, there always has been--but there will also be enough boneheaded development gaffes that you want to throw your controller through the window. Guaranteed.

Here's what I've seen so far, and I'm very, very early in the evaluation process:
--animations are improved
--the new field textures look very, very good
--CPU vs CPU mode is back, and if you develop sliders, that's huge
--kickoff and punt coverage is incredibly bad
--penalty distribution is (still) very poor
--the passing game has a much higher concentration of short passes than it should
--maybe related to the above note about short passes, completion percentages are way, way too high
--the framerate is excellent, but the speed of the game itself seems a bit sluggish

The one thing I've seen so far that is absolutely going to drive me crazy is pursuit angles. I've seen several plays where a running back was 5-10 yards away from a linebacker who was dead straight ahead. Instead of the linebacker closing the gap (as he should), though, he started running at a 45-degree angle AWAY from the ballcarrier.

Sound crazy? Yes, unless the linebackers have psychic knowledge of where running backs are headed, and (big surprise) they apparently do, because the running backs never seem to take advantage of this by changing direction.

It looks totally ridiculous, unfortunately. Not a gamekiller, but glaringly obvious.

I'll have more impressions as I get more time with the game.

The Olympic Trials

I don't watch track and field nearly as much as I used to.

So many of the top track and field athletes have failed drug tests--or been sent to prison-- that it's largely killed my love of the sport. Still, though, when the Olympic Trials come around, I wind up watching.

After watching the trials two weekends ago, though, I came to a surprising conclusion: I'm glad I wasn't great at track and field.

The thought of training almost every day for ten or fifteen years, going to the Olympic trials, then missing qualifying for the Olympics by an inch or thousandth of a second, is excruciatingly painful. There was a hurdler who was in the clear to finish third in the finals, then he stumbled after jumping the last hurdle cleanly. It was like watching a disaster film unfold in less than a second as he lost his balance and you saw him start to fall.

I know. There are world championships and regional meets and all kinds of other events, but in track and field, it's still the Olympics that matter most. That guy is going to think about that moment every day for the rest of his life.

I would've loved to have been a great athlete, of course (and for thirty minutes in fourth grade, my Olympic future seemed assured), but the thought of being in a sport where your entire life comes down to a thousandth of a second is painful to even think about.

It's funny, but this didn't even cross my mind when I was younger, because I really had no concept of loss. Now, though, I do, and watching decades of practice go ultimately unfulfilled--by inches--makes me feel a deep kind of sadness.

If you didn't see any of the Trials and you're wondering about the quality of the coverage, it was absolutely butcherific. NBCs entire strategy when it comes to events like this is to provide maximum entertainment for people who know nothing about the event. If a race lasted longer than four minutes, you wouldn't see all of it. The 5,000 meter race, which was won in a little over thirteen minutes, had two commercial breaks, and they skipped two minutes forward compared to real-time!

It was incredibly poor, and the field events were worse. If you liked the high jump, you got to watch about ninety seconds of coverage. Pole vault? Same.

I'm hoping that with NBCs one million hours of Olympic coverage, they'll dedicate one channel to track and field. Five people will watch, including me, but we'll get to see everything instead of the equivalent of a music video package.

Guitar Hero World Tour

Thanks to all of you who e-mailed me this bit of information from the Activision presser:
"When showing off the drum set, they pointed out that there is a midi port on the back of the set that will allow for any electronic drum kit to be plugged in and used as a Guitar Hero: World Tour drum controller."

ANY electronic drum kit.

That's the first time in over a year that Red Octane has been inside my head instead of Harmonix, because that is exactly what I wanted for Rock Band 2.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


For me, the biggest announcement of E3 didn't even take place at E3.

That doesn't make any sense, actually, but it's late.

What I'm talking about is Tilted Mill's announcement of Hinterland, a fantasy-based RPG/RTS that sounds 100% USDA Awesome. Here are a few excerpts from the Hinterland website:
Your goal is to lead a handful of peasants to establish a small haven in the wild backcountry of a fantasy kingdom. You must also carefully select members of your village to put down their ploughs, leave their comfortable homes, taking whatever weapon they may have at hand, to join you on expeditions of exploration and conquest in the surrounding lands. There you’ll encounter the characters and creatures of myth and folklore, and find much needed resources to expand your village. Should your forays meet with success, fame, fortune and prosperity await. But you must take care, for even the loss of a lowly farmer can spell disaster when harvest time comes.

--Fantasy role-playing and character development
--Party-based tactical combat, including item use
--Base building, including building upgrades
--Innovative combat stat leveling system
--Random world generation for maximum replay
--Folklore / fantasy setting
--Intimate scale

Tilted Mill is full of tremendously creative people with interesting ideas, and they have always been one step away from making a huge breakout. Hopefully this will be the game.

E3 Console Post #4: Sony and Nintendo

I think most of Sony's press conference can be summed up like this: "we're introducing a hundred new features in the PlayStation Network that nobody cares about so we can claim the PS3 is a bargain at $499."

Boy, that sounds familiar.

You can get a full wrap-up of the Sony press conference here, but the short version is that Sony didn't have much. They did announce that a new PS3 model with an 80GB hard drive would be introduced at $399. No backward compatibility, and apparently it replaces the 40GB model.

Again, just like Microsoft--more hard drive capacity, but no price reduction. Again, just like Microsoft--a staggering misunderstanding of how the console market works.

It seems clear at this point that Microsoft and Sony, for all their bluster, have a kind of détente going on. Even though they both desperately need a price cut (for reasons I discussed earlier this week), they instead seem strangely content copying each other strategically.

And their strategy is ass.

It's fine to have a ton of online options to get people to buy things (and collect your toll when they do), but people have to buy the console first. And expanding what people can buy without expanding the number of people who can buy seems like a very limited strategy.

Nintendo? It was hard to hear their presentation over the sound of giant presses printing money. Unfortunatley, there was nothing inspiring about them, either. There's a summary here, but the short version is that there were no rabbit being pulled out of hats, no shocking announcements to delight the press. Yes, there's a new version of Wii Sports (called Wii Sports Resort) coming to support the more accurate Wiimote, and Animal Crossing is coming to the Wii, but the only surprise was Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the DS.

So, with the dearth of substantive announcements from the big three year this year, is E3 basically a dead skunk in the middle of the road? For all the hate that was expressed over the unwashed masses (what, I'm using that phrase again already?) getting to attend, it used to generate a huge amount of buzz.

Now? Buzz=0.

Missing The Point Theater

This has to be one of the greatest quotes ever from a movie executive:
Eddie Murphy bombed with his comedy “Meet Dave,” a 20th Century Fox release that took in just $5.3 million. The movie features Murphy in dual roles as a tiny alien and his spaceship — which is designed to resemble a full-sized human for a visit to Earth.

It was a tough concept to get across,” 20th Century Fox distribution executive Bert Livingston said of “Meet Dave,” which cost about $55 million to make.

Bert Livingston, you are a mad genius.

Monday, July 14, 2008

E3 Console Post #3: Microsoft Press Conference

I think most of this press conference can be summed up like this: "we're introducing a hundred new features in Xbox Live that nobody cares about so we can claim the 360 is a bargain at $349."

Here's the stuff that more than ten people will care about:
--a new Portal game (Portal: Still Alive) will be on Xbox Live this fall
--Fallout 3 will have exclusive downloadable content
--Square's The Last Remnant will be released sometime this fall.

The big announcement was that Final Fantasy XIII is no longer a PS3 exclusive and will be released for the 360 and PS3 on the same date in North America and Europe. That would be huge news if anyone had any freaking idea when Final Fantasy XIII was actually going to be released.

If Microsoft had cut the price to $299 (with the 60GB) AND announced that Final Fantasy XIII was no longer a PS3 exclusive, I think they would have been perceived as having momentum. Without a price cut, I think this is more moving sideways than forward.

Here's the problem: anyone who likes what Xbox Live has to offer has already purchased a 360, and the new features aren't going to attract some huge new customer base. Microsoft seems to be catering solely to the people who have already bought the 360 instead of trying to reach all the people who haven't.

Detailed reports available from Wired and Gamsutra.

Rock Band 2 Setlist

See the full setlist here.

E3 Console Post #2: Wii MotionPlus

From 1UP:
Nintendo has just announced the Wii MotionPlus, a plug-in adapter for the Wiimote that, as Nintendo describes it, can more quickly and accurately reflecting motions in a 3-D space.

Microsoft is widely expected to announce a motion controller at their E3 presentation (later today), so it looks like Nintendo wanted to strike first. There's a picture at the link, and the adapter looks like a two-inch extension that plugs into the bottom of the Wiimote. Very clean design.

Presumably, this adds an additional acceleration sensor for more precise motion tracking.

E3 Console Post #1: Meet the Stupidheads

Microsoft and Sony have done an excellent job of demonstrating that they are completely clueless before E3 even begins. Let's take a look.

Microsoft, incredibly, announced this on Sunday (thanks Kotaku):
Redmond, Washington—Microsoft is giving consumers more gigabytes for their buck. The company today announced an Xbox 360® console with triple the storage space of the original console, but for the same price of $349 (U.S.) estimated retail price.

Available in retail stores in the U.S. and Canada starting in early August, the upgraded Xbox 360 will include a 60GB hard drive for storing the growing wealth of digital entertainment available for the console, including music, movies, television shows, and game content. In addition, Microsoft today dropped the price of its 20GB Xbox 360 console in the U.S. and Canada to just $299 (U.S.) (ERP) while supplies last, a savings of $50.

They're kidding, right? They're going to reduce the 20GB unit by $50 until they sell the existing inventory, then keep the $349 price point?

Dear Microsoft: right now, you are #3 in sales this year. In other words, LAST. Let me say that one more time: LAST.

This might goose sales for one or two months, while people buy the 20GB units at a lower price, but then, they're dead. To 90% of the buying public, ending the $299 price is going to look like a price increase to everyone.

After selling out the 20GB, could they then announce that the new price for the 60GB is really $299, not $349? Sure. It would also be a giant "screw you" to all the people who went out and bought the 20GB while it was on "sale."

This is an epic fail by Microsoft.

Meanwhile, over at the House of Arrogance, Howard Stringer got loose with the whiskey and said this to Bloomberg:
"I've played a Nintendo Wii,'' Stringer said last week at the Allen & Co. media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. "I don't see it as a competitor. It's more of an expensive niche game device. And yet, it's been kicking the living shit out of us from the day it was released."

Wait, I added that last sentence.

The Wii is an "expensive niche game device?" It's $249 with a pack-in game! Maybe Sony should have built an expensive niche game device, because the installed base of the Wii worldwide is over twice as large as the PS3--and the gap continues to grow.

Sony has also indicated last week that they have no intentions of cutting the price of the PS3 this year.

Here's the problem for both Sony and Microsoft: without cutting their prices and greatly increasing sales, their installed bases are being dwarfed by the Wii.

But that doesn't matter, say the analysts. What matters is being profitable. That sounds very smart, but it's wrong, because it's artificially separating installed base from profitability, and it just doesn't work that way.

Do you know why the PS2 has lasted for 7+ years? An overwhelming, gigantic installed base. Sony made a fortune the last few years on the PS2, but those years wouldn't have existed if the console had an installed base of 50 million.

Remember when I said that developers were going to start switching over to Wii projects? At the time the Wii launched, and even for the first year afterwards, there were 2-3 times as many games listed as upcoming releases for the 360 and PS3 (based on EBGames "coming soon" pages). I sat down yesterday and counted all listed releases through the end of 2008 (and "deluxe" editions didn't count, so no game got counted more than once on a platform). Take a look:
Wii: 104
360: 93
PS3: 85

That's dramatic, and it's going to get progressively worse for the 360 and PS3 as the Wii continues to outsell both of them combined.

THAT'S why price matters so much. Why develop for one of the "true" next-gen consoles when it costs twice as much (or more) and has half as much (or less) of the installed base?

Oh, yeah: third party software doesn't sell. Unless you're Guitar Hero III (almost 3 million units), Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games (over 4 million units), Carnival Games (over 1.5 million units), Resident Evil 4 (almost 1.5 million units), Rayman Raving Rabbids, Lego Star Wars--do I need to keep going?

Yes, some good games haven't sold well on the Wii (No More Heroes is my favorite example--go buy it right now, please), but that's true of any platform. What's beyond dispute, though, is that third party software is selling better and better on the Wii, and given how fast the installed base is growing, that's an unstoppable trend.

Microsoft and Sony are guarding their price points so fanatically that they're shortening the useful lives of their consoles.

Olive Riley of Woy Woy

CANBERRA, Australia - An Australian woman renowned as the world's oldest blogger has died at the age of 108, with her last posting talking about her ailing health but also how she still sings a happy song every day.

Olive Riley, of Woy Woy about 50 miles north of Sydney, began blogging in February last year, sharing stories from her life during the two world wars, raising three children on her own, and working as a station cook in the outback.

The physically frail but mentally alert Riley won an international audience with her blog, The Life of Riley (, and series of videos posted on YouTube with her talking and singing.

I'd never heard of Olive until today, unfortunately, but I'm looking forward to reading the archives of her blog. She sounds like a remarkable woman.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Friday Links!


That sound is the sound of your workday ending. Enjoy the links and have a great weekend.

From Geoff Engelstein, a link to a fascinating article about language, and here's an excerpt:
The mind apparently has a consistent way of ordering an event that defies the order in which subjects, verbs, and objects typically appear in languages, according to research at the University of Chicago.

Not surprisingly, speakers of different languages describe events using the word orders prescribed by their language. The surprise is that when the same speakers are asked to 'speak' with their hands and not their mouths, they ignore these orders -- they all use exactly the same order when they gesture," said Susan Goldin-Meadow, lead author of a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

From Sean, a link to 20 abandoned cities and towns, and the photographs are both beautiful and haunting.

From the New York Times, a strangle but oddly fascinating article titled Pill Popping Pets.

From Sirius, a link to a fascinating article on the use of bacteria to clean Renaissance sculptures. Also from Sirius, a link an article about origami master Robert Lang.

From Walt Kass, a link to a story about a University of Texas project that uses grid computing to further cancer research.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a story about NASAs next attempt to deploy a solar sail.

From the Edwin Garcia Links machine, an article about--I can't even type this without laughing--the vagina spa. Says the article: "it's the dental floss of feminine fitness." And it doesn't get any less strange from here, with an article on ear cleaning parlors in Japan.

From David Gloier, a link to an article about the Hook Island sea monster.

From Fredrik Skarstedt, a link to an outstanding TED lecture given by Evelyn Glennie. Glennie lost almost all of her hearing by the time she was twelve, and yet she's a brilliant percussionist.

Here's a sad but poignant story from ESPN about high school basketball star James Felton titled The Wrong Side of Great.

From Scott, a link to a story about the recovery of a Russian tank--from WWII. At the bottom of a lake.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Rock Band #114: Whoa

Game Informer has an eight page spread about Rock Band 2 in its new issue.

Cymbals aren't included if you buy a standard drum kit, but they are available. Hi-hat, crash, and ride, I think.

If you buy the special edition Ion drumkit (where exactly do I get in line for this?), not only are cymbals included, but you can also use it as a regular e-drum kit. You can see that ten tons of sexy right here.

It's like I said: Harmonix is in my brain. That's exactly what I wanted.

Culture Clash

Matt Sakey's excellent Culture Clash column has a new installment, and you can read it here.

His opening line: The end of the world is going to suck.

The Great Horn of Bullshit

Sometimes you read something and it just sticks in your craw. Like this:
"It used to be...All Metacritics were higher once upon a time because it was ten professionals rating them. Now, sort of anybody with a pen can rate them and it ends up with a bit of a wider track some times.

"EA doesn't usually get the benefit of the cult - 'everybody has to rate it a hundred' thing going on - that happens sometimes even when they may not, based on the review, have played more than the first fifteen minutes of the game. But that's a separate issue."

That was none other than Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello.

Let's see: John Riccitiello's base salary is $750,000 a year. His discretionary bonus target is $750,000 a year. When he was hired by Electronic Arts, he was given the opportunity to purchase 850,000 shares of stock via non-qualified stock options.

He's complaining about people who review games for little or no money, who do it because they love gaming.

Two words: poor sportsmanship.

While it's a bit of whining assery, though, what really matters here is that when Riccitiello says something like this, it becomes a meme. Analysts will start mentioning this when they discuss Electronic Arts and the quality of their games.

So quality does matter, but if people of quality aren't reviewing the games, how can they determine the quality of the game? Tap that magic wand three times and suddenly, EA's games are better than they ever were. It's just reviewers that have dropped in quality.

That's a nice bit of sleight-of-mouth.

I don't disagree with him when he says that some reviewers barely even play the game--I've written for years that the reviewer should always state how much actual time he spent with the game. But why is he assuming that only the bad reviews are produced that way?

I think we should take a look at Metacritic and check on John. And since EA makes a ton of team sports games that come out every year (which makes it easier to track trends), lets use them as an example. Are the commoners really review buzzkill for EA Sports?

Here's what I did. I looked at review scores in the Metacritic Database for the following games:
Fifa Soccer (2001-2007)
Madden NFL (2000-2007)
NBA Live (2000-2007)
NCAA Football (2001-2007)
NCAA March Madness (2000-2007)
NHL (2000-2007)
Tiger Woods PGA Tour (2000-2007)

The years refer to calendar dates, not the year listed on the game cover. I looked at releases on all console/PC platforms, because quality can vary radically between platforms. If a game didn't have at least four reviews, it wouldn't receive a score in Metacritic and wasn't counted (I think that happened once).

What we wind up with are seven series with a total of 193 releases (again, all pc/console platforms are included) since 2000.

Total number of reviews for those 193 releases? 3,859.

I selected four "professional" websites that have been around the longest: IGN, Gamespot, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and Gamespy. Of the 3,859 reviews, those four sites had 573 of them. Let's compare their reviews to the reviews of the unwashed masses.

There are two ways to calculate an average with this data. First, you could just average the Metacritic review score for each game, regardless of the number of reviews. Second, you could take the average Metacritic score and multiply it by the number of reviews for that game. Do that for every game, then divide the total by the number of reviews. That way, games with more reviews count more toward the average.

One note. Metacritic gives more weight to certain websites (the "professional" ones), but it's proprietary, so the averages score for a game is not exactly the average score for all reviews.

Why don't I just take the individual review scores and average them? Because manually compiling them would take weeks--it's just too labor intensive to be feasible. It would tell me how much a true average is off from the Metacritic average, but I don't care.

Okay, let's take a look.

The average Metacritic rating for all these games, across all console/PC platforms, was 80.67. If I used the second method, and gave more weight to games with more reviews, it made almost no difference: 81.06.

The professional sites are included in those numbers, by the way.

So what was the average review score of just the four professional sites I selected?


No bias there, seemingly.

Let's look at it in two eras: 2000-2003 and 2004-2007 ("AR" is All Reviews, and "FP" is Four Professionals).
AR 84.11
FP 84.30

AR 78.23
FP 79.78

Those "all review" averages were calculated using the "first" method I explained earlier. The second method gave AR averages of 84.88 and 79.25, so again, either method gives nearly identical results.

Now let's look at it by year, with the AR average score first on the line, and the FP averages next.
2007: 74.63, 75.37
2006: 77.35, 77.70
2005: 79.07, 81.55
2004: 83.04, 84.10
2003: 86.52, 85.79
2002: 84.22, 83.65
2001: 82.70, 83.39
2000: 80.90, 83.50

Time to sound The Great Horn of Bullshit.

Riccitiello is right that there are more reviews now: in 2000, there were 14.2 reviews per game, which rose to 20.42 by 2007. But he is absolutely incorrect that "anybody with a pen" is dragging down the average review score.

John, your average review score is down twelve points in four years because EA treats sports games like fashion design: every version has to focus on "new features" instead of improving the foundation. That's why Sony's MLB: The Show is the best sports game franchise, by far, right now: they fix what doesn't work. It's a priority. That may not be sexy in a marketing sense, but it makes for a much better game over time.

And please don't give us any crap about the difficulty of an annual release cycle. You created that cycle, not us.

When we can play a game and find glaring issues within hours, issues that no one would even dispute, then something is wrong with your development process. Maybe you should look at that instead of the quality of today's reviewers.

Speaking as one of the unwashed masses, obviously.

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