Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gaming Links And Notes

First off, that AFI song in Rock Band 2 is a bitch on Expert drums.

Andrew Shih (via Popehat) sent me a link to an interesting blog discussion by Jeff Vogel on the economics of being an independent developer. Vogel is the creator of the Geneforge and Avernum series, and what makes his posts so interesting is that he's actually sharing information about his development costs and unit sales. It's an excellent and interesting read, and here are the links:
So Here's How Many Games I Sell
So Here's How Many Games I Sell (part two)

Allen Varney sent me a link to a video demo of Mount & Blade's upcoming expansion Warband, and it looks damned good.

If you ever wanted to know how Gamestop processes the bajillion used games and consoles it buys, today is your lucky day, because Victor Godinez has an article and pictures here. In short, it's an absolutely massive operation.

I think I link to this about twice a year, but it's so interesting that I'm going to keep doing it. The link is to the latest developments log at the Bay 12 Games website, and the details of the ongoing development of Dwarf Fortress are always fascinating. Take a look at a few excerpts (these entries were made over multiple days):
As you might want to gather and treat the wounded without the benefit of tables or beds (due to resource constraints or otherwise), I went with an activity zone for the hospital. I've added a few options to activity zone placement to make that a little easier (they can overlap now, you can flow them out like rooms, and delete a single zone regardless of overlaps). This'll also be a good test for using zones for things like dynamic workshops (way) later if things go that direction, as hospital zones will need to manage several buildings. It might also be useful for some military applications for this release.

The broken-armed dwarf understood that he needed to run off to the hospital zone properly, but care never came, because I'm still working on that. Poor little buddy.

He's now surrounded by many skilled medical professionals. They still aren't all that useful, but just their presence must be encouraging for him. Well, I guess that's not true either.

The doctors now plan out our dwarf's care in detail, but lacking the tools they need, we still find them prescribing nothing more than bed rest. Hopefully I can get a positive outcome for tomorrow, as I'm looking at 40d10 the day after that.

After a brief period of the doctor walking up to our injured dwarf, looking at himself and deciding that nothing was wrong, the medical staff were further educated. Then the doctor went off and grabbed the wooden splint and properly fastened it on the patient's right lower arm. The dwarf left the hospital and mined out a passage with the pick in his left hand.

I've said this before, too, but just the dev log for Dwarf Fortress is far more interesting than 90% of the games I've ever played.

The Unicycle: A Brutal Introduction To The World Of Circus Folk

The unicycle club at Eli 7.7's school met for the first time last Friday.

I ordered unicycles for us last week, but they hadn't arrived yet. Eli's teacher brought his "commuter" unicycle (with a freaking gigantic 29" wheel) and said I could practice with it. Eli's friend Chloe let him share her unicycle.

It's hard for me to explain what a shock it is to get on a unicycle. It was a miracle that I got on it at all, because the wheel is so high that I fully expected to fall on my ass, even though I was holding on to a metal bar that was next to the wall. In some kind of miraculous bit of luck, I did actually get up, and managed to get the pedals even, which let me sort of rock back and forth with little 1/4 turns of the pedals.

The biggest surprise, and it was a major one, is just how much effort it takes to stay balanced, and remember, I was hanging on to to a bar with one hand. I felt like my legs were trying to lift a car. It was such a complete overload in a muscular sense that it was like sprinting. For a mile.

When you go to a circus, the strongman always looks like the badass, but believe me, that little skinny guy doing tricks on the unicyle is the real badass.

I stayed on for about ten minutes, after which my legs were screaming so much that I stopped. Ten minutes and I was sweating, and not a little bit.

Eli doesn't really know what hard feels like, if that makes any sense, so I'm very curious to see what happens when he realizes that learning is going to be hard work.

Oh, and our unicycles did arrive today, and I've put them together. Expect a post about a trip to the emergency room for a broken elbow/wrist/concussion soon. I mean, I tore a meniscus once while bowling.

Monday, March 30, 2009

OnLive (your e-mail)

OnLive was the #1 topic, by far, in my e-mail last week, and there were several general themes running through your thoughts, so let's take a look.

First off, since technical details were hard to come by in most of the articles I read, Skip Key sent me a link to an EETimes article that provided more information:
A novel non-linear compression technology accelerated by massively multicore ASICs is at the heart of the OnLive service. Each of the company's servers includes a proprietary 100-plus core encoder.

...The encoder ASIC does not use an array of homogenous cores. Instead it has a wide variety of dedicated blocks, each handling a small piece of the compression algorithm.

Skip's comments:
It appears that what they're doing is outputting the video through a huge array of custom processors to do the compression. The codec used is probably very gaming specific. If that's the case, I don't see any reason the technology can't work as described. It's not really cloud computing, but more of a traditional thin-client server architecture. It is, however, going to be very expensive to run one of these servers. Think quarter-million plus per box, and who knows how many each box will support?

If OnLive is a thin-client architecture versus a real cloud computing model, that's an important difference, because if I'm understanding the details correctly, it makes scalabity more difficult. It doesn't sound like OnLive can temporarily rent capacity, like they could in a true cloud computing setup.

Now we go from straight tech information to some marketing buzz:
The distributed compression technique uses Internet Protocol multicasting so that as many as a million viewers could watch a single game in progress at full resolution, Perlman said. It can deliver content without perceptible latency for as far as 1,000 kilometers over copper or 1,500 miles on optical nets, he added.

"We got rid of a whole bunch of layers in the software stack needed for a more generalized wireless architecture, but not for a controller," said Pearlman. "We came up with a structure where by the nature of the transmissions, controllers don't interfere so we get low latency," he added.

I think this is the point where stuff starts to smell. For one, I'm not sure what constitutes the threshold of "perceptible latency," but phrases like "we came up with a structure where by the nature of the transmissions, controllers don't interfere so we get low latency" really don't make any sense. It's not someone describing how their perpetual motion machine works, but it's got that kind of vagueness.

Here's what Ian Hardingham (Mode 7 Games) had to say about latency:
Existing games use client-side prediction to reduce lag. In online games like first person shooters and so on, you don’t have input lag for movement or mouse movement because it is all done on your computer first. You only have input lag for shooting - and anyone who’s played an online FPS knows how incredibly jarring that is. In Counter Strike, you do not even have shooting lag - it’s all done client side straight away and the game uses some clever maths to sort it out.

None of this is possible on the onLive light client. You will be dealing with the full ping + processing lag for every action.

...I don’t think you can expect an average ping of less than forty. And I’m being VERY generous there - that requires that they have a HUGE number of server farms. In that case, you’re looking at an input lag of 50. I’m in the process of mocking up a demo of something with this kind of input lag, but I can tell you it’s not going to be nice to play with.

In an online game, when the ping spikes a little, you often don’t notice it because your computer is doing all the prediction. If you have a spike in the middle of a Mario level everything will stutter and you’ll mistime the jump and die.

Richard Leadbetter wrote an excellent article for Eurogamer (thanks to Chad Mercer for the link) where he discusses some of these same issues:
Not only will these datacenters be handling the gameplay, they will also be encoding the video output of the machines in real time and piping it down over IP to you at 1.5MBps (for SD) and 5MBps (for HD). OnLive says you will be getting 60fps gameplay. First of all, bear in mind that YouTube's encoding farms take a long, long time to produce their current, offline 2MBps 30fps HD video. OnLive is going to be doing it all in real-time via a PC plug-in card, at 5MBps, and with surround sound too.

...OnLive overlord Steve Perlmen has said that the latency introduced by the encoder is 1ms. Think about that; he's saying that the OnLive encoder runs at 1000fps. It's one of the most astonishing claims I've ever heard. It's like Ford saying that the new Fiesta's cruising speed is in excess of the speed of sound. To give some idea of the kind of leap OnLive reckons it is delivering, I consulted one of the world's leading specialists in high-end video encoding, and his response to OnLive's claims included such gems as "Bulls***" and "Hahahahaha!" along with a more measured, "I have the feeling that somebody is not telling the entire story here." This is a man whose know-how has helped YouTube make the jump to HD, and whose software is used in video compression applications around the world.


There seems to be a general consensus that OnLive simply can't output 720p resolution with acceptable framerate and image quality. That's before any consideration of lag is included.
Plus, and several of you brought up this question, if this video compression technology is so incredibly good, why is it being monetized in this manner? A clearly superior compression technology could be monetized in a far superior manner by simply licensing the technology, instead of trying to reach the gaming tech equivalent of "cold fusion" (as Victor Godinez mentioned via e-mail).

Okay, so let's say that HD at a high and consistent framerate isn't technically possible right now. Standard definition is another possibility, since it requires much lower bandwidth. For OnLive, it seems ideal, but as a consumer, I'm not interested in anything less than HD. If I subscribed and standard-def was fine, but HD was jerky, I'd cancel in the first month. So the business model might be more workable in SD, but the appeal to anyone who is already gaming in HD would be negligible.

Another popular topic was the effect that a move to an OnLive model would have on the modding community. Would the OnLive version of a game support mods? I don't believe anyone asked that question last week, so it wasn't addressed, but I certainly think that fewer people would be making mods if OnLive becomes popular, just because far fewer people would have actual copies of the game (they'd essentially be renting a video stream of the game as they play). It could also potentially reduce the desire of publishers to support the modding community, because if 75% of unit sales can't even support mods, why support them at all? That's an open question going forward, even if it's somewhat under the radar for now.

When I mentioned that ISP's were going to go to war over bandwidth, Shane reminded me that some countries have already done so:
In Australia...each plan from each ISP has a speed associated with it AND a download quota (the link takes you to iiNet's service offerings). The speed is usually a function of the technology used (ADSL, ADSL2+, Cable , Wireless etc etc) - I am sure you are familiar with this from the US. The difference is the quota - this can range from as little as 500MB of downloads to huge quotas like 130GB per month.

Like I said, this was a very popular e-mail topic last week, and mainly, it was about the topics we already discussed, though. Tarn Adams, though, raised a concern that was entirely unique:
For me, there's the point about how ephemeral video games are related to say movies, books and music (even concerts can be recorded, even if that's not "the same"), and how that affects the advancement of video game design as a skill.

Take Seven Cities of Gold for example. It didn't spawn any imitators, as far as I can tell, at least not in the ways I care about. They made a gold version like ten years later, but it didn't spawn any imitators either. Starflight too. Both of those are now hard to come by. Elite and Civ and so on were more popular, mainly for "space trading" or warfare, and there are plenty of imitators for both of those, but expedition games are effectively dead, before modern systems got a chance to fully realize their potential. I'm not sure this would have happened if they were still as easy to play as it is to pick up a book from the 80s or listen to song from the 80s. If it happens again, it's more likely that it would be reinvented rather than through the regular progression of ideas, which is a waste.

The thing is, with something like OnLive, if the company goes under, there won't be physical copies in the hands of every fan, with some enterprising enough to archive and distribute them (illegally or not isn't really germane here). Games that aren't popular (rather than aren't good) might disappear entirely, and everybody would eventually suffer from it. Even under the current system, there are a few arcade games I remember looking around for that are impossible to find, online or in arcades, and those games are gone, aside from a few screenshots, along with most everything they'd contribute to people that might play them. It seems like this could be even worse.

As with anything, I think it's important for a game designer to play a lot of games, and this would make it very hard to have anything like "classics", unless the classic in question were popular enough to justify reissuing it or hawking sequels.

I don't mean to take things to their extreme conclusion, and there'd likely be tie-ins through services like GameTap (or just within OnLive itself) to keep most games going, but as competitors arise and companies fail, if the publisher is already gone and one of the big distribution services flops, there's no guarantee that a bunch of their titles, especially any exclusives, wouldn't die as well, permanently.

As the servers are upgraded over time, it might become a hassle to upgrade the old games as well -- this is currently a problem, of course, but with all of the old games stuck off in a vault some place, the current solutions to this problem wouldn't apply, without some work from the publishers/distributors, who might not be willing if there's no significant return.

Dwarf Fortress-wise, I just hope people that play games on their PCs will still have a reason to have good video cards. People with PCs geared toward OnLive wouldn't be able to play my game after they stumble across it (it takes a decent video card to handle even my display as they continue to deprecate old graphics functions), or many of the other independent games that can't afford to buy in to this sort of distribution system. I don't see this as a huge problem -- people will still likely still have video cards good enough to play things that aren't strictly cutting edge graphics-wise -- but it seems like a bit of a blow to hobbyists and independents.

Generally, I think fewer designers and less preservation means more crap in the long term.

That's so good and so interesting that I'll just be quiet now.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from David, a link to a story about four Spanish teens--taking pictures from space. It's a stunning story, and brilliant in its relative simplicity. Oh, and here's some tremendous photographs.

Matt Watson sent me a link to an absolutely remarkable behavior of finches, and here's an excerpt:
New research shows that a female Gouldian finch chooses to hatch an even number of boys and girls if she has the same head color as her mate. If there's a mismatch, mom produces more males and isn't as attentive to her offspring. This is the first example of such strong gender selection based solely on a mate's looks, experts say.

Gouldian finches (Erythrura gouldiae) come in two color varieties, red-headed and black-headed. When two different varieties mate, genetic incompatibility causes many of their offspring--especially the females--to die before they reach sexual maturity. With such a dire outcome, biologists Sarah Pryke and Simon Griffith of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, wondered whether mother finches had any power to adjust the ratio of sons to daughters. That ability might allow mothers to avoid wasting energy on doomed females.

To see what happens, read the rest of the article here, and it's amazing.

From Sean, a link to spectacular collection of high-speed photos. The colors, in particular, are stunning.

From Stephen Cotter, a link to another "The Big Picture" feature--this time, it's scenes from the recession.

From Andrew B, a link to an ingenious (and interesting) idea for a blog: Write In My Journal.

From Ryan Malinowsky, it's extreme sheep herding, and by that I mean "herding sheep into very funny formations."

From David Palomares, a link to a preview of an upcoming Mythbusters episode called "Big Bang." Here's a description:
They were trying to literally "knock the socks off" a mannequin by igniting 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate. But the explosion was a lot bigger than they expected...The explosion was so big it shook the town of Esparto, knocking Stephens off her couch and breaking her front window.

From Greg Bagley, a link to what must be one of the most remarkable stories in history: the only man known to have survived the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a story about the love that cows have for a big robo-brush. Also, and these are remarkable, it's the most beautiful waves ever. Then there's a link to a hilarious spacebat tribute.

Steven Kreuch sent me a link to the trailer for "Where The Wild Things Are" (the classic Maurice Sendak children's book), and believe it or not, it's live-action.

Here's a fascinating link from Chris Meyer: audio recordings from the Hudson crash combined with a flight simulator rendering of what happened.

From Sirius, and you better hope this isn't a trend (if you live in England), a walking catfish was found in the Thames. Also, a link to Forgotten Books, a digital archive of thousands of books, and all free.

From Roger, a link to football names that should exist, and if you don't like "Gas Station Montclair" then you're dead inside.

From David Gloier, a link to video of a kayaker plunging 127 feet over a waterfall.

From Jason Maskell, a link to a one-woman band named Theresa Anderson performing a song called "Birds Fly Away"--in her kitchen. It's quite mesmerizing, actually.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a new webcam--of Old Faithful.

From Jonathan Arnold, another "The Big Picture" link--this time, to the volcanic eruptions in Tonga.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

OnLive: What No One Is Talking About

You guys have sent me so much interesting e-mail about OnLive that I haven't even catalogued it all and asked follow-up questions yet. I'm still working on it, though.

In the meantime, I realized today that no one is talking about an absolutely huge implication of the OnLive service.

Let's go back to Dean Takahashi's article for a moment. Remember his breakdown of who gets the money when a new, $60 game is sold?

--$27 is retained by the publisher

--$15 is kept by retailers (plus all resale revenues)

--$12 is lost to piracy

--$7 goes to the game owner (through resale, apparently)

I know, that's $61, not $60. Those are the figures in the article, though, so it's as close as I can get (I assume it's a rounding issue).

Immediately, publishers are going to retain $19 more, because the piracy and resale markets go to zero. No one who uses this service can copy a game, and no one who uses this service can resell a game.

I promise you that publishers won't be giving $15 to OnLive for each copy sold of a game, because the publishers have 100% of the leverage here. OnLive is a new service, and if the publishers don't support it, it's DOA. Let's say that publishers agree to pay $10 to OnLive per copy sold (and I think that's an incredibly high guess).

[apparently, there's a song with the lyrics "What makes the monkey dance?" because I'm listening to it right now]

So instead of keeping $27 from a $60 sale, publishers will be keeping $50. At least.

See where I'm going here? Publishers, at the same time they have been screaming that current piracy rates represent the apocalypse, have also told us over and over again that game prices would be cheaper if it weren't for pirates. They've also been screaming that the resale market is just absolutely killing them.

Well, if this service actually launches, we will all see if, to put it delicately, they were full of shit. They have every reason in the world to want this technology to succeed, and one of the ways it has a much, much better chance of succeeding is if they reduce the price on games sold through OnLive. I don't mean $5 off a $59.95 game--I mean at least $15, and preferrably $20.

I mean, they should, right? They're keeping $23 more per unit!

How much of a shot in the arm would it be if it was $20 cheaper to buy a game via OnLive? Hell, people would be falling all over themselves to sign up, even with an annual subscription fee. And unless the publishers have been lying to us all along, it should be easy to do, right?

So if this service launches and games are still being sold at $59.95 (no different than retail), then we should all raise our middle fingers in their general direction, because we will be getting screwed.

This is everything the publishers said they wanted. Now it's time for them to put up or shut up.

Good Grief

Here are some excerpts from an MTV Games/Harmonix announcement today (thanks Kotaku): Key Stats for the Rock Band Franchise

• Rock Band® franchise has officially surpassed $1 billion dollars in North American retail sales in 15 months, according to the NPD Group
• Rock Band was the #1 title of 2008 by revenue across all game genres (NPD)

Critical Acclaim
• Average Metacritic score of 92 [2] for both Rock Band and Rock Band 2
• Rock Band and Rock Band 2 have garnered more than 50 industry awards...

Okay. So WTF was Viacom doing whining about how "disappointing" Rock Band 2 sales have been only two weeks ago? Here's an example:
Viacom Inc., whose MTV division owns the rights to the Rock Band franchise, said last month that sales of Rock Band 2 were lower than it had hoped and cut into the company's profit.

Damn, WTF were they "hoping" for? Is a billion dollars in 15 months not good enough? Lighten up, corporate overlords.

The Headline I Wish I Hadn't Seen

Man Caught in Vacuum Sex Act Gets 90 Days

SAGINAW, Michigan - A man police caught performing a sex act with a car wash vacuum has been sentenced to 90 days in prison.

Boy, I bet his home vaccuum that has been faithfully cleaning the house for years is going to be pissed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Onlive (#2)

I'll have more about OnLive tomorrow (your e-mails), but here's an example of why someone is going to print money when they are able to actually get a service like this to work at an acceptable level.

Remember that I love King's Bounty, but can't play it because it keeps crashing in 64-bit Vista? That's with a GeForce GTX 260.

I downloaded some new drivers for the card about a week ago, but hadn't installed them yet. Why? Because dicking around with drivers often seems to turn into some kind of encounter with a dark overlord.

Case in point.

I install the latest drivers, the system reboots, and when I walk back in two minutes later, the screen is flashing at me incoherently at high speed. Nothing of my desktop was actually visible, except maybe the 1/2 inch at the top.

Which is really lucky, because at least 90% of the work I do in Windows is done in the top 1/2" of the screen. Or not.

So I reboot in safe mode, uninstall the drivers from there--oh, except the PhysX drivers (installed as part of the Nvidia package) won't uninstall because of some problem.

Well, this is no surprise, because I don't think I've EVER had anything involving a PhysX driver go right in the last two years (on two different systems). I don't think I've ever had a game use them successfully. For me, they've been nothing but PosX.

I go ahead and uninstall what I can--the separate Nvidia drivers--and reboot into Windows. Now, I seem to be able to uninstall the PosX drivers, AND there's another Nvidia driver listing to uninstall. So I do that and reboot.

Vista, of course, wants me to let them automatically install a driver, which I try to cancel out of, but when I try to run the Nvidia driver package (that I originally tried to install), it tells me that Windows is installing drivers and I'll have to reboot to let it finish.

So I do. I'm so pissed off at this point that I don't even want to screw with trying to install the latest driver, and maybe Vista used it anyway. So I check. No, I'm now using a driver from November, which is one version PREVIOUS to what I was using when all this bullshit started.

If anything thinks OnLive wouldn't absolutely rule if it works, then they're crazy. It would absolutely rule, because it would end us having to go through this b.s. just to play games. The question is whether it will actually work.

Eli 7.7

Okay, so add one more item to the highly unlikely list of New Year's Resolutions I posted a while back: learn how to ride a unicycle.

Eli 7.7 wants to learn how to ride a unicycle because he idolizes his teacher, with good reason. He's one of the most consistently enthusiastic people I've ever met, and he's a perfect match, personality-wise, with Eli.

Mr. Agnew rides a unicycle (incredibly, he even commutes to work on it occasionally), and he's starting a unicycle club at school. Eli is in, of course, and since I've always regretted not learning how to ride a unicycle (I have no idea why I regret that, exactly, but I do), I'm going to learn with him.

I'm also hoping this is the perfect opportunity to show Eli what it means to work hard to learn something. He's going to fail and fail and fail, because learning how to ride a unicyle is difficult, but if I can just keep him practicing (and I think he will), when he does finally learn how to ride, he'll have a much better of understanding of how effort eventually equals success.

Which is a good lesson to learn, even at age 7.7.

I had to measure his inseam the other night to be able to calculate the proper wheel size for the unicycle we were ordering. As I was measuring, he started laughing and said "Hey! That's getting personal!"

I was sitting on the couch with Eli a few weeks ago when he farted. As the smell drifted over and I caught a disastrous whiff, I said "Looks like somebody burnt the popcorn!" Eli burst out laughing, and this has now become the go-to phrase when someone passes the most unfortunate wind. Only when Eli says it, the personality factor is tripled, obviously. "OH NO!" he'll shout. "Somebody BURNT the POPCORN!"

Yesterday he spent hours making a catalog of spells in Harry Potter that he bundled together as a book titled "Standard Grade Book Of Spells: Grade 1,2,3,4,5,6,7." Below the title was this:'
price $17.00 P
price $1.00

He handed me the book and I looked through it, then noticed the front page. "SEVENTEEN dollars?" I asked him, laughing.

"Dad!" he said. "That's the PREFERRED version."

Last night, he was walking around with his wand, demonstrating his extreme skill in wizardry, and he pointed the wand at me and shouted "WIKIPEDIA!"

I started laughing.

"What? It's a spell!" he said.

"No, it's not," I said. "It's an online encyclopedia."

"Oh," he said. "Touche."

I believe he was thinking of Waddiwasi.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Japan Console Post

I realized today that if I wait until early April to make the Japan console post, I'll have access to full data for the first quarter. So I'm going another ten days or so.


Our refrigerator started having problems yesterday. The temperatures in the freezer compartment had risen by about 35F, so stuff started slowly melting. The refrigerator compartment rose to about 10F, then a bit more.

I called Maytag. The fridge was 10 years old, so it was out of warranty. She said that there was a "quality issue" bulletin issued for what sounded like the problem, though, so they might cover the cost of the part, but we would pay for the labor. She gave me the bulletin number and gave me three local "certified" technicians that I could call.

I called the first number on the list, a local Austin firm that both sold and serviced major appliances. Once I called them, though, I entered a strange time warp. Simply put, they hated potential customers. The following is not a transcript of our actual conversation, but it's really not that far off.

Technican: Hello, WeDespiseOurCustomersAppliances.
Me: Yes, I have a Maytag refrigerator, and I need to have it repaired.
Technician (angrily): Who gave you this number?
Me: Excuse me?
Technician: I told you never to call me at this number again!
Me: Dude, I'm not dating you. I need a refrigerator repaired.
Technician: Don't do this again! I have caller ID!

Gloria called them later, and incredibly, they were even more rude to her. This made us both curious, so Gloria looked them up and found their reviews page on Citysearch.

It was epic.

20 reviews, and on the 1-5 scale, 17 of them were 1 star. Eighty-five percent! Here's a smattering (I like that word) of the comments:
--"Send your enemies here"
--"Absolutely horrible--stay away"
--"Deplorable customer service"
--"Worst customer service in Austin"
--"We're right, you're wrong, now leave us alone"
--"Worst service ever!"
--"Welcome to 1966"
--"Run away"

I hadn't just stumbled onto a company with bad customer service. I had discovered the mother lode--the worst service ever.

I've driven past the store and it looked normal, but obviously, that's a front. I strongly suspect that anyone who actually walks into their store is bound, whipped, and held for ransom. It's the only explanation I can think of for why they're still in business.

Their Better Business Burea rating? F.

Double Epic!


Seemingly, this could be a big deal.

Dean Takahashi (and everyone else) is writing today about OnLive, and Takahashi's headline is instructive: New online service could turn the video game world upside down. Here's an excerpt that explains the technology:
...a data compression technology and an accompanying online game service that allows game computation to be done in distant servers, rather than on game consoles or high-end computers. So rather than buying games at stores, gamers could play them across the network — without downloading them.

Consumers would buy a "micro-console" that would send images to their display device, but all of the computing would be done at a central location. So the player would be interacting not with a PC at his desk or a video game console in the same room, but servers at remote locations.

That means no more hardware upgrades for PC users. Buy the micro-console, pay a monthly subscription fee, and (with a fast broadband connection) play games in HD.

Yeah, I know. Lag. Allegedly, OnLive uses proprietary compression algorithms that alleviate lag.
Yeah, I know (#2). This sounds vaguely like the Phantom. Nominally, perhaps, but the guys involved with Phantom had extremely sketchy backgrounds (some might say "scamriffic"), and zero industry experience. Steve Perlman, though, does have an industry background, and major publishers have already signed up--Electronic Arts, THQ, Take-Two Interactive, Codemasters, Eidos, Atari, Warner Bros., Epic Games and Ubisoft (according to the article) are on board. It's fair to say, though, that this may primarily be nothing more than an acknowledgement of the effect this could have on piracy (there's nothing to copy, since all the consumer has acces to is the video stream, not the game data itself).

It's the Gamestop killer.

Plus, and I like this, Perlman hasn't been calling press conferences every time he sneezed on a napkin. This technology has been in development for years, and they were actually working on the product instead of spending most of their time pimping themselves. I think that's a good sign.

Takahashi sees OnLive as a threat to gaming consoles, but that's where we disagree. I don't see that at all, because consoles offer unique content and all kinds of things (like community elements) that this service won't be offering. Where I do believe it could be huge, though, is with the PC community. I am so tired of dicking around with drivers and settings to play PC games, and if I could play PC games this way, and it worked, I'd be all over it.

Of course, that phrase "and it worked" is quite the devil.

I don't doubt that eventually, someone is going to succeed with this approach, but I'm not sure that this is the time. Even if the compression technology does work (unproven), can you imagine the scaling needed to support a high-profile game on launch day? Unused capacity is expensive, and demand would seem to be highly spike-oriented.

Let's say tens of thousands of people sign up for the launch of Run, Shoot, Kill, Repeat 10. That's the sole reason they've signed up for the service, and it's their first impression. They, like a ton of other people, want to play the game the first second it's available. Good luck managing that demand spike without having crap performance and pissing everyone off.

Plus, and I think this is something the publishers are forgetting entirely, the ability to resell a game affects how much we're willing to pay for a game. Takahashi notes that for a $60 game, the publisher typically keeps only $27, with $15 going to the retailer. Fine, but when we can't resell a game, are we still going to be willing to pay $60?

Not for as many games, certainly. So sure, they may keep more of the pie, but the pie just got smaller. It may be a wash, or they might do even worse, because it's easy to forget the role of retailer promotion in creating sales. Floor space, signage, midnight launches, special promotions--kill that and it's going to affect demand.

This obsession by publishers over the used market is analagous to salary caps in professional sports leagues. Player's unions freaked out about salary caps initially, but if they had been thinking more clearly, they would have realized that using a guaranteed percentage of revenue to determine the salary cap was way, way more important.

If you believe a league will grow over time, even if your initial percentage of revenue isn't quite what you're wanted, you will win HUGE in the long term, because you're guaranteed the same percentage of the pie as the pie grows.

Owners thought they were getting away with murder when they initially negotiated salary caps, because it initially cut their costs, and player's unions ruined entire seasons trying to avoid them. Now, though, as leagues have grown, player salaries have grown astronomically precisely because that revenue percentage is guaranteed, and it's the owners who may wind up locking players out (particularly in the NFL) when labor agreements expire.

Actually, that may not be analagous at all, now that I think of it. I still like it, though, as an example of focusing strategically on the size of the pie, not the size of the slice. And publishers seem obsessed with the slice instead of the pie.

Plus, I think there's going to be a showdown at the Oh Shit Corral between content providers and ISP's, and probably sooner than later. With Xbox Live, on-demand video, Steam, Impulse, and (now) on-demand gaming, what happens if ISP's start implementing hard download caps? Well, that has to be negotiated, and that's a new expense for publishers.

So I'm skeptical (actually, the more I think about this, the more skeptical I get) that this will succeed, but I don't think there's any question that it's going to actually launch as a product. The current estimate is for a 2009 launch, so we may see it soon.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Many Thanks

No, that wasn't me in the picture.

In a bizarre coincidence, though, that fellow in the picture is my doppelganger. He has my glasses, my frame, my Adam's apple, even my ears. If we were the same ethnicity, we could pass as brothers. Well, I would be the much older brother, but you get the idea.

The only reason I was able to make the post was because he was incredibly gracious and allowed me to use that entirely silly picture of him in entirely silly ways. He writes the blog its another bananaworld, and posts under the name "Eustace."

An Outrageous Theft

Alex Rodriguez just did an interview with Details magazine, and one of the photos for the article is of Rodriguez kissing himself in the mirror.

Good grief. I spent years coming up with a great idea for a Christmas card, and someone gave a copy of it to Alex Rodriguez. I mean, just look at it:

Expect a call from my lawyers, sir, and soon.

Console Post of the Week: Brass Tacks

To review, here are the February NPD's:

There are plenty of ways to look at that data, and if you're Sony, they're all bad. PS2 and PS3 sales combined, which have been a hallmark of post-announcement PR spin, were down 35% compared to 2008. PS3 sales were roughly flat (276k vs. 281k in 2008), but in February of 2008, PS3 unit sales accounted for 29% of next-gen (360, PS3, Wii) console sales. This year? 19.4%. So Sony's PS3 sales stayed flat in a month with much higher next-gen unit sales overall.

Oh, and PSP sales? Down over 18% in February compared to last year.

Combined, and there's only one word to describe that: freefall.

Here was Sony's response to the NPD numbers, and I'm quoting it in full because it's quite remarkable:
In February, we had a tremendous kickstart to what promises to be another record year for the PlayStation brand with the launch of mega blockbuster hit Killzone 2, which ranked in the top 5 with only two days of sales in February and has been garnering extraordinary reviews, and a noteworthy 92 Metacritic score. We have no doubt this game will deliver a next gen experience and will be responsible for driving hardware sales throughout the year. You can also expect an onslaught of unmatched entertainment offerings to hit across our platforms, such as genre-leading PS3 titles like MLB'09: The Show and inFamous, and new content via the PlayStation Network like movies and TV shows from NBC Universal, and an unprecedented line-up of third and first party exclusives to hit the PSP. We have no doubt 2009 will be another year of continued momentum and we remain confident in delivering the best entertainment experience to our consumers.
— Peter Dille, Senior Vice President of Marketing and the PlayStation Network, Sony Computer Entertainment America

Why is it remarkable? Because even though Sony has used a dizzying array of misleading comparative methods to always claim success, they didn't even mention hardware sales in this statement. Sales were so bad that they couldn't even put a party dress on the pig this time.

What Peter Dille didn't say, and couldn't, is that one of their biggest titles of the year--Killzone 2--didn't move much hardware at all. Last year, January sales for the PS3 (269k) were roughly 30% higher than this year (203k). Let's say that, absent Killzone 2, the same trend would have continued in February. If it had, then the PS3 would have sold about 197k units.

Again, this is absolutely one of the highest-profile exclusives that Sony will release this year, and it moved 72,000 extra units of hardware? That's it? And yes, that's a very quick and dirty comparison, but even if Killzone 2 moved an extra 100,000 units of hardware, that's still a very low number.

This isn't working.

Look, the PS2 wasn't a hardware phenomenon. Even after all of Sony's staggering boasting about the incredible power of the console, the original Xbox, released 14 months later, was more powerful. What Sony did so brilliantly with the PS2 was manage price points and gain developer support.

Ironically, those are the same things they're botching so badly right now. They've made the same claims about the incredible power of the PS3, but if it's more powerful than the 360, it's only a marginal difference. And it should be more powerful, because it was released a year later.

Sony also seems bound and determined to piss off developers and publishers. Read this and start scratching your head:
Until October 1 2008, video game publishers who wanted to offer downloadable content on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 didn’t have to worry about getting a bill from Microsoft and Sony.

The million-plus downloads that a popular demo or map pack might receive could delight gamers, but rack up some expensive bandwidth costs. No problem: the publishers, who already pay a licensing fee to get their games on the two big platforms, could count on the platform holders — Microsoft and Sony — to pay the cost of piping that digital content to gamers.

That situation changed with the PS3 on October 1 of last year, when Sony implemented a 16 cents per Gigabyte fee to publishers for paid and free downloadable content, according to publishing sources familiar with Sony’s policy.

Game publishers are not happy about it.

Well, no shit they're not happy about it. Because it's insane.

Sony's squeezable parts are in a vice here. The PS3 is a sinkhole, financially, and I'm sure that marching orders have been given to reduce losses (turning a profit, for now, seems like a fantasy). Without a significant price cut, though--and by "significant" I mean $100--they're just going to continue bleeding to death.

It's like I said a few weeks ago: start off way behind on cost, and the entire generation will be spent trying to catch up.

I will be shocked if Sony doesn't announce a price cut by the end of April in the U.S. No matter how much money they're losing, I don't see how they have a choice. Here's how it should play out: Sony executives (in the process, almost always violating the prime directive of interviews) will continute to talk about profitability and how they're being "responsible." They'll act outraged when people mention price cuts--what, for the console that came to us from ten years in the future?

Then, out of nowhere, they'll announce a price cut, and those exact same execs will be giving interviews saying "We're bringing THE PAIN, bitches!"

What about Microsoft? Their January/February sales totaled 700,000 this year compared to 485,000 in 2008. That's up 44%. In other words, their most recent round of price cuts are still working.

Nintendo is still moving hardware at an absolutely obscene rate, but I'm growing increasingly concerned about the software side of the equation. Motion Plus, which adds exactly the kind of precise motion-sensing capability to the Wii that we all want, was announced in July of last year. We're almost to April and it's still not here? WTF?

This has run so long that I'll have a separate post about Japan tomorrow.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Links!

Leading off, a link from Nick Johns to The Daily Adventures of Mixerman. It's written by an anonymous sound engineer, who chronicled his experience recording a rock album in L.A. with a high-profile band. It's incredibly entertaining.

From George Paci, a link to the first recorded sound. It's an excerpt from "Au Clair de la Lune", and it was recorded in 1860.

From Steve Davis, 148 years after the first recorded sound, a link to a story about a radio made from a single carbon nanotube. Also, here's a recording made from the radio--of Layla.

From Cliff Eyler, a link to a story about the remarkably robust market for used suits of armor, and by "used," I mean "worn by knights."

From John Catania, a link to 14 stunning color photos from the Farm Security Administration archive. These photos are all from the 1940s/1940s, and they are absolutely incredible.

More stunning photos, this set from Jesse Leimkuehler. It's the ruins of Detroit, and the photographs are amazing (particularly the ones that focus on architecture).

From Sean M, a link to an amazing dolphin video, showing how they create and play with underwater air bubble rings.

From Joel Stein, a long but fascinating article exploring the remarkable influence that MIT graduates have had on the evolution of gaming. It's remarkable.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to a stunning photographic series: abandoned substations and power plants. Also, it's Charlie Brown--if Frank Miller had drawn him. And the discovery of a superhydrophobic coating that creates the possiblity of super-buoyant objects. Finally, it's a link the bizarre and wonderful Cat Cafes of Japan.

From Jarod, a link to a remarkable bit of 3D skullduggery--from GE, believe it or not. It's about windmills.

From Sirius, a link to a video of an exoskelton (build for the military, of course) that actually looks usable. Also, the discovery of a vampire's body in Venice (or, more accurately, someone who was believed to be a vampire). And some infrared that look amazing.

From David Gloier, a link to a picture of the world's largest stingray, and if you're wondering just how large it is, it's larger than you can believe.

From Chris Meadowcraft, a link to octopus fossils. 95 million years old, in case you're wondering.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

February NPD

Analysis Monday (and a look at recent sales in Japan, as well), but here are the numbers:

I think there are several interesting pieces of data here, even with just total unit sales to work with, and I'll write up the analysis this weekend.

Draft Day Sports College Basketball: On Sale For A Good Cause

Randy Chase, who was lead designer/programmer on Power Politics and The Doonesbury Election Game Campaign '96, passed away suddenly on February 20.

Randy loved playing Gary Gorski's Draft Day Sports: College Basketball, and Gary is offering DDS:CB for half price ($19.95) through Sunday. All proceeds will go to a fund being set up to benefit Randy's family.

I've played Draft Day Sports: College Basketball, and it's a deep, enjoyable game. Here's a link to the Wolverine Studios store.

Here's the press released:
It's Tournament Time! Now through Sunday - save 50% on DDS: College Basketball and help us help a good cause!
It's that time of year again - your brackets are filled out and you're craving some college hoops action. If only the games were on 24-7, right? Well here's your chance to get your fill of college basketball action with Draft Day Sports: College Basketball at an unbeatable price. Now through Sunday, March 22nd we're selling DDS:CB for only 19.95 in our webstore - that's HALF OFF the normal price of 39.95.

In addition to getting a fantastic college basketball sim and an amazing price there's one more benefit. You can help us help someone else. Recently we learned of the unexpected passing of Randy Chase - for those who don't know Randy not only was he one of our community's largest and most enthusiastic supporters in addition to being a great friend but he was also an independent game developer and a very good one at that. Randy owned Kellogg Creek Software and published games such as the Doonesbury Election Game, Spirit Wars and Power Politics. He helped lay the groundwork for us and other independent game companies to have a chance to succeed in the marketplace and we'd like to do something to give back to his family. If it weren't for people like him some of your favorite games from independent developers may not exist today. That's why Wolverine Studios is going to donate the proceeds of sales during this time to Randy's family through a fund that is in the process of being setup. DDS: College Basketball was one of Randy's favorite games to play and comment on and it seems only fitting that the game that brought him so much joy can maybe bring his family something during this difficult time.

If you're wondering why cut the price in half if we're trying to raise money - the answer is so that more people can help if they want to. If you could afford to pay the normal price and wish to do so to help out then buy two copies. Even if you aren't a huge college basketball fan maybe buy a license and give it to a friend to get them involved in the text sim world or who knows - maybe if you give it a shot you just might like it yourself. Either way you'll be helping us help a good cause.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Botticelli On Toast, Stalked by Mariachis, And The Boy Who Says Ssnik: Spring Break 2009

Imagine that you're standing in a packed elevator. Now imagine everyone in the elevator is yelling at the same time. Then imagine that someone in the elevator belches and everyone else can smell what he had for lunch.

Welcome to spring break.

First off, and I'm counting on all of you, if I say next year that we're going on a trip for spring break, I want you to e-mail me and remind me to kill myself first.

It's not that I don't enjoy hanging out with Gloria and Eli. I do, and it's great, but it's great because we're funny together. What's not great is trying to hang out with them while one million other people are hanging out with us.

We thought we were going to "miss" the crowd by going to San Antonio a week after their spring break, but as soon as we arrived and started walking around, we realized it was packed. PACKED. And I don't mean packed as in a neatly organized suitcase--I mean packed as in a lot of ingredients you don't like in a sandwich placed between two slices of bread and that's all you're getting to eat.

Our first stop in San Antonio was going to be the Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum. When I was a kid, I was mesmerized by the feature that ran in the newspaper daily. You know, this sort of thing:
Pervis Nelson, a farmer living in Bunkhaven, Iowa, had a head that was smaller than a regulation golf ball. Other than being featured in a line of novelty post cards, he lived a normal life, marrying and fathering three children, and in 1933 he invented the modern SCUBA tank.

I thought Eli was old enough to appreciate some of the fantastic oddities in a Ripley's museum, and he did, but it was so full of people that it was difficult to fully appreciate the shrunken human heads or the fine scrimshaw art. Ripley's is a place that has to be explored slowly, and it just wasn't possible. Plus, it seems like they've added some incredibly annoying noise to almost every room, which made it hard to want to take our time.

We did, however, see this:

That's Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," rendered from sixty-six pieces of toast.

While Eli and Gloria were in the gift shop (I think even restrooms on the Riverwalk have gift shops), I ducked out to call my friend Mike.

"It's totally suffocating here," I said. "There are so many people here that I think it might be some kind of refugee wave. I have a deep desire to shoot my own face off. And I can't walk five feet without somebody trying to sell me something. In fact, I just saw a sidewalk vendor with a sign that said "Shoot Your Own Face Off--$9."

We went to the wax museum next. The people flow was better here, so we were able to breathe, at least. One of the first wax figures we saw was Abraham Lincoln, whom Eli is very familiar with, and when he saw him, he said (in a friendly way), "Hello, Wax Abraham Lincoln."

When it was time for lunch, we found a restaurant on the Riverwalk and sat down, hoping for some degree of quiet for the first time in hours. That's when we see the mariachi band. Headed in our direction. Somehow, out of their next four songs, three were within ten feet of us.

I love mariachi music, but not at arm's reach. Plus, it was so loud that Eli kept sticking his hands over his ears, which got funnier and funnier each time he did it.

Finally, they wandered off, and we ate a mediocre meal without incident. As the waiter gave us our check, though, we saw them walking over the bridge next to the restaurant, headed back in our direction. "LET'S GET OUT OF HERE!" Eli 7.7 shouted, and so we did.

We kept seeing the Tower of the Americas in the distance, which was built for the 1968 World's Fair (which my mom took me to when I was seven, although I don't remember a thing). The Tower is basically a copy of the Seattle Space Needle, although the Tower is higher (750 feet), and we all decided that we needed to ride the elevator to the top.

On the way, we ran into this fellow:

Still walking, I heard a whirring sound, turned around, and saw a vehicle approaching at high speed. "Look out--here comes a Segway! And how often have I said that?" I said.

In case you're wondering how it looks from the top of the Tower, well, it looks high. And if you're wondering what kind of bizarre crap they're putting into gift shops these days, exhibit number one is an elongated penny album.

On the way back from the Tower, we went to La Villita, a small area of shops near the Riverwalk, because we'd stop in a glass blower's shop about fifteen years ago and I wanted to see if he was still there.

Back in 1995, we'd gone to San Antonio for the weekend and stumbled on this tiny shop that was supposed to be a glass blower's museum. We opened the door and there were thousands of small glass sculptures inside, and they were just wonderful. It didn't look like anything had changed in there for decades, and the man behind the counter (blowing glass, as it were) looked like he was in his seventies, at least. He looked at us and said "Thirty-five cents," and pointed to a weathered piece of cardboard where we deposited our money.

He acted like the grouchiest old man alive, which made everything even better, and as he told us the history of glass blowing, he sounded completely annoyed. Then we started asking questions, and he sounded less annoyed, because we were genuinely interested. He wasn't grouchy at all, really--he just didn't want people wasting his time.

We went back the next day, because I was totally fascinated, and there were people in the shop when we entered. The old man looked even more annoyed than yesterday, and he barked "Thirty-five cents" at the new people walking in. When we started to put coins in the tray, though, he said "Not you--you already paid."

I wound up buying a stunning glass tiger that was about the size of my hand. I still have it on my desk.

It was one of those experiences you never forget, and I wanted Eli to meet him, but we found out that he retired last year. At age 89.

Today, doing some research on Google, I found out that his name was Larry Williams, and he started glass blowing in 1948.

Believe it or not.

Oh, and while we were walking through the shops, there was an offer that I'm quite sure I've never seen before:

When we got back to the hotel, we heard beeping. For half an hour. Finally, we tracked it down to the room next door. I called the front desk. "We're in 505, and something in 504 has been beeping for half an hour," I said.

"Oh, my," said the front desk lady.

"After half an hour, they're either dead or out of the room," I said, and she laughed, "so could you please send up someone to find out either way?"

I hung up the phone, then turned to Gloria. "If we're in the hallway, and EMT's are taking out bodies, is that a tipping situation?"

We tried to eat dinner, but couldn't get in anywhere (generic and expensive food on the Riverwalk=SOLD!). Plus, as we were walking along, Eli saw the mariachi band again. "THEY'RE FOLLOWING US!" he said, and by then, it seemed entirely plausible.

Finally, we wound up at the Hyatt. Incredibly, the restaurant was closed on Tuesday night, but we were able to sit in the lounge and order from the menu.

That's right. Eli 7.7 in a lounge, although it was open-air and didn't resemble a lounge in the least. We ordered from the menu, and the food turned out to be excellent (brisket tacos FTW). On the way out, Eli said "That was pretty good--for a bar!"

When we got back to the hotel room, Eli seemed to be banging into something every five seconds (please note: no alcohol was consumed), so we built him a safety device:

Wednesday morning, we were headed to Sea World. With five million other people, all of whom were ahead of us in the parking line thirty minutes before the park was even supposed to open.

Um, arghhh?

The first thing we always do at Sea World is go to the dolphin tank for the 10 a.m. feeding, because we all love dolphins, and Eli is long enough now that he can actually pet the dolphins when he gives them fish.

It was so crowded (at 10 a.m. in the morning), that the booth ran out of fish before we could get any. Undeterred (in a kind of "WTF am I doing here?" kind of sense), I returned a full 30 minutes before the 11 a.m. feeding (while Gloria and Eli went to look at sharks), because I was going to get some fish for Eli.

And there are already 30 people waiting in line.

I think every person within 500 miles of Sea World had already arrived. Every inch around the dolphin tank was jammed with people.

They announced that because of the "huge" crowds (their word, not mine), each person in line could only purchase one little cardboard try of fish (four to a tray). That was good, because it was going to increase my chances of getting to the window before they ran out of fish.

While I'm in line, the two ladies in front of me let their friend cut in, 15 minutes after I'd gotten in line. I was okay with that, mostly, but when her two kids cut in front of me, too, it was too much. If they had stolen the last tray of fish, I was going to look for a tire iron.

Here's Eli petting a dolphin, which is an entirely awesome feeling:

On St. Patrick's Day, I randomly counted 200 people on the Riverwalk. 41.5% were wearing green of some kind. The next day, at Sea World, a similar sampling of 200 people counted 19.5% wearing green.

Later, I was standing in the longest line for popcorn in the world, and Eli decided to sit on a bench for a minute. I looked over a few seconds later, and another kid was sitting next to him. He was nearly Eli's size and was wearing a bright green baseball cap.

They ignored each other for a little while, then started checking each other out, like kids do. Then the kid with the green cap looked at Eli and yelled "SSNIK!"

Eli looked at me and we both burst out laughing at the same time.

A few minutes later, they were chatting like old friends. After I finally got the popcorn (note to Sea World: it is a fundamental principle of business that when people want to give you money, you take it from them as quickly as possible), Eli got up from the bench and joined me. "So what did you guys talk about?" I asked.

"Nothing much," he said. "He asked if I knew how many people were killed by sharks each year."

We were in the penguin habitat--well, next to the pengin habitat--and it's very dark in the observation area, with small areas of light against the back wall. I put my hand on Eli 7.7's shoulder and said "Let's say that somehow you got separated from us in a place like this. Where is the most logical place to go?"

Eli thought for a few seconds, then said, "I'd go to the nearest lighted spot, because it would be easier for you to see me."

That's my boy.

About a minute later, we realized that somehow Gloria was behind us and had gotten separated. Eli, laughing, said, "Mom is lost. She should go to the nearest light."

We went to the water park inside Sea World because Eli was hot, and he got totally soaked, of course, so when we left, he crawled into the hatchback area of Gloria's RAV-4 to change his clothes. I was talking to Gloria and we heard a thump, then he said, "How many ways can a man hurt himself?"

"Yes, it's been an epic struggle against yourself to get dressed," I said.

On the way home, we'd just gotten on the interstate (for a two hour drive home) and Eli said that he was really feeling tired. I said that he should just take a nap, and he said "I don't think I could go to sleep, even if I tried."

I looked back nintety seconds later and he was sound asleep.

Rock Band 2 (#132)

I had a nice run Sunday night after passing "Kids in America" and managed to pass five more songs on Expert. I've passed 39 at this point, and I think I might be able to eventually get to 70 or so (out of 82), but there are 12 songs rated at 6 difficulty (devil rating), and most of those are just going to be out of reach.

Here's an example: Everlong.

Everlong is a fantastic song, and that video is an FC on Expert, so the guy didn't miss a single note. He's not playing cymbals, but even so, his hands are just a blur for most of the song.

I won't be doing that in this lifetime.

I am finally able to keep a multiplier going during some rolls, though, which I've never been able to do before.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Different Story

By the way, before I get started, Matt Matthews e-mailed me this about Killzone 2 and said (I'm not going to include a spoiler, so this is going to be vague) that the ending does indeed introduce some ambiguity into the story. He said "Great story? No. But not entirely to be dismissed either, I'd venture."

Fair enough.

After I bitched about Killzone 2 yesterday (I think what I needed was a set of testosterone wiper blades to clear the air), I decided that instead of just bitching, I should write about what I think would be better.

One of the aspects of games that I find most fascinating is that we are forced to make decisions, and it gives us the chance to choose differently than we would in real life. In the "Big Balls, Bigger Guns" genre, only rarely do we make any decisions at all. Instead, the entire game is a series of elaborately constructed setpieces. I think it would be fair to say that they are analagous to an amusement park ride--many things happen, and some of them may be quite thrilling, but it's not because of our input.

Something else that's seen all to rarely in games is moral ambiguity. I like it when games make it difficult to distinguish between good and evil, and we are forced to make choices with incomplete moral information.

Okay, so let's pretend we're making a Halo/Gears of War/Killzone game, but let's also turn it on its head. So it starts out as "we're the good guys, kill every bad guy you see", but there are a few minor differences. For one, instead of killing someone, you can choose to take a prisoner instead. No, I don't mean they'd follow around behind you like Pikmin--you'd just hit the "take prisoner" button and the rest would be handled without your attention.

If people started taking prisoners, members of their own squad would start berating them, calling them soft (and much worse). So there would be peer pressure inside the game to kill helpless soldiers instead of taking them prisoner.

I think most people would succumb to the peer pressure and just start shooting everyone. I mean, that's what we've always done in games like this, right?

After a few of these missions (to get the player comfortable with ignoring the prisoner button), the player's character is called in for questioning by Internal Affairs. It seems there have been reports of borderline massacres by this squad.

At this point, the player has a choice: he can rat out his squadmates, or he can claim that he hasn't seen anything wrong. And the IA officer interviewing him tells him that several of his squad mates have already fingered him.

This is a lie, of course, but it's a standard interrogation technique.

If he rats them out, he'll soon be put in a situation where he may have to kill his own squadmates to avoid being fragged. If he claims he knows nothing, Internal Affairs will come back to arrest him, and when he escapes, he's officially gone rogue.

At that point, he can become a mercenary and fight on any side. And he's gone from being the good guy to being something else entirely. As an exmaple, an enemy force could capture him and give him a choice: complete an assasination mission against his former side or be executed.

Let the player choose, too. And if chooses to die instead of kill, when he is about to be executed, give him a chance to escape. If he takes the assasination mission, instead, well, let him do that, too.

In other words, let him be both a hero and a traitor to his own country so many times that the concept becomes meaningless. He's forced to develop his own personal code of honor instead of relying on what his country is telling him.

If the player is to be honorable, force him to transcend the moralities of war.

Here's another one. Maybe his brother is in the armed forces, too, and the game develops their relationship, with a tagline at the end of their correspondence (or phone calls) that they can't wait to see each other. When the player goes rogue, though, one of the people responsible for hunting him down is that same brother.

The player doesn't know that, though, or it's only hinted at in the story. But at some point, he comes face to face with his brother, and it's entirely possible that he'll choose to kill him instead of surrender. Can you imagine shooting your own brother, almost certainly without realizing it, then having to watch him die?

To me, at least, war is only peripherally about victory. Mostly, it's about anguish, and that's an emotion that's never felt in these kinds of games.

I look forward to the game that makes me feel that way.

DQ Is Live On Tape

We're going to San Antonio this morning for a mini-vacation during Eli 7.7's spring break (coming back before the NCAA tournament starts, obviously). Today, we're going to the Ripley's Museum, the Wax Museum, and maybe The Alamo. Wednesday morning, Sea World.

I've got today's (Tuesday) content written, and it will post later today.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Eli 7.7

There's a guy in central Austin who likes to ride his bicycle while he's, um, wearing a thong.

He's skinny, like a near-naked version of Ichabod Crane, and he doesn't wear anything but the thong. I saw him two weeks ago wearing a pink banana hammock, and believe me, having an ass cheek burned into each retina is not a pleasant experience.

Gloria and Eli 7.7 were out and about today, and Eli saw this guy for the first time. His thong was tie-die.

Eli thought it was hilarious, of course. "Dad, seeing a man ride a bicycle in his underwear is NOT a pretty sight," he said, laughing.

Last week, I was checking his homework. He's supposed to sign his homework "Eli - 5" (I don't really know why), and his "5" was barely more than a squiggle. "Dude, seriously, this is the worst five I've ever seen," I said, holding up his paper.

"No, I can do worse," he said, quite seriously.

Last night, Gloria made me a sandwich for dinner. My study is downstairs, and I had the door open, so I heard her when she said to Eli "Please go tell Dad that dinner is ready."

I started laughing, because I knew what was coming up.

Without moving an inch, he sprung into action. "HEY DAD!" he shouted. "DINNER IS READY!"


Yes, this drives Gloria crazy.

He finished the third Harry Potter book last weekend, and the three of us got into this unbelievable, full-on nerd discussion about how time travel works when Hermione uses the time-turner.

My theory is that past, present, and future normally constitute discrete time streams and never cross. When using the time turner, though, the streams merge, and past, present, and future have no real meaning anymore, because every moment for every person is their present.

Or something like that.

I can't remember exactly what we all said, because the ideas were flying so fast that I couldn't keep track of it all, but Eli was really holding his own, which was awesome. He may only weigh 50 pounds, but his ideas are a lot heavier than that.

The Wheelman (Demo)

This demo is extraordinarily silly and the dialogue is incredibly bad. It's also extremely fun and you should try it immediately.

Killzone 2: I Live For This Shit!

Not "I" as in "me," obviously.

No, I'm talking about the character in the opening mission cinematic, the 'roid rage teabagging subscriber to Balls Monthly. He's the one who says "I live for this shit!" He doesn't know what's about to happen, but by God, he's sure his dick is big enough to handle it.

Other witticisms include "that's one dead mother*ucker" and "YOU'RE cleaning that one up." It seems that the cleverness of men with large testicles knows no bounds. It's scrotum comedy with a vengeance, mother*ucker.

I played Killzone 2 for two hours. At that point, my I.Q. had dropped by 70 points and I had to pull out. [Insert your manly joke about "pulling out" here]

Was this the fault of the game? Not really. I'm not a big fan of the BSD genre ("big" and "swinging" are the first two words, and I'm sure you can get the third on your own). I get in that testosterone fog and after an hour or so, my manliness is exhausted. My Q-tip biceps just can't handle the flexing, bitches.

Killzone 2 is staggeringly proficient in a technical sense. There is no way that anyone could be disappointed by the graphics. The sound is spectacular. As a hardware demo, it's incredibly impressive.

As a game, well, I don't know. If you like Halo and Gears of War, then I think Killzone 2 is absolutely worth a look. If you enjoy games that basically consist of "Run from A to B and kill all the shit you see along the way, and that shit will respawn forever if you don't go forward," then this is a very solid entry into the canon.

I think I would have enjoyed this game much more twenty years ago. Today, though, I'm forty-seven, and I know guys who were Army Rangers. I know guys who have been in real wars. And none of them ever said "I live for this shit."

I would be very interested in seeing a BSD game that introduced some moral ambiguity, or unexpected and painful consequences. I'd love to see a game where you start off with balls in full swing, then slowly start to realize that--mother*ucker--you're on the wrong side.

That would be interesting.

Maybe Killzone 2 has all that complexity later in the story. Maybe all the big ball swinging is irony. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

I meant to make this longer, but I need to go pump some iron.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday Links!

Leading off this week is a link from Jack Kidwell to an utterly fascinating bit of detective work titled In Search Of The Click Track. Author "plamere" wrote a program using the Echo Nest remix SDK to generate a plot of the length of each beat. Then he used this plot to find the drummers who are using click tracks when they record.

The results are incredibly interesting, and if you have any interest in music (or just general cleverness), it's a great read. Plus, the comments section is just as interesting.

Here's a co-link leading off, sent in by Skip Key (and many others). It's a sensational article in Wired titled The Untold Story of the World's Biggest Diamond Heist, and it's riveting reading.

From Jonathan Arnold, a link to stunning, hi-resolution phographs of Otzi, the 5,000 year old iceman.

Here's another absolutely beautiful piece of writing by Lara Crigger titled When the Flood Waters Recede.

From the BBC, a fascinating story about a chimpanzee who planned stone attacks on zoo visitors. Why does this matter? Because there has been very little evidence that animals are capable of planning for future events. Well, until now.

From CNN, a link to the resolution of a dispute that has gone on for almost a century: DNA proves Bolsheviks killed all of Russian czar's children.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to a classic: What NOT To Do When Electronically Robbing A Bank. Also, it's Eye Candy: The Best of Google Street View. One more, and it's about Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch, which contained a secret message.

In response to the "Overheard" post this week, Ty Sleck let me know that there individual city sites for this--like Overheard In Minneapolis.

From Roger, a link to an editorial by former MLB player Doug Glanville. It's called Bling Training, and he talks about the peer pressure of materialism that exists in professional sports. Glanville is a thoughtful and interesting writer, and he's funny.

From Sirius, a link to, well, this:
In the basement of a nondescript building here at Argonne National Laboratory, nickel particles in a beaker are building themselves into magnetic snakes that may one day give clues about how life originally organized itself.

Also, a link to a brilliant (and bizarre) bit of art: an orchestra of Bletchley Park computers. And here's a story about brain scans done on people while contemplating God.

From Jarod, a link to Robot Fight Club, and it's both impressive and very funny.

From Allen Varney, and it's totally ingenious: bicycle built for two thousand. It's an art project using Amazon's Mechanical Turk, believe it or not.

From Sean, and it's reason #280 why I Love The Internet: Scanwiches.

From Mark Trinkwalder, and this screams "future bad science fiction film": scientists extract images directly from brain.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a discovery of the possible source of Saturn's outer ring: a moon. Also a stunning photo showing the interaction of Prometheus with Saturn's F-ring.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Sprint

One Thursday a month, we can go to school and have lunch with Eli 7.7.

I hadn't ever missed, but last Thursday, I had non-movable appointments scheduled before, during, and after lunchtime. I told Eli that I wasn't going to be able to come this time, and he was disappointed, but he understood. Gloria was going to be there (she's never missed, either), so he wasn't going to be alone.

As Thursday morning dragged on, though, I started trying to figure out a way that I could go. I showed up 15 minutes early to my 11:30 appointment, hoping that it would end early, and it did. That 15 minutes was all I needed to be able to make lunch, because I had about 15 minutes on the back end to get to my next appointment.

Eli's class normally has lunch outside on the days when parents come, and they sit on stone benches underneath this huge tree. I started walking up the sidewalk (about ten minutes after lunchtime had started), and when I got within about thirty yards of the lunch area, Eli saw me and shouted "DAD! DAD!" He started sprinting, and when he ran into me at about a hundred miles an hour, he threw his arms around me.

All the parents and kids are looking at us, and I'm thinking that I have to be one of the luckiest people in the world.

Assorted Gaming Links And Notes

A father's 13-year old son wanted to play Call of Duty online.

That's a tough call, particularly if your son has demonstrated his maturity and good judgment in the past.

So what did this father (Hugh Spencer) do? He asked his son to read and abide by the rules of the Geneva Convention.

I greatly admire Hugh Spencer.

Matt Sakey's excellent Culture Clash column has a new installment, and it's a comic tale of woe.

Several of you have e-mailed and asked about my impressions of Empire: Total War. I am absolutely, completely in on this game, but I'm waiting for the first galaxy-sized patch, because the games in this series have always had them. So I plan on playing it in-depth, but it's not going to be for a while.

I'm also getting e-mail about Resident Evil 5. It's coming via Gamefly, so there may be a delay of a few days. I'm curious about both the game itself and whether what I saw as racist imagery (based on historical imagery used in the U.S.) has been modified in any way.

Yes, I'm aware that a British professor (cultural anthropology or something) said that, based on his viewing of the first three levels, he didn't consider the game to be racist. But I'm purposely trying to avoid reviews of all kinds because I'd like to play the game by myself, so to speak. So I will play it and write up my impressions.

I mentioned this earlier in the week, but the new patch for NHL 09 is simply outstanding. It has substantially increased the "sim" aspect of the gameplay, and it's apparently also improved the skill reward for online play as well (in other words, cheesers don't win anymore).

I realized after a few games in Be A Pro mode that I wasn't playing the same game anymore, and a few things I had done repeatedly (out of habit) no longer worked. At all. So I was forced to play more intelligently and more dynamically, which was a real pleasure.

Also, the variety of penalties and the circumstances under which they're called has been hugely improved. Great job.

The Unfortunate Difference

Kotaku's having a contest to give away a copy of Race Pro. To enter, people send in pictures of--well, I don't know what, exactly. Something to do with racing.

Someone sent in an entry with a picture of chewable fiber tablets. Because, I guess, more fiber in your diet makes you go faster.

When you're twenty-seven, you see the picture of chewable fiber tablets and laugh. When you're forty-seven, you go "Hey--chewable fiber!" and stop by Target to pick up a bottle.

Rock Band #128b

Based on my e-mail, there are a ton of people who'd like to have difficulty selectable by song during gigs. I wanted it for mystery setlists, but several people mentioned that when they play as a band with their friends, they like to switch instruments between songs, and it's tough to do that when difficulty for an instrument is only selectable at the beginning of a set.

Colder Than...

A cold front came through on Wednesday and the temperature is 47F at 2 p.m. Frozen bodies abound in ditches.

Just kidding, Canada.

The wind is blowing about 30 MPH, and since I was wearing a long sleeve shirt and no jacket (paging Dr. Einstein), as I walked out to my car after work I suddenly thought it's colder than a witch's left tit.

Then I realized that what I had just thought was probably the strangest expression in the history of language. Did witches allegedly fly in winter with their left boob exposed or something?

I have no idea when I first heard this phrase, but it always stuck with me because it was so bizarre. This time, though, I was curious enough to look it up when I got home.

There are several theories. The first is quite benign:
When the temperature falls low enough to freeze mercury in the bulb or tit of a weather witch or what is commonly known as a mercury thermometer it is said to be as cold as a witches tit.

The next two theories come from the same person, and I can't find any additional sourcing (although these two theories are widely cited). The first:
The simple explanation is that "colder than a witch's tit" is just a vivid metaphor, like "hotter than the hinges of hell." Since a witch is in league with Satan, presumably she has no maternal feelings. Thus the medium by which she would suckle a child is, well, cold as a witch's tit.

The second, which is appropriately ominous and grisly:
...there's some history behind this wisecrack. A witch's tit (or witch's teat, to use the older spelling) supposedly left a marking that witch hunters and courts would look for on the body of an accused person. Supposedly, witches would suckle their familiars, and sometimes the Devil himself, from this "unholy" body part. To find these marks, as well as insensitive spots on the skin called devil's marks--caused by the Devil's claws or teeth--the suspects were stripped, shaven, then closely examined for any blemishes, moles, or even scars that could be labeled as diabolical. To find marks invisible to the eye, the examiner would poke the victim inch by inch with a blunt needle (called a bodkin) until they found a spot that didn't feel pain or bled. Discovery of these marks or spots--one supposes they would be considered cold since they were a sign of communion with theDevil--would be "proof" of the person's dealings with Scratch, so they would be shown in full court before the execution.

Whoa. Funny phrase buzzkill.

Now it's time to sit back and wait for the e-mail from people who claim to be witches, because trust me, they're coming. It may take a while, but they're coming.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Geography Dropper

I have a good friend who is known for two things:
1) she travels all over the world, and frequently
2) she has a sports-related accident every ten minutes

She's so accident prone that I call her "Beano" (after Mr. Bean).

You probably know at least one person who's a name dropper. Any person you've ever met, any story you tell, will be met with a more famous name or a more impressive experience.

Beano isn't a name dropper, though. She's a geography dropper.

Last week, we were having lunch, and she said this: "I met the most fantastic woman on an Incan trail last week."

I said, "You always do this to me. It's very intimidating. You say 'I met the most fantastic woman on an Incan Trail,' and I say 'I went to Subway.' "

Rain, Or Lack Of It

It's been painfully dry down here for the last eighteen months, and I was curious enough to do some research last weekend.

Average annual rainfall in Austin (using the old Mueller Airport, then Camp Mabry stations) is 33.48 inches (data goes back to 1856).

In the last 18 months, we've gotten 21.24 inches.

I looked at the annual records, and the lowest rainfall for a two-year period was 33.96 inches in 1954-1955. It was a terrible drought, because there was only 15.41 inches in 1956, so the drought lasted three years.

There was also a severe drought in 1878-1879, when there was only 39.90 inches of rain.

There has never been another two year period where the total rainfall was less than 40 inches.

It's not an exact comparison, because this drought started in October of 2007, so it's not quite apples-to-apples on a yearly basis, but there's no question that we are in very sad shape right now. Agriculture is particularly hurting (many crops are a total loss), and foundation repair companies can't even keep up with all the business.

Ian Cummings

I've mentioned this before, but when it comes to EA football games, I'm Charlie Brown.

Every year, Lucy talks about how great the experience is going to be, and she's so convincing that when the game is finally released, I run toward the ball at top speed, swing my leg forward...

And fall on my ass.

It's happened year after year after--well, you get the idea. And it's happened because both NCAA and Madden violate the prime directive of sports games: be faithful to the sport.

Why is The Show the best sports simulation of all time? Because, like no other game, it is faithful to the sport. I wrote last year that anyone who designs or develops sports games should be given a PS3 and told to play The Show.

For a long time.

Why are NCAA and Madden so poor in comparison? Because they aren't faithful to the sport. It's not any more complicated than that.

As an example, when NCAA totally dicked around with the relative speed of the players last year, it ruined the gameplay. It wasn't "wide-open gameplay," as the PR honks suggested--it was fundamentally wrong.

My friends politely suggested that I was crazy for using a stopwatch to time players, but I did it because the speeds were so obviously wrong that I wanted to establish just how far from reality they varied.

It's simple, right? If you want to make a football game, the first thing you'd do is make sure that players run at the right speed, both in absolute and in relation to each other. There are dozens of development issues that will be avoided if the speeds are "right."

If simulating the sport is the foundation of development, you have a standard to use. If that's not the foundation, though, and it's never been the foundation of NCAA and Madden, what you're going to wind up with is a scotch-taped, half-assed mess. Madden's had animations running at different speeds for years, and the velocity of QB passes has been wrong for over fifteen years.

Take ball velocity as an example. Why would that matter? Because, if its wrong, there's a domino effect that makes a bunch of other things be wrong. Player speeds have to be adjusted. A.I. has to be adjusted. And since those adjustments are in relation to something that's wrong, the game has to become more wrong.

Which brings us to Ian Cummings. Ian is the lead designer on Madden 10. Recently, he made this post in the Operation Sports forums about The Show:
To the SCEA dev team: you guys have really set the bar as to what sports games should be. After a few of us got our hands on it, we have forced our entire Madden design team to go through the game, take notes, and come up with ideas that could apply to us - and the one universal happening has been that everyone has been 100% blown away by the detail and quality of the product. From the commentary to the animation to the graphics to the presentation to the depth...you guys knocked it out of the park (bad pun intended).

Am I dreaming? Is this just some kind of cruel dream, and I'm going to wake up with my hand in a bucket of warm water? Hey, that's not funny!

Then, as if it's that not enough, he posted a blog entry today titled Creating 'Sim-Style" Gameplay In Madden 10. What are his three main points of discussion?
1. Inconsistent animation speeds
2. Pass speeds
3. Overall game speed

Oh, and they timed players with different speed ratings in the 40-yard dash, and when the results were unrealistic, they didn't call it a new gameplay feature--they fixed the damn speeds.

Yeah, I know--this will end badly. But it's the first time I've ever heard a Madden designer who sounded both like he understood football and knew how to design a game.

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