Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Links!

First off, thanks to all of who you wrote in about the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company. Michael Hughes was first, and he let me know that there's quite a bit more to BSSC than meets the eye:
What you might not know is that this was actually the brainchild of the writer Dave Eggers. You might know him best as the co-writer of the screenplay for the recent film adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are", though his semi-autobiographical novel "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is quite good too.

Anyway, this is actually the second of these sorts of shops, the first being a Pirate supply shop (Pirate Supply Store ). This shop was the first of now many shops affiliated with Egger's charity 826Valencia, a tutoring and mentoring organization dedicated to helping kids learn to write competently. They even publish their work and sell it in the shops.

If you're interested in knowing more about the history of the project, Eggers gave a TED talk in 2008 detailing the organization as well as providing a variety of touching anecdotes about it and how you can get involved if you wish. Here's the link:
Eggers at TED.

Let me just add one note: the screenplay for "Where The Wild Things Are" was an absolutely brilliant piece of writing.

Okay, let's get this staring at your computer screen and clicking on links party started.

This is a wonderful story about Chelsea Baker, a 13-year-old badass knuckeball pitcher--who was taught by lengendary knuckleballer Joe Niekro.

Seriously, this is the greatest single catch I've ever seen.

From Brad Ruminer, and this is related to some of the atmospheric nuclear test links from the past two links, it's a video map of every nuclear explosion in history (well, up to 1998, anyway). What makes this video stand out is the artistry inherent in the design choices made in its creation--it's incredibly striking. And creepy.

From Amy Leigh, a clever and entertaining article about video game inspired shoes. Some, naturally, are entirely epic.

Frank sent in a link to a video demo of the Microsoft 3D technology I mentioned last week, and it's quite impressive.

From Andrew, and this is very funny, it's epic bear struggle (and it's not what you think).

From Clayton Lee, a tremendous music video parody titled Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind).

From Rob, a video of the funkiest looking shark you've ever seen, and it's positively prehistoric.

From Sirius, the discovery of buckyballs--in space. Also, and this is remarkable, it's Antarctic octopuses found with cold-resistant venom. Also, it's the world's smallest flowering plants.

From Tim Jones, a fantastic story about a man who has converted an organ into a chiptone keyboard.

From my boss, a story about the discovery of Shackleton's whiskey: and it's still drinkable, apparently.

From Nicholas Czekalski, a fascinating story about hidden underground fires.

Here are some wonderful vintage PC advertisements.

Frank Regan sent this in, and it's hard to describe, but it's basically a 3D display created with an LCD monitor (or an iPad, in this case) and a pyramid shaped screen. Also, a great story by Ken Levine titled Me & The Hells Angels.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fail

EA has acknowledged the issues with progression in NCAA 10. From the EA NCAA 11 Blog  (excerpted):
I'm happy to report that a title update is coming soon. Look for this in about two-to-three weeks or so (currently estimating mid-August)...

WHY BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD FOOTBALL GAMES

Some of you may wonder, and rightfully so, "how did they miss that bug?!!" The same thing goes on here at the studio, "HOW DID WE MISS THAT BUG!!" usually with some colorful expletives thrown in for good measure.

But why does this happen? To start with, software development is a complex science and this is why nearly every game and software company on the planet is continually challenged and often frustrated in the pursuit of software perfection...

Now let's consider video games. Sports games are some of the most complex video games in existence today, and I'd argue that the logic and sophistication of football rivals them all. The real-world game of college football is complicated enough with its massive and constantly evolving rulebook, schedules, and even conference realignments. Now try to imagine the complexity of a video game in full HD running at 60 frames-per-second while attempting to mimic not only visual photorealism in 5.1 stereo but believable simulated behavior of 22 individual players, refs, coaching staff, broadcasters, and fans. And now connect that same experience to hundreds of thousands of players through a broad array of servers and databases across the country all in real-time over a far-less-than-perfect Internet...To give you some perspective, the NCAA Football 11 codebase contains more than 10 million lines of source code and script combined with over 350 gigabytes of graphics, sound, and data files.

Over the past year we logged tens-of-thousands of hours of QA on the game in addition to tens-of-thousands of hours more in scripted game testing through networks of automated game consoles here at the studio...

This isn't an excuse for not getting things right the first time, but I did want to provide some context...

Now, before I have an absolute and complete meltdown here, let me mention the positives. NCAA is vastly improved this year, it's clearly going in the right direction, and it appears that the progression problem is going to be fixed. I like this game--a lot--and if the problems are fixed (and they appear to be eminently fixable), then this could be the best NCAA game the franchise has ever produced.

Also, before the meltdown, let me just mention that the person who made the post I excerpted is probably a nice guy. Please note that this is in no way directed at him.

Having said that, let me be clear: this is complete bullshit.

If it was a game from one-man development "team", and it cost $10, then "games are hard" is an excuse which can garner a significant amount of sympathy. But you can't charge $60 for a game, gross $25 million in the first week after release, and then trot someone out there to be Skippie the paper boy.

This isn't the neighborhood kid who peed his pants at the talent contest and you feel sorry for him. This is a mega-corporation that had net revenue of almost four billion dollars last year. "Games are hard" not only isn't an excuse, it's an insult to our intelligence.

Anyone with a pulse who was also conscious would have seen that Dynasty progression issue if they simmed more than even a few seasons. So there are only three possibilities here: either no one on the development/QA team ever simmed multiple seasons (incredible, with the 10K+ man hours they spent on QA), they did sim multiple seasons and (more incredibly) didn't notice, or they did notice and shipped the product anyway (is there a bigger version of incredible to use here?).

None of those three possibilities are flattering.

Seriously, EA, just fix the damn game. We're not going to feel sorry for you.

Poker Face

Since it's Eli's birthday this week, I'm having more stories about him than usual.

Eli 8.11 learned how to play poker while he was in Shreveport with his mom a few weeks ago. Then, while he was channel surfing one night (channel surfing for him is Disney XD, Nickelodeon, ESPN, and the NHL Network, basically), he found one of the World Series Of Poker shows, and he was instantly hooked. Now, we play Texas Hold 'Em every night for at least thirty minutes.

Last night, he came to me and said, "Dad, let's play OFFICIAL poker tonight, just like on television." I said that would be great, and when he came to the table, he looked like this:




His game needs some work, but I think he's already got the look down pat.

He also has a favorite joke, one that he never gets tired of telling. "Dad, there are two muffins in an oven," he says. "The first muffin says to the second muffin, 'It's getting hot in here.'  The second muffin looks at the first muffin and says, 'OH MY GOD--A TALKING MUFFIN!' "

The first time he told it to me, he said, "See, it's FUNNY because the second muffin is ALSO talking."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tidalis

Chris Park, creator of the terrific A.I. Wars, has a new game, and it's called Tidalis.

It's hard to believe that a guy who can make a hardcore game like A.I. Wars would follow up with a puzzle game, that that's what Park has done, and even more incredibly, he's created a gameplay mechanic that is entirely unique.

Seriously, this guy is a badass.

Here's a screenshot:


Sorry, that's not the greatest screenshot (the graphics and backgrounds are actually very appealing), but take a look at the blocks and the directional arrows, because that's what important. When you touch a block, it fires off a beam in the direction the arrow is pointing. The beam can also pass through two blocks of a different color before it disintegrates, so if the same-colored block is three squares away, the beam will reach it. Then the beam is redirected based on the orientation of the block it just reached.

If you match three blocks, they disappear, and when the block above them lands, it sends off its own beam in the direction that it's pointing.

That's basically how it works, but in no way am I doing it justice. It's sensational in action--not the easiest concept to grasp in words, but totally addictive in action. There's urgency here as well, because blocks are falling from the top of the playing field, so even as you try to figure out long and multiple chains, you need to manage the time element as well.

This is easily the most interesting, unique gameplay mechanic I've ever seen in a puzzle game. It's terrific.

Plus, there are a huge number of variations on the basic gameplay, depending on the level. Some levels don't have falling blocks or at a time. Some levels have different movements for the beam (one where gravity affects the beam is particularly cool). There are obstruction blocks, wild card blocks--every kind of freaking block imaginable.

I think there's only one less than stellar aspect of the game--for me, at least--and that's the story. It's very well-written, and it's quite clever, but I think it would be fair to characterize it as "lightweight." In a commercial sense, that may well be an excellent decision, but I feel like the main gameplay mechanic is so incredibly weighty that I wanted to see a weighty, dramatic story paired with it.

I highly encourage you to check out the demo and see for yourself. Tidalis has a ton of content, it's high quality, and it's only $9.99, which is a great price. Here's the Tidalis website, and you can find the demo link from there.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

NCAA 11 Impressions (360)

Surely, this is the most schizophrenic sports game series ever created.

Most years, it's great and it's terrible. It's sublime and it's idiotic. The last two years, it was just idiotic, but this year, NCAA has returned to form. Once again, it's the beautiful woman with tobacco-stained teeth.

First, the positives:
--Off the field, the interface is clean, intuitive, and very functional.
--In online Dynasty mode, it's now possible to recruit from your computer instead of the console, which is a brilliant addition (when it works--more on that later). Recruiting in NCAA is complex (overly complex, I think), and being able to use a mouse instead of a gamepad is a substantial improvement. Plus, it's possible to set up a single-player online Dynasty, so that feature is available for solo players, too.
--On the field, the game feels more dynamic now, without feeling cheap.
--Run blocking has improved.
--The new animation system is a clear upgrade and looks much more realistic.
--Lee Corso is gone. Finally.
--Slider settings have a noticeable effect, and slider adjustments can make the game fairly realistic. Not as good as Madden, certainly, but a huge improvement over the last several versions of NCAA.
--Even though it's still completely idiotic that there aren't custom cameras, the default cameras are very good.

That's quite a lot of improvement, really. It's not as much of an improvement as Madden made last year, but Madden was a one-off in terms of its leap. This game has made big, big strides.

Now, unfortunately, the negatives, including one absolute dealbreaker:
--Online recruiting is great, when it works, but too often it doesn't. I don't mean servers not working for a minute or two-I'm talking hours at a time. It's ridiculous and embarrassing.
--Highly-rated quarterbacks have absolute rocket arms. I'm fitting throws into ridiculous spaces because my quarterback has a cannon. Way, way overpowered, and there's no slider adjustment possible for this.
--Three-man defensive fronts are far too effective against the pass, and for all the wrong reasons. Quarterbacks seem to hold the ball far too long against the three-man front (they're more effective against a four-man front, actually), and sacks are far too frequent. Coverage sacks are fine, but not like this. Yes, you can adjust the pass rush slider, but then you make the four-man front far too ineffective-there's no way to create the proper balance.
--Penalties are FUBAR again. Seriously, how ***damn hard is it to create functional penalty code? Like always, certain types of penalties get called all the time, and some (pass interference, for example) are just urban legends. This gets ignored every year, which is idiotic, because if was just fixed once, it would be fixed going forwards.

Actually, let's put the dealbreaker into its own section, because it is so inexcusable that it should have its own highlight. In short, Dynasty mode is useless for anything beyond single-season play.

Why? Bill Abner, Dean Of Sports Game Reviewers, lays it out very clearly here. The most important aspect of any progression system is stability over time. No matter the season, you want to retain the original ratings composition in aggregate, because if you don't, the game is going to play very, very differently.

Bill's post explains it in far more depth, but in only four seasons, there are no "A" rated teams left in the game, because the prospect creation and progression engine doesn't produce any great players (or, more accurately, far too few).

Oops.

How bad is it? In Bill's dynasty in 2014, 55 of 120 teams have a rating of "D+" or lower. In the default ratings when you begin the game, there were 17. That's right--almost half the teams are rated D+ or below.

Teams rated "A-" or higher? In 2014, there are zero. Zero. In 2010, there 12. And the change in "B" and "C" rated teams is almost as pronounced.

It's not just progression that's broken, either. The CPU can't manage a roster, hoarding players at certain positions and ignoring others.

Oh, and then there's kickers. Again, Bill nails the issue down very clearly--as soon as the default kickers graduate, they get replaced with scrubs. Basically, the best created kicker in NCAA the video game (beyond the default ratings) is going to kick as poorly as the worst kicker in real NCAA football

Bill was all over these progression issues, so big kudos to him.

Look, progression and player creation are broken. Even as the EA Fanboy Defense Force bleats away on the OS forums (including such laugh-out-loud thread titles as "I Love How Progression Is Done"), there is no discussion possible on this issue. It's broken. Period.

This is a game that's come out every year for what, the last decade? Progression was totally broken in the shipping version last year, then it was patched to be decent, and now it's broken again. And anyone, absolutely anyone, who simmed even a few years in Dynasty would have seen this happening. It's impossible to miss.

So what about all the reviewers who loved this game? Well, they obviously didn't run a multi-season Dynasty, did they? Look, the job of 90% of sports game reviewers is to have a review ready to drop on launch day. That's their job, and that's why they get paid. It's not their job to represent us and actually play the game the way we would play it, or explore all the game modes in depth. 80% of the text in most launch day reviews is ripped almost word for word from the preview.

That sucks, but it's the truth, and it's also the truth that many of them don't know what the hell they're doing. Seriously, did ANYONE mention this besides Bill? Was no one else paying attention? How freaking obvious does it have to be to get noticed?

So it's nothing short of a total embarrassment that a game released every single year STILL can't get one of its major features right. And it's also a total embarrassment that people who get paid to review this game can't do it in a thorough manner.

NCAA is still entirely salvageable if the online Dynasty servers actually stay up, and if progression is fixed. It's unplayable for multiple seasons in its current state, though, so if you're considering a purchase, be forewarned.

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's Complicated

I picked up Eli 8.11 (version 9.0 coming on Saturday) from Harry Potter camp today and we went to see Ramona and Beezus.

[an aside: there were people with chairs waiting outside the theater in a line. I asked the lady at the concessions counter what they were waiting for, and she said, "We have a sneak preview of Cats & Dogs 2." Then she started laughing.

"There are grown-ups in line for THAT?" Eli asked.

She laughed again. "If it's a sneak preview, they'll line up for anything," she said.

Eli smacked his forehead with his palm.

End aside.]

Sometimes kids change so quickly that it's difficult to sort out all that's happening to them. For parents, I mean.

Eli is the sweetest little boy in the world. The biggest stubborn mule, too. He's giving. He's demanding. He's gentle. He's tough as nails. He's sincere. He's sarcastic.

It's complicated.

A few weeks ago, we had a long conversation about good and evil. We were talking about one of the kids at his school, the kid who gets picked on by everyone else in the class because he's awkward and downright mean. "He's evil," Eli said.

"I don't think so," I said. "It's more complicated than that." Then I explained how I'd seen that kid do a few things that definitely weren't evil. "Sometimes people are both," I said.

"How does that work?" he asked.

"Let's say a guy commits a crime," I said, "but all the money he makes from the crime go to charity. Is he good or evil?"

"It depends," Eli said. "What was the crime and how much money went to charity?"

"See," I said. "It's complicated."

Eli was silent for a few seconds. "Oh, YEAH," he said.

We decided to come up with the most complicated situation we could, and after a few minutes of discussion, we wound up with a man who commits a murder to get ten million dollars. He's never caught, but he feels so much guilt over what he's done that he uses all the money to start a foundation that teaches kids to read, and over the years, tens of thousands of kids learn to read because of what he did.

"Good or evil?" I asked.

"Both," Eli said. "He's both."

"Good answer," I said. It was the most serious discussion we'd ever had about morality, maybe one of the most serious discussions we'd ever had about anything.

The next day we had a long discussion about what would happen if a guy jumped off a trampoline into a wall made out of marshmallows.

"Could he eat his way out?" Eli asked. "How far could he jump into the wall from the trampoline?" His questions were every bit as detailed as they were about the good and evil scenario, even though we were talking about something completely ridiculous.

Last week we were talking about zero. I've totally forgotten the article I read, but it mentioned that some civilization had invented the concept of zero centuries before the commonly acknowledged date. I told Eli about it, and he wanted to know more.

"Zero is pretty sophisticated as a concept," I said, "because it has two uses. It can be used as a number, but it has another function, too."

"It's a placeholder!" Eli said. Even though that's not a simple concept, by any means, he immediately knew what I was talking about.

One more example of what an almost-nine-year-old can be like. He's playing hockey now, and in addition to his regular hockey skills class, he takes a two-hour goalie class once a week. Remember, he just learned how to skate in March, but being a goalie fascinates him, and it's incredible how much he's progressed. And he's fierce between the pipes--in that two hour workout, he's the only kid who gets better the longer he's out on the ice.

He's fearless.
After the movie today, though, all he wanted to do was talk about the cat. There was a cat named "Picky-Picky" in the movie, and the writers created a scene where Ramona discovers the cat dead. It was pretty appalling, really.

"Dad, I can't believe Picky-Picky died," he said. "She doesn't die in the book."

"She doesn't?" I asked.

"NO! And that scene made me cry, when they had her funeral, but the whole time I knew that the writers had cheated. So they made me cry, but they were fakes."

"I didn't like it, either," I said. "They didn't need to do that."

"Picky-Picky didn't die in real life, did she?"

"No," I said. "Animals never really die in movies."

"But how could they film her dead like that?"

I laughed. "They just filmed her asleep," I said. "Cats sleep eighteen hours a day. That was the easiest scene to film ever."
"Oh, yeah," he said, and laughed. "I'm glad she's okay," he said.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Links!

It's a sandwich in a can--it's a Candwich!

Russ Pitts, who is a hell of a writer, has a sprawling interview with Warren Spector in this week's issue of The Escapist.

From Tim Steffes, it's The Khan Academy, a remarkable series of hundreds of lectures by just one man.

Here's the new installment of Matt Sakey's excellent Culture Clash column, and it's about Alpha Protocol (among other things).

From Ron Watkins, and this is the greatest series of articles written about a sports sim I've ever seen, it's one users experience with Football Manager 2009: the saga of Pro Vercelli.

From Cliff Eyler, a fascinating article about Germany's fascination with board games.

From Cody, a video that explains how last week's Mario in the real world video was created.

From Andrew B, a very satisfying video of greed going unrewarded: iPhone shopping goes wrong.

From Sirius, an article about the complexities of managing wind power generation with our existing power grid.

From Ed Quinn, an oddly affecting video of a Holocaust survivor and his family dancing at concentration camps.

From Kevin W, an odd piece of art (but very funny--watch the video): Disgusting Switches. Also, and this is an entirely brilliant idea, it's Crap At My Parents House.

From George Paci, a car crash--with zombies

From John Lewkowitz, an interview with Billy West (called "the new Mel Blanc"): The Many (Cartoon) Voices In His Head.

From Tateru Nino, and you have to see this video, it's the mimic octopus. Also, a new physics simulation engine called Lagao Multiphysics that looks quite fantastic. 

From Jonathan Arnold, magnetic resonance imaging--of foods

From Meg McReynolds, and this is brilliant, it's Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company.

From Brad Ruminer, and this is quite amazing: a robotic wheelchair. Here're more (thanks Steve Davis): REX robotic exoskeleton.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pure Sim 3 Released

Well, this is unexpected good news. Shaun Sullivan's Pure Sim 3, the latest version of my favorite baseball text-sim, was released today by Wolverine Studios. There are 75+ new features/enhancements, but here are a few of the big-ticket items:
--TRU-Life Transaction Mode. Think you can do better than your favorite manager? Try Tru-Life Transactions mode, where player transactions happen just as they did in real life! All seasons from 1946-2009 are supported. You'll have to manage with the cards you are dealt.

--Manager Tendencies Editor. On each team's menu there is now an option to edit manager tendencies based on the situation, such as inning score etc. Over 200 tendencies can be editd.

--All MLB Managers since 1900 have been modeled and automatically import onto the correct teams as your association seasons unfold.


--2 unique career modes available when doing historical replays:

1. TRU-Life - Super accurate modeling of player performance based on real world stats. The most accurate career replay simulation on the market.
2. Organic - Upon import, real players are assigned ratings and career trajectory models based on their real world performance, but from there things are 100% ratings based and organic. Interesting mode if you'd like to have a more varied range of possibilities.


If you want to see the full list, it's here.

This has always been my favorite text-sim because Shaun has made the engine so transparent. Almost every variable in the engine can be user-adjusted, and I think that approach has made a major contribution to the robustness of the game over time.

Here's a link to the game's website: PureSim Baseball 3.

The Summer of Broken Bones

#2.

We were riding on a park trail this morning, and this particular trail has several small bridges that are cement at the arch point, but have a rough, cobblestone-like section at the base.That means you have to ride over a section of very rough stone to get over the bridge.

There's one bridge in particular that is very demanding, because the stone section is longer and steeper than the others. When we reached this bridge, I sped up to help me with the slope, but somehow I lost my balance. I only rarely fall now (this was my only fall of the ride, and I've only had one other in the last several months), but none of that exemplary history was going to help me at this particular moment.

It was a very benign fall, seemingly--not even a knee scrape--but somehow my right foot whipped around and kicked the stones at high speed.

Understand that as I was learning, I fell quite often, but I've never hurt my feet. I can't even re-create what happened, because I have no idea how it's even possible.

When my shoe hit the stones, my big toe exploded with pain. My first thought: I broke that. My second thought: I have to ride a mile back to the car.

Which I did, and when we got home, I called the local orthopedic factory for an x-ray. Within three hours, I was talking to a doctor, who informed me that I had a "non-displaced impaction fracture." He also said it would heal in about six weeks, and in the meantime, I could do pretty much whatever non-weight bearing exercise I wanted as long as I could stand the pain.

He also said I should batten down the hatches for the next couple of days, because it was going to hurt more before it hurt less. Noted.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ubisoft, 3D, And The Imaginary World

I saw this gem from Ubisoft last week (head of UK marketing Murray Pannell):
The truth is I think it is a technology that's coming. We can't ignore it. It'll start slowly this year. But like HDTV I wouldn't rule out the fact that this will be installed in everyone's living room in three year's time, and for us to be in a position to have content that could really look absolutely amazing in 3D.

Let's step back to a place I call "sanity" and take a look at this statement.

According to Nielsen's June 2010 Three Screens report:
HDTV: More than half of US TV households now have a high-definition television and receive HD signals; between Q1 2008 and Q1 2010, HDTV penetration grew 189%.
In other words, after a two year period of absolutely massive growth, we just broke 50%, and the U.S. would be considered (with the exception of Japan) a very "advanced" market when it comes to HD penetration. The government mandate to transition to digital format was a huge spur for consumers to replace their old sets, and we still have barely 50% penetration.

If you're going to e-mail and ask what percentage of the market has an HD set but can't receive HD signals (note the way the question was worded in the survey), I can't answer. Not many, though, at least after the completion of the signal transition, although I think it was much more common a few years ago.

So the idea that we'll have 3D sets in every home in three years, or even ten? Ludicrous. Even if everyone was willing to wear the glasses (they aren't, not by a long shot), 3D sets would have to drop to non-3D HD prices, which isn't going to happen anytime soon. And when that does happen, there are still a huge number of people who bought an HD set in the last two years (see the Nielsen quote--189% increase in the last two years). Are they all going to run out and buy a 3D set in the next three years? Not likely.

Does Ubisoft actually believe their own crap? Unikely. More likely: their announced earnings for the full fiscal year were a $76.2M loss, and if they can get people excited about the future--even a largely imaginary one--they will pay less attention to the present.

3D

Jean-François Boismenu sent me a link to a Technology Review article that discusses emerging 3D technology from, of all people, Microsoft:
...a new type of lens developed by researchers in Microsoft's Applied Sciences Group could help make glasses-free 3-D displays more practical.

The new lens, which is thinner at the bottom than at the top, steers light to a viewer's eyes by switching light-emitting diodes along its bottom edge on and off. Combined with a backlight, this makes it possible to show different images to different viewers, or to create a stereoscopic (3-D) effect by presenting different images to a person's left and right eye. "What's so special about this lens is that it allows us to control where the light goes," says Steven Bathiche, director of Microsoft's Applied Sciences Group.

...Microsoft's prototype display can deliver 3-D video to two viewers at the same time (one video for each individual eye), regardless of where they are positioned. It can also shows ordinary 2-D video to up to four people simultaneously (one video for each person). The 3-D display uses a camera to track viewers so that it knows where to steer light toward them. The lens is also thin, which means it could be incorporated into a standard liquid crystal display, says Bathiche.


That's quite interesting, and it's worth watching to see if they can enhance the tech in the future to accommodate more viewers.

Like I've said many times, 3D is going to take over the world, but not while we have to wear glasses.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Matt Matthews FTW

Matt is money, as always:
The Xbox 360 sold better in terms of a weekly rate in February 2010 than it did in June 2010, at least from what I recall. So June 2010 was good ... but the system has had similarly good numbers in a non-holiday month this year.

He's right. In absolute numbers, June was better, but on a per-week basis, February of this year was higher (105k versus 90K).

Console Post (Supplemental): Kinect Pricing And Microsoft's Motivation

From Chris Kohler and Game|Life:
Microsoft will sell Kinect for $150 this fall, making the camera-based motion controller — which promises to turn videogaming into a full-body experience — the most expensive standard-issue peripheral on the market.

Kinect, an Xbox 360 add-on that uses cameras and voice recognition to transform the way players interact with games, will come bundled with Kinect Adventures, the company said Tuesday...Kinect, formerly known as Project Natal, will be released Nov. 4 and will work with existing Xbox 360 consoles.

$149 with a pack-in game. Again, I think there are serious value proposition issues here. I can spend $149 for an accessory, or I can spend $50 more and get a Wii, Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort, and MotionPlus? Who's going to want Kinect instead?

Yes, I understand that Kinect can work with more than one player. People seem remarkably unable to understand those kind of "value add" propositions, though--they go by the price on the box.

Plus, and I think this is going to be a real problem for Microsoft, Kinect's being marketed as "unlimited" control, but as I wrote two weeks ago, it's actually quite limited--in almost all games, apparently, players will have to stand up to play.

If you're wondering WTF is going on here, so was I, but I think this quote (and other recent ones like it) gives us a clue:
“$150 is an appropriate price for the Kinect,” said Electronic Entertainment Design and Research analyst Jesse Divnich in an emailed statement. “Kinect should not be viewed as a typical video game peripheral that is retired from one’s active playlist after 90 days, but rather a consumer enabling device that has the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with all forms of media on a daily basis.”

That's not an analyst talking--that's Microsoft talking with its fingers in the back of a hand puppet. He's just regurgitating what Microsoft has been saying for weeks, although "consumer enabling device" is an entirely new level of bullshit.

As ridiculous as that phrase is, though, it's useful.

It's useful because it tells us how Microsoft is positioning this device: this is a Trojan Horse for a remote control. Yes, I laughed out loud while I typed that, because it sounds so ridiculous, but that appears to be what's happening. Microsoft envisions Kinect as a replacement for our remote controls.

Wait, I think I feel a slogan coming on: One awkward gesture to rule them all.

Here's how this works (in Microsoft's mind, at least):
1. People buy Kinect for gaming
2. They fall in love with its unicorn shitting abilities
3. Because of #2, they try Xbox Live's video on demand.
4. Akward gestures can control this video. Yay!
4. Blu-Ray needs a remote. There's nothing unicorn about that.
5. The PS3 is never used again.
6. Kinect rules the living room. Yay!

In one blunt stroke of pantomime, performed repeatedly until it registers correctly, Microsoft owns the living room.

Yay!

Dear Dhani Harrison

I was listening to the 2001 digital remaster of All Things Must Pass, George Harrison's solo masterpiece, and I was struck by how fresh it still sounds. Even though it was originally released in 1970, Harrison's warmth and vitality shine, and it still feels brand new. Songs like "Apple Scruffs", "My Sweet Lord", "Let It Roll", "Wah-Wah", "Awaiting On You All", "All Things Must Pass"--all right, let's just include every song on the album. It's sensational. I've listened to it a hundred times over the years, at least, and it just keeps getting better.

I know that Dhani Harrison is a frequent reader of this feature (this has not been verified), so let me plant this seed. Dhani, why don't you take a selection of songs from All Things Must Pass and release them on the Rock Band Network? It would be a wonderful tribute to your father, and now we could actually play the guitar as it was intended, given the new realism in Rock Band 3 that you were consulted on as part of the development process.

Seriously, man, this would kick ass. Think of the millions of kids who would have a chance to hear your father's unbelievable musical abilities for the first time.

Despicable Me

Very funny, very warm-hearted, and 100% child-friendly. It would be entirely worthy as a Pixar film, and we all laughed out loud more times than I can count.

Monday, July 19, 2010

On Context And Content

I don't watch many golf tournaments, but I never miss the British Open.

On Friday, I was scanning through ESPN's coverage. It's impossible to just watch ESPN coverage, because there's quite a bit of waiting between the golf, actually. I was spending more time looking for golf than actually seeing any golf.

Roaming around with the remote, I saw that DirecTV was offering the "international feed" as well, which was the BBC feed.

I realized after about ten minutes that the BBC feed was the greatest coverage ever. No commercials, no interviews, just shot after shot after shot. Plus, the announcers were wonderful. Compare what happens after a bad shot:
American announcer--"One thousand random words."
British announcer--"That certainly wasn't what he was hoping for."

Quite the breath of fresh air, really, and no commercials, either, so it was couch potato heaven.

On Saturday, I decided to measure the difference (I tend to do that). So I taped the 12:00-12:30 CST coverage on both channels. In that thirty minute period, the BBC showed 52 actual golf shots.

How many did the U.S. of ESPN show? 35.

That's right. 50% more actual golf on the international feed, and commercial time accounted for less than half the difference.

Here's the difference in coverage. In the U.S., ESPN spent a huge amount of time trying to provide context and explain story lines. They did interviews. They made the screen look like a video game. The event itself wasn't considered interesting enough unless additional drama was provided by the coverage.

In a word, shitty.

The BBC feed, on the other hand, spent zero time providing context. If you don't know the context of the British Open, it's not their bloody problem. Interviews? None. Screen overlays? Sod off.

In a word, excellent.

Console Post Of The Week: NPD and 3D

First off, the numbers for June:
360: 451,700
Wii: 422,500
PS3: 304,800

Last year:
360: 240,600
Wii: 361,700
PS3: 164,700

Unquestionably, that was a big month. For everyone.

360 demand wasn't quite "unprecedented" (Microsoft's P.R. BS), but it was pretty damned good. Context: besides September 2007 (Halo 3 launch), this is the best non-November/December month the 360 has ever had. This also seems to be an indication that Microsoft has a substantial market waiting for them at lower prices, because 35% of the June total were Arcade units sold at the $150 clearance price.

Sony also must be breathing a sign of relief, since they nearly doubled last year's total. Matt Matthews let me know that when I mentioned Sony's inventory problems easing, that it had actually been during the June period, not May. So while they still got pounded by Microsoft, they also didn't have a new unit or special pricing during the month, either.

If you're curious about year-to-date totals, so am I, and here they are (through June in the U.S.):
Wii: 2,455,700
360: 1,914,500
PS3: 1,591,000

Last year?
Wii: 3,024,400
360: 1,620,600
PS3: 1,119,900

Yes, the Wii has clearly slowed, but don't cry for me, Wii Nintendo. Lifetime installed base in the U.S.:
Wii: 29,571,000
360: 20,572,200
PS3: 12,717,000

At this point, I don't really understand why anyone is excited by these consoles anymore. The 360 is on its fifth year, and the Wii and PS3 are on their fourth. Their technical limitations, at this point, are obvious, and I thought that a new Microsoft console would be here no later than holiday 2011.

Now, though, that looks like an entirely wrong projection, because it appears that everyone is going to milk these consoles until the last drop is dry.

Richard Lawler e-mailed after the last console post and mentioned that the HDMI 1.3 spec offered no real-world advantages over 1.2 when it comes to 3D. An excerpt:
There's plenty of headroom to even send 1080p frame sequential 3D, it takes less bandwidth than 1080p60 2D,which the 360 can already send, it's just not an issue. The only reason Microsoft isn't pushing it like Sony is because they don't have TVs to sell, the rest is trivial.

I think it's fair to mention televisions to sell, because Sony desperately needs 3D to sell for the overall strategy to work. I think it's also fair to mention that for both of these consoles, there are CPU limitations. I mentioned my suspicions last week, but Sony made it official:
Sony has revealed that their official guidelines to 3D PlayStation 3 games do in fact limit games to a resolution no higher than 720p. 

Wait, there's more:
Benson admitted that a "more cinematic game" might actually benefit from a lower frame-rate and higher resolution, but he said the Sony guidelines don't allow for it. He also assured that even trained computer graphics artists could barely see a difference between a 720p and 1080p image in a 3D game, so it's unlikely many regular consumers will notice.

That's pretty damned funny, really, because the only reason anyone cares about 1080P is because Sony claimed anything less wasn't "full" HD resolution! So when Blu-Ray and HD-DVD were battling it out, Sony endlessly claimed that HD-DVD was inferior because it didn't support 1080P. So the difference between 720P and 1080P in 2D is massive, but the difference in 3D is barely noticeable?

Brazen.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Bonus!

No real God Of War movie will ever be better than this:
God Of War indie trailer

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, believe it or not, is a feature about The Price Is Right, or rather, a moment in the show's history when a contestant guessed the exact price of every item in the Showcase. It's a terrific piece of writing and a fascinating story.

From Nicholas Czekalski, a fascinating article about parenting (and human nature): All Joy and No Fun: Why parents hate parenting.

From Tim Jones, a link to a video of what Fred Astaire said was the greatest dance number ever filmed. He's right, and the Nicholas Brothers demonstrate both impeccable technique as well as unbelievable strength and power.

From Kevin W, and this is a wonderful piece of history: The Plus Four Wristlet Route Indicator. It was in a wristwatch form factor, and you could scroll paper maps of your (predetermined) route. Oh, and it was made in 1927.

From Sirius, and this is pretty freaky, it's Parasite-Busting Bugs Throw Fruit Fly Evolution Into Overdrive. Also, and this song is absolutely one of my favorite singles ever (guilty pleasure), a video about the making of 10cc's I'm Not In Love (which featured some of the lushest vocals ever included on a record). Next, a bizarre story from 1883: Pinned under a haystack for a month. Finally, it's video of a fish with a transparent head.

Matt Sbonik let me know that there have, in fact, been several nuclear weapon tests in space. In addition to the one I linked to last week, there's Operation Fishbowl (5 separate tests), and here's the Wikipedia page for High-altitude nuclear explosion, which provides a complete list (21 tests in all).

From Ryan Leasher, an amazing video that overlays footage of playing Super Mario Bros.onto reality. Difficult to describe, but awesome to watch.

From George Paci, and this is mind-blowing, it's a singing plasma arc.

From Dib O, spectacular pictures of trains, including some fantastically futuristic models from the 1920s-1930s.

From Ben Younkins, a fascinating article about phonagnosia, also known as "voice blindness" (unable to tell voices apart).

From Josh Eaves, and there's a photograph included that you absolutely cannot miss, it's Cymothoa exigua, a parasite that replaces a fish's tongue. Yikes.

From Meg McReynolds, a story about how woman are better professional taste testers for beer than men.

Don't try this at home, but Frank Regan sent in a video of a beautiful paragliding launch technique called the Footlaunch. Also, and this is well worth seeing, it's Engineering Wonders.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Swimmers And Drowning

Several of you sent in an excellent article titled Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning, and it's a thorough explanation of how swimmers act when in distress. In short, they don't act like you expect them to, and unless you understand this, it's very difficult to know when you need to respond.

June NPD's

Analysis next week, but here are the numbers:
360: 451,700
Wii: 422,500
PS3: 304,800

A Day In The Park (part two)

As I ride, I'm seeing two movies unspool: the first is right in front of me, the concrete paths that I am so familiar with, but the second is a series of images from the pool, strobing.

I pass behind a church day care, where sometimes the kids will run to the fence and wave as I ride by. It's so hot that they must all be inside.

I've written before about how I get the ghoulies, where I worry about Eli and all the bad things that could happen to him. I remember that now, and I think about the boy's parents, and how the phone rings, and how they have to answer.

There are S-curves all along the path, some that cross over the stream, and I'm still riding hard as I pass a woman walking with her son, who is riding a bike with training wheels.

There's something about being a parent that exposes the insubstantiality of life. Life is robust but so fragile. Eli has given me so much joy. He's made me human. I can't conceive of a world where he's not with me.

I ride a banked curve over a stream, sweating hard now, and wind through trees until I reach an overpass. I stop there in the shade, my legs wobbly from the heat. I take off my helmet, then wipe my forehead on the sleeve of my white shirt.

I know I have to turn around and go back. I wait in the shade for another minute, then buckle up and start riding. I see a few more people on the path. Just a normal day.

I cross an underpass near the park, and there's an  inch or two of standing water from the creek, so I get off and walk across. Past the underpass is a hump of sidewalk, and when I get to the top I can see the parking lot.

The emergency vehicles are gone.

I want to see lots of kids in the pool, with lots of happy shouting, but I see about five people. There are a few kids in the pool and a few lifeguards, but it's quiet, even barren.

Like I said, I don't belong here. I can't walk up to a lifeguard and ask if his friend is alive.

I'm not a ghoul--I'm just scared.

I do the only thing I think is appropriate: I go home. I scan local news websites for several hours, looking for a story, but find nothing.

Two hours later, I get an idea.

I find a phone number for the park. Not the pool area, but at least it's a number. I dial.

When a woman picks up the phone, I try to explain myself in the least awkward way possible, but I can't. There's too much anxiety and the ghoulies running inside me. I finally stammer through my question, asking if the kid is okay, and she says "I'm not authorized to release any information."

She does, however, give me the phone number for the public information officer for the city. I look her up on the city website, find an e-mail address, and decide to write her instead. Less stammering.

Less than half an hour later, she replies:
Yes, there was a water safety instructor rescued today. The instructor was responsive and transported to a local hospital.

It was a city employee, and I am unable to report any information about his condition without consent from the family.

I appreciate your understanding as to why I am unable to answer your questions at this time, and do appreciate your concern.
Responsive. A good sign.

I checked local news this morning, and there was no mention.

Just a normal day.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Day In The Park (part one)

I saw a kid dying today.

I drive to the park in Pflugerville where I normally ride, and as I get out of my car, a police car comes tearing into the parking lot, lights flashing. The policeman gets out and starts walking quickly toward the pool.

Disturbance, I think.

Less than a minute later, not one but two fire trucks pull into the parking lot, and a small army of people unload. I see one fireman carrying a defibrillator.

Heart attack, I think.

They all fast-walk into the pool area, and about a minute behind them, an emergency response vehicle pulls up.

I start putting on my gloves, but then I see a lady standing by herself outside the chain-link fence that surrounds the pool area. I walk over and stand beside her.

"Hi," I say. "What happened?"

"They pulled a kid out of the pool," she says. "At first, I thought it was my boy," she says, and her eyes well up like she's trying not to cry.

"Is he okay?" I ask.

"I don't know," she says. She points toward the pool deck, where I see about a dozen people standing in a cluster. "That lady in the pink shirt worked on him for quite a while--I think she must be a nurse--and someone said she got his heart started again. He was a lifeguard."

"A lifeguard?"

"He was teaching some little kids out in the middle of the pool, and then he just sank to the bottom. Everyone thought he was just joking, but then he didn't come up."

We stand there silently. All I can see are his arms, and I watch as closely as I could, hoping for any kind of movement. Around him, nothing is still, flashes of color as people move around him. Red, blue, white, pink--flags rippling in a stiff breeze.

I don't see him move.

"Thank you," I say. "I hope he's okay." I lightly touch her shoulder--an inadequate gesture of comfort--and walk back to my car. I want to know if he is okay, but I don't belong there. There is nothing I can contribute, no skill that might help him survive.

I decide to go ride and hope that there will be good news when I come back. As I ride out of the parking lot, I see two yellow EMS vehicles tearing down the road toward me, sirens sounding. They pull into the parking lot a few seconds later.

At this point, there are two fire trucks, two EMS vehicles, two emergency response vehicles, and two police cars in the parking lot. There's no place left to park. It's a small parking lot, because only small things happen here. There's no room for this.

I take off, riding fast on a path lined with trees, along a fast-running stream. It's hot, and the air is heavy. Legs have to move or I fall.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A General Call For The Setting Down Of Torches

You might not have expected this, but I'm going to defend someone today. His name is LeBron James.

First off, let's put up the list of what James did wrong:
1) He participated in a one-hour program on ESPN where he announced what team he was signing with.

No question, this was a gaffe. He looked uncomfortable, Jim Gray was an idiot (nice fingernail question, Gilligan), and ESPN did an awful job of formatting the show.

It did, however, raise $4-5 million for the Boys And Girls Club. Is that a free pass? No, but at the same time, do you think any of the thousands of kids that get helped by that money give a damn that LeBron had a special on ESPN? No.

So that's what he did wrong. Now, let's look at what he's done right.
1) He didn't negotiate in the press.
Free agents are notorious for using the media to pit one team against another. James didn't do this--he didn't say anything to the media during the process.

2) He didn't hold any teams hostage.
Within 8 days of being able to sign a contract, James had made his decision. He didn't wait for months, holding rosters hostage in the process (I'm looking at you, Brett Favre).

3) He wasn't selfish.
I saw dozens of articles the day before he announced the decision that said he was "too selfish" to fit in with other great players. Then he goes to Miami to play with two outstanding players, and some of those same writers said he went because he "couldn't stand on his own."

He's taking $15 million less than he could have gotten from Cleveland. Bosh and Wade are taking $15 million less, too. Why isn't this being celebrated--the athlete for whom winning is more important--instead of being condemned?

James scored 29.7 points a game last season, with 7.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists. Those numbers are utterly, completely ridiculous (2nd in points, 6th in assists). I can only think of one player in history who compares, and that's Oscar Robertson, who was one of the greatest players in the history of the league. And in comparison, Robertson's numbers are inflated in comparison to James as well, because there were (roughly) 30+ more possessions in an NBA game (per team) in the 1960s than today, and the 3-point line in no way cancels that out.

Stone cold badasses, both of them.

I think it's entirely possible that James will either lead the league in assists next year or average a triple double. Or both.

Other things he's done right during his career:
--never accused of taking PEDs
--never accused of being a bad teammate
--never arrested, no DUIs
--still with his high school sweetheart (that may not be categorized as "right", but given how pro athletes often act like whoredogs, it does indicate maturity)
--took a pig-ugly, 35-win roster (without him) and turned it into a 60-win team.

Look, Cleveland's roster is terrible. They're a lottery pick without James. And this was one of the rare times in his career where he could go play with better players? Why the hell wouldn't he leave? He would have been a fool to stay.

If he wanted to win, then he had to leave. Nobody wins an NBA championship with one great player these days. Jordan never won without Pippen. Bryant never won without O'Neal or Gasol. O'Neal never won without Bryant or Wade. Cleveland had years to build a team around him, and they failed, and that's not his fault.

If a General Manager had traded for James, Bosh, and Wade, or was perceived as having driven the process, they'd be calling it the greatest executive move in NBA history. But because the players drove it, now it's a bad thing?

Then there's the owner of the Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, who managed to come off as a far, far bigger dick than James ever could. Gilbert wrote an "open letter" to Cavs fans after James's announcement, and it included some choice phrases like "cowardly betrayal", "shameful display of selfishness", "shocking act of disloyalty", "heartless and callous", "quitter", and many other fun phrases that you can read here. The flecks of foam in Gilbert's rant make him sound like he's in stage one of Mel Gibson Disease.

Never mind that the Cavaliers were 17-65 the year before James was drafted, or that James has made Gilbert millions of dollars in revenue that he would never have seen otherwise. Cleveland has a proud basketball history, but the four years before James came, their record was 32-50, 30-52, 29-53, 17-65.

After James arrived? 35-47, 42-40, 50-32, 50-32, 45-37, 66-16, and 61-21.

Gilbert became the majority owner of the team in 2005, and the last 77 games were sold out. That's almost two years without an empty seat. How many empty seats would there have been with a 30 win team?

Gilbert gave an interview to SIs Ian Thomsen yesterday, and he cut loose on a few additional grievances:
"Family members were getting a couple of suite passes, it was that kind of thing -- but we did those things for all of the players," Gilbert said. "He really never did ask and go above and beyond for material things. We were 'enabling' -- not on that stuff -- but probably just on how he conducted himself and the respect level.

"I wish I'd brought the hammer out on that stuff earlier. Returning people's text messages -- whether it was the p.r. people or my own. Overall, he showed up to the key things, he was never late to practice. But in certain meetings he was kind of like the kid in the classroom looking at his BlackBerry."


Wait, those are grievances? That he was getting what the other players were getting? That he was never late for practice?

Oh, wait--he wasn't returning text messages. Oh yeah, sharpen the stakes and light the torches.

Look, I'm not saying James is perfect. He puts his foot in his mouth at times (although, in his defense, everything he says is scrutinized at a microscopic level), something weird was going on in the playoff series against Boston last year (ask Delonte West--Bros before Mos, Delonte), and he shouldn't have signed off on that stupid one-hour special.

He is not, however, the stereotype of the "selfish athlete" of today. He doesn't appear to be anything like it, really.

Oh, and for all the people who say the Heat aren't going to win--good luck with that.

Monday, July 12, 2010

OnLive By Digital Foundry

Eurogamer's Digital Foundry has an extremely in-depth analysis of the OnLive service today, and it seemingly tells you everything you'd want to know--performance, image quality, lag, pricing. If you're interested in the service, or have any questions, this is the place to go. If you're tremendously lazy (who isn't?), here's a useful bit:
A good rule of thumb with OnLive picture quality (and indeed streaming video in general) is that the more the image changes from one frame to the next, the lower the quality of the resultant encoded image. So, third-person adventure titles like Assassin's Creed II, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Splinter Cell: Conviction and Batman: Arkham Asylum are pretty good picks on OnLive's behalf, in theory. However, racing games and twitch-based first person shooters are shifting the entire world view pretty much every frame, so the picture quality looks poor whenever you're in motion, which is most of the time.
I will say this: overall, OnLive has done a better job than I thought they would. It's not something I'd want, but it's not a total train wreck, either.

I'm just waiting for the showdown between ISPs and content providers, because it should be coming very, very soon. The issue of bandwidth caps has to be resolved.

The Thing

"Diane's having a World Cup party on Sunday," Gloria said. Diane is the mother of one of Eli's best friends.

"High-definition plasma," I said, pointing to the screen.

"Yup," Eli 8.11 said.

"I'm staying here," I said, "but it's okay if you guys want to go."

"Nope," Eli said.

"Be sure Diane understands that I like her, and that she isn't the reason I'm not going," I said. "It's the party mixing with the World Cup thing."

"Right," Gloria said.

"Actually, that's not right," I said. "It's the party thing."

"I could have said that for you," she said.

Yes!

Todd Robinson sent in this fantastic picture--from Ottawa.


That's right--it was hot enough to bake car cookies in Ottawa.

Todd's demented genius twist, though, was to add cinammon rolls. Sadly, he said they didn't rise properly, but it was "only" 95F, so maybe there's hope at 100F+. The cookies, however, reportedly were excellent.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Friday Links!

Now posting early enough to make the morning coffee in Europe, per your request.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine,  a photo of the only nuclear weapon ever detonated in space (no, I had no idea, either). Also, and this is oddly amusing, it's Hyperspectral imaging reveals Declaration of Independence rough draft dubbed citizens 'subjects'.

From George Paci, and the title says it all, it's You Suck At Craig's List. Also, and I've linked to stories about this before, it's the Parthian Battery.

From Sirius, and this is quite fascinating, the fastest case of human evolution. Also, it's 10 Crazy-Looking New Deep-Sea Creatures.

From John DiMinno, it's a "first fans" interview of people who saw The Last Airbender. Yeah, they hated it, too.

From Sebastian Morgan-Lynch, a fascinating article about what would happen if the Earth stopped spinning.

From Tim Hibbetts, a series of spectacular photographs documenting the birth of a volcanic island.

From Pete Thistle, a new piece of tech from MIT that can give you a prescription for eyeglasses with a  $2 box and a cellphone app.

From Andrew B, a terrific picture of the Coleco Adam computer and its original packaging. Also, a classic commercial for a mobile phone--in 1990.

From Jon Hui, and this is tremendously cool, it's Transformer Owl.

From David Gloier, a story about a treasure hunter in the UK who found a cache of over 50,000 Roman coins.  

From Brian Witte, a very touching article: To Those With Nothing, Soccer Is Everything.

From Kevin W, a brilliant invention (and a great picture): Designer wraps bike around pole to secure it.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

(Not) Awesome!

Seriously, this kind of thing makes me sick:
The bright color palate of the first "Crackdown" was replaced by darker, more apocalyptic browns and grays in "Crackdown 2." Even the character customization is decidedly subdued, as players only have four colors to pick from (blue, and three different shades of gray). Cope said this was intentional, and that Ruffian was using the dull palate as a way to show the state of Pacific City:

"We wanted to launch the game with a level of consistency. The colors you get by default are Agency-approved colors. Because you can't tell a narrative story, we've looked at external methods to add variety. With DLC it gives us a point in time to refresh people's understanding of the game. By the time the DLC comes out, people will know for certain that The Agency isn't good and then we can start fitting in to the propaganda we set up ahead of launch. The expansion of the armor colors becomes much more vibrant and radical from the Agency's approved perspective as we start looking at DLC."
Crackdown 2, in terms of color palette, makes Quake look like a Van Gogh painting. All right, that's an exaggeration, but there's no denying that graphically, the game is dull.

More:
Cope confirmed that there are currently there are two DLC packs planned for "Crackdown 2," tentatively titled The Toy Box and Deluge. The Toy Box is coming first and will include the return of Keys To The City, a debug mode which allows players to spawn in any object they want, gain even more powerful abilities and generally just mess around. He also mentioned that new gadgets and vehicles will be added in that pack.

The second pack, Deluge, will be more focused on changing the way people play "Crackdown 2."

"We're looking at new game modes to expand the play, rather than say, Here's some new map packs for the game you've already got, which I don't think it great value from a consumer's perspective. We're aiming at having a completely new way to play the game you've already got. I think people are much more appreciative of that."

Hey, no worries. Even though you just paid $60 for a game with a 71 Metacritic score (and a much worse "user rating" score of 5.7), you can still salvage your purchase by buying more!

How positively Orwellian.

It's getting very hard to get excited about "big" games anymore, because they seem to be mere vessels for setting up ancillary revenue streams, and it's only going to get worse in the future.

It's a double-edged sword, though. Maybe if the DLC had been included with the original game, reviewers would have given the game a higher score. Maybe word of mouth would have been better. They didn't, though, and it isn't. Hold shit back at your peril.

That's why guys like Tarn Adams or Vic Davis are a thousand times more interesting. They're making games, not DLC or marketing or anything else. A game, to them, isn't the launching pad.

It's the rocket.

Thoroughly Tested

So, with the World Cup (Go Oranje!) heading toward the finals, this seems newsworthy:
Aerodynamic experts from NASA’s Ames Investigation Centre stated the ­Jabulani becomes unpredictable at speeds above 44mph.
They also blamed the ball’s light weight of just 440 grams for the poor flight and lack of ­consistency, known as the ‘knuckle effect’.

NASA also believe the altitude could have increased the unpredictable nature of the ball, as most stadiums in South Africa are 1,000 metres above sea level.

Oops.

Awesome!

Indie Fund is a funding source for independent developers, created by a group of successful indies looking to encourage the next wave of game developers. It was established as a serious alternative to the traditional publisher funding model. Our aim is to support the growth of games as a medium by helping indie developers get (and stay) financially independent.Yes, that kicks ass in all three hundred sixty degrees.

That kicks ass in every single one of three hundred and sixty degrees.

The website is here, the RPS article is here (with links to more), and this is going to get placed in the Good Things drawer, which is unfortunately full of space these days when it comes to gaming.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

May NPD: Free Is Not Free

First off, the numbers:
Wii: 334,800
360: 194,600
PS3: 154,500

Last year:
Wii: 289,500
360: 175,000
PS3: 131,000

Let's look at the PS3 price cut in August of last year (from $399 to $299) in terms of year over year sales increases. The first month is September of 2009 (the first full month of the price cut), and we continue forward until May of 2010 (the last entry).
111.62%
68.74%
87.94%
87.33%
36.27%
30.47%
43.99%
42.36%
17.94%

Sony should hope that 17% number is an aberration, because if it isn't, their price cut of $100 will be netting them diddly squat only nine months later. I'm sure that's not what they were expecting.

Also, there's this disquieting note  from SCEA's Patrick Seybold:
While tight inventory had an impact on sales numbers in recent months, we are now beginning to experience greater availability of product...

Hmm. So inventory was previously constrained, now has "greater availability," and that was worth 23,500 units compared to last year?

In combination, the 17% increase and the additional inventory availability should raise eyebrows. It's not, seemingly, but it should.

Microsoft is claiming that the new 360 Slim is causing "unprecedented demand," which is marketing bullshit for "one more unit than last year." Just kidding--the new unit and the price cuts for existing models should indeed increase demand--but marketing hyperbole gets tired. Unprecedented for what--June?

Look, Sony and Microsoft both have problems this fall. The game line-ups are underwhelming, and they're seemingly both counting on their motion control products to shit unicorns and rainbows.

Oh, and Sony wants 3D to shit unicorns and rainbows, too.

They're also both in the "Hey! It's perfect!" phase of their marketing these products, but underneath, there are issues. Microsoft, in particular, has a serious problem with Kinect that they're doing everything they can to parse. As an example, Joystiq has a statement from a "Microsoft representative" that very explicitly addresses the issue of whether people can use Kinect while sitting down:
Kinect can be used while sitting when an experience is developed with sitting in mind.

Oh, wait--did I say "explicitly addressing"? I meant "didn't address a damned thing." WTF does that even mean?

There's more:
As for previously revealed Kinect applications that are being developed with a seated user in mind, Microsoft pointed to navigating the Dashboard, along with using the ESPN, Zune and Video Kinect apps as "experiences where we expect people to be sitting."

That's promising. Navigating the Dashboard and watching videos. That sounds an awful lot like a non-denial denial when it comes to games. Don't you think that if Microsoft could point to even ONE game in development that allowed players to sit, they would?

Microsoft's "answer" has a gigantic stink that isn't going away, and it's a problem. One of the nice things about the Wiimote is that in most games, you don't have to be standing if you don't want to. Maybe it's less impressive than Kinect, but it's also far more functional and flexible.

That's why Sony copied it for Move.

I haven't seen anyone do a direct comparison of Move versus the Wiimote with MotionPlus showing a significant advantage in capabilities for Move. Maybe it does, but having used MotionPlus, I can say that, subjectively, it's "pretty damn accurate," and I wonder how many people would be able to detect a degree of accuracy beyond that.

Sony's also banking on 3D, but there's an issue there as well. Processing a second image to create the stereoscopic effect isn't free in terms of CPU processing. This Digital Foundry article does a nice job with the details, but basically, 3D games of any complexity are going to run in either lower resolution or lower framerates than the 2D version. Sony developers are claiming that "the impact on performance can be mitigated if the base engine itself is designed for 3D," but I'm not sure how, and I think that's a questionable claim.

At least Sony supports the HDMI 1.3a specification, which basically doubles the bandwidth of 1.2. That extra headroom makes 3D possible, at least, even if resolution/framerate sacrifices need to be made. The 360 though, supports HMDI 1.2, not 1.3.

Amusingly, Microsoft says that 3D is an an interesting technology of the future. Yes, for them it is, because they certainly can't do it now.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 (360)

We've put about five hours into LEGO Harry Potter so far, and both Eli 8.11 and I have had an excellent time. Clearly, the developers understand the Harry Potter universe (take that, M. Nights ShitMyPantsAgain), and the game is an interesting addition to the canon.

Yes, it's a LEGO game, so you already know what to expect, but the game world is very rich (and very faithful), and there are many amusing and clever touches. I can also highly recommend co-op mode.

One note: if you are playing co-op, avoid Ron. As needed, you can change Ron into Scabbers, but all Scabbers really does (so far) is run through plexiglass tunnels. So Harry (Eli) is doing all kinds of cool things with spells and whatnot, and I'm a rat running through tunnels.

That's my only gameplay complaint, really. Otherwise, it's been a very solid adventure so far.

Digging A Hole, Much To My Surprise

That post wasn't even supposed to go up today, but I forgot to change the date, and after I read it (just now) I decided to leave it in its current state.

One of the secrets of the massive, 1000+ person enterprise known as Dubious Quality is that posts are often queued up in advance, particularly when they're not time-sensitive. That often includes drafts of posts that I haven't finished yet--I just put a future date on them, then work on them when I can.

What this means is that if I ever die unexpectedly, you will be freakily getting half-finished posts from beyond the grave for a week or so. Insert ghostly sound [HERE].

What Is Going On Here?


I am outraged that those of you in the Washington, D.C./Philadelphia/New York City area will be baking cookies in your car before we will. How can you have a 100F+ day before we do? How is that possible?

Yes, there's the negative of stewing in your own juices without air conditioning powerful enough to make you wear a jacket indoors, but the cookies are a tasty treat.

Digging A Hole

I've been thinking about a game idea for a while now.

It's a 19th century tale of a young man who inherits a fantastical drilling machine from his eccentric uncle, who invented all kinds of strange contraptions. The young man reads his uncle's diary (there's always a diary, isn't there) and discovers that his uncle was dead set on drilling through the center of the earth, only to come out on the other side.

Our hero decides to try this himself, and once he enters the earth, he finds other entire worlds inside his own, full of remarkable civilizations and creatures. In the process, the hero beings to decipher some of his uncle's strange inventions, which can aid him on his quest. The Remarkable Goggles Of Optical Penetration, for example, allow him to see special features of landscapes that only show up when wearing them.

It's very steampunk-y, which makes the inventions both elaborate and distinctive, and it obviously has a strong Jules Verne influence.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Fourth Of July: Wardriving Fireworks Edition

We did the fireworks wardrive again this year.

For both of you who are new to this feature, we've been doing this for the last three years. Accidentally, we stumbled on a neighborhood that must have the highest fireworks-to-citizen ration in the civilized world. Since the hassle of the big, city-sponsored displays just aren't worth it, we now drive around this Crazytown neighborhood, find the best ongoing fireworks display, and park the car.

"THE FLIP!" I shouted, after twenty consecutive minutes of a fireworks display that will surely go down in local history. Gloria and Eli 8.11 both groaned, because they knew that in forgetting to bring our video camera, we had completely missed out on the chance to document this insanity.

Where were we? Parked on a random street, about forty yards away from a group of people who must have spent a thousand dollars on fireworks. Literally.

Our theory is that entire blocks in this neighborhood are contributing to their own giant fireworks buys. That would explain the people in lawn chairs, and the cars lining the streets. Even that, though, can't really capture that feeling of the sheer volume of explosive devices bursting into various colors.

It was ridiculous and stupid and magnificent, all at the same time.

What was also ridiculous and stupid and magnificent was that on our way home, we passed by at least two other locations that appeared to have "shows" of similar size in progress, and they were both less than half a mile away. Supersaturated insanity.

Next year, with the video camera.

Young Versus Old

When you're in your twenties, and you're surfing the Internet (and you're a guy), you're looking for two things: sports and free p*rn.

Hypothetically, of course, since the Internet--as we know it--didn't exist when I was in my twenties. Disturbing.

In your late forties, though, instead of surfing through sports and free p*rrn, you're surfing through articles like "Heavy-Load Eccentric Calf Muscle Training For the Treatment of Chronic Achilles Tendinosis."

This is not as entertaining.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Also

Thanks to those of you who e-mailed to point out that if you're a Netflix subscriber, you can watch streaming episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender on demand.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Last Airbender

No.

Eli 8.11 as we exited the theater: "We waited THREE YEARS for THAT? It was HORRIBLE. I could have done a better job of directing that movie, and I'm EIGHT YEARS OLD!"

He is correct.

What made Avatar: The Last Airbender so wonderful was that it was utterly lacking in pretension. It was witty, and warm, and deeply personal.

M. Night Shyamalan has taken the richest, warmest source material in the history of American animation and turned it into a pretentious, flaccid, inept film. In a move only worthy of the largest douchebag in history, he changed the pronunciation of the names of almost all the main characters. He also managed to get absolutely terrible performances from every single actor in the film.

What a hack.

There are so many things wrong with this movie that it would take 10,000 words to touch on them all. Instead, here's an Amazon link to season one of the animated series: Avatar season one. It's only $25 for fifteen episodes of absolutely wonderful entertainment.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Friday Links!

Best wishes for an excellent holiday weekend, including Canada (and what a fantastic CFL game last night!).

From Josh Eaves, it's time to head down to the bookmaker, because a psychic octopus predicts World Cup games.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, an article about building a homemade nuclear reactor. Don't they make a Heathkit for that?

From Brad Ruminer, and this is a very funny short film, it's AT-AT Day Afternoon. Also, and this is amazing, it's the first functional, vat-grown lungs.

From Jonathan Arnold, spectacular video of an Oklahoma City hail storm.

From Jarod, a very cool video about transforming furniture.

From Jeremy Fischer, a breakthrough in quantum memory storage.

From Skip Key, and it's quite a soccer story, a look back at the 1994 Shell Caribbean Cup, which (through a quirk of the match scoring system) had Barbados and Grenada trying to score own goals.

From Chris Meadowcraft, an illustration of a newly-discovered, ancient carnivorous whale . And more, from Randy Graham, including that the teeth, when originally found, were so large that they were assumed to be elephant tusks.

From David Gloier, the story of a Led Zeppelin cover band having their show watched by Jimmy Page.

A rare serious link this morning, and it's rank hypocrisy like this that makes it impossible for me to respect my own country.

From Sirius, a story about how limbs evolved from fins.

A very funny post from Deadspin that's dead serious, sort of: Conspiracy Theorist Claims Competitive Eater Did Not Swallow Hot Dogs Properly And Should Be Banned.

Here's a fascinating (seriously, it's great reading) five-part series from the New York Times: The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is.

From Brian Witte, a fascinating article: Archimedes set Roman ships afire with cannons.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

May NPD

Analysis next week, but here are the numbers:
Wii: 335,000
360: 195,000
PS3: 155,000

On A Positive Note

The NFL Network announced yesterday that they'll be showing a weekly Canadian Football League game in HD. Details:
NFL Network will broadcast 14 regular-season CFL games, starting with the season opener Thursday, July 1 at 7 p.m. ET, featuring the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders in a rematch of last year's Grey Cup championship game.

...The 14-game CFL schedule on NFL Network in high definition features three games on Saturday nights in July following the Thursday night debut on Canada Day. Due to NFL Network's commitment to air every NFL preseason game in August, CFL action resumes on Friday nights in September, October and November. 

If you've never watched the CFL, it's a very, very fun game. Basic rules differences:
--12 men on the field for each team instead of 11
--the field is 110x65 yards (not including end zones), and end zones are 20 yards deep.
--three downs (instead of four in American football) to advance the ball 10 yards
--except for lineman, any number of players can be in motion before the snap, and they don't have to be moving parallel to the line of scrimmage.
--no fair catch rule.
--kicks into the end zone (except for successful FG/PAT) must be run out by the receiving team. If they don't make it out of the end zone, 1 point is awarded to the kicking team.

There are more differences, but I think that's the gist of it. What the rules differences do is create a faster-moving, very exciting game of football, and it's quite entertaining to watch.

I've been hoping for years that we'd get a CFL game of the week in HD. Score.

We're Ready For Brazil


That's Eli wearing his Netherlands team jersey and Scribblenauts hat. Go Oranje!

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Replace "Alexander" with "Me."

My car died in a parking lot late this morning. Even trying to jump it produced nothing--no trying to turn over, no clicking, nada. So I called AAA for a tow truck to tow the car about a mile to the dealership. The lady on the phone said it would be an hour and fifteen minutes.

Forty-five minutes later (half an hour early!), a tow truck pulled up, and the entire experience was far less painful than it could have been. So thank you, Wasam, for your courteous manner and amusing stories about crocodiles.

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