Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Elemental Update

After I made the Elemental post last week, I received an interesting and varied assortment of e-mail.I'm going to use most of these excerpts anonymously, because I didn't ask people for permission (with one exception), but I think it gives you a window into how conflicted people are about this game.

First, as a brief discussion before we get to the game itself (which, in the end, should always be what's most important), there were a few strongly-worded e-mails about what I wrote about Brad Wardell. Two, in particular, are interesting. Here's an excerpt from the first:
The patch on the 23rd was a no-win situation for Stardock, and it's really not terribly ethical journalism to smash someone for being in a no-win situation. Best Buy, among other retailers, broke the release date by several days, and the pre-order customers were promised early access to the release version of the game as part of the pre-order deal. Stardock HAD to release the game to them early or be slammed for reneging on their promise. That mean they had to accelerate production and release of their Day 0 patch (which is the SOLE anti-piracy measure, remember) in order to get it out to those people. That's what Brad was referring to by saying that the 1.01 patch wasn't expected to be played by the public.

In other words, Stardock had to either renege on their pre-order deal (which would have gotten them slammed) or release a not-quite-ready-for-release patch (which got them slammed). And don't say "They could have just waited until they could put the patch on the gold master", because then the game would have been forced to wait until March (IIRC) of next year before it could be released. A 6 month delay for the minor issues between patch 1.01 and 1.05.whatever is NOT a reasonable request. Brad covered that issue before the August release date was finalized, several months ago; those two were their only available retail dates.

That's kind of my point, really: Brad was in exactly the kind of situation that other developers get into all the time, due to the realities of retail. He's always elevated himself above those other developers, and chided them for releasing games early.When he gets himself into one of those situations, though, he does exactly what he's chided others for doing.

However, another e-mailer sent in a comment that I think is very fair:
Let me start out by saying Brad/Stardock messed up big time here. I can talk about what (in my opinion) are many mitigating factors involved, but the bottom line is that he messed up. No argument there.

But your portrayal of him is completely unfair in my opinion.

...when he makes a mistake, watch how he responds to it in the fullness of time.

While I don't agree that my portrayal of Brad was unfair, I do think it is a fair comment to talk about "the fullness of time." Most of the time, after Brad goes gas can on someone, he eventually calms down and apologizes. That's usually true of other issues as well--he might dispute them initially, but in the end, they are generally acknowledged and resolved.     

All right, let's get on to the game itself, and again, the opinions are all over the map. Instead of commenting after each one of these, I'm just going to put them all in and have discussion at the bottom.

The game is actually pretty great. I know they released it early as a preorder bonus and what they released was basically their beta code, but they also released two substantial patches one on day zero as they put it (the 24th) and then another one today (25th)...There are a lot of awesome ideas here (one in particular being a research branch that basically unlocks potential allies, quests, and notable discoveries) and some of the things they're doing give off a Solium Infernum vibe.

The game is being enjoyed by a lot of people, [even though] there are issues, and the game could be a lot more polished.

Also Stardock has a great history of thoroughly patching their games to make them better and better.

Brad does fully deserve some backlash, but I guess I have been following the game for so long (I did play a bit of the beta, but not much) and reading his journals you could see the love he and his team felt for the game.

The game is very playable with yesterdays patch. Some people do have issues, but looking around on the forums more than most are able to play with the latest patch.

I've got to say I must be lucky because I am not having a single problem cited in the PC Gamer article and I've put in probably 15 hours already in the campaign game. Are there some issue?...sure. But i haven't had a crash, or been unable to dig into tactical combat etc. The Day 0 patch fixed almost every issue i had with the UI and lack of a tutorial.

Hey Bill, I bought the game and have played up through beta to the final release where Impulse removes beta code and installs fresh. With that, since loading the release version I have not had one crash at all so I’m not one of the folks experiencing any issues.

What went out to distributors was a smoking crater of a game, and the Day 0 version was only marginally better. The Day 1 patch improved things enough that at least the basic save/load functionality and alt-tabbing worked, but there's still a TON of bugs in the game, and serious design problems -- for instance, magic is grossly underpowered, and trying to play a caster hero is a quick trip to the morgue. There are cosmetic bugs like multi-figure units not regenerating their figures back after damage correctly, even though they fight normally. The UI is badly confused... it's obvious that they were tacking on features as they went, and sticking the new functions wherever it seemed appropriate, with no real overarching sense of what should go where. Sometimes right-click cancels, sometimes it does nothing, sometimes it's the same as a left-click. Finding a given function is a total crapshoot of clicking random buttons and looking in random windows until you find what you want.

The actual state of the game once the "day one" patch was released is significantly better. The patch they released the next day improved things as well. If they hadn't done the early release, I strongly suspect that those people who are upset with the game release would be a lot less vocal right now. In fact, a lot of the criticism now in various places isn't so much about technical bugs as it is about design decisions and game mechanics, which is arguably a different issue then releasing a "beta."

I haven't hit the bugs others have mentioned, but I am *deeply* disappointed in how unready the game is in an equally fundamental way.

There is no useful manual. The in-game "opedia" is sketchy and useless. The UI is extremely clumsy, to the point that I had to go search the Impulse forums for how to get my avatar to actually wield the weapons I'd bought for him. (There is a tutorial hint for this, but it is clearly a last-minute hack because unlike most of the tutorial hints it isn't saved in the game log, and even if you read it carefully it is useless. It says "use the equipment button", but doesn't tell you that the "equipment button" is NOT with the other action buttons that come up for your army, it's in a special place.

Even if the game mechanics themselves were completely working, the UI is just apalling. In my (basically professional) opinion as a software engineer specializing in UI, it needs a complete review by somebody who hasn't been playing the betas and about 4-6 months of work just on the UI.
As you can see, those opinions are all over the map. Collectively, though, some general themes emerge:
1) there are interesting ideas in the game
2) the game has personality
3) the interface is a mess
4) program stability seems to vary widely by user

As someone who wants to play an interesting game, and isn't in any particular hurry, #1 and #2 bode well for the future.

There's also one other hopeful angle. I always talk about  the best games generate the best stories.  Robear on the GWJ forums wrote this jewel about the game:  
I have a two city kingdom now, and an ongoing conflict with Gilden. That's where I got my second city; they had planted one right in my expansion area, so I just... took it. Their king came by a few turns later, but decided my peasants were too tough and just pretended he'd just wandered by. Yeah. I left him unconscious in a meadow with a note pinned to his shirt that said "Alle yr Cites Ar Be Long to Ye Kingge Relias". That kept him away for a while.

So I finally got my defenses in order, and set off to found a third city. Just as I was getting to a good area, what do I see but one of Gilden's pioneers! The guy decided his only hope was to build a shelter with all that new city gear, which I then promptly took off his hands. Voila! Another city, courtesy of Gilden! And I still have my pioneer. Life is good.

Then I see King Mirkin of Gilden heading purposefully in my direction with his familiar, some soldiers and a huge soulless rock *thing*. I immediately head for home, leaving the city to it's own devices, but he caught up with me. I forced him to flee, killing his soldier in the process, but his magical beasts bested me. Not only did they run me off, but they caught me after I fled, and administered another beating. In ignomy, I fled to my closest city, and am working to get the damned seal of Gilden carved into my forehead removed as painlessly as possible. (In truth, I once thought these cack-handed baboons were *scholars*, if you can imagine, but they all quake at my reasonable requests to FIX MY GODS DAMNED FOREHEAD! The peasants will administer beatings until the situation is resolved.)

Now I sit with my spellbooks, plotting revenge, sipping cheap wine (but you should smell what the peasants drink) and wondering when that damned walking rockpile will show up at my city gates. I desperately need a nasty surprise for that animate heap of gravel...

That's a terrific story, and it's enough to make me try the demo, no matter else what else gets said about the game.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Oh No, There Goes Tokyo, Go Go Godzilla

I Guess It Is True That If We Send A Man to the Moon, We Can Do Anything

I'm working on an Elemental update post for later today, but there's no way to concentrate when this kind of fabulous news keeps coming over the transom: deep-fried beer.  

Don't Bother, They're Here

Some of you are so young that you've never even heard of Judy Collins.

A little history, then.

Stephen Sondheim wrote a song in 1973 titled "Send In The Clowns." It was tremendously overwrought, but in the theatrical context it was written for (a musical), it worked brilliantly.

Folksinger/songwriter/social activist Judy Collins recorded the song in 1975. Incredibly, she managed to make it even more overwrought than the lyrics. It became a standard of the era, and the signature depression/self-pity song for women.

Have a listen: Send in the Clowns .

In case you're wondering, men had their own depression/self-pity song of that era--"Alone Again, Naturally" by Gilbert O'Sullivan. It was wistful and understated-- to an 18-year-old, at least. Believe it or not, it's still one of my favorite songs.

Have a listen: Alone Again, Naturally.

Thus concludes the background.

One of my friends told me on Friday that he had to go to a Judy Collins concert. "What is she, seventy?" I asked (seventy-one, actually).

He cringed. "I don't have a choice," he said."My wife is demanding that I go with her."

"Promise me one thing," I said. "If all the women join arms in a human chain and start singing 'Send In The Clowns" together, get me a picture."

I saw him today.

"How was the concert?" I asked.

"We were almost the youngest people there," he said (he's in his late fifties). "I saw old hippies using walkers."

"What about the human chain?" I asked.

"No luck," he said, "but there was a teenage couple sitting right in front of us. I think they were the only teenagers in the entire audience. At one point, I asked them why they had come, and they both looked embarrassed, then the guy slapped his forehead and said 'we had to bring our grandparents.' "

One trivia note that may be of interest to no one but me: Collins was the inspiration for the Stephen Stills song "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," which was a sensational song and huge hit for Crosby, Stills, and Nash. And since I'm linking all over this post, listen to this one as well: Suite: Judy Blue Eyes

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Links!

Leading off, from Jarod, one of the most creative and entertaining works I've ever seen: Star Wars Silent Picture.

Matt Sakey's Culture Clash column has new installment, and it's here.

From Ryan Leasher,spectacular images of a pilot ejecting from a CF-18 fighter jet only fractionally before impact.

From Steven Kreuch, and you really need to see this, it's Fancy a ride in my shark? Simply put, it's a boat that can go both underwater and leap into the air, and it is entirely bad ass.

From Meg McReynolds, a fascinating study of geographical references in rap songs, conveniently Google-ized for your pleasure: The Rap Map.

From Scott "Sudz" Zimmerman, the periodic table of game controllers.

From Bryan DeyErmand, a variation on the "800 percent slowdown" technique for the Justin Bieber song. This time, it's classic science fiction themes.

From Cliff Eyler, an urban legend comes to life: Alligator Surfaces Beneath a Car in Queens. Next, it's ultraviolet light reveals how ancient Greek statues really looked. One more, and it's a BBC website called Dimensions. Here's what it does: Dimensions takes important places, events and things, and overlays them onto a map of where you are. 

From Dib O, and this is both a remarkable and mind-blowing read: China Traffic Jam Could Last Weeks. So strange only The Onion could have written it, even though they didn't.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine (with corporate headquarters now relocated from Miami to Seattle), a short film that is the story of a man who spent the last 35 winters at Yosemite. Also, it's abandoned houses of super villains. Next, it's Hong Kong and Macau in the Fifties. Finally, and this is a fantastic read, it's The Most Isolated Man on the Planet.

From Frank Regan, stunning footage of one of the worst car crashes you ever see-- and the driver survived. I have no idea how, though.

Here's a fascinating story: The strange case of solar flares and radioactive elements.

From Kevin W, an epic link to pictures of 1970s Vintage desktop and pocket calculators.

From Brad Ruminer, some truly spectacular pictures of the Madagascar Stone Forest (other places as well-- check the menu on the left).

From John Lewkowitz, and this is very clever, it's the Red Army performing "Beat It".

From Sirius, and this is certainly comforting: Pac-Man hacked onto a touchscreen voting machine. Also, a story about the amazing Scottish bagpiper Billy Millin, who walked the Normandy beaches on D-Day.

From Jeremy Connell, an amazing video from China's Got Talent (yes, such a thing exists): a pianist with no arms.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Please Note

I'm getting excellent e-mail from you guys about both Elemental and used game sales, and I'll have updates on both posts on Monday.

3-D Update

Several of you e-mailed earlier this week to ask if I thought Sony was working on glasses-free technology for 3-D screesn. I said that they were crazy if they weren't. Based on this, they aren't crazy:
TOKYO – Sony Corp. is working on 3-D televisions that don't need special glasses, joining a race with rival Toshiba Corp., but sees cost and technological hurdles to overcome before they can go on sale.

Toshiba said earlier this week it is working on glasses-free 3-D TVs, although no decision had been made on when they will go on sale.

..."Seeing 3-D without glasses is more convenient," Sony Senior Vice President Yoshihisa Ishida said Thursday at Tokyo headquarters. "We must take account of pricing before we can think about when to start offering them."


Penny Arcade is actually what prompted me to write about the used game market--Tycho put up a news post yesterday about the  THQ interview that was interesting, as always, and it made me think about the issue in ways that I hadn't before . 

What interested me most was that the response to Tycho was so passionate and so heated (Gabe notes that in the post below Tycho's, and here's a good example).

That's another reason why I think the gaming companies are playing with fire here. It's like closing your eyes and poking a very sharp stick into an animal of unknown size and aggression. It might not eat you.

The Most Dangerous Game

I saw this  earlier in the week
Smackdown vs. Raw 2011's one-time code for online play might upset pre-owned buyers - but THQ 'doesn't care'.

That's according to the publisher's creative director for wrestling games Cory Ledesma, who told CVG that "loyal fans" who are interested in buying the game first-hand are more important:

"I don't think we really care whether used game buyers are upset because new game buyers get everything. So if used game buyers are upset they don't get the online feature set I don't really have much sympathy for them."

"That's a little blunt but we hope it doesn't disappoint people. We hope people understand that when the game's bought used we get cheated," he continued.


People who don't buy a game new aren't loyal? Strong words.

I mentioned this before, but I think it bears repeating: this is dynamite the game industry is fooling with.

Before we have this discussion, let me make clear that I am not talking about indie developers. There is no real used game market for their product, because almost all of it is distributed digitally. They have a huge problem with piracy, but piracy is theft, not a legitimate resale transaction.

Am I sympathetic to the notion that gaming companies are getting the short end of the stick when the product is resold and they're not getting a piece of the action? Yes. Is it just that simple? No.

First off, there's basically a used market for everything.There always has been. It's even in law, commonly referred to as the Right Of First Sale doctrine (please note: it has not yet been established whether this legally applies to goods sold digitally, although Verner vs. Autodesk (2008) strong implies that digital goods are no different).

The sale of used games is not in shaky legal status. It's not sketchy.

When, exactly, has a used product market destroyed the associated new product market? I don't know of any examples.

Fundamentally, this is what we're dealing with. Game companies are claiming that the used game market is entirely parasitic. Gamestop and other merchants of used games are claiming that the relationship is symbiotic, not parasitic.

If there is a logical argument for the position that the relationship is entirely parasitic, I certainly can't think of one. It is far more likely that the relationship is symbiotic, and that the argument revolves around the degree of symbiosis.

Here's where we hit a wall. Anyone who claims to have an accurate analysis of how the used game market affects the size of the new game market is being disingenuous. Even if the size of the new and used game markets could be established with a remarkable degree of precision, the only way to reach an ending point is to factor in a magic number that is the percentage of used game sales that cannibalize new game sales.

Why do I call it a magic number? Because it cannot be established. We just don't know.

That's why it's so dangerous for companies to be attempting to cripple the used game market with the use of one-time online passes, etc. There's no way for them to even estimate the effect this will have on their sales. They're flying blind.

So what do we know? Well, we know that in a world where used game sales weren't permitted, that the overall size of the gaming market would decrease. There's no disputing that.

We also know that there would be fewer people around to buy DLC, because fewer people would be playing each game. Again, though, precisely tying "fewer" to a percentage is impossible.

Again, maybe that's a small number, but my point is that the gaming companies themselves don't know.

We also know that the robustness of the used game market has, to some degree, been created by the gaming companies themselves. If someone buys a $60 game and finishes the single player campaign in 10 hours or less--one or two days, in other words-- they're somehow doing something wrong if they sell the game back to Gamestop for $25 or $30?

You've got to be kidding me.

That's why this issue is so difficult to discuss with any clarity of mind. Sure, if you want to, you can call the guy who only buys used games a parasite, but what about the guy who sold his copy to get money to buy another new game? What do you call him?

You're stopping that guy, too.

Like I said, a dangerous game.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Good Idea

Affter finishing that piece on Stardock and Brad Wardell, I thought about what Wardell could do in a PR sense to defuse this situation.

Really, there was only one option: eat his own words. I thought that was highly unlikely, given Wardell's past, but to my surprise, he made the attempt. From Joystiq:
In the statement to Joystiq, Wardell expressed that after a "lengthy and heated debate" over issues in the pre-launch version of the game, he spoke hastily and says, "As a result, I want to apologize to our fans for speaking so harshly. It should be said that some of the issues in question from the PC Gamer UK article, in fact, did not appear in any of our beta testing. We were surprised by these issues and, after working days on end with little sleep, I was very frustrated. I should not have engaged in an online debate about these issues, as my haste to defend what we feel is a great product only served to hurt the fans who have supported us and the team who has been so dedicated to this project."

Given his situation, I think that was a reasonable attempt to admit what everyone else had already concluded. Credit given.

Elemental And The Making Of Popcorn

The appropriate phrase here, I believe, is "hoist with his own petard":
"Hoist with his own petard" literally means "blown up with his own mine." More generally, a "petard" is a hat-shaped device which can be be charged with gunpowder.

In 2008, Stardock released, to much self-fanfare, something called "The Gamer's Bill of Rights." Yes, that title sounds quite pretentious, but the actual text  was much worse:
Just like humanity in general, PC gamers are entitled to basic liberties...

That doesn't sound smug and self-serving at all.

Here's one specific point in the "manifesto":
2. Gamers shall have the right to demand that games be released in a finished state.

Please remember that for later. It will be fun.

Also, there's this:
We'll be judging reaction on it, and we'll be talking to developers soon. Of course, some companies won't think that this is worth their time.

If you're thinking that the excerpts sound a bit, well, arrogant, they do. That was Brad Wardell, and Wardell is the guy who's annoying even when he's right. He's always willing to dig the knife in just a little further. Like this:
It's easy to go and say how the game is and how it should work if you're not going to walk the walk.

That should be Brad's motto: I walk the walk, and I like to go around shouting that I'm walking the walk.

Then we come to Elemental.

It's a new game, just released by Stardock, and it was, um, released in an unfinished state. No, I haven't played the game, but given the specific nature of the blizzard of comments by players (this is quite specific), it's not a controversial statement.

Well, unless you're Brad Wardell (thanks to RPS   for this link:
Also, to anyone...saying the game is like an "early beta" then well, please stay away from our games in the future. I consider it ready for release and if others disagree, don't buy our games. 

I think much of the positive attention Brad Wardell has received is due to gamers believing that he is on "our" side. That's true, as as long as "our" side coincides with "his" side. Otherwise, take cover.

Wardell's biggest problem seems to be that he doesn't want to be evaluated by his own standards, because they're too high.

Mafia II Impressions (PC)

[Disclosure: I've played for two hours at this point. Based on what I've seen, though, I don't expect these impressions to change.]

Last time, it was a city square.

This time, I'm waiting for a stoplight to change, sitting with my buddy Joe, just shooting the shit, listening to the radio over the purring of the exhaust. Outside, it's lightly snowing, the streets full of cars and people.

That's when I realized, once again, that I'm not here, in my study. I'm there.

Here's the first thing you need to know about Mafia II:  Daniel Vávra is the best writer in gaming today. Period. He's sitting in a room, and no one else belongs in that room. No one else is even knocking on the door.

Here's the second thing you need to know: the voice-acting is almost as good as the writing. The banter between characters, in particular, is the most natural-sounding I've ever heard.

Here's the third thing you need to know: the city is wonderful. It's functional. It's coherent.

Like the original game, Mafia II does a spectacular job of creating a sense of time and place. The WWII-era radio announcements, the period posters and propaganda, and the story itself evokes an era that only exists in documentaries today. It's a living documentary, in essence.

Also in the sense of living, this game breathes. It's not hyper-manic. You don't have to shoot someone every fifteen seconds. The subtle touches of this development team, so often on display in Mafia, are once again in full throat here. I was driving to the mission, wondering why it was taking longer than I expected. Then I just relaxed and started paying attention to the city around me, and realized that, almost certainly, it was the point of the longer drive.

I've seen complaints in reviews about the number of cut scenes and their length. To me, that's like complaining a Van Gogh has too much paint.

I'm not saying it's perfect. The graphics of the original game were absolutely stunning, and they don't pop quite as much this time. The music is also pitch perfect, but it's not Django Reinhardt, and Vladimir Šimůnek didn't do the score.

Like I said, though, the sense of time and place is overwhelming. It doesn't feel like a studio lot. And that's an experience, in gaming, that is almost impossible to find.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


We all knew this was coming, eventually, but this is much, much sooner than I expected. From Gizmodo:
Before the end of the year, three 3DTVs from Toshiba not requiring cumbersome glasses to get the full effects are expected, after using something similar to Sharp's parallax barrier tech, as seen in the Nintendo 3DS.

The Japanese publication Yomiuri Shimbun is claiming Toshiba will launch three models before Christmas, using a technology they developed which emits light rays at different angles, meaning glasses aren't required.

Toshiba previously spoke of this technology as being 21-inches in size, with the panel not quite full HD, at 1280 x 800 (WXGA) resolution.

Oh, my.

This is not very complicated. The degree of penetration that "glasses required" 3-D screens could obtain has always been dependent on how quickly non-glasses technology could reach the market at reasonable performance and price points.

That's not what the companies who make glasses required 3-D screens would tell you, but like I said, it's not complicated. People don't want to wear clunky glasses that they don't have to, and they especially don't want to pay $150 for each pair.

Will these Toshiba screens have decent viewing angles? I don't know, but even if they don't, they will at some point in the future, and that point has been moved much closer to us.

There are some people in the glasses required 3-D camp who will never admit that a non-glasses screen as a satisfactory viewing angle. There are also people in the non-glasses 3-D camp who will never admit that a non-glasses screen doesn't have a satisfactory viewing angle.

These people do not matter.

What matters is the average guy who walks into a Best Buy and wants to buy a 3-D screen. Can he demo the non-glasses 3-D screen without a salesperson? Yes. Can he demo the glasses required 3-D screen without a salesperson? No, because he needs the glasses, and since those glasses cost $150 a pair, Best Buy doesn't leave them out. That inconvenience alone will remind him in very specific ways of the expense and limitations of the glasses.

Game over.

Based on this announcement, I think it's reasonable to estimate that within five years, glasses required 3-D will be viewed as an awkward transition phase into "real" 3-D.

Plus, I think this is also an important factor, when the 3DS launches, it's going to introduce non-glasses 3-D to a huge number of consumers, particularly kids. What kid is going to want a 3-D television where he has to wear glasses when he's holding a 3-D device in his hand that doesn't need them? 

Well, no kid, as long as the non-glasses screen can be seen from enough viewing angles.

I can't wait to see the commercials (well, actually I can, but only because I hate commercials). Let's see- we have two families of four, and they're both watching television in 3-D. One family has everyone wearing glasses, and they're fidgeting and adjusting them constantly. One kid gets up and trips over something because he can't see very well with the glasses on.

Contrast that with the ultra-super-deluxe modern family, who is watching television in 3-D without glasses. They're laughing. They look happy.

They look sleek.

Is that necessarily the reality? No, but it will be the advertising reality, and that drives our perception of what is real.

Like I said, game over.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Madden Coach Mode Sliders

I posted this over at Operation Sports, but for those of you who don't frequent that forum, here are the settings.

I think the sliders turned out about as well as the engine allows, and certainly, they've made the game much more balanced. I should have Play mode sliders available in a week or so.

These were developed for Franchise mode players. I can't vouch for them in any other mode, although you can try them if you'd like.

--In this mode, CPU and Human settings are identical.
--Quarter length should be set to whatever gets you about 110 total plays. I use 12-minute quarters, but you may need to lower that, depending on how quickly you call plays.
--The setting for player minimum speed threshold was established after stopwatch testing in practice mode. it's the same methodology I used last year.
--I like the number of minor injuries I get in a game, but it may be annoying to you, and if it is, lower the injury setting.
--There are about 16 penalties a game called in the NFL, and and false starts and holding are called about four times each. I focused on holding, since the slider actually works. If you think there are too many holding calls, lowering the slider will reduce the number of calls.
--Kick returns are broken in the sense that the CPU can never return the ball more than 20-25 yards ( if they even get that far). Sorry, that's an engine problem.
--Punt accuracy is also broken (a carryover from last year). When the CPU tries to punt out of bounds, instead of hitting the coffin corner, they'll shank it about 25 yards. Again, that's an engine issue.
--Since Special Teams sliders only have one setting (CPU/Human have to be identical), the Human kicker has a significant advantage. If you want to match the CPU's kicking ability, kick at 80-85% of the kicking meter. Fortunately, since the meter moves so slowly, that's easy to do.

Quarter length: 12
Play clock: On
Accel clock runoff: 15 seconds
Injuries: 75
Fatigue: 50
Game speed: Normal
Player min speed thresh: 100
Coach Mode: On
Fight For the Fumble: Off

Offside 100
False Start 100
Holding 70
Facemask 50
Def PI 100
Off PI 100
KR/PR Int 70
Clipping 50
Int Grounding 70
Rough Passer 75
Rough Kicker 85

QB Accuracy 17
Pass Blocking 80
WR Catching 45

Broken Tackles 20
Run Blocking 85
Fumbles 30

Pass Defense:
Reaction Time 65
Interceptions 0
Pass Rushing 40

Rush Defense:
Reaction Time 50
Block Shedding 15
Tackling 65

FG Power 30
FG Accuracy 67
Punt Power 62
Punt Accuracy 100
Kickoff Power 30


On our way to hockey practice yesterday, we saw something interesting.

We were on a local highway, heading south to the mall, when we saw something in the distance.

Ahead of us was a line of motorcycles, about fifteen in all.

In itself, that's not unusual. On the weekends, there are groups out riding all the time.

These motorcycles were loud, and collectively, they sent out quite a rumble.

Again, by itself, not unusual.

None of the riders were wearing helmets, either. Definitely not smart, but not terribly unusual.

These guys, though, were different. They were all wearing plain white T-shirts and jeans, the classic "James Dean" look. They were all riding single file.

They were all Asian.

They also had a "safety rider" with them, who was wearing the standard bright orange vest as a warning to motorists. He was riding near the front.

I have to admit (even as one of those people who think "motorcycle cool" is complete bullshit) that these guys looked totally cool. There was something about the white T-shirts that really created an effect. They would've looked good in a movie.

We slowly passed the long line, and as we drove off, Eli 9.0 said, "Sayonara, suckers!" Then he said, "See, that's funny because they're Japanese and they actually know what 'sayonara' means. Can we go to Japan someday?"

I certainly hope so.

Why would you wear no protective clothing and no helmet, but have a guy in your group who was wearing a safety vest? I don't have answers to questions like that--I just ask them.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Links!

From Chris Kohler, a terrific article on the life and death of the Virtual Boy.

Next, and you must listen to this, is a link sent in by sebmojo: Justin Bieber at 1/8th speed. It's absolutely stunning, and I'm not kidding.

I just don't have the words: Indian pole gymnastics. Warning: Speedo alert.

From Skip Key, and these are terrific: complicated mechanisms explained in simple animations.

From Tim Jones, and what a story--a teenage guitar maker creates a replica of a guitar formerly used by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' lead guitarist Mike Campbell-- who then used it in concert.

From Jonathan Arnold, spectacular images of recent Russian wildfires.

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, a fascinating article about one of the best defensive players in college football history: The search for Brian Bosworth. Also, an entirely fantastic animated music video of Radiohead's "Creep."

From Steven Kreuch, and this is very funny, a website that specializes in the translation of Chinese characters in tattoos.

From DQ reader My Wife, an excellent article about drownings and their prevention.

From Sirius, it's visual illusions. Next, and these images are fantastic, it's Sci-Fi Vistas Milked From Boring Old Earth.

From Eric Barrett, an interesting article about accents-- specifically, Did Americans in 1776 Have British Accents?

From John Catania, a website that will definitely have you laughing out loud: Perfectly Timed Photos .

From Kevin W, and no, I haven't seen this, even though it's local: a black fawn .

From Yacine Salmi, an inspiring and challenging valedictory speech.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Of Men And Quins

On Sunday morning, we headed to the mall for hockey practice.

Eli 9.0 doesn't usually practice at this link, but the location had been moved for the rest of summer.

As we neared the rink, already inside the mall, I saw a startlingly lifelike mannequin outside the entrance. It was quite striking, really--a male teen over 6 feet tall, anorexia-thin, with an authentically rendered fake-tan skin hue, Flock of Seagulls haircut, faded peach polo shirt with the collar turned up, Capri pants, and sandals. Even  the insouciant slouch was perfectly captured, and the arms were folded across its chest in a model act of indifference.

It was a bit unsettling, really, but I had to admire the edgy kind of marketing this represented.Who would put that kind of mannequin outside a skating rink?

"Dude," I said tapping Eli 9.0 on the shoulder. "Look how real--"

Then the mannequin moved.

If it was unsettling to see a mannequin outside a skating rink, it was exponentially more unsettling to see that mannequin move. It was like seeing a modern-day version of Pinocchio, life-sized and dressed for a Ralph Lauren catalog, suddenly stumble off Gepetto's workbench.

Perhaps this fellow's stylish manner would not be out of place in another city--The Hamptons, perhaps-- but Austin is almost vehemently casual. I hadn't seen anyone even remotely dressed like this for at least a decade, and only because memory fails me after 10 years (in general, although I was immediately able to recall yesterday in a trivia-based situation that Princess Anne was on England's equestrian team in 1976.)

Carefully, we passed the wax teenager and entered the rink. Soon after, he entered as well, and incredibly, he managed to walk while entirely retaining his slouch. For the rest of the 90 minute practice, he stood in the spectator area, unmoving, and by unmoving I mean entirely frozen in place. 

When we left the rink, he was still standing there.

I can only explain this incident using advanced theories of robotics and possibly time travel.

The reason we were at the rink was because Eli 9.0 was playing goalie in a scrimmage against travel-team level players, which was a step up for him. A big step, because some of these kids were absolute freaks (and I mean that in a positive, skill-based kind of way).

He gave up some goals on breakaways (everyone else did, too), but considering he just learned how to skate five months ago, he's an absolute freak as well. His only soft spot  is a "V" that is basically formed by his goalie stickand his arm.That's a soft spot for every goalie, really, but he wanted to figure out how to get better, so I decided to think about it in terms of general principles instead of just hockey.

That area is partially defended by the blocker, and higher by the stick, but the stick is so narrow that it doesn't really provide much defense. Here, I made a detailed drawing that shows it quite clearly:

Wait--that might be a Transformer.

You should be very thankful this isn't an art blog. I certainly am.

Okay, so the goalie has a strange sort of list to one side, and that triangle is actually bigger in real life, but you get the idea--there's this gap that can really only be defended by the narrow part of the goalie stick.

I figured that if he could get used to stopping a large object with the stick, then we could move to progressively smaller objects, and eventually he would be comfortable.

We started off with softball-size Whiffle balls on Monday, at a slow speed. He improved so quickly, though, that we included tennis balls on Tuesday (at a much higher speed), and added racqetballs yesterday. I'm throwing about 200 balls a day, underhanded (which I can throw very fast), and my release point is as close to the ground as possible, to simulate a shot.

I think he's making some mistakes technically--in particular, he sort of "paws" with his blocker when moving his stick, instead of moving quickly left to right in a single plane (which, theoretically, seems like it would be the correct technique )-- but it's quite amazing to see how much he's improved in only four days.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


"Dad, I can name the Seven Wonders of the World," Eli 9.0 said, as we sat at the dinner table (I have no idea why we weren't watching television). "The Great Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, um--" he paused.

"My study," I said. "Recently added." Gloria laughed.

"I can name the Eight Wonders of the World," he said. "Dad's study, the Great Pyramids, the Taj Mahal"--he paused again--"well, I forgot a few of them."

"For some reason, I remember the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as being one," I said.

"What's that?" he asked.

"They don't exist anymore," I said, "so I'm not really sure. Do you want to know what replaced them?"

"Oh, no," he said. "Here comes a joke,"

"No, seriously," I said. "Do you want to know what replaced them?"

"What?" he asked.

"A Sonic," I said.

"I knew it!" he said.

Tidalis Update

Chris Park sent this along, and if you haven't tried the game yet, go here:
Tidalis Official 1.005 Released (First Free DLC and Bugfixes)
This official release includes a lot of new stuff for players to enjoy, a lot of it suggested by fans. It adds the new VS - Race multiplayer ruleset for use against the AI or against other players, as well as a new Boarded Up block type. It has a lot more flexibility in what fullscreen resolutions players can use, even if their graphics card/OS doesn't report a resolution that they want to use as being supported. There is also a revamped sound subsystem that lets the game load faster, play multiple copies of the same sound effect at once (which sounds much better), and which avoids some issues on OSX.

Also included are 12 new Brainteaser levels created by players, a new visual block style created by a player, and updated stream graphics that look a bit fancier. Music tracks also now fade in when starting, which is a noticeable aural improvement. Aside from the above, this release has a number of bugfixes and other, more minor player-suggested tweaks.

All in all, an exciting first bit of free DLC, both with Arcen-created content and community-created content.



I started riding again on Friday. It had been three weeks since I broke my big toe, I could fit into a shoe (mostly), and I was sick of riding an exercise bike at the gym.

With this latest break, I realize just how incredibly specific an exercise unicycling is in terms of muscle use. I worked out very hard at the gym, but even riding 15 minutes on the unicycle is quite tiring now. There are just so many more muscles being used to coordinate not falling on my ass.

Eli 9.0 is at Camp Half-Blood this week, and it's at McKinney Falls State Park, which is southeast of Austin. He's a big fan of morning camps, but this one goes from 8-5, so it's a full day. This camp has a legendary reputation, though, and based on Eli's reaction to the first two days, it's entirely deserved.  The camp is leaving a week-long story around the Percy Jackson books, and for Eli, the level of drama is positively Shakespearean.

McKinney Falls is a fairly rustic park, even though it's not that far from town, with thick woods and scenic waterfalls. Okay, I guess it's a little ragged, but it's still cool, and there's a heavily-cracked asphalt trail that runs for 2.8 miles inside the park.

I came to pick Eli up on Monday, and decided to come about an hour early so that I could ride. The trail was more narrow than I expected, and it was hot as hell (101), but it was still quite beautiful. I rode for about 20 minutes, and in that time, three deer ran across the trail in front of me. I managed not to fall (always a bonus), and when I got back to the car and sat down, I poured sweat in buckets. I drank a quart of Powerade, and felt no longing for Frost Riptide Rush.

That Was Very Quick

We now have an official VB.NET Advisor Of Dubious Quality. I don't know if he wants to be publicly named, so I'll hold off on that for now. 

Expert Needed

I'm looking for someone who could answer questions about Visual Basic.NET. This would be an official DQ Advisor position, as I would occasionally be asking you about things that I'm too stupid to figure out on my own (actually, the "too stupid" part would imply frequent questions, but I would try to keep it to a minimum). If you're interested, please e-mail me, and thank you for the help.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Madden Notes

The coach sliders are ready to be beta tested, so if you want to participate, please e-mail me.

Madden has some interesting and seemingly embedded issues this year, ones that I don't think sliders can fix. In particular, pass coverage is shockingly poor at times. Zone coverage is frequently brain-dead, and press coverage sometimes results in the defensive back missing the "bump" in "bump and run."

In other words, coverages are just blown.

This happens in real football, too, but not nearly as frequently as it does in Madden. What does it mean to the game? Big plays. Way too many big plays.

This produces an endless slider kludge in an attempt to make the game more realistic. Pass defense reaction time can be improved, but that increases interceptions, and too many of those are run back for touchdowns. Even at zero, there seem to be too many interceptions.

Well, so increase quarterback accuracy, right? That's fine, except that also produces many more big plays, which was the original problem.

The pass rush can help control the offense, to some degree, but when sacks are 3X NFL numbers and the quarterback is getting blasted on nearly every pass play, that's not realistic, either.

The Madden devs are smart guys, and I think this will be adjusted in a patch. That doesn't make the game more playable now, though.

This is cherry-picking an example, and the Hail Mary is a specialty play, but take a look at this:

I know, that's small, but stay with me. This is a Hail Mary at the end of the half, and the perspective of the photograph is from above and very slightly behind the quarterback.

Now, look at the top of the field, near the end zone. If you look closely, you will see three Patriot receivers-- and one Chiefs defender. You also see a fourth Patriot running about 15 yards behind his three friends, and he is wide open.

What are all those Chiefs defenders doing? Standing there, apparently. Letting half the opposing team run right past them. Obviously, it's zone coverage, and just as obviously, it's broken.

The worst high school team in the world wouldn't have a defensive breakdown like this. Actually, the worst junior high school team in the world wouldn't, either.


I would normally save this for Friday, but it was so interesting that I couldn't wait. Apparently, Lou Gehrig might not have died from the disease named after him:
Gehrig’s demise — and that of some other athletes and soldiers given a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — might have been catalyzed by injuries only now becoming understood: concussions and other brain trauma.

...Doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., and the Boston University School of Medicine, the primary researchers of brain damage among deceased National Football League players, said that markings in the spinal cords of two players and one boxer who also received a diagnosis of A.L.S. indicate that those men did not have A.L.S. at all. They had a different fatal disease, doctors said, caused by concussionlike trauma, that erodes the central nervous system in similar ways. 

Given the research that has emerged in the last five years regarding brain trauma in NFL athletes after repeated concussions, it's not surprising that there are other forms of collateral damage. But now it seems like the consequences can be even grimmer and more frightening.

APB (insert your cheap and obvious acronym here)

This wasn't entirely unexpected, unfortunately, and it's an excellent illustration of how the business model of developing online games is tremendously perilous:
Dundee-based APB developer Realtime Worlds has entered administration, GamesIndustry.biz can confirm, following the failure of the online title to draw in strong enough subscriber numbers.

The math at work here is just staggering--a five-year development cycle, a total of $101M secured in funding for the company since February 2008, and fifty days after the game is released, boom goes the dynamite.

And in case you're wondering, "entering administration" in the U.K. isn't exactly the same thing as bankruptcy in the U.S., but it's close enough to understand what's happening.

The game is still live, but it's hard to imagine it still being played six-months from now. What a disaster.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Console Post Of The Week: July NPDs

First, a quick review of the numbers:

Like I said on Thursday, that was a huge month for the 360, but it's not just a huge month. Let's take a look at the 12-month total unit sales graph (yes, the damn thing is misnamed) for U.S. sales to put it into perspective.

That's right--the Xbox will hit five years of age in November, and its 12-month total unit sales in the U.S. is the highest it's ever been. Financially, they're still in the hole overall for this generation,but that has more to do with shitty original hardware than anything else.

More perspective: the PS2 was released in North America on October 26, 2000. Its highest 12-month total unit sales average in the U.S. was in April 2003, only two and a half years later,  at 8.7 million units.

We are in uncharted territory.

How long can Microsoft keep this up? Apparently, at least through the holiday season, where the new model and plenty of promotions and discounts with retailers (in lieu of an actual price cut across the board) should sustain the momentum.

Even more surprisingly, and I'll update this chart next week, the 360 is still chugging along in Japan. Compared to the original Xbox, it's done ridiculously well. Admittedly, a low bar, but it's still a remarkable improvement, given all the analysis about how the Japanese market was a lost cause.

As it turns out, it's not lost, although I think the argument can increasingly be made that it's not terribly relevant anymore. That lack of relevance is not necessarily permanent, though.

Sony announced financial results two weeks ago, and while they're still not quite making money, they're very close to breaking even. That still leaves a hole as deep as the Marianas Trench for them to climb out of, but at least they don't appear to be making it any deeper now. Also, like Microsoft, the 12-month total unit sales level is at its highest in the history of the console.

Good grief, we're never going to get these things replaced.

Trivia of interest to no one but me: the reason why the top end of that graph goes up to 12 million is because when I first made the graph, Nintendo's 12-month unit sales total in the U.S. was almost 11 million. It seemed like a good idea at the time to leave a little more room.

As it turned out, that room was unnecessary. The Wii peaked (in terms of 12-month unit sales) in almost the same number of months as the PS2 (although at a much higher level).

Now, to be fair, combined PS3 and 360 12-month unit sales in the U.S.are only 10.2 million, while the Wii by itself is still over 9 million. But Nintendo took a $289 million loss in the last financial quarter (again, to be fair, much of that was caused by declining demand for DS software),and the Wii is definitely looking a little long in the tooth.

I would be very happy with an HD Wii, but I'm not the market that Nintendo tapped with the Wii, and I doubt that in the next generation, HD will be a primary selling point for Nintendo. Sure, it will support HD, but that's not what will sell the system. 


Eli 9.0 and I were at Walgreens on Sunday, looking to buy some Gatorade before his hockey practice.

I picked up a bottle and the label said "Frost Riptide Rush."

This has to be a singular moment in drink history--a three word flavor description where none of the words actually have anything to do with flavor.

Is it a cold winter morning? Dangerous surfing conditions? The sheer excitement of a cold winter morning AND dangerous surfing conditions?

Well, it was kind of "purply," if that helps.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, a link from Michael M. to a story by Jake Edelstein (I've mentioned him before as the author of Tokyo Vice). Edelstein decided to have some real-life Yakuza  review Yakuza 3, and it's a fascinating read.

From Eric Leslie, a link to a podcast interview with Runic Games about Torchlight. This is an episode of the Immortal Machines podcast, which is excellent (Eric's the host, actually, and he's damned good).

Here's quite an article--the story of a terrorist who dies creating a dent. I can't even make this kind of stuff up.

From Me, of all people, an article about world bands that includes the greatest band picture ever, which is something you absolutely must see. Also from me, an article about how the 1924 death of George Mallory as he attempted to climb Everest has now been attributed to a major storm.

From Glenn Haag, new photos of the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From DQ reader my wife, a story about Queen guitarist Brian May, who studied astrophysics at Imperial College in London.

From Simon van Alphen, two videos (one and two) of Cardhalla (I have no idea if that's a real name or not) taken at GenCon.

From Kevin W, a link to Project Euler, a "series of challenging mathematical/computer programming problems that will require more than just mathematical insights to solve."

From Scott Z.,and this is the craziest storm footage I have ever seen, it's some link in Finnish. And it's bad-ass, I promise. Also, quite the algae bloom in China.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

NCAA: The Brokening

Bill Abner put up a post today that indicated kickers were still entirely broken in NCAA 11, even after two "tuning packs" and two patches.

He's right, and it should be embarrassing for EA, because anyone who actually plays Dynasty mode would have seen this.

Details: beginning the second season of Dynasty mode, I saw twenty freshman starting kickers who were rated 55 or below, and many of these guys were below 50 overall. Starting, mind you.

So how crappy are these guys? Let's find out.

First, the official NCAA kicking stats for last season are here. Last season, kickers in the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) made 88% of field goals in the 20-29 yard range.

Nine out of ten, basically.

I tested a 48 overall kicker (53 kick power, 45 kick accuracy) in practice mode. This was letting the CPU kick the ball 25 times each from three positions: left hashmark, center, and right hashmark. This was also in a dome, with no wind (optimum conditions).

What percentage of 25-yard field goals did the kicker make? 67%.

What percentage of 30-yard field goals did he make? 52%.


In case you're wondering how many of these kinds of kickers exist in the real FBS, here's your answer: zero. These kind of stats wouldn't even be credible for an average high school kicker.

Seriously, EA, I'd like to play a Dynasty, if you'd just fix this.

July NPD's

Analysis next week, but here are the numbers:

That is a freaking HUGE month for the 360.

Mafia II

If you're wondering whether I'm looking forward to Mafia II, you should probably read this:
Norton’s Ice Cream is on the southwest corner of the central plaza in Chinatown. I’m standing in the central plaza as I write this, taking notes as I walk around this unique and colorful district in the city of Lost Heaven. I mention Norton’s because there is a fender bender just outside their front door, and the ensuing traffic jam and honking horns are reminders that no place stays peaceful for long. I think I’ll take a walk.

It’s bright and a little crisp today, too cold for shirtsleeves, but not too cold for open windows to dot the buildings that surround the plaza. Fresh duck hangs in the grocery store windows and I breathe in the exotic smells as I pass by. I see a sign for Bad Guy Pale Dry ale, and it’s awfully tempting at only five cents a glass, but somebody has to drive my orange Thor ragtop home, and since I’m running a little short on friends lately, I guess I should stay pale and dry myself. I can always drop by Salieri’s bar later when I get back to Little Italy.

That was my lead for a story about the original Mafia, released in 2002. Mafia created a sense of time and place that has never been equaled. It was a landmark game, even though it wasn't treated that way at the time. History often corrects the unfortunate passions of the moment, though, and as the years have passed, Mafia's stature has continued to grow, as it should.

For years, I've hoped for a sequel, but sequels are problematic. For instance, the writing in the original Mafia was the finest I've ever seen a game. It was uniformly gripping.

That dialogue was written by Daniel Vávra, who also directed the game. Would he be included in a sequel?

Fortunately, the answer is yes. He both wrote the game and provided the basic design, although he was not the director.

That alone gives me hope that the sequel is worthy. And we'll find out soon enough, because it's getting released on August 24.

The demo was released a few days ago, and it's very strong. It's available on Steam, and if you pre-purchase, you get the original game as well.

If you visit the central plaza, stop by for some ice cream.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Madden 11 Notes

First off, I tested special teams this morning and these are final settings:
FG Power 30
FG Accuracy 68
Punt Power 62
Punt Accuracy 100
Kickoff Power 30

Like I said yesterday, slider development should be much easier this year because we're not starting from scratch.

Here are a few random notes, based on early observation:
--the two-minute A.I., which was very weak last year (far too passive), has seemingly received a major upgrade. I saw a team that was ahead by 20+ points get the ball at their own 20 yard line with less than two minutes in the first half--and come out in the shotgun. Hell and yes, because that's exactly what an NFL team would do--go for the kill shot. I also saw Aaron Rodgers throw a bomb from inside his own 15 in the last two minutes of the first half--and the Packers were ahead.

This was my #1 complaint about the game last year, and based on my initial observations, it's been addressed. Well done.

--more A.I. goodness: I've seen teams running the hurry-up in appropriate situations outside the two-minute window. Outstanding.

--they've changed the arc of long passes, and it looks great. Downside: medium passes may float a little too much.

--slider settings (like last year) make substantive changes in how the game plays. Again, well done, because this lets the community improve the realism level.

--the game is very impressive visually. It's not Backbreaker, but nothing is (except Backbreaker, obviously).

--There are an egregious number of cut shots in between plays. At least, that's true for a CPU vs. CPU game, which is what I'm using first to develop initial slider settings. Way too many cut shots and way too many replay "fragments".

Obviously, this is still very early in the evaluation process, but so far, the game is looking very solid.

Eli 9.0

We went to Black-Eyed Pea for dinner last night.

"Those are some terrific carrot fillets," I said.

"Huh?" Eli 9.0 said, suddenly interested.

"Fillets," I said. "You have to fillet a carrot before you can eat it. Those long carrots in the store--those are fillets."

"Why do you fillet it?" Eli 9.0 asked.

"Bones," I said.

"Right, Dad," he said.

"Plus you have to cut off the head," I said.

Eli was trying to make his "mean face" on Sunday.

I put that in quotes because Eli doesn't have a mean face. He never tries the angry look to get something, or the scowl, or any of that manipulative crap that kids like to use on their parents.

Sometimes, though, as a joke, he tries to put on the mean face and keep the expression for more than a few seconds.

"Okay, dad, just try to make me laugh," he said, putting on the mean face.

"Two muffins were in an oven," I said, and he burst out laughing.

I didn't tell you about all of Eli 9.0's birthday. The first half was great, but the second half involved poison ivy. Again.

Eli is apparently a magnet for poison ivy, and by his birthday night, the patches were starting to show. He'd been at a Harry Potter camp that week, and Friday morning they played outdoors (Quidditch) for at least an hour. From the location of the rash, it looked like he had handled a ball or something that had poison ivy on it, then touched his neck, face, etc.

Poison ivy is maximum suckage because there's no simple cure, really--everything you can use only offers limited improvement. You get it, you suffer, and finally it goes away. This time, though, Gloria took Eli to the doctor the next morning, and the doctor gave him a steroid shot.

This is the first time Eli had ever gotten a shot in his butt (because his arms are so skinny), and it hurt. He started crying and said to the doctor, "My bosom hurts!"

Best word mix-up ever.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Madden 11: "Real Life" Speed Settings

You already know about the stopwatch testing from last year, and yes, clearly I have a problem. In this case, though, it benefits you, because I just finished testing this year's game.

If you want the game to play at "real" speed, here are your settings:
Game Speed: Normal
Speed Threshold: 100

I'll spare you the insanely detailed explanation. Short version: I used the same method as last year.

Software Testing (part three, thanks to you)

This discussion about software testing has become exponentially more interesting because you guys are contributing such interesting information. This is from Matthew Montgomery:  I worked at Microsoft Games as a Software Test Engineer, a contractor. Now I work at a major software company with a similar job (just not games). I work with automated and manual testing quite regularly. And after seeing Matt's commentary, I thought I'd throw in my two cents. Warning: lots of inside baseball! I just thought you might be interested since you liked Matt's analysis.

As Matt points out, tens-of-thousands of hours is not great in itself. My experience with bug bashing at Microsoft Games was kind of like that. Everyone in the building tests the game. Presto: X hours on the game times Y people equals Z hours of testing! Except the bug reports are filed by people who are probably not familiar with your game. Thus, they tend to be dupes of existing bugs; feature requests that are impractical this close to ship; bugs that happened once and never again; or low priority bugs that'd be nice to fix but won't stop ship.

What Matt says about Excell or Volt testers is pretty much the case, as well. In my experience, you have some full-time testers who do more advanced testing, test planning, writing automation, etc. (That's what I do.) You might have some contractors on site who will do the less glamorous stuff, but whom you still trust to have some judgment. Or you might not. (That's what I did at MGS.) Matt is probably thinking of the VMS folks when he talks about hundreds of testers. These are the people who are hired to do the repetitive, boring testing that the full-timers have planned for them--- click this, expect X behavior. Click that, expect to see Y on the screen. That's more than likely where the majority of their thousands of hours comes from. It's little to no guarantee of quality; if the test planning is crappy, then the quality of testing is going to suffer as well.

Aside from that, there are some great reasons to automate a game. Let me say up front that Matt is correct and that you're unlikely to find any deep bugs with automated tests. The fancier you try to get with automation, the more fragile it tends to be. You're working with a program, obviously, which lacks human judgment and will only test what you specifically ask it to, and it can't think on the fly. Thus, in my opinion--- and I mean this as no slam against Matt--- the best way to think about automated tests is not as a panacea for the pain of manual testing. Rather, automated tests are good for catching regressions (i.e., a bug that was fixed but now isn't) and for ensuring a minimum level of quality for each build quickly, and without human intervention.

Take some trivial automation tests and couple them with a continuous integration system. Generally that's where a script compiles the latest code into a build whenever a developer checks in a change. Then your fancy script runs your automated tests against that build and reports the results. If your tests pass, you can be reasonably confident that this build is usable, to the extent that you trust your tests and your tests cover functionality you consider important. If the tests fail, you can say the build is not usable (again, with the previous qualifier). Coupled with unit tests, you can get feedback on the stability of the build within minutes of a developer making a change. And, as I said, this is all without a human being involved except to keep an eye on the status of the build.

This a big win. The sooner the developer finds out that they broke something, the sooner they can fix it or undo it. The less time your testers spend on trivial, repetitive "does this work" testing (what you'd call smoke tests or basic acceptance tests or sanity tests or ...), the more time they have to spend on everything else. Ultimately you can save a lot of time and, by extension, money.

Another useful scenario to explore is some basic happy path stuff. Matt's example is very close to what I mean: run a simulation of the game. The trick is that you don't care as much about the outcome as you do that you can load a game and play it to completion. Once again, if you run this test against every build, you can ensure that, at a minimum you can load, play, and finish a game.

 There are huge caveats, obviously. You won't catch graphical glitches, and you won't catch UI bugs unless you specifically try. This would, however, find bugs like "game never loads" or "the team with the higher score didn't win" or "game doesn't finish after N minutes." That's time a tester did not spend downloading and installing the build, loading it up, starting a game, narrowing down the bug, filing a report, and so on.

To reiterate, you shouldn't stop there and say the game works, although I'm sure that wouldn't stop a dysfunctional team. Nor is the number of tests correlated with the quality of the product. If you have tests that never find bugs before humans see them, what's the point? A more useful metric would be: how many bugs did your automation uncover?

By the Way

Patrick Hruby, an exceptional writer for ESPN, has a long feature piece on the Madden series last week, and it's a terrific read. Here it is: The Franchise.  

Madden 11

I picked up Madden this morning, and I also figured something out.

When I was inputting the "online pass" code, I saw that "roster updates" were specifically mentioned as a feature only available with online access.

That's a dick move.

Here's why. Since only people who buy the game new have online access (unless they pay an extra fee), people who buy the game used can't get roster updates without the fee. But the game comes out before pre-season even starts, so accurate rosters aren't available for a month.

In other words, if you don't buy the game new, EA isn't going to finish the game unless you pay an additional fee.

It gets so much worse, though. Remember how the NCAA team was touting the "tuning updates" that were going to make it much easier to fix problems without going through the Sony/Microsoft patch certification process?

At first, I thought that was the greatest thing ever. For once, a company actually doing something for us, with no downside.

Well, not exactly.

I realized today that those tuning sets aren't accessible for anyone who bought a used copy of the game, unless they pay for online access (the tuning updates are downloaded from EA's servers). So while this might be a way to be more responsive in terms of fixing bugs, it's also a way to totally lock out the used game market (their primary motivation, I strongly suspect). Again, they're shipping a beta, and you have to pay them to finish the game.

That is a bad, bad precedent.

On to other matters. There's currently a CPU vs. CPU game beavering away on the television in my study. I'm starting with last year's slider settings, on the assumption that quite a few things haven't changed, and this will quickly tell me what has changed.

I'm not sure what the timeframe is for initial slide release, but I expect it will be less than a week.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Backbreaker (Greathouse #3) Impressions (360)

The Backbreaker patch isn't good.

It's great.

Remember how we all wanted to like this game, and then it actually came out and we played it and said "Oh crap, this game has cancer"? And remember how 505 Games said they were working on a patch, and then they came out with a patch list that basically shat rainbows, and we all said there was no way they could pull it off?

Well, they pulled it off.

This may be the most dramatic improvement I've ever seen in a game via patch. All the possibilities that Backbreaker represented, all the unique qualities that were designed to capture the intensity of being on the field--they nailed it.

When this game was originally released, the average Metacritic score was 54. I wrote this:
"This game is a 90 that was released in 65 condition."

I also listed these problems with the game:
--the CPU A.I. was utterly incompetent on offense, both passing and running.
--sacks and interceptions were far too high.
--incorrect rules interpretations.
--no accelerated clock.

There was actually quite a bit more than that, but by then I felt like I was piling on.

So what is the game like post-patch?
--the CPU offense is entirely competent
--sacks and interceptions are within normal range.
--rules errors have been corrected.

There's still no accelerated clock. Hey, so Santa only left a dozen presents. I can deal with that.

The CPU A.I. is occasionally a bit baffling in the last two minutes (particularly regarding the use of defensive timeouts), and sometimes the safeties are too passive on pass plays, but otherwise, the gameplay is entirely stellar. It's a 90 game in 90 condition now.

Let me be clear about this. It's not just that the broken parts of the game have been fixed. It's that this game absolutely soars, in a way that I don't remember seeing since ESPN NFL2K5.

Yes, I thought Madden was a better game last year, but I still remember how blown away I was the first time I saw NFL2K5 in 480P on the Xbox. It was incredibly vibrant and totally breathtaking.

In 2010, so it is with Backbreaker.

How much fun have I been having? I stopped trying to score an early copy of Madden. I'm still doing a slider project, but it just didn't seem nearly as important after a few hours of playing Backbreaker post-patch.

This game is obviously competing in the same demographic space as Madden, but it's important to understand that it offers an entirely different experience, because the camera is so close that it offers a significantly more authentic experience than the "God cam" of other football games. In Backbreaker, even with the slightly elevated passing camera post-patch, you learn to read receivers as they pass in-between other players. You learn to study the defense with extreme scrutiny pre-snap, because you can't see everyone post-snap--players will be blocked by other players, and you can't see the whole field in one glance. On defense, you learn to identify and remember how many receivers are on each side of the field, and on what side the tight end is lining up. You can get away with not doing that particularly well in Madden, because with one glance during the play, you can see everything.

In Backbreaker, you can't really get away with anything. Not anymore, anyway.

It's really impossible for me to describe how dynamic the action feels. The animation is just so convincing, and seems so unscripted, that it feels almost entirely real. In one play last night, I played as a middle linebacker, then fought through three players for an eventual quarterback sack. It was a coverage sack, really, but it was a huge rush to watch the replay and see my player fighting through those blockers in an extremely realistic manner.

It's also a huge rush to see receivers stretching the ball out on their way to the ground in an attempt to get a first down. There are so many little moments like this, and they all combine to create a terrifically immersive experience.

This is also the first game I've ever seen that truly captures the brutality of professional football without turning it into a cartoon. Hits in this game will make you wince because they look so real.

There are many examples of how Backbreaker makes you experience football in a different way, but here's one excellent example. It's always said that on offense, the left tackle may be the most important player on the field, because he protects the quarterback's blindside.

In Madden or NCAA, that doesn't mean anything, because there IS no blindside. There's no camera where you can't see trouble coming.

In Backbreaker, there damn sure is a blindside, and you better watch out. A button was added in the patch that lets you glance to the side away from your primary receiver, but believe me, it can only help so much.

The defense means to harm you.

This is why, as I played in Road To Backbreaker Mode, that when I accumulated enough credits to buy a free agent, I didn't look at a better quarterback or a skill position player.

I looked, first, at left tackle.

Now, if you want to play the game, listen to this next section carefully. First, you need to do the tutorials. Don't even think about skipping them--the controls are extremely intuitive, but practice is definitely needed. On defense, it will take time for you to feel comfortable swinging the camera with the right stick when the ball goes past you. I'm doing it quite easily now, though, and you will be as well. On offense, it will take time to be comfortable switching receivers during a play. Again, though, that will come with a little practice, and it is a far more satisfying feeling to complete passes in this challenging environment.

In short, a sensational effort.

Dear Harmonix

Please create a Camera Obscura DLC pack for Rock Band 3. For instance, this song:

Thank you. That is all.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Brad Gehrig, a fantastic bit of ongoing research into photo tampering throughout history. It's completely fascinating.

From Sirius: as it turns out, the Lusitania was carrying an estimated four million rounds of ammunition. Also, at the highest reaches of the Department Of Stupid, it's Illinois Town Wants To Outlaw Eye Rolling. Next, it's the stories behind your favorite movie theater candy. Wait, she's not doine yet, and this next link is a doozy: the Triceratops dinosaur never existed.

From Keith Ganey, an interview with Tarn Adams over at PC Gamer.

From Edward Quinn, another Jay-Z parody: Granite State Of Mind.

From Michael O'Reilly, a story about the fate of the last roll of Kodachrome film.

From Stephen Abel (hippo), a terrific link with some amazing images: The Longest Photographic Exposures In History.

From George Politis, and this has to be seen, it's a 70 gigapixel photograph of Budapest.

From Andrew B, absolutely the greatest case mod you've ever seen. Also, and this is entirely supersonic, it's the Super Megason IV game machine.

From Jarod, and this must be photograph link, a beautiful collection of Photoshopped images that meld WWII with today. Also, there are more here.

From Kevin W, a business card that's also a model kit. Awesome!

From Jonin, one of the greatest catches in baseball history (Japanese or otherwise).

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Unfinished, By Design

I was flooded with links to Codemaster CEO Rod Cousens's interview with CVG. Here's the freaky bit (in regards to piracy):
"My answer is for us as publishers is to actually sell unfinished games -- and to offer the consumer multiple micro-payments to buy elements of the full experience. That would create an offering that is affordable at retail -- but over a period of time may also generate more revenue for the publishers to reinvest in our games."

"If these games are pirated, those who get their hands on them won't be able to complete the experience. There will be technology, coding aspects, that will come to bear that will unlock some aspects. Some people will want them and some won't. When it comes to piracy, I think you have to make the experience the answer to the issue - rather than respond the other way round and risk damaging that experience for the user."

Selling unfinished games? I thought Codemasters was already doing that--isn't that called Project Operation Flashpoint?

I kid.

There's been quite a feeding frenzy over these comments (a slightly dated frenzy, certainly, since this happened in the middle of last month), but I think it's mostly because Cousen was somewhat unclear in his comments, particularly in regards to the term "unfinished".

What the hell does "unfinished" mean, anyway? To me, it means releasing a game that hasn't completed development. What Cousens seems to be talking about though, is more of a micro-payment structure, albeit with a charge up front to buy the incomplete game. And it also sounds like the additional content is being used as the primary DRM method.

What's in it for us, exactly? Besides nothing, I mean.

What Cousens has done is take the economically appealing aspects of the micro-transaction model (from a business side) and totally ignored why it's attractive from a consumer standpoint. The reason the MMO micro-transaction model works is because we get the core game for free, but Cousens doesn't want to do that. Instead, he wants to charge for the core game, then keep on charging.

Who would buy a game with this kind of content model? Almost no one, I'm guessing.

There's a very good reason that Cousens is advancing relatively insane models like this, though: the business model of the gaming industry doesn't work. At least, it doesn't work for big companies anymore, and in large part, they've caused their own problem (that's a topic for next week, though).

A Prediction (Football)

All NFL teams have done since Kyle Orton entered the league five years ago is try to get rid of him.

First, the Chicago Bears traded him to Denver as part of a package for Jay Cutler. Then Denver drafted Tim Tebow in the first round to eventually replace him.

It can be very hard to separate Tim Tebow the football player from Tim Tebow the brand, because Tebow is certainly a brand.

However, let me say this: Kyle Orton has played five years and has thrown nearly 1,500 passes in the NFL. He's thrown 51 touchdown passes and 39 interceptions, his quarterback rating is 76.9, and his career record is 29-19.

Tim Tebow will never be as good in the NFL.

Tebow's career stats will never exceed what Kyle Orton has done in the first five years. It's not that he won't get chances--hell, he'll get every conceivable chance. But he'll never have more than sporadic success, at best.

Here's why, and it's not about his mechanics, although certainly, he has serious issues with his throwing motion. There's a well-developed economic phenomenon in the NFL where teams overpay for players who played in the Super Bowl the previous season, particularly if the player was on the winning team. These players will, in most cases, be overpaid as free agents.

The NFL also overvalues players coming from college championship teams, or teams that play for championships. And particularly in college, playing for a championship as a player means absolutely nothing in terms of his ability to play in the NFL.

Here's why it's misleading. Any team that plays for a national championship--like Florida--has top recruiting classes year after year. Tebow played with an incredible array of talent. In most games during the season, a top team like Florida (or Ohio St., or Texas) could roll out their backup quarterback and still win. It's like that when a team has high-school All Americans at almost every position.

In the NFL, that's never going to happen. Ever. There's a small bottom tier of teams, a small top tier, and then 20+ teams who are all within a field goal of each other.

Playing on a great college team is terrible preparation for the NFL. Terrible. Far better to play on an above-average team that has to struggle to win every week, that can be elevated by the quarterback playing exceptionally well. That's a much better simulation of the NFL experience.

Peyton Manning never even won an SEC championship. Michigan shared the Big Ten title once in the two years that Tom Brady started. Ben Roethlisberger played in the MAC for Miami of Ohio. Philip Rivers played for North Carolina St.

I could list hundreds of NFL quarterbacks like this over the last decade, but the point is, the more adversity a player faces in college, the better. The NFL is all about adversity, and going into almost every game in a college career as the favorite is not adversity.

Vince Young? One of the greatest athletes I've ever seen, and a nice quarterback, at times, but he never faced any true adversity at Texas, and the first time was booed in Tennessee, he tried to quit. Matt Leinart? Seemingly, a truly polished player in college, he failed as a starter in his rookie season and only now, in his fifth season, is he getting another chance.

If you go back ten years, or twenty, the quarterback graveyard is full of bones from guys who played for national championships or played for a national powerhouse.

What does that mean for Sam Bradford? Well, his throwing motion is about a hundred times better than Tebow's, so I think he has a better chance. But I would never, ever use a high draft choice to pick a quarterback from a national-championship caliber team.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Software Testing

I received an interesting e-mail from Matt Perrin about software testing in regards to the NCAA 11 post I made last week.
I wanted to make a comment on your post "Fail" in regards to the testing of NCAA. I work professionally as a QA Automation Engineer testing software and also develop indie games in my free time so I have some experience in both areas. I think the smoking gun is this statement from the blog:
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...

Out of the three possibilities you mention, I am willing to bet they didn't notice it. There are a lot of ugly little secrets about test automation and how software vendors actually use it versus how it should actually be used. A lot of teams never look to see what end result data is generated, instead trusting on a script's Pass/Fail reporting feature to verify a test condition was met at the end of a run. Also, with the constant drive to automate new software requirements, older automation scripts that are always passing are usually never reviewed. The scripts can actually give teams a false sense of security that everything is working as intended, but it's that end of run review process where the system really falls apart. The scripts that are always pass are the ones you should always be investigating for hidden bugs that aren't being caught.

Also, I would be curious to know how exactly they are getting any major benefits from automation for something as complex as a football game. It's one thing to automate the testing of a business application where every time I open it, it always behaves the same. For games, I could see automated testing working well for testing static UIs or specific fail states. In the scenario the blog mentions with "networks of automated game consoles" I am assuming they are either testing their leader boards and other connected features. Or they may be using a central server to push an automation script selecting a specific play to a group of machines in a pre-defined state and then watching the results and hoping the results match the probably of that play succeeding. In other words, a very static and repeatable scenario and not the chaos of a typical game.

Lastly, "tens-of-thousands of hours of QA" in the game industry is a bit of a joke when you have QA companies like Excell and Volt throwing hundreds of testers at a time at a game. And from some of the stories I've heard, these companies are basically running 24/7 testing centers, cranking out "testing hours" using whatever gamers have some aptitude for it but maybe not the precision skills typically found in a traditional QA professional. They can play the game and find the big bugs, but can they analyze the data properly? Probably not.

Thanks to Matt for a very interesting analysis. That may not all apply directly to NCAA11, but it's excellent information, regardless.

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