Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hinterland Released

Hinterland has been released and is available via Steam. I'm downloading it right now.

And a Bit More Rock Band 2

From wonderpug:
I'm sure a dozen people have probably beaten me to the punch, but I wanted to let you know that the old fashioned linear tiers are still in Rock Band 2. Right below the "Continue Tour" button there are buttons for "Challenges" and "Battle of the Bands." In the Challenges section there are a sequence of "Marathon Challenges," beginning with "Warmup Marathon 1." Beating that will unlock the next marathon challenge, which will unlock the next, and so forth. They'll take you linearly through every new song in the game, tier by tier, from easiest to most difficult.

I hadn't even looked at Challenge Mode (all my time has been spent on tour), so I just went in and checked it out for a few minutes. It's similar to the old tour mode in that you progressively unlock tiers of songs. There are also a few differences. I played the first challenge, which consisted of a three-song set. I passed the first two songs, then purposely failed the third to see what would happen. I was given the option to try again, practice, or exit, and I was warned that any progress wouldn't be saved if I exited. This was a bit misleading, though, because when I went back into the challenge, the first two songs were marked as completed, and I only had to play the third song. After passing it, new challenges were unlocked.

It's different from the old tour mode in that you have to pass the songs inside the challenge in order, because you're playing a set. In RB 1, you could pass the songs in a single tier in any order you wanted, because you were only playing single songs. Plus, it's also different in that there appear to be multiple ways to progress after you complete the first challenge, because multiple challenges open up. However, it does give someone the option to unlock songs in a much more linear fashion than tour mode.

I actually think Challenge mode is better than solo tour while retaining much of its structure. Again, Harmonix with a direct connection to my brain.

Rock Band 2 (your e-mail plus a few notes)

I don't know why I didn't think of this originally, but some of you would much rather play solo tour in the linear fashion of the original Rock band. And there is an issue for players who like to play on Medium difficulty as well. Here are a few of your comments, beginning with Skip Key:
The single biggest issue for me is the elimination of solo tour, the traditional mode where you unlock the songs in order of difficulty. Sure, I like having the world tour available in solo mode, but that was no excuse for eliminating the other. As for the switch between score total and fans, that's a net negative as well for me. I'll give you an example why. I started a tour with the intention of playing through everything on medium just to get all the songs unlocked. However, you reach a point where there are a few songs in world tour that you simply have to play them on hard. It doesn't offer a medium option. I couldn't sightread at least three of these songs. For example, Visions, by Abnormality. So I try it, fail miserably, and lose a bunch of fans.

So I think I'll just go bang on it in quickplay til I get it down. But no, you can't. It doesn't show up there because you haven't unlocked it yet. Dumbfounded, I go check practice mode. Nope, not there either.

So they've set up a situation where I have a song I can't beat on the only skill level they offer it to me, and I have no way of practicing it, without failing on the song first, killing my score, and choosing practice at that point.

Then here's a note from David:
First, in RB2 the improved HO/POs and drum trainer are 100% win.
Second, the ability to play world band tour solo and the ability to play online is 100% win.

However, removing the old solo tour is horrible. I far prefer unlocking the songs that way by playing through and seeing them all in linear order. The current method where I have to keep swapping cities and venues and cannot see what is coming up is just miserable. I *liked* replaying songs to get better, but now, once I 5-star a song, there's just no room for improvement. There's really no reason to remove the solo linear play, its still in the game in the form of quickplay. There's another problem, and its HUGE, some songs when you get to them are only available on hard/expert and you CANNOT practice or quickplay them until you beat them.

Which means for mediocre players like me is I CANNOT finish the game on medium. Epic fail.

One more e-mail, and it's from Derek Mirdala:
After I've gone through and unlocked all of the songs, my single player playstyle has always been driven by the goal of 'getting better.' To do this, I liked to be able to look at all the songs I have played and how I did on them star-wise. In other words, I like to select songs where I can see I need improvement, and then I play them to try to improve. Rock Band 2 does not make this at all easy for me, in that it is pretty much impossible to see this laid out in front of me in one place.

In RB1's 1p mode, I could easily see all the stars per difficulty level by going through and simply scanning the lists in the tier or downloadable section. Now, all I can really see are scores in the quickplay section, and as you well know, scores themselves don't tell you much. A 90,000 on one song might be near its scoring max, while only being halfway up another's! I can't really tell how well I've done by using score alone. So how can I easily see which songs out of my current 300-ish I need to improve upon? I can't, really.

It's quite frustrating, and I'm certainly not alone in that it seems to be the main complaint on the RB forums. Even if it doesn't affect the way you play personally, it still amounts to Harmonix removing a game mode, and that's a shame. The new stuff is great, but I don't see why the old tier scoring system needed to be eliminated.

I didn't know about the difficulties for Medium players (because I play on Hard/Expert), and I didn't think removing the linear tour mode would be an issue because I personally like the new solo tour mode so much (like I've said before, Harmonix seems to have a direct connection into my brain). But I understand how some people wouldn't want anything removed from a new version, because that happens in sports games all the time and it drives me crazy.

Here's something I've noticed as I play on the Ion kit: I'm improving my "real" drum skills much, much more quickly. After months of trying to play the main beat in "When the Levee Breaks," I played it last week with no problem. I was so shocked when I realized I was playing the beat properly that I looked at my instructor and said "What is happening here?"

I learned the main beat in "Synchronicity II" as well. "Synchronicity II" is actually a DLC song, and being able to extract a section of the song that exactly matched the beat I was trying to learn makes a huge difference.

Monday, September 29, 2008


My best friend Mike grew up in Lubbock and is (naturally) a huge fan of Texas Tech. They're rated #7 right now (second highest rating in school history), and today, when the Dow was down about, oh, a million points, I called him and left this message:
Hypothetical scenario number one. Congress fails to pass a bill to address the financial crisis, the markets plunge, and while it's not another Great Depression, it winds up being much worse than 1973-1974, which was awful. However, Texas Tech wins the national championship.

Hypothetical scenario number two. Congress passes an effective bill, the markets worldwide are stabilized, and the panic is over, with the U.S. market taking off from there. Texas Tech goes 7-5 and winds up playing in the Independence Bowl.

What do you choose?

Less than five minutes later (he was in L.A. on business), I get this text message back:
National championship...I was born poor and I'll die poor.

Next week: a hypothetical about nuclear war.

They Call Me Coach

I know this is been a rough season for us this year. Not a lot of shots of fallen for us this season. In fact, not a single shot has fallen for us in 14 games. So, I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is--are we going to let these 14 games determine the next one? Because if we are, we may as well go out there, shake hands with the other team, and congratulate them on their victory. I see some of you nodding your head in agreement right now. By all means, it's not an altogether absurd idea. The odds are that we're going to lose, no matter how we go about playing this game. So why do we play at all? Well, team, I'm afraid I don't have an answer for that question. You know why? Because it's a stupid question, asked by a doubtful and unhappy man. Forget his question. You just, you've gotta keep playing, because if you don't, you might end up like him, and let me tell you, he's no fun.
--Loneome Jim, 2005

In other news, I'm the assistant soccer coach for Eli's soccer team.

Actually, to call me a "coach" is probably a needless exaggeration. When the team is made up of seven and eight-year-olds, "coaching" duties are quite different from what you might expect. Here are a list of my important responsibilities:
1) Tie Shoe Laces
This is number one, by a wide margin. Children have a wide and unreliable number of methods for tying their shoe laces, and these methods have colorful names, like "Fox Chases Bunny Into Cave Where They Meet Angry Bear." When they stick their shoe out toward me in the universal signal for shoe tying assistance, they display a fascination about the method I use. "Is that the Kangaroo Javelin Eaten by Alligator?" they ask.

"Can't tell," I say. "It's a secret."

2) Wear A Red T-shirt
This is my official coaching t-shirt, which makes me feel more conspicuous than if I had doused myself with gasoline and set myself on fire.

3) Dispense High-Fives
In case you didn't get the memo, high-fives have officially replaced hugs as the currency of affection and encouragement. I high-five every kid (twelve) before the game starts, after every quarter (four, in some strange junior soccer league timing change), and at the end of every game. Every kid also gets at least one discretionary high-five--or several--during the game. That works out to over one high-five per minute over the course of an hour.

4) Be the Medic
Katherine got run over in Saturday's game (she's so skinny I think she's made out of balsa wood), and after she was helped to the sidelines, I went over to see how she was doing. She was crying. Hard. "Katherine, I'm sorry you got hurt," I said. "How are you doing?"

Still crying, she looked up and said "I'm fine. I can go back in." She proceeded to get up and go back into the game, still crying.

That's my kind of girl.

5) Explain Strategy

"Katherine," I say, "if you don't have someone to pass to, you can kick the ball toward the sidelines. That gives the rest of the team time to get back on defense. Just remember to kick it down the line, not across the field."

"Fish sticks!" she says, running toward midfield to find Katie so that she can give her a hug.

Clearly, to help them understand this strategy, I need to call it something like Turtle Eats Cheese With Curious Cat.

Eli 7.1 is the best player on this team, even faster than he was last season, and he understands how to play defense now. The worst thing about coaching, though, is that I actually wind up watching him less during the game, because there are other kids I'm trying to help with positioning. So I may turn in my red t-shirt at the end of this season to become a civilian again.

I do not expect my jersey to be retired.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hinterland: Next Week

A rare Friday post to let you know this from the Hinterland website:
September 26th, 2008
We're excited to announce that Hinterland is about to go gold, and we expect it to be available through Steam (for $19.99) early next week!

Friday Links!

No, they've not been postponed so that I could return to Washington to mediate a solution to the current financial crisis. Let's go!

From Andrew B, a link to a real treasure: full scans of Hostess ads from the 1970's that ran in comic books.

From just about everyone, a link to the Corpus Clock, designed by Stephen Hawking. It's bizarre, and here's a video of how the clock works.

From Vahur Teller, a link to an absolutely wonderful video: sticky notes. This is from the same guys who brought you the infamous Diet Cokes and Mentos experiment. Also from Vahur, a link to some bizarre and disturbing vintage Marlboro ads. Oh, and fancy seeing a video of an 1100 barrel paintball gun creating the image of Mona Lisa in less than a second? If so, then today is your day (awesomeness begins around the 1:40 mark).

I've mentioned Fantasybookspot several times in the past, and Damon Caporaso let me know that they've recently changed their name to Bookspot Central.

Sirius sends in a link to a story happening in Crazytown:
India has become the first country to convict someone of a crime relying on evidence from this controversial machine: a brain scanner that produces images of the human mind in action and is said to reveal signs that a suspect remembers details of the crime in question.

No peer review of this device has taken place, of course. Hey, it's with hunting but with electronic devices!

Also from Sirius, a link to an article about the discovery of a new Mozart piece.

Here's something fun to do (thanks to Jarod): test your color I.Q. I scored a four. Also, something that is going to the top of Eli 7.1's Christmas list: the fun fly stick. Then, the hat trick for Jarod with a link to a fantastic video of visible magnetic fields.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to a LEGO aircraft carrier. Here's a funny excerpt from the article:
..despite "lots of arguments at home" he somehow succeeded.

From Nate Carpenter, a link to an article about the discovery of a 650 million year-old reef--in the Australian outback.

From Scott Ray, a link to some amazing pictures of Hurricane Ike.

From Ben Younkins (via Shawn Elliot's Twitter feed), a link to photos of an abandoned Russian coastline defense battery. And at the same site, take a look at an abandoned horror.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a spectacular image showing evidence of an object or objects colliding with Saturn's F-ring. Also, a picture taken from the Hubble of a large Magellanic cloud.

Here's a very cool idea--showing 24 hours of world air traffic (click on the "air traffic worldwide" link).

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Eli 7.1

Eli 7.1, in passing: "NOVEMBER! I don't like it and I DO NOT know WHY!"

We stopped at Wendy's tonight after soccer practice, and after dinner we ordered Frostys. Eli was holding his spoon in a very funky way. "I always hold my spoon like this," he said. "It just feels right in my hand. I have a better feel." He started twirling the spoon in his fingers, then said, "I'm really kind of an expert holding it like--" which is right when he dropped the spoon on the floor.

He looked at me and quickly said, "I'm done. Peace out!"

Fall Contest Coming Soon

The big fall contest is coming at some point in the next two weeks. We'll be giving away a copy of both Rock Band 2 (full kit, all instruments) and Guitar Hero World Tour (same). It's not going to be one of those "instant response" contests where you have to refresh the page constantly, then get in first, so no worries.

Q3 Country Call

Every quarter or so, I look at the blog statistics and see what countries readers are coming from. Here's a list for the last two days:
United States
South Africa
United Kingdom
New Zealand
Czech Republic

As always, I really appreciate that you guys take the time to read what I write.


This is absolutely the greatest piece of game marketing I have ever seen. It's brilliant on every conceivable level, and I enjoyed it even more the second time than the first. It's just wonderfully fun to watch, so take a look and enjoy.

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been: Jack Thompson, Disbarred

We all all knew this day would come, somehow.

Florida Judge Dava Tunis recommended permanent disbarment of bombastic Nazi-hunter Jack Thomspon, and her recommendation has been approved. From Kotaku:
The Court approves the corrected referee's report and John Bruce Thompson is permanently disbarred, effective thirty days from the date of this order so that respondent can close out his practice and protect the interests of existing clients.

Thompson also owes $43, 675.35 in legal fees to the Florida Bar.

There's more information available at Game Politics, but the site is getting hammered right now, so you might not be able to get through.

Of course, Thompson has already responded to this news--at length, which is the only way he can. Instead of quoting various bits of madness from his ramblings, let me provide you with a summary:
If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?
--Alice, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

Alice in Wonderland, Jack Thompson--it's all pretty much the same.

When I read this news, it made me curious to find out just how difficult it is to get disbarred in Florida.

Almost impossible, as it turns out.

Thanks to the "connected series of tubes" that is the Internet, I found disciplinary statistics for the Florida Bar. Here are a few highlights:
Bar population: 79,290
Permanent disbarment: 5

Bar population: 81,534
Permanent disbarment: 18

Bar population: 84,884
Permanent disbarment: 12

So last year, if you were a member of the Florida Bar, you had a less than 1 in 12,000 chance of being permanently disbarred.

In gaming terms, being disbarred in Florida=EPIC FAIL.

What I wonder is whether state legislatures will continue to use Simple Jack as an advisor when they draft clearly unconstitutional legislation involving video games. I know--that seems impossible, but in America today, our slogan is cognitive dissonance: it's not just for breakfast anymore.

Trivia note: when I originally wrote this post, I typed Judge "Dava Tunis" as "Tuna Davis."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


For months, you guys have been sending me e-mails telling me to buy a Kindle.

Seemingly, the Kindle would be a natural for me--we're absolutely drowning in books, and since it's unlikely that we're ever going to read less, the only answer is an e-reader.

I also think that reflects a change in the availability of media in the last 10 years. When I used to read a great book, I would put it in the bookshelf knowing that I would never get rid of it. Maybe it would go out of print, or be difficult to find. I wasn't going to take that chance.

Today, though, every book is everywhere. We have omniscient access, so to speak, so I'm not concerned about keeping everything anymore, or having a physical copy.

So the Kindle seemed like it would be a great fit for me. The only problem was that I wouldn't buy one.

This is the Kindle:

There's only one word to describe it: homely.

It might well be the least sexy piece of electronic gear I've ever seen. It would be entirely at home in 1985.

Believe it or not, I think that was contributing to my reluctance. The Kindle is the anti-Apple (obviously, so am I, so there's some irony for you). It's so unstylish that its borderlines on stodgy.

Plus, I didn't like the screen. It didn't look bright enough in the pictures I saw.

Combine those thoughts, and the Kindle seemed very clunky. However, over time, you guys wore me down, like you usually do, and I bought one about a month ago.

After a month of use, let me just say this: man, this thing is sexy. To an engineer, that is, because this is one of the most efficiently functional pieces of equipment I've ever used. It's the right size, it's the right shape, and every button is in the right place.

The screen? There's no backlight. Instead, the screen is reflective, which greatly increases battery life. It also means that while you give up being able to read in the dark,what you gain is being able to read in bright sunlight. I'll gladly take that trade-off.

The Kindle also has a wireless connection, which you can use to go browse Amazon. Want to buy a book? Browse the Kindle store at Amazon, find the book you want, and it downloads to your Kindle in less than a minute. If you're pre-ordering a book, it will be delivered to your Kindle the day that the book is released.

Yes, that's as fantastic as it sounds.

It's incredibly easy to use, it's extremely comfortable to hold, and if you turn off the wireless connection when you're not shopping, a single battery charge could easily last a week. It's just unbelievably functional at every level.

The only negative I found so far is that even with 170,000 books available,there are still plenty of books I'd like to read that aren't available in the Kindle format yet.

What is available, though, is cheaper than buying the hardcover equivalent. The Kindle titles I've bought have all been $9.99, roughly half the price (or less) of the hardcover versions.

The Kindle also has functionality that I didn't even know I needed. For instance, you can change the font size. That by itself is so useful that it obsoletes printed books instantly. No more dragging through giant histories of something or other, trying to read something printed in Lilliputian 2.5 font.

If you're wondering about pictures, the Kindle does reproduce them, but not in color. I thought that would bother me quite a bit, but it hasn't so far. Obviously, though, for certain kinds of books, the Kindle will be unsuitable as a display device.

You can also subscribe to magazines and newspapers and blogs, but I'm not really interested in that right now, because I get that information from other places. As a "book that becomes another book," though, it's a tremendous piece of kit, and exactly what I need.

The Origin of the CD-Keys

Brian Crecente (Kotaku) has written a piece for Penny Arcade about copy protection. What I find most remarkable about this article is that it's an incredibly elegant piece of writing, with the strange yet quite appealing scent of steampunk in the air. Stop answering your phone at work and go have a look: The Origin of the CD-Keys, Part One.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

NHL 09 Impressins (360)

I've been playing NHL 09 for a week now, about 10 hours in total, and here are some early impressions. Well, early and narrow impressions, because all I've done in the 10 hours is explore Be A Pro Mode.

Be a Pro Mode is a new feature for this year's game, and it's outstanding. The front end is fairly standard--you create a player, decide whether to start in the pros or the minors (I chose the minors), and off you go.

One note: there's an option in BAP mode to control one player on the ice at all times, but there's also "authentic" mode, where you sit on the bench and watch the action when your line is not on the ice. Authentic mode is what I chose.

Once you start your career, you just play hockey. And it's great. Even sitting on the bench (or sitting in the penalty box) and watching the game is great, because it builds up anticipation for your next shift.

Based on your performance, you earn experience points they can be used to upgrade your skills. Your coach will promote you or demote you from your current line based on your performance as well, and eventually you can earn a promotion to the NHL.

I noticed a few changes from last year's gameplay, even in this mode. Teams dump the puck into the offensive zone much more often. There's more board play, although still not as much as I'd like. Goalies, at least in the AHL (minor league), make mistakes and commit too early and do all kinds of things that real goalies do. It never feels like Superman is swatting your shots away.

I'm playing as a center, and I've heard lots of good feedback about other skating positions as well. Glen Haag over at The Blog for the Sports Gamer has been playing as a goalie, and his impressions are less positive. Glen played goalie in college and still plays goalie in a league, so his technical knowledge of the position provides an interesting perspective.

Graphics and animation, just like last year, are top-notch, and I particularly notice improvements in the goalie animations this year. Sound is also excellent. This is a polished, outstanding game. I don't think it would beat MLB 08: The Show in terms of overall quality, but that's a very, very high bar.

One note about sliders: I'll put out a preliminary set next week, but if you get the game, you'll probably want to go in and lower game speed, pass speed, and hitting power immediately.

Overall, I would highly recommend this game as a purchase. It's wonderful, engrossing, and intense--just like real hockey.

Peter Moore

Peter Moore at EA sports gave a lengthy the interview to Keith Stuart of The Guardian games blog. It's been published in five parts, with the first part here.

This interview is being described as "candid," but I seriously doubt that. Peter Moore is very, very skilled at manipulating the media when it suits his purpose. He appears very candid at times, and the further into the past, the more candid he seems, but here's what he had to say about the infamous hardware issues with the 360:
...a year and a half ago we had a very difficult time with Xbox 360, with the hardware issues, and there are things that I've said that have been immortalized, and you try to say, well that's not what I meant… Infamously, a guy called Mike Antonucci of the San Jose Mercury news interviewed me and was really pushing hard, and of course when you're dealing with something as sensitive as defective hardware, you've got to be very careful what you say, not only about messaging but it's about legal issues. If you say things out of line on behalf of a company, you're exposing the company to lawsuits, people will take what you say and use it in a court of law - and Microsoft knows that very well.

But I was focused at that time on trying to get customer service up and running to take care of some hardware problems, and I said, 'You know, things break', and then I was called Marie Antoinette – let them eat cake. But the context I was using wasn't flippant, the sentence was, 'things break, but our job is to go fix it for you'. So what I said was twisted to that it looked like I didn't care.

Let me try to put this into context. Dean Takahashi clearly established in his recent article that Microsoft launched the 360 knowing that the hardware was faulty and that return rates would be extremely high. Yet all Peter Moore mentions is that he was taken out of context to make it look like he didn't care. This is one of the guys, if not THE guy, who approved shipping a known defective product, but he's not going to say anything about his responsibility.

"Candid," indeed.

He does have something interesting to say about the future in terms of delivery methods:
The one thing that will change is whether it's going to be a physical packaged goods model, or whether it's going to be direct to consumer download. There will be a time when we don't ship it on a physical disc, it's not far away, in fact we're already doing it in Asia, and we might give you the core game for free, but then you start buying downloads, micro-transactions, we'll sponsor some stuff, and start shifting the business model away from 'I need to get your £49 and then say goodbye to you when you walk out of Game', I want to talk to you everyday, I want to give you things everyday that keep you in contact with me, I want a relationship with you as a consumer 365 days a year.

...So in the future hard drives are going to be bigger, broadband is going to be faster and we're going to look back and laugh at the fact that we used to drive to the store to buy a piece of plastic with data on it. That business model isn't going to exist – I don't know whether it's going to be five years from now or ten years, but it's not going to be around anymore. And then we can *uck Gamestop in the ass.

Um, I added that last sentence.

Clearly, though, that's the point. I still wonder how entirely digital distribution for gaming machine will ever actually work. Consoles aren't going to come with 300GB hard drives any time soon--Moore himself was bitching about the costs of the 20GB hard drive in the original Xbox! And even with 300GB, plenty of people would just run out of space. What about the guy who buys 100+ games for a single console? Also, what happens when a console needs to go in for repair and a hard drive is replaced? Where are all the licenses for all of those games, and how do they get downloaded?

Digital distribution sounds simple, and inside a PC framework, it is relatively simple. Inside a console framework, though, it's going to be much more difficult.

One last note. Here's the other interesting take away from this interview. Do you know how many times he uses the word "quality?"

Not once.

Do you know how many times he uses the word "brand?"

Nineteen times.

That, to me, is far more illuminating in terms of his priorities than any answer to a single question he could ever give.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Rock Band 2 Impressions

Well, it's just brilliant.

Rock Band 2 is so jam-packed full of win that it's hard to know where to start. Maybe something simple like the auto-calibration feature, which accurately and automatically calibrates both the audio and video lag on my plasma screen. No more manually calibration, then re-calibrating, then still not being completely convinced that I've got it exactly right. Maybe something else simple, like how quickly all the menus load now. Maybe the way that hammer-ons and pull-offs are now much easier to see on the note chart. Maybe the outstanding use of color throughout the game, creating rich and vivid imagery. Maybe the humor, because Harmonix, as well as being a company of musicians, is also a company of wiseasses, and they are funny at the most unexpected times. Maybe I should mention something big, like the remarkable addition of the drum trainer, which has greatly expanded the game in a musical sense.

At a higher level, though, Rock Band 2 does what very, very few games have ever managed to do: encourage participation while still rewarding excellence.

Think that's tough? Try to think of another game that did it well.

I'll go one step further: no game has ever rewarded both participation and excellence as well as Rock Band 2.

Now, let's look at why.

In previous Guitar Hero/Rock Band games, no matter how inexperienced someone might be, there was a place to get in. Yes, progression in single-player mode was always very linear, using the standard "complete tier, move to next tier" scheme, but easy difficulty was so easy that anyone could enjoy the game and learn how to play.

The different difficulty levels were always distinct, and overall, a higher difficulty level was significantly tougher than the previous one. But the first few songs on Hard, for example, were often easier than the last tier on Medium.

However, at some point, most of us hit The Wall.

You know The Wall. It's the song (or songs) that you just can't pass. For me, it was Cowboys From Hell in Guitar Hero, then Freebird and Hangar 18 in GHII, and Green Grass and High Tides in Rock Band. So I got close in all three games to finishing the solo tour on Expert, but those songs stopped me.

And once you hit The Wall, the game really isn't as much fun, because you spend 90% of your time replaying songs and sections that are too difficult for you. Sometimes, it eventually clicks, and you pass the song, but fun returned versus time invested just plummets.

Also, the structure of the previous games really lended itself to score whoring. I tried to optimize my career score to rank as high as I could on the leaderboards, but when you're spending time replaying songs you don't even like in order to get 30k more points, then fun/time goes down again.

With Rock Band, the addition of band mode was a huge departure, but this was only available if you had a friend who could play locally with you. No online mode, and if you were by yourself, solo career was all you could play.

These games were still an incredible amount of fun to play--I spent hundreds of hours on each one. Rock Band 2, though, makes conceptual changes that completely eliminate the kind of limitations I mentioned.

With Rock Band 2, the distinction between solo career and band is gone. Now, if you're playing by yourself, you're still in a band. Three CPU session players will fill in as the other band members. That's a great idea, because it means that all the flexibility of tour mode is now available to single players, so instead of a very linear progression through song tiers, there are literally hundreds of different gigs you can play. Even better, these gigs can vary substantially from each other. You might play a single song, or maybe you'll create a four song setlist. Maybe it will be a six song "mystery" setlist, where you don't even pick the songs. There are dozens of variations and a huge number of locations.

In other words, goodbye to linearity.

Plus, score whoring has changed substantially. Now, you're trying to acquire fans and performance stars, not points. If you think that's the same thing with a different title, let me tell you why it's not. Before, I'd be trying to squeeze out another few thousand points on an individual song to get my career score higher. Now, individual song scores are relatively meaningless--once you get five stars, you've gotten the maximum "star value" for that song. It's not necessary to "sqeeze" that song over and over again, trying to get more points.

Fans are different, too, because while it's somewhat analagous to career score, it's possible to attract more fans to your band even if you don't improve your high score on a song. So again, you don't have to focus on best score only.

Those changes are conceptually wonderful. It makes playing as a single player both more fun and more relaxing. It's focused much more on "getting better" than "passing song X." And since DLC is incorporated, it means that you could potentially have hundreds of songs to play.

I also really like how the walls between individual instruments have been dismantled. I've been playing guitar in tour mode (less stress on my forearms), but if I want to play the drums for a song or two, it's as part of the same band. I don't have to back out of "guitar career" and enter "drum career." It's a much, much more natural way for the game to work.

At the top, though, the best players are still the best players, and they're still rewarded. If you want to check out a career score by instrument, you can still do that. You can still check out your score on individual songs.

The game is very challenging on Expert, and Harmonix has deftly used some of the DLC to provide an even greater challenge. Rock Band 2 can be a casual game, a party game, if you want, but it's also very hardcore at the highest levels. And even though that aspect of the game probably only matters to the top 1-2% of players, I still think it's important to have.

I haven't even mentioned the online tour mode, or the ability to challenge other human bands, or any one of dozens of other features. I haven't seen any of that yet. There's already so much to keep me busy that it may be months before I see all the features.

If you bought the first Rock Band, this is a must-buy. If you didn't buy Rock Band, this is a must-buy. It may well be the zenith for music games, because I have no idea how they can top this next year.

Gaming Notes: Avalanche of Goodness Edition

Tilted Mill has posted an announcement about Hinterland's release date:
Hinterland was on target to be released this Monday, the 22nd of September. However, we have decided to delay its release a week or two, so that we may implement some additional features and content to the game, many of which came from the excellent suggestions we've received from the community. We want to thank you all for your support and patience. We know this delay may be disappointing to some, but we're confident it will ultimately provide a better play experience for all.

That's great. Only "a week or two" to go, and that works out fine, because Battlelord: King's Bounty should be in stores (in the U.S.) on this Wednesday, the 23rd. So we have something to keep us busy in the meantime.

Or Mount & Blade, possibly, which is now available at Gamer's Gate and should be in stores Wednesday as well.

Plus Rock Band 2 came out a week ago Sunday, NHL 09 came out last Wednesday, and a patch for Head Coach (and a patch for Madden as well) will be out today.

After going through a period where I didn't really have much to play, I suddenly have five of my top ten list for the fall landing within a two week period.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Head Coach Patch (360 version) Update

Josh Looman, lead designer, posted patch release information on the Operation Sports forums. He also mentioned that the patch for the PS3 version is still a ways from release--"Potentially later this coming week or early the week after."

[UPDATE: Josh just posted again and said that the 360 patch might not come out until Monday. His boss called him to update and there had apparently been some confusion over when it was actually coming out.]

Friday Links!

Ahoy, matey, and welcome to Friday links.

Here's an interesting story from the New York Times titled Gut Instinct’s Surprising Role in Math, and it discusses two ways that our brains solve mathematical problems: the "bestial" and the "celestial." It's an excellent read.

Ryan Shalek sent me a link to an absolutely amazing article--50 incredible film posters from Poland. So many of these posters are utterly unique and ingenious.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to a brilliant art project: the Spy Box. Here's an excerpt on how it works:
This "Spy Box" by artist Tim Knowles is a home built parcel shipping box with a small hole on the top and a digital camera and custom circuitry placed inside. While in transit, the box is programmed to take a picture every 10 seconds, recording a total of 6994 images in a single trip between two local addresses by a city courier.

Simon van Alphen sent me a link to PHD Comics, and they're excellent. Also, from Simon, a link to photographs of the most alien-looking place on earth, and they're spectacular.

Greg V sent in a link to an in-car video of ex-F1 driver Riccardo Patrese taking his wife for a lap around the Jerez circuit in a Honda Civic Type-R, just a little faster than she wanted (it gets very funny around 2:00).

From Aaron Daily, a classic story of the consumer fighting back. After repeatedly receiving faxes from a telemarketing spammer, "Pat" successully re-routed the faxes--to the receptionist's desk of the company sending the faxes.

Next, a link to Super Mario Rescues the Princess, and the other episodes (part of Seth MacFarlane's Cavalcade, and I think we can all agree that "Cavalcade" is a great word) are funny as well. Finally, a link to blue crystal art, created with 90,000 litres of copper sulphate. It's beautiful.

Neatorama has become required reading for me each day, and here are two excellent links: first, a video of two pictures a day of the same man every day, and some of the most incredible dioramas I've ever seen.

From Sirius, a link to an article about a plug-in hybrid car--built in 1969! And in a car-related link, it's the cars of futures past. Next, an article about the Big Dry, Australia's worst drought in the last century. Finally, a link to a story about the day the Catholic Church finally admitted that the Earth did revolve around the sun--September 11, 1882.

From Frank Regan, a link to Theophile, an 8-legged walking machine--of Legos.

From Paul Costello, a link to ninja cat, and our cat George is just like this.

From MSNBC, a look into an online poker ring that made untold millions of dollars--by cheating.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Pointed Out By You

Luke Brand pointed out that Kotick was probably referring to total worldwide sales. Sure, Rock Band wasn't even released in some of those territories, but if you're counting everything (game, expansions packs, etc.) everywhere, then 6:1 may well be correct.

Violating the Prime Directive

Activision CEO Bobby Kotick spoke today at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia XVII Conference.

If you don't know what "Communacopia" means, don't worry. No one else does, either. They could have called it the "Goldman Sachs Jabberwocky Bollocks XVII Conference" and it would have made more sense.

Here's what Kotick had to say:
We’re outselling [Rock Band] 6:1. When you think about the access we have to 30% of the world’s music at Universal, we have a unique advantage there. I would also say when you look at resources, you know, our next-nearest competitor has a couple of hundred people working on these projects, we have close to 2000 people just dedicated to the Guitar Hero note tracking, introduction of new hardware, introduction of new software, and so we just have a lot more in the way of resources available to us to continue to dominate the category.

Wow, Mr. Kotick, you don't sound like a dick at all. Hey, Reggie Von Dough called--he wants his attitude back.

Let me clear a few things up.

I have no idea how you got to 6:1, but I'm sure it included every copy of every crappy expansion pack you released, plus the unit sales for the DS version. And it didn't include downloadable content. And it wasn't based on total revenue. In other words, in every conceivable way to look at sales except one, you're well below 6:1. On the 360, GH III didn't even outsell Rock Band by 2:1, and if you went on revenue, it would be close to even.

Plus, I'm glad that he apparently has an entire army of people working on Guitar Hero, and Rock Band only has "several hundred," but guess what? Those are several hundred musicians. That army of 2000 still doesn't seem to be enough people to do a proper note chart.

Fear the musicians, Kodick. Fear them!

I know, this wasn't really an interview, so the prime directive ("don't be a dick in interviews") shouldn't technically apply here. But it's possible to make your point without acting like you have to teabag the opposition in every sentence.


Tomorrow is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. For me, it's a good example of how a decision you made when you were just a kid can come back and haunt you later. When I was in high school, I had to learn a language to fulfill a core curriculum requirement, but instead of Pirate, I chose Viking.

So today, if there were International Talk Like a Viking Day, I would rule. Instead, I just look at people saying "Ahoy, matey!" to each other and rue missed opportunities.


Being Green

Gloria made some pumpkin muffins today, and she walked in while I was eating one over the sink.

"Can I get you a plate?" she asked.

"No, thanks," I said. "I'm eating green."

She started laughing. "I'd believe you if I hadn't seen you do it for twelve years."

"I'm very conscious of social trends," I said. "Green is the new black."

Gloria is a member of the "diversity committee" for an organization that is, um, not very diverse at the present time.

"It's hard to come up with an idea for an event to promote diversity that will appeal to people who aren't diverse already," she said.

"Well, take it in baby steps," I said. "Maybe you could start off with a 'Different Ways That We're White' festival."

Meat Loaf and the Importance of Being an Individual

We were on our way back from Krispy Kreme Saturday morning, and Eli 7.1 saw a restaurant sign as we drove by. "Mongolian Grill," he said.

"Good reading," I said.

"I know all about the Mongolians," he said.

"Really?" I said. "Tell me about them," I said.

"Well," he said, "I know they have a culture and they make Mongolian meatloaf."

"Exactly right," I said. "Well, not exactly."

Last night, we had dinner together. As a family.

One of the vegetables was corn on the cob. Eli doesn't like corn on the cob, though, so Gloria stripped his ear of corn and put the kernels in a bowl.

When Eli started eating his corn, he used his fingers.

"Eating corn with your fingers is not really considered polite," Gloria said.

"Mom," Eli said patiently, "all the kids eat corn with their fingers."

"Peer pressure," I said. "Nice angle."

"They eat corn on the cob with their fingers," Gloria said. "Not kernel corn."

"Ooh," Eli said.

"Backed into a corner," I said. "What will he do?"

We were silent for a few seconds. Then Eli said, "I think it's important for every person to be an individual."

"Outstanding save," I said.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Spore (four)

I know it seems like I'm making a post a day about this--wait, I AM making a post today about this--but like I said, this issue has legs.

Remember what I said about fragmenting the protest base? Here are a few excerpts from an e-mail interview MTV multiplayer did with EA spokesperson Mariam Sughayer.

First off, EA is trying to claim that the issue surrounding running out of activations only applies to a few users. Here are the numbers they presented:
Spore (main game)
• Total activations: 437138
• Users activating on only 1 machine: 86%
• Users activating on more than 1 machine: 14%
• User trying to activate on more than 3 machines: 0.4%

They also included the activation numbers for Mass Effect, which showed that the 3+ activation users were below 1% as well.

Does that matter? in a tactical sense, no. What matters is that the 1% has been effectively vocal. That also doesn't include people who have objections to limited installations, but haven't tried to install on more than three machines.

Plus, and this is quite funny, EA sent this information shortly after the interview went live:
UPDATE - An EA representative has clarified that the above numbers cover a sampling of the people who have bought “Spore” and should not be interpreted as a representation of sales data for the game.

Really? Because to me, those numbers mean nothing if they're "sampled." I think EA just accidentally released sales information. Oops.

Here's more:
Complaint: A legitimately bought copy of “Spore” can’t be activated on more than three different computers — ever.
EA Response: That will be changed, according to the EA spokesperson, who told Multiplayer that the current limit on the number of computers that can be associated with a single copy of “Spore” is “very similar to a solution that iTunes has. The difference is that with iTunes you can de-authorize a computer [that you no longer want associated with your iTunes content]. Right now, with our solution, you can’t. But there is a patch coming for that.” The official timeframe for that patch is “near future.”

That makes sense, both common sense and tactical sense. Like I said, what I expect EA to do is make one change at a time, hoping that each change will splinter off a few people who had previously been dissatisfied.

Complaint: Consumers fear there is spyware being installed by the SecurROM copy-protection software incorporated into the game.
EA Response: “There’s no viruses, no spyware and no malware…We have located a download off of one of the Torrent sites that is a virus. The thing I would say to the consumer audience is that, if you’re concerned with a virus on your computer, the chances of that are infinitely higher when you’re downloading off of a hacked version than it would be downloading the authentic game. We would never put any spyware on anyone’s computers. That’s not going to happen.”

That's a tough sell for EA: large corporation says "never." Of course, the definition of "spyware" may not be consistent from consumer to corporation. It's going to be very difficult to convince a large number of consumers with a promise. Promises can be very convincing when given by individuals. By corporations, though, not so much.

Complaint: The “Spore” instruction manual claims that a purchaser of “Spore” can allow multiple users to create online accounts with a single copy of the game. The game does not allow this.
EA Response: The company has already stated this is a misprint in the manual and referred Multiplayer back to
a statement issued by “Spore” executive producer Lucy Bradshaw apologizing for “the confusion.” But EA has not replied to Multiplayer follow-up questions regarding why the company implemented this restriction and what EA makes of complaints from households that include multiple people who want to have separate “Spore” accounts associated with a single copy of the game.

I wish I was smart enough to understand why this seem so important to EA, but I'm not. I have no idea why they want this restriction, and why they would continue to hold onto it in the face of mounting criticism. Obviously, it must be worth something in the larger scheme of things, but exactly what is not known at this point. Well, not known by me.

Complaint: The requirement for a “Spore” user to have their ownership of the game automatically authenticated every time they access the game’s online features threatens to render the game useless if EA someday turns the “Spore” servers off.
EA Response: “If we were to ever turn off the servers on the game, we would put through a patch before that to basically make the DRM null and void. We’re never walking away from the game and making it into a situation where people aren’t going to be able to play it.”

Never? Really?

Here's the problem with that believing that statement: EA's own CEO, John Riccitiello. Remember his interview with Venture Beat less than three months ago?
"I don't think the investors give a sh*t about our quality. They care about our earnings per share. They wait for it to happen. We had three years where we didn't make our expectations. If I were an investor, I would wait and see. That's fine with me," Riccitiello explained.

Oh, yeah--THAT guy.

Inconveniently, a corporation's real responsibility is to its shareholders first. So if shareholders don't give a shit when it comes to the quality of the product being sold to consumers, do they give a shit about whether the corporation is honest to consumers?

Doesn't sound like it, does it?

So does this mean EA will screw us in the future? Not necessarily. Does it mean we should trust them? Not necessarily.

As always, let the buyer beware.

Culture Clash

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

Console Post of the Week

This may look like the story:
According to sales data from Famitsu publisher, the Xbox 360 is the top selling home console in Japan for the sales week September 8th to September 14th...Here's the sales breakdown from Enterbrain:
• Xbox 360: 28,681 units
• Wii: 27,057 units
• Playstation 3: 8,050 units

That has to be the story, right? Has the 360 ever been the best-selling console in Japan, even for a week?

Believe it or not, though, that's not the story. The story is that for the last seven weeks, the 360 has sold more units in Japan than the PS3.

In August, the 360 outsold the PS3 (41,230 to 39,594). In the last three weeks, the 360 has sold 32,849 units, while the PS3 has sold 26,147 (that includes two week of data from Media Create and this last week from Enterbrain).

Here's some context. Look at how many PS3's sold for each 360, by month:
Dec-06--3.31 (severe inventory shortage)
Jan-07--3.23 (same)

I bolded every entry with a ratio below four-to-one. With the exception of two months with extreme inventory shortages following the launch of the PS3, that ratio had been below three only once before July of this year. Now, when September concludes, it will have been below three for three months in a row.

What's going on? The obvious answers are Tails of Vesperia last month and a price cut this week, but it's also a statement on how incredibly poorly the PS3 has done in Japan. It's been a washout, basically.

Microsoft also announced additional price cuts in both the UK and Europe this week. This comes on the heels of price cuts in both the U.S. and Japan. Simply put, Microsoft has gotten aggressive again.

I think one of the most important questions for this generation of consoles is whether Sony will ever be able to eliminate the price gap. I don't care if Blu-Ray represents "more value"-- the PS3 needs to sell at the same price as the 360 to reach critical mass. If they are content to stay $50 behind (at best), and $100 behind (at worst), then they're going to be chasing. They'll sell slightly better at the $50 difference, but worse at the $100 difference.

For Sony, this is the big fail. That's why they have to break out of this cycle, and I don't know how long they can afford to wait.

I didn't discuss Nintendo this week, but Mike Gilbert sent me a link to an article over at The Consumerist about an out-of-warranty Wii owner who needed to get their console repaired. It's surreal--in a good way.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Spore (three)

There is a remarkably messy article over at Forbes about the copy protection issues surrounding Spore. I say "messy" because the article does a curious job of making conclusions without evidence, and uses poor logic to reach conclusions even when data is available.

What seems clear, though, as I prepare to use a Spore-related time, is that this time, this issue has "legs."

Let's take a look at this Forbes article, beginning with the lead:
How do you measure the failure of the copy protections that software companies place on their media products? In the case of Electronic Arts' highly-anticipated game "Spore," just count the pirates.

As of Thursday afternoon, "Spore" had been illegally downloaded on file-sharing networks using BitTorrent peer-to-peer transfer 171,402 times since Sept. 1, according to Big Champagne, a peer-to-peer research firm.

So the article's premise is that the DRM has "failed," but it's impossible conclude that, because it's impossible to know how many people would have downloaded the software illegally without using DRM. It would, however, be incredibly unlikely that fewer people would have illegally downloaded it if it had no copy protection at all.

Then it gets stranger:
...not only have those constraints failed, says Garland, they may have inadvertently spurred the pirates on.

On several top file-sharing sites, "Spore"'s most downloaded BitTorrent "tracker"--a file that maps which users had the game available for downloading--also included step-by-step instructions for how to disassemble the copy protections, along with a set of numerical keys for breaking the software's encryption. For many users, that made the pirated version more appealing than the legitimate one.

"By downloading this torrent, you are doing the right thing," wrote one user going by the name of "deathkitten" on the popular file-sharing site The Pirate Bay. "You are letting [Electronic Arts] know that people won't stand for their ridiculously draconian 'DRM' viruses."

Remember, this isn't some guys blog--this is Forbes.

Somehow, people who steal software are now the new Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and dispensing moral lessons. I'm not sure they're "giving to the poor," but no matter. Stealing is now righteous.

Give me a freaking break.

Look. Going to Amazon and giving the game a negative review because of its DRM is an entirely legitimate way for consumers to express their dissatisfaction. Creating funny characters using Spore's creature editor that somehow mention DRM-- and will get downloaded by other users into their game--is a clever, viral way to protest.

Stealing a game and then claiming it's justified, though, is something else, something I like to call "horseshit." There's protest and there's thievery--let's not confuse the two.

Here's a hypothetical situation. Let's say there's a lifesaving vaccine that (theoretically) costs 20X what it should because of an evil pharmaceutical company, and millions of people will die if they don't get the vaccine.

If somebody breaks inyo the pharmaceutical company and steals hundreds of thousands of doses of that vaccine, then distributes it to the poor and underprivileged, then we could have an interesting discussion.

This, however, is not a life-saving vaccine. It's entertainment. Trying to equate stealing a game, a toy, with any kind of "higher purpose" is just ridiculous.

Having said that, though, EA still has a problem here. Consumers are more vocal and expressing their displeasure in far more mainstream ways about game DRM than ever before. They're also more unified, and that is, by far, EA's biggest fear.

Tactically, EA has one goal: fragment the unification. From a marketing honk's perspective, the way to do that is to constantly change the DRM just slightly, but market it each time as a significant benefit for the consumer.

It's not a significant benefit, really, but if executives keep saying that it is, at least some people will believe them.

I doubt the effectiveness of that approach, at least on a large scale, but companies are crazy like that--they'll always try something non-substantial with extra marketing before doing anything substantial.

When they do want to do something substantial, and they want to fragment a unified protest base, then they can make the DRM less restrictive in steps. For example, they can reduce the number of times a product needs verification. They could also increase the number of activations. They could make it possible to play without the CD in the drive.

With each step, a layer of protesters gets peeled back and goes away. At some point, the company hopes that the people remaining are so ideological and hardcore, with so many agendas, that they can't unify. At that point, fragmentation has returned.

EA, to some degree, appears to be pursuing this strategy right now. And as a consumer, I think they succeeded with me. Spore requires a one-time online activation and I can play without having the CD in the drive.

Personally, I have no complaints with that.

However, there is still a very large group of people who are legitimately protesting what they see as a "rent, not own" issue involving online validation. Simply put, if the game requires online validation when installed, what happens if one day the servers aren't available? Am I buying a game, or am I just sort of renting it? What happens 10 years from now when I try to install Spore on my new computer, and the online validation servers don't exist anymore?

To me, as an observer, that's the critical wedge issue. EA has to resolve that if they want to disarm and splinter the consumer base.

Gamers With Jobs, by the way, took a unique approach to this issue: they put up articles on both sides. First, by Sean Sands, is A New, Unpopular Philosophy. Then there's Allen Cook with Windmills Do Not Work That Way. There are excellent points in both, and they're well worth your reading time.

King's Bounty Demo (Discouraging News)

Not about the gameplay, but about the copy protection.

Yes, copy protection on a demo. And apparently, it's "FrontLine ProActive," developed by the same scumbags who developed StarForce.

FLPA appears to be a different animal--there's no disc check, because it's specifically for Internet-distributed programs, there don't appear to be drivers installed on the system, etc. However, given the history of of the StarForce guys, it's fair to assume that they might not be, um, entirely forthcoming.

I installed the demo and didn't have any problems, but I don't trust them, either.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Forget to Mention One Thing About the Drum Rocker

The only negative about the Drum Rocker, for me, is the bass pedal. I forgot to mention it because my Omegal Pedal works fine with the kit, so after a quick test, I didn't use the Drum Rocker pedal. It's very sturdy, and the feel is good, but it's surprisingly loud. Too loud--for me, at least.

Rock Band 2 and the Ion Drum Rocker

Rock band 2 launched yesterday--sort of. The game was widely available, but almost no one had either the new drum or guitar controllers. Plus, if you want to buy a bundle with both the new instruments and game, you're out of luck for at least another month.

All in all, it seemed badly managed.

Usually, I would play for hours on the first day. Yesterday, though, after picking up the game and being unable to find the new guitar, I didn't play at all.

This was partially due to my shoulder being in such a sorry state right now, but if I'd had the new guitar, I'm sure I would've played anyway.

Oh, and if you don't have a 360, you can't get the game at all, at least for now. Add all these things together and it's a badly fragmented launch.

This afternoon, though, the ION Drum Rocker arrived. Yes, I hadn't even mentioned that I ordered it, but knowing me as well as most of you do, was there any doubt? Plus, I had to spend money to save money--in combination with the drum trainer in the game, I can put off buying a more substantial kit for quite a while now.

Big, big savings. That's the official explanation, anyway.

If you're wondering what the ION set looks like, here's the website: Drum Rocker. Basically, it's a low-end kit (in the world of real drums, anyway) based on the Alesis DM5 Pro. It's important to note, though, that "low-end" is in comparison with Roland or Yamaha kits costing well in excess of $1000. In comparison to the Rock Band drums, this kit is ultra-deluxe.

For starters, you can adjust the position of all four pads (as well as the cymbals), including the abilit to adjust tilt. It's almost infinitely customizable in terms of position. Now, when I practice in advance of my real drum lesson, my kit has all pads and cymbals in the proper places.

In terms of feel, the pads have nice rebound (not as much as mesh heads, but far more than the original Rock Band kit), and the cymbals are more cushioned than I expected. High marks on both.

Noise? The original Rock Band kit was tremendously noisy, and it was noise of the "clack" variety. The ION kit is quieter, but the sound itself is also far less annoying--more of a deeper tone than a clack.

Assembly took about one hour--this is a real drum kit, so the assembly process is more complicated. If you have an Omega pedal, it seems to work just fine-- you'll need a 1/8" to 1/4" mono adapter (available at any Radio Shack) to make the connection compatible.

I finished putting it together so late that all I did was play a couple of songs, then spent about 20 minutes in the drum trainer. I can already tell, though, that I'm going to spend a ton of time in the drum trainer. There are 75 different beats to practice, and speed can go as high as 200 beats per minute.

That will be known as "pretty $*#damn fast" speed.

I played the first few beats at 180 bpm successfully, but going from 180 to 200 is harder (for me) than going from 120 to 180.

The game saves your progress on each beat, so if you've played one at 180 bpm, but another at only 120 bpm, you'll see the difference.

There's also a fill trainer and freestyle mode, but I haven't tried either one yet.

ION Drum Rocker: awesome. Awesomeness may not be accurately described with existing scales, as it may well be awesome beyond measurement.

Rock Band 2 drum trainer: awesome, with definite hypnotic qualities.


I was watching the Texas Tech-SMU game Saturday night, and SMU has a punter named Thomas Morstead.

Thomas Morstead, apparently, has a cannon strapped to his leg. The first time he punted the ball, I thought it was going to enter low earth orbit.

I looked up his stats after the game, and he's averaging 48.2 yards a punt this season. Plus, he's not kicking line drives--his punts are a mile high.

Morstead might be the greatest college punter I've ever seen, but he wound up playing for SMU, which isn't even in the top 100 college programs right now.

How did that happen?

Here's the baffling part. There are many coaches in college football who won't give a scholarship to a kicker. Mack Brown, who coaches Texas, is a good example. But great punters are going to net the team an extra 5-10 yards in field position every single time they touch the ball. And coaches talk all the time about how important field position is, particularly in big games. So field position is critical, but they won't give a scholarship to a punter?

I can understand being cautious about field goal kickers. There's a pressure-related aspect of being a field goal kicker that's difficult to predict. They can lose their form just like golfers develop the yips in their putting stroke.

Punters, though, are usually bank. Punting is less mental than it is technical, and I'm not sure if I've ever heard of a punter not being able to kick anymore. Find a great punter in high school, and his chances of being great in college are higher than almost any other position. Do teams really need that seventh cornerback on scholarship more?

SMU offering Morstead a scholarship might not be the reason he wound up there. But if I was the head coach of one of these giant programs, I'd have a scout whose only job was to beat the bushes and find great punters and kickers.

King's Bounty Demo

The big news today, at least for me, is that a demo for King's Bounty: the Legend has been released, and you can see the download sites over at Blue's News.

If you've forgotten why you should care about King's Bounty, it's because it's being developed by the same team who developed Space Rangers 2.

If you remember, that game did not suck.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday Links!

Loaded, as usual. With toppings.

Leading off, from Vahur Teller, a link to 25 images of hurricanes--as seen from space.

My good friend John Harwood sent me a link to a video in the Rock Band forums: playing Rock Band with a trumpet. Lots and lots of win in that video--what a crazy (yet simple) idea.

From Jonathan Arnold, a link to a fascinating, forgotten, and ultimately tragic bit of American celebrity: the aquatots.

From Frank Regan, and you really should watch this: the Large Hadron Collider. In other news, Switzerland appears to still be intact.

From Mitch Youngblood a link to a remarkable story of discovery: Melting Swiss Glacier Yields Neolithic Trove, and what they're finding is incredible.

If you have children (or are just curious), here's a link to a dense but ultimately very revealing article about children and how we shape their attitudes. Here's an excerpt:
Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

From David Wolfe, a link to a story about a spider attack simulator and what it teaches us about the behavior of bees.

From the New York Times, an article about another aspect of the extremely high intelligence of crows: they remember the faces of friends and foes.

From Skip Key, a link to the utterly fascinating Japanese Bug Fights. It's impossible to watch only one.

Here's another technology story that's so brilliant it's hard to even believe: Colorizing Technology Highlights Cancerous Tissue.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to a story about the Thai prime minister being forced to resign from office--because of a cooking show.

From Jarod, a link to some amazing (and amazingly detailed) photographs of insects.

A boatload of links from Sirius this week. First, a link to an article about how insects may have ultimately finished the dinosaurs. Next, a link to The Complete History of Nintendo (all 122 years). Then, to almost no one's surprise (since they can already paint), it's been discovered that elephants have a talent for arithmetic. Finally, a link to a story about the discovery of an intact steppe mammoth skull.

From Steven Pubols, a link to a story about water bears--tiny invertebrates that can survive in the vacuum of space.

From Steven Davis, a link to a story about the discovery of fossil forests in the coal mines of Illinois.

From Gloria (aka "my wife"), a link to an Onion classic: Evolutionists Flock to Darwin-shaped Wall Stain.

Here's a second link from Vahur Teller, and it's an insane skateboarding video (think 50MPH+): Claremont.

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, a link to what must be the oddest running race ever. It's 3100 miles long, it lasts for 51 days and it consists entirely of running around a 1/2 mile city block in Queens. Here's the Wikipedia entry as well.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

August NPD Numbers

Wii: 453,000
Xbox 360: 195,200
PS3: 185,400
PS 2: 144,100

Not a lot of useful information there, but Microsoft's price cut will show up in September's results.

If Sony doesn't cut prices, they're looking at 180k for each of the next two months, roughly( at best). I also wouldn't expect them to do better than 350k in November or 800k in December, and again, that's the high end of the range. That's just not enough for the kind of market share they're trying to claim.

Spore (part two)

Saying that Will Wright wanted to be Michael Bay was wrong. What I should have said was that Will Wright wants to be Walt Disney.

Except, unfortunately, he's not.

Disney made movies that were accessible to everyone without making them stupid to anyone. Shakespeare did that as well, except that in his case, "everyone" meant "all adults."

What Disney and Shakespeare did not do, however, was "dumb down."


I've been playing Spore for three days now, but I still don't have many impressions to share, because I'm still not sure what I think. It's very difficult to separate my expectations for a game that was in development for five years with the reality of how it actually plays.

It's also extremely difficult, extraordinarily difficult, to not let my image of Will Wright affect how I see the game. I'm still awed by Will Wright, and still feel that he is capable of brilliantly complex, mind-blowing game designs.

What I'm not sure, though, is if Will Wright still believes that. He did an interview with 1UP this week, and here's an excerpt:
When asked whether or not the game has been "dumbed down" to appeal to a more casual audience, Wright replies, "I'd say that's quite accurate.... We were very focused, if anything, on making a game for more casual players." He also admits "we would rather have the Metacritic and sales of Sims 2 than the Metacritic and sales of "Half-Life."

Oh, hell.

I thought Will Wright wanted to be Stanley Kubrick, but clearly, he wants to be Michael Bay, and we are all so much poorer for that.

Will Wright, or at least the guy who I thought in my mind was Will Wright, is not Will Wright anymore. Tarn Adams is Will Wright, and Dwarf Fortress is the kind of game I wish Will Wright would make (with graphics).

Instead, Will Wright appears to be desirous of capturing the Big Fish Games demographic, and again, I think we're all poorer for that.

A second note about Spore involves the rather remarkable protest concerning the DRM used in the game. What's remarkable, to me, is the level of organization that this protest seemed to have successfully harnessed. There are presently 2,133 reviews of Spore on Amazon, and the average rating, incredibly, is one star.

Even a casual reading of the comments quickly shows that this is, essentially, a DRM protest. And in many ways, I think this is somewhat of a landmark moment, because it clearly demonstrates that it's possible to organize people who are against copy protection into a coherent force.

Individual protest? Largely meaningless, and completely ineffective. Organized protest? Often seismic and very effective.

This is potentially the jumping off point for a discussion about the copy protection used by Spore, but in the big picture, I'm not sure it matters--or rather, it's not what matters most here. Since we can't return games for a refund, consumers have very little power when it comes to protesting what they feel is unfair treatment by publishers. Using Amazon as a mechanism to express their dissatisfaction is quite clever, really, and I think that publishers ever do remove copy protection, Spore will be mentioned as a turning point.

Sometimes You See a Headline That You Just Don't Want to Click On

Court: Cops Illegally Taped Nursing Home Sex

I don't care what that story's about--there will be no clicking.

FaceOff Hockey

From Gary Gorski and Wolverine Studios:
Michigan, September 9, 2008. Wolverine Studios, a developer of simulation games, is proud to announce that we are collaborating with Rick Cole to bring FaceOff Hockey, one of the most popular and well respected hockey simulations of the past decade, to Wolverine Studios.

"We're very happy to be entering into the hockey arena with the finest hockey simulation around", says Wolverine Studios' president Gary Gorski. "Very few people know the game of hockey as well as Rick Cole, and throughout the years FaceOff Hockey has proven to be an elite simulation with an impressively loyal and well deserved fan base."

FaceOff Hockey 2008 will be the first version of the series released through Wolverine Studios and will update the prior version of the single season replay PC game for the 2008-09 season.

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Eli 7.1: The Angry Face

After we had breakfast on Sunday, I took Eli 7.1 to pick up a few things at Walgreens, and I let him buy a piece of candy.

"Dad, can I eat this now?" he asked, as I buckled him into his booster seat.

"It's 9:30 in the morning," I said. "No."


"Thank you for being polite," I said, "and no."

I got into the driver's seat, and as I closed the door, I looked back at him. He had an excellent "angry face" going, and I managed to look at him for all of two seconds before I burst out laughing. Then he burst out laughing, too.

"How was that?" he asked.

"Solid," I said. "I can't guarantee this, but I think it might work on your Mom."

"Yes!" he said.

"Save it for something important," I said. "Don't waste it on candy."

"Got it," he said. For the rest of the ride, he was trying out different mad faces, and I would evaluate them whenever we stopped at a light.

That's one of the things that I like most about Eli 7.1: his temperament. I can't remember the last time he was genuinely angry about anything--it's been months, at least. I don't think he was angry once all summer.

Yesterday, when he got home from school, he asked Gloria for a snack. "Eli, I'm just about to start dinner," she said. "Let's wait until it's ready."

"But I'm hungry," he said.

"Well, if you're hungry, then you can eat the fruit that I packed for your lunch," Gloria said. She took the container out of his lunch bag and held it up for him.

"No thanks," he said.

"Well, then I guess you can wait," she said.

"NO, I CAN'T!" he shouted. Then, a second later, he burst out laughing, and so did we. "I can't do that and not laugh," he said.

I know that someday it's unavoidable that he will begin to develop real anger, but I very much appreciate that he's not there yet.

Yesterday, we went to buy a new pair of soccer shoes for the fall season. His feet appear to be growing at the rate of one-half size per day, so his shoes from May were hopelessly undersized. I also decided to get him a real pair of running shoes, and we're going to go to the track one day a week, just to give him a little taste of what running fast feels like. Also, it will give me a little taste of what it feels like to tear a hamstring.

So we found a pair of "conservative, understated" soccer shoes, and after Eli put them on, he begins doing a crazy dance in the aisle. "Dad, look!" he said. "I'm NIMBLE."


I mentioned a few weeks ago that Eli 7.1 sometimes has dreams that are fully coherent pieces of fiction, far outside the kinds of dreams people normally have.

I also mentioned that I've been having dreams like that for years, and that they're extremely powerful. I had one last night for the first time in a while, and it was something I've never even vaguely dreamed about before. It wasn't as fully-formed in terms of plot, but it's an example of how screwy my brain is at times.

The dream took place in a room that was about 20'x20'. Built into every wall in the room were drawers of all sizes (with a rich, deep color like mahogany), and the effect was like a giant wooden puzzle.

The scene itself had the kind of highly saturated color that films in the 1950's sometimes had (Technicolor). Believe it or not, what I saw was a musical number, and the men and women dancing were all dressed in standard business clothing of that era (which looked pretty snappy).

A big band song was playing, very up-tempo, and people were dancing. There were also people along the walls opening and closing the drawers, and those sounds provided all the percussion accompanying the song. Plus, since the drawers were different sizes, different pitches and sounds were created, depending on which drawers were closed.

I didn't see the whole song, because Eli 7.1 walked in (6:45 a.m. on a Saturday morning--right on schedule), but having one of those dreams always makes me feel like I'm going to have a great day.

R.I.P. NCAA: July 15, 2008-September 10, 2008

I decided to try one more time with NCAA 2009-- not because I felt the game really deserved it, but because I enjoy real college football so much.

Here's what I did: I started a legend career as a quarterback for Texas Tech. Even though the camera angle for the linebacker position was completely ruined this year, the camera angle for quarterback actually improved. So I was hoping that in spite of the game's many flaws, a career as a quarterback would still be enjoyable.

I made it to first on the depth chart just before the third conference game, a rivalry game against Texas A&M. It turned out to be a reasonably entertaining game, and at the end of regulation, it was tied 21-21.

I was actually looking forward to overtime. Sure, running backs were still making multiple juke moves before they hit the line of scrimmage, and they couldn't hit a hole with a search warrant and a hammer, but I was trying to look past all that.

Overtime started, and Texas A&M had the ball first. They drove down to the 4 yard line, and on fourth down, they kicked a field goal.

I was feeling pretty good about this. Field goal to tie, touchdown to win. This was going to be exciting.

That's when the "game changing moment" highlights began to run.

In other words, the game was over. No overtime possession for me.

And with that, I put the game disc back in its case, drove directly to Gamestop, and received $24 in trade- in credit.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Deep Route

An Abner has released a pro football game. Here's a description:
DeepRoute.com is the most comprehensive, realistic multi-player simulated football game available anywhere! DeepRoute.com prides itself on creating a positive, detailed gaming environment comparable to none you have ever experienced.

Surprisingly, though, it's not Bill Abner, otherwise known as Dean of Sports Game Reviewers. Instead, it's his dad, who worked on the design, created the playbooks, and tested the A.I.

Yes, that is seriously cool. What are the odds of two hardcore sports game guys in the same family?

Here's the website: Deep Route.

These Colors Don't Run, Although Maybe All They Need is a Better Pair of Training Shoes

I saw a barrel-gutted guy today who was wearing a t-shirt that said "AMERICAN BY BLOOD."

Apparently, "American" is an ethnicity now, and if you don't believe that, the terrorists have already won. Boy, I'm so fired up I want to go punch an immigrant or something.

I.Q. in this country: steadily dropping. Hint: it's not the immigrants.

"Changing The Game"

Chris Miller sent me an interesting link to an article about an upcoming book titled "Changing the Game," and here's its thesis:
David Edery and Ethan Mollick argue that many skills and lessons from the gaming world are applicable in the business world. The smartest firms, the authors argue, will not only allow game-playing in the workplace, but will actively encourage it.

Also interesting is that the link appeared at the online site for The Economist.

It's funny, but it was only twenty years ago when most of society generally considered that adult gamers were terribly defective in some way. Broken.

Twenty years later, every prominent website discusses gaming in some form, and the level of hysteria about gaming is steadily eroding. We're headed toward a day when gaming is an entirely mainstream part of popular culture for all age groups. And businesses, incredible as it might sound, are going to have to adapt.

Morris Minor is Outraged

Steven Kreuch sent me a link to this remarkable story:
A new line of hair-dye products called Betty Beauty has generated a fair amount of attention during its two years on the market, with mentions in magazines like People, Vogue, Allure and O: The Oprah Magazine. (Vanity Fair called it a “grooming obsession.”)

...Betty Beauty is a dye for pubic hair, and it is now being advertised on New York City subways — which are more commonly associated with ads for vocational training, cosmetic dermatology and houses of worship than with ads for intimate grooming products.

I trimmed that excerpt.

Clearly, the end of the world is near when air traffic controllers feel the need to restripe their runways, so to speak.

But wait, there's more:
The ads make only oblique references to pubic hair: The company says it sells “color for the hair down there,” and the slogan on the ads reads: “Boldly Going Where No Color Has Gone Before.”

It's too bad that Outback already copyrighted the phrase "Chocolate thunder down under," because that would have killed in an advertisement.

And in case you're wondering if "Betty" is slang for, um, North Carolina, it's not. "Betty" is slang for a beautiful woman.

Intel SSD

The first review is in for the new Intel SSD (the 80GB X25), and I think it's fair to say that it's screamingly fast.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Eli 7.1: By The Numbers

Eli had his well-check for his seventh birthday recently, and here are the stats:
Height--49 inches (80% percentile)
Weight--51 pounds (50% percentile)

Tall and skinny, in other words.

Last year, he ran a 1K at the Domain in September, and I made a post about the race and how fast he'd run (5:06, which was 8:10 mile pace).

On Saturday, I realized that same race was coming up again on Sunday morning. So I asked Eli if he wanted to run again, and he said he did.

Last year, we had plenty of build-up for the race, because it was his first, and he was really amped up. This year, he rolled out of the rack, yawned, had some apple juice, and off we went.

I ran a bit to warm up (since I don't run anymore because one of my knees has "not much" cartilage left), and Eli ran with me, because I was trying to gauge how fast we'd run.

Pretty damn fast, based on the warm-up.

How fast? He ran 5:06 last year. He ran 4:11 this year. That's 6:41 mile pace. And I think he would have come very close to breaking 4:00, except he went out a little too fast. Based on his performance progression, by the time he's eleven, he'll be finishing the race 24 seconds before he starts.

I think I calculated that right.


I went to see a shoulder specialist on Friday and here's what I found out.

First off, my rotator cuff is fine. My bursa, though, had so much swelling that the doctor could actually see the difference between my shoulders. So it's bursitis and tendonitis, plus maybe a partial tear of my labrum (can't tell without an MRI).

For now, he gave me an injection (which makes your shoulder hurt worse for 2-3 days before it gets better, and man, it hurts today, which is one day after the injection, since I'm writing this on Saturday). He said there's about an 80% chance that the injection and physical therapy will take care of everything, and about a 20% chance that I would need some arthroscopic work done.

It's funny--20 years ago, I would have been devastated to find out that there was a 20% chance I'd need surgery. Now, though, I find those numbers make me feel pretty optimistic.

Worst part: no swimming for at least three weeks. This is a great time of the year to swim, and it's killing me to be out of the water. It's so bad that I turn into our neighborhood on a different road now, just so I don't have to drive by the pool.

This also kills playing the drums for now, although I can still practice with my right arm and can still work on my bass drum strength.

In general: bummer.

Console Post of the Week: Microsoft's Shame

"Shame" may sound like an unreasonable word, but keep reading.

After years of speculation, Dean Takahashi (whose reputation is unquestioned) has finally published a definitive article on what went wrong with the Microsoft 360. Have you always wondered why the launch machines (and consoles manufactured over the next 18 months) had such disastrously high failure rates?

Now we know. Takahashi has documented it all.

Before we take a look at some of the particulars in the article, let's look at Microsoft's official response:
I asked Microsoft to confirm or deny 35 different facts contained in this story. Instead, I received a formal statement from a Microsoft spokesperson, saying the company had already acknowledged an “unacceptable number of repairs” to Xbox 360 consoles and responded to the hardware failures with a free replacement program. The statement also said, “This topic has already been covered extensively in the media. This new story repeats old information, and contains rumors and innuendo from anonymous sources, attempting to create a new sensational angle, and is highly irresponsible.”

Please note, and this is extremely important, that nowhere in that statement does Microsoft say that any of Takahashi's information is incorrect. It's a an absolutely classic non-denial denial.

Now, let's look at the details.

In August 2005, according to Takahashi, a Microsoft engineer said that production needed to be stopped because of the defect rate. How high was the defect rate?
The defect rate for the machines was an abysmal 68 percent at that point, according to several sources. That meant for every 100 machines that Microsoft’s contract manufacturers, Flextronics and Wistron, made at their factories in China, 68 didn’t work.


There were also issues with microprocessor yield:
The initial yield on the most critical chip, the three-core microprocessor designed and manufactured by IBM, was only 16 percent. For every 100 produced, only 16 worked.

And more:
There were plenty of warning signs. Early reports on the problems were myriad. In an Aug. 30, 2005 memo, the team reported overheating graphics chip, cracking heat sinks, cosmetic issues with the hard disk drive and the front of the box, under-performing graphics memory chips from Infineon (now Qimonda), a problem with the DVD drive, and other things.

As launch drew closer, the problems continued:
The testing machines were not ready, and the battery of tests that they ran were not fully developed. That meant that the testing machines would inspect the Xbox 360s coming off the line and approve them for shipment, even though there were likely flaws.

The test machines were not properly debugged, due to an ill-advised cost-cutting initiative that shaved $2 million from $25 million paid to Cimtek, a test machine maker in Canada. The Microsoft team decided not to pay the consulting fee to Cimtek to build, manage and debug the test machines. Sources familiar with the matter said there were only about 500 test machines at the time of launch, a third of the 1,500 needed.

“There were so many problems, you didn’t know what was wrong,” said one source of the machines. “The [test engineers] didn’t have enough time to get up and running.”

And what about yield?
The Xbox 360’s yield climbed somewhat throughout the fall of 2005, as Microsoft readied the worldwide launch in November. But the “first pass yield” (before machines were taken off the line to be reworked inside the factory) was never over 70 percent.

Post-launch, the problems continued, and there were good reasons for the shortages at retail:
By the end of March 31, Microsoft said it had shipped more than 3.3 million consoles to retailers. There was a growing “bone pile” in a warehouse at Wistron and at a repair center in Texas.

Microsoft had more than 500,000 defective consoles that sat in warehouses. They were either duds coming out of the factory or they were returned boxes, according to inside sources.

Here's more:
During the spring of 2006, the engineers were working on a transition to a new motherboard, code-named Zephyr. But they postponed that transition to work on fixing the “bone pile” issues and “maximize the yield,” according to an email circulated by engineering manager Harjit Singh to the hardware team on March 10, 2006. The yield at that point was an abysmal 50 percent on the first pass. When the bad machines were reworked within the factory, the yield went up to 75 percent –- hardly acceptable.

In an effort to contront this problem internally, Microsoft took an extraordinary step:
Microsoft decided to shut down manufacturing of the Xbox 360 in January, 2007. Between January and June, it didn’t build any new machines. The reason was partly because it made too many machines earlier, but the other reason was to track down the source of its quality problems.

Look, we all knew that Microsoft had their head up their ass when it came to the quality of the 360 hardware, but this is solid evidence of something different: duplicitous behavior. They knowing shipped a console when they already had overwhelming internal evidence that the failure rate was going to be extraordinarily high compared to other consumer electronics devices.

Somehow, Microsoft has tried to position themselves as "doing the right thing" because they've extended warranties on the 360 (for the red ring of death). I think that falls less in the category of "doing the right thing" than "trying desperately to avoid a class action lawsuit." Can you imagine the discovery process if a lawsuit was filed? Microsoft's internal documents would get them killed! I don't see how they would avoid a total recall of the initial 15+ months of shipments, at a minimum.

Even worse, they continued to ship this console for over A YEAR, knowing it was defective, before they finally took serious steps to find the problem. When considered against Microsoft's public statements, the information in Takahashi's article is nothing short of sickening.

And before you say "oh, all companies do those kinds of things"--no, they don't. The failure rate for the 360 may well have been the highest failure rate in the history of consumer electronics devices, and it's certainly the highest, by far, for a gaming console.

Don't you think other companies faced similar problems in the past? How did other companies solve those problems? Well, I'll tell you the one thing they didn't do--they didn't ship the product in that condition.

I'm sure the honks at Microsoft are totally incapable of feeling shame--for anything--but that's what they should be feeling.


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