Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday Links! (Halloween Edition)


Leading off this week is a link from Sirius (who is everywhere this week) to a remarkable story about the broadcast of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. What makes it remarkable is that the nationwide panic attributed to the broadcast may not have really happened.

Another Halloween link, this one via Wired, to a Flickr photoset of vintage Halloween pictures titled Halloween In the Time of Cholera. Collector Steven Martin had this to say to Wired:
The idea being that people back then were probably on a more intimate level with death — and that would have affected the way they celebrated Halloween.

And one more, this one via the indispensable Neatorama, titled Farmer Grows Pumpkins With Human Faces.

Here's something totally fantastic from Jeremy Trim: a link to the original animation footage for Prince of Persia. It's Jordan Mechner's little brother, and you will immediately recognize everything he does. Prepare for an overwhelming memory rush.

Here's another link from Sirius to a fascinating theory: that the publication of scientific research is influenced by the so-called winner's curse. Here's an excerpt (and the winner's curse is a fascinating bit of economic theory in general):
IN ECONOMIC theory the winner’s curse refers to the idea that someone who places the winning bid in an auction may have paid too much. Consider, for example, bids to develop an oil field. Most of the offers are likely to cluster around the true value of the resource, so the highest bidder probably paid too much.

The same thing may be happening in scientific publishing, according to a new analysis. With so many scientific papers chasing so few pages in the most prestigious journals, the winners could be the ones most likely to oversell themselves—to trumpet dramatic or important results that later turn out to be false. This would produce a distorted picture of scientific knowledge, with less dramatic (but more accurate) results either relegated to obscure journals or left unpublished.

Also a link to a story about a devastating new resident off the east coast of Florida--the lionfish. What makes this article so interesting (to me) is how it happened:
When Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, no one gave much thought to the six exotic lionfish that spilt into Biscayne Bay as the storm smashed their Miami waterfront aquarium.
Sixteen years later, thousands of the fish are wreaking havoc off America's east coast, leading a potentially catastrophic marine invasion.

One more from Sirius, and it's a link to a story about the world's most technologically advanced planetarium.

The longest insect in the world? a stick bug from Borneo, and it's over a foot long.

From Glen Haag, a link to the unfathomably awesome plasma rocket engine. Here's an excerpt:
Short for Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, VASIMR is a new high-power plasma-based space propulsion technology, initially studied by NASA and now being developed privately by Ad Astra. A VASIMR engine could maneuver payloads in space far more efficiently and with much less propellant than today’s chemical rockets.

From Chuck Alessi, a link to holophonic sound recordings. Wear headphones, and you will be absolutely astonished.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link of pure genius: AC/DC, in an Excel Spreadsheet. Here's an excerpt on why it happened:
The video is the fine work of Phil Clandillon and Steve Milbourne, who work at a division of Sony/BMG in London. They call this "the world's first music video in Excel format."

"Basically, it's come about because we recognized that a lot of people have fairly restrictive internet and security policies at work," said Clandillon inan interview with "What we really liked was that we could actually subvert the corporate firewalls by including AC/DC's music in an Excel spreadsheet, because that's allowed through every corporate firewall there is."

Next is one more reason why you really want to work at Google: a zip line.

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, a link to a story about a runaway, but boy, is this one different. Here's an excerpt:
He hasn't looked at a map yet to see how far into the mountains he hiked or which rivers and creeks he followed away from his home — or back to civilization 12 days later.

...Authorities described him as not a typical disgruntled teenage runaway, but a boy who had dreams of surviving in the wilderness.

From CNN, a story about five infamous female spies.

From Ty Sleck, a website that is very timely, given the recent release of Fallout 3: Survive the Apocalypse.

From George Paci, a link to images of a Buddhist temple--built from beer bottles.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Beatles And Rock Band (That's Not Called Rock Band)

Chris Kohler of Wired live-blogged the conference call with Apple Corps and MTV today, and I think he has more detailed information than anyone else, so let's see if we can piece together what was revealed today.

First off, his live blog is here.

The big questions, for most people, would be the song selection (still to be determined, although it's supposed to cover every era of the band's history), and the release date (not until the freaking 2009 holiday season--argghh).

Here's an excerpt:
The game will not be branded with the Rock Band name. It is a brand new game that does take advantage of some aspects of the Rock Band platform, but is a musical and visual journey through the Beatles' entire career.

If it sounds vague, that's because it definitely IS vague.

Will it make use of the Rock Band instrument controllers? They don't say, although Giles Martin (son of George) did say this:
We are trying to keep to, as much as possible, is for people to play the songs as though they're playing the originals... More of a way for them to interact with what they know very well as opposed to us remixing as we did in Love.

So the phrase "play the songs" seems to indicate that even though they were being very coy, we're still going to get an experience similar to Rock Band, even if it's expanded or changed in some ways. Plus, there's this (a note from Chris on something that I'm guessing Alex Rigopulos said):
"Game takes advantage of the Rock Band platform in many ways that we'll discuss down the road."

At first, I think I was disappointed when I read the conference call summary. I was originally hoping for something like the AC/DC disc, and I was hoping it would be available this fall. However, this is Harmonix, which has made the four best music games I've ever played. They have an enormous pile of "genius equity" with me, and I'll trust them completely until the day they don't deliver. So I trust them to create something (again) that will be incredibly fun and completely addictive.

Oh, and if you hear cash registers, that's the sound of Led Zeppelin counting their freaking money. They're next, and the competition to sign them should be completely insane.

Electronic Arts Q2 Earnings

Electronic Arts announced earnings today. Here's an excerpt from the Gamasutra article:
Electronic Arts' fiscal second quarter saw revenues rise -- but losses widened considerably, and wary of weakening retail, the company is laying off employees.

Madden NFL 09, Spore, Mercenaries 2, NCAA Football 09, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 and Warhammer Online's strong launches, alongside continued strength for Rock Band, drove EA's overall revenues to $864 million, a 33% boost over last year's $650 million -- but losses reached $310 million, as compared to $195 million last year.

The major publisher's cost reduction plan includes a reduction of its work force of about 6 percent, approximately 600 employees. Through the layoffs, the publisher hopes to gain pre-tax savings of $50 million.

"Considering the slow down at retail we’ve seen in October, we are cautious in the short term," said EA CEO John Riccitiello in the company's results statement.

In after-hours trading, their stock was at $23.74. At the end of last year, it was trading at $60.00.

I think the size of the loss is shocking, particularly considering that their revenue grew 33% from last year. Increase revenue by 214M, but increase losses by 115M?

Looking at the actual numbers in their earnings release, I found a few clues.
--Total Operating Expenses grew by 182M (35%)
--Marketing and Sales grew from 164M to 197M
--Research and Development grew from 259M to 372M (43%)
--Certain Abandoned Acquisition-related Costs were 21M

A few notes, and not necessarily in order. Boy, that failed Take-Two acquisition was quite a hickey, huh? Twenty-one million of them, to be exact.

Marketing is almost 200M a quarter now. And they still have one A.I. programmer on Madden (I'm kidding, or am I?).

Research and Development grew substantially, but I don't what they include in that category. Development costs for all games? New tech research? I don't have a specific answer.

Buried in the numbers was one particularly interesting category--"Proceeds from maturities and sales of short-term investments," along with "purchase of short-term investments." Proceeds - Purchase was 220M, compared to 438M last year.


I'm not sure I'm getting this straight, but here's what I see. Last year, in a 650M revenue quarter, short-term investments provided 438M in net cash? That seems positively enormous.

So what were they buying? I don't know, but net cash from that category going down over 200M from last year is a giant change. Giant. If they got burned on something, it would be very interesting to know where the fire came from.

One last note. During the quarter, 8 games (6 EA Sports games, Facebreaker, and Mercenaries 2) were released for the 360 and the PS3. In revenue per title, the 360 versions provided 28M in revenue, while the PS3 versions were just over 12M.

For Sony, that's pretty dismal.

Oh, one more last note. John Riccitiello said they saw a "slowdown at retail in October."

Video games. Not recession proof.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

NHL 09 Patch (360, PS3)

I've written at length about the "fantastic-ness" of NHL 09, and I saw today that a patch is being released for the console versions. As an example of how they're trying to make this a hockey game instead of an arcade game, take a look at a few notes about the patch from David Littman:
--Checking has been tuned so you will see less big hits from guys that aren't traditionally known for hitting.
--Increased the height of dump ins, for a better dump and chase game.
--We have fixed the goals from outside shots that people are scoring. We have reduced shot accuracy when on the rush and when turning quickly, and from far out. You will now have to be more conservative when shooting on the rush. If you aim all the way to the left or right, your shot will go wide a lot more...There's a reason NHL players don't shoot from outside on the rush very often. Dumping or trying to set up is a better play unless you have an odd-man situation.

Hitting was my #1 issue, so I'm really pleased to see that being addressed, and I'm tremendously impressed with how the developers have listened to serious players and tried to address their gameplay concerns.

See the full patch list here.

Console Post of the Week (Mini)

This is definitely a mini-post, because I haven't seen much of interest this week, but there was one little nugget in Sony's Q2 earnings report.

In the last fiscal year, they sold (to retailers) 9.24 million units of the PS3. For this fiscal year, they forecast 10 million units.

Right now, they're almost two million units ahead of the first two quarters of FY2007. To only ship 10 million units for the year, they'll have to significantly underperform Q3 and Q4 of FY 2007. So they're either sandbagging the number, or their internal projections are very weak. That's definitely something to keep an eye on.

The Inevitable Speculation Begins

It's impossible to choose, really, but here are the ten individual songs I'd most like to see in Rock Band:
Back in the U.S.S.R.
A Hard Day's Night
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
For You Blue
Can't Buy Me Love
I'm Looking Through You
Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey
Get Back

Those aren't necessarily my ten favorite Beatles songs (the first five would make the cut, certainly), but I think they're the ten songs that would be the most fun to play. Okay, maybe "For You Blue" doesn't belong on that list, but that's my wild card, because it's a great, great love song.

Immortal Cities: Nile Online

Here's an interesting bit of information from Tilted Mill:
Tilted Mill Opens Beta for Online Browser game, Immortal Cities: Nile Online.

October 28, 2008 – Tilted Mill Entertainment - independent developers of strategy, simulation and role-playing games - today announced that Immortal Cities: Nile Online, a new web game thematically based on their critically acclaimed, Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile, is now accepting players on the beta server!

"We really saw an opportunity to bring life on the Nile in ancient Egypt to gamers in a colorful new format." said Chris Beatrice, president of Tilted Mill Entertainment. "At the same time, we saw that we could really enhance and invigorate the browser gaming space by bringing some more traditional gaming mechanics and graphics to the genre." Web developer and designer Jeremiah Freyholtz describes it as "a game where with just a few minutes here and there, throughout the day, you can still enjoy multiplayer interaction and long term goals. Really, it's a virtual garden of sorts - it takes care of itself while you are away, but needs your direction, input and nurturing in order to grow."

Nile Online features an ancient Egyptian setting where you begin by building a single city, harvesting local resources and turning them into goods and structures for your society so you can conduct trade with your neighbors, near and far, along the Nile. Eventually you will expand your empire to encompass several cities, offer goods to the gods, raise armies, and set up labor camps to build prestigious monuments to become Pharaoh. With an inviting visual presentation, backed by decades of strategy game development expertise, Nile Online offers a compelling gaming experience that can be played anywhere for free.

To play, simply go to and request a beta invite. For more information, please visit

Every idea these guys have seems to be golden.

A Splendid Time Is Guaranteed For All

Let me just say this: holy shit.

From the Wall Street Journal:
The Beatles have licensed songs to MTV Networks' Rock Band videogame series, according to several people familiar with the matter, a coup for the Viacom Inc. unit in its battle with rival Activision Inc. for supremacy in the world of rock and roll video games.

The deal, which is set to be announced Thursday by Viacom's MTV and the band's own Apple Corps Ltd., makes the Beatles the next and biggest major band to license its songs to a music-oriented videogame, joining Aerosmith, Metallica, AC/DC and others.

Way to freaking go, Harmonix!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fallout 3 (360): Early Impressions

So. Fallout 3.

My most-anticipated game of the year is finally here.

Yes, I'm playing it on the 360 instead of the PC (for now--damn, Intel, release Nehalem already, would you?), but no matter. Fallout 3 is finally here.

To talk about how I feel about Fallout 3, though, I have to talk about Fallout and Fallout 2. Briefly, I promise.

I still think the opening cinematic in Fallout was the greatest introduction in gaming history. Please, if you haven't seen it, go watch. It was incredible, and it immediately established the foundation of what made Fallout great: dark irony. I laughed as the camera pulled back from the television set and I saw the surrounding wasteland, but it was an uncomfortable laugh.

To me, that's always been the draw (and a strong one) for post-apocalyptic settings as opposed to historical ones: instead of seeing something that we personally never were, we see something that we could possibly become. It's overwhelming, and overpowering.

It's also what made Fallout such an unforgettable, brilliant experience. Sure, some of the game mechanics were interesting, particularly the targeting system, but almost everything I remember about the game involves the story.

The ending, like every other piece of the story, was bittersweet. There was no "and they lived happily ever after."

It was a magnificent game.

It's easy to compare Fallout 2 to the original, and all you have to do is look at its opening cinematic. Cute, self-conscious, trying to hard for the laugh--it was the curse of trying to follow your own brilliance with something better.

And they didn't. Fallout 2 shipped in a semi-wrecked condition, full of bugs, most of which I think I hit before I quit playing. It was an incredible disappointment, at least to me.

So when I talk about Fallout 3, I only have fond, nostalgic memories of the first game. I'm not looking back on an unbroken line of brilliance in the first two games, because I think Fallout 2 broke that line.

When I sat down to play Fallout 3, I realized, almost immediately, that I was uncomfortable, and I didn't know why. After an hour, I was still uncomfortable, only more so.

Something was wrong.

The more I played, though, the more I suspected that something was wrong with me. I couldn't quite make out why, at least not for several hours, but finally, I realized what was happening.

Many of you have read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. At some point, he mentions that the less detail there is in a character visually, the more universal it becomes, because our brains can fill in the gaps any way we want (thereby adding our own meaning). In 1997, when Fallout was released, developers were constrained in terms of what they could put on the screen. Fallout had appealing graphics, but they were simple, and the detail of the world was limited. It was the suggestion of a world, but that suggestion was so expertly done that I filled in all the gaps with my imagination.

Fallout 3 isn't like that. It's the Fallout universe made flesh. In many ways, there's more detail in the first settlement you visit than in the entire world in the original Fallout. Instead of being suggestive, it was incredibly specific, and that specificity freaked me out.

At first.

Then I slowed down. I stopped trying to rush past the detail, and instead, I started absorbing as much as I could. I started trying to live inside the game instead of inside my head.

That's when I started finding the irony, started seeing moments of poignance that took my breath away.

An elementary school with part of its announcement sign still intact. A rusted playground. Bridges with giant sections of concrete broken away.

It was, in a word, incredible. And, in one more word, real.

I started hearing irony, too, and not to spoil anything, but before you start the game, go into the "settings" menu and turn the radio up two clicks. It's a stunning and ingenious way to overlay absurdity on top of a wasteland.

How does it feel? Barren. Threatening. Lost.

I'm not imagining a post-apocalyptic world. I'm in one.

Fallout Tuesday

I've played for about an hour, but I want more time before I write up early impressions, so hopefully those will be up later today.

Kindle Coupon

I mentioned a few weeks ago how much I like the Kindle (I like it even more now), and the Edwin Garcia Links Machine sent me a link that will get you a $50 discount through November 1. If you're interested, take a look here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Rock Band and Learning Real Guitar (your e-mail)

Even after writing this, um, "thing" for many years, I'm sometimes taken by surprise. This time, the surprise was your response to the "Rock Band and Learning Real Guitar" post, because it's something you guys are far more interested in than I expected.

First off, I'm not the only one who wants to learn real guitar this way. Here's a story from Phil Davies:
The guitarist for my (rock) band has this very issue, every time I go round his house, I see his real guitar sitting there on it's stand right next to his Xplorer, Les Paul and Fender controllers. He picked up a cheapy guitar and amp after Guitar Hero 2 and decided he was going to learn how to play properly.

"How is the guitar playing coming along?" I ask

"Not so good, you can't really measure progress without having set tiers of songs to move through and there seems little point if I'm not going to get achievements for it"

I think we'd all achieve so much more in life if it existed as tiered content and came with achievements and high score tables.

Boy, I know I would.

Chad Mercer notes the appeal of this kind of training aid, but also notes something about strumming that was echoed by several of you: it's much more complex than it looks.
First of all, I would love to have the controller you're talking about. I think it would be fantastically fun, and as a matter of fact, if you built the controller with buttons all the way up the neck--prohibitively expensive--you could actually map out the entire guitar part accurately. Which would definitely translate into being able to play a "real guitar"--so much so that as long as you could buy the Rock Band/Guitar Hero version of the song, you wouldn't have to be able to read tab. Or pick the song off of the radio.

It would be a literal sea-change in the way that bands learn cover songs...

All of that said, after playing guitar for 20 years now, I would say that strumming is one of the hardest things to learn how to do. After all, in a lot of cases--at least for rhythm guitar--you don't really change the position of your left hand that much. I've taught a number of people how to play guitar, and teaching chord fingerings just takes repetition and practice. However, learning how to strum is far more "musical"--if you don't have rhythm, it's obvious. And because a lot (most?) of guitar music is more "rock" than "classical"--it's hard to put what I'm trying to say into words--it's just hard.

David Gloier, who started playing real guitar because of Guitar Hero, amplifies the thoughts on strumming:
After playing for nine months, a strum bar is not going to cut it. So much is in your right hand. Well, rhythm, for one, and a simple strum bar doesn't really help you at all with rhythm on six strings (or two, three or four when that's all you need). It just doesn't. It's so much more nuanced than a strum bar can account for. I don't really know how to explain it, but playing basic chords on a guitar is just learning finger placement. Making your right hand strike right is the key. So much is in the timing of starts and stops. As many players tell me, good rhythm with the right hand covers a lot of mistakes with the left.

Strumming is easy if you're just strumming all six strings, but you don't really do that all that often. Sometimes you're only hitting 3 or 4 strings and it takes some time to learn to "miss" the strings you're not supposed to hit. Also, unless it's basic chords, you really have to take the time to teach yourself to pick notes and do alternate picking. There's also downstrums, upstrums, etc. There's actually quite a bit to it, and you can miss fretting a note and get away with it, but when you hit the wrong strings with your right hand, you know. Getting to a point where you can pick the correct strings without looking is time consuming. That's the real issue with the guitar: both hands work independently and as you learn, it's damn near impossible to keep an eye on both of them. That's why you spend a bunch of time doing picking exercises with your right hand.

Here's one last note about strumming, this one from Jim Reigel:
You describe the strumming as easier to learn, but I can guarantee that I found it easier to learn finger placement than I did accurately hitting just the strings for the chord that need to be hit (4 of 6 for a D chord, 5 of 6 for and A chord for example). When you're playing rapidly, you need to accurately hit the angle of attack with the right hand. When you're doing classical music, finger picked arpeggios are significantly harder than the same movement on a piano. It has a lot to do with the fact that the area you are hitting is maybe 3 inches wide at the maximum and there is NOT a lot of room between those strings. Add in the fact that upstrum/pick vs. downstrum/pick produces two totally separate sounds and there are at least three styles of finger picking plus the qualities of the note (ringing, tone, loudness) varies with which part of the finger or nail you hit with and it's a significantly complex exercise.

As a general summary: strumming. It's damned hard.

Another series of e-mails covered what kind of products are already available to help ease the transition into real guitar. First (mentioned by Neil Sorens) is the Fretlight, which is a guitar with lights on the neck to show you proper finger placement. It looks very interesting, but it's pricey--$400+ to get an electric guitar (and that's the cheap guitar--the best one is over double that) and a lesson pack, and additional lesson packs run $20 each.

Neil also mentioned the Yamaha EZ-AG, which looks like an excellent option for beginners. It's less expensive (only $199 for the accoustic version) than the Fretlight, but it still has lights to show you the proper chord placement. It can also break up songs so that you can choose to play both chords and strum, or just play one or the other.

Chris Clarke sent in a link to the Fisher Price I Can Play Guitar System, which is $60 and looks quite a bit like the idea I had in my head (even going one better with buttons for finger placement, but retaining the section of the strings that are used for strumming).

Finally, Ryan Brandt sent in a link to a product in development that I mentioned a few months ago: Guitar Rising. It's a Guitar Hero-style game that you play with a real guitar, but it's not scheduled to be released until next year. This could be great if they ramp the difficulty properly.

That's what's out there, basically, at least for now. I still expect an explosion of products like this in the next 2-3 years, though, because incenting the millions of people who play Rock Band/Guitar Hero into playing real guitar is a potential financial windfall that just can't be ignored.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Links!

This has to be one of my favorite stories ever. As it turns out, the ideal rhythm for CPR corresponds to the beat of the Bee Gee's song "Stayin' Alive." 103 beats a minute, in case you're wondering (thanks to Julian Bell for the link).

From Sirius (more from her later), a link to a story about Tennis for Two, a videogame which predated Pong--by 14 years!

From George Paci, a link to something that I never thought would happen: commercially viable applications for buckypaper. What is buckypaper, you ask? Here's a description:
Buckypaper is made from tube-shaped carbon molecules 50,000 times thinner than a human hair...Buckypaper is 10 times lighter but potentially 500 times stronger than steel when sheets of it are stacked and pressed together to form a composite. Unlike conventional composite materials, though, it conducts electricity like copper or silicon and disperses heat like steel or brass.

Also from George, a link to a laser harp, and it's every bit as cool as it sounds.

Ever wanted to decorate your basement with a Sharpie pen? Well, if you do, I hope it looks as incredible as this.

From Sirius, a link to a story about Ronald Mallett, a physics professor who has been considering the details of time travel for over fifty years. And incredibly, he appears to be making progress. Also, a link to news that the Japanese government has finally approved maglev trains as future replacements for bullet trains. Oh, and they can reach speeds of 500kph. Finally, a link to a story about a forgotten science experiment from the 1950's that may help explain the origins of life.

Yes, it's a chimp. On a Segway.

From Damn Interesting, a fascinating story about the most polluted spot in history.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to the bacon tuxedo, and yes, it smells like bacon (the picture is a classic). Next, a fascinating link about a generational gap in dreaming. It seems that if you were raised in the era of black-and-white t.v., you're much more likely to dream in monochrome. Then there's the news of the discovery of a new state of matter, a "quasi three-dimensional electron cystal" that may (again) extend the lifespan of Moore's Law.

From Greg, and it's one of the coolest Halloween ideas I've ever seen, a link to the Hallowindow, and you need to watch the video.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a spectacular photograph of Saturn's rings. Also, a link to the long-overdue honoring of the Apollo 7 flight crew.

Two excellent links from Francis Cermak. First, a story about what may have happened to an infamous Civil War submarine. Next, a link to the discovery of the tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus (allegedly the inspiration for the character of Maximus Decimus Meridius in Ridley Scott's "Gladiator").

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rock Band And Learning Real Guitar

I've really been enjoying Rock Band 2, and I've been playing quite a bit of a guitar career (still cautious with my forearms, so I'm not playing the drums nearly as much as I want), but it's not as satisfying, because I know I'm really not learning anything that translates into playing a real guitar.

I didn't care about that, before the drum controller came out. Now, though, after seeing how using the drum trainer in RB2 actually does translate pretty well into my drum lessons, I started thinking about how the Rock Band series could provide some of the transitional instruction into playing a real guitar.

To me, it seems like the guitar is broken down into activities by hand. One hand manages finger placement, while the other strums. So if you wanted to make learning how to play a real guitar less intimidating, what would a "learning guitar" look like compared to the current Rock Band/Guitar Hero controller?

Well, I think there are some common elements--lots of them, actually. I think a novice guitar player could learn quite a bit from a guitar controller that required accurage finger positions for chords, but without strings. Instead of just having one row of buttons, there would be multiple rows to allow for proper finger placement to create real chords.

To create the note once your fingers were in position, you'd just use the strum bar. Yes, that's not realistic, but it would allow you to focus on hand placement and learning chords, which seems like it would be more difficult than learning how to strum.

What about the note chart? Well, make the notes fatter, and put a number in the middle of them. So in the middle of a red note, you might see "3." That would represent the third red button in the red row.

Maybe you couldn't do every chord this way, but I think you could make a good start. And while it would be quite an adjustment to think that a "red note" could have more than one position, Rock Band is pretty masterful at ramping up difficulty. For example, easy difficulty could just use two colors, so that you could get used to moving your hand up and down the neck.

By the time you reached expert difficulty, you'd be using all six rows (six-string guitar), and since the chords would be "accurate" in terms of hand position, it seems like it would be much easier to then pick up a real guitar and be able to play chords right away. Then you could focus on learning the nuances of strumming.

I think there are a lot of us who would be highly motivated to play a real guitar if the learning process could be more "game-like."

The End of Expertise

I had this reading sequence a month ago or so where I read a book on the Great Depression, which led me to a book on Ida Tarbell (one of the greatest muckrakers in history--"The History of the Standard Oil Company" is a legendary piece of investigative journalism), which then led me to a history of the oil industry called "The Prize."

When I was a kid, back in the dark ages of the late 1960's, if I had read those books, I would have felt like an expert on all three subjects. The "big city" library (Corpus Christi, population 200,000) would have had a few more books on the subject, but any of these books are probably as good or better than the sum of what existed when I was a kid. I remember reading through everything the library had on multiple subjects when I was growing up.

It is so different now, and it's not because I'm so much older. Libraries are a grain of sand today in terms of where knowledge is stored. If I really wanted to explore the history of the oil industry, I'm sure that 50,000 pages of reading would have only scratched the surface of what's available, be it via Amazon or some online source. The Great Depression? Several hundred thousand pages, probably.

The upshot of all this, for me, is that even though I read at what is almost a desperate pace, I never feel like I'm an expert at anything, just a generalist sinking further and further below the surface. This is probably the first time I've had one of those "Where the hell did all this INFORMATION come from?"

It's not just information, either. I have an EIGHT game rotation right now. Again, back in the dark ages of gaming (the 1980's), I remember playing one game for a hundred hours over the course of a month, with nothing else good to play. Now, I've got enough games with enough content to easily last me for the next four or five months, and when Fallout 3 comes out next week (which I am 100% certain will be totally fantastic), add another month. At least.

It's a good problem to have, but it also makes me wish that I only needed two hours of sleep a night.

Sony Earnings Forecast Cut

This was timely:
Sony, the Japanese electronics giant, has slashed its earnings forecasts by 57 per cent in a massive profits warning, reflecting the growing weakness of businesses across the global economy.

...Where Sony had previously expected to make Y470 billion (£2.94 billion), profit is expected to come in at Y200 billion because of falling demand for its products in its key markets while the strengthening yen has hurt its export business.

Given the collapse in many of Sony’s main markets, particularly the US consumer’s taste for digital cameras, LCD televisions and other gadgetry, analysts had expected a profits warning. But the 57 per cent cut to the forecast was far below even the most pessimistic of forecasts.

Full article here.

To be fair, Sony didn't specifically mention the PS3, but I would be very surprised if it isn't underperforming as well. And like I said, if people think videogames are recession proof, they need to consider the size of the recession. At some point, economic pain does translate into less dollars to spend on entertainment.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Manning Up

Eli 7.2 has poison ivy, which is entirely not his fault (or ours). I will reluctantly skip the flaying of the villains.

Because he has about fifteen patches of poison ivy on his arms and legs, we're big on itch cream right now. Steroidal, non-steroidal, whatever--anything that can relieve the itch for a while is being used (an over-the-counter cream called "Sarna" is the current favorite). Gloria is also giving Eli a dose of children's Benadryl before he goes to bed at night because it helps him sleep.

It's a liquid dose, though, and it does not taste good.

"Eli," Gloria called tonight, as Eli 7.2 was slowly turning the tiny plastic tumbler in his fingers, "just drink it."

"Mom!" Eli said. "It tastes like cherry poisoning!"

"Drink it fast," she said. "It's easier that way."

"No, it's not," he said. "You just get more of the poisoning faster."

"Okay, little man, here's what you need to do," I said. "Pretend you're in the woods. You're a big, rugged, tough man, and you're wearing a lumberjack shirt. You've gone into the woods to shoot deer--"

Crap. The last thing on earth Eli would want to do is shoot a deer.

"--um, with a CAMERA."

Gloria burst out laughing.

"Yes," I said, "you're going to shoot some PHOTOGRAPHS of deer, and you're really looking forward to it, but you can't do it until you drink your medicine. So just bring the hammer down and drink it in one swallow."

Gloria finally stopped laughing. "Okay, that is absolutely the worst--"

"Done!" Eli said, handing me the tiny tumbler.

September NPD: Another View

Matt Matthews, who is hands-down the best "numbers guy" analyzing the gaming industry, has his take on the September NPD numbers here.

A few data points from Matt's article:
--NPD tie ratios for September indicate that the 360 (8.1) enjoys a significantly higher tie ratio than either the Wii (5.5) or the PS3 (5.3).
--the Wii has sold over 34 million units of software this year. The 360 has sold 27 million. The PS3 has sold about 18 million (reading from the graph).

There is lots and lots of good stuff in Matt's analysis, as always. Oh, one more thing. He notes that "Analysts seems to generally agree that the videogame industry demonstrates a large degree of independence of economic conditions." That's true, but if anyone is going to get hit by economic conditions this fall, it's clearly going to be Sony, because of their price.

Fable 2 (after 2 Hours)

If you're wondering why almost nothing has been posted today, it's because I have been entirely mesmerized by Fable 2.

I enjoyed the first Fable, and I was expecting to enjoy this one, but I was not expecting an exponentially better experience, which is what I've gotten so far. It's an overwhelmingly beautiful game and an entirely stunning experience on an HD screen. It's an extremely cinematic experience, but it's not cinematic in the sense of canned camera angles--it's just a sweeping, cinematic world that has been created.

All right, it's enchanting. Damn it, you made me say it.

It's not particularly difficult--actually, it's been quite simple so far--but that's not the point. I think the point is to experience the extraordinary richness of the game world.

I've basically been playing during every free minute I have, and it means that a giant set of excellent games are temporarily being ignored. For instance:
World of Goo
Dead Space (which has some phenomenal design elements I'll write about in a few days)
King's Bounty
Saint's Row 2
NHL 09
Head Coach
Mount & Blade
De Blob

It's insane. This is absolutely the best collection of games I've ever had to play at roughly the same time. Just amazing.

The Best Idea Ever

Early voting: the greatest idea democracy ever had.

Over 24,000 people voted in Travis County (Austin, mainly) on Monday during the first day of early voting. That's almost 5% of registered voters in the county.

My total wait before voting was less than one minute.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

September NPD Notes

Again, here are the raw numbers:

That's a total unit count of 1,440,100.

In 2007, the September unit count was 1,363,000. That's surprisingly stable from year to year, particularly given that there have been substantial price cuts from both Sony and Microsoft since September of last year.

If you want to know the high water mark of the last generation in terms of September, it was in 2002, when the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube sold 870,000 units combined. That's a staggering difference, and remember, that was the best September for last-gen.

Here's also some context for the incomprehensible phenomenon that is the Wii. In September, the Wii sold 687,ooo units in the U.S. In September 2003, the big three (PS2, Xbox, Gamecube) sold 670,000 units combined. In 2004, they sold 630,000 units combined. In 2005, they sold 510,000 units combined.

That's insane. So for the last three Septembers before the 360 was released, the Wii isn't just bigger than the PS2 in terms of unit sales--it's bigger than the entire generation.

My biggest question coming into the September numbers was how much of an effect the 360 price cuts would have. The answer, apparently, is "substantial." With the exception of June (Metal Gear Solid), the 360 and PS3 have been in a dead heat for most of the year. Now, the 360's sales are 50% higher than the PS3, and I don't expect that to change until Sony cuts prices again.

In Japan, the 360 outsold the PS3 again last week. What is that--five weeks in a row? Six?

If this generation of consoles has established anything, it's that Sony's reputation has done exactly dick for them. Consoles are value and fun propositions, not reputation propositions, and Sony has not had the value or the fun this cycle.

Little Big Planet? That certainly looks like fun, and we'll see what happens. At $299, I think LBP could be huge. At $399, I don't think so.

Sony sold roughly 1.4 million units in the U.S. in the last three months of 2007. I think they'll be in that range again, probably on the +10% side, given that last October (pre-price cut) was a complete washout.

Microsft, with an entirely giddy set of game releases last fall, sold 2.4 million units in the last three months of the year. I think +/- 10% of that number is a reasonable expectation.

Nintendo? Hell, who knows? Their September sales were up 40% from last year, and they still seem to be selling everything they make. Last year, October-December sales totaled 2.85 million units, and given what appears to be significantly increased capacity, I'm going to lose my mind and say that they're going to be in the 3.4 million range.

Assorted Gaming Tomfoolery

Joe Lee e-mailed me about a world record gaming attempt in London on Saturday, and here are the details:
To celebrate the London Games Festival, DS:London in association with the London Games Festival Fringe, will attempt to break the World record for the most number of people playing a DS at the same time. And we'd like you to help and join in.

Budding record-breakers should bring their Nintendo DS, nicely charged up, and their favourite games to the Rocket Center, Holloway Road, on Saturday 25th of October. We need 400 to 500 people to break the record, which stands at a humble 381. This is an official World record attempt with adjudication from Guinness on the day.

The day kicks off at 4pm for registration and pre attempt fun with the record attempt starting at 5pm and All members of the public are welcome. Young or old!

...To break the record, we'll need to play our DS consoles for five minutes non-stop – doesn't matter if it's in a linked game or not. Turn up no later than 5pm if you wish to take part in the record attempt.

...This is a free event. We will have a collection on the day for voluntary cash donations that will go to Children In Need.

After a mysterious hiatus during which I was actively campaigning to put his face on milk cartons, N'Gai Croal has returned, and he has details on the new E3, which is not to be confused with the old new E3. Here's an excerpt:
...the Entertainment Software Association is preparing to announce tomorrow that E3 2009 will take place at the Los Angeles Convention Center during the first week of June--and that for the first time, E3 will officially open its doors to the public at large. According to a source close to the process, the convention floor and meeting rooms will open on Tuesday June 2nd to media and industry professionals. On Friday June 5th and Saturday June 6th, however, the show floor will open up to the public.

...while attendance is expected to rise dramatically from the 2008 show, our source informed us that the ESA is aiming to cap next year's attendance at 40,000. That's significantly less than the record 70,000 people that attended E3 in 2005, and it's also less than the nearly 60,000 people who attended this year's Penny Arcade Expo in August in downtown Seattle.

I've mentioned Matthew Sakey many times in the past--he's a terrific writer and the author of the "Culture Clash" column at Gamasutra. He's now co-owner of Four Fat Chicks, which has been a gaming site focused on adventure gaming for as long as I can remember. There's been a site re-design and more frequent daily updates, as well as a broader focus, so if you're interested, head on over and take a look.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Potter's Mom

Potter's mom passed away last Thursday.

Potter's my best friend from college. His first name is David, but his freshman year in college, two other guys on his dorm floor were named David (including his best friend), so last names became the standard.

Plus, David was just too common a name for a guy like Potter.

Potter is smart, wickedly funny, and looks kind of like a praying mantis with glasses. Coincidentally, so do I, and when we ran 10k races together on the weekends, we would occasionally get mistaken for brothers.

I never said this to Potter, but I always took that as a huge compliment.

Oh, and when I say we ran 10k races "together," I don't mean "side by side." Potter broke 35:00 in the 10k, while my best time was 39:41. So "together" more accurately means "in the same race."

I met Potter when I was a freshman in college. His dorm room door was open and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer was blasting from his gigantic stereo speakers. I wandered in and started talking. He was the funniest person I'd ever met, and it took about five minutes before he was my best friend.

That spring, we started running together, and that fall, we started driving somewhere on Saturdays to race. For Thanksgiving, I went with him to Dallas to run in the Turkey Trot. He lived in Dallas, so after the race we went to his house, got cleaned up, and had Thanksgiving dinner with his mom.

Potter's mom had a lot in common with my mom. They were both single parents in an era (the 1960s) when divorced women were still scorned by society. I never realized this when I was younger, but everyone faces moments in their life when they choose who they will be. They're not that person, not yet, but because of some crisis in their life, they have to choose to become someone else, and in those moments we define who we are and who we will be. Being a divorced woman with children in the 1960s was one of those moments, and both Potter's mom and my mom chose to be strong and resolute. It would have been easy to fail, much easier than succeeding, but they didn't take the easy way.

Potter's mom lived in a small house, just like we did, and she was a teacher, just like my mom. I don't remember any specifics about the food at Thanksgiving dinner, but I still remember very strongly a sense of well-being from being around her and Potter. It was a warm and happy feeling, even though I'd never been in Potter's house before. Even today, I remember it as one of my favorite Thanksgivings.

Potter's mom had a trembling little chihuahua named Trixie, and after dinner, when we sat down in the living room to watch football, Trixie jumped on her lap and leaned against the left side of her chest. I think she was listening to her heart beat, and as she listened, she stopped trembling. Even as a very smart-assed eighteen year old, that moment was so vivid and powerful that I still remember it like it was yesterday.

Later, we went into the backyard, and Potter showed me that his mom had been building a fountain. Seriously, a freaking concrete fountain. It was completely amazing, and it was even more amazing because it wasn't perfect, and I could tell that someone who originally knew nothing about concrete or fountains had just decided to build one, and did.

As the years went by, and I asked Potter how his mom was doing (always near Thanksgiving), he would always have another story to tell. One year, she started doing pottery, and wound up being very, very good (she made us a beautiful pot as a wedding gift when Gloria and I got married). Another year, she took up birding, and was engrossed by that, too. She was also interested in architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright in particular).

What was so remarkable about all these hobbies is that she started most of them late in life. There's no question that being a single parent makes you give up parts of your life. Big parts. Potter's mom gave up those parts, but later in life, she found some new parts. I had so much respect for how she always managed to be interested in life--she always found something new to learn.

When Potter let me know that his mom had passed away, all these feelings and memories I had about her compacted into a dense, single point. I wanted to write about her, because I wanted you guys to know, in some small way, just how awesome she was.

DRM And Sweating

The guy who is supposed to follow EA CEO John Riccitiello with a roll of duct tape for his mouth has been taking some vacation days lately.

First, he said this at the Dow Jones/Nielsen Media and Money Conference:
We implemented a form of DRM and it's something that 99.8 percent of users wouldn't notice. But for the other .2 percent, it became an issue and a number of them launched a cabal online to protest against it.

Dude! Maybe it was The Brotherhood of the Bell!

Then, in an interview with Gamasutra, he said this:
‘I'm guessing that half of them were pirates, and the other half were people caught up in something that they didn’t understand.

It seems like I have to say this every month, but people who make millions of dollars a year should always remember the cardinal rule about giving interviews: don't be a dick.

What these statements reveal, though, is something that surprises me very much: Electronic Arts is worried.

Remember how the original meme about the Spore DRM protest was that it was a popular uprising? EA is worried enough about that perception that John Riccitiello is clearly desperate to change it. It's not a popular uprising--it's a cabal, it's pirates, it's dark forces who are secretly controlling world events.

I don't think he made these statements casually, either. I think it was planned and defined in advance as part of a tactical initiative.

I'm stunned that the protests in the last year have been so effective, because clearly, they have been. EA has changed their DRM method several times in the last year in response, and every time, they've moved to something less restrictive.

Plus, it's not just EA. Two years ago, a publisher wouldn't have felt it necessary to talk about the DRM method that would be used in an upcoming game. Now, though, it happens all the time, Fallout 3 being the most recent example. A copy protection method is, at times, just as much a topic for discussion as a game's features or hardware requirements.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday Links!

It's a debate-free edition of Friday Links, so let's get started.

Here's a link to a fascinating article in the New York Times: Fossil Fish Shows Complexity of Transition to Land. Here's an excerpt:
In a new study of a fossil fish that lived 375 million years ago, scientists are finding striking evidence of the intermediate steps by which some marine vertebrates evolved into animals that walked on land.

There was much more to the complex transition than fins morphing into sturdy limbs. The head and braincase were changing, a mobile neck was emerging and a bone associated with underwater feeding and gill respiration was diminishing in size — a beginning of the bone’s adaptation for an eventual role in hearing for land animals.

From Greg, a link to the entirely wonderful This Sand. A hint: click on that small box in the upper left-hand corner.

From Ben Younkins, a link to a fascinating story in the New York Times about the Tasmanian Devil, whose population is in dramatic decline. The reason? Cancer, and in a bizarre twist, the cancer cells themselves are infectious.

From MSNBC, a link to an article about sound systems--for dinosaurs. Here's a the lead:
The ornate headgear worn by duck-billed dinosaurs millions of years ago was used to make eerie, bellowing calls, suggests a new study.

From Chris Meadowcraft, a link to a story about children and behavior, and here's an excerpt:
Archetypal advice from The Little Engine That Could and Tinkerbell notwithstanding, a new study finds that until children are at least eight years of age, their beliefs have little or no connection to their behavior.

From Sirius, a link to a story about Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer of historic significance--explorer, writer, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. Also a story about using van der Waals forces to create a new, dry super glue. Next, an article with plenty of old-school references: the ten most annoying DRM methods. Finally, an entirely fascinating story on cluster headaches (which I'd never even heard of) and a totally unconventional cure: psychedelic mushrooms.

From Andrew B, a link to the story of Witold Pilecki, an officer in the Polish resistance who might have been the only man in history to sneak into Auschwitz as a prisoner--for the purposes of relaying intelligence.

From Mitch Youngblood, a link to a superb short film titled Oktapodi HQ--it looks like a Pixar short. Also, a music video for ZOMBIE ZOMBIE that pays homage to both John Carpenter and (stylistically) Thunderbirds.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, it's the ultimate in Internet connectivity--the deodorant dock. It's both strange and a comment about the end of privacy in the age of the Internet.

From Greg V, a link to Bill Bailey and banjo guitar, and he is a funny, funny man (exhibit one: "the deer, now blinded, stumbles into a ravine"). And here's a second Bill Bailey link, to a put gag--as told by Chaucer.

It's apparently video week, because here's another one, and believe it or not, it's banjos and brain surgery.

Finally, from Mark Trinkwalder, a link to Can I vote?, a site that can tell you if you're registered to vote as well as providing voting rules by state and a list of polling places.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

September NPD

Analysis on Monday, but here are the numbers:

I don't think Sony can afford to be outsold by Microsoft 2-1 for the rest of the year, so it will be interesting to see if they respond on price (even as they claim that they won't).

Contest Grand Prize Winners

The two grand prize winners are:
Kelley Whitmire
Jonathan Clement

The End Of Television As We Know It

In what must be the worst five minutes in television history (I certainly hope it doesn't last longer than that), VH1 now has a Rock Band reality show called Rock Band 2: The Stars. Washed-up rockers Alice Cooper and Sebastian Bach (Skid Row, if that name doesn't ring a bell) are looking for players for their rock bands.

Not their real rock bands, obviously--their plastic ones.

It's excruciatingly terrible, which means you should watch it at once, then take one of those drugs that causes short-term memory loss so that you're not scarred for life. Actually, this is so bad that you shouldn't watch it unless you are already holding the pill in your hand.

Consider yourself warned.
Rock Band 2: The Stars

Used Games (part three: your e-mails)

Multiple thoughtful comments from you guys (thanks, as always) on this subject, and here's a sampling.

First off, from Brian Minsker:
Two quick thoughts on why the cannibalization rate for used CDs is lower than that for used DVDs. First, the CD is an antiquated music delivery mechanism in that people want to buy "songs," not "albums." It used to be that an album contained about 45-50 minutes of music because that was what could fit on two sides of the LP. With the CD, that now tends to push up closer to the 60-70 minutes of music, again based on what fits on the delivery medium. However, very few musicians can put out 60 minutes of good (and commercially successful) music every year (which is what the record companies want, so CDs tend to have some less-than-good music on them. So if you want only a couple of songs off of a CD, it's easier to drop a buck apiece with iTunes (or Amazon or...) than to buy the CD. On the off chance that you find you like all the songs on the CD, you're still talking 12-15 songs, which comes out to the same cost as the physical media.

Second and somewhat related to the first, there is a thriving digital market for music, not so much for movies. I would guess that a large fraction of the purchases of used CDs are for those not available in digital format, just like many of the used LP purchases are those items that aren't available in CD format.

Next, from Dave Alpern:
One reason there are substantially more used DVD sales than used CD sales is because there are places that RENT DVDs. Check out any Blockbuster or Movie Gallery – the ones around here all advertise used DVDs “3 for $20” or “Buy 2 get 1 Free” as they sell of their old rental stock when the demand goes down. Even Netflix does that. The used DVD market is probably a very close model for the used Game market, with EBGames selling used games right alongside new ones.

Finally, from Garret Rempel:
Why do you find it puzzling that Books have a lower cannibalization rate than CDs, and CDs are lower than DVDs? Why not look at the rate of replacement or rate of significant improvement?

Books - Last major update: 1439 - Printing Press
Audio - Last major update: 1988 - Compact Disc
Video - Last major update: 2007 - High Definition BluRay/HD DVD

[note: that "last major update" entry for books cracked me up. And while SACD is technically a major update to CD quality, it never really got traction, so I think 1988 is still fair in a mass market sense]

If I am a consumer, why wouldn't I choose used over new if I expect the technology to age rapidly and a better technology to come out in the near future? I can save 50% off the price, and a used copy should last 5-10 years until a new, better format is released.

Now a book will last a lifetime if cared for properly, I could buy used (and have, for out-of-print books) but why wouldn't I spend the extra money and invest in a new copy that I know will last a very long time, instead of going through the effort of trying to find a used copy that has been treated well enough that I can be sure it will last as long? Buying a book is an investment, and it is easier and safer to buy new.

How about a CD? Again, same argument as a book, except that it is easier to find a well treated used copy that I can be certain will last a long time. But I am also fairly safe in assuming CD's won't be replaced in the immediate future, so investing in a new CD is reasonably safe for a couple of decades.

What about a DVD? Well I keep hearing about this thing called High-def that has been out for almost two years, people are starting to upgrade and I probably will in a few more years. What is the point in investing in a new DVD if I'm going to upgrade soon? People are starting to dump their well-preserved DVD collections for the next new thing, I can pick up some great movies cheaply used that are likely to last a couple of decades, and I won't have to fret about paying full price for obsolete technology 5 years down the road.

Now I can't say I make that rationalization consciously when deciding to buy, but I don't think it is hard to see why DVD sales are being cannibalized at a much higher rate than CDs or Books.

The Big Book Post

I've done a terrible job making book posts lately, so here's one big post to get caught up. I'm listing these in order of preference, although it's tricky, since the subject matter varies so widely.

Watchmen (Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons) I have no idea why I had never heard of this book, but it's utterly sensational--not just a great graphic novel, but a great novel by any standard. Like all great science fiction, it explores what it means to be human, but it does so in extraordinarily thoughtful and poignant ways. One particular scene (on Mars) is as poignant a scene as anything I've ever read, and it's deeply moving. This is one of those books that you treasure, and I'm very much looking forward to the day when Eli is old enough to read it.

A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn - the Last Great Battle of the American West (James Donovan)
This book is just riveting--there's no other way to describe it. Even both The Battle of Little Bighorn happened over a century ago, the writing is so vivid that it feels like it's actually happening as you turn the pages. The amount of detail is tremendous, but it never becomes ponderous. It's a terrific, fascinating read.

The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime (Jasper Forde)
So if nursery rhyme characters lived in the real world, and there was a special branch of the police called the Nursery Crimes Unit, then the death of Humpty Dumpty would be cause for an investigation, right?

Why yes, it would.

The Big Over Easy is a wildly funny book, mostly because its world is both ridiculous and utterly consistent, and Forde is entirely ingenious, both in concept and execution.

Uncle John's Triumphant 20th Anniversary Bathroom Reader
I still remember the People's Almanac very fondly, a popular series of books in the late 70s and early 80s. They were a fascinating compendium of obscure historical facts, and when the series ended, I was totally disappointed. Uncle John's isn't quite the same, but it's the closest I've found, and it's the largest collection of oddities I've ever found in printed form. If you ever wanted to know about the Poy Sang Long (a coming of age ritual of the Shan people in Myanmar), or the Basillic (the largest cannon ever built), then this is the book for you.

All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone (Myra MacPherson)
Every high school student in the country should be given a copy of this book to read for Government class. This is an excellent read, both to explain who I.F. Stone was as a person and why he was so profoundly important to journalism (back in the day when journalists had a spine).

Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty (Jeff Pearlman)
Parts of this book just left me speechless. If you ever wanted to know what life in the NFL was like in the early nineties, then this book is pure gold. Pearlman interviewed everyone, seemingly, except Emmett Smith, and the stories he uncovered will make your jaw drop to the floor about every fifth page.

The Prize : The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (Daniel Yergin)
A book I was reading on the Great Depression referenced The Prize as the definitive history of the oil industry. It's incredibly dense, so be forewarned, but I think "definitive" is a fair description. It also provides an entirely new perspective on understanding how the world came to be what it is today, including the critical role of fuel in both World Wars (which I had never been aware of before). And even though it's dense, it's colorful, because the history of the oil industry is full of bizarre and roguish characters.

Contest Finalists

The eight finalists:
Irwan Tjan
Matt Culp
Kelley Whitmire
Adam Greenbrier
Alex Corvino
Jonathan Clement
Chris Connolly

For the Matt's, the random number generator giveth and the random number generator taketh away.

The two grand prize winners will be posted tonight.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Wand Of Considerable Power

Gloria went to Baltimore last weekend, so Eli 7.2 and I got to hang out for three days, which was great. We went to see "City of Ember," watched the Texas-OU football game, went to Eli's soccer game, and in general laughed our asses off.

Or "buttocks," as it were, since Eli heard that on an episode of iCarly and now he says it all the time.

My favorite question of the weekend: "Dad, what would I do better: lifeguard or military commander?"

"A question I've asked myself many times," I answered.

It was a dry weekend, which was no surprise, because it's been incredibly dry down here for months. The soccer field where Eli practices and plays his league games is basically dust on top of dirt. I've mentioned several times in the last few weeks, in the course of discussion, that we really need some rain.

Eli has a good friend named Chloe (see A Few Chocolate Coins and Mr. Stupidhead ), and she has a little sister named Olivia. Yesterday, he was playing at their house.

Gloria bought a wooden wand back from Baltimore (from a Renaissance Festival), and Eli has been investigating its "power." He showed it to Chloe, then they disappeared into her room. When they came out, Eli was wearing black capri pants and a black polo shirt.

From Chloe's closet, of course. I would have paid a considerable sum for a photo of that outfit.

Now suitably dressed in magical garb, he climbed up on a table in the backyard and proceeded to do a rain dance. "Illway ouyay akemay itay ainray, easeplay? I egbay ouyay!" he shouted.

In case you're wondering, that's "Will you make it rain, please? I beg you!" in Pig Latin.

Watching Eli dance is hilarious, because his dances tend to be somewhat, um, frenzied. His Indian name would be Man Dancing On Tacks.

So Eli started this goofy dance, waved his wand around--and it started to rain. Buckets. Gloria drove them home in a downpour.

I can only hope that Chloe and Olivia now believe that Eli can really make it rain.

This morning, I woke up to the sound of rain pounding our windows. It's almost five p.m. now, and it's been raining all day.

A Curious Collection of Matt's

A selection of the outstanding e-mails I've received in the last hour, all commenting on the curious "revenge of the Matt's" contest that I seem to be running.

Your winner selection algorithm is obviously skewed to select people named Matt - so I'd like to change my entry.
--Matt (Kevin) Logan

What is up with the large number of "randomly selected" contestants with the first name of Matt? To the untrained eye there are only 3 but you snuck a 4th one in by hiding him under Mike, like I'd fall for that. This contest has proven the rumors of your pro-Matt agenda.
--From the e-mailer who used to be known as Elliott but will from this point on be known as Matt.

The only late entry I got was from someone who forgot that today was Wednesday. His name, of course, was Matt. Obviously, he would have been a lock if he had just gotten his entry in on time.

However, if you look behind the numbers, this is not surprising. Look at the breakdown of Dubious Quality readers by name:

As you can see, based on the composition of the readership, Matt's, if anything, are underrepresented.

Contest Semi-finalists

Kevin (smithwb1)
Adam Greenbrier
Chris Connolly
Frank Regan
Gus Alagna
Irwan Tjan
Jess Moran
Jonathan Clement
Kelley Whitmire
Matt Blackmon
Matt Culp
Matt Cantrell
Mike Plagge
Matt Nowicki
Paul Baxter
Spencer Greenwood
Nathan W.
Ryan Shalek
Alex Corvino

Yes, that's twenty, not sixteen. I upped it slightly to compensate for the number of entries.

Tomorrow morning, I'll announce the eight finalists, and by end of day tomorrow, the two grand prize winners. Remember, if you're a finalist, you're guaranteed a copy of Graham's CD (five available) or a copy of Music Wars: Rebirth (one available).

Thanks very much to everyone who entered.

Contest Entries Now Closed

Semi-finalists coming shortly.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Don't Miss the Contest!

Full details here, in case you missed it.

Used Games (part two)

Last week, in a discussion of the used game market, I linked to a New York Times article that referenced Internet Exchanges for Used Books: An Empirical Analysis of Product Cannibalization and Welfare Impact (written by Michael Smith, Anindya Ghose, and Rahul Telang). Yesterday, I was finally able to read the full study, and it raised some additional topics that I wanted to touch on today.

It's always difficult to compare different markets when talking about used goods sales. As an example, the study finds that the "cannibalization" rate for used book sales at Amazon is 16% (the percentage of used book sales that replace new book sales). However, the cannibalization rate is 24% for used CD sales, and an astounding 86% for used DVD sales.

I think it's possible that the difference in the cannibalization rate between CD and DVD sales may be misleading due to a limited sample size, but if the DVD rate is even 40%, it's huge.

Also, the study finds that the CD and DVD market are much more sensitive to the price of used goods:
...we note that the new sales of CDs, and particularly DVDs, are substantially more sensitive to changes in used good prices than are books: a 1% decrease in the price of used goods results in a 0.157% and 0.514% decrease in the sales of new CDs and DVDs respectively (compared to a 0.089% decrease in the sales of books).

So in the absence of corresponding data for the used games market, can we make any educated guesses?

First off, a caveat (thanks Scott Hills). The used market (Amazon) in the study is different than the Gamestop model, because Amazon doesn't stock any used book inventory--they're a transaction facilitator. This shouldn't affect consumer behavior, but at the other end, it certainly affects the behavior of the content provider, because this is (seemingly) a zero-risk business for Amazon.

Moving on. Certainly, it's fair to argue that digital goods (including games) will have a higher cannibalization rate than books, because their condition doesn't degrade over time.

Well, except they do. Sort of.

Think about it. The console replacement cycle means that every 4-5 years, there will be a new generation with 2X or more horsepower than the previous generation. Games look much, much better, because developers have more power to use. So while a digital copy doesn't physically degrade, when consoles get replaced, its desirability does, in effect, degrade to some degree.

Does that affect consumer behavior? I think it does, to a point, but no one has studied it yet.

Music isn't like that. Once CD's were introduced, they really haven't substantially changed in the last two decades, and the "high definition" audio formats have failed miserably in terms of gaining critical mass. I have CD's from 1988 and they sound as good or better than CD's I can buy today.

Watching movies, though, has changed substantially in the last twenty years, from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray. And I think the improvement in picture quality each generation, while not as dramatic as generational change in consoles, has still been significant. Plus, inside the DVD generation, there was the introduction of progressive scan DVD players, which was nearly a generational leap by itself.

So while the rate of change (and improvement) still doesn't match consoles, DVD's to be the closest basis for comparison to the gaming market. And if so, then used game sales have an extraordinarily high degree of cannibalization of new game sales.

As an aside, I find it very puzzling that the cannibalization rate for used CD sales is so much lower than used DVD sales, because I would expect it to be reversed, for the reasons I've just discussed--in particular, that a CD in 1987 sounds as good as one today, while there are substantial differences in quality in the media used for movies. I'd like to someone study the habits of CD buyers versus DVD buyers to explain that difference, but today is not the day to explore that topic.

Now let's look at how manufacturers and publishers could respond.

How would console manufacturers mitigate the used market? I believe they would introduce a console that would get accepted by the mass market as quickly as possible (because of a reasonable price point), and would include innovations that would make previous generation games look "unfun" in comparison.

Fun degradation of the previous generation, in other words.

Oh, wait, we have that already--it's called the Wii.

Low price point, $10 lower cost of new games, innovative play experience. Why would anyone want a used Gamecube game at this point?

At the other end of the spectrum, there's the PS3. Overengineered, massively overpriced at launch (from a consumer standpoint), and more expensive games. It's the perfect recipe to keep the PS2 used game market thriving for years.

Not only that, but I think a robust used game market (for the previous gen) probably has its own cannibalization effect on new console purchases.

In other words, if you can't distinguish yourself, and quickly, the used game market will affect you in every direction--new game purchases, new console purchases, and consumer interest in general.

Let's move on to publishers. In a world where the used game market is not only thriving, but the business foundation for an eight billion dollar company (Gamestop), then how do developers and publishers respond?

Well, they've already responded in one way: they raised prices. New games for the PS3 and 360, at least, generally cost $59.95 instead of the $49.95 standard of the previous generation.

Yes, I know: development costs are higher, allegedly. Theoretically, that's certainly true, but do game companies plan development costs based on theoretical maximums, or on how much they can afford to spend developing the game to make a profit based on their sales projections?

I would argue that it's the latter--for anyone who wants to remain solvent, that is.

Publishers are in a Catch-22 situation here. They want to reduce used game sales, but they also want to sell more new games, and the more new games they sell, the bigger the used market will get. And while they may talk about transitioning to a download-only model, that's still 5-10 years away, at least, and it's going to make consoles more expensive (because if Best Buy can't sell new games and has zero margins on the consoles, they're not going to waste the shelf space). Plus, there's a reasonable chance that when the legal dust has settled, consumers will have the right to resell what they've downloaded.

Wouldn't that be a bitch for publishers? Gamestop wouldn't even have to stock inventory--they'd just resell licensing keys. I only imagine the fury that would ensue.

Why, exactly, am I giving up my rights to resell what I've purchased if I download it instead of buying it on disc? I don't think there's a good answer to that, really (there are plenty of bullshit answers, but no good ones), so I don't think the gaming industry should count winning that battle as guaranteed.

So what else can publishers do? Well, they can lock lots of content on the disc, and only unlock it once. The second purchaser is out of luck.

I don't like this approach--at all--but it clearly seems to be where we're headed. EA is already doing that with their sports games. The "Live 365" feature in NBA 09 (daily downloads that adjust ratings based on real-world game performance) is free, but if you buy a used copy, it's going to cost you $10 (it was originally reported as $20, but this was apparently in error).

Oh, and it's not just their sports games, because the "free 20 song download" coming for Rock Band 2 is only usable once per disc. The "AC/DC Live" tracks (coming soon to a Wal-Mart near you) includes a one-use code that will let you transfer the tracks into Rock Band/RB2.

EA isn't the only one, either. Micrososoft is including a one-use code with Gears of War 2 that will allow you to donwload five extra multi-player maps.


Really, I don't think either side is sympathetic here. Gamestop is a carrion-feeder, certainly, because of the ridiculously low prices they give people for trade-ins, but publishers won't accept returned games, and at least they're giving us something. Publishers have every right to be pissed off at Gamestop, but since they've completely shut off the return of games for refunds (even crap games that ship in alpha status), it's not like they come off as the victim here.

Actually, WE come off as the victim here.

Monday, October 13, 2008

One More Contest Note

I forgot to mention one thing about the contest. Like I said last week, if you win and don't want either Rock Band 2 or Guitar Hero World Tour, you can choose the equivalent dollar amount in any games you want. So if you don't have a console, or you're an international reader, you can still enter and win.


Finally, it's contest time.

There are four questions to answer, and answering all four correctly advances you to the next round. From the pool of all correct entries, I'll draw at random to select 16 to move to the semi-finals, then 8 to the finals. If you make it to the finals, you're guaranteed to win something.

First and second place are the big prize winners (Rock Band 2 with full instruments or Guitar Hero World 2 with full instruments), but there are also 5 copies of Graham Wilkinson's new CD and 1 copy of Music Wars: Rebirth.

Please note that I will do my best not to screw this up, but it's me, so lower the bar accordingly.

Here's how you enter. Listen to the four songs I've listed. Send me an e-mail with "CONTEST" as the subject. Include your answers to the four contest questions. That's all you have to do.

I want everyone to have a chance to enter, so the entry deadline is Wednesday at noon (Central Standard Time).

I've written about Graham Wilkinson many times. He is a major force in American music, even if most people don't realize it yet. He writes deeply personal, unique songs, and in a world that is all too often filled with sadness, his music is filled with exuberance and a kind of buoyance that is deeply moving.

There will be a day when Graham's music is fully appreciated, and using his music in contests is my small way of trying to help. As crazy as it sounds, having you guys listen to four songs (and passing the link along to a friend if you like what you hear) might lead to something that could change Graham's life and give many, many more people a chance to listen to his music.

Crazier things have happened. I've even been involved in a few.

So when you listen to his music and you're completely blown away, his new accoustic album is available both at CD Baby and iTunes (just search for "Graham Wilkinson" and you can buy single songs).

For the first two contest questions, go to the Graham Wilkinson & The Underground Township MySpace Music page.

1. In the song "Personality Disorder" (#5 on the playlist), which of the following instruments do you hear?

2. In the song "Watertowers Windmills" (#6 on the playlist--scroll down if you can't see it), which of the following instruments do you hear?

For the following two questions, go to Graham's personal MySpace Music page.

3. In the song "Dark Tower" (#1 on the playlist), how do the walls fall?

4. In the song "Eviction" (#5 on the playlist), who does he call?

Thanks very much for taking the time to listen to Graham's music and good luck in the contest.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Vahur Teller, a link to some absolutely stunning photographs: Earth From Above.

Next is a link from Tim Jones to an article about "the artifacts of geek history" in Jay Walker's library. Here's an excerpt:
Nothing quite prepares you for the culture shock of Jay Walker's library. You exit the austere parlor of his New England home and pass through a hallway into the bibliographic equivalent of a Disney ride. Stuffed with landmark tomes and eye-grabbing historical objects—on the walls, on tables, standing on the floor—the room occupies about 3,600 square feet on three mazelike levels. Is that a Sputnik? (Yes.) Hey, those books appear to be bound in rubies. (They are.) That edition of Chaucer ... is it a Kelmscott? (Natch.) Gee, that chandelier looks like the one in the James Bond flick Die Another Day. (Because it is.) No matter where you turn in this ziggurat, another treasure beckons you—a 1665 Bills of Mortality chronicle of London (you can track plague fatalities by week), the instruction manual for the Saturn V rocket (which launched the Apollo 11 capsule to the moon), a framed napkin from 1943 on which Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined his plan to win World War II.

Here's a second link from Tim, and it's also remarkable: an article about a WWI intelligence artist. Cameras were still unreliable, so he snuck into enemy territory and sketched, believe it or not, and some of the pictures in the article are quite stunning.

From Andrew B., it's the world's first testicle cookbook. Yes, that's "testicle," not "popsicle." Fortunately, his other link is less ball-esque: Secrets of the Mystery Gun That Shelled Paris.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, it's Take On Me: Literal Video Version. Outstanding! Next up is Eve's Garden, a hotel made out of "papercrete" (it's a remarkable story). Then there's the JM Billiard Round Pool Table, which includes an optional--stripper's pole. Believe it or not. Finally, a slow-motion video that explains why a tank canister shot is so deadly.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to some spectacular images of Mercury taken by the Messenger probe.

From John Catania, and this is something I didn't even know was possible: the shoreline north of Sydney covered by foam (not just a few inches--we're talking six feet high or more).

From Sirius comes 20 of the most bizarre creatures known to mankind. Oh, and here's a classic: Woman says she was shot in the leg by her stove.

From Lummox JR, an excellent article about 6 Famous Unsolved Mysteries (with really obvious solutions).

The world's largest LED screen is coming to Dubai, and it's going to be 33 stories high. Five bucks to the first guy who gets to play Wii Bowling on that screen. Okay, ten bucks.

Do you ever wonder who would be King of America if George Washington hadn't turned down his chance to be monarch? Thanks to Doug Walsh, now you can find out.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Console Post of the Week

I mentioned last month that the 360 had outsold the PS3 over a seven-week period in Japan.

Now, it's a nine-week period. Including sales from the last two weeks (up to Oct. 5), here are the numbers:

If someone had asked us last year what the odds were that, over a two-month period, the 360 would outsell the PS3 by thirty percent in Japan, what would we have said?




I think I would have said a thousand to one.

No matter how many units the PS3 sells in the last three months of the year, these kinds of numbers are causing some wet trousers for Sony executives.

I can't believe I'm even saying this, but I think that after years of ridicule, Microsoft has gotten a foothold in Japan.

Good grief, I must be high to have typed that.

Sony had a very decent first half of 2008 in most of the world, but their strategy is starting to collapse, and it all revolves around their unwillingness to match the 360 price cuts.

Is Little Big Planet going to fix this? Man, I don't know. It looks fun, and it looks very creative, but the price gap is $100 between the 360 and the PS3. How many parents are going to be willing to swallow that delta when they're shopping for Christmas gifts?

Here's the thing: the gaming industry is pretending that the currently near-terrifying events in world finance aren't going to affect their business.


It's going to make shoppers even more price-sensitive when it comes to comparing consoles, and that's not good news for Sony.

Gaming Notes

First off, and this is big news, No More Heroes is getting a sequel (trailer here).

If I only had one word to describe the original, it would be "exuberant." It was a brilliant, dark, funny game, and it's one of the best games of the year.

Matt Sakey's excellent Culture Clash column has a new intstallment.

Here's an e-mail I received from Robert, and it's about one of my favorite RTS games from last year: Paraworld. Of all the RTS games I've ever played, Paraworld had my favorite units, and Robert has some new information about the game:
Bill, I am not sure you are aware of this, but there is an expansion pack for Paraworld, and a new 1.5 patch. The problem is, both of these were released for the German version only. However some of the fans, and ex-developers got together and put together a package that
breathes new life into paraworld. It activates the "Gold Edition" of Paraworld
(game+expansion) and 1.5 patch for the English market.

This is pretty huge, as it adds new units to the game (Flamethrowers, Undead Warriors), 2 new Heroes, a new Campaign, new maps, and lots of new random dinosaurs that wander maps.

You may want to post about this, and point out GoGamer has Paraworld for $1.90 this week.
That's great news, and here's the link:
Paraworld Booster Pack

Eli 7.2

"Dad, can we go see City of Embers when it comes out?" Eli 7.2 has seen trailers for the movie, and he knows it's a "PG," which is usually out of his age range. He also knows, though, that I check certain websites to find details about the rating, and sometimes he gets to go.

"I don't know, little man," I said. "I don't know about the rating."

"Can you check Rotten Potatoes when we get home?" he asked.

Yesterday, he was showing me a book that came in with his school book order.

I remember the heady days of the school book order--coming home with the catalog, negotiating for how many books I could pick out, waiting anxiously for weeks until they came in, then the thrill of the smell of new books when they finally arrived.

So Eli was looking through a book he'd gotten that was kind of a "history pull-tab" book, showing pictures and descriptions of historical events with action tabs that he could pull to move something in the picture.

"Hey, it's George Washington, and he's standing in a boat!" he said.

"That's right," I said.

"That's a famous scene," he said. "He's crossing a river. It's the--the--I can't remember."

"Keep trying," I said.

"It's--it's--THE DERIVATIVE!"

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Contest Teaser

I had hoped to have the contest this week, but I'm moving it back to Monday so that I'll be better prepared.

Here's the good news, though: prizes include Rock Band 2 (with full instrument set) and Guitar Hero World Tour (same). Plus I'll have Graham Wilkinson CD's and a copy of Music Wars.

Plus, if you win and don't want one of the music games, you can order the equivalent dollar amount in other games instead. That also makes this an international contest, because as long as I can order it from a website that ships to your country, I can send it to you.

No worries about needing to refresh the page every minute on Monday, either--it's not going to be that kind of contest. I want everyone to have time to enter, so I'll have details up Monday morning and entries will close Wednesday at noon.

More on De Blob

Thanks to those of you who e-mailed (Niels van Klaveren was first) with more information abou the origins of De Blob.

Incredibly, De Blob originally started as a student project in 2006 by this team:
Jasper King: project lead / level designer / artist
Fabian Akker: lead level designer
David Vink: sound designer/level designer
Gijs Hermans: lead artist
Ralph Rademakers: artist
Fahrang Namdar: artist
Huub van Summeren: artist
Olaf Jansen: programmer
Joost van Dongen: lead programmer

Besides making a totally cool game, what was their purpose? Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry:
At the time of conception, sections of Utrecht were being rebuilt and the principal task in creating the game was to convey how the railroad station area of Utrecht would look in 10 years.

I played the original PC version last night (which you can download here), and it's incredibly creative. I think this is one of the first times I can ever remember that an already-excellent game was then extended and enhanced by a third-party developer. The core of the original game is absolutely intact, but Blue Tongue Entertainment did a terrific job of making it even better.

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