Thursday, December 31, 2009

The NFL Draft (Vancouver Edition)

I'm in the middle of the 2010 NFL draft.

I had the #1 pick, because the Lions were--much to my virtual shame--0-16. That's right, I couldn't win a single game with their roster (no free agent signings allowed before season one) and my sliders.

The first thing I did, of course, was trade the pick. Having the #1 pick in the draft is a loser's play, particularly if you don't need a quarterback (Eli 8.4 would kill me if I traded Matthew Stafford). I dangled the pick and Tampa Bay came running.

No, I didn't rip them off. I checked the standard NFL draft pick value chart (see here) and calculated a fair trade, which gave me two extra draft choices. I basically need to replace at least ten starters, so I need quantity, and some of the marquee positions are far too expensive to fill via free agency.

The way Madden handles the draft this year is very slick. Here, take a look:

There's the standard draft information (who's on the clock, round, pick, time remaining) on top, with a ticker running at the bottom with latest pick selections and round summaries. In the middle of the screen are several windows with toggles--the "Available" list of players on the center-left can be filtered by position, by scouting information, and by team. The "Attributes" window on the right (which gives you information on the currently selected player) can be changed to list scouting information you have on that player, free agents currently available at that position, a list of your draft picks, a list of your team needs, or a breakdown of your roster by position.

Picks take place about every fifteen seconds, unless you're on the clock, when you can take your full time allotment if needed. Damn, a strong safety I really liked just got picked in the third round, ten picks ahead of my fourth rounder.

If you want, you can sim ahead to your next draft pick, but I really enjoy watching players get taken and sweating out whether I guy I want is still going to be available. There was a wide receiver I really wanted in the second round, and when it got within three picks of my slot, I strated trying to trade up (offering fair value in later picks) just to be sure I got him.

Every team stoned me.

Fortunately, though, he was still there when my pick finally came up. It's also fairly dramatic when you have a guy spotted as a possible late round sleeper, but you have to wait out several rounds to see if he'll fall to you.

There's something else about how the draft functions that's highly appealing, and I'll give you an example. With the second pick in the first round of the draft, I took a left tackle that was listed as a probable "top five" pick (in the first round) by the draft hive mind.

Later, in the first pick of the fifth round, I reached to take a guy that I had scouted and really, really liked, even though he was listed as a probable 6th round choice.

Until you sign players after the draft, you don't see their actual ratings (1-100) and potential (A-D)--all you can see is their scouting information, if you scouted them, and their performance in various drills at the combine. Once their ink hits a contract, though, the cards are turned over, so to speak.

That top five pick? He cost me almost fifty-four million dollars for a six year contract. I almost had a stroke, but that's about what the second pick in the draft would be worth. He's currently rated a 76 and has "B" potential. He'll be a nice, solid starter, but I overpaid. Badly.

My fifth round pick that I liked so much after scouting him? He signed at $310,000 a year for three years. No bonus. Oh, and he's an 82 with "A" potential. Great pick.

Of course, I also picked a guard two rounds earlier who has "D" potential and was rated much lower.

Here's a nice touch. After I found out that I drafted a guy in the fifth round who should basically be an All-Pro guard in the future, I decided to see how much it would cost me to sign him to a six-year contract. However, once I know his potential and ratings, so does his agent, because it was going to cost me over forty million dollars for six year. Well done.

Sure, you could just sign every low draft choice to a seven-year contract for the league minimum with no bonus, then just cut guys who don't wind up having good ratings or potential, but what's the fun in that? Much better to just have a house rule that you can't sign anyone to longer than a three-year contract if you're offering the minimum.

That will cause some (good) pain.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


After the second patch for Madden 10 was released, I rebalanced the "play" sliders, and finally (finally) started my franchise.

The whole focus of slider development has been to make the game difficult without being cheap. I want bad teams to play like bad teams. The problem, historically, with games like Madden has always been that player skill can overwhelm player ratings to a relatively ridiculous degree.

When that happens, the game just isn't fun--to me, at least.

I think this is, all things considered, the best slider set I've ever developed, and the game engine, even with its limitations (two minute offense--hulk rage), is very "bending friendly" in terms of the sliders affecting gameplay in a significant way. So I've been looking forward to taking charge of an awful team and trying to lead them to the Super Bowl.

Hello, Detroit!

That's right. I've hired myself as General Manager/Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator/Defensive Coordinator/Quarterback/Middle Linebacker/Placekicker/Punter to lead the Lions back to prominence.

Playing all those positions lets me pay myself one hell of a salary.

It's not just for me, though. It's for Detroit, that hard-luck city that (as we've been reminded ONE MILLION times by sports announcers) apparently needs a sports championship far more than infrastructure and jobs. A virtual sports championship would cheer millions of virtual residents and give them some virtual hope.

I'd also like to say that the rumors I'm moving the team to Vancouver next season are totally unfounded. There's no way anyone would be in a position to know I'm doing that. Not that I am. Next season.

I also added a few difficulty modifiers to my franchise, because house rules are almost always necessary (in any sports game) to prevent the exploitation of shaky franchise A.I. Here are the extra rules:
--no signing of free agents before the first season (so I can't sign a bunch of guys to one-year contracts up to my cap ceiling)
--no player trades (there aren't many trades in football, anyway, so this isn't that big of a deal)
--no more than 19 player evaluations per week (you can sign different "scouting services" to scout college football players--this is the number a less-expensive service provides)

So how is this all working? With two weeks left in the regular season, the Vancouver--um, Detroit--Lions are 0-14.


I call that success.

The games haven't all been blowouts (I could have won at least three of them), and they haven't been cheap, but the quality of talent on my roster is poor, and that's how they're playing. Missed throws, dropped passes, bad tackling--the Lions have it all.

I can't overcome those deficiencies with individual skill, either, which makes this game different from any other football game I've ever played. I'm just trying to sneak in a win to avoid going 0-16, but even that is highly unlikely at this point.

It's not that Madden is perfect this year, and I've discussed most of the deficiencies, but it does feel like I'm actually running a beleaguered franchise.

Now if I can just learn the Canadian national anthem.

The Ride

We went to a wedding two weekends ago, and the aunt of the bride was in a wheelchair.

The bride and groom wanted a picture taken of everyone who attended the wedding, so we assembled on the front steps of the church. The aunt, due to the way the access ramps were set up, had to go outside and down a road to get to the front of the steps.

I did a terrible job explaining that, but it doesn't matter.

What does matter is that it looked like each little bump in the road was transmitted through the wheelchair's frame without any shock absorption at all. Based on how she was being wheeled and her reaction, the ride seemed very punishing.

Her wheelchair looked standard issue, with the 1" grey tires that we all recognize. It's a design that seemingly hasn't changed since I was a kid (40+ years ago).

I used to race in triathlons, and I had a racing bike with 1 1/4" tires. Tires that size do minimize rolling resistance, but they're very, very poor for shock absorption. Tires that size produce a very harsh ride.

So here's the question: why not use bigger tires?

Yes, wheelchairs must be a standard width to fit through doorways, but I see many people in wheelchairs who don't use anywhere near the full width of the seat. Why not reduce the width of the frame by 1" on each side, then use that room for bigger tires? I don't think it's a zero-sum situation--yes, rolling resistance increases slightly, but not linearly, and the increase in shock absorption (and stability) more than compensates. The unicycle I'm riding now has a "fat" tire compared to my first, and the difference in ride quality (when I'm not falling off) and stability is huge.

It wouldn't be possible for everyone to use this kind of wheelchair, because some people would just be too big, but it would be an option for many, and it seems like it would make their daily travels much easier.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Oh, What A Feeling

I was riding laps around a local high school track last week, and I saw a lady walk onto the track and start running. She was running very slowly, so I caught up to her, and as I neared I saw a fully-realized flashback to the 1980s.

Headband: check.
Flashdance-style torn shirt over one shoulder: check
Jennifer Beals 1983 hairstyle: check.
Leotard: check.
Discman CD player: check.

The Discman was what put it over the top. It looked like a refrigerator compared to the MP3 players people carry today, but I remember when portable CD players were the hottest thing going.

When I bought my first Discman, the CD I bought with it was "Tunnel Of Love" [EDIT: Of course, this is the album "Making Movies", not "Tunnel of Love," which is just a great song] by Dire Straits (one of my favorite rock albums ever). When I put on headphones and started the disc, the sound was so crystal clear that I was stunned. In a technology sense, it was every bit as impressive as the first time I saw a plasma television displaying 480P.


I heard the phrase "steel-cut oats" the other day.

I was curious about this phrase, as it called to mind images of honorable samurai, their deadly swords slashing through golden oat fields, the air full of seeds like drifting cherry blossoms.

This is why I love the Internet: I put in the phrase "steel-cut oats" into Google, and within seconds I know that Scottish and Irish oats also exist. I also find a website named Eat More Oats, which, in addition to a plethora of oat-related information, also features an interactive timeline of the history of oats (with entries all the way from 2000 B.C. to the present day, and it really heats up around 1600 A.D.).

None of this information is particularly useful, at least in my life, but that doesn't matter. Cotton candy isn't particularly useful, either, but when I'm eating it, nothing is sweeter.

Monday, December 28, 2009


"Go, go, go," I said. We were sitting at a stoplight for a turn that would take us into the Dell Diamond parking lot. The light had been red for a while, so for some reason I just started chanting "Go."

"Go," Eli 8.4 said. "Go, Go, Go."

Gloria started in with us. "Go, go, go!"

Now we're all chanting "GO, GO, GO, GO,GO," and when the light finally changed to green, we all cheered wildly.

We decided to drive to Old Settler's Park in Round Rock, which is the place where I took Eli to fish for the first time. It also has several miles of smooth concrete trails that wind through the woods and around the lake. We'd never ridden it before, but it looked aces on Google Maps, and I calculated that a loop was about 3.5 miles.

We left at 4 p.m., with temps in the high 40s, and we were all cold starting out. I quickly realized though, that it was going to be a great ride--the path was very smooth and wide, pedestrian/cycling only, and it was almost empy. So we rode and it was fantastic, with mild but constantly sloping terrain, a few bridges, and lots of interesting curvy sections.

We were riding about about 5mph, and Gloria's regular running pace was 6, so we were weighing her down. She was enjoying seeing Eli ride for such a long time, though, and didn't seem to mind.

And ride he does, because my son is the Superfreak. In this this entire ride (40+ minutes), he stepped off twice, both times because he was showing off by riding in the grass.

It was one of my favorite rides ever, both the course and the company, since Gloria's never come with us before. She's seen Eli ride for a few minutes, but the full impact of his superfreakery cannot be understood until you actually see him grind through 3.5 miles without a single problem.

On the way home, we wanted a Coke. Driving out, we thought we'd seen an open McDonald's, so we headed that way. "When I was a kid, all we had was a Dairy Queen," I said. "The day we got a McDonald's, it was like moving uptown. After that, all those other towns that didn't have McDonald's were just rubes."

McDonald's, though, was closed.

"Wait," I said. "Whataburger is always open. They're just two miles down on Parmer. Let's go."

Whataburger is closed. "Dad, I'm starving," Eli 8.4 said. "Can I get some chicken strips?"

"Ignoring thousands of years of tradition involving post-holiday meal behavior, I say yes," I said. "But we have to find those strips first."

We drove. We hunted. We were hunters and gathers--of chicken strips. Still, though,we failed. It must be hell being a lion.

"Jack In The Box," I said suddenly. "We are golden." We drove toward the restaurant, which was only a few blocks away, passing abandoned Sonics (damn you, Sonic--what is Christmas without tater tots?), and finally saw Jack In The Box, in the distance, ablaze.

With lights, fortunately.

"Yes!" Eli said, and we piled in, still wearing our geeky athletic gear. Several delicious chicken strips and ab few french fries later, we regained the steam in our stride.

"Dad, this is great," Eli said.

"I know," I said. "I think the ride and eating here is my favorite part of Christmas."

"I'm just worried that you'll want to turn this into a tradition," Gloria said.

"Hey, Eli!" I said. "Your Mom just said that she hoped this becomes a new Christmas tradition."

"I'm all in, baby," Eli said, laughing.

"Oh, no," Gloria said.

"That's us, Mom. Welcome to Eli Town and Billville," Eli said.

"Conveniently located right next to Crazy Town," I said.

Satisfied, we happily exited Jack's container. "I'm glad we found this fountain of delight," I said.

"And that's no opinion," Eli said. "That's a fact."

Something Fashionable This Way Comes

I was watching the Saints play a game last week in New Orleans.

If New Orleans isn't my least favorite city, it's in the bottom three. Gloria, though, loves New Orleans. So we argue occasionally about whether New Orleans is a city rich in heritage and culture (Gloria) or a fetid cesspool with better food (me).

Gloria is watching the game with me, and the broadcast cuts to a shot of fans in the stands, several of whom are clearly so drunk they can barely function. I start laughing.

"Revelry gone awry," she said.

Eli 8.4 wanted to wear sandals to breakfast on Sunday.

"You can't wear sandals with pants," Gloria said, clearly missing that I was wearing Teva closed-toe sandals with socks and warmup pants.

"Hmm," I said, and she saw my shoes and started laughing. "Well, you can't wear open-toed sandals and pants," she said. "Besides, it's in the 30s. Your feet will be cold."

"Mom, I'll be fine," Eli said. "And my toe won't hurt." He'd stubbed his toe a few minutes earlier and there had been much wailing.

"We'll take a pair of socks," I said.

"You two are a fashion disaster," she said.

"We're not about yesterday's fashion," I said. "We're all about tomorrow's fashion."

"A tomorrow that may never come," she said.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday Holiday Links Parade, Now With No Actual Parade!

First off, from Brian Minsker, a link to a three-part series from the "The Big Picture" feature of the Boston Globe. It's a stunning review of the year in pictures:
part one
part two
part three

Next, from David, a link to a fascinating story about Duke Nukem: Learn to Let Go: How Success Killed Duke Nukem.

From Cliff Eyler, a story about the discovery (at the bottom of Loch Ness) of a Wellington bomber, one of only two known to survive WWII.

From Sebastian Mankowski, and entirely appropriate for the holiday season, it's Ode To Minions.

I may have linked to this before, but it's so indescribably delicious that when Geoff Engelstein sent it to me, I decided to run it again. Here you go:
Female ducks have evolved an intriguing way to avoid becoming impregnated by undesirable but aggressive males endowed with large corkscrew-shaped penises: vaginas with clockwise spirals that thwart oppositely spiraled males.

Thwart them, they do.

From Scott Sudz, a link to the ultimate lazy man device: a microwave with a built-in YouTube player.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a stunning video of Prague made with the Canon 1DMKIV. It's some of the most striking black and white footage that I've ever seen, and you can see it here. Also, a story about five Dutch families who decided to create an apartment building they could live in together. Next is one of the most amazing landscapes I've ever seen, and it's the most popular tourist attraction in Croatia: Plitvice Lakes National Park.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a story about the collision of two sections of the aurora borealis.

From George Paci, a link to a fascinating Wikipedia entry for coppicing, and here's a teaser:
Coppicing maintains trees at a juvenile stage, and a regularly coppiced tree will never die of old age – some coppice stools may therefore reach immense ages. The age of a stool may be estimated from its diameter, and some are so large – perhaps as much as 9 metres (30 ft) across – that they are thought to have been continuously coppiced for centuries.

From Tateru Nino, a visual periodic table.

From Mr. Fritz, and this is definitely NSFW (but very funny), a mash-up of Snatch and Star Wars.

From Jonathan Arnold, and if you click on only one link this week, it should be this one: a short stop-motion film titled Going West.

From Andrew Steele, another great unicycle link, to a story about a man who rode his unicycle in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic--50 miles, 7,000 feet of climbing, and 4,400 feet of descents. Man!

From Eric Lundquist, a link to a PBS POV story on the world's largest shopping mall. It's in Guangzhou, China, and it's almost completely empty.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


I went to see Avatar 3-D this morning at 9:30.

That's right--our local digital cinema is showing it on four screens, and 9:30 was the first showing. It was a relaxing way to spend the morning, particularly when it seemed like 90% of the population was freaking out and flipping each other off over last minute shopping.

It's worth going to see this movie for the 3-D effects alone. Actually, that's the only reason to go see the movie, because in places, it's absolutely beautiful and amazing.

The screenplay, on the other hand, reads like it was written in three days. Clearly, it's in the "spectacle as entertainment" category, which is too bad, because the basic premise of the film is quite interesting and very poignant.

I think someone needs to do an intervention with James Cameron on movie length. There's no sixty minute story that he can't tell in a hundred and fifty minutes. Next time, he should be given a movie length, and for every five minutes he goes over, a finger should be chopped off. His finger.

He can keep the thumbs. I'm not entirely inhumane.

If he wants to make a movie that's thirty minutes too long, he still can, but is it really worth having nothing left but the bloody thumb of one hand and only three fingers on the other?

Another E-mail

From Jason:
The sign for Tacoma Self Storage is Missing the first 'S', and this is visible from I-5 (which runs from Vancouver, BC to Tijuana).

(image credit Komo News)

Your Delightful E-mail

Seriously, it's delightful. Don't deny it.

First, from Rob Kaye, a story about another sign (following up on the "Bumdoodlers post):
We have a gas station chain up here in Illinois called Speedway (just in
case you've never seen one down there). Anyway, we drive by at night,
and the S and the d are burnt out.

think about it...

I thought Payton was gonna roll out of the car. I was having a hard
time staying in my lane...

For those of you lazy letter shifters, that would be PEE WAY.

Brian Minsker is next, and he has a brush with greatness story about the utterly edible Susanna Kallur and her twin sister (oh MY GOD she has a twin sister):
Living in Champaign, we got to see a lot fo Susanna Kallur and her twin sister Jenny (also a 100m hurdler) while they were members of the UI track team. They're also the daughers of Andres Kallur, who played with the NY Islanders back when they were winning Stanley Cups.

Brian also linked to an explanation of why a font would be named after a siege engine, but the real reason is so limp and corporate that it's not worth repeating in these hallowed grounds.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Eve's Eve Ramblorama

Today, I went to get my hair cut.

As I parked in the shopping center, I saw a new building. A coffee shop, it turned out.

I don't drink coffee, so this was a no-impact event for me. The new shop had a neon sign, though, and it caught my eye. The store name was written in cursive, and it was hard to read, but what I thought it said was so curious that I drove around the other side for a better look. After closer inspection, though, there appeared to be no question.


At least, that's what I think it said. What, was "ASSTAPPER" not available?

One other question, since I was looking for a cursive font to use (fail, because Blogger doesn't support them): why does Microsoft have a font (Trebuchet) named after a siege engine? Seriously, WTF?

Here's what I learned during shopping for gifts this morning: the box a ping pong table comes in does not fit into a SUV. Please adjust your records accordingly.

Meanwhile, if you need a reasonably-priced emergency gift for a woman that will be greatly appreciated, look no further:

That's an image from the Shoes Gallery Calendar 2010, and it is MONEY. There's also a Handbag Gallery calendar, and it's money as well. The cool thing about these calendars is that they have shoes/handbags from decades or even centuries ago, so they're both stylish and interesting.

And if you're looking for a reasonably priced gift for yourself, you need to go check out the Steam sale. They're basically giving shit away.

Moving along, has there ever been a more untested team in the alleged national championship game EVER than Texas? The best two teams they've played all season (Oklahoma State and Nebraska) are rated #21 and #30 in the computer portion of the BCS. Are you kidding me?

Cincinnati, meanwhile, went on the road and beat Oregon St. (#17, even though they just mailed in their bowl game against BYU), West Virginia (#14), and Pittsburgh (#20). The Big East was rated higher than the Big 12 this year, too, but they're not going to play for the national championship because they weren't rated #2 when the season started, basically.

Seriously, the BCS is filthy dirty. Filthy. Has there ever been a more biased system? Texas is in a position to play ONE great game and win the national championship. That's the national championship of what, exactly?

I could also mention that Colt McCoy (based on this season's performance) is the most overrated quarterback in college football--okay, I will. Texas played 7 games against teams rated in the bottom 40 in pass defense (120 teams total in the FBS), and in those games he threw 19 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.

Spiffy, right?

In the 6 games against teams rated 21-80 (they didn't play anyone rated in the top 20 in pass defense), he threw 8 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.

Gee, that's entirely mediocre.

Yesterday, we went for a ride at the high school, which is one of the most convenient and interesting places near us to ride. After riding around the parking lots and sidewalks for a while, we rode over to the track and started doing laps.

Also working out: two Swedish teenagers who were fantastic hurdlers (Sweden has a long history of excellence in the hurdling events, presently including Susanna Kallur, who is also absolutely smoking hot), a rugby player (who would kick the ball along the ground, then sprint after it at entirely maniacal speeds), and a pole vaulter. I did not see a jai alai player or a cricketeer, although I looked.

If you didn't click on that Susanna Kallur link, you better go back. Respect the beauty of the Swede.

We rode for two miles, then threw a football on the field for a while (we're doing that most days now, and my arm is about to freaking fall off). I felt like I kind of dogged it, then realized that we would have had a one-week celebration if we'd ridden two miles six months ago.

I told Eli 8.4 and we both laughed. It was a good feeling.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Home For The Holidays

I went to the bank this morning.

After standing in line for a few minutes, a new teller opened up her station. She was slim and petite, her face framed by hair that fell to her shoulders. "I CAN HELP YOU," she said, looking at me.

Hmm. That was loud. I guess she was just trying to be sure she got my attention.

I walked over to her window. "Hi," I said.



"I need to make a deposit," I said, sliding a deposit slip and a check across the counter.


Changing case really doesn't do this woman's voice justice. Simple capital letters cannot convey the volume.

Let's try a different comparison, with divers.

You've seen springboard diving, right? The diving board is one meter above the water. The diver walks up a three step ladder, steps out, and dives.

That's someone speaking at regular volume.

There's another kind of diving, though. No, not platform diving--I'm thinking of championship high-diving. That's the kind of diving where the diver climbs up the ladder for five minutes, and the ladder is shaking in the wind, and the announcers are wondering if a fall from that height would be fatal. The only suspense, after jumping off, is whether the diver will be alive after hitting the water.

That's my bank teller. She was talking so loudly that I wondered if it was going to kill her. It was The Curse Of The Bellowing Bank Teller.


"No, I didn't," I said softly. I was speaking more quietly on purpose, which is one of the many reasons I'm going to Hell someday.


"I don't really have time right now," I said, whispering.

"HE COULD CALL YOU AT HOME," she said, now entirely out of her chair to be close enough to hear me.

"Maybe after the holidays," I said, my voice so soft and low that it could only be heard by dogs. She was trying so hard to hear me that I fully expected her to climb over the partition that separated us, squeezing her frame through the tiny bank window.


"Yes, I do most of my Christmas shopping there," I said, my voice a tiny, tiny whisper coming up from a very deep hole.


I began to drift off. I remembered a moment from my honeymoon, when we saw a lone sea lion on a pier at Monterey, and how that sea lion never stopped bellowing, and how funny it seemed then. I remembered happier days, before I decided to make a deposit at the bank. I wondered if I would make it home in time for Christmas dinner with my family.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Oh, Crap, They Already Have

Julian Dasgupta (who was the PR manager for Paraworld, a wonderful game) let me know that Take-Two ALREADY announced their ultra-realistic modern warfare shooter. It's called Spec Ops: The Line, and here's a description (taken from the website):
Spec Ops: The Line is a provocative and gripping third person modern military shooter that challenges player's morality by putting them in the middle of unspeakable situations where unimaginable choices affecting human life must be made.

Good grief.

Dragon's Lair: Activision, Kneel Before Your Digital Leisure Masters

When I saw that Dragon's Lair was being released for the Blu-Ray format, I decided it was time to find out all the systems this game had been released on, mostly because it's been released on every video game system ever made.


If you want to talk about milking franchises, nothing has ever approached the twenty-five year run of Dragon's Lair. Take a look at the platforms (thanks, Dragon's Lair Fans):
Coleco Adam
Amstrad CPC
Commodore 64
Sinclair ZX Spectrum
Atari ST
Super Nintendo
Sega CD
Phillips CD-i
Apple Macintosh
Atari Jaguar
Microsoft Windows
Game Boy Color
Nintendo Gamecube
Xbox 360
DSi (via DSiWare)

Missing something? DS and PSP versions were announced, but I don't think they've ever seen the light of day. Still, though, that's an epic twenty-five platforms.

I used to be on the Digital Leisure mailing list, and they absolutely had the most fantastic PR person ever--her first name was Elizabeth, which is all I remember. She would put out these incredibly enthusiastic press releases about Dragon's Lair and Space Ace being ported to flip books, Etch-a-Sketch, and claymation (barely an exaggeration), and she always did it in such a good humor.

I still remember when Dragon's Lair first came to the arcade. It was 1983, and believe me, when you saw it, your mind was totally blown. It was spectacular looking (and sounding) because everything was on laserdisc, so there were no real storage limitations. Sure, it wasn't much of a "game", really, but it printed money for quite a while.

Take-Two: The Long Decline

Take-Two announced another nasty earnings quarter last week:
As Take-Two warned earlier this month, the company's fourth fiscal quarter results show considerable losses, with a year-end net loss of $137.9 million, down 242 percent year-over-year, and a Q4 net loss of $22.0 million, a loss up 46 percent year-over-year.

Those figures come on net revenues of $968.5 million for the year, down 37 percent year-over-year, and $343.4 million for the quarter, up 6 percent year-over-year.

Earlier this year, Electronic Arts was willing to pay over $25 a share for the company. Today's closing share price? $8.98.

Seemingly, Take-Two is a three game company right now (I'm sure I'm forgetting something)[EDIT: Scott Lewis added Bioshock and Civilization]: Grand Theft Auto, Borderlands (over two million units sold in only a few months), and Carnival Games (a franchise which has sold over five million units worldwide, as impossible as that sounds).

The sports label, in particular, has run aground. College basketball? Cancelled. Hockey? In all likelihood (based on comments made last week), cancelled. Baseball? The day their contract expires with MLB (in 2012, I believe), cancelled. In the meantime, though, MLB2K is a running joke. Basetball? Yes, they still make the best NBA game, and it's the one sports game they seem to actually still care about.

Today, they announced that they're selling their distribution arm to Synnex, which makes sense, because it's apparently no longer part of their "core strategy":
In a period of historically weak consumer confidence -- and as publisher Take-Two is increasing its loss projections for the fiscal year -- Take-Two's chairman Strauss Zelnick believes core, triple-A games remain the industry's best bet.

"The demand for top-tier products is okay. The demand for lower-tier products is not so clear," Zelnick (pictured) said during an analyst conference call attended by Gamasutra today. "The safest place to be is in triple-A."

Good God. They've turned into Activision, too!

So now Activision, EA, and Take-Two are all pursuing identical strategies. Fewer games, and "AAA" means "franchises we can put a shitload of marketing dollars behind."

I can't remember a time when the strategy of the big players in the gaming industry was so monolithic. I'm just counting the days until Take-Two announces their big new franchise: an ultra-realistic modern warfare simulation.

You know that's coming.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, an epic story from ESPN writer Wright Thompson about the search for Sweet Jimmy Robinson, a boxer who once fought Muhammad Ali. It's a beautifully written, poignant story.
Shadow Boxing: Muhammad Ali fought fifty men. Only one disappeared.

DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh sent me a story about a unicyclist who rode 204 miles-- in two days. Seattle to Portland, in case you're wondering.

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

From Mark Covington, a story about a group of octopi that (incredibly) carry a coconut shell as a shelter.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a story about the remarkable place in Egypt known as Garbage City).

From Frank Regan (and about a dozen other people), the coolest holiday light display I've ever seen: Christmas Light Hero. Also, a story on the history of handhelds: 30 Years of Hand-held Game Systems.

From Jeremy Fischer, a story about an amazing breakthough in understanding how cancer works--scientists have entirely mapped the genetic code of two kinds of cancer.

From Sirius, a link to all online editions of H.P. Lovecraft's work currently available from the HPL Archive. Also, a story about Lake Baikal in Siberia, the oldest and deepest lake in the world. Next, it's the smallest orchid in the world--the blossom is only 2.1 mm wide. Finally, it's a gallery of the The Year's Most Amazing Scientific Images.

Here's a link from Andrew B, and it's a photo of perhaps the greatest chalkboard in history.

From Jason, surely the most unlikely contraption ever built: a tandem unicycle.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a possible answer for an interesting space oddity:
why methane and ethane lakes in Titan's northern high latitudes cover 20 times more area than lakes in the southern high latitudes.

From Ben Younkins, a link to a highly entertaining guide to Earth's destruction titled Geocide.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Final Madden "Play" Sliders

I finished balancing the play sliders after patch #2 and you can find them here.

Madden Data Project #2

I'm still in the early stages on this, but what I've done (and thanks to the help of a few volunteers) is compile a play-by-play database for the last two minutes of the first half for the first ten weeks of the NFL season.

Here's what the main play description looks like:
Ben Roethlisberger Pass to Heath Miller to Pit32 for 5 yards.

There's also another column of data for field position:
1st & 10 at Pit27

So what I did was extract bits of information out of those descriptions, and create play type identifiers (run, pass, sack, etc.) based on the extracts. Doing that lets me compile ten weeks of plays into categories in seconds.

Excluding kicking plays, it's a total of about 1,800 plays.

What I'm trying to demonstrate is how incredibly aggressive NFL teams are in the last two minutes of the half, because in doing so it will illustrate how very passive the CPU is in Madden in comparison.

I'm hoping to do lots of different things with this data, but here's a sample. Take a look at the run-pass breakdown in the last two minutes of the first half by field position:

As a note, the numbers over 50 represent field position in the opponent's half.

Basically, if a team is between their own 20-yard line and the opponent's 10, they're throwing the ball at least 80% of the time, and incredibly, if they're between their own 10 and 20, they're still throwing the ball almost 60% of the time!

Like I said, teams in the NFL are incredibly aggressive in the last two minutes of the first half. I wasn't able to attach a game score to the play-by-play (that's not how the data appears), but with overall passing rates of 80%, there's no way that teams who are ahead are playing conservatively--it wouldn't be possible for the overall passing percentages to be that high if they were.

Why is it like this? It's a simple answer: in the NFL, you're either at an advantage or a disadvantage, and teams are absolutely merciless. There's almost never a situation in the last two minutes of the half where one team runs out the clock and the other team lets them, unless they're out of timeouts. No matter the score, there's still an entire half to play, so no one sits on a lead. Ever.

I'm going to keep looking at this data, slicing it in various ways, but I'm also going to start keeping a database of CPU play calling in the last two minutes of the half in my Madden franchise, because the difference in aggression between Madden and the NFL is huge, and I'd like to be able to demonstrate it very clearly.

Now if you want to contribute to the project, it's easy. If you're running an offline franchise in Madden, just use this format to record information in the last two minutes of the first half when the CPU is on offense (just record pass or run in the "play" column, and a sack counts as a pass for play calling purposes). Also, please let me know the game score as well. Send me the information and I'll put it into the database.

I'm hoping to get a database of 50+ games, at least, which should provide a good data sample. And I'll keep the games I'm playing separated, which should tell me if sliders/difficulty settings have an effect on CPU playcalling.


I rode 4 miles for the first time yesterday.

That's not true, actually--it was 3.9 miles, but I'm using my entirely imaginary authority to grant that 2.5% distance bonus. I can ride 5MPH on a 24" wheel, so the ride took a little more than 45 minutes.

It's interesting what happens when you get tired (really tired)on a unicycle. I rode very easily and well for the first 3+ miles, then crashed and burned for the last five minutes or so. I was out of control more often than I was in--not falling, but changing speeds and adjusting my position constantly.

Here's the best way I can describe it: if you've ever run to the point where you hit the wall, it's like hitting the wall, then having to balance on a wobble board.

Eli 8.4s second grade teacher (who started unicycle club) wants to ride a marathon on his unicycle (for charity). He has a unicycle with a 29" wheel, and he's incredibly strong, but it still seems impossibly difficult.

It did get me thinking, though. I've run 9 marathons, but my right knee doesn't let me run anymore. I can't think of a better way to get to 10, because a marathon on a unicycle would be even more difficult than running one.

Of course, I'd have to wrap my entire body in foam first.

Worth Noting

The 3D specification for Blu-Ray has finally been completed (you can see details here). The good news: the PS3 will be compatible with the new 3D content. The bad news: you'll need a new television.

In the short term, at least, the real impact is very low, although I guarantee this will be marketed incredibly heavily. I just don't know how many people will buy new screens just to support this standard--I mean, I'm a complete nut about this tech, but I'm not buying a new television.

However, the day that 3D is available without wearing special glasses, look out.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

As A Follow-Up

Matt Matthews (seriously, everything this guy writes is worth reading) has his November NPD analysis here.

Console Post Of The Week: November NPD

First off, let's see the raw numbers again:
Xbox 360--819,500
PlayStation 3--710,400
PlayStation 2--203,100

Like I said on Thursday, those numbers were a complete surprise to me, and here's why. Historically, September and October have been very similar months in terms of total numbers (even though September is a 5-week period and October is 4 weeks). Look at the total September sales versus October sales for the PS3, 360, and Wii in the last 3 years:

Very similar in total, right?

It would be fair to suspect that this is a trend I created by just choosing those consoles, but if you include all consoles back to November 2001 (as far back as I have NPD data), here are the totals:

Same result. It's not identical, but I think it's fair to say "same trend." Sure, there are price cuts and promotions and all kinds of things going on during the holiday season, but as a general rule, "September looks like October."

This is one reason why the October numbers, for Microsoft, were so shocking--sales dropped by 29% from September. Yes, this wasn't unprecedented--sales dropped even more from September to October 2007--but that was easily explained by Halo 3.

Sony's sales dropped even more, but again, the launch of the $299 Slim on September 1 was a reasonable explanation. The 491,000 units in September was a price cut phenomenon, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to see the 320,600 units in October as being more representive of ongoing demand.

Microsoft, though, simply had no explanation for October. Not having an explanation is generally a very bad sign.

So let's move on to November, and the obvious question is how November sales compare to September/October. This is a trickier comparison, because you can't include Novembers where no corresponding September/October data existed--in other words, you have to exclude launch months for consoles that launched in November. If you do, that, though, and create an apples-to-apples comparison, sales in November are generally two and a half times October sales.

Obviously, that's not an absolute number, but it's a very useful guide in a general sense.

This year, PS3 sales in November were 2.21x October's sales. Wii sales were 2.48x. Microsoft was 3.28x.

However, 360 sales were only 2.32x September sales, which raises this question: which month was the aberration?

We should find out with December's numbers, at least theoretically. Here's the rough scaling rule:

So if November more accurately reflected ongoing demand, December sales would be in the 1.25 million range, and Microsoft would breathe a large sigh of relief. If October was closer to "true" demand, then December sales would be in the 950,000 range.

That would be trouble.

Several people e-mailed with their explanations for the surge in 360 sales. The first theory advanced was that people were replacing their banned consoles (the number of bannings is in dispute, but claims were as high as one million). An anonymous source, who told me he frequented a well-known torrent site, said that he knew a flood of people who bought $199 Arcade units in November as replacements for their banned consoles so that they could play Modern Warfare 2 online.

The second theory advanced is that the special edition Modern Warfare 2 console sold a ton of units, and that's not unreasonable, given the horrifically high sales of MW2 (I say "horrific" because it's guaranteed to spawn an unholy number of hyper-realistic, modern warfare games, and that is a very bad thing, which is a column for another day).

Both of theories are impossible to quantify, but if either one is true, then there should be a larger dropoff from November sales than would generally be expected, which would lend credence to both of them (although I think the second theory is far more plausible than the first).

Sony, to some degree, has the same questions. November was a lower-performing number, based on seasonality, than October, so which number is more reflective of ongoing demand? The good number for Sony (multiplying October) is about 1.1 million units. The bad number (multiplying November) is about 1.05 units.

One last note, and this time, it's about software. Activision is in a very, very interesting position with regards to DJ Hero and Tony Hawk Ride. In a sales sense, both of these games have been absolutely HUGE busts, so far below acceptable numbers for an Activision game in the "milk the franchise cow" era that they don't even register on the rader.

Activision is no longer in the "game nurturing" era, so what do they do now? They're still claiming that they're putting out a second DJ Hero game, but based on sales of the first, they're looking at a franchise that might never reach a million in unit sales per game. Based on their business model, aren't they just going to pull the plug here?

Same thing with Tony Hawk Ride, at least with the skateboard controller. In addition to terrible sales, though, THR also got incredibly bad reviews. Again, don't they just pull the plug here? Not the franchise, necessarily, but the focus on the new play style using the separate controller.

Instead of concluding with the utterly lame "only time will tell," I'll just stop here and say that I'm looking forward to the December numbers.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Question About The Beautiful Game

We found out that the English Premier League is in HD on ESPN 2 on Saturday mornings. Eli 8.4 is playing in an indoor soccer league (associated commentary coming in the near future), so we're waking up on Saturday mornings and watching the EPL now.

The Wigan-Stoke game was on last week (okay, not a top of the table game, but still quite enjoyable), and while it was fun to watch, one thing was driving me absolutely crazy.

Soccer, seemingly more than all other team sports, has the rules set up so that it encourages play to be stopped whenever an attack is developing. The most obvious example is that if at any point, a defender believes that the defense isn't set up properly, he can just foul, which stops play and awards a free kick.

I believe this is known as a "professional foul."

Yes, it can be penalized with a red card, but that seems incredibly rare, and while an accumulation of yellow cards can lead to a suspension, that certainly doesn't help the flow of this game, where the foul actually occurs.

What it does is absolutely kill the momentum of play. It's tedious.

I know that rules change in soccer at an absolutely glacial pace, but here's a question: why don't they just move the wall back five more yards on free kicks, or make it illegal to form a wall at all? That would make free kicks much more dangerous, and fouling would become much more of a zero-sum decision, instead of the current situation, where it's tremendously advantageous to the defense to foul.

Madden Data Project

I mentioned yesterday in the Madden post how weak the offensive A.I. was in the last two minutes of the half when a team was ahead.

It's true, but it's an unsupported claim, really, and I was kicking around ideas for how I could show this in a data sense. I came up with an idea that I think will work very well, but then I realized something more important in terms of the theory: the score doesn't dictate offensive strategy at the end of the first half.

There's a good reason for this. There's so much time left in the game that even if a team is ahead 21-0, they're still going to be aggressive. Individual teams might behave differently compared to each other, but those differences are based on team characteristics, not the score.

I think I can prove this, because I have a way to visually present the data that should demonstrate the proof very clearly.

Here's where you can assist, if you're so inclined. I need some very simple work done with play-by-play summaries for each NFL game this season. A week of games should take only 30-45 minutes of work to compile the raw data. If I can persuade a few volunteers to do this, then I can take the raw data and do the analysis.

If any of you guys want to help with this, please let me know and I'll assign you a week (or two, if you're so inclined). I think this would be very interesting, both in a data sense and a football sense.

Green Day: Rock Band (Follow-up)

I wanted to add a few notes to yesterday's post.

First, GD:RB obviously can't be sold at full price, or even close. At $30, I think it will do fine. At $40, it's very borderline. Anything over $40 is delusional. So an important part of evaluating whether this game will "work" in a commercial sense is seeing where it's priced.

Second, of course The Clash would have been a better choice. With the exception of The Beatles, I think The Clash might have evolved more musically than any other group. Also, and I can't explain this any more precisely, The Clash just have an epic quality that really defies definition. Yes, they would have been the best choice (in my mind) for a project of this kind.

Finally, Peter Hatch sent me an e-mail that was so concise and lucid that I'm just going to use it in its entirety:
So a few things I think you've overlooked in your discussion of the game.

Green Day announced exclusivity with Rock Band back on June 11th
( - I think it's clear that this game has been planned since then, and thus not a reaction to the sales of games released since then, like Lego Rock Band or Beatles: Rock Band. And the exclusivity has to have played a significant role in deciding to give them their own game.

There's an interesting article at Variety

about music games that includes this quote from Alex Rigopulos: "You don't have to swing for the fences with every artist-specific game." I suspect Green Day Rock Band is going to have a much smaller budget than The Beatles: Rock Band did, and that it won't occupy nearly as important a spot in their release schedule. According to Roger Daltry we'll also be getting The Who: Rock Band next year (,
as well as a Pearl Jam... something - variously referred to as a "project", "compilation", and "game".

And Brian May mentioned they're in talks about doing Queen: Rock Band

To me, all of those groups are better choices for dedicated games than Green Day, but as long as the songs are exportable back into Rock Band, I think they'll all be successful. There are very few groups (I'd say The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones) that could be successful in a dedicated game with songs that can't be exported.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Madden Quiz: Answer

The incorrect element of the first down measurement is that in the game, it's always done in the center of the field. That's wrong. The correct procedure is to spot the ball where the runner was tackled (or stepped out of bounds), then the chains are brought to that spot.

Green Day: Rock Band

From the official press release:
LOS ANGELES / NEW YORK – Dec. 12, 2009 – Multi-platinum selling and Grammy® Award winning group Green Day, along with Harmonix, the leading developer of music-based games, MTV Games, a part of Viacom’s MTV Networks (NYSE: VIA, VIA.B), and Warner Bros./Reprise Records today announced at the 2009 Spike Video Game Awards that they are collaborating on the standalone title Green Day: Rock Band™.

My first impression: WTF?

My second impression: WTF?

After thinking about it this weekend, I think I understand what MTV/Harmonix are trying to do here, so let's take a look.

First, a little history. Originally, expansion packs served as an additional serving of content for the primary game audience. The Aerosmith, Metallica, and Van Halen expansions were, for lack of a better term, the original "Guitar Hero" model. The AC/DC expansion for Rock Band follows the same model.

At some point, though, it was determined that the original market had suffocated (maybe when somebody noticed that there were fifty-foot high stacks of little plastic instruments sitting unsold in retail stores). Well, if the original market has been crushed, just find a new one, right?

That "find a new market" gave us Lego Rock Band (Harmonix), Band Hero (Activision), and DJ Hero (Activision) this fall.

In a sales sense, I think we can sum up those titles in three words: bomb, bomb, bomb.

DJ Hero was a spectacular, epic fail in a sales sense, because it was so heavily promoted, but at least it reviewed decently. Band Hero and Lego Rock Band failed both commercially and critically.

That's the problem with trying to open up a new market: sometimes it doesn't exist. Or rather, it exists, but not in the way (or the numbers) that you thought it did.

The Beatles: Rock Band was a different approach--a premium product based on a band that was both incredibly popular and absolutely unique. That's the perfect combination for a dedicated game, and The Beatles are still (incredibly, after forty years) regarded as the best rock band of all time. Harmonix was hoping that the universal appeal of The Beatles would both open up a new market (people who love The Beatles but had never tried a music game) and reinforce an existing one (all the people who already play music games).

Other bands who might both reinforce and expand the audience: Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones. Bands who do not fit into both categories: Green Day.

However, Green Day does represent an attempt to serve an underserved genre (punk, at least for their early albums), while not straying too far from the Rock Band formula. And since the songs are exportable into Rock Band, the possibility of people buying the game later at a reduced price as a glorified track pack should extend sales.

Will it work? In a commercial sense, there's no way to tell, because we have no idea of the licensing fees Harmonix is paying, so there's no way to calculate a break-even point.

In a musical sense, though, if there is nothing but Green Day songs in this game, then no, it won't work.

Please note that I'm not saying Green Day isn't a damn good band. They are, without question. It's just that there are lots of damn good bands out there that don't have their own version of Rock Band, and it's impossible to argue that Green Day is the best choice here.

However, and this is a big however, if Harmonix uses this as an opportunity to explore punk music as a genre, then I think it could have much more meaning in a musical sense. As a salute to punk, then yes, that could kick ass.

Harmonix has always been made up of the smartest guys (and girls) in the room, so I assume they're going the kick ass route.

I hope.

Madden Patch #2

I've spent 8+ hours with the second Madden patch since it was released, and as I work on finishing the re-balancing of the sliders, here's a list of how the game has changed.

Things to like:
--it's hard to overstate how much better the game plays now that defensive coverage in the flats has improved. It doesn't sound like much, when you write it, but there's a huge difference when your checkdown receiver isn't always available for that guaranteed 5-7 yard gain.
--the defenses are saltier, both due to improved flats coverage and better pursuit angles. It's not that the pursuit angles are always optimal, but they've improved enough that the outside running game is no longer so dangerous (dangerous in a cheap kind of way).
--QB's take more sacks instead of throwing that little wounded duck pass when they get hit.
--in sum, the gameplay feels more "blended" now, with the various elements joining together in a more cohesive way.

Things not to like:
--there are still too many defensive touchdowns. The number has been reduced, but it still seems too high.
--the CPU seems to make defensive adjustments at halftime, but not during the game itself, or if they do, it's hardly noticeable.
--the CPU A.I. is still MISERABLE in the last two minutes of the half when they're already ahead. This is a particularly galling problem, because the developers are obviously football wonks. How hard can it be to have an intern compile a database for all games this year when teams take possession of the ball with three minutes or less in the half? Just record time remaing, field position, down and distance, and whether the team was passing the ball, running the no-huddle, etc. It would become immediately apparent that Madden's A.I. in that particular situation is way, way too conservative.
--I've also seen gaffes in the last few minutes of a game (mostly related to not letting the play clock run down) as well. This is pretty easy: if the CPU is ahead with less than four minutes remaining, run the play clock down to 1 second before snapping the ball. Seriously, what is that--ONE LINE of code?
--the CPU still has very poor logic when deciding whether to go for the two-point conversion. It's poor because it's extremely rare for a team to ever go for a two-point conversion before the fourth quarter, but in Madden, they'll do it in the first half, and it's done far, far too often. They're overthinking the room, essentially.

Overall, the second patch is a positive. It doesn't seem to break anything in terms of gameplay, and it improved quite a bit. The game already played pretty well, so that's a win.

If you're wondering when the new slider set will be available, I think it will be sometime this week, at least for the "play" sliders. The Coach sliders might take another week beyond that.

Oh, and here's a quiz question for the five of you who made it this far: there's something seriously wrong, in a realism sense, with the first down measurements done by the chain gang. What is it?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Ronny Mo, an article about a man who evokes the golden age of British exploration: Ed Stafford, a thirty-three year old former British army Captain who is attempting to become the first man in history to walk from the source of the Amazon (the mountains of Peru) to its mouth (in Brazil). It's an incredible journey, and this article is riveting reading.

From Steve Davis, a link to a spectacular video of a space shuttle launch (the STS-129). This video is extremely high quality.

Alan Reeve has started a new website for Android game reviews (with some talk of hardware, but focusing on software), and you can read it here.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, it's ridiculous user interfaces in film, and the man who designs them). Next, an article about Lucas Ordoñez, who became a professional race driver (and a good one) after winning a Gran Turismo competition. Ever wanted to buy a full-scale, customizable Lunar Lander Replica? If so, then it's your lucky day).

From Ben Younkins, a link to instructions on how to cut a bagel into a Möbius strip.

Okay, now this is just incredible. Sirius sent in a link to a bionic hand that is thought-controlled. What a story. Also, and OF COURSE this story is from Australia, about a half-inch long jellyfish that can kill you. Next, a story about Campbell's monkeys and their surprising use of language:
Campbell’s monkeys appear to combine the same calls in different ways, using rules of grammar that turn sound into language.

Whether their rudimentary syntax echoes the speech of humanity’s evolutionary ancestors, or represents an emergence of language unrelated to our own, is unclear. Either way, they’re far more sophisticated than we thought.

Finally, a gallery of steampunk hardware.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a new theory about how black holes form. Also, a story about how monarch butterflies have become the first insect to complete a full life cycle in space.

Here's one of my favorite (in a guilty pleasure kind of way) hockey stories ever: the unlikely revenge of Brendan Shahanan.

From Staci Avision, a Muppets Classic: Bohemian Rhapsody.

From the New York Times, an article about America's Stonehenge.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

November NPD

Analysis on Monday, but here are the numbers:
Wii: 1,260,000
Xbox 360: 819,500
PlayStation 3: 710,400
PlayStation 2: 203,100

I'm rarely surprised by anything in these monthly numbers, but I'm shocked that the 360 sold more consoles than the PS3. I saw absolutely nothing to indicate that was going to happen.

If You Thought You Were Going To Get Something Done This Afternoon

You would be incorrect--you will do nothing this afternoon except play Gimme Friction Baby. It's hypnotic, and don't blame me (Paul Costello sent in the link).

Sleep Graph

The Zeo unit came in yesterday, I used it last night, and here's a graph (drawn at 5-minute intervals, but data gathered at 30-second intervals):

That's on a night when I took Ambien. So I went to sleep in twelve minutes and I only woke up once (I think that's wrong, because I'm sure I woke up around six when Gloria got up, but at least you can see the kind of sleep change, because between six and seven I'm always drifting in and out).

There are all kinds of data points you can check, but that's the basic graph of the night. Very cool, and I really enjoyed looking at it this morning. Plus, I'm really looking forward to trying it tonight when I take Melatonin (which is a common over-the-counter supplement), as well as nights where I don't take anything at all.

The build quality and the geek sexy rating for the unit itself is very high--even Gloria was impressed (unusual). The headband is also very comfortable to wear, so no problems there.

So far, all positive and very interesting.

Madden 10 Patch #2 (360)

It's out, and I'll start working on rebalancing the sliders this afternoon. Hopefully, I'll have some post-patch impressions for you in a few days.

King's Bounty (PC)

In late January, I named King's Bounty my favorite game of 2008.

I was more than halfway through the game at that point (20+ hours). Within days, the game started crashing on me during battles. I wrote about that, too, and went through hell trying to figure out what was wrong.

All in all, I'm sure I put in as much or more time troubleshooting the game than I spent playing it, and if the game hadn't been developed by the same people who made Space Rangers 2 (one of my favorite games of the last decade), I wouldn't have bothered.

After finally giving up (in March, I think), I uninstalled the game, but kept my saves. A few months later, when I changed video cards, I tried it again. No change.

When I recently installed Windows 7, though, I thought I'd try it again. There was a Steam deal where I could get both the original game (version 1.7 as opposed to the 1.65 of the patched disc version I had) and the Armored Princess expansion for only $10 more than KB as a standalone purchase.

Like I said a few weeks ago, that was stupid, but I did it anyway. It worked, and I've been playing constantly since then. Two nights ago, Lord Enormous Bottom finished the game.

As a brief diversion, let me just mention that "Enormous Bottom" is my gold standard for character names now. I don't know why I originally thought of it--I probably don't want to remember, and you probably don't want me to--but it provides more laughs than you would believe when it's inserted into game dialogue.

It's difficult to compare King's Bounty to Space Rangers 2, because they're very different types of games, but I'm not sure a developer has ever put out two more entertaining games consecutively. They are both ridiculously, impossibly excellent, and combined, they represent 100+ hours of epic gaming.

Here's a brief summary of why King's Bounty is so remarkable (these aren't in any particular order):
1) It's overwhelmingly beautiful.
It's impossible to overstate just how gorgeous this game is, and how much detail the world contains. It's both bright and saturated with vivid color. It's particularly beautiful in motion, and the spell effects are stunning.
2) The music is beautiful, too.
The soundtrack for this game worms its way into your head and you will hear it constantly. It's one of the best game soundtracks I've ever heard.
3) The world is full of candy.
This is an important element in world exploration, and it works perfectly. The world is full of magic crystals and spells and runes and command flags--and you want to find them all. It makes the world as obsessively fun to explore as a Diablo-type game, but the gameplay is much, much deeper.
4) The battle system is superb.
The heart of this game is battle, and it takes place on a grid. On the grid, though, is terrain from your current area, and this can have a huge effect on the outcome, because in some places, the terrain creates natural choke points that will completely change your strategy. In other areas, the field is totally bare, and each layout requires strategic adjustments

Single battles in the later portion of the game can take a long time--10-15 minutes is not unusual--but they're so much fun that I never used the auto-combat option even once. I found myself replaying battles to see if I could win by losing fewer men, trying to perfect my strategy.

There's also a fantastic assortment of bizarre units and summons available. In one battle, there can be dragons, giants, knights, cannoneers, alchemists, demons, faeries, unicorns, shamans, giant ice orbs, skeletons--and believe me, that's only scratching the surface. Remarkably, they all have a strategic place, and they call can be useful.

5) The humor is wacky and it's everywhere.
Space Rangers 2 was a tremendously funny game, one of the funniest I've ever played, and it was sneaky (you could beat the final three bosses without firing a single shot). King's Bounty is every bit as wacky, even though it's considerably more polished. The dialogue is often genuinely funny, the situations are silly but engrossing, and the overarching story of the world and why it exists is both wacky and entirely wonderful. There's an element of playfulness in both King's Bounty and Space Rangers that's incredibly endearing.

So there you go. It's the end of 2009, and I only finally finished my favorite game of 2008. Even better, I haven't started the Armored Princess expansion pack yet, so after I wear out Solium Infernum (which will take quite a while), I get to return to this crazy world.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

An Upcoming Feature

I've been seeing articles recently about the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach. It's an electronic sensor you wear on a headband that supposedly tracks your sleep patterns during the night and sends the data to a separate collection unit.

There's a slot for an SD card, so it's possible to download the data to the SD card and transfer to a computer.

That's where they got me. I'm not interested in "sleep coaching" or any of that, but I'm very interested in data about how I sleep, and how the quality of my sleep changes under different conditions. For instance, I take Ambien two nights a week (to stave off exhaustion from the other five nights when I don't sleep nearly as well). I take Melatonin on the other nights, and without it, I would hardly sleep at all. I'd like to see how those nights compare, and there are at least a dozen other situations I'd like to compare, too. It also sounded like an interesting short-run series for the blog, and it might even be useful for some of you guys who are crummy sleepers as well.

Plus, and I think I've mentioned this before, I occasionally have incredibly vivid dreams that contain full narratives. They're basically like watching little films, and I love those dreams. If there was any way I could figure out a series of conditions that would be likely to induce them, it would be a huge benefit.

Unfortunately, the unit costs $249 (without guided coaching--with it, it's $399), and while I was curious, I wasn't nearly that curious. So I filed it away.

Last week, though, a new "try it" option was added--a 30-day trial for only $20. That's definitely in my wheelhouse, so I signed up and the unit should be here on Thursday. Hopefully, I'll have some data to compare by the middle of next week.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Eli 8.4

I was riding at the park on Friday morning, and on my way back to the parking lot, I passed by a cluster of guys who do maintenance in the park. One of them looked at me as I rode by, and I said, "How's it going?"

He smiled and said, "Where's your boy?"

"In school," I said. "But he'll be riding with me on Sunday."

I rode off, but in the background I heard him say, "You've got to see his boy ride. He's unbelievable!"

I think that's usually an accurate description.

I mentioned last week that I'd had quite a fall on Sunday. It's now ten days later, and I've got a dollar-bill sized bruise on the outside of my calf, which must be the biggest bruise I've ever had. I should know better than to ride new trail courses without walking them first (hopefully I do now).

Last Friday night, I called my friend Mike. "Hey, Eli made dribbled and scored three baskets today," I said.

That's not hard for an eight-year old, but Mike tried to be encouraging. "That's great," he said.

"On his unicycle," I said.

"WHAT?" he said.

That's a little bit harder.

I took a jar of change to the grocery store last week to use the automatic coin sorter, and after feeding rejected coins back in a few times, there was only one that wouldn't go through. I picked it up and saw that it was a wheat penny, which is pretty rare to see these days. I turned it over to check the date.


That's, by far, the oldest penny I've ever found. I did find a 1918 penny when I was a kid, but that was over forty years ago.

Eli 8.4 has a ramshackle coin collection, so I gave it to him. It doesn't mean as much to him as it did when I was a kid, because there are exponentially more things to be interested in, but he still appreciated a penny that had been around for a very, very long time.

The Quiksilver

Bubba Crabtree e-mailed me yesterday and let me know that the legendary Quiksilver surfing contest was going to be held today.

Here's a description of the event, because it's quite unique:
The Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau—known as The Eddie— is a surfing tournament held at Waimea Bay on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Created in 1985 and named after famed Waimea Bay lifeguard Eddie Aikau, the irregularly-held tournament is known for a unique requirement that ocean swells reach a minimum height of 20 feet (open-ocean swells, rather than waves, are the preferred method of Hawaiian wave measurement) before the competition can be held. As a result of this requirement, the tournament has only been held seven times during the history of the event, the last time in 2004. Eddie Aikau's brother Clyde Aikau won the first Eddie in 1985.

Each year, 24 surfers, chosen by polling among their peers, are invited to Waimea Bay to participate in the event. The tournament holding period is between December 1 and February 28. Each day, surf conditions, ocean swells, weather forecasts are monitored. Open-ocean swells in Waimea Bay must be forecast to reach a minimum of 20 feet during a single day during the tournament window. (Open-ocean swells of 20 feet usually translate to face heights of 30-40 feet.) The tournament director makes the decision as to whether to open the tournament if the conditions are right. In the words of longtime director George Downing, "the Bay calls the day."

That's right--wave face heights of 30-40 feet (at least).

What's different this year, and I still can't believe it, is that there's a live video feed of the event, and the video quality (choose the Flash stream) is absolutely excellent. So if you want to take a look, go to the event page and you'll see a "watch live" option.

Solium Infernum Tutorial

I was going to have a "week of Solar Infernum" to discuss the wonderful new game by Vic Davis, and the first part of the coverage was going to be a tutorial. Well, no need to do one now, because this one, by Dave Perkins, is both thorough and very clever.

So instead of a tutorial on the basics, I'm going to focus more on play strategies, which should function as a complement to the tutorial.

If you've just gotten the game (and if you haven't, go to the Cryptic Comet website), I highly recommend reading both the game manual (in the Solium Infernum game directory) as well as Dave's tutorial. This is a complex game, and these two assets will significantly improve the learning curve.

Monday, December 07, 2009


The Federal Trade Commission has released its annual report on "Marketing Violent Entertainment To Children". It's useful, as always.

First, here's how this survey works (quoting from the report, p. 23):
The Commission conducted its sixth undercover shop in the Spring of 2009. In these shops, a contractor employed children ages 13 to 16 as shoppers, who, unaccompanied by a parent, attempted to purchase movie tickets, DVDs, music recordings, and video games at theaters and stores across the country.

That's very straightforward and very easy to understand, which I particularly like.

It's important to notice the age range. If you see some hysterical parasite in the Jack Thompson babbling about "children" in this report, remember that we're talking about, at a minimum, a teenager (probably a seventh grader).

Okay, so how did the video game industry do this year? Here's an excerpt:
As documented in past reports, the video game industry continues to do an excellent job of clearly and prominently disclosing rating information in television, print, and Internet advertising and on product packaging, although the industry still does not require that television ads disclose content descriptors nor that content descriptors appear on the front of the package. Further, the ESRB has been regularly enforcing its advertising code, particularly for the few instances of inappropriate target marketing. The Commission found no evidence of M-rated game ads on television programs with a substantial youth audience that aired prior to 10:00 p.m. and a decrease in the number of M-rated game ads on websites highly popular with teens or children. Nevertheless, a handful of M-rated games were advertised on television shows and Internet sites highly popular with teens. Overall, the Commission uncovered little evidence of inappropriate target marketing through the traditional media.

Major game retailers continue to prevent most children from being able to purchase M-rated games without parental permission. Still, the ESRB should monitor other avenues through which children may be able to obtain M-rated games without their parents’ knowledge or consent, including through the use of retailer gift cards.

The ESRB followed the Commission’s recommendation to conduct research into why, according to the Commission’s 2006 study on video games, some parents felt the system could do a better job of informing them about the level of violence, sex, or profanity in some games. Based at least in part on such research, the ESRB now offers online ratings summaries that provide a more detailed explanation of the content that factored into a game’s rating. This new online tool should prove useful to parents.

Finally, the Commission will monitor developments in the rating mechanisms employed for mobile games. In the meantime, carriers and publishers should continue to provide content information about mobile games and parental controls. Parents can use this rating information to assess the content of games that their children want to play.

That's an almost universal endorsement of the work done by the ESRB, but if you're wondering if this report was a glowing love-fest for everyone, it wasn't, and here's why: no one else is doing as good of a job.

Here's the easiest way to see the enforcement gap. Look at the ability of 13-16 year old consumers to purchase "inappropriate" content by content type:
M-rated Video Games: 20%
R-rated Movie Tickets: 28%
R-rated Movie DVDs: 54%
Unrated Movie DVDs: 58%
Explicit Content Music CDs: 72%

Ouch. If you'll remember, though, in 2000, 85% of test shoppers were successful in purchasing an M-rated video game. So 20% is just an impressive number in absolute terms, it's also a staggering improvement.

As a sidenote, of all the retailers, Toys R Us is Suck City R Us when it comes to enforcement, as 44% of underage consumers were able to purchase an M-rated game. Gamestop/EB, on the other hand, was at 9%, and Target was at 11%.

If you're thinking "Isn't much of this content sold at the same retailers?", you're correct, and the disparity is noted in the report:
Video game retailers generally are doing a good job restricting children’s access to M-rated games, denying sales to 80% of underage shoppers. In contrast, many of these same retailers – particularly Target and Best Buy – are doing a poor job restricting children’s access to R-rated and unrated DVDs and PAL music.

Remember that I mentioned Target? Only 11% of the test shoppers could purchase an M-rated game, but 82% could purchase an explicit content Music CD, 80% could purchase an unrated DVD, and 65% could purchase an R-rated DVD.

In other words, the ESRB is clearly doing something that everyone else isn't.

Sum all that up, and you've got the first paragraph of the conclusion:
The Commission finds that the video game industry has made great strides in restricting the marketing of violent M-rated games to children. Although there remains room for improvement – particularly in the area of Internet advertising – the video game industry outpaces the movie and music industries in the three key areas that the Commission has been studying for the past decade: (1) restricting target-marketing of mature-rated products to children; (2) clearly and prominently disclosing rating information; and (3) restricting children’s access to mature-rated products at retail.

In short: well done.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Jonathan Arnold (who makes an appearance later as well), a link to Trailblazing, an interactice timeline of the history of science. It is beautifully designed, full of information, and it goes back three hundred and fifty freaking years.

Randy Graham sent me what is possibly the most epic magic link ever. The link is to a book titled Magic 1400s-1950s, and it's a seventeen pound history of magic. It looks utterly fantastic.

From Andrew B, and excellent link about how to extract DNA from anything living.

From Ryan, a bizarre (and yet somehow strangely fantastic) story: Somali pirates soliciting investors.

From Sirius, a striking link to a video of absolutely titanic waves striking French lighthouses. Please note that as originally typed, I had titanic wives striking French lighthouses. Also, an entirely amusing video about flying penguins. Next, believe it or not, a story about trapping a rainbow.

From Clayton Lee, a bizarre and amusing PSA, encouraging Brazilians to pee in the shower to conserve water. It's quite cleverly done, really.

From Jonathan Arnold, a link to a collection of 40 spectacular panoramic photographs.

From Steve, a link to an oddly compelling video about an eagle whisperer (the narration is a bit wacky, but the video footage is fantastic).

From Sean, a link to more images of the remarkably creative Ghost Man.

From John Newhouse, a link to an interesting bit of design that I haven't seen used in this country yet: a traffic light with progress bars.

Here's an entirely bizarre bit of history: a video made in 1963 showing British soldiers under the influence of LSD as part of an experiment. The best bit of narration:
One hour and ten minutes after taking the drug, with one man climbing a tree to feed the birds, the troop commander gave up.

From Brad Gehrig, a link to an incredible story: a coyote hit by a car at 75mph that wound up inside the engine compartment--and survived.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, two links from Succeed Blog. First, it's Cookie Monster Succeed. Then, and this is both amazing and hilarious, it's Bike Messenger Succeed.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Console Post Of The Week: A Buffet

November NPDs aren't out yet, but here's a very striking indicator. The week of Black Friday is always a huge PR moment for console manufacturers, and they're always ready to beat their chests and act like Tarzan.

Nintendo was first this year, saying that Wii sales for the week including Black Friday exceeded 550,000 units.

Sony announced next, and according to Sr. Corporate Communications director Patrick Seybold, the PS3 sold more than 440,000 units for the week ending November 29.

What did Microsoft have to say? Here's Xbox 360 product management director Aaron Greenberg, from his Twitter account:
Great BlackFriday results just in, biggest sales week of the year for Xbox360, more than 2xs previous week sale.

No way. Did he just do what I thought he did?

Let's say there are three guys, and there names are Ben, Lee, and William Shakespeare (why? Because I can.)

They're all sitting in a room together, and because there's just been an extended discussion about midgets, they're all asked to state their height.

Ben stands up and says "I'm 6'3"."

Lee stands up and says "I'm 6'2"."

William Shakespeare stands up and says "I'm twice as tall as that little guy standing in the corner."

Microsoft, in this case, is William Shakespeare. Uh-oh.

Here's something else worth watching, although we won't see the potential effect until the December NPDs come out. Wal-Mart announced today that they're offering a $50 gift card with the purchase of a Wii from December 5-12. They also announced that they're discounting ten games by $10. Here's the list (thanks Joystiq):
Mario & Sonic at the Winter Olympics (Wii)
Lego Rock Band (Wii)
Rock Band: Beatles (Wii)
MySims: Agents (Wii)
Tekken 6 (Xbox 360 and PS3)
Madden 2010 (Xbox 360 and PS3)
WWE 2010 (Xbox 360 and Wii)
Batman Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360)
Dragon Age: Origins (PS3)
Left 4 Dead 2 (Xbox 360)
Halo 3:ODST (Xbox 360)
Uncharted 2 (PS3)

I don't think the industry is willing to accept this, but that $10 discount is going to drive some serious numbers.

One last note, and this is about little plastic instruments. If you're not living in a bomb shelter, you've seen every retailer practically giving them away. At Best Buy the other day, I was offered a private island and a personal man-servant if I would buy an original Rock Band bundle for $50.

With regret, I declined.

How many damn plastic instruments did these companies order? Plastic Guitar Town in China must have been working 24x7 for the last two years straight. What were Activision and MTV expecting--an unbroken chain of people holding plastic guitars stretching from San Francisco to Miami?

Yes, of course it would be called Plastic Guitars Across America.

EA Sports And Irony

In the post I made yesterday about the NCAA games being at risk, I mentioned that it was ridiculous that one of the possible feature additions was teams playing like their "real style."

Good grief.

Here's the irony. I wrote a post about text sims a while back, and one of the fundamental principles I mentioned was "let the community help you." No matter how much of a subject matter expert one person might be in a sport, the community will always collectively know more.

EA just won't acknowledge this, and now it's come back to bite them in the ass. Want to have the best possible for all teams? Just give us access to the play database and let us create custom playbooks--you know, like we could in the last generation. Then let users upload custom playbooks to their lockers where they would be available for download.

What about plays teams run that aren't in the play database? That's why we need access to a play editor as well, and those plays could be included in custom playbooks.

It wouldn't take long for a "master playbook project" to be created and completed. Two weeks, tops. Instead, though, EA doesn't want users to have access to that kind of customization, even though they'll let us add crap like "custom sounds." Woo hoo.

Hoisted by its own petard.

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