Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from the Edwin Garcia Links machine, a strange and wonderful story: The legend of Mondo Kim's: how a cult video store's 55,000-item collection was nearly lost.

From Adam W., and this a wonderful follow-up to one of my favorite stories ever: Caine's Arcade 2: The Global Cardboard Challenge & Imagination Foundation.

From Griffin Cheng, and this is quite striking, it's This is What Happened When a Paint Truck Rolled Over. Also, this is entirely fantastic, it's Droplet of water inside droplet of water in Space. One more, and it's fascinating (I did this once for a few weeks, actually): Living Without Time.

From Loyd Case, a story about WMD. In Delaware, believe it or not: The Deadliest Catch.

From C. Lee, and this is a curious and interesting article: For S. Korean men, makeup a foundation for success. Also, and this is intriguing: Wind Lens Triples Turbine Output. One more, and it's an utterly fascinating article: How Advertisers Convinced Americans They Smelled Bad .

From Rob Funk, and this is intriguing: Warp Drive May Be More Feasible Than Thought, Scientists Say.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and it would be highly entertaining to destroy the world diamond market: Russia admits to having ‘trillions of carats’ worth of diamonds hidden in an asteroid crater.

From Dan Willhite, and this is totally amazing: Solitaire “Win” Screen Constructed from Over 1,000 3D Playing Cards.

From Jonathan Arnold, and this is a great story: The camera from the bottom of the lagoon.

From hippo, and I bet you've never seen one of these: When fire tornadoes attack.

From JR Cabe, and these guys have excellent skill: Unicycle Freestyle. I'm still riding about 10 miles a week, but I'm also having achilles tendon troubles. My curse.

From Todd, and an up close camera for lions will always be awesome: BeetleCam vs the Lions of the Masai Mara.

From Marcus, and this is simply incredible: Cave paintings were Stone Age animations.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Archies, Ron Dante, and the Perverse Nature of Fame

I was eating lunch today at a local restaurant, and the 60s music loop included "Sugar, Sugar."

I have fond memories of that song from my childhood. It was "The Archies" big hit, and I remember hearing it on their cartoon show. Pure bubblegum pop, and a very catchy song.

I was enjoying the song as a trip down Nostalgia Lane when I had a a rare moment of mental clarity. "Sugar, Sugar" was a huge hit, but the band itself was fictional.  They were cartoon characters.

Someone must have recorded this song, though.  What if this song was the biggest hit of someone's career, and no one even knew it was them?

Clearly, this required some research.

For the proper frame of mind, you should probably go listen to the song (and as a bonus, you get to see the cartoon as well): Sugar, Sugar (Original 1969 Music Video). For its time, the video was pretty damned innovative.

Done? Let's continue.

When I got home, I looked up "The Archies" in Wikipedia. [Sidebar: I love Wikipedia because its random authors can take a semi-ridiculous subject and treat it with the highest degree of academic respect.] Like this:
The Archies are sometimes jokingly compared to The Doors, as they also had no bass player.

However, there is some controversy as to whether Reggie played bass or not. In most drawings, his guitar looks identical to Archie's, making him the band's second (or co-lead) guitarist. However, a number of drawings (including the one above) clearly show Reggie's instrument to have four tuning keys, the most common bass design. Six-string bass guitars do exist, however, and the Archies' recordings regularly featured a bass player. In more than one comic strip, Reggie is described as playing bass (however, this is not necessarily canon, as storylines and hobbies/activities in the Archie world change from story to story). Finally, in the liner notes for 2008's The Archies Christmas Album, Reggie is listed as the bass guitarist.

That is ultra-wonderful, much like a stoned person can argue about the philosophical nature of a pea with complete seriousness.

Back to The Archies. Also from Wikipedia:
The Archies are a garage band founded by Archie Andrews, Reggie Mantle, and Jughead Jones, a group of fictional adolescent characters of the Archie universe, in the context of the animated TV series, The Archie Show. The group is also known for their real world success, through a virtual band.

[Sugar, Sugar] went to #1 on the pop chart in 1969, sold over six million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.[2] In Billboard's Hot 100, it was ranked as the number one song of that year, the only time a fictional band has ever claimed Billboard's annual Hot 100 top spot.

That's really quite incredible--a fictional band having the #1 hit of the year.

I quickly decided that I needed to focus on two people: lead singer Ron Dante, and backup singer Tony Wine. I'd never heard of either, but they had both sung on the single biggest hit of 1969. Did anything else in their careers match up to that moment? If not, how would you feel if the biggest moment of your career went by anonymously?

I started with Ron Dante,  and right away, I read something astonishing: in the same year that Sugar, Sugar hit #1, he was also in a real band called The Cuff Links, and he had a top 10 hit with Tracy.

The Cuff Links turned out to be the epitome of the phrase "one hit wonders", far less successful than The Archies.

At this point, I expected Ron Dante's life to plummet. Boy, was I wrong. Again, from Wikipedia:
From 1973 to 1981, Dante was the record producer for singer Barry Manilow, and often sang backup on Manilow's recordings, including the 1974 #1 single "Mandy." Dante also continued to record sporadically during those years; in 1975, with Manilow as the producer, Dante released a dance version of "Sugar, Sugar" under his own name. In 1978, Dante produced the Tony Award-winning musical revue Ain't Misbehavin' on Broadway. During this same period, Dante, who was a Manhattan neighbor of George Plimpton, was invited to serve as the publisher of the Paris Review (1978–85).

Good grief, the lead singer for The Archies was a total badass.

Next, I looked up Toni Wine, and the story here is more complicated. Again, this is from Wikipedia:
In 1963, Toni Wine had a nationally charted single with "My Boyfriend's Coming Home For Christmas". It reached #22 on Billboard's "Best Bets For Christmas" survey. She cowrote The Shirelles' early 1964 mid-chart hit "Tonight You're Gonna Fall In Love With Me".

Wine was a child prodigy who studied piano at the Juilliard School of Music before going to work at Screen Gems Publishing. There she initially collaborated with songwriters including Gerry Goffin, Howard Greenfield and Steve Venet. The first Wine composition that was recorded was The Cookies' "Only to Other People," but she needed an ensuing three-year association with Carole Bayer Sager to blossom. The earliest fruits of their partnership, "A Groovy Kind of Love," topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1966. By this time Wine was also recording as a solo artist, releasing singles for Colpix Records to minimal acclaim.

By 1969, Wine joined with Ron Dante, Ellie Greenwich and Andy Kim to record as The Archies. The following year, Wine wrote "Candida". The first recording did not do well, so she then reunited with fellow Brill Building alum Tony Orlando, who sang lead while Wine and others (such as Linda November) sang backup. The song was a hit, and the trio went on to record "Knock Three Times", which also became a major hit.

After recording a handful of bubblegum-flavoured tracks, in the early 1970s, Wine married the record producer Chips Moman and relocated to Memphis, Tennessee. There she released material for Atco Records and Monument Records in addition to a continuing career as a writer and session vocalist. For over 30 years she was one of the voices of Meow Mix Cat Food, sharing with Linda November and the famous "meow, meow, meow, meow."

Okay, it's true that Sugar, Sugar was the most successful song of her singing career (albeit in a backup singer role), but she had a successful songwriting career, to be sure.

Neither one fits the profile of someone whose biggest career moment was anonymous. Which is less of a story, but a happy ending.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Console Post of the Week: the New Sony

That post title is a joke, obviously.

Someone e-mailed me last week and asked questions about Sony's "day and date" digital download strategy.  Sony had been releasing a few major titles (Borderlands 2 and Dead or Alive 5 in particular ) for download on the same day they were available at retail, and it looked like they were trying to expand the program.

Initially, it seemed pretty bright.

First off, Gamestop is remaking itself into less of a game store and more of an Apple used device reseller. And they're not stopping there.  This is particularly interesting:
In March, GameStop purchased for an undisclosed sum. The website calculates the price of used cameras, smartphones, and thousands of other gadgets, then offers to purchase them from the user. “It gives us an Internet opportunity for people to trade with us, and a place where we can cherry-pick devices that will be sent back to the brick-and-mortar stores,” says GameStop President Tony Bartel.

Gaming companies have always had a complicated relationship with Gamestop--a retail booty call that wound up giving them a used game STD. But  Gamestop's percentage of the new game market seem to prevent punitive action.

Now that Gamestop is moving away from games, though, a savvy company might see an opportunity to grab a bigger piece of the distribution pie.

Then Sony announced a new PS3 model at TGS last week. The "ultra-slim" PS3 has two flavors: one with a 500GB hard drive, and one with 320GB.

 I've been saying for years that these companies are idiots are not selling systems with huge hard drives, then selling them gigantic amounts of content to fill up those drives.

Easy, right?

My basic premise was that the ideal strategy was to sell the console as cheaply as possible, get as many units out there as possible, and then sell the hell out of downloadable content. Movies, games, music--everything.

For about thirty seconds, that's what Sony seem to be doing. Then I saw the prices: $270 and $300.

This console launched almost six years ago, and now they're actually raising the price, because the old 160GB unit cost $250.

Awesome strategy.

Even better, here's a great explanation (from Sony America VP of marketing, handhelds and home consoles John Koller):
There's no price drop formally, but the thing that's been happening in the market over the last year or so is that there's been so many retail price promotions, and so many different gift card offers and all those things, being done by all of us (Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony), that we've heard from our consumer, 'Enough with all these weird price moves. What we really want is content and games and value.    

Even after six years of almost uniformly huge losses(eight, really, because the two years before launch had huge write-offs for PS3 development), Sony is still willing to call bullshit goldenrod.

This means they've basically folded for holiday 2012. Oh, and no Vita price drop, either. Even smarter, because Vita is just flying off the shelves like hammers.

Now Sony did officially announce the day and date program, called PSN Day 1 Digital
yesterday, and here's the list of day one games for fall: Resident Evil 6
NBA 2K13
DOOM 3: BFG Edition
007: Legends
Medal Of Honor: Warfighter
Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Assassin’s Creed III

That's a nice list, and you get the honor of paying $59.99 and having no resale value if you want to dowload those titles. Oh, but if you're a Playstation Plus member, you'll get a 10% discount on some of these. Whoo!


Allow me to mention this one more time: publishers who have been telling us for years that games would be so much cheaper if piracy and used games didn't exist are lying. Pricing is a mechanism that is almost completely separated from either factor. Instead, pricing is a tool that some companies (Steam) use highly effectively, and others (Sony) butcher.

What is left of the Sony brand at this point? They're not leading any market in anything (well, except Financial Services--they're kicking ass there), and they're not competing on price. They're run executives in and out, but nothing's really changed.

Prediction: at least two major revisions to expected fiscal year results in the last six months of the fiscal year, and those revisions (combined) will be downward by at least 1 billion dollars.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cryptic Comet Sale

Vic Davis, a legend around these parts, is having a sale. 50% off on any of his games for the next ten days. Details from his Forgotten Lore blog:
You can get 50% off any games that I sell for the next 10 days.  Just enter the coupon code OCCULT when you go to check out.  The deal doesn’t apply to the SI & AE bundle but you will get a better price by adding them to the cart separately and then using the code.

That is a crazy discount on three excellent games, potentially: Armageddon Empires, Solium Infernum, and Six Gun Saga. Cryptic Comet store here.

Also (and you can get more details from the blog), Occult Chronicles has been slightly delayed, from Halloween to January/February. That's one of my most anticipated games.

Thanks to everyone who sent this in.

Coming Tomorrow

I'm with Eli 11.1 from school pick-up to about 8 p.m. tonight (hockey practice), so I'm not going to get to this today, but there are some interesting (and puzzling) things going on with Sony right now, and I'm going to discuss them tomorrow. They appear almost savvy with one venture, then retrench into idiocy with something else they're doing.

That pretty much describes their last six years or so.

So we'll get into this tomorrow, and try to figure out what the hell is going on.

Oh, My

Things just got very interesting.
In case you missed it last night, the NFL's replacement referees utterly botched a call on the final play of the Green Bay-Seattle game. The blatant mistake cost the Packers the game. In addition to that, though, there were 20+ other calls that were botched.

I stopped counting when I hit 20.

This is how bad the call on the final play was:  an official ruled that a play in the end zone was a "simultaneous catch." At no point--for even an instant--was there a simultaneous catch. It was an egregiously bad call, which we can put in a stack of egregiously bad calls that have been made in the last two weeks.

Here's what I find most interesting about this situation: the labor negotiations.  On the one side, you have a business that (in Steve Young's words)  enjoys "inelastic demand." In other words,  no matter what kind of idiot decisions the NFL makes, people will still watch the games.  So even though the league is a laughing stock today--to the point of mockery--the money printing presses are still rolling, and the owners have no reason to settle with the locked out officials.

That's a popular perception right now-- that the NFL is too big to fail-- but I think that perception is questionable.  For one, inelastic demand is not necessarily static and/or permanent.  The NFL is a business, but it's also a brand. Maybe the business isn't visibly eroding because of this fiasco, but the brand has certainly been damaged.

Concussion lawsuits? They certainly have the potential to damage the brand as well, possibly seriously. Giant brands don't erode overnight--just look at Sony--but they can and do erode over time. No one--not Sony, not Apple, not the NFL--is invulnerable.

Most (not all) NFL owners are remarkably arrogant, and why not? They have f--- you money, and that gives them the ability to have respect for no one but their "peers".  So their natural inclination is to never give in during a labor negotiation.

This time, though,  the embarrassment is building.

I always thought the critical factor in labor negotiations was leverage. Employees have leverage when they have unique skills that are difficult to replace. It seems beyond doubt at this point that NFL officials do have unique skills. Yes, the regular officials do make mistakes, but there are generally 3-5 plays a game that are in dispute. With the replacement officials, there are often 20+ in a single game (the Sunday and Monday night games the last two weeks  have been particularly awful). If that doesn't constitute leverage, what does?

This is why I find the situation to be a great popcorn moment. You have this group of incredibly wealthy man, who have egos to match their money, and they are being openly mocked and embarrassed right now. Is that more painful than "caving" on pension plan details and compensation? Where does the line get drawn here?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire #22

After much tinkering, I believe that the game is finally appropriately balanced. Playing with a strong team is much easier than playing with a weaker team, but strong teams can still lose and weak teams can still win. It's also much easier to win at home than on the road.

I'm playing a season with a 2.5 star team, and right now they're 6-5. Team ratings have definitely been important, but the inherent variability in cards means that I beat a 4.5 star team at home, then lost to a 2 star team three weeks later. That's good--ratings have an effect, but they don't completely overwhelm the game.

The wild card and new  probabilities have effectively reduced the importance of the Big Play button, but as it turns out, that feels like a good thing.  The game plays more quickly, and Big Play presses seem more consequential now.

I added a few sound effects last week, revised the help screens, moved help to the Title screen instead of being on the Options screen, and several other things on this to-do list I'm working through.  There are still about 20 things on this list, but they're all relatively minor--images displaying for too long, delay in a sound effect, etc. There are no known game crashes at this point, and no known freezes.

This means that it's time to have a new round of testers. 10-15, most likely.

 I know that when I first posted about the game, you guys absolutely pounded me with e-mail, volunteering as beta testers.  And that was cool, but 4+ months have passed now, and some of you may have lost interest. So what I need to do is establish a bank of beta testers, then invite them to play the game in waves.

This is probably not the usual approach, but there's no way I can support 50+ testers simultaneously. It would be totally overwhelming, and I would probably end of wasting some of your feedback, which is not acceptable.

If you're still interested in beta-testing the game, I need you to be able to do the following:
1. Commit to playing 30-45 minutes a day for at least a week. That's 2-3 games a day (they take about 15 minutes).
2. Be willing to submit feedback both about possible issues with the game as well as more general gameplay impressions.

That's it.

I promise that even if you're not in this wave, you'll eventually get to play the game. Plus, each successive wave will play a more polished product, although I think it's reasonably polished already.

My expectations are that I'll send out the build on Friday, unless something major comes up.  That will give me time to knock off at least half of the current list, so that I'm almost starting fresh with this round of testers.

Thanks very much for your time. I am very driven to make this game as good as I can make it, and I can't do that without you. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday Links!

Here's a fascinating bit of history: How Matthew Murray’s Sliding D-Valve Made Us Prosper.

This is one of my favorite single gaming comics ever: Pac-Man.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, a blast from the space past: How soon will Voyager 1 leave the solar system?. Also, and I'm going to track this during the season, it's NFL's West Coast Teams Have An Edge: The Sandman.

Here are two outstanding links about filmmakers from J.R. Parnell (DQFAaNGitW Ben Ormand, pay attention):
Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story
James Cameron: Before Avatar ... a curious boy

From Steven Davis, and this is an amazing look at innovation in prosthetic limb development: If you can take it apart -- if you can understand it -- you can make it better. Also, and this makes me want to a buy a 3D printer, it's 3D printing records for a Fisher Price toy record player. One more, and this is absolutely a link you must check out, it's The Rockwell International Integrated Space Plan. Seriously, it's mind-blowing.

Matt Sake's Culture Clash column has a new installment, and this month, it's Meta Effect.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a remarkable about an attempt to run an 84km trail in the Fish River Canyon in Namibia: The Beauty of the Irrational. Also, and these images are just incredible, it's A Tour Of The Gusman Olympia Theater. Also, and this really puts things into perspective, it's Here, feel insignificant for a while....

From Frank Regan, and these are very funny, it's 23 Photos Taken at Just the Right Moment.

From Griffin Cheng, and these images are spectacular, it's How a Photographer Created Images of Fireworks Unlike Any You've Ever Seen. Also, and this is amazing, it's IBM Scientists Distinguish Individual Molecular Bonds.

From Chris Pencis, and this is spectacular, it's Pi In The Sky.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

City of Heroes

I have fond memories of playing City of Heroes when it was first launched in 2004.

Jesus, that was a long time ago.

In particular, I had more fun with the Character Creator than I'd ever had with other games, and CoH was bright, colorful, and campy.  It didn't take itself seriously, but it was well-designed and very playable.

I played until my character reached level 18, and then the MMO black hole got me. I played Everquest as well (a monk), and also reached level 18 with my characer before flaming out.  But my memories of CoH are much brighter.

I mean, who doesn't want to be a superhero?

So when I saw the news that after many successful years, the game was finally shutting down (November 30), I felt a pang of nostalgia and regret.

People who are still playing the game, though, are trying to save it. I know, this is probably doomed to fail, but it's a noble gesture nonetheless.  Plus, they do seem to be getting a little traction:
City of Heroes fans buy Paragon Studios a Meal and Proclaim Allegiance
City of Heroes Fans Hold Protest at Atlas Park
Mercedes Lackey endorsement

Here's what Mercedes Lackey said: I will offer myself and my likeness to endorse and advertise, exclusively, all NCSoft products for a minimum term of five years and a maximum term of ten years, for no compensation or payment, if you will make it possible for the game and Paragon Studios (even in a reduced capacity) to continue to function, either once again under the NCSoft umbrella, or until a new owner comes forward.

Damned impressive, really.

According to this post (which I can't verify, although it seems credible), CoH was still profitable at the time its closure was announced. Maybe that provides an opening for someone to purchase the I.P. and code base, as it doesn't appear that that CoH was draining the company coffers.

Here's a link to a coordination thread for the campaign:
Save Paragon City! efforts coordination

If they somehow succeed, it will be a great story.

Torchlight II

I received a press copy of Torchlight II last weekend, and even though the week has been utterly crazy (Eli 11.1 was sick for the last two days), I've been able to get in four hours of play.

Up front, let me remind you that I thought Fate was a much better game than Diablo, and also that Torchlight was a much better game than Diablo II. More personality, more color, more fun.

Torchlight II is fun--I'm having a blast--but trying to explain why gets a bit more complicated. Yes, it's beautiful, and the sound and lighting effects are terrific, and it's highly-polished, and the animations are wonderful. That's all true. There something on top of that, though, and it took me several hours to find a way to describe it adequately.

Torchlight II is TiVo.

Remember the original TiVo? Remember how the "peanut" remote fit perfectly into your hand, and all the buttons were in the "right" place? And there were just the right number of buttons, not too many? Every function on the TiVo was easy to use. Everything made sense.

That's how Torchlight II works. I'm not sure I've ever played a game where the interface is so intuitive and easy to use. It's incredibly accommodating, and there are a ton of shortcuts (explained in the loading screens) that make the game even easier to control.

The reason it's so impressive, to me, is that a ton of information is available via the interface. Inventories. Skills. Character ratings. Spells. It's all arranged so cleverly, though, that it quickly becomes second nature to access anything.

This game was designed by people who know how to design games.

On top of that, I have a level 15 Engineer who has a big-ass hammer and a special flame hammer attack, and seeing lines of fire blast out from the hammer in all directions never gets old. Never. And my pet is a hawk named "Kubrick".

That's not me being clever. That was one of the random pet name suggestions.

I'll have much more to write about Torchlight II in a week or so, but in the meantime, you clearly need to be playing this.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Taking a Knee (additional note)

In response to your e-mail, I am 1000% behind making the NFL safer. I would support a return to a 14-game season and include a second bye week as well. I'd support eliminating the three-point stance. I'd support a host of proposals to make the game safer.

All I'm saying is that in a game design sense, the kneeldown sucks. It's terrible design, and it makes the most important part of the game meaningless. It shouldn't be like that.

Taking A Knee

Fans of the NFL are still pissed about what happened on Sunday.

The Giants played the Buccaneers, and at the end of the game, the Giants just needed to snap the ball one more time, have Eli Manning take a knee, the clock would run out, and the game would be over.

Traditionally, this is a formality. The center snaps the ball and the quarterback kneels, but the offensive and defensive lines basically just stand there.

In this game, though, Tampa Bay's defensive line crashed through, knocking Eli Manning backwards. It was both poor form and entirely legal.

So while everyone debates whether this is kosher or not, I started thinking about the stupid kneeldown play. Why the hell is that legal, anyway? It makes for absolutely terrible television, because there's no drama.

Here's an idea: in the last two minutes of the game, if the team with the ball is ahead, they must gain yardage on a play to keep the clock running. If they don't, the clock stops.

Instead of a bunch of stupid-ass kneeldowns, there's suddenly drama with every play. There are no formalities, because if the offense can't gain yardage, the other team will get the ball back and may have time to score.

That seems much more entertaining, and much truer to how sports should be played.

The Honor System

This is absolutely one of the most fascinating articles about magic that I've ever read: The Honor System. It's a piece on Teller and some of the intellectual property issues surrounding contemporary magic, and it's incredibly well-written.

The article also references a short story that is equally fascinating, so those two pieces combined should take you down the rabbit hole for nearly an hour, if you so wish.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Steve Sabol

Steve Sabol passed away today at the age of 70.

If you're in your twenties or thirties, that name might not ring a bell. If you're older, that name is magic, as evocative as the word "carnival." Steve's father, Ed, started a company called Blair Motion Pictures in 1962, and the company won the rights (for $4,000) to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game. The film impressed The NFL so much that they bought the company, and it was renamed NFL Films.

NFL Films, in many ways, created the blueprint of how modern football is expored (and revered). Super slo-mo? Wireless mics? Musical scores for highlight films? Those were all first done by NFL Films.

If you're too young to know any of this, try to imagine a time when ESPN didn't exist. NFL Ticket didn't exist. On Sundays, one of the networks (CBS or NBC) broadcast a doubleheader, while the other network had a single game to show only.

Monday Night Football started in 1970. I can still remember, as a football-crazed nine-year-old, losing my mind with excitement over the idea of having football to watch on MONDAY night.

That was it.

Highlights? Those would be in the five-minute Sunday sports segment of your local news broadcast. Monday Night Football added a halftime highlights segment which had brief highlights from every game played on Sunday (another mind-blowing innovation).

I actually tried to take a photograph of Tom Dempsey kicking a 63-yard field goal against the Detroit Lions during the halftime highlights segment, because it wasn't something I was likely to see again. That's how different things were back then.

Against that backdrop, the first time I saw an NFL Films feature (probably of an early Super Bowl--one of the first three), I was spellbound. The production values were decades ahead of its time, and it was the first time anything had been shown behind the scenes. There's a very famous NFL Films clip of Hank Stram talking to the referees (and to himself, seemingly) during Super Bowl IV. That would be totally mundane today, but in 1970, it was absolutely stunning.

In addition to giving you insight into the game, NFL Films did an absolutely wonderful job of making the NFL seem larger-than-life. It's hard to understand today, but back then, the NFL was rarely larger than life (Joe Namath in Super Bowl III was an obvious exception). The magic of NFL Films, though, was that it could elevate anyone, not just Joe Namath.

Plus, the soundtracks! The music was so unforgettable that I still instantly recognize any of the original songs. NFL Fever licensed that music (genius), and in one of those all-too-rare moments when the people who make Madden knew that they were doing, they licensed it, too. As soon as I hear that music, football is the only word in my mind.

The Voice (John Facenda) was as memorable as the music. Anyone in my generation who is a sports fan instantly recognizes his voice. He made everything seem both legendary and dramatic.

It's easy to see NFL Films features now, but when I was a kid, showings were rare. Any time I accidentally changed a channel and saw one in progress, it was a guaranteed watch until its conclusion.

There was one exception to the gravitas created by NFL Films, and that was the Football Follies. The original film made football seem both hilarious and ridiculous, and I still remember laughing my young ass off.

There's only one word I can think of for all those early films: treasures.

Steve Sabol was responsible for most of this brilliance. He won Emmys for Cinematography, Editing, Writing, Directing, and Producing. No one else has ever won an Emmy in all five of those categories.

Early in his career, he said his goal was "to give a new understanding to what has already been seen."

Mission accomplished.

In a time when my enthusiasm for football has sadly begun to wane, mostly due to the avalance of concussion-related research that is emerging, I still have fond--incredibly fond--memories of watching NFL Films features as a boy, feeling a sense of wonder that I will always remember.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire #22:

Rewriting the AI almost killed me, but in the end, it didn't.

It basically took all week, but by Friday, the playcalling AI was significantly improved. That meant the game became more difficult, which is good, because as I mentioned last week, the wildcard had definitely tipped game balance away from neutral.

Actually, I've never felt like the game balance was quite right. It always seemed like winning with a weak team happened a little too easily.

A couple of weeks ago, I started thinking about difficulty in terms of asymmetric adjustments. Basically, I started looking for situations where changing something would make the game more difficult for the human player, but not for the CPU.

That seems counter-intuitive until you remember that a CPU drive is dependent on field position only in the sense that it affects how many plays the human player has to stop the drive. It's not really easier to stop a four-play drive than a one-play drive (because the number of cards needed ramps)--it just resolves more quickly.

John Harwood had an excellent suggestion, which was to move the starting point after a kickoff from the 30 back to the 20. That's a few more cards for the human player to play to score, but for the CPU offense, it doesn't change anything.

I also realized that punting was asymmetric as well, so I increased net punting distance. Again, that's just a few more cards that must be played by the human player, but it slightly affects the difficulty.

With these changes, plus the new AI, I started a season with a 2 1/2 star team, and I'm having a great time. I'm 4-3 through 7 games, and here are the scores:
31-28 (OT)
38-35 (OT)

In addition to the two overtime games, another game ended on the last play of regulation. So there's been plenty of drama, and while I'm 4-3, it could just as easily be 2-5.

I adjusted the Big Play percentages to be more stingy, and that's helped as well. Using the BP button less (because it's less successful) has also increased the pace of the game.

For the last few weeks, it's been bothering me that there are no sounds associated with the text message events (unless there's a turnover or touchdown). It has created this blank space in the soundscape that needed to be fixed. I also wanted a sound when a Big Play card was dealt that wasn't just a "card" sound, since I used the sounds of a manual typewriter when cards are selected or played.

John Harwood (again) had an excellent suggestion, which was to use a typewriter bell sound (again, associated with a manual typewriter). I found one that is exactly the sound I want, and I added a slightly different referee whistle when the play ends on a text message event, so the game isn't blank (in an audio sense) at any point now.

Unless something unexpected happens, I'm going to add 10-15 beta testers next week.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Links!

Leading off, from Ryan Malinowsky, links to the story of Connor's Day, a car show organized by the father of a terminally ill 11-year-old boy. It was modest effort, at first. Then this:
Dad’s Wish To Give His Sick Son A Car Show Goes Viral Overnight
Internet Pulls Together 1,200 Cars For Terminally Ill Boy

Eleven. That hits hard.

From Steven Davis, and this is both outstanding and entirely wrong: Old Spice Muscle Music Player. Also, and this is quite amazing, it's 3D video animation clearly shows the workings of the Antikythera Mechanism.

From Jim, an interesting bit of science trivia: Which song was requested by Carl Sagan but not included on the Voyager records? By the way, here's the list of what did make it: Music From Earth.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, and this is spectacular: Dawn Spacecraft's Farewell Portrait of Giant Asteroid Vesta.

From Donny Plumley, and this is damned impressive: Assassin's Creed Meets Parkour in Real Life.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and this is just amazing: This Is the Most Astonishing Solar Eruption I’ve Ever Seen. Oh, and if you're thinking "I wish there was a video of that", then we've got you covered: This solar eruption video will straight up melt your face it’s so awesome. Also, and this is quite amusing: 8 Ways That Judges Have Cited Star Trek From the Bench. One more, and it's fantastic: Eight Amazing Paralympics Moments You've Probably Missed.

From Jonathan Arnold, and these photos are stunning: The magical photos that show brave men who felled California redwoods by HAND. One more, and it's my favorite link this week--a guy who pretended to be a celebrity and became one: Fake Celebrity Pranks New York City .

From Griffin Cheng, and this is entirely fantastic: Lemon sharks 'learn' skills by watching each other. Also, and this is an utterly fascinating article, it's Marathon Man: A Michigan dentist’s improbable transformation. The transformation apparently consists of cheating the computerized timing systems, which is why it's so interesting.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is one of the craziest things I have ever seen: The Fish With the Transparent Head. Also, and these photos are amazing, it's Skateboarding in Kabul. One more, and it's simply brilliant: Matthew Albanese: Strange Worlds.

From Frank Regan, and these are simply amazing: Amazing Animated Optical Illusions! #5.

A more recent space link, sent in by Michael O'Reilly: Behold, the Toothbrush That Just Saved the International Space Station.

From J.R. Parnell, and this is another reason why Google is one of my favorite companies in the world: How Google Builds Its Maps—and What It Means for the Future of Everything.

I believe, for this one moment, it's entirely fair to fear the future: Modern medicine: Lab-grown genitals, spray-on skin.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Battle Outfitter

DQ reader Jussi Kollin has developed an Android game called "Battle Outfitter." Here's a description from the Google Play page:
Keep adventurers alive by crafting them better and better equipment in this hectic “pick-three” game!

On a 5x5 board, pick three different materials to craft new gear for the adventurers as they battle in real time. For every additional connected piece of the same material the item gains +1 in attack or defensive power.

- 3 adventurer classes (warrior, archer, healer)
- 5 item classes (armors, ranged and melee weapons, robes and wands)
- 11 different raw materials
- 20+ different valid item combinations and 8 high-level variants of these
- local high score boards
- 15+ local achievements

Game modes:
- tutorial + nine career stages to show you the ropes
- basic survival (a limited selection of materials; game length max. ca 7 min)
- normal survival (all materials available at times; game length max. ca 25 min)
- hectic survival (more and tougher enemies, all resources available all the time; game length max. ca 7 min).

I've played this in various incarnations and it's very interesting and quite challening, with a ton of potential. Jussi is also considering adding a campaign mode, which would be a great addition.

For now, it's free, and here's the Google Play link: Battle Outfitter.

Console Post of the Week (Partially Written by Someone Else This Time)

JF Boismenu sent me a link to one of the most thorough articles on Sony's decline that I've seen. If you'd like to see their problems laid out in clear detail, have a read: The Ten Year Decline of Sony.

Sony's problems weren't all caused videogames, obviously. The collapse of their strategy for the LCD television market has been incredibly costly, and they've had numerous other missteps. But the PS3 is highly representative: over-engineered and overpriced, with a heavy dose of hubris.

Nintendo also announced the launch details for Wii U today.
U.S.: November 18
Europe: November 30

U.S. pricing is as follows: $299 for the 8GB "Basic" unit (which includes an HDMI cable--well done) and $349 for the 32GB "Deluxe" set (which additionally includes "Nintendoland", charging cradles, and plastic stands for the controllers).

This is not looking so good.

I've said this ad nauseum, but the reason the Wii exploded was that Nintendo included Wii Sports as the pack-in game, and it perfectly demonstrated why the Wii was so much fun.

Now? No pack-in with the Basic unit. How did Nintendo not learn this fundamental lesson from the Wii? It's incredibly simple and incredibly obvious, and also apparently incredibly easy to ignore.

One other thing that makes me nervous: no locked list of launch titles yet. Instead, a list that will ship between launch and March. It's two months before launch and they haven't locked in the launch titles yet? That's a concern, and not a small one.

Overall, I'm getting the cold prickly about this launch.

Chris Kohler's write-up is here: Wii U Will Ship in North America Nov. 18 In $300, $350 Bundles. Chris also has an excellent write-up about what Nintendo apparently feels is their secret weapon: Nintendo TVii. It's not, unfortunately: Analysis: Nintendo Bets on TV App to Sell Pricey Wii U.

Breaking News [Wait: I Take That Back]

Bizarrely, a story appeared on the front page of Engadget for a short period of time about EA laying off 10% of their employees, which seemed entirely plausible given then current business situation. However, as David Alpern correctly points out, that's not a current article. It had a 2012 date on it, but it's actually from 2008.

So much for posting things quickly.

Good grief, I never post anything remotely this quickly anymore (blame GS).

From [now Engadget has taken down the link]:
EA is preparing to undertake some rather drastic cost-cutting measures, including laying off 1,000 workers. That number represents 10 percent of its total employees, a large enough chunk that several titles and franchises will be getting the ax as well. To further slash costs, EA will be closing at least nine facilities across the globe and condense its teams into fewer offices.

Ten percent is a huge cut. That's not fat, that's muscle and bone.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

LEGO Follow-up

You guys sent in some interesting LEGO-related e-mail, so let's take a look.

First, from Matt Perrin:
I just wanted to chime in on something Lego quality related. Last Christmas "Santa" brought my son one of those Lego boardgames (Wild Wool) that they have now. The games themselves are not the deepest experience but to a 6 year old with a fascination to learn how things are built, it's been great.

So, my son gets this boardgame but we don't actually get around to opening it up and playing it until a rainy day in March. And, tragically, we are missing two not so critical pieces. I assumed we were kind of out of luck since it had been months since we bought it and we didn't have a receipt. I follow the steps in the game's manual which points me to the Lego website to report the missing pieces along with my personal info. Three hours later I get an email saying they were going to send us the replacement parts. Three days later the parts appear in the mail. Now that kind of blew me away. For a $15 game, Lego shipped us the replacement parts, two tiny Legos, using Priority Mail? Mind = blown.

Next, from a very intelligent person from another continent who wishes to remain anonymous:
There are certainly lessons to be learned here for the gaming industry.

I did some work for a few years with the toys industry locally and got to meet a few people from both Lego and their competitors, and one of the interesting things when we presented data to them was they were always trying to understand how Lego was different from say a Mattel or Hasbro, and if their company could be like Lego, not in a product sense but could some of the strategy be applied?

The biggest reasons always came back to a few core principles – the first being the “newness” or “excitement” of Lego. Every year they have a number of completely new ranges (eg Ninjago, Alien Conquest, the young girls focused Friends range), while other companies are trotting out the same dolls with a new dress or an action figure with a new accessory. A key point is that some of these new ranges are usually released when there isn’t much else new in the toy market. Ninjago for example, came out in January 2011. Can you imagine launching a new toy range just weeks after Christmas? Most companies wouldn’t risk it, and a lot of retailers will tell you you’re crazy, but if you’re the only one doing it you can benefit.

I always find it interesting that no major publisher tries to launch anything of note between April-late August in games outside of Rockstar or Blizzard. I’m sure Assassins Creed 3 will do fine this year, but I often wonder what it would do with a full month to itself in May, rather than living in the shadow of a Call of Duty or a Skryim. I know there are often financial reasons for having a title in a specific period to book revenue, but surely there would be a benefit for giving some titles a bit of breathing space and keeping them away from the Q4 insanity?

Lego is also great at hitting multiple price points, having something at $10, $20, $30 etc up to the giant $400+ sets like the Death Star/Taj Mahal. Yet for gaming there’s no mid-level or budget range now for big publishers or developers, who seem to be afraid of being associated with anything that isn’t AAA.

Lego is also additive. Every piece builds up someones “Lego universe”. So you’re not necessarily buying Lego to replace a previous set, but buying it to expand their world, even if they’re buying a different series since the blocks are universal.

Again we have the gaming comparison of expansion packs & DLC. Skryim DLC is probably the closest thing, adding to its existing world. But so much DLC misses the mark – skins, weapons, characters, standalone missions. Then of course you have something like Minecraft, which is basically digital Lego for adults, in which the world is always expanding.

This quote particularly hit on something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

“Unfortunately, the gaming industry has rapidly turned its back on both, although there are exceptions (thank you, Bethesda). Instead, they want you to buy DLC. Lots and lots of DLC. They want total content control. To the gaming industry, I'm just a revenue stream.”

The thing that I’m not seeing mentioned in many places (if at all), is that with a lot of companies apparently transitioning to Free To Play or In App models, the focus of design and marketing hasn’t really changed (yet). The problem is they’re no longer in the business of selling, they’re in the business of retention. Are any of them prepared for it though? Look at how well current games retain their users, and that is after you have people investing up to $60 in them on day one. Now they have to deal with people who have not invested any money, just their time, who can (and will) cut bait when they see something they don’t like. I can imagine massive levels of churn for these companies who haven’t got their head around how to retain users other than setting up the clichéd energy paywall.

Maybe I’m the one missing it and they don’t need to change, with advertising and the 1% who buy $1000 items enough to sustain them, but I just don’t see F2P or IAP being the holy grail that some companies like EA think it will be, and it appears to be on the downturn for companies like Zynga. The focus will only be on the revenue stream as you state, never on cultivating a strong user experience or community that is behind titles that do successfully retain their users (Team Fortress 2, DOTA/LOL, Minecraft, Blizzard titles).

Here’s another Lego story for you that one of their senior staff told us. For 2011 one of their strategies for some ranges was to have smaller boxes with more pieces inside at a lower pricepoint. Keep in mind that this was not just for their core range like City, but also for licenced properties like Star Wars. So a $120 set may come in a smaller box with more pieces for $100. Can you imagine anyone doing that in gaming? Instead we have companies offering less for more and holding back extra content. Lego know that their customer is valuable and worth keeping for the long term, while gaming companies think short term and that their customer is a sponge to be constantly squeezed with no value other than what they can spend.

The point on licencing is also a good one, and again something to learn from in that they are very successful with the Star Wars and Harry Potter series, but they don’t rely on them. Their own ranges like City, Ninjago, Friends, and Bionicle, are often some of their best sellers and they could probably survive without the licenced products that usually have a limited shelf life. Something like the City range is timeless and can always be easily refreshed.

That is a terrific, thoughtful analysis.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Millionaire

We were at CPK on Friday night, and while we were eating at the counter, we were watching the Utah-Utah St. game.

"Dad, do you want to bet a million dollars on this game?" Eli 11.1 asked.

"Who are you taking?" I asked.

"Utah St.," he said. Utah had won the last 11 meetings between the two teams.

"Okay, I'll take Utah," I said. "But don't bet me your first million."

"My FIRST million?" he asked, laughing.

"I have no doubt that you will make a million dollars," I said. "But making two million dollars is much tougher. What if you make a million dollars and owe it all to me?"

"Ooh, I see your point," he said.

"So let's bet," I said, "but I won't take your first million. Let's say I take your fourth million--AFTER taxes. That's about your seventh million."

"Thanks for that, Dad," he said, smiling.

Utah proceeded to play like THEY were the team who hadn't won in the last 11 meetings, and they wound up losing an agonizing game in overtime. The game ended after Eli 11.1 went to sleep.

Needless to say, I lacked the funds to cover the bet.

Saturday morning, 7 a.m.

"Somebody's a millionaire!" Eli 11.1 said as he opened our bedroom door to wake me up.

"Well, let's find one more game," I said. "Double or nothing."

"No way!" He said, laughing.

"Come on," I said. "A million dollars won't last long. Expenses add up."

"I'm not falling for that," he said.

I came downstairs and we watched Sportscenter for about 30 minutes. Normally, we'd go hit at the golf range on Saturday morning, but it was so windy that we decided to stay and play baseball in the cul-de-sac instead.

"How long do you want to play?" he asked.

"However long you want," I said. "After all, you're paying $1,000 a minute."


"You're a millionaire now," I said. "Things get expensive."

"Come on!" he said, laughing.

I'm a little worried about Eli being able to manage all the things he wants to do this fall. He has flag football on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday he has hockey. Saturdays: 7:15 a.m., leaving for breakfast at 6:20. Ugh.

Having that schedule and managing schoolwork is going to be tough. He's well-organized for his age, and he's very motivated to stay on top of it, but even so, it won't be easy. If he can just survive to the end of October, though, flag football ends and life will get less complicated.

We played tennis on Sunday morning, and I used to think that he wouldn't be able to beat me until he was 14, but after yesterday, I'll be lucky to hold him off until he's 12. I weigh more than twice as much as he does, but he hits the ball just as hard as I do, and he's much, much faster.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire #21:

I'm slowly losing my mind because I'm fine-tuning the play balance, and I can't quite get it right.

The wildcard was a nice addition, and it makes the game more fun to play, but it's tilted the play balance and made it easier to win. I've tightened some things up (like the benevolence of the Big Play button on offense, which is a bit more churlish now), but it's still slightly too easy.

There are changes I could make that would fix this right away--for instance, taking away two card slots if the CPU guesses your playcall instead of one-- but in every case, making the change would make the game less fun.

So after looking at all the "easy" solutions, I arrived at the hard one: the playcalling A.I. Since you lose a card slot if the AI guesses your play call, if I can make the AI even marginally smarter, that should be enough to get the game in balance again.

After working on this for a few days, I've come to an ugly realization: getting the AI from 90% to 100% (or close) in terms of intelligence takes about as much time as it originally took to get to 90%. It's nasty, really nasty, and it's frustrating.

What makes it worse is that I know there is a formula in my head that encompasses almost every situation. One formula, instead of handcrafting the A.I. to a huge set of individual situations. But even though I know that formula is rattling around in my head somewhere, I can't extract it yet. I get pieces, but not the whole.

On a more pleasant note, after mostly fixing problems in rare situations (no crashes, but incorrect behavior), I did have one very solid idea. Up to this point, time has always been a fixed run-off per human card match (if the human player is on offense) or per play (if the CPU is on offense). The clock runs more slowly in the last three minutes of the half/game, but it's still a fixed formula.

Really, though, that doesn't make sense. Football plays aren't that precise. I realized that what I need is for the run-off to have a degree of variability, so that a valid card match--for example--could run off X seconds +/- 10%. Now, it won't be possible a player to calculate time so exactly at the end of the game, and it will feel more natural.

No screenshots this week, but hopefully I'll have something for you next time.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Eric Higgins-Freese, and this is a fascinating article: Botched Spacewalks, Crash Landings, and Smuggled Sandwiches: Spaceflight’s Most Badass Maneuvers.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, and these are quite poignant: an announcement written in case Apollo 11 was a catastrophic failure. It's haunting.
page 1

Also from Jesse, and this is another great bit of Apollo 11 information, it's Neil Armstrong Couldn't Afford Life Insurance, So He Used a Creative Way to Provide for His Family If He Died.

One more space link, this time from Meg McReynolds: Apollo 11's Astronauts Received an $8 Per Diem for the Mission to the Moon. Also, and this both well-presented and very useful, it's Snake Oil? Scientific evidence for popular health supplements.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is very clever: If movies were written by our children. Also, and this is fascinating, it's A journey of self-discovery: Gamer Unplugged roams across America. One more, and if you're into film, this demands a look: Kubrick//One-Point Perspective.

From Steven Davis, and Eli 11.1 might be riding one of these to work someday: Aerofex hoverbike on its way to Star Wars Speeder status. Also, and this is totally wonderful, it's 1939 'Map of Physics'. One more, and it's quite a project: Plans to build a model of a flathead 4 motor out of scrap wood.

From C. Lee, a series of excellent links. First, and this is quite interesting, it's Real Places Behind Famously Frightening Stories. Next, a link to one of Softbank's "White Family" commercials, which include a dog as the patriarch: Softbank Dog--Rejected. Then, an explanation of the story behind the craze: Otosan, Japan's top dog.

From Sirius, and this is tremendous, it's Researchers develop sci-fi helmet that creates an alternative reality.

From Donny Plumley, and I bet you've never seen this: a 200-pound sumo wrestler.

From Dylan Jones, and this is absolutely the cutest video existing on the Internet: Twin Baby Girls Rocking to Their Dad’s Guitar.

From Griffin Cheng, and this is just amazing: Birds hold 'funerals' for dead.

From Curry Mutton, and this is amazing: Gravitational waves spotted from white-dwarf pair.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Games You Very Well Might Like

I originally had a note that Middle Manager of Justice had been released for iThingie devices, but that was apparently in error. Still, it looks terrific, and you can take a look here: Middle Manager of Justice.

Coming on September 14 is FTL: Faster Than Light, described as "a spaceship simulation real-time roguelike-like", and no, that wasn't a typo.

It sounds utterly fantastic, and I'll be playing it on launch day, for once. Here's the game's website: FTL: Faster Than Light.

The Bass Expansion for Rocksmith has been released, and according to former DQ Guitar Exploration Leader David Gloier, it's entirely brilliant: Bass Expansion disc. Full bass support for songs from the original guitar version as well. Maybe David will send in a more detailed explanation about what he find so compelling (that's a hint, DG), and I'll post it here.

Also, don't forget Torchlight II on September 20.

Poorly and Well

Last week, I surprised Eli 11.1 by picking him up at school on a different day than usual.

"Hey, Dad," he said when he stepped out of the building. "What are you doing here?"

"Surprise pickup," I said. "And I thought we might go play a quick 9 holes on the way home."

His face lit up. "On, yeah!" he said.

He's played on two different courses now, and he's done fairly well. Pretty consistently, he'll double bogey a hole from the front tees, with an occasional bogey and an occasional "X".

The course we were playing this time was a 9-hole course, it was fairly short, and I thought it would be all kinds of fun.

It wasn't.

It was miserably, terribly hot (Texas in September is HELL, and it was 101 that day), even in a cart. We were trying to hurry because Gloria was making dinner, and we didn't want to be late. Eli has so much to process on a real course, though, that he plays very slowly.

Plus, with a lack of rain lately, this course wasn't in good shape. On quite a few holes, I couldn't even distinguish the fairway from the rough.

With all this going on, Eli didn't play well, and he played worse as the round progressed. "Dad, what am I doing wrong?" he asked, almost desperate.

"Buddy, I'm sorry, but I'm not sure," I said. "I know we can fix it on the range in ten minutes, but this is one of the challenges of playing on a real course. It's much harder to fix things on the fly."

I felt terrible, because I wanted to give him the one swing key that he needed, but I just couldn't see precisely what he was doing. Actually, that's not true--it's not that I couldn't see. Rather, I was seeing too much. I saw lots of little things, but I wasn't seeing the bigger picture.

We did finally finish. The cart died on the last hole, which was another little bit of sunshine.

Finally, we got to the car, and I cranked up the air conditioning.

"Well, that wasn't fun," he said.

"I know," I said. "Maybe trying to fit a round in after school is just too rushed to work very well."

"And this course sucked," he said.

"Yeah, it wasn't in great shape," I said. "Although I've played here in the past and really enjoyed myself. It's just too hot and dry right now."

"And I was terrible," he said.

"Well, it wasn't your best effort," I said. "But you know what?"

"What?" he asked.

"I agree that this was totally miserable, but we need to find something positive here. Otherwise, it was just misery, and that's a waste. I know there's something positive, if we can just find it."

"Okay," he said. "That's a good idea. Let's think."

We sat and thought. I enjoy sitting and thinking about how I want to frame a subject for Eli. I take time to prepare when it's an important discussion, and it helps me see things more clearly. But this was an important discussion with no time to prepare. I needed to think of something, and it needed to be something honest, not bullshit.

After about 30 seconds, I realized something.

"I've got it," I said. "I never thought about this before, but it's the truth. You don't learn to play well by playing well. You learn how to play well by learning why you're playing poorly."

"Huh?" Eli said.

"When you're a goalie," I said, "and you're playing at your best, you're not learning anything. All the learning was done when you were playing poorly--when you were off your angle, or playing too deep, or not seeing plays develop. And every time you didn't play well, we worked on that part of your game. That's what the three keys are about."

"So when you play poorly, if you learn from it, you're building toward playing well," he said.

"That's it," I said. "But what most people do is play poorly and learn nothing from it, because they're too upset."

"So they just keep playing poorly," he said. He paused, then he laughed. "Dad, you can find something positive in ANYTHING."

"You help me do that," I said.

"Me? How?"

"Because I want to help you understand that being happy is a craft," I said. "It's not something that comes automatically. And when I think about what you need to learn, it makes me realize what I haven't learned yet. I would have never thought about today this way if you weren't with me. I would have just thought that it sucked."

He laughed. "It DID suck," he said.

"Yeah, but it won't suck on Saturday, when we go to the range and fix all this," I said. "And that will make it less likely to ever happen again."

That's one of the most surprising things I found out about being a Dad: you think you're teaching your kid, but in a lot of ways, you're teaching yourself.

When we got home, I downloaded Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, which is a classic in golf instruction, mostly because it's so straightforward. Golf swings are complex, in many ways, but thinking about them in complex ways can be ruinous. There are a few very simple things in a golf swing that are essential, and if you can do them, you'll hit the ball decently almost every time.

That's a metaphor for life, too, but I know you saw that coming.

So I read The Little Red Book, and on Saturday at the range, I gave Eli his three keys. And it worked. In ten minutes, he was hitting the ball as well as he ever has, and he had a big smile on his face.

"So when are we going to play on a course again?" he asked.

Chris Kluwe is the Funniest Player in the NFL

This pretty much lays it out in terms of replacement refs:
An NFL’s Player View Of The Replacement Refs: They’re As Bad As You Think

I'm really baffled as to why the NFL is trying to take a "hard line" in negotiations. Based on the quality of the replacement refs, haven't the regular referees gained about 10,000 times more leverage?

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

LEGO and the Future of Gaming (part 2)

Yesterday, we talked about the LEGO convention in Austin, and how LEGO seems to have entirely revitalized their brand.

Well done, Denmark-type people.

[note: LEGO will not by typed in all-caps for the rest of this post]

The question: can the gaming industry learn anything from Lego?

To start with, I'm not trying to claim that Lego situation is entirely analogous to the situation the gaming industry finds itself in today.

There are, however, a few things in common. Shifting market conditions. Deteriorating financials. Death if significant changes aren't made. And, most importantly, both Legos and videogames are forms of play.

Play. Does anyone remember that?

Here are four things that the gaming industry could learn from Lego:
1. Branding
If you ask anyone what Lego is, they can answer the question immediately. Everyone understands what Lego represents. Everyone. It's one of the most cohesively-branded companies I've ever seen.

If you ask ten people what Electronic Arts is--in a branding sense--you'll get ten different answers. Hell, as someone who generally pays attention to these kinds of things, I have NO IDEA what Electronic Arts is supposed to be as a brand.

No idea.

Activision? Who the hell knows? Ubisoft? Don't make me laugh (although they did say today in an excellent RPS Interview that always-on DRM will no longer be used going forward, so congrats for returning to Sanity Town).

I do understand Nintendo's brand, because it's almost identical to Lego: Play. Nintendo is less successful than Lego at executing the brand philosophy in their games at times, but at least I know who they are.

2. Quality
Does anyone ever worry that a Lego set will be crap in terms of quality? Ever? Yes, I understand that the production process is entirely dissimilar from games, but it's also true that the larger models must go through an incredibly rigorous design and development process.

Do you know what quality produces in me as a consumer? Loyalty. I will never hesitate to buy a Lego product because of quality concerns. Ever.

The gaming industry, on the other, generally falls all over itself making excuses for the quality of their product.

Here's a typical story. Madden has been coming out almost annually for 25 years. In this year's edition, the CPU playcalling is pretty seriously borked in end-of-game situations when the CPU is behind. They'll consistently run the ball in entirely inappropriate situations, basically not trying to win.

Worse, the two-minute AI was the best part of the game last year. It was terrific. And they *ucked it up entirely.

Is there some kind of red alert for EA in this situation? Some emergency patch so that the CPU actually makes an effort to win? I mean, that is the point, isn't it?

Nope. Apparently not.

You know what that kind of attitude that produces? Alienation.

The NHL series, on the other hand, has a strong history of quality. I am incredibly loyal to that game because it actually works, and it gets better. That's EA, though--their quality is all over the map.

Do I care that videogames are hard to make? No. Fix your shit. I spend 10% of what I used to spend on videogames because the quality is so poor. And I spend 10X what I used to spend on indie games, because the developers are far more committed to their products.

3. Choose Your Experience
Every Lego brick, whether it's part of a specific model or not, is a multi-purpose experience. You can use it for its originally intended purpose, or you can use it in something else that you create.

Sounds like a sandbox experience, doesn't it? Or a mod?

Unfortunately, the gaming industry has rapidly turned its back on both, although there are exceptions (thank you, Bethesda). Instead, they want you to buy DLC. Lots and lots of DLC. They want total content control.

To the gaming industry, I'm just a revenue stream.

Sure, I'm a revenue stream to Lego as well, but I get much more for my dollar. Much, much more. I get to choose my experience. I can have a guided experience, or an entirely creative experience of my own making.

You know what? One of those two options is going to make me happy.

4. Play
I'm sure it's because I'm an aging fossil, but man, some of the content in games now is very troubling. Ultra-realistic people slaughter, basically. It's gone from pixelicious Wolfenstein, which was laughably innocent in retrospect, to games I can't even play because they're so realistic in their depiction of war.

I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who said there are only two types of people who want to go to war: those who don't plan to fight in it, and those who have absolutely no idea what it's like.

So there's something about the adoration of the Call of Duty series that makes me queasy. Sure, on one level it's a sport, but on another level, it's pretty damn creepy. Big gaming companies have been willing to redefine "play" in ways that obliterate its original meaning.

Could that distance possibly be one of the reasons why the industry is struggling so badly? There must be a point where "No matter what it is, if they'll buy it, we'll make it" must become destructive.

Yes, I fully acknowledge  that this is a "philosophical bullshit position" kind of argument where supporting data is impossible.

5. On the other hand: licensing
I just added #5, because I remembered something that's worked very well for Lego that hasn't particularly worked well for gaming companies: licensing. there was a kind of Golden Era of Licensing for gaming companies,  but that era is long gone, and licenses for "games based on X" often turn out disastrously, both in a quality and sales sense.  Plus, the cost of the license can substantially raise the break-even point for the game.

All right, that's way more than I intended to write, and if you're still reading, there must be some kind of merit badge that you've earned. Go play with Legos.

10000000 Feature at Wired

Written by Owen Faraday of Pocket Tactics, here's an interview with Luca Redwood, creator of the tremendous 10000000: How a bedroom developer's 'ugly little game' became an App Store hit .

This is Quite Possibly the Most Inspiring Story Ever

I wrote about Alex Zanardi before, the former CART champion driver who lost both of his legs in a horrifying accident in 2001. By all rights, he should have died, but he didn't.

He kept living, too, which is not always the same thing as not dying. And today, there's this: Alex Zanardi wins Paralympics 2012 handcycling gold.

Man, I've got chills and I'm almost crying just typing this.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

LEGO and the Future of Gaming

We went to a Lego show on Friday at the Austin Convention Center.

It was a three-day event, and the first "session" was at 4 p.m. on Friday. We picked up Eli 11.1 from school and drove straight there, walking in about 4:10. By 4:45, it was packed.

Five years ago, I thought LEGO was dead.

I made sure that Eli had a few sets, just for nostalgia's sake, and we went to LEGOLAND (okay, I'm stopping this all-caps shit right now)--where I had a fantastic time, even more so than Eli--but Lego seemed out of touch with kids.

I regretted this deeply, as I strongly believe that the process of creating Lego models builds all kinds of strongly integrated intelligence.

Lego's financials, though, were spiraling downwards--not unlike the game industry today, really--and the company appeared to be in "a rapidly decaying orbit of failure" (not my phrase, but I like it).

I always felt that, in today's world, Lego was a tough sell. It was such an exploratory, non-guided experience--which is wonderful--but it didn't seem to mesh well with how kids experience life in the U.S. these days, which is a much more guided experience.

That strongly-guided experience has made kids much more savvy, in many ways, at a much earlier age, but it hasn't helped their creativity. Kids are far less creative than they were in 'the old days', just because they have so little time to create compared to the old days. So Lego didn't align well with American kids anymore.

Inside the convention center, though, there was an almost explosive amount of energy. Something, clearly, had happened while I wasn't paying attention.

So I started paying attention.

I realize that Lego's direction would be clearly on display inside the convention center. And I also realized that if I could understand how Lego reinvented itself, it might help me understand what gaming companies could do to survive in an increasingly hostile environment.

The entire convention floor broke down into a very simple maxim: "see, build, buy."

First off, you'd walk in and be wowed by the life-size Lego models of Indiana Jones and Johnny Depp and Darth Maul and all kinds of other giant figures:


Next, beyond that initial area, were plenty of areas where you could build. There was an area where the host called out a type of figure for everyone to build, and they had five minutes to do it (our task: robots). The parents were all building, too.

There was also an area to build vehicles and race them on a downhill track, plus some building areas for younger kids. The showpiece, though, was a huge floor area in the shape of the United States. Anyone could build on a "ground tile" about 7"x7", and when you were done, you handed your tile to someone who would place it inside the United States outline (you could even ask for a specific location). It was a tremendously clever idea, both individual and collective.

There was also the brick pile:


In the back of the convention center was a retail area where a huge number of Lego sets were available for purchase, and boy, there was a lot of purchasing going on.


Lego has also done something very clever in terms of their marketing, which I had no idea was happening until I saw this:

That's right--Legos specifically targeted at girls, or--more accurately--the girl demographic that didn't already play with traditional Legos.

Like I said, this convention was bursting with energy. Well, except for this guy:

By the way, Lego's revenue was up 24% for the first six months of this year, and profits were up 35%. So in a challenging environment, they have adapted.

Tomorrow: what the gaming industry can learn from Lego.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Gridiron Solitaire #20: Peek

After last weeks update, I decided to implement the "peek" feature, or rather, decided to try to implement it. I wasn't sure how long it would take, wasn't optimistic, and wasn't confident (my coding attitude in a nutshell).

I did, however, have an extremely detailed list.

I've learned the hard way that having a detailed list of what must be done to accomplish a particular programming task is invaluable. Usually, when something takes me 2X as long as I thought it would, it's because my original understanding of the task sucked, and because of that, so did my list.

The list, though, was very good this time, and it basically took only one day to get peek up and running. Here's a screenshot, with a few caveats:
1. The peek card shouldn't be showing as much. It should just show enough to expose its number.
2. The cards hadn't been redone, so there was no number in the upper left-hand corner.
3. Also in relation to the card numbers, they hadn't been filled in with red/black yet.

Having said all that, you can still get an idea of what it would look like:

The first game I played with the peek feature enabled, it just didn't feel right. I was so used to the old gameplay that I had a tough time adjusting.

By the fifth game, two days later, I fully embraced the outcome, which was that the peek feature sucked.

Totally sucked.

Here's the thing: from day one, one of my primary design goals was gameplay speed. I wanted a game to take 15 minutes, and for that to happen, the card play had to be "one look."

Originally, there weren't many decisions to make in relation to the cards. The wild card added strategy, when it was on the board, but otherwise, the decisions involved football strategy and when to risk pressing the Big Play button.

With peek, that was all turned on its head. Gameplay went from one look to five look--not all the time, but often enough that game speed turned into glue. Decisions went from being clearly signposted to occurring constantly. It just killed the flow of the game.

Plus, the clean, crisp look of the layout became very cluttered with the addition of the peek cards.

I originally made this change because someone I respect highly said that the card play just wasn't interesting enough, but when he played the new build, he didn't like it, either.

Bye bye, peek feature.

Some good things did happen because of this, though. First, I understood why peek didn't work, and it reinforced why I originally designed the game the way I did. Second, fiddling with the layout resulted in me making a few changes to the non-peek layout that I think are both pleasing and more efficient. Third, Fredrik redid the cards so that the outside numbers, instead of just being an outline, are filled in with the card color, and they really pop now.

In the end, it wound up being an interesting rabbit hole, with a few small treasures discovered that made it worth the dig.

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