Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Random reads from around the Intertubes

A few posts that caught my eye:

  • Game retailers stocking fewer games, fewer copies of those they do buy. Further proof we're not recession-proof, recession-resistant, etc. (It will be interesting whether this compounds what we're already seeing with pubishers; cancelling risky projects, non-sequels, etc).
  • Pachter would disagree, as he maintains that we are recession-proof. He blames bad planning and over-investment in R&D on new IP and the like, rather than bread'n'butter sequels. (EA did spend over $1.1B on R&D last fiscal year, which is pretty high even for them. Expect that to drop next year).
  • Ubisoft is using this time to grow and invest. Smart if you have the cash on hand to carry you through. I think the "next gen consoles coming in 2011-12" is likely a bit off the mark though.
  • Q4 VC investments down to lowest level since Q1'05. Also not surprising. (As an aside, I've been letting VGVC.NET attrophy for a while, but it might be a good time to do some editorial around this).
  • Continuing the bad news, here's a post commenting on the downturn, layoffs, etc. An interesting snippet I disagree with: "a lot of firms, games industry or not, are using the credit crunch as an excuse to trim their more optimistic hires away". I think the difference with the games business in particular is that so many studios are running on a pretty thin bank balance, living hand-to-mouth between milestone payments. When credit dries up, cash is king, and if you don't have any, making payroll might get tricky.
  • Good, but lengthy editorial on the whole "are games art?" thing and on games place in our culture. The money quote:"
There is no other medium that produces so pure a cultural segregation as video games, so clean-cut a division between the audience and the non-audience. Books, films, TV, dance, theatre, music, painting, photography, sculpture, all have publics which either are or aren’t interested in them, but at least know that these forms exist, that things happen in them in which people who are interested in them are interested. They are all part of our current cultural discourse. Video games aren’t.
  • Its the sincerest form of flattery: EA, and other companies, asking for their IP to be whitelisted in Little Big Planet (Sony's been removing anything that even smells of IP infringement, not waiting for DMCA takedown notices.
  • Good interview with Jon Blow about Braid, his next project, and other stuff. Jon's smart. Go read!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Go Go Goo!

As Kotaku points out, lil' indie game World of Goo went to retail and made NPD's top 10 chart. Go Goo!

NPD Sales Charts January 11-17

1. WoW: Wrath of the Lich King
2. The Sims 2 Double Deluxe
3. Fallout 3
4. World Of Warcraft Battle Chest
5. Spore
6. Left 4 Dead
7. The Sims 2 Apartment Life
8. World Of Warcraft
9. Call Of Duty: World At War
10. World of Goo

Either a positive statement about Indie games, or a statement about the sorry state of PC gaming. Either way, Woot!

Cool iPhone "Serious" game

I bought Ian Bogost's new iPhone game, Jetset.

It's cool for so many reasons. It's a game with a message (thus the 'serious' part), it's location-aware, it's social, and well... it's just cool.
"A game for the frazzled globetrotter in all of us. Keep up with the changing rules of airport security on your iPhone or iPod touch. Play in airports to earn unique souvenirs to keep, give to friends, or redeem for prizes"
Players have to run security at airports as a TSA agent, under an ever-changing set of rules. That'd be fun enough but:
  • For over 100 different airports in the world, you earn unique 'souvenirs' if you play AT that airport (location-awareness via GPS)
  • All of the items in the game that you may have to confiscate from travellers (e.g. pressurized cheese) have real-world stories about how the TSA banned them for one reason or another. (In an email conversation with Ian, he mentioned how certain items with real-world stories behind them were required to be removed by Apple because they were risquee in one way or another. I can't elaborate because he'll be discussing this in an upcoming press article. I'll link when available).
  • Share earned souvenirs with Facebook friends
Go buy it!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

More thoughts on the Flight Sim tragedy

I've exchanged a few calls & mails with friends at Microsoft following the layoffs they announced. It's one thing to read the numbers. It's another thing to talk to a friend that's suddenly worried about the mortgage, feeding the kids, etc. Saddening.

Regarding the teams and products affected though, Flight Sim in particular is a shocker. The claim is that MS is still 'committed to the product', but having laid off the Aces studio, and their ever-distancing from the Windows gaming effort, it's really hard to beleive. The weight of it hasn't sunk in until now as I read some of the blog posts about the implications.

As Steve points out, Flight Simulator was (until this week anyway), Microsoft's oldest product in continual development. It was a piece of gaming's history. The original IBM PC version was developed by subLogic and published by MS for the IBM PC back in 1982. It existed on other platoforms (I got started on the C-64 version) as early as 1980. Is there another game franchise with a 29-year legacy? There's a good history here.

Additionally, Flight Sim isn't just a game, it's a platform. It supports an entire co
ttage industry of third party add-on vendors ranging from military missions to air traffic AI to hot air balloon sims to a space shuttle simulator. Not to mention the hardware add-ons for people that want to do really elaborate rigs.

Anyhow. It's sad. 

What next for this space? there's an obvious vaccuum for one of the few competing products in the space to try to fill. Still a shame for MS to lose all that legacy though. Maybe they should sell the source and assets to another company? Maybe open source the whole thing?

Might be worth noting that when MSN Games cancelled Bridge, enough noise from a small but rabid group of fans, some of it directly to Bill, brought it back (though in a different form). Not sure that would work for FS though.

Hope something good is resurrected out of the ashes here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Armageddon continues, some rays of light seen, etc

Man, it's getting a little scary to open up a browser over my morning coffee, lest some of the blood drip off the screen any into my americano.

Raph had a post up about the VW Management Industry Forecast which was recently published. In it, there's a great quote from Meez' Sean Ryan on his company's goals for 2009:
"Get profitable while Armageddon rolls over the industry"
Apparently, we are seeing what that armageddon looks like.
Of course we aren't immune either, having announced some fab closures and associated headcount (not games-industry exactly, but it's tech related).

Meanwhile, Ubi announced some good news, with Shaun White doing well (I'm playing a ton of it. fun), Far Cry 2 coming on as a slow burner (yay Clint!) and Prince of Persia showing signs of the same, having moved 2.2M units (yay Ben!). They are hinting at growing which is brave to say the least, but the right thing to do if you have cash in the bank and think you can use this to get ahead of competition.

Oh, and Square lays of about several hundred players, perma-banning them from the FF MMO for exploiting a bug (hello? Isn't this half of what gaming is? Excise the bug, not your customers! Jeez!)

Monday, January 19, 2009

WTF laptop displays; and my reluctant bowing down to Steve Jobs

I mentioned a little while back that we bought Alisa a new laptop. Well, that was the first of three.

We first bought a Sony VIAO, which was a nice, sleek, $800 machine. However, the glossy screen was impossible to use in our house. Returned the laptop to Frys (on day one of our snowstorm a while back, but that's another story).

So we start shopping for laptops with non-glossy, matte finish screens. You can't find them. They pretty much all switched to the new glossy screen. The exceptions being the $2700 17" macbook pro, which offers it as a $50 add-on, and a number of the mini 10" things, neither of which met our needs.

Further complicating the problem is the non-standard terminology around this. Some refer to the glossy display as non-glare, but that's exactly the opposite depending on your lighting conditions. More on this in a minute.

So our second purchase was via the internet, and it was a Lenovo Ideapad, also around $800, but offering a non-glare screen. Surprise, it's a glossy one. Returned to manufacturer.

We finally settled on the out-going model Macbook Pro, which I got for $1700, cause hey, once you are spending that kind of money you might as well buy the loaded model. It's a *very* sexy machine, but still, it's like a $700 premium over the equivalent model PC. Is there no one that can do an effective copy of their design at a cheaper price? *sigh*

Anyhow, here's my take on the display thing:

  • Glossy screens have a glass-like, smooth finish.
  • Matte screens have a dull finish, like a piece of frosted glass.
  • Matte screens are aweful in places with a high degree of very bright ambient light. The most obvious of which is outdoors, or any place where you are close to a lot of windows letting in the outdoor light from numerous directions (a single window 20' away could be considered a directional light). So, outdoors, coffee shops, etc.
  • Glossy screens are great where you have high ambient light, OR, where you have a small number of directional lights (like a desk or ceiling light) that might cause a reflection but you can position the laptop accordingly.
  • The problem with glossy screens is that many office environments, or houses such as mine, have a large number of ceiling lights. This makes it difficult to position the laptop in any way that doesn't end up with at least one or two very bright mirror-like reflections distracting you from your work. In these environments, a matte display is far better.
Anyhow. Think about where you are going to be using it before you buy it.

Not sure why the sudden industry shift to the smooth ones, but my hypothesis is that (a) they for some reason they are cheaper, (b) the show well at retail (where there are a large number of lights, but they tend to be really high up. Also you don't tend to work for an extended period at the machine at Best Buy), and (c) maybe more people are using their laptops at starbucks, outside, etc. :-)

In searching for the matte display, I found I'm not the only one to have the complaint. There are even some places that will "matte" (yay verbification!) your glossy display for a couple hundred bucks. The image below from the site I just referenced illustrates the point quite nicely.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Bedroom AV project

Bedroom AV project, originally uploaded by Kim Pallister.

When we bought our house it had in-wall speaker mounts in the kitchen, bedroom, office, master bath.... but no speakers in the mounts.

I'd started looking into them a while back but they were *insanely* expensive at most AV retail places, so I put off buying them.

I recently checked online and you can get them far cheaper. I bought a few pairs of pretty cheap ones -but adequate for our needs, for like $40/pair with shipping.

Anyhow, got around to installing some today. Yay, tunes!

The TV on the right is mounted on a swivel arm so that we can see it from bed, but Alisa can swivel it around 180 to watch from her office. I've got a linksys media center extender tie-wrapped to the back of it.

Until recently, I had ethernet cable running along the wall and floor, but over the holidays I routed it through the wall to the previous cable run I'd done a while back. The bedroom wall is curved, so there are joints every foot or so. It was a serious pain in the rear, but is now done.

Big Tail

photo.jpg, originally uploaded by Kim Pallister.

Tail end of the Spruce Goose at the Evergreen Air Museum in McMinnville.

That fighter flying sideways behind it is not smaller because of perspective. Just because the S.G. is a BIG MOFO Airplane. BIIIIIGGGG!!!!

Tom got to sit in the pilot seat where Howard Hughes sat. What it must have felt like to power that big fat bird up into the air is unfathomable.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

iPhone games mini-review, market thoughts

It occurred to me that I've bought and downloaded a bunch of iPhone games (17 to be precise - for a total of ~$20) but not commented on them. I'll also post some thoughts about the market in general in the next few days..

I'm doing a rough stack-rank based on my perceived value for time and money spent:
  • TapDefense: A tower-defense game for the iphone. It's good, it's free, it's playable in bite-size chunks of time. Same mechanic that made this genre addictive on the PC works here. There's even an accelerometer-driven earthquake tower just to make it special.
(Image courtesy Flickr user C4Chaos, Creative Commons attribution, sharealike)
  • Rolando ($9.99). NGMoco's flagship title. It's a *great* platformer showing just how much fun a platform the iphone can be. Innovative use of multi-touch & accelerometer. Worth the $10. Only down side is it's not exactly something you can play for 30 seconds at the grocery store checkout line (like tapdefense). Still, great title.

  • JellyCar (free): Fun physics-based, toon-rendered vehicle platformer
  • SolFree (free): Four different solitaire games, free. It's on your phone and sometimes you've got time to kill.
  • Sudoku (free): Same comment as above.
  • Enigmo ($1.99): A fun Lemmings/IncredibleMachine style puzzle game with 3D graphics and touch UI. Fun, and higher quality than many iphone games. Touch-driven UI can be finicky.
  • TouchPhysics ($0.99): It's CrayonPhysics for the iPhone. It looks cool, and physics puzzlers are always fun. However, the lack of precision and resolution made it frustrating for me. Between those two, things had a 'snap to' feel to them, far more than Crayon physics on a tablet PC, which felt magical.
  • Labyrinth LE (Free): It's a great 'virtual' version of those wooden maze/marble games you had as a kid. Great demonstration of the accelerometer. There's a paid version with more levels.
  • iBall3D (Free): It's a better version of labyrinth. However, I prefer Labyrinth's more minimalist and wooden-table feel.
  • FourFree (Free): It's connect four. Fun if you have kids.
  • TicTacFree (Free): It's tic tac toe. Fun if you have kids.
  • Piccross ($2.99): A reveal-the-image puzzle game. Gets to be *okay* after you clear the initial levels which are really there just to learn the mechanics of it. It would be fun if you were playing to try and beat a time, but this makes it frustrating as the 'picking' precision is too fine for the iphone's touch interface. [Disclosure: I bought this mainly because a friend of mine developed it, but I'm trying to be objective]
  • AirHockey ($0.99): It's air hockey. Fun if you have kids. It's a little finicky given the speed it moves at and the lack of precision in the touch interface.
  • Break Classic ($0.99): It's breakout. It's ok. I think it got pulled after getting a warning letter from Atari prior to their breakout releasing (which, btw, I'm going to boycott. They should spend money on building a better breakout, not on lawyers).
  • Aquahoops ($0.99): It's a virtual version of one of those water-filled pump games we had as kids in the eighties. Entertaining for about 2 minutes as an adult, but my kids loved it.[Disclosure: I bought this mainly because a friend of mine developed it, but I'm trying to be objective]
  • AllisJigsaw($0.99): I'm not a jigsaw-game fan, but it's a genre that keeps clocking along in the casual space. Anyhow, I got it because my daughter likes jigsaws. She enjoyed this one in the easy mode.
  • Cube (Free): It's a 3D First Person Shooter! And that's it. i.e. It's good to download and see that it can be done, but as far as playability, the poor UI, chunky frame rate and lack of precision on the touch interface make it nearly unplayable. Still, it's free and it looks nice.

Flying Squirrels!

I went skydiving once when I was younger and stupider. It was quite a thrill. However, I can't imagine how crazy this must feel, especially the clips at about 2min and 3min in of people skirting cliff walls and peaks by what looks like less than 30 feet or so. Hairy.

wingsuit base jumping from Ali on Vimeo.

via BoingBoing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mt Hood outing

photo.jpg, originally uploaded by Kim Pallister.

Went up to mount hood last weekend. Sunny, great snow. Slightly windy. Still awesome though. Hadn't been snowboarding in a year and a half.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book Review: Inventing the Movies

A while back I finished  (deep breath) Inventing the Movies: Hollywood's Epic Battle Between Innovation and the Status Quo, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs (exhale), by Scott Kirsner but never got around to posting about it in any detail.

The book is entertaining for anyone in an interest in business, in film, and in how technical innovation affected the business of film and vice versa.

For those with a vested interest in a similar space, such as gaming, the book is a must read. The parallels of history repeating itself are numerous and uncanny in their similarity.

A couple random examples: 
  • The reluctance of film editors to adopt digital editing systems and cinematographers to adopt digital cameras, have some parallels to the NIH reluctance we saw around the adoption of game engine middleware.
  • The concerns some have expressed about consolidation of distribution into the hands of console owners (see here and scroll down to Burning Mad) is similar to that expressed when studios locked up all the theaters and controlled distribuiton that way (pay attention MS/Sony/Nintendo - that one ended in a DOJ consent decree)
  • Many, many cases of elitism by the established players poo-pooing the new media and those quick to move to it. Pick your favorite EA, MS, Sony quote dissing casual games a few years back, or free-to-play biz models, or whatever.
  • Movie vendors said "no one will want to watch movies on a screen that small!" about TV, then about portable DVD players, then iPods. I hear the same thing about games on phones, iPhones, Netbooks, etc.
Anyone with time spent in the games business will see parallels upon reading Kirsner's book. The question, of course, is how to avoid falling into this trap of repeating history. First step, the easy one, is to know it, and this book is a good start. The harder step, is to be aware of which side of the fence you are on: Innovator or Luddite, and take a good introspective look on whether you've really assessed things objectively, or whether you sit too far to one side or the other.

Kirsner has a good blog where he continually covers this stuff, located here.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Best of Booty 2008 is up!

Best of Booty 2008 is out, and like previous editions, it's awesome. I'm 6 tracks in and loving it. The previous 3 years BoB has been on constant rotation on the MP3 player.

I love the mashup of Another One Bites the Dust and Pastor Gary Greenwald's lecture/sermon asserting that the same tune contained satanic messages when played backward.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

iTunes Abandons Music DRM - Could Games be Next?

The internets are afire with news that Apple is abandoning DRM from their music on iTunes. Apple fans everywhere will say that this was Jobs intent all along, naysayers will say it was pressure from customer defection to places like Amazon MP3 (where I currently buy my tunes). Regardless, it's a good thing.

[As an aside, it's interesting that Apple caved to the labels' request for tiered pricing, which they've lobbied for in the past. Songs will be $0.69 and $1.29. Compared to Amazon's $0.99. I think the labels are entering a dangerous game by opening the pricing can of worms. They may end up getting the whip 'o the long tail. It's also cool that they are letting people un-DRM their previously-purchased songs, but kind of shitty that a customer has to pay them $0.30c/song to basically uncripple it]

Anyhow, while this is good, as BoingBoing points out there's still DRM-crippled sales around audio books (through an exclusive arrangement with Audible), and Video. Also, BB didn't point it out, but games too, are DRM-crippled at this time.

In the past, I've posited that it seems inevitable that the same consumer demand for DRM-free content will spread from music to video and eventually to games. However, I thought it would go in that order. Movies first after music, games last.

My thinking there was that (a) games tend to have the highest price point ($60 retail titles) and a fanbase most aligned, stereotypically anyway, with the 'young male hacker type' stereotype, they are played on connected compute platforms, so less 'owning the media as incentive to go legit', and (c) movies tend to have a glut of hit-driven inventory even more so than games (not sure about this, but that was my thinking).

In thinking about this in the context of iphone, I'm now rethinking that position.

When looking at iPhone games, or all apps for that matter:
  • The vast majority of paid-for apps are $0.99 price point, so similar to music. The convenience of purchase vs pirate is similar to music
  • The biggest obstacle for most devs isn't piracy, it's obscurity, just as it is for authors and musicians.
  • As apps get connected, and I assume more of this will come, there's the possibility of connecting them to services that are for legit customers only
  • It's a new platform with a new base of apps, unlike movies which are shackled to a lot legacy agreements about distribution rights and rev sharing and the like.
The question that remains, of course, is whether customers will actually ASK for DRM-free game titles, and if so, for what? 

Music and video content are consumable on other devices. I might want to back them up, play them on my 360 or in the car. DRM stops me from doing that, or at best tells me how and when I can. Thus the bad taste.

The games, on the other hand, are written only for an iphone. so what do I stand to gain from DRM removal: moving to your spouse's iPhone? Upgrading phones? Play the games on an iphone emulator on my PC or mac? I'm not sure, but I'd like to know I have the option. Still that's likely a minority sentiment. Real pressure will only come if masses of customers have something they want to do, today, and start to demand it, as they've done with music. 

The only legit reason that comes to mind that would be truly compelling is if someone (Google? Nokia? RIM?) were to come out with a competitive phone that could (natively or through emulation) run iPhone apps. If that were the case, as a customer, I might be tempted with the other device, but faced with a software library that won't come with it. 

And that might tick me off... and remind me of when I had the same issue with music...

Friday, January 2, 2009

Daring Deeds of Desperate Developers

So I just picked up on this story about developer Bob Pelloni, who's staging a 100-day, uh, I guess it's a sort of a cross between a sixties sit-in and a coding binge in order to convince Nintendo to give up a dev kit so he can officially 'release' his game, Bob's Game.

By day 21, as Joystiq puts it, things are getting a little weird.

So first off, my 2c about this case:

It's pretty clear by reading the text on his site that Pelloni is probably a little, er, socially challenged, but more importantly doesn't really understand everything there is to understand about the business side of what he's doing. To say there's no cost to Nintendo isn't true. Any game shipped for a console reflects to some degree on those making that console, so they need to be ok with that and put some effort into getting behind the title (even though Nintendo does notoriously little of that).

Is his game any good? No idea. However, as a developer, he really shouldn't be putting all his eggs in one basket. [He mentions doing an iPhone port among others as his backup plan, but is naive to think that just because you can get the iPhone SDK that you won't run into other 'soft censorship' issues].

But anyhow, that's not the real story here.

At the high level, the thing that's interesting about this is visibility that little guys with a bone to pick can get in today's connected world, and what that means to those that offer a platform for content.

XBLA was hailed as the indie path to the 'console big leagues', but has endured it's share of criticism from small devs,with that criticism getting some attention. Criticism for non-transparency, soft-censorship, royalty rate changes, and lengthy cert processes, to name a few reasons. Beleive me, the posts by outspoken folk like Minter or others complaining about XBLA cert process, rate changes, etc, get the attention of execs. Being perceived as the big guy that tramples the little guy isn't good PR (whether or not it may be good for business).

In the past, only the big guys (like the one at the top of this post) could speak out against The Man and get any attention. Today, anyone with a good story and/or a crafty way to tell it can be a thorn in the side of a publisher or platform owner.

So now you have an issue if you are the big guy: Deal with the bad PR, or deal with the little guy. "Ignore him" is no longer an issue. Ignoring will let you filter out those unable to figure out a unique angle, but the rest become problematic.

And the thing is with little indie guys is that people WANT them to win. One could imagine this case ending with Nintendo saying "we looked at his game and it's CRAP!", to which the Intertubes would reply "shouldn't that be for us to decide? Give him his damn dev kit!".

Now whether fans beyond the hardcore ever speak with their purchasing dollars (i.e. "I'm refusing to buy a DS because they won't help indies like Bob") is another matter, but the possibility is there, and worth thinking about.

It's like the Kryptonite problem of publishing. Fun.

Braid coming to PC in Feb/Mar

Jon's commented on the PC release of Braid:

At this time, we’re looking at a window of February-March 2009 for the PC

I also liked this little addition from him in the comment thread when asked if it was releasing on Steam:

"Oh, and about Steam: Originally they did not seem very interested in Braid, but
now that it’s a successful game they seem to have changed their mind. I haven’t
signed a contract with them, but they seem interested, so the biggest factor now
is just me finishing the PC version and giving it to them."

New years party. Kids playing gh3.

We had a new years party and had GH3 playing to keep some of the kids busy that parents had brought over.

I exposed the kids to the GH3 soundtrack, and Tom's gone from singing chrismas carols and kids songs to singing Kiss's "I wanna rock and roll all night"; and Jenny's now claiming that she love's Ozzy and has gone from ballet dancing to imitating the 'stage girls' in GH3.

Sigh. They grow up so fast.