Thursday, November 3, 2011

. . . Farmville

Everything that I ever needed to learn about modern farming science I learned from playing Farmville...

OK not really, but one really important lesson that I did learn by playing Farmville is this: No matter how much time in a day that you think you have, allowing yourself to get sucked into any Facebook game that involves farming, a form of competition vs. your friends that is very subjective, and the ability to decorate a farm is a simple recipe for disaster that has a physics-defying capability for sucking away time like the center of a black hole... I am just saying...

The most recent time-sucking nastiness to appear in Farmville is the Halloween festivities, at the heart of which is the need to collect treats (candy), and the building components for Duckulas Castle -- which for the most part consist of Haunted Bricks, Knockers (of the door variety) and Buckets of Goo (glowing green goo at that).

Some free and very useful advice for you -- if you have not yet been seduced by the deceptively innocent appearing game called Farmville, save yourself! Run Away!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

. . . Murphy's Law - Sword of the Stars II

Sword of the Stars II and Murphy's Law

Murphy's Law is an adage or epigram that is typically stated as: "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong."

Like a lot of gamers I was looking forward to the launch of the next game in the Sword of the Stars series, being something of a major fan of space combat and space trading games... Let me be clear here though, I am speaking as a gamer and fan right now, not as a game reviewer or games journo.

When the game released, and it did release, really -- The Sword of the Stars II released -- it launched -- they tell us that it is out -- but when it released on Steam the version that was uploaded was a Beta version rather than the completed game, and it made it into the distribution channel on Steam before anyone realized what had happened.

The version that was uploaded was the Beta client that was stable prior to the actual Beta test -- in other words with all of the bugs that were later identified by the testers and, presumably, fixed...

Once the mistake was recognized and the Beta version of the game on Steam was pulled, the correct version was supposed to have been what replaced it. But when that new version was examined by gamers who had already purchased the game, what was supposed to be the retail build turned out to be yet another Beta build...

A close examination of what is supposed to be the retail release is a game whose version number still contains the 'B' designator that is used to identify Beta clients suggests that it is not what was expected -- the 1.0 retail build -- but the bottom line is that only the developer can ultimately say -- and so far all that they are saying is this: It is what it is.

Add to that the fact that large sections of the game in what is supposed to be the retail build are not actually accessible and the only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that something is very wrong here but nobody can say what exactly that is...

The Options Menu on the build that is purported to be the correct retail build is grayed out; it cannot be accessed. Many of the sub-menu's are either non-functional or contain miss-identified labels. Still, I have seen videos of the game being played and it is beautiful -- but I do not have a copy myself to play because the PR's notified all of the games journos who requested review copies that they will be delayed until the end of this week -- minimum -- while the developer creates and applies fixes.

Martin Cirulis, the C.E.O. of the game's developing studio Kerberos Productions, posted what is essentially a mea culpa plea that exonerated Steam, publisher Paradox Interactive, and the team that worked on SotS2, essentially accepting all of the blame for the misfire that is its launch attempt, or as many pundits are saying, the Space Combat Game's Failure to Launch.

What Does It Mean?

That is kind of difficult to answer since what information that we do have is vague, but what I think it means is that we need to wait a week, give Kerberos Productions the benefit of the doubt, and not jump to conclusions.

Speaking as a gamer and fan of the genre that is what I am doing. Speaking as a games journo though, I have sent some emails and I am looking into this, so check back with me next week and I may have more to add -- but hopefully it will be an enthusiastic endorsement, since we all win when a game starts rocky but pulls out and shows you its shiny side!

A Good Reason to Wait and to Hope

I have already admitted that I am something of a fan of the whole Space Combat and Space Trading genre, and that is true... To put this in perspective for you, let me tell you about the very first space combat and trading game that I ever played and how addicted I was to what, when you see the screen captures from it, you will probably be shocked and surprised by... But I assure you that I was not alone in finding it to be an awesome and entertaining but very addictive play.

Elite Privateer and the Commodore 64

When we typed the name of our computer it was C=64, which was a shorthand text version of its logo. Let me first tell you about the Commodore 64, of whic h I owned two: one to play games and do my school work on and one that I operated as a Bulletin Board System (BBS) that was in its own right an amazing machine.

This was 1984 mind you, and at the time as near as I can remember only the IBM PC had hard disk drives as a normal accessory, and even those did not come stock, you paid extra for them. The C=64 was made by Commodore, and before I owned it, I originally owned the previous model, which was called the VIC-20, a computer that had a massive 5K of RAM and ran the Commodore BASIC 2.0 OS.

The Commodore VIC-20 - had a massive 5K of RAM and a 1.02 MHz CPU

The C=64 did not have a hard drive, not even as an option, rather it had just the single-sided Model 1541 5.25" Floppy Drive -- which was something that did not come with the base model and you had to pay extra for! At the time most users had a cassette tape player/recorder that they used to save their programs on, if they had any mass storage at all!

When I decided to create a BBS with my C=64 I ended up buying a used 1541 floppy drive at a flea market to add to the new 1541 I already owned, and using one to hold the BBS software and chat boards, I used the other to hold games and programs that the visitors could download. When they wanted a program that was not on the data drive, they had to "crash" me system mail asking me to put the correct floppy into the drive, and yeah, that was cool.

What I ended up doing -- with the assistance of my Sisters then boyfriend, was scratch-building a hard drive controller that connected to the C=64 via its parallel port, to which I connected a 10MB MFM hard drive that my dad gave me after his office upgraded their PC's mass storage to 30MB drives!

It took us two weeks to get the controller built and debugged, and then get the hard drive to be recognized, but once it was let me tell you, I had the largest BBS New South Wales and Queensland combined! Of course it still only had one phone line coming into it, and the users were limited to 20 minutes a day, but man I had my ENTIRE file library online at the same time! Not only that, but it still left me over 9MB of free space on the drive, and I could not imagine EVERY needing more space than that massive 10MB hard drive could provide. I had not better need more space anyway because those things cost almost $3,000!

With my computer dedicated to being a BBS and not needing the second 1541 drive anymore but wanting to play games, I ended up buying a used C=64 at the flea market that I originally bought the floppy drive from -- there was a bloke whose thing was buying, selling, and trading computer parts, you see. So I bought a second C=64 and, when I did the bloke gave me a handful of games to go with it as part of his "service." At the time we did not think of this as game piracy - and if you had told us that what we were doing was illegal we probably would have thought you insane. It was just how it worked back then -- you shared games by making copies for our mates!

One of the games he game me was called Elite Privateer, and when I got home, got the system set up, and ran the game, I was hooked. I spent the next 24 hours playing it before falling into an exhausted state of coma...

To put this in perspective for you, in interviews the senior producers of CCP Games held out Elite as one of the main inspirations for their acclaimed MMORPG, EVE Online!

Here is what the game looked like:

What you are looking at above is the game's loading screen -- see that object in the center, the white object in the center? Yeah, that is your ship! The bottom center area is the radar sensor display, and the "gauges" on either side gave you lots of info about your ship...

When you started the game you initially controlled the character "Commander Jameson," and started the game at Lave Station with 100 credits and a lightly armed trading ship, a Cobra Mark III as they began the process of seeking out ports in order to purchase a cargo which they would then take to another distant port around a distant planet to sell, making a profit, and then do that again!

In the process they had to contend with pirates, hostile aliens, and things like navigational hazards, and docking with a space station to trade or upgrade your ship had to be accomplished by HAND, getting properly lined up with the docking port and then matching the spin and velocity of the station before you could dock, a maneuver that was not for the faint of heart!

Most of the ships that the player encountered in the game were named after snakes or other reptiles, and the odds were that the captain of that ship that was approaching yours was a pirate, and wanted you dead!

Trading was not the only way to obtain credits in the game -- credits could be accumulated through a number of means including piracy, trade, military missions, bounty hunting and asteroid mining, and if you had a fuel scoop you could even resupply your fuel by flying close to the sun and scooping up magma from around it!

The money that you earned by whatever of the methods you chose -- or a combination of them -- was used to upgrade your ship with better weapons, better shields, a larger cargo hold so you could carry more trade goods, and if you were a total wimp one of the first things you probably bought was an automated docking computer!

As I sit here thinking about those long ten-hour game sessions and the fun that we had playing this game I feel compelled to go search Ebay for a C=64 and a copy of the game... And you know, I must might!

Yeah, I can wait for Sword of the Stars... I am just not sure how long I can wait!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

. . . The Gaming Season

In addition to being the periodical of recreational reading preferred by people whose interests include investing, finances, and business, Forbes Magazine fills a number of niche interests, from defining just what it means to be wealthy and who is, by those standards, wealthy...

It should not be much of a surprise that the subject of video games and gaming -- as well as gamers -- has slowly ninja'd its way into the magazine as, after all, the world of games and gaming easily fits into that special interest publication thanks to it applying among several subject headings -- from investment (a lot of game studios and some of the major game publishers are publicly- held companies) to recreation.

A lot of wealthy people (and people who would like to be wealthy) happen to be gamers -- I am not going to make hay on the notion that following the stock market and the process of investing in and speculating on stocks is often referred to by the participants as "playing the game" -- or the connection between competitiveness among gamers and that typically encountered in the world of investing and brokerages. Acknowledging it here should be sufficient to bring it to our attention.

In the Tech Section on the web-version of Forbes Magazine yesterday there is an article whose title is "Nike Says Video Games Like 2K Sports' NBA 2K12 Helps Sell Basketball Shoes" by games journo and contributing writer John Gaudiosi that, within the body, mentions the past performance in sales for the game and its expected sales, which have been severely impacted by the player strike in the NBA presently underway.

This is interesting largely because it demonstrates the relationship between what most people think of as regular seasons with the unique and completely unconnected Game Season, and specifically how the fiscal side of it relates to real-world events.

In the world of video games when a games journo references the 'season' they are not talking about the four divisions of the year (spring, summer, autumn, and winter) marked by particular weather patterns and daylight hours, or even the Financial Seasons that are typically defined as Financial Winters -- a period in which money is in low supply, Financial Springs -- a period in which there is money but its flow is reduced, Financial Summers -- a period in which the flow of money is increased, or Financial Falls -- a period during which cash flow and investments in a company tends to be increased.

The Gaming Season is defined as a standard 12-month period -- independent of the calendar year -- within which there are three distinct sub-seasons: The Holiday Season, Prime Season, and Summer Doldrums. Based upon their names you should be able to deduce with some accuracy the thematic score for this trio of sub-seasons, but to fully appreciate them it really is necessary to dedicate some effort in understanding -- and appreciating -- their unique natures.

Breaking Down the Sub-Seasons of Gaming

The first thing you should accept is that the gaming season violate the calendar, which we can loosely define as a typical year which runs from January through December, contains 52 weeks and any number of holidays, and is a logical way to define time, dates, and within it, seasons. The Gaming Season does not begin in January, it begins in September, with all of the events that take place prior to the magic date of September 1st being part of the previous Game Season.

We are presently in the 2011/2012 Game Season -- that is how we identify them by the way, using the two regular years in which they take place in order to indicate the package that we call the Game Season and that contains the aforementioned trio of sub-seasons.

The Gaming Sub-Seasons consist of:
  • The Holiday Gaming Season
  • The Prime Gaming Season
  • The Summer Doldrums
The Holiday Gaming Season
September 01 thru December 24

As the name implies the first sub-season in gaming also comprises the first four months of the New Gaming Year, and is neatly divided into a pair of ranges, with the first half consisting mostly of games being released partly as a celebration of the end of the traditional final sub-season of the previous gaming year, and partly as a result of time -- more on that n a bit.

The second half of the Holiday Season is just what it sounds like: the period of time in which games that are being intentionally positioned for Christmas sales are released, and promoted.

A question of Time is what largely determined the designation of September as the kick-off point for the New Gaming Year. Several events occur in September of each year, starting with the wholly unofficial but still easily identified rebirth of the working year, the resumption of the education season (which incidentally shares a lot of common characteristics with the gaming seasons) and the cessation of the many elective activities that largely occupy the typical person's weekend leisure activities.

As the physical season winds down and Fall approaches, there is a perception that gamers have more time to play games, and that more than anything else is behind the designation of September as the star for the New Gaming Year.

Games that actually completed the development process in the first Quarter of the previous year have sat on the figurative shelves waiting for the new gaming year to begin so that they could make their way into the traditional starting point and, with luck and judgement of their merits, hopefully find there way into gamer hands, be the subject of much buzz, and claw their way through the cadre that makes up the short list for the competition for the title of Game of the Year.

Around mid-October the pre-release PR process begins for the games that have been held back for release with an eye on the Christmas shopping season emerge from their warm and safe cocoons, and the emphasis in presentation is largely geared towards appealing to the people who buy presents each Christmas (parents, grand parents, that sort of consumer) whose interest is largely limited towards comprehension of the potential value of a game as a gift -- and that translate roughly to convincing them that Junior or Sissy will really like this game!

Throughout this first sub-season there are sprinkled a handful of AAA titles that are cross-marketed to obtain the attention of the Xmas crowd (who we just discussed) and the gamers themselves, who naturally use a completely different criteria for judging the advisability of purchasing a game and, subsequently, receive a very different focus and pitch from the PR's.

That presents the basic picture for the first Sub-Season of the New Gaming Year and Season.

The Prime Gaming Season
January 01 thru May 31

This is the core of the gaming year -- and it is during this period that the major titles are released, as well as the games that the studios expect you to spend most of the Summer playing. Naturally the games that are targeted for release during the Prime Sub-Season tend to consist of the more complex and deeper (think large) games, and those that have a bigger-than-average online side to them.

The entire focus of PR efforts during this period is directed at gamers, not parents or grand parents, so there is a much more enthusiastic approach to the process.

These five months tend to be the period in which the major share of profits are obtained for the game studios and publishers, and it is during this period that most of the gamer poling takes place that will translate into DLC expansions in the next Game Year.

The Summer Doldrums
June 01 thru August 31

That unfortunate period in each year in which, typically, annual personal holidays take place and during which the majority of gamers have less time and pay less attention to gaming because there are a lot of other things that they do.

The less that is said about these three months the better.

Most gamers spend the Summer Doldrums catching up on the games that they own that they never finished for whatever reason.

Interrupt Driven
Web definitions:
Used to describe someone who moves through the a workday responding
to a series of interruptions rather than the work goals originally set...

So welcome to the New Gaming Year!

As we progress into the hot-phase of the Holiday Sub-Season, you will be happy to learn that the 2011/2012 Gaming Year is shaping up to be a good one!

Here is what you can enjoy now, and what you have to look forward to for the 2011 Holiday Sub-Season:

  • Warhammer 40,000: Space Marines (6 Sept) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Dead Island (9 Sept) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • NHL 12 (13 Sept) PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Resident Evil 4 HD (20 Sept) PS3 / Xbox 360
  • F1 (23 Sept) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • FIFA 12 (27 Sept) PC / PS2 / PS3 / PSP / Xbox 360 / Wii
  • Resident Evil Code: Veronica X HD (27 Sept) PS3 / Xbox 360
  • NBA 2K12 (04 Oct) PC / PS2 / PS3 / PSP / Xbox 360 / Wii
  • RAGE (04 Oct) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Dead Rising 2: Off the Record (11 Oct) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • PES 2012 (14 Oct) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Spider Man: Edge of Time (14 Sept) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • X-Men Destiny (14 Sept) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • The Sims 3: Pets (18 Oct) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Batman: Arkham City (Oct 20) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Battlefield 3 (Oct) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • NCIS (Oct 31) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Puss in Boots (01 Nov) PS3 / Xbox 360 / Wii
  • Call of Duty: MW3 (08 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (11 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Assassins Creed: Revelations (15 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • Saints Row: The Third (15 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5 - 7 (18 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360 / Wii
  • Need for Speed: The Run (18 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • WWE '12 (22 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
  • The Lord of the Rings: War in the North (25 Nov) PC /PS3 / Xbox 360
There are more of course, but the above is the highlight of the AAA titles that are set to rock your New Gaming Year.

Friday, October 21, 2011

. . . Fearful Computing Events

Most of the time computers are something that we use for work and entertainment, find fun, and explore the vast world of online media and social networking... When everything is going right, we rarely even think about the inner workings of our computer, but when things start to go wrong, we have no choice but to think upon it and worry.

The worse thing that can happen is for your PC to die...

Conventional wisdom suggests that as long as you have a recent backup, having your PC die is no big deal. Yeah, right... No big deal? You still have to replace it or have it fixed (or if you are me, fix it yourself), and then there is the dreaded process of first installing the OS and then every... Single... App... and... Game... again. Gah.


Which is why when I replaced my main PC last year I constructed what I considered to be the best high-end system that I could manage, starting with spending a bit extra on an ASUS motherboard with robust RAID support. I then bought a matched set of 2TB hard drives and used them to create a single 1TB mirrored array.

If you are not up on the tech -- RAID means Redundant Array of Inexpensive Devices -- which basically means you take two or more hard drives and install them into a system that has a RAID controller in it, then create a system with built-in data backup because it maintains a copy of the entire contents of the main drive in live mode. If that drive fails, the second drive in the array automatically becomes the boot drive, and you lose nothing.

Knowing that you have that sort of protection means that you can reduce your backups to once a week instead of daily. Considering that the hard drive is the most common failure point in a system, it also means you have insurance mates!

Once the system was built, all the apps were installed, and it took its place as my main work machine for graphics and video production -- two critical resources that are important to my work -- I had nothing to worry about. Until...


On Monday when I booted my system to shoot some game videos for a guide I was working on, I saw something that I had never seen before -- a warning screen during the boot told me that my RAID Array has degraded. The system booted and as soon as I logged into Win 7 I got another warning -- the RAID is Degraded!

What does that mean? It means one of the drives failed. Yeah, that is not good. But thanks to the magic of RAID I still had a fully-functioning system and was able to work. But now I had no insurance -- and I did not have a backup drive ready to go into the system. Jumping instantly into action, I checked the model number for my drives and ordered two replacements, with overnight shipping -- two because one needed to go right into the array, and the second, so that I had a drive on-hand in case I get another failure.

So I had two forms of insurance on the way. As expected, on Tuesday afternoon the drives arrived, but I couldn't actually do the repair until last night because of the video shoots I needed to do. Time is the enemy, and missing a few hours of sleep to fix this problem is worth it.

So how hard is it to replace a failed drive in your RAID mirror?

Easier than you might think -- as all that was required was to remove the bad drive, replace it with a good drive, go into the RAID Controller Boot Menu and tell it to add the new drive to the array and rebuild it, and then boot Win 7, at which point the system automagically detected the rebuild order and commenced to do it!

Well, not instantly... Initially the status message said it would take 25 hours to rebuild the array, but once it actually started doing it, the timer corrected down to 7 hours. Hey, 7 hours is not bad compared to 25!

So as I write this, the array is rebuilding, there is a spare drive in my closet, and all is right with the world. How was your week?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

. . . Steve Jobs

Steven Paul "Steve" Jobs was something of a legend in many circles -- computers, music, movies, animation, and the phone phreak scene. Being a phone phreak myself, that is where I know him the best, and it was his zest for exploration, tech, and turning a buck, that he is most remembered in that scene.

His death at such a young age is regrettable. He clearly had more to offer the world and, had he had the time in which to do it, I am absolutely certain that his vision for consumer tech would have easily opened up entire new lines of technology. He was, in the words of John Perry Barlow, "lightning in a bottle."

Can't really sum it up better than that. I never respected Steve's attraction for mind-altering drugs, which I have long considered to be his major weakness. But I really liked his NeXT hardware design and I am happy to have the memories of those conversations.

Anima eius et animae omnium fidelium defunctorum per Dei misericordiam requiescant in pace.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

. . . Judging Video Games

Considering that part of what I do for a living is judge the relative merits and the "goodness" of video games, you would think that being asked exactly how I tell whether a game is any good or not would be a question that I should be able to instantly snap off a brief answer that is to the point and easy to understand, right? Well... Not so much, really.

This morning among the two-dozen new email messages that I usually get on a Saturday was one that asked me simply how I can tell when a game is any good? I should explain that I have a fairly complex set of filters and scripts on my email program so that the messages are sorted before I ever see them, with games related mail going in one folder, email from friends and relatives (and flagged as such) into another, with a cascading list of other folders sorted by the information in the subject line.

That filter system is why I always instruct the readers of my game guides to include the name of the game in the subject, since otherwise my email program is very likely to put their email into the "general > unsorted" folder, which is also where a lot of the span and unsolicited mail goes and which is the last folder I read each day, if I read it at all...

Back on the subject, the email was from a regular reader of my newspaper column, but they also read my game reviews and my articles on Gaming Update, and they mentioned that they liked my guides on SuperCheats and GameFaqs, so I either have a stalker or they really are simply following my writing...

As I sat and re-read the question I felt the urge to giggle in a very unmanly way. How do I tell if a game is good? How do I tell if a game is good?? To be fair that is an interesting question. It is also a difficult one to answer as I soon discovered.

If email was like writing on real paper, what you would have seen if you had come into my office this afternoon was me sitting at my desk surrounded by crumpled up balls of paper that represent the dozens of attempts that I made at trying to answer the question. Of course it is not like real paper, so there were no balled up torn-off sheets of paper surrounding me, but you get the idea.

How do I tell when a game is Good?

The easy answer to that question -- and a total cop-out -- would be to paraphrase United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his answer to the question of how to describe his threshold test for obscenity, which he wrote in his summary of Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964): "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

That explanation has become one of the most famous phrases in the entire history of the Supreme Court, and even distilled down to a bare quote of "I know it when I see it" leaves it easily identified as Justice Stewart's infamous words.

It would be so easy to say I know a good game when I see one and leave it at that, but doing so would not only be disingenuous but it would also be avoiding answering the question at all.

Judging a Games "Goodness"

While it is by no means an official road map to the determining if a game is good, the right place to start is always with evaluating the story, plots, and the sub-plots that make up the story portion of the game. A good, well-constructed main story line is always a plus, even for games whose story is not its strongest point. Characters and their development is next -- obviously we are not very likely to end up immersed in a game when there is nothing for us to care about in it, and liking the character that you play (the protagonist) is a great place to start.

The next obvious point is the challenge level of play. It should be interesting, it should be original, and it must not simply recycle the same basic play over and over because that is the fastest path to boredom that I can imagine.

Every game is not going to have the depth of Final Fantasy XIII or the immersion of Fallout: New Vegas, but that does not mean that it cannot find its own way towards those two goals. It is interesting to note that sometimes when a developer is making a game that they know will not be able to hold up any story or plot using the foundation of its characters, the most obvious alternative is to find a gimmick to rely upon.

Take Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball as an example (AKA DOAX) and you have a game that relies almost completely upon a gimmick (near-nudity) as its primary vehicle. That it is a complete and total departure from the games in the DoA series that proceeded it to the point that it is largely viewed with rampant speculation by gamers the world over as something of a scam, and who not surprisingly, are convinced that its release as part of the DoA series was really a bald attempt at capitalizing upon the previous successes of the series to take what would otherwise be a lackluster beach volleyball game whose only attraction when it is judged purely on its own is the very well-drawn umm... Scenery?Well, you see the point?

It should be noted that the DoA series is a game series solidly embedded in the Fighting genre, and its following was largely teenagers into fighting games. Viewed that way, it makes complete sense for Tecmo to take this sexually-focused beach volleyball and present it to the traditional audience for the Dead or Alive games! The fact that DOAX is the first game in the series to obtain a Mature rating from the ESRB pretty much tells the rest of that story.

For the record what little actual nudity there was in the game occurs very early in the opening scene and is not an interactive part of the game. The ability of the player to zoom in and out, and position the center focus of the screen where they like when combined with the characters of the game who, save for a few exceptions, all pretty much sport uniforms that consist of the skimpiest of bikini’s pretty much illustrates the prurient focus of the game.

So here we have a game that uses a gimmick -- sex and scantily clad young girls -- and whose focus is not what the previous games in the series focused upon. It has a story -- the player selects a character and plays them through the two weeks of the fake tournament that the focal character Zack has organized in order to surround himself with scantily clad women athletes, and whose plot largely comes in two parts -- the awkwardness of the situation that Zack engineered followed by surviving the eruption of the volcano on 'Zack Island' immediately following the end of the fake tournament.

Is this a good game?

Well, reviewers and players overwhelmingly thought that it was! I never had the opportunity to review it because our reviews are reader-driven, and the readers evidently did not see the need for it to be reviewed and so never requested it, but games journo Aaron Boulding writing for the website IGN gave it a rating of 9.2 out of 10 with the note "Amazing" while Gamespot gave it a less enamored 6.0 out of 10 with the comment that it was "Fair."

A quick and dirty review of the reviews that the game received that contributed to its Meta ranking as well as its cumulative ranking on the website reveals that the title was one of those games that tended to get favorable reviews, with most of the reviewers agreeing that it was a pretty good beach volleyball game. Add in the nearly nude girls and the guns, and it is pretty obvious that the International Amateur Athletics Union that oversees the criteria used to judge the standards for games in the Olympics has clearly missed a sure thing. Yeah, that was rather sarcastic humor...

Still this is a good game to use to illustrate the question -- because it was a game that gamers (and critics) either really liked a lot, or despised. When you read the negative reviews that it received very few of them actually addressed the game play, simply because they could not get past the near-nudity and obvious objectification of women to see the game play.

The critics that were able to see past the obvious and offensive nature of the presentation of the characters agree that it is a pretty good beach volleyball game -- though of course this was in 2003. I played it recently and I can say without reservations that the stilted and very simplistic game engine would instantly get this game slammed by players and critics alike, and thanks to modern video games like the last few games in the Grand Theft Auto series, the last Duke Nukem game, and even the last few Tomb Raider games, the near-nudity of DOAX would simply not be enough even as a gimmick to save the game rating today.

. . . I Judge . . .

Since the end of the Summer Doldrums there have been some really good games hitting store shelves and gamer consoles, not the least of which are Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Driver: San Francisco, and Gears of War 3, and some notable DLC expansions like The Lonesome Road (for the established dashingly successful Fallout: New Vegas) and a few interesting expansions in the form of additional cases for the cult classic L.A. Noir.

With respect to the DLC, these were good game expansions laid on top of good games, though just because a base game is classified as a AAA title does not necessarily mean it is a good game or is going to be one.

One interesting system for determining whether a game is good or not is the system that is used by one of my good friends Jeremy Clark -- a veteran games journo who has been writing about and reviewing games for nearly 30 years. His personal system is very simple:

"If I have a hard time saving and quitting the game, then it is a good game. If I cannot bring myself to stop playing no matter how exhausted I am, it is a great game!""

Sadly that system and most of the one I use largely brings us full circle to the words of United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it.

And there you have it. Now if you will excuse me I am going to get back to finishing up The Lonesome Road so I can write the review for this very good DLC Expansion to a Very Good Game!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

. . . in Flight WiFi Revenue

By way of explaining what may on the surface appear to you as a rather odd subject for this blog, I like to mention every now and then that . . .

This Blog --> Speaking Of . . . <-- This Blog

. . . you are reading what is both a blog in the most common sense and purpose of the title (it exists for the purpose of sharing my ideas, thoughts, and observations) and a place of great convenience where I am able to write about the things I stumble upon that either (A) I find interesting enough to want to think upon, mull over, and write about, that (B) nobody wants to pay me to write about or that (C) I choose not to write about for pay because I find it amusing to write about it simply out of the desire to write about it. Confused? Yeah, me too.

In-Flight Wi-Fi Revenues to Surpass $1.5 Billion in 2015, Says In-Stat

A recent article by In-Stat (the market intelligence unit of NPD Group that is often used by stock traders, investors, and those who evaluate events, businesses, and companies with an eye towards investing their own or other people's money... I read its output largely due to the fact that every now and then it examines a subject I am interested in -- say one in every 30 email articles or so being the average) that examines the revenue being earned by airlines and the technology companies who provide in-flight Internet access -- places the income from that small sector at something about to surpass $1.5 Billion with a 'B' dollars.

Initially the market for in-flight 'net access was a small one for a couple of reasons, not the least of which was that getting travelers to spend money on the service initially meant convincing them to alter several habits that are ingrained into travelers because it is how they have been traveling for the past 20 years or more.

Specifically you needed to get them to break their habit of carefully packing their computer bag into the overhead bin and convince them to put it under the seat instead. In addition to that, you also needed to break their habit of not using their computer in flight; but you have the airlines help with that to some degree in that on the newer airline hardware and specifically mostly everything Boeing 737 and above -- there are now power outlets installed into the bulkhead or each seat that conveniently allow users to use their personal computers in-flight...

Another major factor is the increase in truly portable computing devices and our willingness to make use of them as a form of entertainment while traveling -- and now I am specifically talking about the iPad, tablet computers, and basic book and text reading devices like the Kindle which also have basic net surfing capabilities built into them.

As these habits are changed we see profits rising for in-flight 'net access companies -- and the airlines -- and this is food for thought... Both industries undertook extensive research to get a better handle on understanding their customer base, and the results were more than a little bit of a surprise...

Some of the research findings include:
  • Take rates have increased significantly, moving from an average of 4% in 2010 up to 7% in 2011.
  • While in international markets in-flight broadband is just entering the competitive differentiator stage, In-Stat believes it will rapidly transition to a competitive requirement in these markets as it did in the US.
  • Combined, smartphones and tablets are now the predominant devices, in terms of percent of connects.
  • In-flight broadband providers are beginning to introduce new revenue opportunities, including additional passenger services (video and voice) and operational services.
The research pretty much verifies my own assumptions -- and it is always nice to have someone else spend their money verifying my own analysis of a situation.

The tech has caught up with the desire -- users are doing a lot more than simply checking their email or reading and replying to chat boards.... They are splitting their time between work activities and play, which I find fascinating...

The airlines learned that offering the service is no longer an optional thing -- customers expect it to be there and a growing percentage will actually avoid airlines who do not offer it on flights longer than 2 hours. Travelers in the forward classes (first certainly, business increasingly) not only expect the service to be present, they expect it to be free or at least included in the price of their tickets.

Many airlines are combining their Internet access capabilities with the onboard entertainment systems -- Virgin America is a good example of this trend -- not simply spreading the capability throughout the aircraft but making good use of it themselves as the heart of their news and entertainment systems in the send of payment systems more than anything else.

For example, when a passenger orders food through the video touchscreen built into seatback in front of them or installed in the arm of their seat, it used the Internet to accept and process the payment using a credit card that is "swiped" through the same card reader that is used to activate the airphone at each seat. It is not simply food that this system is used for, but movies, TV, and the skymall as well to the point that the cabin crew no longer accepts cash money.

This all bears further contemplation... And perhaps a closer look at Boeing's Connexion and why it failed to take off (yeah, bad pun), what GoGo did right, and why Southwest's satellite-based service had so many issues.... More thought indeed.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

. . . Routines

Like most people I am a creature of habit and routine; each day I follow a set of patterns that begins with waking up and checking my email over a cuppa, answering the messages that require my attention immediately before breaking my fast, and then dealing with the rest of the email on an as-needed, as-deserved basis.

Along with those answered messages are invariably a few new messages that I must create to deal with the things that need to be dealt with, and this first pattern of habit begins both my personal and my working day.

What follows is a pattern of routines: I read and review the wire service reports, prioritize the press releases that I have received as email directly from the PR's, and compare those to the report that is maintained on a pair of industry websites before selecting the stories that will make up the morning video game news contents for Gaming Update.

In addition to the above activities, I also review and select the various news pieces that have been submitted by the other members of the site's growing staff of talented writers, selecting and approving the pieces that are destined to be included as the day's gaming news feed from the other writers, performing these tasks and making these decisions in my capacity as unofficial sub-editor.

With all of that managed, I then depart IRL for work, where I perform the work-like things that the physical space is reserved for at that place called work, and at some point in my day I have Skype conversations with the other staff writers/interns for GU, during which we will discuss the topics for their upcoming pieces / coverage, and participate in the social side of those relationships.

This can mean anything from simply gossiping and exchanging links to the websites/pages online that have most recently attracted our collective attention, to participating in organized social activities -- for example we have our own small group on the Facebook social game Farmville within which we often pursue group-oriented efforts such as growing specific crops for crafting and the like.

By mid-day the bulk of this set of routines is completed, not to be repeated until the following morning when it all begins again and anew!

Randomness that is Not Random
Following the completion of that small element of work-mixed-with-socialization I fall into the next regular set of routines; completing outstanding assignments for the other publications that I work for, taking care of research for upcoming columns and articles, and organizing my list of Things That Must Be Completed and Acted Upon™ and, once those are finished to my exacting standards, I break for lunch, eat it, and spend some time visiting the websites and pages that I normally visit at that time of day (and thus performing yet another of the many routine activities that collectively make up the varied but regular subroutines of an average day).

Friday, September 23rd, 2011 meant popping-open my bookmarks folders, navigating to the one whose title is "Blogs" and paying visits to:

(1)The Daily Girl Attack Panic Super HD Remix Blog, where I catch up on what Lauren has to say since my last visit. Lauren is, if you are not aware, an incredibly intelligent and observant girl gamer who, though temporarily seduced by the Dark Side (PR) is nevertheless in the foundations of her soul and, most important, in that moment before hitting the Start Button, a committed gamer and games journo. One of us, in other words.

In addition to being a genuine gamer, Lauren is also a freelance writer and her observations on the pink weapons skins for Gears 3, light musing on Dead Island, and her observations on immersion (or rather immersion-breaking aspects) in Deus Ex: Human Revolution (A) interest me, (B) cause me to agree, and (C) feel like she was somehow inside my head and thinking the same thoughts as I was on that subject.

(2) My weekly visit to Audra's Australian Adventures Blog where I quickly catch-up on the thoughts of an interesting young American woman (now technically Australian-American since she took the plunge and legally became an Aussie not too long ago), which is always worth the time spent visiting and reading the pages.

(3) WWdN: In Exile, my third blog-site stop of this particular subroutine of my routine is always where I am happy to see the advice that opens every visit: "Don't be a dick!"

This is of course the blog-slash-wisdom-and-observational-offerings of actor, author, and all-around interesting fellow Wil Wheaton, a man who has spent so much time in my bedroom on one screen or another that I almost feel as if we have some sort of relationship.... And interestingly enough of the three blogs that are part of this subroutine, Wil Wheaton is the only person/blogger involved who I have actually met and spoken with IRL...

While some of the dedicated Trekkies out there say that they dislike Wil's character in STTNG, I simply cannot see how they could possibly have reservations about or concerns over a writer who is also an actor and who IRL not only writes and acts, but also (A) brews his own beer/ale, (B) is a seriously dedicated gamer, (3) regularly speaks and/or/as well appears at PAX Prime, PAX East, This Con and That Con, and (D) would find my mixture of alpha-numeric points amusing. I am just saying...

GIGO: an Acronym that has Nothing to do with the TV show Weeds
One part of my daily routine that hardly ever varies is my need to discover factoids and stories, history, and other bits of largely useless and trivial information that somehow relates to my life -- or I can convince myself that they do -- often in very loose and hard to link ways :) Thoughts about some aspect of life in Chez BF is often the motivating factor, and of course the Internet and the Web are just about the perfect vehicle for that sort of hit-or-miss digital joyride. Often these trips begin while I am searching for information about a piece I am writing, but just as often they can be a subject casually related to games, gaming, or my dog.

In my home office resides my collection of video game consoles which lay about in various positions of attention, parade rest, and sprawl upon the broad and flat top of the oak armoire that is the one piece of furniture that Yvonne owned (along with an ancient but fully-functioning 1951 model RCA Victor 45 self-contained turntable) when we moved into our first flat together in New Haven -- the one that was just across the street from Saint Rafe's -- in the bad old days of the early 1990's when if we were not off at an SCA event, we spent our Saturday afternoons pwning Yale underclassmen from Psi Upsilon, KASY -- and the odd Spizzwink -- at our regular weekly AD&D game.

You may find this amazing (I know I do) but those Saturday AD&D games took place each Saturday afternoon (well yeah) starting at 15:00 GMT -5 and ending at 20:00 GMT -5 (or thereabouts) in the very dorm room that was once the home of Rear Admiral Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (December 9, 1906 -- January 1, 1992) but at the time of our gaming sessions, was the lawfully registered domicile of one Gregarious Root (not his real name but actually his genuine 'Nym) -- and yes, his last name does mean what you think it does and, together, the two names do mean what you fear that they do; as many a formerly chaste young lady from the nearby seat of higher education Albertus Magnus often discovered.

Now, in addition to rising to the rank of Rear Admiral, and having the United States Navy vessel U.S.S. Hopper (DDG-70) named for her (which BTW you can get a 1/350th scale plastic model kit for from Trumpeter Models), Admiral Hopper is famous for a number of reasons, including the fact that she is the person who coined the phrase "Computer Bug" when, in 1946, while serving as a research fellow atHarvard University's Computation Laboratory, she worked on the U.S. Navy's Mark IIand Mark III computers, inventing the term "computer bug" when sheremoved a dead moth from the switching contacts of the Mark II that was preventing the program run from completing properly.

We were playing our weekly game of Dungeons and Dragons in the rooms that the female version of Einstein basically conceived and drafted her doctoral dissertation: New Types ofIrreducibility Criteria, and where it is probably safe to assume she formulated many of the ideas that eventually lead to her theories on simple platform-independent computer programming languages and COBOL, and how cool is that?!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

. . . a Good Read

The 4th of July Holiday is upon us, which means that the relatives are set to arrive -- have arrived actually -- motoring up from Connecticut to spend the week with us and the kids.

I don't know about you and your in-laws but I am always happy to see Yvonne's mum and da -- I genuinely like my in-laws and I enjoy their company -- plus whenever they come up for a visit Yvie's mum always brings me a stack of books, and that is mostly a to-be-looked-forward-to event to be sure!

This time she delivered some most excellent entertainment in the form of:
  • Agatha Raisin and the Case of the Curious Curate by M.C. Beaton (ISBN 0-312-20768-9) a mystery and one of the Agatha Raisin series.
  • American Son - A Portrait of John F. Kennedy Jr. by Richard Blow (ISBN 0-8050-7051-6) a biography.
  • Murder in the House by Margaret Truman (ISBN 0-679-77435-1) a mystery.
  • Rebel by Bernard Cornwell (ISBN 0-06-017713-6) historical fiction.
  • Spider in the Silk by Celestine Sibley (ISBN 0-06-017515-X) a mystery and part of the Kate Mulcay Series.
I often find it difficult not to grab a book and dive right in, because usually by the time they visit us I have already burned through the books from the previous visit and, unless there was a recent trip to the library or Hyannis, I don't have a "current" book to read.

At the moment thanks to the readers over at Game On the list of games pending play for review (and sitting in a stack on my desk) includes:
  • Alice: Madness Returns (Xbox 360)
  • Crysis-2 (Xbox 360)
  • Dissidia 012 (PSP)
  • Duke Nukem Forever (Xbox 360)
  • Dungeon Siege III (Xbox 360)
  • G.R.A.W. (Xbox 360) an oldie but it was requested
  • L.A. Noire (Xbox 360) -- the DLC as we already did the main game
  • Naughty Bear Gold Edition (Xbox 360)
  • Shadows of the Damned (Xbox 360)
  • Trucks & Trailers Sim (PC)
Most of the books I have read from Cornwell consist of his Sharpe's Rifle sereis, which I was turned on to by Geof, but Beaton, Sibley, and Truman are all solid entertaining writers, so those will be good. Not too sure about the JFK Jr. bio -- the bloke who wrote it was one of the editors at George, so presumably he has some personal experiences to add to the mix in addition to the usual bio-matter...

The video games are something of an eclectic mixture - but that has more to do with the fact that we do not actually pick the games that we review for Game On, where unlike the vast majority of review sites we are guided entirely by the readers, who email us with their requests for games to be reviewed. I actually think that is a better system anyway since it is more responsive and serves the community rather than dictates to it.

It is not like I don't have anything to do, if you see what I mean? No, there is plenty to do, so I had better go get to it!

Happy 4th of July and 235th Birthday USA! I hope you have a safe and satisfying holiday and you don't lose any fingers, toes, or limbs when you play with your illegal fireworks!


Monday, May 2, 2011

. . . Osama Bin Laden

All of the news channels on TV are fixed upon the news that Bin Laden is dead. The paper's site has the news, and my phone has been ringing all evening with calls from colleagues and mates who just want to talk about his being killed.

A quick check of the wire provides the details -- or rather the details that have been released so far. A SPEC-OPS team of Navy Seals went in, they took out Bin Laden and his bodyguards, and in that well-planned, well-executed raid has rid the world of a man who is clearly a threat to all.

What does his death mean? That is the question that everyone is asking.

The question I keep getting asked is, what do you think this will mean?

I confess, I have given this a lot of thought and not just in the last few hours -- I have been pondering this for much of the past decade. To understand what it means really comes down to asking the question -- who was Bin Laden?

The easy answer is that he was a leader -- perhaps not THE leader -- of a terrorist organization that has had tremendous luck and success in its attacks. People tend to forget that Bin Laden was not just responsible for planning and funding 9/11, he also masterminded attacks on a US Marine Barracks, two US Embassy Compounds, the U.S.S. Cole, the bombong of subway trains in the UK, the bombing of a train and bus in Spain, and those are just the attacks we know for sure he orchestrated.

There is speculation that the Philippine Bomb Cell, and a dozen small attacks all over the world were his operations. The thing is, nobody knows for sure -- or if they do, they are not talking.

The question is who was he? The easy answer was that he was an intelligent and charismatic man who was able to attract other smart -- if misguided -- men to him, who helped him plan and carry out attacks against the west. He was a wealthy man who used his wealth to fund the terrorist operations that were executed in his name.

The news that he is dead is good news. But his death is not on the same level as the death of Hitler -- because Bin Laden's mission does not die with him. It is important to remember that.

The months after 9/11

When it came out that Bin Laden may have been responsible for 9/11 it was disturbing that the government could not get their hands on him. It was not until 2004 that he officially accepted the responsibility for the attack, admitting on camera that it was his operation.

After 2004, when it was an established fact that Bin Laden was behind the attacks, the failure of the government to bring him to justice was disturbing. By 2008 I began to wonder if the man was still alive -- he had stopped making his monthly videos and no new photos were appearing.

Then I recall the fact that the part of the world he was thought to be hiding in was a low-tech environment, which makes it a lot harder to gather intelligence. Add to that the fact that he was in an area that was full of people who wanted to protect him, and it gets a lot easier to understand how he could have not been captured.

But that does not explain the fact that Pakistan -- a nation that is supposed to be a cooperating partner with the US and that accepts large amounts of aid from the US -- has been harboring the man for at least the last 6 years and never said word one to the US about where the man was.

The house -- sorry -- the mansion -- that Bin Laden was killed in was not just some old house, it was a mansion Bin Laden paid to have built almost six years ago. A mansion he lived in the whole time. I will never believe that the Pakistani government did not know that he was there...

A Future Without Bin Laden

With any luck his death will at least derail the currently planned operations of his organization. With any luck the US Government will continue to pursue his lieutenants and the infrastructure of his organization -- because the death of Bin Laden is not enough.

The fanaticism of the men who followed him is powerful enough to make it almost a certainty that they will retaliate for this. Hopefully not with great success.

Is it OK to feel good about the death of a man? In this case, yeah, it is.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

. . . Vice


1. an immoral or evil habit or practice.
2. immoral conduct; depraved or degrading behavior: a life of vice.

"The Internet made the world a smaller place..."
~His Royal Highness Prince William Arthur Philip Louis of Wales

Fair warning: This is actually going somewhere, it is just going to take a while because it is a big garden with lots of paths down which I am compelled to lead you.

Speaking of Vice, like a lot of people my dependence upon the Internet, and specifically the World Wide Web, often appears to me to border upon vice, but not for the reason that you are probably thinking...

Addiction might be another word that applies, though a case might be made that, in view of the fact that I also make my living partly from the Internet, an automatic dispensation applies... Or maybe not.

I live and work on Cape Cod, a chunk of land that is arguably an island off of the coast of Massachusetts but that, clearly, is not actually part of the United States, even if we use its money, its postal service, follow its laws, and display its flag most of the time.

It is very common to hear residents of Cape Cod refer to a trip off-Cape as "going to America" and just as common to hear the Cape Cod Canal and its two bridges (which save for the various ferries that provide transportation between the Cape and Plymouth, Boston, and Providence, Rhode Island) referred to as "The Border" -- as in "I crossed the border today, it took me two hours."

Despite appearing to be a very large place to the people who live here, in the grand scheme of things the Cape is not really a very large place at all, this I willingly admit. It is a community of communities, and a really nice place to live and raise a family -- and while it is too big to entertain the notion that you know everyone in your neighborhood (I don't) -- it is so small that it barely appears on the national version of the maps you can buy at Exxon stations. I am just saying...

Among the many different social, fraternal, and service groups that I participate in as a member, I belong to an informal group called the 4th Estate Rod & Gun Club (which is intentionally not what it sounds like), a private but informal club whose reason for existing is to provide an excuse for men and women who happen to be employed in the profession of writing to come together to chat and be social over cups of coffee at the local Dunkin' Donuts.

Membership in the 4th Estate Rod & Gun Club (or 4ER&GC as we like to call it) does not involve the use of fishing rods or guns, and in fact only has one basic requirement for membership: you have to also be a member in good standing of the National Press Club.

We meet once a week on Wednesday mornings -- because Wednesday is Hump Day -- and it gives us something to look forward to on Monday morning when we haul ourselves out of bed and gird our loins to face another week...

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,
adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The established routine of the 4ER&GC is very simple in that we meet at the same Dunkin' Donuts every Wednesday morning -- I cannot tell you which as I am sworn to secrecy -- and, after we stand in line individually and in small groups, clustering together to follow the herd instinct that is a product of urges prompted by the reptilian brain, that oldest and most influential of our thinking structure, we sit together in still more complex groupings -- clearly for mutual protection should a Boston Cream Donut jump off of the shelf behind the counter and go postal -- and we talk.

Not wildly,with great enthusiasm, or all at the same time, though it can happen...

What we talk about is different each week -- but there are things we never talk about because they are forbidden subjects. Like religion, politics, the most recent antics of the Cape Cod Commission, or how truly horrible Joe's wife is as a cook. We are permitted to discuss the weather, but that only happens if the weather is uncooperative to the point of being worthy of discussion...

No, what we discuss -- the topic that we have each separately as individuals spent the past week mentally masticating since the previous Wednesday -- is whatever it was at the last meeting that we decided would be the subject of discussion for the next meeting.

We are highly motivated to carefully consider what we will say about the topic of discussion, because whoever makes what the majority rules as the most interesting contribution to the topic at the meeting wins a dozen donuts, which are paid for by the other members of the club, to take away with them at the end of the meeting. Very highly motivated, I assure you.

"Sprinkles are called "Jimmies" in New England."
~ Y.M. Boots-Faubert, Ice Cream Philosopher

At today's meeting the topic for discussion was the question "Is our growing dependence upon the Internet a vice?"

The simpler answer would be "Yes" and the clever answer would be "No" but the problem with that is that simple or clever never wins the fancy box of gooey donut goodness that is the prize for delivering the best response to the Question Du Jour.

Is our growing dependence upon the Internet a vice?

During my week of random thought on the question... When I had the time... I came to the necessary conclusion that as I did not have the time to properly think it through, I was better off relying upon the wisdom of someone who did have an opportunity to mull over the question of vice, and I arrived at this quote, which expresses my heartfelt answer:

"Every vice is only an exaggeration of a necessary and virtuous function."
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

My considered reply, based upon my faith in Mister Emerson, is that our growing dependence upon the Internet is in fact a vice, but a vice with virtuous and necessary function.

I won.

Friday, April 22, 2011

. . . Free Media

You do not often find something that is free and valuable at the same time, but the huge collection of free eBooks, Audio Books, and media not to mention Sheet Music and digital copies of historic documents that can be had online for the asking are certainly a valuable resource.

Here, in no particular order, is a list of links for free media resources:


Audio Books

Sheet Music

Television & Movies

I am not endorsing any of the links above -- I make them available to be helpful, as these are the links that I use when I am looking for free media and to be entertained. YMMV.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

. . . Pokemon

The 5th Generation

When Pokemon Black and Pokemon White were released on March 6th they ushered in the era of the 5th Generation of the series, the significance of which has more to do with the stories and the world of Pokemon than any real differences in the games. I should explain that before we go any further into this post I suppose...

Most gamers think that the Pokemon series began with the anime TV show Pokemon, but that is not what happened. The question of the chicken and the egg is no question at all in the case of Pokemon -- as the original game that started it all, Pokemon Green, came first -- but Pokemon Green has a unique story to it in that it was only ever released in Japan.

The media empire that Pokemon turned into began with a simple game for the Nintendo Game Boy - the original one mind you, the black and white one not the color Game Boy -- called Poketto Monsutā, or Pocket Monsters.

Pocket Monsters was initially released under that title, but a conflict with another game of the same name made it necessary to rename the game. To avoid any confusion the folks over at Game Freak -- the studio that created the game -- decided to rename it Pokemon, which was a combination of Pocket and Monsters, and so it was released as Pokemon Green.

The original plan for the game was to release two color-coded versions of it, with each of the versions having a slightly different collection of Pocket Monsters -- Pokemon I mean -- in order to encourage gamers to seek out each other in order to trade the ones that were not in their version, thus completing the "Pokedex" that is a foundation element of the games. The Pokedex is a sort of electronic encyclopedia of Pokemon that the player is completing at the request of the Pokemon Professor who plays a central role in the games.

When the games unexpectedly caught on like wildfire, nobody was more shocked and surprised than Nintendo, who really only published the game because Ken Sugimori pushed for it. With the initial sales figures being very modest, the directors of the portable games division at Nintendo thought that they understood the games and their limited potential, but then something unexpected happened -- a Pokemon named Mew.

Pokemon Red and Green

When the games were initially released players were made to believe that there were 150 unique Pokemon in them, though in fact there were 151. The first 150 were standard Pokemon, while the 151st was a Legendary Pokemon. The existence of that 151st Pokemon, whose name is Mew, was held back from the public because originally Game Freak had planned to do a marketing campaign surrounding Mew, but this event never took place for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the lackluster support that Nintendo gave the game with respect to promotion.

At some point after the games were released on February 27th, 1996, a gamer accidentally discovered the existence of Mew. This information spread quickly, and resulted in the magazine CoroCoro announced a "Legendary Pokémon Contest" to distribute Mew to twenty very lucky entrants.

It should be no surprise that the exclusivity of Mew and the very limited quantity were just the push the games needed, and sales went from modest to hotcakes literally overnight.

There were several elements to the game that explain its popularity -- its competitive nature, the collectible aspects, and its use of the game cable that allowed players to connect to each other and play with and against each other all contributed to its popularity -- and then of course there was Mew, so it was not long before gamers outside of Japan learned of the game and wanted to play it.

When it came time to make the game for regions other than Japan the decision was made to create the export versions based off of the the second game -- Pokemon Red, which had slightly improved graphics over Green, so Green was abandoned, and the two new versions that were released worldwide became Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue.

The Game Evolves into a TV Series

About the time that all of this was happening, the huge popularity of the games in Japan made the creation of an anime-style half-hour children's TV show a natural choice for Game Freak, and it was the combination of that show and the games that solidified the brand as a media empire.

The games evolved with Nintendo's Game Boy, with Red and Blue soon complimented by Yellow, which more closely followed the TV show in that Ash's Pikachu could follow along behind him outside of its Poke Ball. When the Game Boy Color was released, Pokemon Crystal and then Silver and Gold followed, comprising the first two generations of the games.

The events on the TV show closely mirrored those of the games, which made a wonderful media combination in which gamers could watch on their TV screen the same places, characters, and adventures that they were having in their games.

The third generation of games was built for the new Game Boy Advanced console, and began with Pokemon Sapphire and Ruby, establishing the third "bridging" game format that presents the elements of both of the first pair in a series as one collective adventure, which for generation three was Pokemon Emerald.

The change to a new physical format for the cartridges and the lack of connectivity made trading for earlier generation Pokemon impossible in the new games, but the issue was fixed by the release of Pokemon FireRed and LeafGreen, which made the first generation Pokemon available to players.

The fourth generation of games -- Pokemon Pearl and Diamond with the bridging game Platinum -- were made for the new Nintendo DS platform, but unlike the previous console change included connectivity that allowed Trainers to transfer their 3rd generation Pokemon into the DS games.

The series was nearly restored; the release of Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver finally provided a complete source for all of the Pokemon in the current National Pokedex, and the adoption of a WiFi-based system for trading and for the distribution of special Pokemon, which nicely leveled the playing field when it came to completing the Pokedex -- and this brings us full circle to the 5th Generation of the games!
Pokemon Black and White

The release of the 5th Gen games came less than a month before the launch of newest Game Boy console version -- the Nintendo 3DS -- though the games were not created specifically for the 3DS platform. That makes a lot of sense, considering that the Nintendo DSi will likely remain the dominant portable console for Nintendo fans, at least for the foreseeable future, due to the high cost of the 3DS.

When Black and White released, the first WiFi-based Wondercard was literally a day-one event, bringing together the last three special events from the 4th Generation and the new 5th Generation, with Trainers able to obtain the Liberty Ticket that gives access to the first Legendary Pokemon within minutes of starting to play.

Pokemon Black and White are a huge leap forward for the games, with a deeper and more complex game world, and an interesting story providing the foundation for what is already being declared the best Pokemon game ever by gamers.

The games fully embrace the Internet in a way that goes way beyond what the 4th Generation managed -- and considering that Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum were about as connected as you could want, that is saying something!

At this point I am most of the way through Black -- and as I am also writing a walkthrough / guide for it, my first play through has been very complete. Black is my XX guide -- I also did walkthrough guides for Pokemon Emerald, FireRed, LeafGreen, and HeartGold -- nicely covering the modern takes on most of the generations of the game!

The newest generation of Pokemon are a unique bunch, though because the games retained the well established 17 major types the differences are mostly appearance and the strength of their abilities, so no real surprises. Having said that though, even if this generation does not contain the cutest Pokemon, or the most ferocious, it still has more than a few stand-0uts that are sure to be fan favorites, though surprisingly these are not the starters!

The trio of monkey Pokemon that match the three starter types -- Fire, Water, and Grass -- are real stand-outs in that respect, but we will have to wait and see whether the starters begin to gain popularity on the same level as those of previous games.

The differences between Black and White are pretty profound, with the games each having a specific are that is unique to them -- that is a departure from the previous traditions, which generally only extended to the Pokemon and not he lands. There is a significant difference in how the world is viewed between the two, and it will be interesting to see how those two facets are addressed in the bridging game that will likely be released next year.

So far the 5th Generation of the Pokemon series is everything that we could have hoped for -- and with the TV series well into adventure now, the overall media experience is there. So send me your Friend Code so we can battle, right?

. . . Unemployment

My best mate in the whole world is unemployed at the moment, and despite the fact that he has this very broad and very deep pool of skills to draw upon, the area of the country that he is in -- Western Oregon -- is not what can be kindly thought of as a job-rich environment at the moment for codeslingers.

The whole idea of being unemployed in this economy scares the hell out of me. Being a writer I know that it is not easy to get work -- not without first putting in a lot of effort and building a contacts list, all the while taking anything you can get to tide you over until you get something regular. That is not to say that it is hard to get work as a writer because it is not -- it is just hard to get a good permanent gig as a writer, freelancing being the obvious path you take until you get something permanent.

Codeslingers don't usually work freelance -- but when they do they call it temping, not freelancing, and when they temp the pay is really bad and the jobs tend to be short. They only keep you long enough to accomplish whatever it was that caused them to look for a temporary codeslinger.

My discomfort with his situation has caused me to start encouraging him to look for work as a freelance writer -- in spite of the fact that he is a codeslinger, his degree is in English and he has solid skills as a writer, even if he has not written anything more complicated than code documentation in the past twenty years. That is not the point. The point is that he could write if he chose to, and there is work out there for writers.

I mentioned this on one of the community boards I am active on for writers. The general reaction was one of disbelief with comments like "you are telling him there are freelance writing gigs? There are not!" and other comments to that effect.

It was at this point that I asked the question their reactions prompted: aren't you guys working?

It turns out that I am one of a handful of writers on that particular board that is constantly busy -- and I just cannot figure that out. In the many conversations that ensued I learned that despite being writers very few of the people on that board know how to find jobs. Query letters? Not so much. It blows my mind that they actually sit around waiting for writing gigs to come to them! That is no way to stay busy, that is all I am saying...

When I get an idea that I think I would like to write about, I put out the effort to find an editor that will pay me for writing that piece, and then I write it. It turns out that a lot of the people on that board do it the other way around, putting out the effort to write the piece and then try to sell it, often failing. To me that makes no sense at all... It is a lot easier to write a good query letter and then the piece then the other way around, and nine times out of ten the editor that buys the piece wants a slightly different piece than the one I proposed, so if I had written it in advance I would have to start over anyway...

You gotta write -- it is what you do -- but writing on spec or worse yet, writing for free? That is no way to make a living.

So how was your week?