February 24, 2006

Sony: Past Tense

Sony has been rolling up lame in a lot of areas, but this latest announcement reaches new heights of suckitude.

First, the PS3 is delayed. Then they say it costs 800 bucks to build. Then it's going to be either or with the HD DVD or BluRay. Now they announce this dumb thing called WA!PS3, which is sorta like XBox Live, but only for downloads. It's not online multiplayer, it's a software store accessible by console. Big whoop. I mean, XBox Live for 360 is already there. If you just look at the PS3Today website, it's bad news after bad news. God of War 2 won't be built for the PS3 but for the PS2 in '07. Yike.

Now this is my year for Hi Def. And the more people I talk to, the more they say forget Sony for flat screens. I've heard they don't even make plasma TVs any longer after getting their asses handed to them by Pioneer and Panasonic. That's a damnable shame. Sony used to be somebody. But you know who *is* somebody? Apple.

Let me take you back briefly to what used to be one of the coolest places on earth. It was the Metreon in San Francisco. Back in 1999 and 2000 in the middle of irrational exuberance, every high tech Stanford Mafia don worth his VC connections could be seen eating sushi in this joint. IBM announced their whole e-business strategy there. XPlay back when it was called something else and it was only Adam Sessler, had every other episode shot there. When the PS2 premiered, it was at the Metreon that the camera crews watched the midnight lines. And smack dab in the middle of the Metreon was Sony Style, the coolest thing since Starbucks.

Fast forward to now. Sony puts rootkits on CDs, fueling rage, hatred and alienation among former devotees. The Minidisc never goes anywhere and the usage of DATs is considered selling out in the underground of hiphop. Nobody can pronounce VAIO and nobody really wants VAIO laptops any longer. They're overpriced and they break. Sony is so over.

Apple has done what nobody thought could be done, which is they have a killer product in consumer electronics. Yes the iPod is bigger than the Walkman. The company which spawned the Walkman is on the outs and the Apple Store is cooler than Sony Style ever was, if for only one reason. Sony Style thought they were so cool (and they were for a minute) that they had armed guards walking around rousting people who weren't buying. The Apple Store allows you to rent a Genius, which sounds snooty - you have to have an appointment, but actually works out nicely.

So here's to the hope that Apple does in the next 10 years what Sony did after their Walkman success, become bigger in consumer electronics. They're the only American company with the cachet. One word of warning however Apple. Don't try gaming.

Posted by mbowen at 09:17 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 14, 2006

Finally, a Plausible 360 Excuse

Dean Takahashi finally comes with the hardline.

One of two companies supplying the Xbox 360's storage memory chips, Infineon, has had trouble making enough of the chips at the right speed for the game console that debuted last November, according to the sources. As a result Microsoft has not been able to meet the demand for the console.

...

Specifically, the sources say Infineon wasn't able to make enough GDDR3 (graphics double data rate) memory chips for the Xbox 360. Each box has 512 megabytes of GDDR3 that stores a game's data. Both Infineon and Samsung supply GDDR3 chips to Microsoft.

Some Infineon chips ran slower than 700-megahertz speed that was required, according to the sources. This was a big problem because the Xbox 360 has only a single highway (dubbed unified memory architecture) connecting memory with two processors, the graphics chip and microprocessor. When either of those chips can't access memory as needed because of the slow memory chips, then the processing within the entire system bogs down.

As a result, Microsoft has had to start sorting the slow GDDR3 chips from the fast ones, adding a delay to the production of the boxes and limiting the total numbers it can build.

I think that if we would have been told this a while ago, we (meaning techie folks) might have pointed a bigger finger at MSFT for backing away from IBM. It was hard for me to believe that Flextronics and Wistron would both have serious problems meeting demand.

Bottom line, all of these demand planning excuses were a smokescreen to cover Infineon's ass.

Posted by mbowen at 01:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 17, 2006

The Predictability of the Future of Gaming

According to a few (hardly) pregnant paragraphs, the future of gaming is bleak.

Pachter expressed doubts that the Xbox 360 could make up for a deficit in the six-month sales total equivalent to 2005's. "We think that it is important to note that total U.S. console and handheld software sales over the first six months of 2005 were approximately $2.36 billion; the current rate of next generation software sales implies that Xbox 360 software will total less than 20% of this level over the next six months, indicating the potential for year-over-year sales declines for the foreseeable future."

I'm really trying to understand what this guy is comparing gaming sales to. Perhaps the best comparison is to microwave ovens. My original XBox lasted about 3 years before it came apart. So I think that qualifies, at an initial price of about 200 bucks, as durable goods. The 360 is double that price, so it makes a lot of sense, in terms of cannibalization, that they're not going to duplicate the sales figures.

As it stands, you can't go buy a 360 right yet. So this lack of availability is a real skew to what the market ought to be like. But here's where I really have difficulty with the basis of this prediction. This industry is capable of doing some remarkable things in terms of generating excitement in the market. Recall the scandals around San Andreas. You also, in some parallel to the movie industry, have fans who wait years for the content to come out. This is not like iPods, it's a very different dynamic. So if this guy sees year over year declines in the offing, I think he has no clue what he's talking about. There's a huge future out there for MMPORGs and PC crossover with the USB XBox Controller. It only gets bigger from here.

Posted by mbowen at 08:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 01, 2006

Going To Ravenholm

This holiday I have discovered why gamers have been raving over Half Life 2. It's a brilliant game. It's creepy. It's way interactive. It's puzzling and inventive. It's got a compelling storyline (so far) and it's got the best zombies ever. As a single player game, it's probably one of the all-time greats.

Now this is not news for most PC gamers, but this one has got me, a console gamer pretty excited. I cannot say with any surety that as a single player game I like it more than Halo2 but I understand how Halo's hype plays into the excitement of that game. I don't particularly like switching out characters so while that was an inventive part of Halo2, I find that it reduces rather than adds to the replayability for me, although it probalby make the game overall more exciting. However the puzzles on Half Life add some real spice to an action shooter, whereas Halo puzzles are just mazes.

I'm about 6 hours of play into this game, I guess, and what I estimate is about halfway through Ravenholm, which is by far the creepiest joint this side of Silent Hill. The

The navigation is pretty good and very consistent. It's not as smooth and realistic as Splinter Cell or any of the Tom Clancy shooters. In fact that I can't see my character in any way is something of a weird feeling to get used to. I see no hands when climbing ladders or swimming, and the reticle action on this game is pretty low. However the shooting action is first rate. Sound effects are top notch.

What makes this game world class are the graphics. The environments put together in Half Life 2 are absolutely superb. They have captured the industrial wasteland like no other game. There are only two that come close in showing this level and scale of depressing rust, one is Brute Force, the other is Chronicles of Riddick. There actually is one other that has this level of puzzles and inventive environments which was PsyOps: The Mindgate Conspiracy. But that game was so much fun and your character had so many different powers that you never feel quite as vulnerable as you do in Half Life 2.

Half Life has got great geek appeal. As much as I game, I am still surprised by the goodies I get in this shooter. So add me to the chorus of ravers for the Gravity Gun. Holy smokes is that a nice one. The indestructable sawblades are just splatterific. Launching one of those babies through a crowd of zombies is one of the unique experiences in all of violent gaming. The airboat with the gattling gun is also a very inventive piece of gaming. Nowhere under any circumstances have I face a more deadly helicopter. That is one of the most relentless foes ever. I put it right up there with the UAVs in the latest Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid 2. I'm sure there are more interesting goodies to come.

So there it is. I'll be in Ravenholm for a while.

Posted by mbowen at 10:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 12, 2005

360 Supply & Demand & More

Well it's perfectly clear now. The 360 is a hit; way bigger than anybody suspected. So let's ask some stupid demand planning questions. Who screwed up in MSFT's manufacturing orders department? I mean they've got people saying stuff like this (as of 12/8):

Market research firm, NPD Group, the top game-statistics firm in the industry issued its November report stating Microsoft sold 320,000 systems in the month of November. That’s roughly 80,000 shy of the company’s 400,000 expected units.

That makes no sense at all. Are they sold out? Yes. Are they not selling enough? Yes. Did they miss their target Yes? Anyway, selling more than a quarter of a million per month of anything that retails for 300-400 bucks is a pretty hefty cashflow. So get it right already guys. You have no excuses. Well. They do, and it sounds like this:

"...I'd hate to be in the marketing department at Xbox. It's a no-win situation. If I were a marketing dude (and I'm surrounded by them every day), then every red blood cell in my body would be selling this amazing new thing called the Xbox 360. We're not talking about a Cuisenart here. This is a high-definition, next generation gaming experience. I'd be shouting from the rooftops. Except... the core audience (read: pre-sold audience) for this product is having difficulty getting their hands on one. And the more I shout about it, the more gamers (and the general public) becomes bitter about the "shortage." So instead of using my marketing degree, I've got to bite my tongue until January, or even February - when supply starts meeting demand again. Except that I don't have a marketing degree, and I don't work at Microsoft, or at Xbox

I don't think I'd mind being that guy.. except the profile picture on his blog is too small. In fact, I think the profile pictures on most people's blogs are too small.

Anyway, I've had a serving of Halo2 over the weekend and I'm getting re-hooked into the gaming - stuff I haven't done in a while. I don't feel left out of the early adopter stuff since not even Wal-Mart has any 360s on hand, and I can basically wait until January or so. The fact that I can play my favorite games on the 360, except for Splinter Cell (grr), is the best news.

It turns out that there are a few bloggers who have come out as gamers. Or rather I should say more m'softies who blog as well as game. That's good news, so I'll be linking to them from time to time. At the top of the Gamer Pile would be Major Nelson.

Here are some I find intersting:

  • Grumpy Gamer
  • Thinking With My Fingers
  • XBox (official, boring) Blog
  • Joystiq (of course)
  • Scoble has the best dialog on the supply and demand issue. I can't find where the discussion is anywhere that says Flextronics is still making them. I know I read it. Even Google Desktop missed it.

    BTW Joystiq has a fascinating little reminder that not too many years ago, the very thought of Microsoft being a leader in gaming was unthinkable. I know I killed that thought, as I pounded away on my Sega Saturn with the home version of Virtua Fighter.

    Oh and one more thing. The French have made Halo 0. A 2d side-scrolling shooter. Hee Haw!

    Wait Wait There's More!
    I cannot prove it, but I swear to God that somewhere I wrote that the thing to do in the next Splinter Cell was to let Sam Fisher go undercover. It turns out that I was prophetic. That's exactly what they're doing in Splinter Cell Four.

    Posted by mbowen at 10:27 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    November 23, 2005

    True Crime: Streets of New York

    I wanted to like this. What a stunningly huge disappointment.

    The original was a fun game marred by poor control of fighting. This one seems even worse. The whole thrill of walking through New York is destroyed by and incredibly monotonous stream of repeated invectives. You walk up the sidewalk and all you hear is 'What the hell?' and 'Oh shit!'. I kid you not. They've added rain, big deal. This one is horrible.

    BUT. I'm going to keep it for another few days just to see if there are any goodies worth waiting for. The game is still a great idea with a very cool soundtrack. Couldn't they just sell the franchise to the GTA guys? At least that way it will get done right. I'd much rather be the cop than the thug, but I have to tell you - if you compare the two games, it's a whole lot more enjoyable being the thug in San Andreas than the cop in New York City.

    Posted by mbowen at 04:14 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    November 22, 2005

    Zero Hour

    The verdict is in, at least among the clan I've been hanging out with. Get the XBox 360. Now that Zero Hour has arrived, I'm going down to the local EBGames and see if I can get this controller to fit in my hands. All my friends are doing it.

    Stay tuned.

    Posted by mbowen at 06:07 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    November 18, 2005

    3/6th T

    I think it's the new Beemer that has effed up my attitude, but I have to say that I'll probably join the ranks of the multitudes of the unwashed who are going to hold off on XBox 360 for a while. I want to play the new Project Gotham as much as anybody. In fact, I'm going to message Black Ricco tonight and find out what's up with the other Oops Clan Gamers that I've been ignoring for months (I hope they let me back in), and see if he's rushing out to get one. Somehow I doubt it. I just emailed Lethalme to see what his attitude is about the new set.

    I've been disappointed with the 360 since day one. I'm one of the folks who doesn't think it's a good idea to have a big piece of sculpture in the living room. Me, I'd just like another blackface rack mountable component for the rack. They could have made the faceplate translucent with crazy lights, but no.. they have this cream colored hourglass monstrosity.

    I've also got my paws trained for the Duke controller. I have a feeling it's going to be a long time before I cotton up to the new one. I do like the idea that they will be able to map it into PC games so that's a big plus, but I'm not sure that it will overcome the minus of it being made for pint-sized mitts.

    So I'm basically half-enthused about this goody, which aint hardly enough to get off the 4 bills to replace my perfectly acceptable XBox. In fact, I just ran through Splinter Cell - Chaos Theory once again for the fun of it, and I'll probably do it again. That's a game.

    See I like the idea of HiDef gaming a whole lot, but I'm not going to start doing it until I actually have the HiDef TV, so it's pointless for me to get this console without the new bigscreen, and that's a tall order at this particular moment. So I'm going to chill and listen to the hype and believe it, but I ain't spending the ducats any time soon. Same thing Gamecrapper says.

    What's fascinating is that, yeah I'm sure everybody knows that the platform is all that, but nobody's going to get off the bills until Halo 3 comes out, next year probably around the same time as the movie. The release of Halo2 was the biggest event in gaming, well that and Half-Life 2. It's all about the games, guys.

    Posted by mbowen at 01:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    July 13, 2005

    Forza Motorsport

    It has been a while since I've been XBoxing, but finally Gamefly has delivered Forza Motorsport and I'm into it again.

    I haven't had any occasion since old box broke to go online. That was primarily because of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, which had me very intently doing the single player thing. After that KOTOR 2 took up my time, but then I got weary of it. So my old buds in Black Ricco's lobby on PGR and other shooting clans had missed me. The other night for the first time in months, I caught up to them on Forza.

    When I say I caught up to them, that only means in the lobby. On the track they dusted me. Forza is very challenging as a driving game and after about 10 hours I am just getting the hook. I just passed level 10 and I own about 5 cars and now it's starting to get interesting.

    The controller layout on FM is just like that in Project Gotham Racing 2, so that gave me a bit of a headstart in getting on the road quickly. The interface is a lot like Rallisport Challenge in the way that cars and tracks are selected. But Forza is clearly its own game.

    The driving experience is a lot more realistic and there are a great deal more subtleties in handling. But it doesn't make you feel like a complete dweeb. None of these cars, even the supercars seem super. They're all fallible and the differences between them

    Nurburgring is better on Forza than PGR2.

    Posted by mbowen at 06:26 PM | TrackBack

    June 14, 2005

    San Andreas

    I'm not much of a gangbanger, but I'm trying to get better.

    The first thing that strikes you about playing Grand Theft Auto San Andreas is that it's hard and you better get with it. The game is an order of magnitude more interesting than its predecessor for several reasons that are apparent within the first hour of gameplay.

    Firstly, they're out to get you. In GTA Vice City, you basically walked around as a badass looking for trouble to get into. It required you to have an positive attitude towards mayhem and corruption. It was all about becoming a dangerous bigshot. In San Andreas, the moment you show up on the scene, you need to watch your back. Cops are out to get you, rival gangs are out to get you. You are broke and bony and your mama has been shot dead, you have no respect and people who walk by are constantly reminding you how badly you stink.

    Secondly, the music is bomb quality. There are several soundtracks to choose from as you cruise around in stolen cars. The folks at Rockstar have pulled off a licensing coup. These aren't just rehacked samples, there are real songs by real groups you know - Rage Against the Machine, Stone Temple Pilots, Rick James, Isley Brothers, Cameo, Roger & Zapp. Even the soft music and country music is real.

    Living as CJ puts you into a number of knuckle dragging situations. You beat down busters for fastfood money. Life is cheap. You generally get maybe 15 dollars for braining somebody with the various melee weapons you find in alleys and under underpasses, or on unconscious bodies.

    I'm about three hours into the game and I've probably killed 15 civilians 3 cops and 25 rival bangers. I've got a couple cool tatoos and I've stolen every kind of car in the game, including a Bentley, several motorcycles and a police SUV. I've tagged half a dozen buildings, done several drive-bys and dented so many cars and pedestrians that I can't keep count. It's not fun. All I care about is getting respect from my homies. I want to beat the game, and I use the tools that the environment provides.

    San Andreas feels very clunky as a shooter and it's much easier to get sent to the hospital in this game than any other violent videogame I've played. I swear I felt a great deal safer commanding commandos in terrorist territory. So there is never a real sense of confidence one gets in the San Andreas mayhem. The easiest thing to do is jack civilians while they're eating at Cluckin' Bell. I've come to resent the busta civilians; they just walk aimlessly through the 'hoods of San Andreas without the need for respect and without a bounty on their head.

    How accurate this portayal of gang life is, depends on people like DJ Pooh in the credits, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that it is a lot more compelling as a game than I imagined it could be, although it's hardly the guilty pleasure of True Crime. It's more akin to Silent Hill. You're in something of a horror movie and you have to see how it ends.

    Posted by mbowen at 07:37 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    June 11, 2005

    Advent Rising

    I picked up Advent Rising from the Blockbuster rather than waiting for Gamefly. It's a fabulous game, but M11 likes it much more than I. The concept is great, no doubt because of the influence of Orson Scott Card. But what strikes me about this game is that it is clearly a genre breaker. It has every intention of being its own movie, and I very much like the direction that takes.

    Advent Rising, in aiming to be its own cinematic experience sets a new high for scope, just short of Halo, but something of a new low for gameplay. For me the battle action was just too sloppy and fast. It felt like Unreal but less precise. Unreal is already too fast for me, not that I don't like fast action, I just don't dig the physics. It's simply unreal, blurry, jaggy - the edges don't meet.

    There's one thing that is astoundingly cool about Advent Rising is that it gives your fighter a lot more power than any avatar usually gets, and in this I find the greatest possibilities. Most games until this point make you slave very hard to get your powers, and the best of them like KOTOR or Fable, make results strategic. The best multi-forker in that way was the LA street cop game True Crime: Streets of LA. But like most video games, you are all too human. In AR, you very quickly get to superhuman skills, ala Psy Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy another great favorite of mine. (I'm surprised that I hadn't already written a review of Psy Ops, and I certainly hope to be that character in a sequel.) And although AR gives no indication that it will do any forking based upon choices between good and evil, it's just the kind of mix of action, role-playing and strategy that hopefully will arise in the next generation of games.

    Right now Psy Ops has the best chance of taking our hero off-world to battle greater forces. Here's the great fork. Allow your guy to rampage or crusade to a level where he's got country capturing skills. Instead of just defending an oil refinery from terrorists, let our guy vaporize one with mind powers and plunge a nation into chaos. He walks among the streets, impervious with an edict to 'take me to your leader' whom he crushes instantly. He directs epic battles from the front and conquers the globe. Just as soon as world domination is his and he gets the ultimate power, aliens drop in and exile him to another planet on the far side of the galaxy. Now he has to start over, a planet at a time. This is more on the KOTOR scale, and I haven't gotten far enough into KOTOR II to see if this is the arc - but I basically don't want to have to deal with Pazaak, see?

    Anyway, Advent Rising has already announced itself as a trilogy, and the guy behind the effort has already said it is the 'least awesome' of his many ideas. Bears waiting for. Meanwhile, I gotta turn it in today - not worth the late fees.

    Posted by mbowen at 12:19 PM | TrackBack

    June 04, 2005

    Gamey Weekend Stuff

    Sudoku
    OK I'm hooked. But at least I can pretend that it's educational. 2/3rds of my kids are somewhat hooked too. What a fabulous game. It's something that was designed with geeks like me in mind. You see it's a perfect seed for cyphers. Sorta.

    Advent Rising

    OK so it's full of glitches and the speed is unnatural. It is imaginitive and Halo-like in it's immersion. For a third person shooter, I much prefer the action of Brute Force, but hey, it's Orson Scott Card and it takes itself seriously as a cinematic experience. I haven't been bored yet, although I'm only an hour into it. I still wish it didn't have boss battles. How tired is that?


    Posted by mbowen at 11:33 AM | TrackBack

    June 02, 2005

    KOTOR Again

    Once again I have jumped off the high dive of Star Wars myth and legend thanks to XBox and Lucas Arts. I have assumed the person of Fargo Tazmin and am fighting mining droids in the Paragen asteroid belt. Trying to find my way off that rock without being a total butthead so that I can get light side bonus points is a bit more time consuming than I expected. But it's better than dropping quarters in an arcade.

    Unfortunately the XBox is literally on it's last legs. I don't think I'm going to make it to Christmas and the Xbox 360 release. It has been about three months since the green light blew out, and the disk chugs like a old cement mixer. Last night it spontaneously turned itself off a couple times. I've got a bad feeling about this.

    Posted by mbowen at 07:38 AM | TrackBack

    May 19, 2005

    E3

    The Playstation 3 is way more beautiful than the the XBox 360. I say this as a diehard XBoxer. It's not a pity, because I love my XBox now and it's ugly as dirt. Still you have to give MS a little credit for making their new box look like a large iPod, sorta. But Sony has done the right thing and gave us a swoopy burnished machine in three different finishes. Nicely.

    I'm following the E3 happenings on the GamesBlog. So far so so. I live in LA but haven't had a moment's rest, so I haven't been able to cruise the bars near the Convention Center and catch some drippings. I can't say that I'm really that excited anyway. It turns out that we've got THQ and Activision as customers. I heard EA uses our stuff too, so sooner or later I'll get out to see these guys, LA being the headquarters for all things gamey.

    In the meantime, I haven't been on Live for months and am still enjoying the heck out of being Sam Fisher.

    Posted by mbowen at 07:38 AM | TrackBack

    April 23, 2005

    XBox 360 Pictures

    x360.jpg

    This is what the rumors say the new XBox 360 is supposed to look like. There's a rather amazing discussion about whether or not it's fake or just photoshopped to look good, or photoshopped to look fake or photoshopped to look photoshopped. It's an interesting conundrum for disinformationists like me. Either way it keeps all the fanboys guessing and the industry astir.

    I think it looks stupid. I like the color but I'd much rather have something with a 19 inch low profile kind of thing that fits in with the rest of my home theatre electronics. The new XBox should look like a sweet 1U rackmount server with some iridescence on the faceplate. That thing looks like somebody stepped on an iPod. It's a hideous looking mess and all the proportions are wrong. I did a Malcolm Gladwell blink on it and I say it's very fake. If it's real, it's real ugly. Fix it.

    Posted by mbowen at 02:15 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

    April 16, 2005

    Oldies but Who?

    I've never played Legend of Zelda and I've always thought that Mario was a dweeb in every way. In fact, the only thing Nintendo ever did for me was in the arcade. You know, arcade? That place you had to go to and put quarters in the machines?

    Quite frankly I couldn't really tell you which of any of the arcade games I liked were made my Nintendo. Maybe Donkey Kong, but I played it more than I liked it. Clearly none of the games I did like wound up impressing young musicians like this dude, The Video Game Pianist.

    Yes I do believe it's art. I just don't recognize it. Oh except for that little thing by Liszt, the Transcendental Etude #10. That's actually one of my all time favorites.

    Posted by mbowen at 04:05 PM | TrackBack

    February 14, 2005

    Xenon This Year

    I've cranked up my gaming a bit this past week. For two weeks I didn't even touch Halo. Now I'm coming back around to it and I can see that the new skills I picked up from the Unofficial Battle Guide are becoming more smoothly integrated into my playing style. I'm winning more frequently, and still finding new routes and tactics. Man this is a rich game.

    But I don't know what Microsoft is thinking in releasing the next box in October. Halo2 would have been out less than a year, and it's going to chill the market from now until then. I'm telling my boy only to get old games we used to rent. So from here on out, no new games. Unless maybe HalfLife comes out on the platform.

    In any case it seems to be a done deal and the beginning of the hype starts now.

    They've got to do a removable storage thing, and have some security feature so that you can copy games onto the [removeable] disk. I'm getting rather tired of the performance of some of my older games. That would be killer. I suppose some form of HD would be nice, but I really don't see how the graphics could be improved. In short, from my perspective, everything on XBox2 would be gravy, and that means they are going to have to do some convincing to get me to upgrade.

    After October, the original XBox is going to start to look like a real bargain. As it stands there are a lot of good, cheap games out there to be had, like PsyOps, a real sleeper. BTW, Is Yu Suzuki on board?

    Posted by mbowen at 05:46 PM | TrackBack

    January 20, 2005

    Gaming Metadata

    In addition to the GamertagDatabase, I have signed up to Defas. Their ideas about global stats are right on time, right on target and soon, right up my alley.

    The question must be asked. Why don’t more game developers reap the benefits of this technology? A step in the right direction of tapping into the full potentiality of the Xbox Live is proliferating community developers with the tools they need. Bridging the aftermarket gap by honoring community conduits as such increases product awareness. If that’s not enough, appeasing any percentile of your fan-base is a good thing. The opportunity here for communal growth is astonishing, and the interest ridiculously prevailing.

    Their stats are fairly cool. I dig it.

    Posted by mbowen at 04:24 PM | TrackBack

    December 01, 2004

    Massive Shooters & Adhoc Clans

    CNET reports that a record of sorts has been set for hosting simultaneous online gamers.

    Hardware maker Unisys announced Wednesday that its ES7000 server helped set a record for the most online game players ever hosted on a single server. The feat occurred last June at DreamHack 2004, a major computer conference in Sweden.

    Game enthusiasts at the conference set up a session of the popular shooting game "CounterStrike" with 1,160 simultaneous players hosted on a single Unisys server, equipped with 32 Intel Xeon 2.2GHz processors and 32GB of memory. The Guinness World of Records recognized the session as a world record earlier this week.


    So let me see if I understand this correctly. There were over 1100 gamers playing at once?

    If this is correct, then it opens up the possibility of huge games. Now I don't play MMORPGs like Everquest, but I have been There and on Second Life. So it's possible that this kind of stuff could actually happen. But in shooters, there is so much more going on in realtime than just chat and dance moves.

    Halo2's 'proximity' feature is particularly notable in this regard. They have already breached the barrier of having what goes on around a player in more focus than what's going on in the background. I can see the game glitch occasionally enough to see objects I move towards get less jaggy. So I know that they have mastered the first person experience with regard to prioritizing events close up and deprioritizing remote ones. So this suggests to me that a 'Halo 3' could do some rather intersting things. Let's speculate.

    If the user experience of the game is prioritized by proximity it means that the immediate environment 'renders itself' around the player - it's work that is piped to the client by the server given a 'gps location'. This means that there's a kind of limit to what you need to know as if you were in a Newtonian field of an Einsteinian universe. In otherwords, your playing field can be massive beyond comprehension but all you know, or need to know, you can handle with your own little compute box. A massive server however can keep track of global Einsteinian events. So where are we headed? We're headed towards shooters that have battles which last longer than individual gamer and clan sessions.

    Right now the greatest thing about Halo2 is its ability to deliver the cool guts of shooting action to an individual gamer by matching them up relatively quickly with people who want to do the same thing. This is very important and I'll talk about it more later. But the fact that the Bungie folks understand this key feature menas that they will be open to the idea of adhoc clans.

    So in a massive shooter served by a massive box, you can be delivered to a battlefield, get orders, and try to take positions in a battle that was going on before your arrived. Here is the nature of an adhoc clan. Halo3 could have waves of Earth fighters engage city after city in the Covenant planets. Battles that last for days can be engaged...

    Posted by mbowen at 03:41 PM | TrackBack

    November 22, 2004

    Beyond Halo 2

    I finally finished the Halo single player campaign. It was a blast. Like a lot of folks, I was fairly perplexed by the ending. The cinematics in this one were insufficient, by my reckoning, to give me enough details to fill in plot holes. On the other hand, I was very interested to get to the next level, just fresh from the exhiliration of beating the last set of baddies down.

    It's true that Halo2 is more expansive in every way than the first. I can see how Halo3 could be even greater. What seems to be the huge surprise, and I may be reading this wrong, is that Earth itself is the Arc, and the Prophet of Regret came to warn humans that the Covenant was on a course to glass it. The Arc, if I'm reading that correctly, is the place where all of the Halo rings can be remotely activated. If Earth is the Arc, then it alone is safe from the Halo weapon, and/or the Founders were the original Earth inhabitants and Humans are the decendants of the Founders. With these pieces, Halo now approaches a new level of sci-fi drama. Or as this guy explains:

    the halos don't kill flood...they kill their only means to spread which is all sentient life (meaning everyone else)...the halos were created to contain the flood, so when the rings were activated, they were already quarantined inside the rings, which is why they were able to survive.

    The "Ark", which in Biblical terminology, is a safe haven for remaining life (eg. Noah's Ark contained animals, humans, etc, that were to be "saved" from utter destruction (the Great Flood).). So the theory about the humans actually being decendants of the Forerunner are actually likely. This would explain why Regret's fleet only had few Covenant warships (which if they had more could have easily obliterated Earth's defenses) at the start of the game, because he didn't know that humans were on the "Ark".

    Earth contains the key to activate all of the Halos, as stated by 343 at the end of the game. If you all remember, at the Halo2.com site, when you point the cursor at the continent of Africa, it says "This is what we came for", which means the key is in Africa. This explains why the only place you get to fight on Earth as MC is Old and New Mombasa (which are actual cities in Africa). This is why the Covenant did not fully glass Earth, as they did with Reach, because they need to get to the key and begin their "Great Journey" into godhood, which they believe the forerunners became after activating the rings (foolish bastards!)


    thats, more or less, what i came up with after beating the game, except for the Africa bit (totally looked over that :err: ) lol.

    Im just curious what would be if the covenant ever find out the true purpose of the Rings, or worst yet, they actually manage to activate them. Thats why I think they bought in Abriter. Use him to help rally the covenant against the Prophets and help them to realize the truth of what the rings actually do (wipe out all life). This, consequently, i think will result in a truce/agreement between the Humans and Covenant converters to stop the flood and the religion of the false prophets.

    Basically the whole story references, and in some instances, are identical to the Bible. i.e. Master Chief the savior and the one true hope to save mankind, the Ark as a haven for life, 7 Rings - the 7th day, Sunday (holy day), etc...


    The question is whether or not Ridley Scott believe so, because he is being pitched this movie like nobody's business. You just have to get the right writers interested in taking up subplots and complications on the various alien races of the Covenant and voila.

    In the meantime, I've got my ranking up to 5 in the online game and can now concentrate on that exclusively.

    Posted by mbowen at 12:44 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    November 11, 2004

    Halo 2 Rules, Changes the Rules

    Halo grossed $125 million in its opening 3 days. Bigger than Spiderman2.


    Halo 2 sold through 2.4 million units in its first 24 hours of North American release, Microsoft announced today. That adds up to $125 million in gross receipts, giving Bungie's latest Xbox project a place in the record books for both games and the entertainment industry at large.

    To pull a couple of examples from the movie business, the all-time record for a movie's opening weekend belongs to Spider-Man 2, which grossed almost $115 million. Pixar's The Incredibles, launched this past weekend, drew a $70 million gross in its first three days. Shrek 2 owns the record for the highest single-day gross, drawing $44 million on May 22, 2004.

    That's what I've been doing all day.

    Posted by mbowen at 10:35 PM | TrackBack

    November 09, 2004

    Halo 2: First Look

    I didn't think I'd be writing this early, but it turns out that I have a break at work. Yes, I'm at work.

    I picked up my copy last night at EB Games in Torrance. I was 26th in a line of about 75. The headlines say that MS has already done 100 million worth of business. I have no doubts. I was going to wait actually, but last evening I saw my MS communicator show that a couple of my buddies were already online playing. I couldn't stand that kind of peer pressure. I felt midnight pass through the states like New Years Day.

    I got back to the crib at 12:28am and popped the disk in calmly. I hate shrinkwrap like the next guy, but I wasn't going to do something stupid with my big knife. So I patiently created my profile, inverted my look and logged onto Live. As I expected, there were already people I knew online playing including eedad, my fearless clan leader. I decided to go the long way and start a new campaign offline.

    The trailers pick up the story reasonably well. The head Covy is getting branded for goofing the Halo mission and the Master Chief is getting a medal for his participation in the same. We're in orbit. I basically played a couple deathmatches and CTF online for about half an hour last night and another 90 minutes or so to complete the first chapter last night and this morning.

    The gameplay seems smoother and faster. I've been playing Black Arrow for the past few weeks and I can tell that my aim is a lot better than it has been. At Medium, the grunts and other aliens come and drop at a predictable pace. The opening is not quite as heartthumping as the first Halo but then again, I'm hardly the noob I was. I dual-weilded all the indoor battles and it's brilliant. With a couple of plasma rifles, the MC is about as deadly as any FPS character ever. It rather reminded me of Berserk mode in 'Brute Force', except that the two rifles fire independently. So you can go lefty or righty or both. It will take me a while to get used to the different combinations of dual-weilding, but it's really a great dimension to gameplay.

    The headsup is disoriently different at first. It took me a long time to get used to looking for life bars in the bottom left instead of the top right. Also, in multiplayer I had voices coming out of the TV and the communicator. Furthermore you can really jump high in the new game. As I get used to these fundamental changes, Halo 2 should soon feel natural.

    The AI is definitely improved. You can immediately see that when you get to do a little Warthogging. Let a Marine drive and ride shotgun. He'll drive you to the right places and with the gunner, get the job done even if you kick back and relax. I noticed a bit of a glitch in firing if the driver does a quick 180 - plasma goes in weird directions, and your range isn't that good, but shotty is good.

    Recharging is quick. Not only your shields for the battle armor suit but for the big gun on the Scorpion. Spend all your time fighting and no time looking for health packs. Brilliant again.

    The music is noticeably brighter and grungier. The earth city is very cool looking - concrete futuristic. The graphics are snappy and seamless. I actually started to get nauseous on one particularly up and downy part of the station in orbit. It's a lot crisper than the original, and I found myself making a lot more long-distance shots without zooming than I'd try in the original version.

    New weapons. I don't know what their official names are but I like them. Plasma grenades seem a lot more powerful than before, whether they are or not, the explosions they make are a lot cooler looking. The minigun is very smooth and accurate. The bursty assault rifle seems a little weak, but it's actually pretty effective at knocking the sheilded Jackals off-balance.

    The new Covy drop ships look vulnerable to big guns. The Scarab is ultra-cool. The hover-hooches are cool too. I've done the hijacking of a ghost. It's not hard at all. Secondary explosions haven't played a big role yet.

    I stopped just at the incredibly wierd plot twist in the campaign, so I haven't gotten my hands on a sword yet. More later.

    Posted by mbowen at 11:36 AM | TrackBack

    Eleven Nine

    Yes I stood outside at midnight like a kid. Yes Halo2 is better than the first in just about every way. It's faster. The weapons are cooler, the environments seem larger.

    And yes I *am* going to work today.

    Posted by mbowen at 07:50 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    November 08, 2004

    The Vast Greatness of Gaming

    I missed an opportunity to dignify my rantings through appeals to authority the other night. I was too busy drinking margaritas and consuming juicy steak with my wife and friends. So instead of being at Beckman Auditorium hearing:

    Techno-cultural historian Steven Johnson is a contributing editor for Wired and Discovery magazines, and is the cofounder and editor-in-chief of FEED, the revolutionary Internet magazine that managed to blend technology, science, and culture. He is also the celebrated author of the award-winning books Interface Culture; Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software; and, most recently, Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life.

    I was just telling that story of Mandume, the Seville, and Jersey Highway Patrol again.

    Be that as it may, I happen to think that this cat Johnson is onto something once again. I really dug his explanation of emergent behavior. And I was pretty thrilled to hear him talk about what he has learned over the past few years about thought centers in the brain. Notably that you're supposed to use only 10% of your brain at a time. Why? Because the brain is a collection of specialized tools that have evolved to do different kinds of thinking. Basically take your left-brain / right-brain theory and break it down a couple dozen times and this is where cognitive theory is getting us. So the MRI of a guy solving crossword puzzles is different than the MRI of the same guy playing piano. Different mental task, different part of the brain.

    As a reader of Oliver Sacks from way back in the day, such matters have always been of deep interest to me, and I'm definitely going to change the way I start thinking about how my kids brains are developing. Speaking of which, he said that we now know with a great deal more certainty that emotional states are deeply related to thoughts. A happy person remembers happy times. A sad person remembers sad times. Until you're happy, you forget your self-esteem and all the good things you did when you were you. Stuff like that. Anyway, that's just another big incentive to remind me not to make the kids cry when I correct their homework.

    But Johnson's newest book is of a revolutionary piece. 'Everything Bad is Good For You' is due out this spring. He argues that television, movies and videogames are not the mind-rot they once were. In fact that they stimulate the mind in ways previously never considered. There are all kinds of tangents one can take with this, but it's something I understand. I long ago decided that it would be better for my kids play videogames than to watch television because of their interactivity. I expect Johnson to discover a nice set of concepts of mind-jigger that vids give us.

    A simple example in obviousness might be the comparison between 'I Love Lucy' and 'The Wire'. In the old days, the plot basically focused on one caper with a small set of characters that was resolved in 30 minutes. A show like 'The Wire' mixes multiple clans of characters with clashing interests going in several directions at once. Watching shows like 'Gunsmoke' only required one glance to get in on the fun, but if you tuned to an episode of '24' in the middle of the season, there's no way your are going to be able to make sense of its complexity.

    Online videogames, especially what MMORPGs are morphing to, expand on this even further because behind each character is another human being, not a screenwriter. They are not simply games, they're economies. This is not your father's idiot box.

    Posted by mbowen at 01:56 PM | TrackBack

    Finished Fable in Fifteen

    Fable is nowhere near as big as Knights of the Old Republic. Its story is not as complex, its scope is smaller. But I'm ready to play it again from start to finish, and that's something I'd never say about an RPG of this sort.

    I think that the authors of Fable have come up with a very happy medium, and that is because of the fighting system. I spent most of my time in Fable battling, sometimes with (dumb AI) allies but mostly singlehandly, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I cannot think of any other fighting game I've ever played that allows such a wide arsenal of offensive and defensive weapons to be weilded in real time. The targeting is nice but not too easy, the spell gradations are very cool and the variety of enemies is really nice.

    While it's true that the boss battles leave quite a bit to be desired as boss battles go, I don't particularly like boss battles, and so it suited me just fine. It took me three days to beat Bastila in KOTOR and I was really about to give up completely. When it came to fighting the last boss, I just said forget it. It wasn't worth a one minute cut scene after having played the game for weeks. But I think the folks at Lionhead understand that even in a great fighting game, it's a lot more fun to hack and slash legions of enemies than to conquer big monsters.

    I went pretty much straight for legendary good-guy status and spent almost no time interacting with anyone who wasn't directly involved in my quests. I think part of that has to do with the fact that it's far easier to select and emply use a variety of weapons than it is to use the variety of expressions. I am at a loss to explain why it was so easy to map the skills onto my right thumb but the left d-pad was a monstrosity of cascading menus. If I wanted to laugh or belch in someone's face, they will have walked halfway across town before I could engage them, but in a second, I could slow time, zoom through them, summon a creature, make myself berserk and triple club them with a flame augmented obsidian greathammer. Then again, I can belch at people in real life.

    I cannot describe how delicious it is to have this array of weapons and spells at your disposal. But playing them has left several other dimensions that the game has completely unexplored. I'm going to explore them while I patiently wait for Amazon to deliver Halo2 to my doorstep.

    Posted by mbowen at 08:37 AM | TrackBack

    October 15, 2004

    In The Can

    Halo2 has gone gold. This is the software industry term for the Hollywood term 'in the can'. Which means the master is complete and off to manufacture. Which means somewhere on the planet, there is already a bootleg version. It doesn't matter because the game is priced right and the consumer feels adequately served by a $50 videogame that will play for months. I've already pre-ordered my copy. The countdown continues.

    This is a much better deal than a first run movie for example. If I pay 8 bucks for 90 minutes, that's about a buck for every 10 minutes. If the original Halo cost that much, it would have cost someone like me hundreds of dollars considering the time I spent in that game. I know that I've played PGR2 at least 150 hours the last time I checked, which was several months ago.

    I've been playing Burnout3 for a little while and I'm already burned out on it. It's a lot of fun but lacks the control I prefer. The crashes are perfect and so are the games, although I'd rather have a first person view I could switch to (I always drive first person). Nascar is in the mail. It should be good.

    25 days to zero.

    Posted by mbowen at 03:52 PM | TrackBack

    October 12, 2004

    Halo2 Making Epic Strides

    OK I have to admit that I'm a sucker for a new sense of things right about now. I'm dropping the sensitivity screens in order to develop a vocabulary for things hot. In my new role as CTO for a very, very cool web venture coming up I'm courting an interesting audience not too far off from where I was 10 - 15 years ago.

    What has this got to do with Halo2? Well it turns out that Bungie has hooked up with Nile Rodgers (yes that Nile Rodgers) to produce the music for the Halo2 soundtrack. The first single is by a group called 'Breaking Benjamin' which sounds like a grown-up Blink 182 Linkin Park with a touch of Korn. It's called 'Blow Me Away' and it is slammin'. It's... (hmm how do the young people say it these days?) The lead singer has a touch of that Matchbox 20 guy and the guitars have a touch of the STP when they go epic. This is damned good music for a video game. It's actually damned good music, period.

    I am starting to get the feeling that what we're going to be hearing a lot after the release of H2, is that video games are turning the corner into real cross-media starmakers. I've been playing Burnout 3 so I know how EA has been dropping little rock tracks into their cut screens, but that's kind of disposable stuff. As anyone who has played Halo knows, O'Donnell and Salvatori's music is outstanding. Now it rocks and a lot of people are going to be paying attention.

    I'm just listening to the streaming version available here, and I've played it 8 times just writing this piece. It's that good.

    Posted by mbowen at 02:40 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    September 17, 2004

    H-Day

    Do you know what November 9, 2004 is?

    It is the debut of the most eagerly anticipated game in the history of gaming: Halo 2. This past week the Beta of the game completed. All the news is awesome. New weapons, new vehicles, new capabilities.

    We have predicted that grades and productivity will drop all over the nation, as gamers get immersed in Halo2.

    Posted by mbowen at 10:41 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    August 22, 2004

    The Dynamics of Spawn Camping

    The most happening game on XBox Live these days is the latest installment of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, known as Black Arrow.

    I started playing Black Arrow last week. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it's basically the most popular combat simulator online. If you have absolutely no interest in squad-based first person shooters, this may seem tedious but it's actually rather interesting, especially if you worry about how the socialization of your sons is progressing. If you have no son, it's still a fascinating foray into game theory.

    XBox Live
    What goes on here? Well, it works a little something like this. Your son has his XBox hooked up to a large anonymous network of several thousands of others people's sons. He drops in a game disc, which is essentially a $50 DVD that almost nobody tries to bootleg, and all the other gamers that are online at the same time appear. Now your son has a list of 40 or 50 (up to a hundred) other gamers on his 'friends list'. Most of these friends will be people he has, and will never meet in person. They could be from Alabama, Alberta or Allemagne. He just knows them by their 'gamertag', their alias, and perhaps by their voice if they've played enough. Voice? Yes, that's what that silly Bobby Brown My Prerogative headset is for. He can hear what all the other players in his room are saying, and of course he can talk back to them.

    For generations people have been shouting back at sports players on the television. Your son may be stupid, but at least he knows that the people on the other side of the screen can actually hear him.

    The Room
    So boy turns on the game, enters a PIN through his handheld controller and now there are several thousand other gamers playing Black Arrow with which he may cooperate or compete. He chooses which kind of game he wants to play, say 'Total Conquest' (that would be compete via cooperation), and all of the hosts who are hosting that kind of game show up on the screen after a quick search. Not their faces, just their gamertags in a list. He can then enter any hosted game of any particular host and get started gaming. He can't start playing a game until he gets into a room. No matter what time of day or night, there's always a room with plenty of English speakers.

    The Host
    I mentioned hosting a room. Who is a host? Anybody who wants to be a host is a host. Your son might be a host. Maybe he's even a good host. So there is a choice your son makes. Maybe he wants to host a room, maybe he wants to join somebody else's room, maybe he wants to join a room wherever his friends are. Let's say he chooses to be a host and serve up his own room. He then configures up his room depending on how he wants to play. He will allow 16 people to play, two opposing teams of 8 each. He will allow friendly fire and he will ban grenade launchers. The game will be Total Conquest.

    The Clan
    In addition to having a large set of friends which are visible across games other than Black Arrow. You may join an identifyable clan within the context of the Black Arrow world. These clans can arrange to compete exclusively against each other in tournaments, but most of the action has unaffiliated individuals mixed with clanners.

    Ready Up
    One more thing. Your son and everyone on his squad has to decide which compliment of weapons they are going to employ. They do this in the lobby before the game starts. There are assault rifles, chain guns, pistols, sniper rifles and a variety of explosives. Take your pick.

    Total Conquest
    Now here's where it gets very interesting. The game itself places your team and the opposing team on opposite ends of a map. It might be a subway in London, a castle in Milan, a ferry in the middle of some sea, or a hotel in Cannes (or several other locales). Your goal is to capture three satellite uplinks on the map and defend them for 20 seconds. Sounds simple in theory, except that the other team is trying to do the same thing. They'll be using their weapons against you, rushing, sniping, tossing grenades, setting traps. But there's one particularly nasty tactic that has the entire world of Black Arrow in an uproar.

    Spawn Camping
    It's practically impossible to survive more than aabout 90 seconds in one of the battlefields. So you die. But after a few moments, you come back to life back at your insertion point, aka your Spawn at one corner of the map. But imagine that your enemy has crossed the map and is now holed up in a sniper position. As soon as you pop back to life, he kills you on the spot. This is spawn camping.

    Most Black Arrow players hate spawn camping. It violates the spirit of the game, which is to conquer territory and employ various tactics in the field to get and hold all three uplinks. However the Black Arrow points system only rewards players for the number of kills they make, and it is 'legal' from the point of view that the game allows it. So you can appear to be a superior player by having a lot of kill points even though you are doing little more than shooting fish in a barrell.

    During a game, if someone starts camping out at the enemy spawn point, almost everyone immediately knows. The cursing and shouting really starts. There are several tactics to counter the spawn camper(s). One is to fight fire with fire and camp at the other team's spawn point. Another is to allow all of your team to be killed and spawn simultaneously, making too many targets. A third is to leave a man to guard the spawn point at the expense of capturing territory or hunting down the enemy. But most of these tactics fail. If an individual player gets close enough to their opponent's spawn point, it almost irrevocably tips the advantage in the game to that player's team. This brings us back to the host. The host can boot anyone out of his room for any arbitrary reason. Sometimes the boot spawn campers, sometimes they do nothing.

    Solutions
    Adult Gaming Enthusiasts are organizing to evade immaturity and unethical behavior across the board.
    On August 13 Ubisoft, the game's publisher, has announced a patch to fix spawn camping by changing the rules of the game. This will probably be automated in a mandatory download, but when it will be available is anybody's guess. In the meantime, the ethics of the game are entirely in the hands of the players.

    However spawn camping isn't unique to Black Arrow. Other games, like Castle Wolfenstein have seen similar problems. Not everybody agrees that it's a problem. Some argue that it is a form of ambush and that game programmers are right to allow it. But I'd argue that it depends upon the game, and certainly for Total Conquest in Black Arrow, it's a real game breaker.

    Fascinating.

    Posted by mbowen at 02:03 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    July 31, 2004

    Juinor Modders

    In Project Gotham Racing 2, I am ranked 4999th in the world, or at least I was at 3:30 this morning when I signed off. That's not bad out of 224k people who race this online game. I've been around the block a few times, but last night I saw something I never saw before. Upon reflection it doesn't seem to be much, but I was very impressed at the time.

    Just like in the Matrix, everything about these simulated worlds are driven by rules. Sometimes there are gaps or glitches in the rules which allow the observant and persistent to bend them. For the most part however, most people play the game and enjoy themselves within the constraints of the playing field.

    Last night, a modder went 450 miles per hour. This is the equivalent of Neo flying in the Matrix.

    A modder is someone who takes apart a digital appliance and modifies the hardware or software to add features to an ordinary game. This is very much like the aftermarket for cars, except it's chips. By doing so, a modder can bend or break rules or even add their own.

    In PGR2 there are a collection of about 100 automobiles for racing, each with its own speed, colors and handling characteristics. In the original version, which has twice been updated by the manufacturer with expansion packs. A well known, and perhaps the only flaw in the game was known as the 'Color Glitch'. Through a series of button clicks on the XBox controller, a player could change the colors of a car. This was notably done on the Porsche GT1, one of the most desirable cars in the game which was only available in white. Players who mastered the Color Glitch would appear at the start of a race with orange or black GT1s, thus announcing their status to the rest of the players. As more people learned the Color Glitch, races would take forever to start as players would try to outdo each other by picking cool colors. That all stopped three months ago with the addition of the Paris Booster Pack which also patched the bug.

    I was in the company of two young modders, a 19 year old kid from Philly and a 13 year old from somewhere in Canada. Philly did the hack. Canuck offered to set up a webcam session and show me how to mod my own XBox.

    Stay Tuned.

    Posted by mbowen at 11:04 AM | TrackBack

    June 10, 2004

    A PhD in Mortal Kombat

    (full reprint)
    A PhD in Mortal Kombat
    By Mary McNamara
    Times Staff Writer

    June 6, 2004

    A pioneering USC group tries to get into the heads of players to learn if the pastime harms or can help.


    Ever since they were children, Steve Choi, Ethan Levy and Elaine Chan have been told by people who never met them that the great passion of their lives, the thing that captivated and moved them, was the enemy of intellect, emotionally damaging and quite possibly the end of civilization as we know it.

    Choi, Levy and Chan are gamers. That is, they play video games with serious devotion and intensity. They are also students at the University of Southern California Choi and Levy, both 22, are entering their senior year, and Chan, 21, is working on her PhD. But far from merely overcoming their digital predilections to succeed in college, these three and others like them are using their knowledge of games like Mortal Kombat and the Sims to further their education. As members of USC's Computer Games project, they are the local vanguard of a new academic discipline: video game scholarship.

    Choi recalls that his mother gave him a computer when he was 8 because she felt computer science was the career path of the future; she was, however, less then thrilled when her son began spending much of his on-screen time playing games.

    "All our lives we've heard how terrible it is," Choi says. "I wanted to offer the other side of the question."

    Created through the Annenberg School for Communication, the Annenberg Studies on Computer Games is a multidisciplinary, multigenerational, multilingual research group dedicated to the study of computer games. The year-old group is one of several game-related projects springing up at universities around the country. MIT, Stanford, the University of Michigan and Northwestern University have various projects researching different aspects of interactive media. But USC's computer games project is probably the largest and most diverse collection of professors and students studying the vast yet mysterious world of video games. The research at USC focuses on the gamer rather than game design or development, and much of what they are doing is groundbreaking.

    The project is the creation of Peter Vorderer, who heads the school's entertainment studies program, and Ute Ritterfeld, a German research associate professor with a background in health sciences and psychology. "We are trying to find out not only what is bad but what is good," Ritterfeld says. "Every new technology is met with fear and criticism. When picture books first came out, people said they would ruin children's imaginations; with radio it was the same; movies, television the same. We are trying to find out what is real and what is just fear."

    After years of snubbing video games as a phenomenon not worth researching, scholars are now frantically attempting to catch up with an interactive media industry that is increasingly prevalent, seemingly permanent and still so new that the people developing it are the ones who are using it.

    Ritterfeld says the topic itself is polarizing. "The nongamers consistently criticize the games, the gamers defend them. They honestly can't imagine any harm in them. What's really needed is more research."

    Chan knows what true gamers face she spent one summer doing nothing but playing the online role-playing games she favors. Over the years, though, she has learned to keep her gaming habits to herself. "Whenever I mention that I'm sort of obsessed with video games everyone is shocked and horrified and asks, 'Well, how did you make it to USC?' " she says. "Even in the computer group," she adds with a laugh.

    The 20-person USC group is an international lot, including members from Germany, China, Ukraine, India and Korea as well as all over the U.S. In the past years, it's developed or launched studies into areas as diverse as the effect of violent games on brain activity, the motivation of gamers, the benefits of interactive learning, and the role of narrative and character development in the games themselves.

    While two of the studies will focus on the hot-button issue of violence, most are geared toward discovering what psychological needs the games fill and what role they can have in education and mass audience entertainment.

    In one study planned for this summer, researchers will test the conventional wisdom that interactive learning is more productive than rote. "Everyone assumes children will learn more if they are playing a game," Ritterfeld says. "But we do not know that because it has never been tested."

    Vorderer, who has edited several books on the psychology of entertainment, is already compiling a book about gaming, which he believes is changing not just the industry but the definition of entertainment.

    "When we started, we thought, 'Well, games are cool and under-researched so this will be a good area,' " Vorderer said. "But the more work we do, it is so striking how everything is connected to games. The military, the movies, education, everyone is doing games."

    MUCH TO LEARN

    Here is what is known about computer games: They are the fastest-growing area of the entertainment market; last year, when games sales reached $11.4 billion, which surpassed U.S. box office figures, studios all over town began opening or gearing up their interactive divisions. The median age of gamers has risen to 27, and almost half are women. Men prefer violent, combat-heavy games, women are more into role-playing. The Sims, in which players create virtual families and homes and lives, is the most popular computer game of all time with 6.3 million units sold.

    Here is what is not known about computer games: Why people play them often with a dedication that borders on obsession. What effect the violence in the games has on the brain activity of the players. If gaming is a social or antisocial activity. If computer games can be more effective as learning tools than other educational games. How gaming is changing the entertainment industry and, more broadly, the cultural landscape.

    Traditionalists may shudder at the thought, but it is now possible to minor in computer games at some American universities, including USC, where courses in game design and development are offered through engineering or computer science departments. Earlier this year, Redwood City-based Electronic Arts, one of the largest game developers in the country, gave the USC Cinema-Television school $8 million to help set up, among other things, an interactive entertainment design program.

    But academics in the humanities are traditionally more interested in impact and motivation than design. There are some firmly held opinions about people who play video games, from the idea that violent games somehow contribute to school shooting tragedies after the Columbine High School massacre, the Federal Trade Commission pressured the video game industry to enforce ratings to keep violent games out of the hands of kids to the general fear that the game-happy Gen X, Y and Z will grow up with brains turned to mush and thumbs morphed into club-like digits by Game Boy.

    Yet little empirical analysis has been done on anything having to do with gaming. Video game companies regularly conduct research, but most of it is simple focus group reactions to games near completion. The relatively small number of academic studies that exist focus almost exclusively on violence, the most recent linking aggressive behavior during play to aggressive tendencies after play. But thus far the research has been done mainly through surveys set up along lines similar to television research. Which, Vorderer says, is not necessarily applicable.

    "This is a completely different medium," he says. "It is proactive rather than passive, so it fills different needs, uses different portions of the brain."

    One of the first studies Ritterfeld and colleague Ren Weber initiated involved doing MRI brain scans on 14 gamers while they played Atari's Tactical Ops. (Because the study was conducted by the neuroscience department at the University of Tbingen in Germany, Ritterfeld had to send for the American version of the game, the German version being markedly less violent.)

    The brain impulses of the participants, all young men, were recorded for an hour, a length of time unheard of in MRI research. Typically, Weber says, people who are not being tested for a life-threatening disease can withstand the loud and claustrophobic MRI machine for a maximum of about 20 minutes. But the gamers, who were asked at regular intervals if they would like to stop, were so focused on the game that they not only made it through the requested hour but almost to a person agreed to do another hour for comparison purposes.

    "It was just amazing," says Weber, who, as the group's methodologist, has been analyzing the data by comparing, in 24-second intervals, exactly what was on the computer screen with what was going on in the participants' brains. "It was like they were unaware of anything but the game."

    Ritterfeld and Weber will compile their findings this summer and present them at the National Communication Assn. conference in Chicago in November. Though it's too early to draw definite conclusions, Weber says he thinks "we can see aggression-like brain activity when they play." One hypothesis, Ritterfeld says, is that some players are just trying to play the game well, while others enjoy the violence.

    Vorderer and some of his PhD students are launching another study gauging players' reactions to different scenarios civilians versus soldiers, women versus men, animals and inanimate objects versus people, even young people versus adults (although he was not able to create targets that were children. "We had to make them look 18 or older," he said.).

    About 70% of video games contain violence. And although this year's crop includes a larger number of women as protagonists and victims, the figures in most games are men in their 20s, and these, Vorderer says, appear to be the most expendable, at least in the gamer philosophy. "But that could just be because that is all there are, young men to shoot at," he says. "We want to see if changing the target sensitizes the players in any way."

    'NOT ENOUGH RESPECT'

    Vorderer and Ritterfeld, a married couple, came to USC in 2002, from Germany. Experimental researchers in all areas of the media, they had familiarity with video games, but like many others they were inclined toward criticism of the violence and what they considered mind-numbing repetition. Only one of the other seven professors in the group had played computer games except as a form of research. But when they began mentioning the group in undergraduate classes, gamers started introducing themselves, wanting to know what was going on. The group asked them to share their experiences, and the students were happy to do so. Which was how Levy and Choi got involved. They help design and conduct the studies, but they also serve as reality checks and translators for the academics, many of whom came of age pre-Pac-Man.

    Levy says he's been playing since he was a conscious human being his first game experience he thinks happened when he was 3 and he considers himself an advocate for his generation.

    "I felt like I had a spot as an expert in that I was someone who had actually played the games," Levy says. "There's not enough respect shown by academics toward games except this group and some design classes. Academics view it as a children-designated industry, but that's not true. Gamers are playing for life now."

    Levy, who has also worked for the last year and a half as a game designer at Pandemic Studios in Westwood, says he is tired of arguing with people who have never even played a video game.

    "Yes, it's violent," he says. "But football is violent and no one has a problem enrolling kids in Pee Wee league."

    At a meeting this spring, Levy and Choi found themselves explaining various aspects of the Sims to several of the faculty who had considered the game in theoretical terms. The Sims, which has a spinoff, Urbz, due out soon, crosses gender lines. This summer and next year, Choi will be working on a survey of Sims players, looking at the game from the players' point of view. But he already has a few ideas, based on personal experience. "Girls play Sims to play house and explore relationships," he says. "Guys play it to play God. Control."

    Although the undergraduate students involved in the group are gamers, many of the graduate students are more interested in video games as extensions of research on child psychology or entertainment theory. Kate Pieper is interested in how shifts in technology affect learning and whether actual violence can be triggered by digital violence. "It's a whole new area, so little is actually known," she says when asked why she joined the group.

    Chan, however, is in it for the games. "I'm interested in people," she says, "but it's always been about the game. My whole application [to Annenberg] was about studying games."

    The Annenberg School provided the group's initial funding, but now its members are seeking financial backing for the studies they have begun, as well as new research, from a variety of academic and industry-related sources.

    Vorderer and Ritterfeld note that when they proposed a panel on video games for the recent International Communication Assn. convention held in New Orleans, they were refused. So they decided to organize a breakfast. Within a few days, they had more people signing up for the breakfast than for most of the panel discussions.

    "See," Vorderer said to Choi when he announced this at a recent meeting. "Now your parents will understand how important it was that you were playing games when they thought you should be studying."

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Recent coverage of video games and the E3 convention in L.A. is at latimes.com/videogames.
    Contact Mary McNamara at Calendar.letters@ latimes.com.

    *****************************************************
    "We are the digital drummers of the technical ether, counteracting the inherent arrhythmia and harmonizing the fundamental discordance which is the wilderness West. As soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, mind to mind, I & I be warriors, our weapons lightning & the music of thunder."

    jamal ali
    copyright 18 march 1991

    *****************************************************
    In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed to the individual members of this list who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for criticism, comment, scholarship, non-profit research and educational purposes only without permission from the copyright owner(s) under the "fair use" provisions of the Federal copyright laws. It may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner(s), except for "fair use."

    As always, utilize your discretion & wisdom in reviewing & using information, based upon their source and sensibility.

    Posted by mbowen at 08:05 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    June 07, 2004

    Full Spectrum Warrior: First Look

    As combat sims go, I have to say that this is the most realistic I've played. I think it's going to have a serious hold on me for some time to come.

    I've only gotten through the basic training of Full Spectrum Warrior, something that took me the better part of 2 hours, and I am very impressed. The first thing I notice about this is that it doesn't give you a whole lot of fancy weaponry. It gives you soldiers. What's so incredibly cool about FSW is that it's not cool.

    I've played Ghost Recon, its follow up Island Thunder, Rainbow Six 3 but this one is by far the most realistic. Although Splinter Cell comes close, I'm more dependent on info over the squawk in this game than any other. Whereas in Metal Gear, it gets downright annoying talking to Otacon, I really look forward to hearing Charlie 32. Second only FoeHammer, Charlie 32 is the best voice to hear.

    On the last part of the MOUT, I encounter the tank. Hey, I can call in support! Gnarly! So I light up the tank and the mortars start dropping and the whole damn place is shaking. I'm a whole block away and it's still scary. Brings it home.

    Now that I've put in several hours in the actual game, I see exactly what the sniping at the game is all about. It's true that MOUT is so detailed and comprehensive that your team becomes practically invincible in the normal mode. I think I'm going to switch to tough mode before I complete the game. I expected to find a whole lot more civilians and snipers. I also expected that I would have to clear buildings, but that would have necessitated more of the Ghost Recon type maneuvers. Clearly the answer is to have swappable control modes - this is something nicely doable as Splinter Cell demonstrates in the Live vs Single modes.

    All in all a very impressive game for it's great use of cover and street tactics. It's extraordinary in that it makes you care for wounded. The dialog is excellent, probably the best I've heard in any game. Enemy AI borders on the retarded - I kept wondering if there would be any rearguard action and I got in the habit of leaving by Bravo team to scope out the rear. But I never got outflanked, out manned or out maneuvered. I never had to use individual skills pointing a team in different directions for Fog of War stuff. (That was the scary part during MOUT, I felt for sure things would get very hairy).

    This is a game that has excellent potential for a sequel. The ideas expressed in it are exceptional, and I hope they are copied in other combat sims.

    Posted by mbowen at 09:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    June 04, 2004

    XBox Fantasy

    The game world just gets better and better. This weekend I'm going to be immersed. Say bye bye family, daddy's going gaming. I've got four new titles to play with and it's going to rock.

    Riddick
    This is a big surprise. I've only played a little bit but this is a really innovative game. It's one part Splinter Cell, one part Doom, one part Deus Ex. It's totally cool and confirms that Vin Diesel is going to be the next Bruce Willis. It's got the most fabulous use of shadows I've ever seen in a game. I'm going to have a lot of fun with this one. I thought the latest Hitman was too dark. This one seems to have struck the right balance.

    MX Unleashed.
    OK this one is for the kids, but I had to try it. Not bad. Not quite as engaging as Moto GP or Rallisport Challenge, but not bad.

    Full Spectrum Warrior
    I'm going to write a whole piece for this game. The greatest thing about it is that it's not cool.

    Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow
    I turned this one in much too soon. Forget Blockbuster, this is on Gamefly now, so I'll keep it until I finish all the levels. I just got to Paris and am still in the subway.

    Posted by mbowen at 10:26 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    May 23, 2004

    The Ultimate War Sim

    You have got to read this. Split your sides and think deeply at once. Damn!

    I want that "Public Support" meter to rise and fall according to Troops Lost, Length of Conflict, Innocents Killed and Whether or Not There is Anything Else On TV That Week. I want to lose 200 Public Support points because, in a war where 8,000 units have been lost, one of my Mutalisks happened to be caught on video accidentally eating one clergyman. Then, later, my destruction of an entire enemy city goes unnoticed because the Nude Zero-Gravity Futureball championship went into overtime.

    Posted by mbowen at 03:22 PM | TrackBack

    May 22, 2004

    PGR2 Paris

    As of this moment I am ranked 1710 in the city of Paris for Project Gotham Racing 2. I've been playing it all night. There are several new tracks and cars that are finally downloadable from XBox Live for the game. It costs 5 bucks and of course it's more than worth it.

    There are a couple of really good tracks. Several of which (of course) run around the traffic circle at L'Arc du Triumphe. There's a really nice tri-oval called Les Deux Ponts (The Two Bridges) which I predict is going to be the Paris equivalent of KGB Corner. It's fast. And there are some interesting hairpins and cresting turns that throw you a curve. But by far the most challenging aspects of the new Paris tracks are the traffic circles. There are some you can more or less take a straight line through, some you have to angle towards and accellerate through and some where you have to slow down and do a chicane-like maneuver. Sometimes there are two of them and you have to remember which side is deadly depending on which direction you're going. These dividers are trickier than the ones in Chicago, so be prepared.

    The playing field is leveled a bit. The TVR Cerbera Speed 12 is available in the download. Ha ha to all you scrubs who paid 30 bucks for the cheat. I've heard that the color glitch has been fixed, but I haven't verified that.

    There are seven new cars in the download including the Speed 12. The most fun to drive so far is the Ferarri 288 GTO. It's got nice accelleration and speed and it's a real slider. Somebody said that it's the one Magnum PI used to drive, but that was a 308. They look very much alike. Also the new BMW 645 and the Corvette C6 are included. The 'Vette's about the same as the Z06 with a slightly growlier engine and what seems to be taller gearing. The BMW has amazing brakes. The others I have yet to try.

    Interestingly enough, there's no weather selections when you're hosting Paris. I would have really liked to have seen the Eiffel Tower at night, but.. il n'est pas possible. Alors..

    Posted by mbowen at 01:04 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    May 11, 2004

    Brand New Halo 2 Demo

    Destructable vehicles is just the beginning.

    OK it's going to be worth the wait.

    Posted by mbowen at 12:35 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    May 08, 2004

    New XBox Titles

    This week and last, I broke my own rule of renting from Blockbuster since I already pay Gamefly. But the new games that have come out, I just had to try. I got 007 Everything or Nothing, Spinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow, Red Dead Revolver and Ninja Gaiden. I would have liked to find Rallisport 2, but they didn't have it.

    007 has been out for a while and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I didn't get very far through the game but I think it degraded my skills for Rainbox Six. That lock-on targetting system really takes the right thumb out of practice. All in all I rate it highly. It's one of the best third person action titles since Brute Force.

    Ninja Gaiden sucks. I understand why somebody would like it, that is to say somebody 10 years old like my boy. But it's just not my style. A bit too much button mashy for my tastes.

    Red Dead Revolver is the bomb. I'm only three chapters into this and I'm really opening up a can of wild west whoopass. The duelling interface is innovative and cool. They've really done a bang-up job and I intend to get fairly immersed into this puppy..

    BUT...

    Chances are I won't get a chance to do much of anything other than to play Pandora Tomorrow. I don't know what I did wrong when I played Splinter Cell the first time, but I just didn't get it. Or perhaps I just wanted to run and gun at the time and never got anywhere. But this time, I am fully engaged. I like sneaking around a lot, especially since I've been getting snuffed in Rainbow Six 3. This kind of sneaking is cooler than Metal Gear Solid, and less forgiving. It doesn't get much better than this.

    I'm looking forward to playing the online game too, because it's re-orients the controls and gives a completely different challenge.

    Posted by mbowen at 11:32 AM | TrackBack

    Rainbow Sicks

    I decided to buy Rainbow Six 3 and am getting my butt splattered in the Live game. My ELO is somwhere in the low 700s which means I get killed 8 times for every kill. But since I'm something of a butt kicker in PGR2, my friends are gracious enough not to boot me out of their rooms. What I don't understand about R63 is that my guns don't seem to work in the live game anywhere near as effectively as they do in story mode. As I run through the missions, I can double tap tangos with my AK and they're down. But I've emptied a whole magazine at close range and not beaten down live adversaries when I've gotten the jump on them. I've swapped weapons a couple times, but to no avail.

    Interestingly enough, on Ghost Recon, I'm pretty good, especially in the pistols only fights. So I took that idea and tried to run around with a Desert Eagle, and my roomies are clowning me, like I don't know there are assault rifles in the game.

    I generally play fairly aggressively in Co-op mode, but I haven't seemed to find my rhythm. A lot of that is because I don't know most of the maps from both teams yet. In fact, I've only played Green Team a couple times, and I was so twisted I almost fragged a partner. I really hate being a newbie in this. It's a really good game but it's less fun than XIII right now because I'm just dead meat in it. I'm starting to regret my purchase...

    I have a friend whom I hope is going to show me some tricks to increase my skills. We'll see.

    Posted by mbowen at 11:32 AM | TrackBack

    April 27, 2004

    The Library of Games Fallacy

    Every once in a while I hear this bogus argument about PS2 being better than XBox because it has a larger library of games. This cannot be true of any one person and is fast becoming marginal for the console audience itself. You'll also note that PS2 partisans don't concede that the PC is a better gaming platform because there are more titles available for PC.

    I've played something on the order of 100 different games for the XBox and there could be more but I don't remember where I put the list. But this is an insane amount of games representing about $5000 worth of software. (Of course I rented most of it). For any one player or household there is only likely to be a couple dozen games owned. Therefore I say that it's the quality of the best games that makes the biggest difference in the value of the platform, not the total number of games.

    Everyone concedes that Halo2 is destined to be a world-rocking affair. Viva XBox!

    Posted by mbowen at 08:23 AM | TrackBack

    April 15, 2004

    Rise of Nations

    I've made the plunge and picked up a PC strategy game. My choice: Rise of Nations. I played for about 4 hours last night (and early this morning) and have found it to be just as good as I thought it would be.

    My first time out, I basically got to medieval and beat up my neighbors. But they started it. I would have liked my first time out to be a bit more peaceful so that I could regard the economics a bit closer, but I just generally found that I would have a surplus of life. That is to say the game put me in a situation rather quickly where I would get bored and rich but not able to expand my population, the question of military adventure arise quickly.

    It's clearly addictive, deep and complex without taking huge amounts of time to make progress. More to come.

    Posted by mbowen at 08:28 AM | TrackBack

    April 09, 2004

    PC Gaming

    Ooh baby, I'm cooking with gas. Now that I've got the Shuttle fully righteous, I'm willing to be down with the PC game crowd. Not since A-Train and The Sims, have I done much PC gaming. I have come to understand that I've missed a little bit.

    A couple years ago in my pre XBox days when I suffered the indignities of getting thrashed in Super Mario Kart by a 7 year old boy, I said to myself it was time for a change. So before I spent a grip on a console, I looked for what was hot. The result was Sin, Everquest and Black & White. I was told that these were the finest the PC had to offer.

    Sin was actually fairly enjoyable even though it overburdened my machine. I really never got past any decent level and once I got stuck at a checkpoint with a non-elidable cut scene, I tossed it. I found Black & White to be fairly entertaining for a time but I really got annoyed with the UI. Once my monkey was on a leash, I had all these stupid leash commands that never quite worked. He got tangled up at the entrance to the temple and I dumped that one. Also, one of the shoulder angels glitched so I could see but not hear him. Ick. By the time I started the tutorial to Everquest and found that I couldn't jump up a ledge, I thought, well maybe I'll just use magic for the whole game. By that time, I ran into some ducats, said f it and bought my XBox. I've never looked back.

    Recently, however I've gotten the urge to do a real seriously grown up strategic kind of thing. All I can think of is 'Age of Empires' because it sounds grown up and strategic. (Whereas Condi Rice makes 'strategic' sound like excuse making.) So I'm asking for a little help here. BTW I've got a big fat flat panel and a Radeon and an optical cordless mouse, I think things can be more pleasant.

    Posted by mbowen at 09:48 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    April 06, 2004

    She Beat Me


    Even though I know better, I like to occasionally poke fun at feminists for not having all the answers. Plus, I'm Dad, so I get to stand up as a very fulfilled individual patriarch, aka proud poppa.

    Sure there's some folks who like to beat me up about letting my kids play video games, but I think I'm on good ground when I suggest that they're better than television. So on that limb I suppose it's a good thing that my daughters are gaining skills as button mashers in Soul Calibur 2, and they're kicking my butt.

    So what are we to make of it when a 9 year old girl opens a can of whoopass on her dad? Well, it's all great fun and that's all we care about around here.

    I didn't think that I was going to like this game as much as I have, being a Virtua Fighter snob from way back when. It turns out to have all of the subtleties of the VF series including blocking, throws (although not reversals), side motions and combos. The game is pretty large with a narrative section, a bunch of alternative weapons, corny dialog and very cool combat environments.

    Most impressive of all is the practice mode. All cheats are built into the system so that you can see what moves there are. So you can have an infinite life and practice until your fingers get numba;dn...

    Posted by mbowen at 08:15 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    February 17, 2004

    Open Source Gaming

    It's probably old news to some hardcore PC gamers, but some of the founders of the XBox team at Microsoft defected early in the program. One of these lights ended up a joint called Infinium.

    They've got a box called the Phantom which, with presumeably commonly available engines, will allow ordinary game programmers to develop games without jumping through the licensing deals and red tape of dealing with the big platform vendors. Nice

    Posted by mbowen at 09:43 AM | TrackBack

    January 27, 2004

    Pazaak, Tatooine & The Sith

    I am about 27 hours into Star Wars, Knights of the Old Republic and it occurs to me that the epic novel is back. Except it's not a novel, but a video game.

    It seems almost disrespectful to call this massive interactive tale a video game. I realized that once I finally managed to capture the Ebon Hawk from Davik and Calo Nord when Talis was being destroyed. I flew through the atmosphere, fought off a dozen smaller spacecraft, and just like Han Solo's Millenium Falcon I punched into hyperspace.

    It wasn't until I started playing this particular game (and I have played one other Star Wars game before, finding it tedious and unusually difficult) that I realized how much Lucas has made of his galaxy far far away. I knew there were many series of books written and I knew that many Star Wars fan[atic]s had been very disappointed in recent films that I thought were pretty good. I thought all of that was playing off the simplistic themes of the first (middle) trilogy of films. But KOR shows that this galaxy is at least as well thought out as that of the Star Trek series.

    After having watched the bonus material for the making of Episode One, I concluded that Lucas was a self-important monomaniac who only had one idea in his life that he was milking forever. Now I'm not so sure. Now I see him more like Linus Torvalds, as the facilitator of a garden where 1000 flowers are blooming.

    The Star Wars Galaxy is massive, and hundreds of creative people are populating its planets, pushing and pulling its Force and making a lot of fun and adventure for us. More power to them. Now excuse me, I have some more Wookiees to liberate.

    Posted by mbowen at 09:17 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

    December 30, 2003

    Games & Gamers

    Adding this new pseudo-intellectual category, I will be splitting off all my gamer stuff from Critical Theory. I've just met a guy who knows something about game programming and is of an artistic persuasion. So as I delve deep into dungeons with dragons of all sorts, I'll blab about it here.

    I'm strictly XBox, although I will consider stategy games for the PC.

    Posted by mbowen at 04:22 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    November 10, 2003

    True Crime: Streets of LA

    I was prepared to hate this game. I suffered through what I thought was a pretty cheesy intro movie and started shooting at the practice target range. The bullets didn't come out fast enough and I put it down. Plus, the music was too raw for my baby ears.

    So I played GTA Vice City instead. I got through several missions and played it deep into the night, and then the worst happened. The gameplay started to make me nauseous. Not aesthetically nauseous, but physically as when some combination of shaky-cam effects, frame rate and motion in the game start jangling the wrong combination of neurons and creates the kind of headache you get from reading in a car.

    In Vice City, the best thing is carjacking of course, and it's always fun to whack somebody over the head with a four iron. But the difference between carjacking in Vice City and True Crime is all the difference for a gamer like me. In Vice City, you just plant yourself in the middle of the street, the car or truck or bus will stop whether you are looking or not. You press a button and yank somebody out. In LA it doesn't work like that, you get run over.

    As soon as I walked into the Hotel in Vice City I said, haven't I been here before? I had. It was Max Payne minus some of the grit. But enough of Vice City. It's weak compared to True Crime: Streets of LA.

    First of all, this is LA. No bones about it. It looks just like LA and there's a huge map. You can drive all the way from the Santa Monica Pier to the Downtown, from the top of the Hollywood Hills down to Exposition Blvd. Culver City looks like itself, Santa Monica, Sunset Boulevard. It's not as slick graphically as Project Gotham which is by far the best. But the map is more detailed; It's almost as good as Midtown Madness which is damned good, considering that in True Crime you can get out and walk. If you know LA, you'll find yourself cruising around to find your old neighborhood. All the familiar landmarks are here and you get a headsup display that tells you exactly which intersection you're at.

    There are three soundtracks. As soon as you pop into a car, the booming sounds start blasting. It's just like you're cruising with Denzel in Training Day. In fact, that is exactly the vibe you get playing this game.

    The premise is simple. You are a cliche'd renegade cop with uncanny skills. You're chasing through an ever-increasingly dangerous hierarchy of hoods and organized criminals trying to uncover their scheme and get to the big man. You play the whole game a mission at a time through a forking path of episodes. The forking path depends upon which skills you amass and choices you make. This is very cool.

    You are a cool badass. You've got vehicles. You've got hand weapons and firearms. You've got martial arts skills. And you've got a badge and a city full of street crime.

    This is the most important difference between this and GTA Vice City. In Vice City, you've only got one opportunity to advance. Take down the scores you're scumball lawyer arranges. You land in the hospital and you lose all your money, and you can't get skills or weapons without money. Now if you're going to force (another limiting dimension in GTAVC) somebody to be a bad guy, the first thing he'd think about is jacking civilians for cash. In Vice City, you can steal a Porsche, but can't pay for a screwdriver. Stupid.

    In TCSOLA, there's a new crime in your vicinity every 2 minutes (Every 30 seconds if you're in Hollywood at night). You can choose to engage them or continue on your mission. It's like an infinite number of minigames in the larger game. Some of these street crimes are just fistfights between a couple of women, some of them involve multiple perps with automatic weapons who've hijacked vehicles, killed cops and taken hostages. So there's a full gamut of escapades.

    TCSOLA is a very well balanced game. The level of control leaves something to be desired, but because you can operate in three modes, vehicle, hand to hand, and firearm combat it's a very good compromise. And yes there is bullet-time. In fact, it out Matrixes the Matrix when it comes to automatic weapons taking big chunks out of concrete pillars. It's a very hard gangsta-style LA and the whole environment is very engrossing. Anybody who digs hardcore action flicks is going to be in heaven. I particularly dig the realism of having to deal with the limits of revolvers and still having to worry about thugs with knives or broken bottles.

    OK so here's the exciting part. You get a call on the radio that there's a holdup in progress. You drive up and skid your convertible Caddy 90 degrees in the street and take cover behind it. They start shooting automatic weapons. The civilians scatter. Backup comes in. You take down one suspect. The two others scatter on foot. You run down one of them with a flying tackle and fight both of them hand to hand for 2 minutes. You defeat one, cuff him on the pavement and the other takes off running. He jacks a car and takes you on a high speed chase across the city. You try to shoot his tires out while you avoid other traffic, running red lights. You bash into other cars, you clip civilians and knock over hydrants. Sirens are wailing, a helicopter passes overhead, sparks are flying from the wheels of the getaway car, hard pumping action gangsta rap is blasting on the system. You finally T-Bone his car, it catches fire and you chase after him on foot. You fire a warning shot into the air and he throws up his hands and surrenders. You cuff him saying some snarky shit like "Crime doesn't pay, sometimes it hurts." or "You have a right to remain unconscious". Meanwhile as you're putting the perp down, bystanders are cursing you out in Spanish.

    It doesn't get any better than that.

    Posted by mbowen at 11:54 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

    November 08, 2003

    T.H.U.G.

    max-skater.gif
    I am older than Adam Sessler. I am probably one of the oldest gamers who's not in the game industry itself. I have at least 25 friends online from XBox Live and I know only one of them is anywhere near my age. But he's the guy who runs the most reality type sims on MotoGP2 and I think he's an old fart. He hates crashing. Me, I dig a little hardcore.

    This weekend, I've prompted a minor celebration of sorts. I'm pretty sure that I'm going to get a job. It's the exact job that I wanted 2 years ago just after nine-eleven when I was desiring to be a mushroom. More on that later. The celebration involved getting three XBox rentals from Blockbuster.

    Tony Hawk Underground
    This game is so very cool that it makes me want to learn how to skate for real. The wide open environments provide a definite improvement over the previous games. And as usual, the 'Create-A-Skater' is even cooler than The Sims for creating very realistic human avatars for the game. Only in Tony Hawk's world can I make somebody who looks very much like me.

    You start off your adventure in 'New Jersey', a cross between the 'hood and the ghetto. You build your street cred by doing tricks completing tasks in a grungy locale. If you are successful in rescuing one of the locals from revenge from drug dealers by jumping over the bridge where the cops are and saving the bum's house... well it's a long story, but you do get to go to Manhattan.

    The narrative makes for a cool adventure. The music is off the hook. I swear that I am hearing Acey Alone rapping in parts of the soundtrack, but I've been 'hearing' him in Jurassic 5 too, and I don't quite trust my ears. My avatar's voice is stupid and doesn't sound like any of the real gamer kids I play online, then again Tony Hawk had to keep his T rating.

    The gameplay is faster than I recall from the other TH games, but the number of grind opportunities in this environment is crazy sweet. In that it's a lot more realistic than the other games. I've been playing about 5 hours and have yet to hit a Varial but I'm fast becoming a very good grinder. In a decent tribute to Jet Set Radio Future, you can grind telephone & power cables above street level which adds a very cool dimension of challenge to already grind rich areas.

    The kids are loving it, and I have to say that Hawk did a very fine job of creating a total environment. But just starting off in 'New Jersey' says it all. This game has got soul.

    Posted by mbowen at 11:18 AM | TrackBack

    September 27, 2003

    OICW

    I don't know if Heckler & Koch is an American company. Well, of course there is a US corporation but the company originated in the ruins of the Mauser works in post WW2 Germany. They have apparently dominated the imagination of the US Military with their newest rifle, a sophisticated affair called the OICW.

    OICW stands for Objective Individual Combat Weapon, and has gotten the designation M29. It's a rather massive thing for a machine gun and is chockablock with goodies like timed explosive rounds. If your enemy is behind a wall, you can use the rangefinder and program a bullet shot just over the wall to rain down deadly shards at the precise moment. The theory is that this capability will shorten standoffs against the enemy in 'dug-in' positions, not to mention save ammo.

    This gun is going to cost about 15,000 apiece and weigh about three times as much as the standard M16, but such considerations mean nothing in videogame simulations. This is how I came to recognize the OICW. The Ghost Recon Island Thunder online game for the XBox allows you to select this weapon for your three member platoons as you carry out missions in a post-Castro Cuba. In gaming this is a great weapon, and your avatar doesn't seem to run any slower with it.

    The Germans have come back in their characteristically precise way in helping us to understand the technical specifications of the OICW and other arms as represented in the Ubisoft game. At RainbowSix.org one can check out the Detallierte Waffenlisten.

    RPGs seem to be doing a great deal of damage these days in Iraq. The deployment of the M29 may herald a new era in which every rifleman will have equivalent firepower on the go. H&K will definitely play a significant role in the future of urban warfare. With any luck, this expensive, heavy and deadly weapon will not be just a videogame fantasy.

    Posted by mbowen at 09:42 AM | TrackBack

    September 12, 2003

    XBoxing


    Posted by mbowen at 10:32 AM | TrackBack

    June 26, 2003

    Review: Midtown Madness 3

    Race? What Race?

    There's one problem with MM3, and that is you cannot get outside of your car, walk and look around. The driving play is so immersive and the environments so recognizeable that you can't help just driving around saying "Hey, I know that place!".
    MM3 is silly driving and smash 'em up fun. I've been online a couple times and people are just happy to play in 'cruise' mode, with absolutely no objective to the game but to talk to each other while driving around Paris (or DC) wrecking into people, objects or each other.

    The arcade style of the game is very much like Midnight Club but the controls are an order of magnitude better. I'll just say it: Midnight Club sucks as compared to Midtown Madness 3. It's fairly challenging and I'll probably get back to it, but the free roam driving is so much fun, I may not. Actually, 'free roam' is a good way to think of MM3. Think of the free roam mode of Project Gotham without the cones, add pedestrians and wreckable stuff, voila!

    In MM3, if you are in the mood to go on a rampage of destruction, there are hundreds of lampposts, park benches, barriers, traffic signs, cafe umbrellas and tables and other objects to knock around. And if you're in a real Hulk mood, you can drive a garbage truck and take out some statues and kiosks.

    The detail is fabulous. There's even an underground parking garage at what I believe is the Kennedy Center in DC complete with gates to crash through. There are also ramps placed at various places, like the Capitol Building so you can jump your vehicle over fountains, creeks and the like.

    Now it must be said that the graphics are good, but nowhere near as good as Project Gotham. Control of your vehicle is comparable though and the layout of the controls are the same.

    There's plenty more to explore in this one but it is, behind Gotham, the most laugh out loud driving game for the XBOX yet. Yes I like it better than Midnight Club 2, Crazy Taxi, Yakuza Mission, Rallisport, Sega GT 2002 but not as much as MotoGP2.

    On the other hand, three cities would have been better, and people haven't really been racing with it online...

    Posted by mbowen at 12:42 PM | TrackBack

    June 04, 2003

    Suzuka & Mugello

    If you've wondered where Cobb has been the past few days, the answer is Japan and Italy racing motorcycles of course. Huh? Well, only virtually. I've been up until 3 in the AM racing with XBox Live friends via MotoGP2, one of the most intense gaming experiences ever.

    If you should happen to think that is a weird thing for anyone to be doing, you may be right. On the other hand, there are about 13,500 of us doing this. My current rank after about 12 hours of racing is 7138. I'll let you know when I break into the next quartile.

    Posted by mbowen at 06:17 PM | TrackBack

    May 30, 2003

    XBOX is Live

    I bought XBox Live yesterday and if this review seems incoherent in spots, it's because I was up all night and early this morning playing. It's better than I thought.

    I have a headstart because I'm a bit techy. I knew that I'd need some RJ45 Cat 5 cable. So I got an overpriced bright blue 14 foot length at the local CompUSA for 30 bucks. That's long enough for it to reach my Netgear RP114 router which is under my desk in the next room. I plugged it into an empty slot, turned on the XBox and put in the Live disk.

    It loaded XBox Live software to the XBox disk in about 45 seconds and then started playing videos. I thought they were part of the setup but they're not. Just take out the disk, power down and power up and you have a new menu on the XBox bootup. Nice.

    I let it autoconfigure and it did a good job of guessing but it couldn't connect at first. I went to the website and it was easy to find the instructions for my particular router. I entered a new IP address at the Router for the XBox and started again. I made the adjustments on the XBox manual configuration and it worked like a charm.

    The registration is a bit tedious - filling out addresses and personal info takes a long time with the XBox controller. But I was up and running in no time. I picked my gamertag (sixoseven) and it was available. Cool!

    The disk I got has demo versions of MotoGP, the superbike race, SUPER COOL and MechAttack, AWESOME. So you don't have to buy full blown versions to play online. I didn't expect that. I had to wait until my wife gave up the big TV so I didn't get started until about 12 midnight West Coast time. Still, there were people ready to play as soon as I got hooked up. Needless to say, most of them were in Western Europe. Wow!

    The voice thingy works brilliantly, but sometimes it's hard to understand French accents with the Helium voice. Which is just as well sometimes when the trash talk gets crazy. I have to say, even though some gamers get rude, the network is a step above your average chat room in civility. Plus if you really don't like someone, you can gang up on them. But you can also meet cool people - while playing Destruction in MechAttack some of us discussed the ending to Matrix Reloaded. Great!

    This dimension of play is great. You will find yourself shouting, groaning, laughing and discovering personalities behind the robots (or motorcycles as the case may be). I'm really looking forward to trying a first person shooter, I'm sure it will be incredibly great. I've already made some new friends from France and the UK (since I've been playing in their daylight time zones) and I'm looking forward to building up my reputation in a bunch of game worlds.

    XBox is everything it promised to be. It's worth respecting Microsoft for, and for me that's really saying something.

    Posted by mbowen at 09:52 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 20, 2003

    Review: Toe Jam & Earl III

    Toe Jam & Earl Three is by far one of the most satisfying games i've played on the XBox for a number of reasons.

    First and foremost, the game is funky fresh. That's right. If you can remember that saying from back in the days when hiphop was playful and simple, this game is right there. It's got Bootsy Collins and UTFO appeal complete with breakdancing, complicated dap, and pg-rated street dialog which is right up to date.

    Secondly, the game is very clever in its concept of integrating lighthearted funk culture into a theme of integration and redemption. (did I actually say that?) Funky aliens come down from the planet Funkatron to funkify obnoxious earthlings and rescue the 12 vinyl albums which are the source of all funk in the universe from the minions of the anti-funk. There is no killing or anything, it's about using music to transform squares, geeks and a host of hilarious characters (including a demented dentist) into afro sportin' Bootsy sunglasses wearing disco dancers, for a moment anyway.

    It was my wife who picked out the game. When I first played it, I had to do a double-take. Funk in a videogame? I kept thinking they're going to screw up something and I'm going to be offended. But I wasn't disappointed, in fact I was inspired. The authors ought to be proud of delivering the bomb metaphysics in a way even George Clinton himself would appreciate. And of course if you are truly funky, you'll be pleased at all the inside jokes and references even if you are not familiar with the earlier Toe Jam titles.

    My elementary school kids absolutely love it. They sing the songs, they repeat the dialog (which has some subtle double-entendres on the border of pg-13, but you can turn the characters from 'naughty' to 'nice') and they run to tell me when they graduate from a 'dufus' to a 'poindexter'.

    Now here's the kicker. I have never seen a videogame of any sort in which you use musical skills to defeat the enemy. But TJ&E will have you playing your XBox controller like a beat box to infect the earthlings with that irresistible funk fu.

    Gameplay is not particularly challenging, it's laidback adventuring capture the goody style without tricky puzzles or traditional boss challenges. But there are plenty enough levels to keep you busy and characters that can render you helpless in novel and frustrating ways. This is another game that even when you die it's funny, and there's plenty fun to be had just roaming through the levels and having your avatar speak to the other characters. I wish there were more avatars to choose from and you run into the occasional glitch where your character gets stuck in some crevice, like between a tree and a lake shore. But on the whole the execution is very smooth and you are totally immersed. Action gets fast and furious like Gauntlet. The voices are excellent and the music is just right.

    The levels are bright and fanciful with a kind naive surrealism and you get to run around like Bebe's kids trick or treating and kicking silly rabbits to the curb. It has the same kind of snarky badboy appeal as Conker's Bad Fur Day but in a totally lighthearted way. It's not even as dark as Banjo Kazooie or Blinx. In that way it's really cool for kids and you can play and play and lose and lose without getting angry, which is a lot to say given the state many videogames leave you in.

    In the end it's all about the funk, what could be cooler?

    Posted by mbowen at 11:06 AM | TrackBack

    December 23, 2002

    Minority Report the Videogame

    Sucks!

    this is the kind of mindless violent idiocy that people who have never played videogames think all videogames are like.

    how crappy is this game? let me count the ways. it is crappy in the way it's a third person shooter and weapons automatically lock on. it has crappy camera positioning. the animation is jerky, and looks like something for nintendo 64, not xbox. anderton's face is a mask of brutality.

    the premise is cool, the way you can throw someone through a plate glass window is cool (but the execution is nowhere near as nice as spiderman), and the heat-wave effects in the stun weapon is cool. all that adds up to is about 1 hour of basic training and gameplay and then utter disgust.

    Posted by mbowen at 09:18 AM | TrackBack