Tuesday, November 08, 2005

What's Going On?

Regarding this Blog lately it’s been either nothing I feel like writing about or its something I that would take some effort to write about and I’ve been too busy.  Yeah I know that is what everybody says but we’ve been gearing up for the Austin Game Conference which was the week before last. I didn’t to go, they gave me the excuse that somebody who knew what was going on had to stay in the office while they were away.  As soon as it was over me and the wife spent a week up at Brampton Island which was pretty nice.  I bought a new digital camera before we went so I might link some pictures. I also have some pictures of when we went to the Australian Zoo a few months ago (That’s Steve, the Croc-Hunter, Erwin’s zoo.)  Cricky Mate!

My other problem has been my big powerhouse computer. It’s been down forever and after doing a fresh Windows install, updating the BIOS and using every diagnostic, virus scanner and ad-aware remover program I could get my hands on I have finally given up and taken it in to work. I bought the computer from the guy who supplies computers for work and I’ve having our tech guy handle it all for me.   The scary thing is this computer has been giving me odd problems too. A couple of time on boot up I have gotten a warning message saying the hard drive is operating outside of normal parameters and that I should back up all my data and contact Dell immediately.

I am still catching up all the crap I missed while I was away.  I just found out Keith Parkinson passed away.  He was my favorite of all the old TSR (Dungeons & Dragons) artist.  I remember when we did DragonStrike I got to convert a few of his paintings into splash screens for the game.  Keith also did the box covers for Everquest before going on to become the art director for Sigil Games.  Rest in peace Keith.

Speaking of Dungeons & Dragons I saw a clip for the upcoming D&D Online game from Turbine.  Umm… what a load of crap.  Plastic models with the second worst voice over I’ve ever heard.  I work with a guy here who used to work for Turbine and I’ve heard some interesting stories about what has been going on there and I believe him. I believe him because not because I did a phone interview with Turbine and they passed on me. I believe him because they did an interview with a friend of mine who I think is one of the best technical game designers I know and they pass on him.  I remember they kept asking me about old Westwood stories instead of focusing on if could do the job I was interview for.  Anyway, I think D&D Online is going to flop bigger than Asheron’s Call 2 whose servers are being shut off next month.

As far as our game goes we got some very good response from the closed door showing at the Austin Game Conference.  I think we will be releasing a teaser trailer sometime soon.

You’ll notice I didn’t bother linking anything in this post.  That’s what Google is for, get off your lazy but and look stuff up yourself.  I really like pretending I actually have an audience that comes here and reads these ramblings.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Added a Few Links

I added a link to Lost Garden to my Game Industry Blog list over on the right. It’s a really good Blog with various essays on things video game related.  He posted an excellent piece on the new Nintendo Revolution controller last week and his site was nearly killed by being linked to by a good number of big time sites. It’s the kind of thing I would like to think I would write if I had real writing time.  He posted a follow up today that answers some of the questions people had after reading his post and I recommend you check it out.

I also added Escapist Magazine to my Game Industry News list.  I thought the first ‘issue’ I read was a bunch of mindless dribble, but I have since found a few good articles.  Damion Schubert of Zen of Design wrote a good article on Guild Designs which echoes a lot of what I’ve been spouting off at work myself. Unfortunately a lot of my next gen guild design stuff has already been cut, but that isn’t as bad as it sounds as the change in direction of our game makes a lot it less useful and unnecessary at the moment.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


We have some University students in at work; they are doing some sort of work experience thing which basically means free slave labors for us.  I personally have two guys helping me with some stuff and I’ve taken to calling them “my minions.”  From what I gather most work experience people usually wind up being errand boys at what ever company they intern at.  But I’ve got these two poor bastards doing in game equipment icons for me. If the icons are good enough they will be used in the game and the two of them will even get art credit.

It was really nice that when I gave them the dog and pony show sales pitch that described the game they were actually very into it.  This is before actually seeing anything we have running; this was just after hearing me give a brief game play overview.  It has been awhile since I’ve been around when anybody new was introduced to the game and it was quite uplifting to see such a positive reaction to it. I’d tell you about it but it is still hush-hush secret.

Well, I am off to see if I can get this old copy of The Secret of Money Island running on my computer. I managed to get a hold of all four games and am planning on playing through trough. I never got to play 3 & 4 and that always bothered me.  Oh, in case you are wondering that this old computer not the new computer as I still haven’t fixed that one, I actually haven’t touched it in forever hoping maybe it will fix itself or something.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Nintendo Revolution Controller

The details about the Nintendo Revolution controller are out. You can read good hands on review over at 1Up.com. It only took 4 or 5 posts to our internal Clan Auran mailing list before the sexual innuendo jokes started flying about what kind of games would benefit from this type of controller.

Promotional video shown at Toyko Game Show of the Revolution Controller provide by Etoychest.org. They say they will have a streaming video cast of the TGS keynote here friday morning. Thats friday morning for you people in the real world as it is already friday night here in the future!

I do remember reading that Nintendo originally wanted to launch this type of controller back in the early 90’s but decided against it. I’ll have to look up the exact details on that when I get home. Anyway, I think it could be very very cool. I am looking forward to the Revolution more than the PS3 or XBox 360 because of it. Granted, I will probably wind up getting all 3 systems but I haven’t seen anything for the other two that makes them any different from what I would expect from the next new game system. Hell I haven’t even seen any release titles that have made me want to make sure I'll buy any of them day one.

Quite the opposite actually if you’ve read this, again over at 1UP.com, which talks about the difference between the ‘target render’ clip of what we were assured Madden NFL 2006 would look like compared to the actual game shots that have been released. Not that I am interested in sports games myself, but still that is quite a difference. I’ve faked up plenty of screenshots in my day for marketing but they were all made with the consideration that it had damn well better represent what the game will actually look at. Funny enough two of the screenshots on the C&C: Tiberian Sun box are fakes I did early on in development. They are easy to spot when you are looking for them because of the motion blur and lighting effects, but still pretty close. I was kind of annoyed they were used for box art though since by that time we had plenty of real shots they could have used.

Okay, How about a Grape XBox 360?

I remember my mother telling me stories about when she was a kid and different brand record players played at different speeds.  When she bought an album she had to make sure it was the correct speed for her record player.  I can assume you all know what records albums are right?

Anyway so on the subject of Microsoft’s multiple flavors of Window Vista I thought I would continue ranting about Microsoft’s multiple Xbox 360 flavors.  So assuming dear reader, you are my mother who doesn’t know anything about any of this; I’ll explain. The next version of the Xbox will come in two different versions.  The $400 dollar version is the whole kit and caboodle (Even I have no idea what a caboodle is though I remember looking it up once but have forgotten what I found).  The $300 dollar version is just the basic console; the two big things it is missing are the wireless controller and the 20GB hard drive.  The minor things you don’t get are the headset, Ethernet cable, and media remote.  You can buy all the missing pieces separately to eventually get everything the $400 dollar version has.  I do wonder if you need what ever is included with the remote to access the multi-media functions (play CD’s, DVDs, etc.) like you did with the original Xbox.

Now the wireless controller isn’t a real big deal. It’s just a controller. The hard drive on the other hand might be a big deal.

Lets me explain by first telling the story of the Sega Genesis 32X.  The 32X was an add-on for the Sega Genesis that was released in November of 1994 that would turn the Genesis from a 16bit system into a more powerful 32bit system.  One of its biggest problems was that by being an add-on and its owners were a sub-set of the sub-set of video game owning people.  At the time you had the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, 3DO and the Atari Jaguar (in that order and not counting the Sega CD.)  As a game developer in 1994 you decide you are going to make a game for the Sega Genesis, but are you going to make a regular Genesis game or a 32X game? Y ou have to ask yourself how many Genesis users have the 32X add on?  Let’s assume you are certain that 60% of the Genesis users are going to buy your game.  But if only 40% of the people who own the Sega Genesis also have the 32X that means that your 60% gets squashed down to only 24% (40 percent of 60 percent… I think. Man, how embarrassing would it be to get that wrong? Well not so embarrassing that I am going to check. I just spent 30 minutes trying to find what percentage of the market the Genesis had in 1994 in The Ultimate History of Video Games. I know it’s in there but I can’t find it.)  Anyway unless you have some shot at getting a whole lot of free advertising from Sega for being a 32X game to make up for that huge loss of potential sales you are going to do a regular Genesis game.

Now back to the present and the Xbox 360 with its optional 20GB hard drive.  It isn’t quite as bad as the 32X situation because it’s a storage device not something that runs the game.  But it does mean that if there is some feature of the game that requires the hard drive it is going to be cut or changed to not require the hard drive because the developers know that not everybody is going to have one.  Nobody who isn’t doing a product directly backed by Microsoft is going to want to put a “Hard Drive Required” sticker on the front of their box and cut into their potential sales.

Again, I know Microsoft is in this to make money. I also know that all game hardware manufactures take a loss on the hardware in the hope to make up for it later with software sales. And on top of all that knowledge I also know that $400 is quite a bit above the magic price point for new game hardware.  So being that I am so full of it… I mean full of knowledge… what would I have done? Well if I worked at Microsoft and the decision was up to me, I would steam about the halls angry that they took the decision away from me when I told them to eat the cost of the hard drive on top of all the other costs they are eating. It is probably just too much of a loss on top of the rest.  

To be honest $100 bucks is a decent price for a hard drive and a wireless controller. The controllers alone cost around $30-50 bucks for ones with a rumble pack.

In the end I’ll just recommend this public service announcement from CTRL-ALT-DEL.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Windows Vista - Grape Flavor

I am sure you have all heard by now about the next version of Windows, “Windows Vista” coming in 7 different versions.  It is kind of funny that just last week I was day dreaming about what I would do if was suddenly in charge of Microsoft. No, really I was. I think I had read some anti-Microsoft post or new article somewhere and was thinking about the bad rap they get. I was trying to think of what I would do if I was in charge of changing that.  One of the things I thought of was that I would get rid of two version of Windows XP.  It just confuses people and makes Microsoft look like a bunch of greedy bastards.  

Imagine my surprise when just a few days later they announced that there will be SEVEN different versions of Windows Vista.  

1. Starter Edition
2. Home Basic Edition
3. Home Premium Edition
4. Windows Vista Professional Edition
5. Small Business Edition
6. Enterprise Edition
7. Ultimate Edition

Go read the details of each edition over at Ars Technica and then try to imagine your Mom standing in front of a shelf full of different versions of Windows trying to figure it out which version she should buy.  

Imagine the poor Microsoft Tech Support phone guy who now has to try and get Grandpa Fred to tell him which version of Windows he is running and then try to explain to him that version doesn’t support that feature and that he need to upgrade to another version.

John Dvorak over at PCMag.com has an article on how Microsoft Should Confuse the Market More.  I really think he is on to something with the Microsoft Vista Porn Edition.

Seriously, what the hell are they thinking?!  This is the reason everybody hates them.  It isn’t like the different features of each edition are actual physical things that cost more to put into one version or another. Including some feature or other doesn’t make the box bigger or weigh more. It is digital content, it cost money to develop but once it’s created it can be put into every version for the same price.  The only reason to have different versions is to try and see if they can get squeeze some people into paying a little more.  Yes, I understand that the main goal of a business is to make money. But why don’t any of them ever see the benefit of doing the right thing.  They spend millions on marketing but then continue to act in such a way that makes them all look like evil jack-asses.  They don’t even see the marketing value of not looking like evil jack-asses.

I think right now Bill Gates should send out a press release that says, “I just read the memo on the 7 different versions and personally hauled out and shot the marketing vice president that came up with this stupid idea. There will be one version (well two if you count that damn European version that doesn’t include the media player.)”

I think if he did that, all the anti-Microsoft ill it would stave off would actually wind up making them more money in the end, even including the high profile murder trial for him having shot that marketing jerk.    

Monday, September 12, 2005

Fame and Fortune for All!

Seems like everybody I know has something exciting going on at the moment.

We just got out copies of My Virtual Home today. It’s home decorating software that is being developed here. I say here instead of here at Auran because it is technically another company even though it is a lot of the same people. The software is actually free and will be included in next months Australian Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The various home building and furniture manufactures pay to have their products in the software. That user gets the software for free and lays out a virtual version of their house which includes almost everything from what type of door frame types and outlet covers you have. They can then browse through somethink like "couches" until they find one they like that fits well in their living room. They can get order that exact couch from the manufacturer. It is my wife Connie’s first product here as a Senior Tester.

My friend Matthew Ford, a producer here at Auran, was interviewed for a MSNBC article about parents in the game industry and how they handle video games with their own kids. When gamers become parents - How those in the industry cope with issues of sex and violence.

He also has a sidebar article that is linked from the above article which basically summarizes his tips for parents. Parenting and video games: One dad's tips - Game professional offers tips on managing the video game minefield.

I just heard that my friends and former Westwood co-workers at Petroglyph just announced a partnership with Publisher Sega to create an original Real-Time Strategy (RTS) franchise for the PC. SEGA Partners with Petroglyph to Build Blockbuster RTS Franchise.

My friend Greg is going to work for Ubi Soft in China. He asked them about the legislation restricting online play to 3 hours and requiring game developers to put some code in to do that. He said they told him nobody is taking that seriously. There are two government bodies fighting over who has jurisdiction over the online game market since it is a very popular and profitable segment. The two bodies are just trying to prove they are the one with jurisdiction by passing laws that govern it. Although it was all hastily explained to him, he said he also got the impression that it isn’t a passed law, more like a bill being proposed. If you read the article I linked or any of the dozens of others, they all read like this is already passed and companies are hard at work putting in those restrictions which wouldn't appear to be the case.

So, what about me? Well I did say I would stop trying to grow my hair back out and clean myself up if they took me to the Austin Game Developers conference next month. I don’t know if they are taking the bait yet, but I did get a semi-positive "Hmm, you never know" response. I don't think we will be announcing our game there so it will probably only be shown behind closed doors. Austin Texas… Mmmm good Mexican food!

I do know we are looking to hire another level designer so if you know anybody have them email me.

Ookla the Mok

Speaking of the whole file sharing thing, a friend of mine had me listen to a bunch of mp3s last week from a band called Ookla the Mok. The name is taken from the Saturday morning cartoon Thundar the Barbarian from the back in the 80’s. They are a band that plays at sci-fi & comic book conventions. They have released 7 CD’s, won 3 Pegasus awards, did the theme to Disney’s Fillmore and the sound track for the movie Bite Me, Fanboy (which I still havn't seen).

I absolutely loved the album Super Secret; it spoke to the comic book geek in me. And because I think the people that created it should get paid for it if I listen to it I tried to go out and buy it this last weekend. I wish I had looked it up on the web before traveling from music store to music store because as it turns out you can only buy it online. Anyway I did order the album from CDBaby.Com this morning. Unfortunately it looks like some of the other albums are sold out and the news section of the Ookla the Mok site hasn’t been update since the release of their last album on May 8th 2003. I wonder if they still even perform.

Av4st Y3 Scurvy Dogz!

The whole pirated video/music controversy has been getting on my nerves lately. Let me say upfront that I think the people who make the crap should get paid by the people who watch/listen/use it. But I am really getting sick and tired of Hollywood and the music industry making me WANT to go down load an illegal copy of something. I’m sure I am not pointing out anything that hasn’t already been said before when I say that the industry is sitting there in stagnation, afraid to move forward because they are scared of messing with the overly profitable system they have in place. Afraid that the actual people making the product are going to realize there are a awful lot of people in-between them and the customer who aren’t really needed and who are taking more than their fair share of the profit.

According to various sources the United Kingdom is the largest downloader of pirated television shows followed by Australia and then the United States. Living here in Australia now it is so easy to see why. I am sick and tired of hearing about a cool new show and then having to wait 8 months to see it. We just finally saw the season 1 finale of Lost just a few weeks ago. The U.S. premere of season 2 starts the 22nd while we have to wait till sometime NEXT YEAR! I can rent the entire new season of Dr. Who at Blockbuster down the street and it hasn’t even finished airing here yet. And it isn’t just that we are getting the shows late, the television companies here just don’t seem to get that people are really sick of them moving the damn shows around and having them pre-empted every 3rd week for some other show. I accidentally learned who won last season’s Survivor, American Idol, and The Amazing Race before they were finished airing here. (Yes, we started watching Survivor but in my defense it’s become a social thing where a bunch of us take turns going to each other’s places for dinner and to watch the show. As for the other two shows all I can say is that the TV is on while I play game on my computer. Please don’t think any less of me.)

Anyway, the last straw was when I noticed a link on Yahoo’s front page saying “Watch the entire first episode of ‘Supernatural’ now”. So I clicked on it. I like the supernatural thriller type stuff so I figured I’d give it a shot. I clicked the link to watch the show and got: “We’re sorry, this content is restricted to users in a predetermined viewing area.” Well you know what? That just makes me want to go out and download an illegal copy. And then download the entire series with the commercials edited out! Assuming it doesn’t suck, this is the WB we are talking about.

I read that Season one of the new Battlestar Galactica was the most downloaded show ever so far. Easy to see why, it was aired in the UK first and there are a lot more people in the U.S. A lot more people who didn’t want to wait for them to get around to airing so they could watch it.

The solution has been talked for as long as I can remember. It’s the 21st century and I am over us not having the flying cars I was promised in my science fiction, but I am really pissed that the technology isn’t in place for TV on demand. I should be able to turn on my TV by now, sort through a menu, and watch any previously broadcast TV show. All the existing networks just add their content to the overall library for a fee. They pay for that fee with commercials. I tell my TV receiver the relevant information about me and whomever else is living in my house and it shows me relevant commercials. I don’t have to tell them who I am exactly just my information. The networks just know that there a household containing two people one male and one female that spent watched season 1 and half of season 2 of Futurama this weekend. That’s one lesson the marketing demons really need to learn, we would be less reluctant to tell them all of our demographic information if we didn’t have to actually identify ourselves.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Still Staying Away from Zone Alarm

Check Point, the company that now runs Zone Alarm put up the following notice on the top of the Zone Alarm forums:
Zone Labs knows that some of our customers are having issues with the upgrade to ZoneAlarm 6.0, and is working hard to fix the situation.

The cause appears to be related to the upgrade process, not the application itself. Therefore, we recommend users experiencing difficulties uninstall any prior version of ZoneAlarm (v.2.x - v.5.x) residing on their computer system and do a clean installation of their new ZoneAlarm 6.0 product.

We sincerely apologize to any customers affected and appreciate your patience.
I did try to uninstall and do a fresh install back when I had my melt down and that’s when the really big problems began that lead me to have to reformat my computer which still isn't working by the way. I tried to update the bios and now I get a checksum error on boot up. Just on thing after another. Its really depressing.

Well at least they are admitting there is a problem finally. I am still looking into other options. If you are wondering if it is worth it to stick with Zone Alarm I suggest you read a page or two of their forums. It has been weeks now and the negative posts are still piling up.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Who am I?

Your identity and your success go hand in hand. Many people sacrifice their identities by not doing what they really want to do. And that's why they're not successful.
-Lila Swell
The only place I’ve published the yahoo email address is on this site. I created the yahoo email address specifically for this site. I bring this up because it appears that this blog has gotten linked somewhere industry related because I got 4 recruitment type emails today. That’s right, 4 in one day. Wow, that probably means my readership more than tripled in one day!

Now its not the recruitment letters that bother me. The only thing that is worse than getting recruitment letters is not getting recruitment letters. What really gets me is the ones that mention the specific position they are looking for are for artist. The resume is right over there on the right just under my picture. It says “designer” at the top. Look at the title of this blog, “Working as Designed.” Get it? Designed? Work – Designed.

Granted I used to be an artist, had fancy business cards that said “senior artist” and a whole collection of colored pencils. Actually I still have the colored pencils but that is beside the point. I didn’t keep up technology wise, stick 3DS Max or Maya in front of me and I’ll just start laying out a level using low poly models. You aren’t going to get game ready 3D modeling out of me and I know that’s what you want from an artist.

I can whip out a cool little picture in Photoshop to show you exactly what the GUI I spec’ed should look like. I might go poking around in the spell icons and come up with a set that shows exactly how the art style should reflect to the different magic schools I designed. I might even hack around with a few textures to use in the level I’ve layed out. But let us be clear about this, I am a game designer. Not an artist.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Team Kills and Punishment

To err is human; to forgive, infrequent.
-Franklin P. Adams
I got to play a little Battlefield 2 on my newly reformatted game machine last night (there are other problems with the machine that I don't want to think about at the moment). It got me thinking about the punishment system for team killing. In BF2 you lose a few points off your total if you damage or kill a teammate. If you actually kill a teammate he has the option of punishing you which causes you loose even more points.

You do have to have a system that lets players have some sort of recourse against their team mates who do them wrong, because there are people out there who get bored with the game and then decide its fun to ruin your game.

Turning off friendly fire isn’t really an option because it ruins a lot of the balance and dramtic tension. With friendly fire turned off there isn’t any drawback to just tossing grenades around, zooming around in a buggy running not caring who you run over, and just firing your mini-gun at any and everything in the hope that you'll hit any enemy.

The first problem with the punishment system in BF2 is the way they implemented it in their user interface. During the game people can call for votes of various things such as voting to kick people off the server, voting to change maps, or voting to mutiny against your commander. When voting in all these cases it is the Page Up key to vote “Yes” and the Page Down key for “No”. But after being killed by a teammate it asked if you want to “Forgive”. So if you follow that you would be voting “No” I don’t want to kick this player off the server, “No” I don’t want to change maps, “No” I don’t want to mutiny, but then its “Yes” that I do want to forgive. It should be asking you if want to “Punish” him so the “Yes” and “No” answers are consistent with the other votes.

The second problem and the one I was thinking about was that it is too easy to punish. Most players of these types of games, safely protected by the anonymity of the online community are jerks. They punish every time they are team killed. Most team kills are accidents. Yes there are a few asses out there that do stupid stuff like shooting their teammates when they don’t get a seat in the Blackhawk or some such, but overall most are accidents. They are obvious accidents. Hell, a lot of them are accidents caused by the person getting killed, running out in front of a vehicle or not paying attention and running into friendly artillery fire. But they all punish.

There are posts in various forums where some people talk about some mythical promised land where eventually the community will come in line with some polite code of conduct. Not happening won’t happen, not with this type of game, these types of players, in this environment. By the way, for every “don’t punish” thread on the forum there is a “that’s it I don’t care anymore, I punishing everybody now too” post. I personally tried the televangelist thing where after I forgave somebody I would preach to the team channel “I have been TK’ed and I have forgiven!” It didn’t catch on.

The problem is the people punishing aren’t losing anything themselves. It is no skin off their nose. As a game designer you only want players to punish other players when those players deserve to be punished. So make the person who is punishing lose a few points too. If person who is presented with the question of punishing or forgiving is going to lose something too, they might not just punish by default. This is assuming it is implemented in such a way that the player is informed of this when he is asked if he wants to forgive or punish. (Another problem with Battlefield 2 is there is just so much they don’t tell you, but that is another rant.)

I should note there are other problems with Battlefield 2 that if fixed would help alleviate this problem. For example it is too hard to see the icon warning you of a mine or claymore set by a friendly unit. There is also a bug where sometimes you will see a friendly target with a red name. I have personally starting shooting at a helicopter with a red name that suddenly turned into a blue name after I had hit it with a missile.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

More Serenity and other TV Shows on DVD

Okay I haven’t posted in a little bit, but really how do you top a Serenity sneak peak? You are reading the 3 issue Serenity comic right? The second issue just came out last week and the first issue sold out and is getting a second printing. There was a post on the Browncoat's Forum from "our Captain" Nathan Fillion about his adventure in a local Canadian comic store trying to buy an issue for his mother. I tried to find the specific link but you have to sign in first and then find the post. Here is what it said:

It is times like these that I feel like Malcolm Reynolds. This is something that would surely get you kicked into an engine. I just went to a comic store to purchase the Serenity comic for my mom. The sweetheart that she is, gave her issues (with her favorite character on the front) to relatives who were having trouble tracking one down. Please bear in mind that Canada is a wondrous place where the service industry is polite and helpful, and that this experience is not the norm. The store I chose, which shall remain nameless (Warp 1 Comics), at an undisclosed location (just off Whyte Ave), has the singlemost sanctimonious, condescending, dishonest a$$hole I've had the misfortune of meeting. My brother and I called ahead to find out they had one issue left, but upon arriving, found out they are gouging people $20 bucks for the damned thing! "That's what they're worth." he sneered at me. I asked him to show me a listing of some sort to back it up. "Well, I just know what I paid Dark Horse for it." He wouldn't show me that, either. I am aware that Dark Horse wasn't expecting these books to sell as well as they are, and that they are going into a second printing, but I just picked up three of them two days ago at cover price at another store. My brother piped up with a, "What an interesting attitude you have." Let me tell you folks, this fella had an attitude, and a smirk that you wanted to knock off his face with a baseball bat dipped in dog poop. Of course, my brother couldn't help letting this guy know who he was trying to hose by holding the issue next to my face. "This guy look familliar? This isn't some JoJo off the street! He knows what he's talking about!" Check this out- the reply of this crap-catcher, who shall remain nameless (Darryl) was, (and imagine a dullards voice- how we make people we don't like sound in a story) "Well, then you can call Joss Whedon and ask him." I had to tell this purplebelly that I was being sacastic when I thanked him for his excellent service, and I don't think he knew what sanctimonious meant!

Wouldn't a smart business man ask me to sign an issue and sell me one at a fair price? Wouldn't that fetch a prettier penny than ripping me off for one issue? Congratulations, dude! You are now on the Browncoat $hitlist.

Never have I tried to wield power in this way, but if being Malcolm Reynolds has taught me anything, it's to follow my over-developed sense of vengeance. BOYCOTT WARP ONE COMICS! If you are in the neighborhood, drop by to tell "the Buttress" that Browncoats don't take $hit from anyone. Tell your friends not to shop there, and lock 'em in the airlock if they do. Copy this post and e-mail it to fellow Edmontonians. Bump it to keep it alive.

Thank you. Thank you for letting me rant. If you feel I'm overboard, please feel free to, as Joss would say, contemplate silently.

The Captain

Edited to be less cruel, and to mention how wonderfully my dear mom was treated at HAPPY HARBOR. Thank you, staff and owners at Happy Harbor. You made my mom's day. Turns out, Warp One tried to hose her, too, by telling her that the Jayne covered issue was a rarity. Love you, Adam B. You ARE a rarity. Nothin' agin you. But will these butt-tards stoop so low as to steal from a woman? For shame, Warp One, for shame.
I fully understand the difficult position comic book shop owners are in and that they don't make tons of money but this guy was a complete ass. Forget selling an issue to him at the cover price he should have given the issue to Nathan for FREE, asked him to autograph a few copies and then gotten a picture of him in the shop to hang up behind the register. In my best Simpson's Comic Book Guy voice: "Biggest... idiot... evvver."

I did piddle around with my DKP history and start a rant about the horrible mistakes they made in the social systems they tried to put into Battlefield 2. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to finish either.

I have been also been spending extra time at work doing stuff I am not allowed to talk about yet as well as spending last weekend watching season 1 of Deadwood. I feel like I am missing out on so much of modern American culture living in Australia. I just found out the other day that there are new nickels! We have tomorrow off and I will be camping out on the couch with season 1 of Dead Like Me to watch.

I just meant to post a quick rant about Zone Alarm and wound up with all the above. So I split the Zone Alarm post off and posted it first.

Zone Alarm Killed My Computer

Last night I tried to upgrade Zone Alarm on my gaming machine and it looks like I might have to reformat and reinstall Windows. There are all sorts of horrible things being said on their forums. I hadn’t realized that there had been a change of ownership and things have been going down hill but it does look like it isn’t the God send program it used to be.

I won’t go into the whole long story about what I’ve gone through so far, but at this point I can’t uninstall Zone Alarm even in Safe Mode.

All I can say is if you’re currently running it to stick with the current version and if you’re not using it keep it that way.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Serenity Sneak Preview

Last night we went and saw a sneak preview of Serenity which, as you should all know by now, is the movie continuing the cancled Fox television show Firefly. If you are still clueless about the whole thing you should run out and get the show on DVD.

We wore our "Joss Wehedon is my master now" tshirts which come from this PvP Online comic strip and can be brought from ThinkGeek. There were a couple of people wearing Jayne's knit hat there as well.

And the movie... Oh yeah baby. I've just seen it and I already can't wait till it is released on September 30th. In my opinion is that it was too good, but I can't say why without spoiling it. I think it is going to be a big hit for fans of the show and the uninniated. Better for the fans though so if you arn't inniated you best get a move on. There is no such thing as a non-fan, either you are a fan or you havn't watched the shows. Having watched part of an episode when it aired and dismissed as a stupid wanna-be western in space doesn't count. That is what got the show cancled though. Personally I always did think they didn't mix in quite enough future tech in with the western stuff. The movie doens't make that mistake.

It was an hour drive up from Brisbane to the little town of Robina where the movie was playing as an opening to their Film Festival. Although it wasn't a large theatre it was packed full. Remember that Firefly only kinda aired here in Australia, so they are all fans post airing of the show. I say kinda because last year they played a few episodes late at night on channel 10, and just like Fox started with the "Train Job" instead of the real first episode. They asked for a show of hands for people who had driven in from Brisbane and about 75% of the people raised their hands. They pointed out some people that claimed to have driven in from somewhere else with the impression that it was a really really long way to drive. My wife had been running "Firefly Nights" for the people at work. Basically showing two episodes every week till everybody caught up, they are all diehard fans now.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Hot Coffee

"Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry, stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie." -William Shakespeare
I am sure you have all heard about the “Hot Coffee” sex scandal of the game Grand Theft Auto: San Adreas. But in case you haven’t it appears that Rockstar Games had a mostly complete “Sex mini-game” in the game. Modders have managed to unlock the content and now the media and politicians are in an uproar about it.

Here is a LINK where you can find a video of Hot Coffee mod in action. Go ahead and watch it so you know exactly what everyone is talking about. It’s all over the news at the moment anyway and now you can tell all your friends that you actually saw without having to spend the money modding your XBox and figuring out how to download a patch to it.

From the wording of the re-classification from the ESRB I get the impression that they are changing the classification because the content is actually included in the original product regardless that it is only accessible by a third party patch (and some actual hardware modification for the console systems) in violation of the terms of service.

"After a thorough investigation, we have concluded that sexually explicit material exists in a fully rendered, unmodified form on the final discs of all three platform versions of the game (i.e., PC CD-ROM, Xbox and PS2)," commented Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB, in an official statement announcing the ratings change.

Vance continued: "However, the material was programmed by Rockstar to be inaccessible to the player and they have stated that it was never intended to be made accessible. The material can only be accessed by downloading a software patch, created by an independent third party without Rockstar’s permission, which is now freely available on the internet and through console accessories. Considering the existence of the undisclosed and highly pertinent content on the final discs, compounded by the broad distribution of the third party modification, the credibility and utility of the initial ESRB rating has been seriously undermined."

What about the Sims 2? Isn’t the nudity of the models also included in the original product only covered up by a pixilated blur effect that can be easily removed with a “freely available” software patch?

Remove the blur with "The Sims 2" nude patch.
In "The Sims 2," Sims are blurred when they use the bathroom, take a shower, or enter the hot tub naked. There is a user made nude patch that will get rid of the blur. The nude patch for "The Sims 2" works for Sims of all ages.
The nude patch does edit the exe for "The Sims 2," but makes a backup in case you want to restore the patch at a later point.
Instead of the nude patch, there is a cheat code you can use to turn the blur on and off. To turn off: intProp censorGridSize 0, to turn on: intProp censorGridSize 8
Download "The Sims 2" Nude Patch
-Courtney Marchelletta From About.com

Grand Theft Auto: San Adreas was already ready rated “Mature” and obviously wasn’t intended for children. It is now rated “Adults Only” (a difference in age 17+ to 18+ but also no more Wal-Mart sales.) The Sims 2 is rated “Teen.” You can read all the ESRB rating details here to see what those actually mean.

So to quote Damion Schuber (scroll down to find his 7/12/05 post), “Clearly, the lesson here is: white suburbanite hot tub sex = good. Black gangsta sex in the hood = bad.” He makes another very good point in the same post "almost any game can be deviant if the player tries hard enough - that’s what interactive MEANS. Wanna commit genocide? Go play Civilization. Wall up your neighbors and watch them collapse, sobbing, in puddles of their own urine? The Sims is right up your alley. On the other hand, if what you really want to do is pretend you’re an EMT saving lives, GTA is pretty much the only game in town."

In the end Rockstar is re-mastering the discs without the offending files in order to get reclassified back to be “Mature” (it’s original rating still saying that it is inappropriate for children) and the modders will change their mod to include those files back in. Nothing really changes except that Rockstar is forced to waste some of the millions it’s made on the sales of the game and politicians will another example of how are protecting the children (did I already mention that the game was already rated inappropriate for children?) I'm sure the whole scandal just boosted the game's sales anyway.

And if after all this you find that you actually like the idea of sex video games, you should try Japanese Dating Sims. You can find them at JList. I’ve never played one myself, 30 minutes of a boring game just to watch 30 seconds of porn doesn’t seem like a fair trade.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Thank You Lance Armstrong

Live Strong
-Lance Armstrong
Outdoor Life Network is doing a thank you card for Lance Armstrong. The actual giant card will be going around the country in July but if it isn’t going to be in your area you can still send him a message via email that they will collect and pass on.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Realistic Video Game Violence and Environments

"Anyone who clings to the historically untrue -- and -- thoroughly immoral doctrine that violence never solves anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler would referee. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor; and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms."
-Robert A. Heinlein
I did have a very interesting thought about video game violence while playing Battlefield 2. I realized that I never attached any real world significance to any of the killing I do in the game. Every time I kill an enemy the violence of the killing never occurs to me. Instead I find myself picturing some pimply faced 13 year old kid whining and complaining that I had ‘got him.’

I do however find myself attaching real world significance to the environment. There are houses, apartments, shops and billboards and I keep thinking about the people that used to live there. What happened to them? How would it feel to have your neighborhood become a war zone? You get the impression from a lot of the Middle Eastern maps that they have been getting blown up for years and years and yet there are also new, half completed construction projects. They keep getting blown up and they keep building new ones. The weedy brick path up to the TV station that is lined with palm trees, how long ago was that a brand new building? The half built damn that somebody must have thought was going to be a great boon to the area, will it ever get finished? What would it be like to live like that?

People keep going on about how the graphics are getting realistic and the violence is getting too real. But the realistic graphic violence isn’t turning me into a crazed killer, but rather getting me to think about the innocent victims of that violence and destruction.

It reminds me of a commercial that was on TV in the US a few years ago. It was for one of those ‘too violent for TV’ videos that showed real people getting killed and maimed. The commercial showed a few clips that cut away right before the gory part. One was of a woman about to cross a train track in front of an on coming train. That commercial proved to me that I have not become insensitive to violence because I could not watch that commercial. I had to turn away. Knowing that it was real, knowing that woman was about to actually be hit by that train was just too much.

Oh there was another one from about the same time. This one regarding child / spouse abuse. It just shows this little kid about 3 or 4 years old, sitting on the stairs in his house. In the background you can hear his drunken father yelling at his sobbing mother. Then you hear a loud ‘SMACK’ and the kid on the stairs starts dramatically at the sound. Oh man, that commercial got to me. Every time I saw it, even knowing it was coming, I would jump too and get this queasy lurch in my stomach. Wonder what they did when filming it to get the kid to jump like that. He is way too young to be acting.

There was a good deal of violence in video game links floating around this week too. One piece was written by a guy who went to school at Columbine when the shootings occurred who claims to have known both some of the victims as well as the two killers. I started to read it but unfortunately got distracted by work and never went back to it. The Slash Dot article that lead me to it also had a few reaction links to that article but I didn’t get a chance to read them either.

Ranting about Battlefield 2

The best thing about playing online is playing with other people. The worse thing about playing online is playing with other people.
So I am playing a good deal of Battlefield 2. Although I really like FPS games I hadn’t played one seriously online in a very long time. I was going to write a bit about the ‘online’ part mentioning how I usually just play the single player versions of the FPS games. I would then back up that admission with some quotes from one of the Unreal developers who mentioned that something like 80% of the people who bought the previous versions of Unreal Tournament didn’t play online. Some of us don’t like showing off how much we suck at the game in front of others and nobody likes to get killed over and over before they even learn the game.

But instead I am going to rant about Battlefield 2. I haven’t had such a love/hate relationship with a game since the early days of Ultima Online.

First of all the menus are horrible. When you are in the game there is a pause to get the menu up. Why? Because they are playing a full screen movie behind the menu and it has to load. You may think a few seconds delay to bring up the menu isn’t a big problem but it really starts to get on your nerves, especially when you meant to press RETURN to bring up a different menu but accidentally hit ESC instead. No option to turn this movie off.

While I am going on about the menu not only does the delay in opening it suck, but it and its various other information screens suck as well. Now I have created quite a few game menus in my time. I am building a few right now at work. I know how hard it is to plan out and display a whole slew of information on screen in a way that is readable and doesn’t look too busy. So I won’t make any disparaging remarks about the menu layouts but rather how they work.

Let’s start with selecting a server which uses and embedded Gamespy server. I play on local Game Arena servers (I would normally play on an Internode server who are my local ISP but BF2 keeps kicking me off their servers keep kicking me offline with a punk buster warning) and in order to find them I type gamearena in the server filter (which works most of the time). Now because the game is new most of the servers are full, but since it would be too hard to update the population of each server in real time you have to press the refresh button which also works most of the time. Only when you do so it doesn’t keep the filter text. There also isn’t any queue to get onto a server so you wind up just clicking on the server, try to enter, say okay to the window that says the server is full, and then click on the server again, repeat until you get in. There is also no way to see what servers your friends are playing on except to select each server and then scroll through the player names on both sides until you find them. Like I said at the beginning I haven’t played an FPS online in quite some time so I can’t really compare their server stuff to other games but one reviewer did ask why all other game servers seem to be getting better while Gamespy is getting worse.

Okay you’ve played the game and the round is over. It throws up a menu screen with loads of information about the previous battle except it doesn’t tell you what any of it means. Hey look I got 32 trophies, 12 checker board thing, 16 crosshairs and 10 skulls! Would it have killed them to have some tool tips or at least a page in the manual that explains what all that means instead of making me go searching through inane message boards for the info? And even when I know what they mean it doesn’t help that much since its really vague how the total score is arrived at.

You can go to the Battlefield HQ and look at your character stats and see what awards and medals you have won. All the awards that you haven’t earned are grayed out and there is no way to see what they are. You can’t select them and there is no tool-tip for them. I can just imagine the frustration of the achiever archetype player who has only 1 or 2 medals left to earn but has no clue what they are let alone what element of the game he has to master to earn them. Again searching though fan sites and such shouldn't be what you have to do.

Now there are bunch of little things I could nit pick about the game itself like how the auto balance feature loves to switch me to the loosing side seconds before the end of the match, but the thing that pushed me over the edge this weekend that had me screaming and pulling my hair out is that I went out and spent 60 bucks on a new joystick because I want to fly helicopters and jets. I didn’t want to do it online because constantly taking these vehicles and smashing them into the ground while I try to adjust my joystick settings and get comfortable flying isn’t really fair the rest of the people on my team. But the only offline maps you can play are the small 16 versus 16 player maps that are very small. If you are lucky you can shoot down your own helicopter before the NPCs, who have jumped in as soon as the map started, take off with it. Then you can fly for a few minutes before you wind up drifting off the map and getting killed for being AWOL before you even get a chance to smash it into the ground. Would it have been hard to give me access to the large maps in some sort of training mode so we could practice flying? How about a specific ‘training map’? You can’t create your own server and play by yourself either, you need a second player to start the game. (Edit: I was just able to start a server and get into the game by myself, it still says it is waiting for a second player but it lets me start.)

There is some love in the love/hate relationship though. It is really fun to play especially when you are on a squad with your friends who have microphones that work. Mine doesn’t, I am guessing it has something to do with the onboard sound card in my machine and we will see what happens once I get a real sound card in there. The graphics are incredible, especially on my new monster PC in 1600x1200. I guess the best thing I can say about it is that I am going to skip proof reading this post and get online. Bye.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Death of the PC

"Those who have knowledge, don't predict. Those who predict, don't have knowledge."
-Lao Tzu, 6th Century BC Chinese Poet
So David Carnoy, executive editor at CNET reviews, has written an article claiming that the next generation Xbox and PS3 will spell the death of PC Gaming. First he talks about how he polled the other reports the viewed the Quake 4 PC vs. the Xbox 360 version that was shown behind closed door. He reports that the results of his poll was that most of them couldn’t discern any difference between the two version.

My question is did they get to PLAY the Xbox version? Because I am willing to bet that they didn’t. I bet what they couldn’t discern was any difference between how the two of them LOOKED, but if they had played the XBox version they would realized that at the moment no console system control, ESPECIALLY for a FPS game is any match for a computer with mouse.

Over the years I have had to redesign the interface of a few PC games to make them work for the console version and it is never as good. Even if you have a mouse for your console system you can’t just plop it down on the carpet in front of you like you can with some other peripherals like a steering wheel. Now that I think about it though, even a steering wheel is better on my PC because I can clamp the steering wheel to the desk so it doesn’t move around when I’m playing and I can put the pedals under the desk. It works much better sitting the wheel on the coffee table and having the pedals in front of the couch.

His second point is the cost comparison between the PC and a console system which is the same as previous generations regardless of how he tries to spin it.

AnandTech has a really good article that talked about the Xbox 360 and PS3 that they have since pulled. Speculation is they are afraid of Microsoft tracking their “anonymous source” that they got this from:

Speaking under conditions of anonymity with real world game developers who have had first hand experience writing code for both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hardware (and dev kits where applicable), we asked them for nothing more than their brutal honesty. What did they think of these new consoles? Are they really outfitted with the PC-eclipsing performance we've been lead to believe they have? The answer is actually quite frequently found in history; as with anything, you get what you pay for.

You can probably find catched copy of the artical over at Slashdot, it was one of their story links earlier today.

I could go on and on about this, we heard all of this crap when the last generation of console systems came out and hey guess what? PC game is doing just fine. Console systems aren’t going to be a threat to PC gaming until the peripherals and interface evolves to the next level. And when I say “Next Level” I really mean the actual next evolutionary level not just some improvement, even a major improvement. When microsoft included a set of mic'ed headphones with XBox Live that was a step in the right direction though.

I am sorry I even linked to David Carnoy’s CNET article because the more I think about it the more I am sure he is just spouting off so people like me will rant about him and provide a convenient link to his page and he'll get more traffic. Well that part seems to have worked, and now I am not going to have time to play Battlefield 2 tonight. Bah!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

“May you live in interesting times.”
-Ancient Chinese Proverb
And that sums up nicely what has being going on at work the last month or two.

Actually it isn’t as bad as all that and honestly not really all that interesting. It’s a lot of the standard Game Developer company stuff including our third refocus of the game. My personal moral was getting kind of low but finally something really good happened last week but as a result I’ve been spending all of my time on work related stuff ‘tooling up’ so to speak.

So in general things are looking up. There is all the droll rewriting of the design documents yet again and this isn’t the game I originally signed on to do. But knowing what is going on behind the scenes, understanding the timeline, having become more familiar with the target market and the competition the game we are now creating is not only more realistic but has a much better chance at succeeding. Actually it has a good chance at doing very very well as a mater of fact.

And this ‘tooling up’ is pretty good for me too. It will help me not only stay relevant skill wise but actually put me and the front of the game again. I really got left behind toward end of my tenure at Westwood Studios by allowing myself to be pigeon holed. It is going to be a lot of hard work and other areas in my life have already begun to suffer.

So here is hoping this all comes together nicely.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Trip Down Memory Game

I had a pretty odd moment today. I bought one of those Atari 10-in-1 Joystick Games. It is a Atari 2600 joystick with 10 classic games for that system built right in. I’m sitting there playing Adventure right next to my wife who is playing World of Warcraft. The television in our computer room is between our two desks so her monitor is right next to the TV screen.

So right there I had ‘THE’ original graphic action/adventure game right next to the latest technological massively multi-player role-playing action/adventure masterpiece. I am having trouble describing the feeling of looking at both those games at once. Adventure was inspired by the text game Adventure (a.k.a. Colossal Cave Adventure) by Will Crowther and Don Woods. But this was the first time that such a game had been done with graphics. The first time where you moved your character around on the screen, picked up the sword, and actually used it via the joystick to kill the dragon.

Now we are playing game like World of Warcraft with friends who are literally on the other side of the planet, some of whom we have never even met in person. The graphics have gone from a simple square that represented your character to a fully developed and stylized 3D persona.

I remember standing at that department store counter for hours playing Adventure and lying awake at night dreaming up exactly the kind of MMORPGs we have today. Can you imagine what we will be playing in the next 25 years? My imagination is running wild and I am so giddy with anticipation I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

Unfortunately after playing the Atari 10-in-1 version of Adventure for awhile longer I found out they screwed it up. Grundle, the green dragon, is purple. There have been a few times where I would be playing and suddenly find myself back in front of the yellow castle where you start. There is something up with Rhindle, the red dragon, where he doesn’t want to die when you hit him with the sword. Sometimes the dragons will turn into their dead graphic frame while they are chasing you and sometimes they stay in their normal graphic frame when you kill them. I was playing one game where they kept coming back from the dead.

They also screwed with the easter egg. I should say ‘THE’ easter egg. Adventure, besides being the first graphic action/adventure game also had the first easter egg (hidden secret) in a video game. Back then there were no credits either in the manual or the game so Warren Robinett hid his name in the game. There were other cases before where programmers had hidden their initials in the game but nothing like this.

There is a dot hidden in the black castle that you could only get to with the bridge which allowed you to pass through walls of the dungeon maze. The dot was just one pixel and it was grey just like the background so it was just about invisible. If you took to the room just below and to the right of the yellow castle when there was at least one other item in that room you could pass through the far right wall and into a secret room. In that secret room the message “Created by Warren Robinett” written vertically down the center of the room.

In this version they made the ‘dot’ 4 pixels and now it glows. The rest of it still works except when you get into the secret room instead of the expected Warren Robinett credit there is just the word “text?” written in a small font on the top of the screen.

Actually the whole game system doesn’t work on the TV out in my living room. It’s really washed out and you can hardly see anything. I bought it and the Namco game one at the same time and the Namco one works fine. I took the Atari one back and exchanged it but the new one has the same problem.

So anyway, what started as a cool trip down memory lane turned into me sobbing in despair that they screwed up one of my favorite childhood video gaming memories. I still have a 2600 and an Adventure cartridge in a storage bin back in Vegas so all is not lost.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Clarification & and Lots of Rambling

A few people have written me email about the following quote I made in my last post.

“Game companies will go back to getting their staff members to record their background screams for free instead of paying someone like Lynnanne Zager.”

I want to point out that I didn’t say game companies would go back to using their employees to do “major voice over work” for free; I said “background screams.”

If you are using somebody for “major” voice over parts in the game they should get paid for that work. If they suck so bad that you don’t think they should get paid for it than you should probably get another actor.

But just because you found them around the office doesn’t mean they will suck. All the voices in Dune II (first RTS game) were all Westwood employees. I should also point out that Dune II even having voices at the time was an amazing feat since it was not a CD-Rom game nor were the system minimum specs that high.

Lands of Lore CD-Rom had Patrick Stewart as King Richard in the expanded intro, but all the rest of the voice over work was done by Westwood employees. This was back in the day that’s CD-Rom games were the new experimental media. Companies would put the normal version of the game out, and then experiment with their technology in a CD-Rom version that had bonus content such as voice acting of various parts. Hollywood names would do video game work at the time because it was a new unknown field and they wanted to be a part of it from the beginning. I was not privy to all the details involving Mr. Stewart’s contract or what we paid him but we did get a cool cardboard cut of him as Captain Picard which we used to stick in unlikely and unexpected places around the office to be funny or try and scare people.

Moving forward the voice of EVA in the first Command and Conquer game was done by Kia, Westwood's secretary at the time. But forget just voice-overs, how about on screen video captured actors? Almost all of the minor roles in the first Command and Conquer game were Westwood Employees. For example: Seth, the first Nod Commander, was played by Eric one of the 3D artists. But forget bit parts how about Kane, the big bag villain in all the C&C games. He was played by Joe Kucan, Westwood's casting director. Though to be honest Joe Kucan was already an experienced actor and used to run Rainbow Company Children’s theatre in Las Vegas. He directed me in Big River which is the musical version of Huckleberry Finn.

I am credited in C&C: Red Alert as “additional background voices” though I am sure my background screams and such are present in a few other games. I recorded one of the Mentant voices for Dune II but mine wasn’t used. You can hear me quite clearly in Lands of Lore when all the important people are meeting to discuss what to do about Scotia, the villain of the game. Frank got us all in a room and we were supposed to just do background mumbling conversation but out of the blue I threw in an audible ‘Scotia’ grumble. It came off pretty good so we re-did the take and we all actually started talking-mumbling instead of incoherently mumbling and would occasionally raise the tone up a notch so you could catch an actual word or two like ‘Scotia’, ‘Gladestone’, or ‘Dark Army.’

I didn't get anything extra for my 'additional voice acting' credits in those cases but I didn't expect to. It was just 10-15 minutes work doing something that really didn’t require any skill, for a project I am already working on. But I am sure Kia and Joe Kucan got compensation for their major work they did and they deserved every bit of it.

Anyway the point I was making was that video games aren’t going to be hurt by having to go to non-union voice-actors. They will be able to find non-union actors who are just as good for the roles that are needed. For example, the actors in most local theatre productions are non-union actors who are doing the work for free because it is fun and/or they want the credit to put on their resume. Some of these local theatre performances aren’t that good, but some of them are very good. I am sure putting out a casting call for the voice over work in the paper the theatre groups use for auditions will result in a non-professional, non-union, actor who is just as good for the part as somebody in the union.

Okay, that’s enough rambling. I just sat down here to read some web comics before the female folk get back and drag me off to do some tourist stuff. My feet still hurt from tramping all over Surfer’s Paradise yesterday.

Oh, before I go I should say that I am pretty sure Joe Kucan does belong to the Screen Actor’s Guild, but that doesn't mean he wasn't also somebody found around the office.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Voice of Video Games

"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."
-Mark Twain

Recently two Hollywood unions put up a vote to strike against electronic game publishers after the unions rejected a final offer from the game publishers that included a 35% increase in the session rate for voice-over actors — an increase to $750 from $556 per four-hour session by 2008. A chief sticking point with the unions is that they want more money when the game sells over 400,000 units.

One of the examples they have put up is Lynnanne Zager. Ever heard of her? I haven’t. She is supposedly well known for her screams. She did the voice of a woman screaming in Aramaic at Jesus before he is crucified in “Passion of the Christ,” she was one of the screaming passengers in “Titanic,” and she screams in fear at “Shrek.” But she claims her most strenuous work was the four hour session she did for the upcoming game “The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction.”

She got $900 for that four hour session compared to the $10,000 she got for “Shrek.” That discrepancy is the reason the unions are demanding that the game industry pay more money.

"Nine of the top 10 selling games in 2004 were produced with union contracts, using union voice talent -- and because of that, the quality of those games becomes exponentially higher," said Seth Oster, a representative of SAG and AFTRA.

Wired published an article today where Mark Long, co-CEO of independent game-development company Zombie Studios, finally said what most of us were thinking. Basically, they can have more royalties after those of us who are doing 60-80 work weeks for 18 to 24 months making the game.

The article has a quote from Wil Wheaton, who has been doing a lot of voice over work recently (guess his screen acting career isn’t doing that well) including Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the forthcoming Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six title.

"Yeah -- $275 an hour would be a huge amount if actors did that kind of work several times a week," said Wheaton, "but the average, working-class actor is lucky to get four of those jobs a year."

This really strikes me as biting the hand that feeds you. I really don’t feel sorry for Wil Wheaton whose on-screen career would appear to have tanked and now he is forced to do voice-over work for video games. I would say that if you can’t make a living doing voice-acting work because you can’t get more than four gigs a year, then maybe you should look for another line of work.

Voice-over work in the video game industry is a great opportunity for people looking to supplement or help start their acting career. If you are good enough that you can get enough voice-acting work to make a career out of it that’s fantastic. But if you can only get 4 gigs a year and still expect to make enough money to live off that and not have to get another job, enough money off that to call it a career, your out of your mind.

If the Union is going to ‘walk out’ and not allow their members to do video game voice-over work it isn’t going to hurt the video game industry that much. Game companies will go back to getting their staff members to record their background screams for free instead of paying someone like Lynnanne Zager. The only time the public is going to notice that it is a non-union actor doing the voice-acting is when it’s a game based on a movie and it’s a different actor doing the voice of the star.

A union boycott of the video game industry is however, going to hurt the struggling union actor who is forced to wait tables while waiting for their big break. That struggling actor would probably love $556 for four hours work and be ecstatic for $750.

Friday, June 03, 2005

A Feast of Pixels and Hackers

Here are two more things that happened last week that I would have posted about had I not been distracted:

First there are the 16 winners of the digital art contest sponsored by The Electronic Entertainment Expo, The Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, and The Graphics Arts Council of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. These pieces were displayed at E3 last weekend.

Second, are you a fan of George R. R. Martin’s: "A Song of Ice and Fire" series? Have you been dying for "A Feast of Crows" to come out? Well you can’t be that big a fan if you hadn’t heard THIS yet. Just make sure you read the footnote link.

If you aren’t a fan of the series that can only mean you haven’t read any of the books. I can't recommend it highly enough. I suggest you run out right this instant and buy the first book in the series, “A Game of Thrones” before your friends lose any more respect for you. Seriously… Go… NOW!

Why are you still here? Oh already a fan of the series and have read the first book half a dozen times. Well then go read this BusinessWeek story: Hacker Hunters while we wait for everybody else to get back from the bookstore. It’s about how the Secret Service broke up a gang of cyber-criminals. Normally law enforcement officials don’t want to reveler details of their operations but this artical gives us a rare glimpse into the world of cyber cops and robbers. I found it a pretty cool read. If you are really into that sort of thing I recommend reading The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier by Bruce Sterling. The link there is to the Literary Freeware version that Mr. Sterling put up. It is a history of the first big crackdown on hackers in 1990. I havn't actually read all of it myself. I stumbled across it last year, read a few chapters and then saved the link on my favorites bar where it is still waiting for me to get back to it.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Catching Up with New Web Comics, UFOs and The Warriors

So the disappointing bad news out of the way (scroll down and read the previous post) let me catch you up on some other stuff. My mother is visiting. She arrived yesterday and will be here till the 12th. So that means we will be doing a lot of tourist type stuff over the next week which we really haven’t done much of since moving here. Maybe I'll finally take and post some pictures.

I am adding a two new links to my web comics. The first is for Blank Label Comics which is a new group formed by a number of web comic guys who have left Keen Spot. Pop on over there and read some of their comics and give them some support. I am linking to their main page instead of the individual comics so you can sample them all and bookmark your favorites.

The second is a comic called Panda Xpress. It just finished chapter one a little while ago and it might be interesting. I say “might” because it just started and there are a lot of odd loose ends that might come together and make this a really cool story. At the moment it is just very odd but I like it. I am thinking this might be one of those things where reading it now might give you the ability to say “I was reading it before it was popular” later on. The bad thing about it is that it is only updated twice a week and each update is only a few panels. This makes it very hard to read unless you hold off and only visit the site once a month so you can read it in chunks. It is actually posted as a blog so you would have to read it backwards to follow the story but if you click on the “Read the Comic” link on the left, you can read it from the start in a very easy to navigate format.

I had a few other interesting links I would normally write whole posts about. Writing about being a video game designer and other things relating to the video game industry is the whole reason I wanted to start this blog in the first place. But with the sad news and with what has being going on at work this last two weeks (imagine your standard pre-E3 scramble times about 3) I have just wound up collecting the links and ideas and not doing anything with them. The DKP history and the Story & Design articles I was doing haven’t been touched either.

The one thing that I have to link is a news story that was broadcast by Channel 13 in Las Vegas a few days ago. Basically this guy claims the Old Testament written in Hebrew taught him how to summon UFO’s. He says he can do it on command and he's been doing it for 25 years, keeping it secret, until now. The thing is the reporter takes him out to a park and says okay lets see you do it… AND HE DOES!!! Something shows up in the sky and flies around! He claims that something is going to happen in the next week and a lot of people in Vegas area are going to see a lot of UFO activity or something like that. So all of you in Vegas keep an eye out and let me know what’s going on.

I do want to post a link to the trailer for a game my friend Alan has been working on at Rockstar Games. It is the video game of the 1979 cult-classic movie “The Warriors.” The scary thing about this is the number of people I have talked to at work who have never heard of this movie. How bad are we dating ourselves? I will admit I was too young myself to have seen this movie when it was released in 1979 but I have seen it at least a half a dozen times over the years.

Sad News

I originally had set the goal of never going more than a few days without at least posting something on the blog but as you might have noticed I have stayed away for about a week now. The reason is that we lost the pregnancy. The doctor thinks the baby stopped growing at 5 weeks.

Obviously this has been an difficult time for me and my wife and I didn’t want to post anything about it until we had settled down emotionally and notified our families. I also didn’t feel right posting funny little ramblings and other stuff knowing this black cloud of sad news was still hovering over everything.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Broken Dishes

I had a bunch of things I wanted to do this weekend, had some scripts from work I wanted to work on, I am typing up a history of the Dragon Kill Point (DKP) loot system used in MMORPGs, and my article on designers and writers in the video game industry.

Instead of working on any of that I spent the days driving from mall to mall trying to replace a plate that was broken and the evenings just lying on the couch surfing the net and reading up on all the stuff I missed at E3. I could also mention some of the really bad TV shows that have been on this weekend but that would mean I would have to admit that I was actually watching “The History of Band Aid.” You know the song from the 80’s, Feed the World “…don’t they know it’s Christmas time at all?” That thing. It’s on right now while I’m typing this. I’m too lazy to reach the remote.

In case you were wondering I didn't find the plate; the pattern from Living Art was everywhere when we bought the set last year but nowhere to be found now. It is kind of a summer pattern so maybe I'll have better luck next summer (remember its fall/winter down under currently.)

Oh, and I enabled Anonymous Comments so you don't have to register to post comments.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Story Or Design?

"I'm all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let's start with typewriters."
-Frank Lloyd Wright

I gave a talk at Queensland University of Technology today on writers in the video game industry. It felt very strange. It is usually the other way around. Usually you hear from people who want to be designers but are really writers. They tell you about their ideas but they are nothing but story ideas bereft of any actual game design. I can’t count the number of time somebody said they were going tell me about their game design idea and then launch off into an elaborate story summary.

So now had to do the reverse and talk to a bunch of writers and trying to explain how wrap a story around a game design. I wish had more time to prepare, but I did come up with some interesting trains of thought coming at the subject from this angle.

I was going to go on about it now but I’m still recovering from our 12:01 AM Star Wars Episode III showing night before last and I am literally falling asleep at the keyboard. I’ll continue thinking about it for awhile and write something up a little more formally.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Power of Logos?

Looks like Tabula Rasa’s web site is back up after there little ‘refocusing’. I want it to be clear that I am not making fun of that, because it is something I’m all too familiar with. It was a bold move to grab the marketing team by the horns and have them shut everything down while they did it though. But what I am going to make fun of is the marketing team / story blurb that appears on the front page:

Tabula Rasa™ is a massively multiplayer online action game that takes you into the heat of battle at the frontlines of an epic war between a xenophobic alien race bent on galactic conquest and the coalition of rebel soldiers who’ve traveled across the galaxy to stop them.

Combining the action of a first person shooter and the immersion of a role-playing game, Tabula Rasa takes the player on an intergalactic adventure where the individual has an opportunity to significantly impact the pace of battle on a global scale. Players enter the game as rebel soldiers wielding a variety of futuristic weapons, potent demolitions and the mystical power of “Logos”. It is up to each individual to use their stealth, ingenuity and skill to assist a ragtag coalition of rebels in their efforts to stop an enemy known for its intelligence and unyielding determination to enslave the Universe.

The power of Logos? Yes that’s right boys and girls the secret behind Tabula Rasa is brand name identity! The evil xenophobic aliens known only as “The Bane” have traveled across the galaxy and it is up to you to sell them products they don’t need or want. I guess it Tabula Rasa you don’t just form a group of players but rather a 'focus group'. You don’t kill the aliens but instead try to find out what they really want from Richard Garriott’s signature creative vision and attention to detail™, how they feel about Richard Garriott’s signature creative vision and attention to detail™, and most importantly what color they think Richard Garriott’s signature creative vision and attention to detail™ should be. Once you have managed to put together the ultimate new and improved Richard Garriott’s signature creative vision and attention to detail™ package you can start selling it to them safe in the knowledge that soon their entire race will have their credit line over extended to such an extent that they can no longer afford to wage war.

Seriously though, they have 5 new movies up. I haven’t seen them yet myself, but they should be done downloading by now so I’ll go check them out.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Believe It Or Not, It’s E3

Ever wonder what would happen if Weird Al and Jack Black had a baby together? Me neither, but thanks to G4TV we now have the music video "Believe It or Not, It's E3" to show us.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

We Are Having a Baby!

"Having a child is surely the most beautifully irrational act that two people in love can commit."
-Bill Cosby

So at the end of my previous post I hinted and some new information I was withholding. Well now its time to actually tell you what all that was about. While I was writing that post Connie, my wife, took a pregnancy test and it came back positive! She had taken one in the very early hours of the morning but it gave an invalid result. She had been on pins and needles all day. Now of course she had to be dragged away from playing World of Warcraft on the computer to go to the store to buy a new test, but pins and needles none the less. You may think she is going to beat me for saying that. But you have to understand that’s what I love about her. How many of you wish that when your significant other comes in at 4 AM to yell at you for still being logged in and playing; that instead she was sitting right besides you and logged in herself? Yeah you’re right; she will still probably beat me.

I’ll go ahead and answer your next question for you too. Yes, if he is a boy he will be named Joseph Benjamin Hewitt V. Connie says she thinks she is going to be a girl in which case her name will be Rachael Cariana Hewitt. Cariana is a combination of Carol, her mother’s name, and Diana, my mother’s name. Connie thought that one up, I like it.

Connie will be going to the doctor later this week to get the official medical take on it and I’ll keep you informed.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

What Is Art Anyway?

"I never intended to make art."
-Walt Disney, when his work was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I’ve never considered myself a real artist. Yeah there are quite a few computer games out there whose credit list says otherwise. But I’ve always thought of myself as a hack. Taking something somebody else did and screwing with it till it was what I wanted. The entire tile artwork set for the Pride Rock level of the SNES and Genesis version of The Lion King game was based on two little rocks Rick Parks drew. When I started in the industry there were no designers, there was just a programmer and an artist and together they designed the game. But as time went on and the industry grew I managed to work myself into a pigeon hole as an artist. I was actually really good at tile art, cutting up a piece of artwork in small characters or icons. More hack work.

It came to a relief when I finally officially and completely moved from being an artist to a designer. It actually took EA closing Westwood Studios and me changing companies to really break out of that hole. Sure I got to do my share of design work, but I was still considered an artist. Now I’m at a company on the other side of the world where I was hired as a designer. I’ve gotten to prove myself as a designer, both to myself and to my peers who never saw me as an artist.

…so I’m drawing some spell icons today in photoshop…

Seriously though, I told you that story to tell you this one. I just love doing that classic comedy routine where you spin it around like that. I used to write stand-up comedy, but that is another story.

But really I was drawing the spell icons. Well hacking them out. The artist that drew the originally sub-set is kind of new to this whole thing. He did some really good looking icons but didn’t take them to the point that we needed them. Details like spell lines across multiple elements, reoccurring symbols to represent things like health and mana. Anyway I started to tinker with them as we are getting up against the wire for E3 as I had all my other stuff finished and they really needed some attention and next thing I know I’m doing them all.

At one point I’m using Google’s image search to find picture pieces I need. I am drawing a few icons that are silhouettes or facial close-ups for ‘shout’ abilities. I got to wondering what these people would think if they knew their photo was being manipulated into spell icons. They of course are being changed beyond any recognition. But I look at my picture over there on the right and wonder if some artist hasn’t grabbed it and turned it into something else.

I remember the icons I created for Command & Conquer had all the soldiers modeled on Mike Lightner, one of the designers. I think I got the original image from one of the mission movies and just kept altering it. The thought at the time was to make them look the same to have that ‘every-man’ soldier feel. Remember this was originally a game done in 640x480 but even at that size he was still recognizable. He thought it was pretty cool. I think I kept using his image for the soldiers for redone C&C ’95 version and even Red Alert. By the time we got to Tiberian Sun we were using in a high enough resolution that we could start doing much more detailed pictures instead of just facial close-ups. I have all those icons on my hard drive somewhere.

A number of the Eye of the Beholder character portraits were other Westwood employees including myself. And if you look at mine in EoB I, EoB II and Order of the Griffon you can see my hair growing out as I updated it each time.

Oh well enough reminiscing, its time to go to bed.

So later when I tell you and you ask when. It was while writing this.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Taking MMORPG Customer Service Seriously

I read the following article: The Cost of Insecurity: Griefing, from Anonymity to Accountability by Steven B. Davis on Skotos today. It was also posted on the Mud-Dev email thread. I started to give a short reply and wound up jumping off the deep end and just going on and on. Here is my rambled response:

Verifying who said what is a lot easier than implementing a system of digital signatures. You simply keep a good number of lines of each user’s chat log in a buffer on the server. When a user puts in a customer service ticket (any CS ticket) that buffer is attached to the ticket. The CSR should then be able to view that record from within his CS tool. Since it is all done server side it is already secure. A side effect of this system is that the player can have the scroll back buffer of his previous play session available the next time he logs on even if he is on a different machine, a big factor in Asian PC Bangs.

This is nothing new, Earth and Beyond used this sort of system. Star Wars Galaxies uses something similar but not quite right, for example the text buffer isn’t automatically appended to any CS Ticket but rather the user has to issue a /report command and then a copy of the chat log is saved elsewhere the server. The CSR has to manually go through the logs to find the player’s report. Many older games even had the basic /report command that would snapshot the last few lines of text and save them server side, but many times the amount of text saved wasn’t enough to see the whole issue.

An ever better system would allow the player to specifically enter which player he is accusing of harassment and attach that users chat log as well. Many times the CSR will find both players are guilty of goading and escalating the incident.

But all is a minor detail to what should be the main point which is that developers need to take customer service more seriously. I am sure every one of you is thinking, “Yeah like my company does.” But you don’t. Everybody says the words but nobody backs them up with the deeds. Customer service tools are given a very low importance during development, they are underdeveloped, and don’t address many of the CSR’s basic needs. CSR personal are in many cases underpaid temp labor that don’t have anywhere near the knowledge of the game they are providing support for. Other departments treat the CS department as the black sheep of the family.

For example for the launch of one of the biggest and most anticipated MMORPGs ever (no I am not talking about WoW) was the poster child for this. The CSR staff hired from a temp agency has had just over a week of training which consisted of allowing them to play in the beta and practicing going through the check lists when the servers were brought up. They were given their CS tool the day before launch, which did nothing but show the player’s CS tickets and allow them to respond without having to log into the game. The load of tickets broke the tool in short order.

The CSRs had absolutely no power or tools to investigate anything and didn’t get any such power till much later. Even nominal CS command like the ability to change an offensive player name required the CSR to find the player while he was online, issue the name change command, and then wait for up to 30 minutes to see if the name change went through. The head of the CS department for the title had written up a very detailed list of commands and powers he wanted for the team over a year before launch and none of them were implemented. Why? Because when the game that so much money is riding on, is heading down that final stretch to completion nobody wants to take any people off making sure the game is ready to launch to work on something like CS tools that won’t even be needed till after the game comes out.

Communication between the design department and the CS department was non-existent. The only way CS could get a response from Dev was to send the message to the department head that would bring it up in their weekly meeting and then wait for the head of dev to have somebody investigate it and report back in the next dev meeting.

Nothing was done to give the CSRs any real game knowledge; they were given free copies of the game but not free accounts. Since they were all hired from temp agency and not making much money, most of them couldn’t really afford to pay for their own accounts. If it wasn’t for the ability to alt-tab over to a spoiler site 90% of the CSR staff at any company probably couldn’t answer issues about high end content.

And this isn’t an isolated incident. This is par for the course. I don’t want to name the company responsible for the above problems because it’s what every company is doing. It isn’t like they didn’t spend money on their CS department, they may have hired temps but they hired a lot of them. They had a wonderful work area with decent computers. They paid for overtime and included them in almost all full-time employee benefit type events (staff picnics, movie premiers, holiday presents, etc.) But without the actual work and effort before that point it didn’t matter and as a result their launch was a PR nightmare and they lost a lot of customers.

So what needs to be done? The game needs to have a customer service tool and CSR abilities designed and built along side the game. You’ll need to plan ahead of time how you’ll CS staff will be able to monitor the game and investigate issues even if you are sure those issues will never come up. An actual quote from a lead designer to the CS department, “There is no need for a reimbursement system for items because they designed it in such a way that items would never disappear.” Sorry, I’m still laughing at that one.

The game should have built in systems that monitor the rate of exp and money earned damage per second done, travel speed. It should have some system to know when mobs are stuck or under the world or are being attacked and cannot attack back. It should also monitor CSR behavior, logging all CSR level commands. These things should be automatically flagged when they fall outside the expected parameters so they can be investigated. There should be a way for a CSR to track an item to find out where it came from and view those transactions in their entirety IE be able to see the whole trade such as players Abe traded items A, B, C and X gold to Bob for items X, Y, Z and X gold at time/date stamp. The CSR should be able to search for items and find where they are, sounds simple enough but most database programmers don’t think like this. The container knows what items are in it, but the items have no idea what containers they are in. Etc.

Player characters and every single game item needs to have a unique identifier that will never be changed or reused. Makes sense, but I’ve seen this not be the case time and time again. The system should even check IDs to make sure duplicates don’t exist. There was a case in UO where a bug or dupe would create an item with the same ID as an existing item. Guess what happened when somebody deleted a sword with the same ID as your house?

Finally you need to make sure you players understand your game’s policies. I can tell you they aren’t reading that 4 page ELUA, and aren’t going through the rules on the web site before playing. Pull out the original manual for Star Wars Galaxies and turn to the Naming Rules on page 34. Note that of the 4 points listed only 2 are policy rules and the other two just tell you your name has to be unique and can’t have special characters like hyphens or apostrophes. Then go to the 'naming section' of the Rules and Policies on the SWG web site HERE and read the full 11 point Naming Policy that is much longer and detailed as the one in the manual. Guess how many players through a fit when they were told their character name violated policy and that the full rules weren’t in the manual but rather on the web site. Why aren’t these rules presented to the character on the screen where they have to type in the name?

Okay, this soapbox is starting to get uncomfortable and I’ve spent far too much time typing away when I could be playing. I get enough of this at work and I’m sure you do to… oh wait one more thing. You should make your design staff work in the customer service department at least 1 week every 2-3 months. You’d be surprised at the things they learn about their game and how much it will benefit both departments. I know it did wonders for me.