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.