Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hollywood and Games: Max Payne, Where's My Game Edition

A little while back I wrote about the failure to release a Batman game with the film. I argued there was sufficient time to make the game, and it was really surprising someone would not be riding the film's wave. Since then, rumors emerged of a game in development but missing the date, and SCi announced their Arkham Asylum game based on the comic books. This was a missed opportunity to exploit public knowledge of a license. Some game publisher, somewhere, lost out on free marketing. But what about Max Payne? The game supporting the movie based on a game? Sure, it's tough to come up with a good game from a film. The studio and actors have approvals. The scenes get added and cut, and players are split between playing the movie and playing an entirely new story line. But Max Payne started life as a game. What gives?

I don't have any unique insight into this deal and any information I have is available to you as well through Google. I am just a simple guy looking at this deal from the outside and wondering why there is a lot of money left on the table and a missed opportunity to introduce the game to a wider audience.

Fox can't be blamed. They couldn't make the game if they wanted to. Because the game pre existed the film deal, Fox did not acquire interactive rights to the film, but they were not the only company accepting left overs. Take Two purchased its right to the IP, subject to the pre existing film deal. The rights to make the film were optioned in August of 2001 by Collision Entertainment, one month after the release of the game. The game was published under Take Two's "Gathering" label five months before Kelly Sumner, then CEO of Take Two, proudly announced the acquisition of the underlying IP rights to the game. Take Two paid USD 10 million plus a bunch of stock, to gain the underlying rights to the IP they helped to create. Take Two's right to publish was derived from Gathering, which was founded on the principle of creator ownership. 3D Realms owned the rights to Max Payne, even after Gathering's sale to Take Two. This put 3D Realms in the unique position of being able to sell film rights to the game, and then the game rights.

It was not the only time Sumner was involved in a big number transaction that looked better at the time than in hindsight. He seems to have a knack for being on the wrong side of a deal. His sale of Take Two's interest in Bungie to Microsoft included the right to publish Halo, and as CEO of Red Octane he sold Guitar Hero to Activision for what turned out to be less than 10% of the title's revenue in the next 18 months. It is kind of the reverse of how value is usually measured. All seemed like good deals at the time, but wow. As a guy who passed on the opportunity to buy and publish GTA 3, I understand things look different in real time, but WOW. Sumner obviously thought Max Payne was going to be another strong IP for the company. A new pillar to stand next to GTA. Hence, his placement of the title under the Rocskstar banner, rather than 2k after Gathering was folded. Unfortunately, the sequel did not perform as well as first installment, even with Rockstar's name on the box. More significantly, when he acquired the rights there was a significant brand risk looming over the title. Someone else was holding movie rights, and if they made the movie, it might be bad.

Take Two is the rights holder to the IP underlying the film, but rights holders don't make an awful lot of money. If they are a first dollar gross participant in the film, they stand to make some money, but nothing compared to what the would stand to make with the release of a game. The studio views the release as the primary implementation of the IP. This is a good thing for a game publishers because it means the studio is investing a lot of money in what the game company sees as a 120 minute commercial for the game. Like most commercials, the film will reach more people than the game. If the film is bad, or underperforms, it will reflect poorly on the game, and through no fault of the publisher, the value of the IP will be diminished.

So where are we today? There is no game for the film released under a deal predating all of the existing management of the compay. I don't know when the film was greenlit, but the announcement of Mark Wahlberg's involvement was not made until November 8, 2007, about 11 months before the release of the film. If Take Two were waiting for a greenlight, there was nowhere near enough time to make a decent game. It looks like they chose quality over timing, and based on the recently "leaked" rumors, they are building the best game they can, regardless of the film's release date. Maybe . . . If I were the the owner of game rights for a film based on my five year old game, I would take a step back. Investing in building a game when the higher profile movie could diminish the value of my efforts doesn't sound so good. I'd rather put my time and effort into things I control completely. If the studio breathes new life into my once popular IP, the studio will certainly want to make a sequel film. What a great time to release a game. If I get started on it now, it will probably be ready for the sequel. If the film tanks, I can turn my effort into a new IP. But hey, that's just me.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Rampant Paranoia: Singularity Edition

I was dancing around the edge of a web black hole last night. You know, a collection of sites, which sucks you in deeper and deeper until you look up at the clock and see 43 hours have gone by. It started when I saw a Wired article for Neal Stephenson's new book, Anathem. I, like most people who play games, have been a fan since Snow Crash. After Snow Crash I went back and read Zodiac - even he says he is not so fond of it, but I liked it - and followed through Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon and almost made it through the Baroque Cycle. The meaning of each individual word grows with each book he writes. There are a lot of words on the page, and none are superfluous. It's written like an impressionist painting, with meaningful, heavy strokes. The books are works of fiction, but based on a foundation of fact. The links from the article led to his source "companions." It is not really material, as much as a collection of some of the most articulate and vocal thinkers of our time. People who populate, the Long Now organization and The Edge. People who are concerned about what how technology impacts society as well as preserving elements of humanity for whomever or whatever may find it in the future.

As I started to read these things by minds like Kurzweil, Hillis, Ventner and Pesce, I started to think about a video Craig Allen showed me in which Aubrey DeGray discussed the Singularity. He proposed computers, in the ordinary course, would get to a point where they are smarter than humans. Once there, they may not like us. In his words "That would be a bad thing." I think there is something worse. Some professor at UCLA told us the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. If the computers hate us, they are concerned about our existence. If they are indifferent, we don't stand a chance. Today, not only are we ceding control of our lives to the bots, they just don't care.

Some people identify the Singularity as the point computers become more intelligent than humans. But intelligence is relative. By trusting the bots as we do, we are making ourselves less intelligent, less independent and more reliant on the machines. My grandfather ran a drug store in Detroit. He could take a stack of numbers as long as his arm, run his finger down them like a blind man reading braille, and add them up faster than anyone could punch them into an adding machine. Later on, he would stand next to my dad with a stack of number and add them up while my dad punched them into the calculator. My dad never got the answer any faster than my grandfather, and my grandfather never trusted the calculator. I couldn't add a stack of numbers as long as my little finger if you lit a fire under my ass. I rely on calculators to do it. The portion of the brain my grandfather developed so well, completely atrophied on me. More significantly, the distrust of the bots atrophied as well.

We've all encountered the person on the other end of the phone who tells us we are wrong because the computer says so. I did the other day with my Xbox, and I am sure you heard it when you tried to book airline reservations, found out your credit card payment was not applied to the last statement, had your cable television cancelled or any of the other calls handled by US prisoners or Indian customer support farms. The answer is always, "There is nothing I can do, the computer says . . . " The person in front of the machine will not question the computer. They do not believe it can be wrong. We ceded control to the bots.

We make conscious decisions for the bots to manage our lives ever day. We opt in with our finances by signing up to bill payment services. Auto-pay, pay on line, paypal, all make it convenient for us to move money to the right places. We make semi conscious decisions to allow the bots to track us. Opting into Amazon's service lets Amazon suggest things we may like. Ebay sends us list of favorites. If we want to protect our identity, we enlist the services of another bot to track financial transactions in our name. Joining a social network identifies our friends and who we do business with. We give somewhat less conscious consent to Google to track our every move on the web and tie it to our searches to know which ads to best serve us. Most significantly, we consent as citizens of the countries in which we live to be tracked by the government at its will. In the UK, they do it with facial recognition cameras. In the US they used to use Carnivore to track email and phone calls, now there is something else we don't know about. If something suspect happens, more information is sought through each one of the bots we authorized to make our life easier. Because each bot is part of a network, each connections grows the network, and therefore computing power, exponentially, until something much more powerful than us, is mixing, matching, dissecting, connecting, analyzing and organizing every piece of data about us. And the thing doing it, really doesn't care.

The network has no empathy and its decisions are all black and white. One day you are hit by a truck on the way to work and good samaritan delivers you to an emergency room. The hospital won't admit you without insurance, no problem, Obama was elected and we have national health care. The administrator will punch in your social security number and your coverage will appear and you will be sent right into a doctor's care. The administrator looks up from the machine with a look of dismay.

"I am sorry, you have no insurance."
"That's impossible" you gurgle."

When the administrator typed in your social security number it initiated the claims process. At initiation, the claims process checks the network, your network, to make sure all statements on your application remain valid. They would not want to pay on a claim they do not owe. It seems you identified yourself as a non-smoker, but there is a charge every week for the past six months for a carton of cigarettes on your debit card. When checked against the cameras with facial recognition the network confirms you walked into the same store, once a week, and purchased a carton of cigarettes. Your internet records show you searched for the lowest price on cigarettes, and the review of of the google index of your hard drive shows you downloaded coupons to buy the cigarettes. Based on this information, the computer indicates you falsified your application and your insurance is suspended.
"But I don't smoke."
"The computer says you do."
"I buy cigarettes for my grandmother. She is old, and can't leave the house. It is her only pleasure, and I sneak them into her so she can smoke behind the nurse's back."
"The computer says you smoke."
"I understand that, but it's not true, you can test me."
"I can't test you, the computer won't allow it."

This is the last thing you hear before you are rolled out to the street.

If you think this sounds implausible, talk to a victim of identity theft, or someone with a mistake on their credit report. How about someone who shares a common name with someone on the do not fly list? The computers don't weigh evidence and don't distinguish between things you did and things someone who said they were you did. It doesn't distinguish between stealing the loaf of bread to feed your children, and stealing the loaf of bread for the thrill of it.

The singularity is getting closer, but it is not because computers are getting smarter, it is because we are getting dumber.

Remember . . Klaatu Barada Nikto

Don't Take My Word for It: Legendary on Kotaku Edition

Here are some behind the scenes commentaries about Legendary. The game looks great, but don't take my word for it, the Kotaku hands on from GC in Leipzig is at the end of this post.

Here is the Kotaku first "hands-on"
My first real “wow” moment at the Games Convention in Leipzig came when a griffin threw a taxi at me. Mind you it could have been a roc – I'm not exactly up to date on my mythical birds, but whatever it was it was impressive. It was exactly the sort of epic moment you'd expect from a game called Legendary, and after playing through a good 15 minutes of the beginning of the PC version I can see why they decided to remove “The Box” from the title. The box is nice and all, but what comes out of it is much more impressive.

The game starts out with the protagonist Charles Deckard at a museum, about to insert a mystical key into a mystical box...well, the magical box. The one you don't want to open? Yeah, he opens it, and in return it brands his hand with a mystic rune and unleashes doom upon the human race as we know it. It's a damn good thing that box came with that branding featuring, allowing the bearer to absorb mystical energy in order to heal himself, hurt mythical beasts, and solve puzzles, because otherwise we'd be completely screwed. Let's hear it for escape clauses!

Anyway, as soon as you are branded the museum begins to shake and break, fires breaking out, the earth heaving, tossing passersby to their deaths, fire and brimstone, dogs and cats, living together, etc. Your character gains some basic knowledge about his powers as he escapes while everything goes to hell around him. It's a common FPS mechanic...essentially placing you in the middle of a disaster movie where you can't get hurt, but it's done really well.

Things get even more exciting when you exit the museum, as we see some magnificent cinematics that effectively amount to the entirety of New York City doing the wave, streets, cars, people, and all as a wave of otherworldly energy floods the surroundings. Streets crack, people run screaming, and then the griffons show up and start tossing cars about.

You navigate a maze of cars, new paths opening as the griffons toss vehicles about as if they were really big birds tossing about cars, until you get to a place where you are completely stuck. Then some seriously awesome shit goes down.

Suddenly cars and wreckage get sucking into this swirling vortex, slowly coalescing into a massive giant built from spare parts, easily the size of the skyscraper he then walks through, opening up your new path.

From there things move into more familiar puzzle-solving FPS ground, opening valves to put out fires as you make your way towards the subway system, hoping to find a way to escape the city. My last moments with the game were spent shooting at fire-spitting lava dogs in the ruined subway tunnels of New York. Th guy waiting in line for the game behind me had moved from intently staring to uncomfortably rubbing against me, so I fled.

So the first 15 minutes of the game hooked me. I am dying to see what else happens over the course of the game now. Gameplay was fast and smooth, though I didn't get a chance to play enough to determine if I like the combat yet or not. So far it's just been standard pistol fare, so I've know idea what happens when the big guns come out.

Still, I can assure you that Legendary did manage to live up to the name several times during my brief encounter. I'm looking forward to playing more when I am not surrounded by touchy Germans.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Check it Out Famima: Another Gift from Japan

I must put a disclaimer on this post. First, I apologize for teasing the people in the 86 countries hitting the blog who don't have a Famima in their country. Second, I don't think I lost my mind - I probably wouldn't know if I did - but I am a bit lonely with too much time on my hands on a Saturday with my wife and son of towns. Times like this make things we would otherwise take for granted seem significant. Today I stopped by Famima.

In most of the world, "convenience store" refers to a place where you should not buy food. Sure the stuff is there, and if you are in some sort of altered state, even the things spinning on the stainless steel rollers at 2 in the morning can meet a certain need. But in Japan, the convenience store is a genuine option for eating. In fact, for many, it is a primary option. Japanese convenience stores realize food is a function, not a production. You can make food a production, in the company of friends or family, but it should be a choice, not a requirement. So it's great to be able to walk in, look at fresh food, grab it, and go. Famima is bringing the concept to the States.

Famima is entering the US market with 30 stores in Sourthern California and will be growing to 220 by the end of 2009. They are already operating FamilyMart across Asia. I love Famima. In fact, I would live inside a Famima if I could. It has everything I need, from capsule toys to pasta, and a friendly counter people who ask if you want you sandwich grilled or dim sum heated. Along with fresh sushi, sandwiches and desserts, the store is stocked with Calpis, Pocari Sweat, Pocky, Boss Coffee in small cans, and all the other stuff only available in Japan or your cities Little Tokyo. It is all organized in perfect sections, in perfect rows and perfectly immaculate. Once I move in, I would be able to start writing letters from the stationary section with a wide range of paper and pens to choose from.

The selection affords variety on each visit but the Onigori is a must have. A lot of people know them as the triangle things you roll over with your Katamari, but anyone whose been to a Japanese C store knows how satisfying these sea weed wrapped rice things really are. In Japan, eating these things is actually a sport - Onigori roulette. Tucked inside each triangle's package of rice is a nugget of something. Sometimes fish, sometimes pickled roots, sometimes cream cheese. Non Japanese readers have no clue of what's inside these things, and the colors indicating the things inside change from store to store. As my son says, "nothing in Japan tastes like it looks," so the roulette is very exciting. Even without the sport, the Onigori is the worth the trip because Famima imported a masterpiece of engineering.

Pre-made food has always been plagued by the separation problem. If you put a hot thing on a cold thing, they will both get luke warm. If you put a moist thing on a crisp thing, it will wilt. McDonald's tried to attack the problem with the McDlt - hot side hot, cold side cold. It was good in concept, but not elegant. It was kind of a Windows 3x approach to the issue, and it failed. Famima's Onigori packaging is an example of mankind's greatest engineering. Sure the pyramids in Egypt are really cool, but no one knows what they do. Onigori packaging is purpose built and so elegantly simplistic, you would swear it came from Apple.

The package has two layers of wrapper. There is an inner rapper separating the crisp sea weed from the rice, and an outer wrapper to keep everything fresh. While an American approach would involve opening the wrappers, setting the sea weed aside and rewrapping, or worse yet, no inner wrapper, the Japanese solution takes care of everything in one step. As you open the outer wrapper and pull it apart, the inner wrapper is removed from between the sea weed and rice and the sea weed seals itself on to the rice. Every time I do it I am amazed at the brilliance. I made a little movie so you can see too.


If you are in Southern California, forget Disneyland, go to Famima. You'll enjoy it more.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Check it Out: New Rise of the Argonauts Edition

The new trailer:

The back story:

The Xplay piece:

What G4 had to say about the first hands on:

Today, we were treated to a hands-on of Codemasters' new Rise of the Argonauts here in Germany, and we got to play amongst the Gods for a few minutes or so. Now, right off the bat, you're going to want to compare this game to God of War, and it's a fair comparison to make. Pawn of the Gods doing trials to try and please them? Check. Messing with the Titans? Check. God-like powers bestowed on your person and weapons by those very same Gods? You betcha.

The game is very pretty, even in an unfinished state, and there are a lot of really cool combat maneuvers to be had here, but make no mistake, this is an RPG, which will allow you to change the flow of the story based on the choices you make and the answers you give to questions that appear along the way. You're not funneled into making these decisions, but rather live and die by them, kind of like real life...if you happen to be Jason trolling around the Greek Isles with the Argonauts.

Jason is a master of weaponry, and if you make contact with your enemies, you're going to chop them up good. But making contact isn't always as easy as it might seem. You have to swing away from their shield, which functions as if someone was actually carrying it, as opposed to just being there for show. Luckily, you're pretty good with your shield as well, so there's always that.

You can change weapons on the fly, and sometimes these weapons (sword, mace, etc.) are imbued with the power of the Gods, so your mace might be aflame, for example, which means it does some pretty serious damage. Also, you have two modes for attack...light, and execution, and an execution isn't pretty, Basically, you're chopping baddies in half with these things, and there's blood everywhere, which is graphic, and graphically well-made.

We also got to play with some of the powers you can earn by accomplishing tasks for the Gods, like Hermes, Athena, et. al. These powers might be some sort of lightning attack, could turn you into gold, so your whole body is armor, or could open a portal to hell that you can throw your enemies in...which is nice.

Finally, we got to see a boss battle with the one and only Medusa, who is seriously ugly and seriously dangerous in this game. These boss battles are epic, and take time, strategy, and a little luck to execute, and they might come with a moral conundrum, which doesn't always set well with you when you just want to kill and kill.

We didn't see much more than that, but what we did see looks, at the very least, entertaining, robust, and worth picking up your controller for. It'll be out for the Holidays, which shouldn't surprise you at all. Kratos is still the king of the Godly hill, but this might be a surprising and interesting challenge to that dominance...oh, and you can play it on the PC and 360, as well as the PS3. Just sayin.

Not Enough Buttons: Fixing Facebook Edition

When someone sends me a Facebook friend request, why are my only choices "confirm" or "ignore"? These are useful if you like, or don't know the person, but what about the folks on the other side of a burnt bridge? What about the person who screwed you when they were in the position of power and is now very nice because you are in the power seat? What about people you just don't like? There is no satisfaction in an ignore.

Where is the app that sends messages like these to the person making the request:
"No thank you."
"Are you out of your ever loving mind?"
"You must be kidding me."
"But I never liked you."
"What makes you think I want to be your friend?"
"I am so sorry you were under the impression I am your friend."
Conversely, what about when you get the request, or acceptance, from someone you never thought would talk to you. Someone you admire personally or in business? Someone who you didn't think knew you, but can advance your career? Someone you only read about until the request. Is confirm really enough? I know you can write a reply, but you don't want to say something stupid.

Where are:
"Are you sure you have the right person?"
"Wow, of course I'll be your friend."
"Sounds great, I'll be right over."
"You mean "friend" friend of Facebook friend? I'm ok with either."
"Are you out of your ever loving mind?"
"You must be kidding me."
As you can see, some of the buttons would be very robust and work in both situations. It would be so much more interesting. Befriending would become a sport.  Requests would require people to put skin in the game.

I am sure you folks can think of more.

Bourne and Bond: Most Sincere Form of Flattery Edition

Remember when Bond was Bond?

Of course that was before Bourne. . . . 

When Bond became Bourne . . . 

And Bourne stayed Bourne. . . 

And Bond stays Bourne . . . 

It makes me excited about the next Spiderman . . . 

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Xbox 360 number 3: Planned Obsolescence Edition

I am about to establish a relationship with a new 360. It's not by choice. I was jilted by the last one. I can't say it was completely unexpected. I learned how fickle their breed can be. They are so slick and shiny when you first meet them. They invite you to dress them in faceplates. They learn your name, and respond to your every whim. They promise to keep track of your gaming life for you, managing your social life, finding friends, and even talking on your behalf. They engage you with the the opportunity to earn their affection, granted in the form of achievement points which carry no value other than to display your commitment to them. Then, one day, without warning, the leave you. They check out. Their physical form remains as a monument to the relationship you once shared. Their spirit, their essence, their functionality, their soul leaves the hardware. I believe it skips out through the broadband connection and heads to a dormitory in Redmond, waiting for me to provide a new entry point into my life.

My first 360 was not easy to come by. Launch day shortages were fairy tales. Any time I wanted to buy a console, launch day or not, the strategy was simple. I just waltzed into the stores where the gamers weren't. Want an Xbox? Their stacked to the rafters at Target. Playstation 2? Hit Wal Mart. Little did I know, 360 would usher in the era of console shortage. On the morning of launch I jumped in my car with Matt Wolf and headed to Target in Culver City. Real people don't want consoles. We thought we were very smart. Gamers would be at the game store and no mainstreamers would pay USD 400 for a game console on launch day. We were wrong. When we got to Target, there was a line out the door. Matt stood in the Target line, I went to join the line at the Toys R US a block away. Within a very short period of time, tickets were passed out, and we were not within receiving range. We jumped in the car and headed to Circuit City and Best Buy, no luck. With 30 minutes left to opening, we headed to Costco, no one would be there. When we arrived, a 10 year old boy looked at our car and channeled Eddie Murphy doing his best "I got me some ice cream," waiving his 360 ticket over his head. We would have taken it, but we could not agree on who would take out the kid and who would take the ticket. We were skunked and embarrassed. Fortunately, Matt diligently monitored Target shipments, and secured a 360 within a few weeks.

I stocked up on games and started playing the machines. I let it suck me in and track my information. I trusted it to faithfully execute my commands. It kept track of my progress. Gave me free demos and even found me new friends to play with. When reports started to emerge, I laughed in the face of the red ring of death, and played on. Then one day, the red ring emerged. It toyed with my emotion. I rebooted, and it came back to life. . . for a week. I jumped on line to determine how to administer care. I turned into Randolph Mantooth, radioed Rampart, administered D5W and went to work. I followed every trick. I turned it on and off, wrapped it in a towel, dropped it on the table and every other tip I could find. Nothing worked, my 360 abandoned me. I called Microsoft, only to find my dear departed 360 was a mont out of warranty and there was no extension yet. I could pay USD 99 and wait a long time for a repair, or buy a new one. Since the web reports of refurbs was less than stellar, I opted for a new one.

This time I bought a base model. The EB looked down his nose at me me for not buying a redundant hard drive. He even suggested a Premium, but I stood strong. I unpacked the machine, slapped on the hard drive, plugged it into the old cables, and my companion was back. My gamertag, points, game history, it was all there as if my friend never left. My 360 went into battle with me in Medal of Honor and Call of Duty, it went to the track with me in PGR and even lost in a very gentlemanly manner. It even kicked back and relaxed with my family for a good movie. Then, all of a sudden, I put in a movie, and all I saw were squiggly, lilac lines dancing across the screen. After a reset and cable adjustments, it hit me. My second 360 left me in a new and unique way. Number 2 in the list of 50 ways to leave a lover.

I looked on line, and found I was not alone. The failure is common enough to be the subject of reports in numerous forums. I called Microsoft and waded through the voice tree.

"Hello, my name is Bob, how may I help you?" came across the line in a very heavy Indian accent.
"Yes, my 360 is not working. The video is messed up."
"I am so sorry for that." I don't think he really was. "I will try to take you through some steps to get it working."
"Thank you."
"First, we will reset the machine."
"I did that."
"But we must reset the machine, or else I cannot move to the next step."
"I did reset the machine, and I also reset the video settings to the default mode."
"But I cannot proceed unless we reset the machine."
"I did that."
"Ok, if that did not work, we will reset the video to its default settings."
"I did that."
"Oh no sir, we must try."

I finally convinced him I did everything I could to show the soul of my Xbox returned to Redmond."

"Well I see your console is out of warranty."
"I just registered it today, how do you know it is out of warranty. I bought it 8 months ago."
"I know because the computer is telling me your warranty expired in June 2008."
"But I bought it 8 months ago."
"But the warranty is expired."
"Well assuming the warranty is expired, will you repair this hardware defect which revealed itself 2 months after expiration?"
"May I speak with your supervisor?"

A couple months ago I had a similar issue with the Wii. I called Nintendo, this time I knew the console was out of warranty. The woman not only told me they would cover the known issue under warranty, but the repair center was in Los Angeles and if I delivered it there, they would fix it on the spot. An hour later, my Wii was fixed.

"Hello sir. Bob has explained to me you have a problem with your 360 which is out of warranty."
"Well I don't know if it is out of warranty, but I do have a problem."
"Well the computer says your warranty expired in April."
"April? Bob just said it expired in June."
"No sir, the computer says it expired in April."
"How do you know whether it expired in April or June?"
"Because the computer tells me."
"But now I've spoken with two different people who each gave me a different expiration date. Is it possible both are wrong?"
"Yes it is possible, but you must prove the console under warranty."
"Isn't it your job if you say it is not?"
"No sir, our computer says it is not, so now it is your turn. What would you like me to do."
"Well I would like you to use the brain g-d gave you and think independent of the computer."
"I am sorry sir, I am not authorized to do that." I was doing my absolute best to stay calm, but he was much more calm than I. "Would you like to initiate the repair?"
"Well it will be 99 USD and a lot of time for the repair, or 150 USD for a refurb in the store. It kind of doesn't make sense to send it in. "
"I agree, but what would you like to do. No sir, what do you suggest I do. I cannot allow a free repair, what would you do."
I explained the Nintendo story and told him "I would tell my boss the console market is very competitive, and if one of competitors is treating repairs this way, we should consider giving level 2 support authority to extend a warranty for known issues."
"I am not you." I know he is not me. His 360 probably works.

So now, I sit with the soul less shell of what used to be my 360, now transformed into a stunningly crafted paperweight and no way to advance in GTA IV. I knew I should have bought it for PS3, I was seduced by the siren call of achievement points. But going forward, I will remember, the PS3 I got on launch day never left me.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Industry Under Attack: Learn From History Edition

There are well-intentioned people out there who want to protect my son. I am grateful for their concern. Before anything else, I am a parent, and the more help I can get, the better. Unfortunately, the people offering help by telling us what we can and cannot put in our games consoles, and they are out of their ever-loving minds. It’s not the first time they’ve done this. They did the same thing to the comic book industry, and it died. Thanks to a new book by David Hajdu, The Ten Cent Plague we can see the damage done to comics and appreciate the significance of the threat to our industry. We are at war and our best weapon is communication.

The United States Department of Defense’s definition of Psychological Warfare:
The planned use of propaganda and other psychological actions having the primary purpose of influencing the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of hostile foreign groups in such a way as to support the achievement of national objectives.
Can you please tell my how the actions of the politicians who introduce false evidence into the Congressional records, or pass legislation in New York restricting First Amendment Speech are not practicing Psychological Warfare? I am not talking about Jack Thompson here. He is unquestionably the most vocal anti guy, but his outrageous statements and actions like sending letters to Strauss Zelnick’s mother prove him to be objectively nuts and worthy of little credit in the real world. The scary ones are the seemingly normal folks like Michigan governor and Democratic star Jennifer Granholm, Senators Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who all support anti game legislation but are otherwise, seemingly sane. Sure, some of them are doing it to get attention, any mention of video games makes a good headline. But many, the good ones, are doing it out of fear emanating from miscommunication. According to the British Study “Safe Children in a Digital World: the report of The Byron Review”:
There is a generational digital divide which means that parents do not necessarily feel equipped to help their children in this space - which can lead to fear and a sense of helplessness. This can be compounded by a risk-averse culture where we are inclined to keep our children 'indoors' despite their development needs to socialise
and take risks.
No matter how righteous their beliefs, or how noble their intentions, they are still guerilla fighters who use each other’s twisted, and unsupported information to cater to the public’s fear, uncertainty and doubt. As an industry, we are sitting on the sidelines, thinking their efforts will be benign, just because reality is on our side. But we cannot sit idly while our industry is under siege. We could take a self righteous approach and say we are being discriminated against, or use take the incendiary approach and compare the anti’s to Nazi’s and evoke Hitler’s name, but the use of inaccurate or inflammatory rhetoric would reduce us to their level of discourse. We must frame the argument and we must prevail – or at least stand together strong enough and long enough to for them to find alternative prey – “Hey guys, look at that Interweb thing, it’s loaded with bad things” .
The most egregious attacks are no more and no less the result of opportunistic bullies seeking to gain widespread attention by preying on what they perceive to be a susceptible target. History says they will move on, but it does not guaranty our industry will survive.
They follow the same pattern each time.
1) Cite “valid research” to show harm to the kiddie;
2) Find an extreme example of conduct (popular or not) which when taken out of context will shock a broad audience unfamiliar with the medium;
3) Propose legislation rather than parental supervision; and
4) Ignore the facts.
The emotion stirring threats of prior generations is comical today, but it was very serious in its day. Around the turn of the 20th century, French Judge Louis Proal saw a great threat to the world’s youth. In his book,, Passion of Criminality; A Legal and Literature Study he cited “research” showing novels by Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Zola and even Shakespeare plays, to be harmful agents when placed in the hands of innocent children. Proal cited research from a noted expert, to show “real damage.”
In an article in the Semaine litteraire of Geneva of October 30th,1898, M. Philippe Godet, who has had opportunities, both as instructor and friend, of seeing a great number of young men at close quarter, declares that a certain psychological Novel (I refrain from giving the title) has done an irreparable amount of harm to young readers. ‘This is an actual fact, and I have the proofs before me! The book, with all its culture, has wrought havoc that I have seen with my own eyes.’
While the reference to the close quarters with a great number of boys would raise more concern today than the study, Proal saw this “research” as enough to support his hypothesis, especially when coupled with real world evidence of a young man harmed by a novel. He presents the story of Ducret, who at 17 was jilted by a girl and “to stifle his pain, he gave himself to a life of profligacy, frequented the public dancing rooms and took to drinking.” Today we call this “college.” One drunken evening, he strangled an old woman, intending to rob her, but gave up and turned himself in to the police. The police found lines from a Victor Hugo novel and “it was this that seems to have dictated his final action. . . “ Obviously, at least to Proal, in what would later be known as a Jack Thompson moment, the boy was not to blame, Victor Hugo, was responsible for driving an otherwise innocent boy to crime. And for this, Victor Hugo should be punished.
Absence of an evil intent is not enough to prevent a book’s being harmful, or to relieve the Author from the responsibility of the mischief he causes. There is a classification of crimes in Literature no less than Penal Law, there is willful murder, and there is manslaughter by misadventure. To kill a man by carelessness or failure to observe regulations is a fault the Law very rightly punishes. Absence of criminal intention does not eliminate moral, no even penal, responsibility. Man living among his fellow-men is bound to think of the consequences of his acts, and is liable to punishment if he causes another’s death by his carelessness. I have myself had to try a landowner, who to keep his win sound added a deleterious substance to it which poisoned those who drank it; the man had no intention of killing anybody, yet was condemned for involuntary manslaughter. Similarly the Writer who mixes in his Tales sophistries that pervert the mind and lead his readers into suicide, adultery and crime, is guilty of an offense for which he is directly responsible. When M. Bourget’s Disciple commits a crime, which is the logical consequence of the master’s teaching, the latter is morally responsible for the crime he has led up to, and the disciple’s mother is justified in blaming for the master for the It is really easy for us to laugh at this today, but as president of Eidos I was served with a complaint naming Eidos as a defendant in a wrongful death action filed by the parents of the children who were tragically killed by the Columbine shooters. mischief that has ensued.
The plaintiffs used the same argument raised by Judge Proal. The court in Sanders v. Acclaim, Activsion, Apogee, Atari, Capcom, Eidos, Id, Infogrames, Gt Interactive, Interplay, Midway, Nintendo of America, Sega of America, Sony Computer Entertainment America, Squaresoft and others, found the game companies had no duty to the Columbine victims, and more significantly, Lara Croft was no more responsible for the death of those children than Victor Hugo for the acts of Ducret. Similarly, years after Proal, the objectionable novels were welcomed into homes and new “evil” novels, like Catcher in the Rye were banned from society long enough to become part of high school curricula. While the attacks on the novel did not really stick the tactic did.  

Fifty years later, the same community smelled blood at the rise of Rock and Roll music and specifically, Elvis Presley. Politicians and keepers of the moral flame could not rap their heads around his performance. After his appearance on the Milton Berle Show, his second on television and before the famous Ed Sullivan appearance when he was shown from the waist up, the New York Journal-American called his “primitive physical movement difficult to describe in terms suitable to a family newspaper” and The New York Daily News reported that Elvis “gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.” Fortunately, before the attacks could really grab hold, major media found they could make more money with Elvis, than against him. Kind of like those retailers who won’t carry M rated games. . . unless they are Halo or GTA and make a lot of money. Music survived the efforts to protect the kiddies and as the generation, which was supposed to be corrupted by the amoral, content moved into positions of power, the content became theme songs for political campaigns, and the anti’s found new types of music and media to attack.

Unfortunately, The American Comic Book did faire as well as novels and music. David Hajdu’s recently released, brilliant book, explains the rise and fall of comics in the United States and how the industry was destroyed by threat of legislation. I encourage anyone in the game business to read it. If you don’t want to now, hopefully you will at the end of this article, which liberally steals from the book. The parallels between the comic book attacks and the game business are uncanny and scary.

Comics enjoyed their golden age from the late thirties to late forties. Selling eighty to one hundred million books a month in 1948, the business rivaled many other forms of media and in today’s dollars generated about USD 7.6 billion annually – at 5 and ten cents a copy. With each book being passed on to many more readers. Comic book penetration easily surpassed 90% of the US households, about the same penetration as the game business today. . The industry looked unstoppable. Then the attacks began. Sterling North, the forties version of David Walsh wrote an article which was syndicated across the nation. Hajdu explains, his piece “A National Disgrace”: included:
Virtually every child in America is reading color “comic magazines – a poisonous mushroom growth of the last two years.
Badly drawn, badly written and badly printed – a strain on young eyes and young nervous systems – the effect of these pulp paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoil the child’s natural sense of color; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder makes the child impatient with better, though quieter stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the “comic magazines.
North’s column pandered to fear. He is specifically showing the general threat to parents. Don’t worry his method of argument does not make sense either. He is showing the threat, and substituting his own “common sense” argument, for research, and ignores the facts. “Common Sense” is the term they use when they cannot support their position with valid, peer-reviewed research. This is the same tactic used by current day North, David Walsh for his National Institute of Media and the family.
Walsh ignores any studies to the contrary and explains, in the same manner North did earlier, why video games are unique and should be treated in a unique manner. In a 60 Minutes interview he explained:
Does repeated exposure to violent video games have more of an impact on a teenager than it does on an adult?

"It does. And that's largely because the teenage brain is different from the adult brain. The impulse control center of the brain, the part of the brain that enables us to think ahead, consider consequences, manage urges -- that's the part of the brain right behind our forehead called the prefrontal cortex," says Walsh. "That's under construction during the teenage years. In fact, the wiring of that is not completed until the early 20s."

Walsh says this diminished impulse control becomes heightened in a person who has additional risk factors for criminal behavior . . .

"And so when a young man with a developing brain, already angry, spends hours and hours and hours rehearsing violent acts, and then he's put in this situation of emotional stress, there's a likelihood that he will literally go to that familiar pattern that's been wired repeatedly, perhaps thousands and thousands of times,"
Anti game advocate Leland Yee uses the same type of “common sense” argument in his recent interview on when he distinguished games from other media:
Well, those are not what we call interactive activities. These are what we call passive activities – you simply read something, or observe something, and that’s pretty much it. In these ultraviolent video games, it is the interactive nature where you literally have to do certain things in order to cause a particular consequence. And so, your brain chemistry and your brain – sort of connections — are now set where by doing certain things, you cause certain horrific activities to occur. It is that interactive nature that we’re really trying to get at.
Both men are child psychologists; neither can give peer reviewed support for their argument. Both create the same logical sounding, but unsupported fear of the new, unknown medium in their cry for legislative intervention. To be effective, they must ignore the facts. North showed them how to do this too. Hajdu explained, at the time of North’s first article, Dr. Lauretta Bender, a child psychiatrist in New York presented research indicating:
“a great deal of benefit in comic books and virtually no harm. The comic. . . is the folklore of the times, spontaneously given to an received by children, serving at the same time as a means of helping them to solve the individual and sociological problems appropriate to their own lives. . . Comic books may be said to offer the same type of mental catharsis to [their] readers that Aristotle claimed was an attribute of the drama. . . Well balanced children are not upset by even the more horrible scenes in the comics, as long as the reason for the threat of torture is clear and the issues are well stated.“
Bender’s research was not as sexy as North’s. Her work is kind of a downer, no action. Never ones to let facts interfere with a good argument, the anti comics collective ignored research in favor of real world anecdotes. Our friends Mr. Walsh and Mr. Yee take the same approach to the report of the Surgeon General of the United States in his Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General:
the preponderance of evidence indicates that violent behavior seldom results from a single cause; rather, multiple factors converging over time contribute to such behavior. Accordingly, the influence of the mass media, however strong or weak, is best viewed as one of the many potential factors that help to shape behavior, including violent behavior.
Later studies questioned the methodology of the studies cited by Yee and Walsh and recent studies suggest benefits in game play similar those cited by Bender relative to comics. These dry studies are never as sensational or appealing as real life anecdotes. Stories of crime and suicides with comic books at the scene, or game consoles in the bedroom always get more press. The press provides a platform for the antis. Of course, no one would consider the possibility of the coincidental presence of a medium consumed by most the country at the scene of these atrocities; only causal tie.

In the forties, a boy was killed playing Russian Roulette in Washington D.C., another hung himself in Pittsburgh, and both were tied to comics. The Pittsburgh Coroner blamed comics as the inspiration for crime and cause for the rise of juvenile delinquency and the New York Times picked up the story. These stories should sound familiar to the game community. Every time there is a school shooting, or a juvenile delinquent, the media looks for the games in his bedroom. The inevitable conclusion is “we must stop these things from getting into our kids hands.” The choice of action is inevitably, a content-based restriction on the offending materials. The only content-based restriction in the entertainment world.

One of the United States most jealously guarded liberties, is the First Amendment right to free speech. The Amendment precludes the government from placing any restrictions on protected speech. So long as speech is not obscene or treasonous, it is protected by the Constitution. With the exception of child pornography and bestiality, which the Supreme Court determined to be “obscene per se” obscenity is determined by local community standards. Community standards vary greatly. I remember a Dutch animator coming to me after a talk I gave at the Rotterdam Film Festival to ask about obscenity.
“Are there restrictions on content in the United States?”
“Yes, obscene content is restricted.”
“What is considered obscene.”
“It is community standards, but bestiality and kiddie porn are obscene per se?”
“I see, how do you define bestiality?”
“I don’t think you should publish in the States.”
In rare cases, the Supreme Court will allow a restriction on the First Amendment if i) there is a compelling interest, which cannot be protected any other way; and ii) the proposed law is narrowly tailored to meet the compelling interest. When building an argument, the antis always go for the kids. What could be more compelling than our children? Who doesn’t want to protect kids? They consistently try to show a compelling interest through display of gruesome enough evidence to alleviate the need for scientific support and some type of “expert” opinion linking the cited evil, to criminal acts. Hajdu pointed to the action relative to comics when in 1947 the National Fraternal Order of Police in 1947 declared parents helpless to stop the scourge:
“We should act for the nation’s mothers, They are helpless to protect their children from the lurid booklets through [which] cavort half-nude women, belittle law enforcement and glorify crime.”
The city of New York responded, as did cities and townships across the country by passing laws penalizing and fining stores for selling inappropriate comics to minors. Stores were raided and shop owners were fined, but when the cases started to reach appeal, the courts found the laws to be unconstitutional. The antis failed to show a compelling interest because they could not show a causal link between comics and the bad acts. In 2005 after the Hot Coffee incident, David Walsh’s National Institute on Media and Family issued a report indicating:
"There has been significant industry progress and reforms over the last decade, but ever more violent and sadistic games are still ending up in the hands of children . . . Retailers would rather appear as if they care about children instead of actually small steps to protect them,"
Senator Hillary Clinton heard the cry and proposed restrictive legislation:
"I have developed legislation that will empower parents by making sure their kids cant walk into a store and buy a video game that has graphic, violent and pornographic content . . . Today's report is yet further proof that we need to make sure parents have the tools and support they need to make informed decisions for their children."
After meeting with leaders in the game industry, Clinton backed off her position and agreed the industry was making efforts to ensure inappropriate content did not get into the hands of minors. But this was not good enough for the new Governor of New York. Three years later, Patterson made this eerily familiar statement as he signed a New York Bill into Law, which among other things, penalizes retailers for selling inappropriate games to minors:
“We have the obligation to be constantly vigilant about amending our laws to protect the residents of New York State. Many of these bills will do just that by closing loopholes or creating new laws to enhance the quality of life for all New Yorkers. . . . The first duty of government is to provide a safe society for our resident to live, work and raise their families. These new laws will enhance the protections afforded to the citizens of this state and will address gaps in protection that have existed for years. I applaud the Legislature for working with me and my staff to reach agreements on fixing these problems.”
Patterson ignores the evidence from the FTC secret report indicating a fall in mistaken sales of M rated video games to minor from 85% in 2000 to 42% in 2005 and 20% on average, in 2008, with failure as low as 6% at Game Stop. They also ignored the action of the ESRB, concluding its investigation and having the offending game off the shelf in a matter of days. Clinton opened the door for the national press to create an opportunity for people to make names for themselves. New York is not the first state. Legislation was passed across the country targeting violent games. In each of nine cases, the Entertainment Software Association fought the egislation and it was found unconstitutional. The most severe proposed legislation was proposed in Utah. The State House of Representatives passed a bill calling for a mandatory jail sentence for selling an M rated game to a minor, a sentence more severe than for selling crack cocaine. If a retailer sold crack to a minor, they would get probation, if they sold crack bundled with Halo, they would go to jail. Fortunately, the bill did not pass the State Senate.
Hajdu shows us striking similarities from the war on comics. Research published by Chicago’s “Institute for Juvenile Research” and the “Journal of Educational Sociology” among others presented long-term studies concluding comics had no causal connection to crime or delinquency. The problem with long-term studies is they take a long time. It is much easier to simply ignore them.

In the fifties, Frederic Wertham, a Dr. at New York’s Lefargue Clinic, published his book, Seduction of the Innocents and started the war on comics again. Wertham’s research was more anecdotal than scientific but he cleaned up real well and testified before Congress in a lab coat. The timing was perfect from a content perspective. The industry, like video games today, was roughly 30 years old. Comic readers, who started reading Batman and Superman as kids ,were closing in on their thirties and looking for more mature content. Al Feldstein, editor at EC, said most of his readers were adults at the time of the Werthem attacks. Similarly, gamers who got their first NES in the late eighties are closing in on their thirties. According to the ESA, the average age of a gamer today is 33. Adult comic and game consumers love the media, but want something different at 30 than they did at 10. Superheroes are cool, but as young adults, we want to read stories like we see in other media. The market delivered. The books contained adult stories, and adult situations. They were written for adults, and read by adults. But for folks like Wertham and Walsh, they act as great tools. Wertham paraded uglies across the media and created smoke where there was no fire. He ignored the adult labeling on the front of the books and presented them to the public as books aimed at children. In case the stories were not bad enough, he spiced them up a bit and with stories of sexual acts and drawings not really present in books, but to an audience who never picked up a comic book, they sounded very real. We saw this same tactic used by Fox News when two women who never played Mass Effect, but were certain it contained full frontal nudity and sex cornered Geoff Keighly in a live broadcast.
The media’s promotion of Wertham’s parade of uglies commandeered Congressman Robert C. Hendrickson and Senator Estes Kefauver’s 1954 Congressional hearing on juvenile delinquency by encouraging unsolicited letters from all over the country requesting action to be taken about the harmful effects of comics. Wertham’s testimony received a lot of attention, but much like every court determining the Constitutionality of video game legislation, Congress found no legitimate research to support his claims. The report dismissed the idea of censorship and rejected legislative intervention. It went further to complement, the action of the community itself, coincidentally, the action they complimented, the formation of the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), killed the industry. The same approval given by New York’s Senator, Hillary Clinton, prior to passing of legislation by both State houses and signed by the Governor.

The CMAA imposed the content-based restrictions even the legislature refused to impose. It was going to make sure comics were cleaner than any other medium. Rather than the rating systems used in every other media, they imposed strict content restrictions on themselves.
Comics could not be sold unless they were approved by the CMAA, among the forty-one guidelines were:
- Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals. 

- No comics shall explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime. 

- Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.

- If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.

- Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates the desire for emulation.

- In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.

- Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.

- No unique or unusual methods of concealing weapons shall be shown.

- Instances of law enforcement officers dying as a result of a criminal's activities should be discouraged.
- All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.

- All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.

- Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls,
- All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the Code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency, shall be prohibited.
- Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.

- Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.

- Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.

- All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society.

- Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
- Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at or portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.

- Passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.

- Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.

- Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.
The CMAA code went into effect in 1954 and still exists today. Mainstream publishers did not break from the code until the 1980s. This gross overreaction did get Congress and many legislatures off the back of the industry, but it also put thousands of people out of work and killed the industry in America. These self imposed content restrictions guaranteed the American comic industry would remain at a 4th grade level and alienate the adult readers who grew up loving comics and still supported the industry. Adults who entered the market with ground breaking comics from Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Jim Lee and Todd MacFarlane in the late eighties are continuing to read and grow the market, but they are still seen as fringe, and top selling comic books today sell in the high tens of thousands. When compared to Japan where publications like Shonen Jump sell millions per week, the loss is apparent.  

The game industry has been able reject self imposed content restrictions, in favor of ratings. The ESA approach, is “put whatever you want in a game, we will tell you who can buy it. But, Federal and State legislatures still try to impose them. While the system is proving more effective each year, the calls for legislation continue. Legislation eerily similar to the comics code was passed by the State of California, only to be enjoined as Unconstitutional prior to enforcement ( I know this is long, but bear with me, it is worth reading. This is your business and you should know what people are trying to do):
- "Violent video game" means a video game in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being, if those acts are depicted in the game in a manner that does either of the following:

(A) Comes within all of the following descriptions:

(i) A reasonable person, considering the game as a whole, would find appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors.
(ii) It is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community as to what is suitable for minors.
  (iii) It causes the game, as a whole, to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

  (B) Enables the player to virtually inflict serious injury upon images of human beings or characters with substantially human characteristics in a manner which is especially heinous, cruel, or depraved in that it involves torture or serious physical abuse to the victim.
- For purposes of this subdivision, the following definitions apply:

"Cruel" means that the player intends to virtually inflict a high degree of pain by torture or serious physical abuse of the victim in addition to killing the victim.
"Depraved" means that the player relishes the virtual killing or shows indifference to the suffering of the victim, as evidenced by torture or serious physical abuse of the victim.
"Heinous" means shockingly atrocious. For the killing depicted in a video game to be heinous, it must involve additional acts of torture or serious physical abuse of the victim as set apart from other killings.

"Serious physical abuse" means a significant or considerable amount of injury or damage to the victim's body which involves a substantial risk of death, unconsciousness, extreme physical pain, substantial disfigurement, or substantial impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty. Serious physical abuse, unlike torture, does not require that the victim be conscious of the abuse at the time it is inflicted. However, the player must specifically intend the abuse apart from the killing.
"Torture" includes mental as well as physical abuse of the victim. In either case, the virtual victim must be conscious of the abuse at the time it is inflicted; and the player must specifically intend to virtually inflict severe mental or physical pain or suffering upon the victim, apart from killing the victim.  Pertinent factors in determining whether a killing depicted in a video game is especially heinous, cruel, or depraved include infliction of gratuitous violence upon the victim beyond that necessary to commit the killing, needless mutilation of the victim's body, and helplessness of the victim.

The legislation reads like an updated version of the industry killing comic code. The spirit is the same. This bill passed both State houses and was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger. I don’t think anyone could argue with its value or morality as prison guidelines for Guantanamo, but legislators seem unable to delineate the distinction between fantasy and reality. The funny thing is the legislation would be too restrictive for Guantanamo. Worse, it looks like they never played a game. I guess there is no more Call of Duty 4 for the kiddies, but what about Sonic? Is the Eggman a depiction of a human being?
No media in the history of the United States has been the subject of a content-based restriction. Content-based restrictions do not establish clear guidelines, they create a chilling effect through broad, undefined demilitarized zones. First used in a legal opinion by Justice Brennan in 1965, the term refers to the social impact of penalty bearing legislation. If I am a game retailer and I know I will have to pay $5,000 if I accidentally sell an M rated game to a 16 year old – notice there is no intent requirement in the legislation – I just won’t sell M rated games. If I don’t sell them in the store, I am not going to order them from the publisher, who in turn will not make them any more and the average gamer, who is 33 years old is shit out of luck.
We don’t have to guess what will happen if State legislatures are successful in their efforts to create content based restrictions on games., we’ve seen what happens. Right now we have a presidential candidate – at least at the time of this writing – who had equated video games to cigarettes and alcohol and believes they should be regulated in the same manner. She also made a commitment to “work to protect children against violent video game content” as president. Two Congressman introduced a bill weeks ago proposing Federal action against retailers who sell games to minors –both misstated or ignored material facts. At the same time, our industry’s government relations organization with a 9 and 0 record of battling anti game legislation is losing members on an almost daily basis. More and more studies are showing games do not lead to violent or aggressive behavior, but we learned from the comic business, the truth doesn’t matter.

In hindsight, we know the gravity of the threat and the kind of individual comic reading creates. The message is clear, if you read comics, you might just grow up to be president of the United States

I admit, Bill Clinton is not the model of morality, but comics are no more responsible for making him president than for his innovative use of a cigar.

Check it Out: Sockbaby 4 TenNapel Edition

Master creator Doug TenNapel just released a new creation, and gives some insights into story telling, the TenNapel way. You'll see in this short starring John and Dan Heder, Doug will never be accused of being predictable. If you ever see him as him about the "Hook" story.

In his words:

Sockbaby is a world where words have almost a pagan power unto themself. Calling your foes a woman, effeminate or gay is a claim of self-confidence. Hello and Un-hello are ways that you can see if a friend is really a friend or not because a true friend will always acknowledge the un hello state, or announce that the state has changed to a hello state. At least that's how I thought of it.

more from Doug:

This is trivial information, perhaps too much for some. You can cut open the frog to find out how it breathes but then you have to kill it in the process.

Vernacular is a big part of the Sockbaby series...the way they talk is part of the "why" of the show. Burger is a mechanical guy, they fight in their homes in normal suburbia instead off on top of skyscrapers.

If they make black jokes, like the music is "funk", the whole thing has a 70s blacksploitation vibe, then Ronnie has black in his DNA. We had a question about him being black by a nice girl and I didn't get a chance to expand about my philosophy of the Sockbaby universe. So I'll do it here.

If they call each other gay, then two men will have to put mouths together in order to save Ronnie's life.

Food is a high commodity, which is why they frame their day in terms of where to eat. To "food up" is a sign of close friendship. Notice when Ronnie goes to heaven he's surrounded by cakes. He just wants to eat with his mother, but is interrupted. I think if he took a bite and supped with his mom he couldn't go back to earth.

Family, especially fathers and sons are in all of my work (and every hero's journey) but the Heders provided a great twist. Jon and Dan are duplicate Frogmen yet they are twin brothers in real life. But when talk to Ronnie underwater they talk about killing Ronnie's father, notice how these twin frogmen fall under the Sockbaby universe and project themselves into the plot. They didn't kill Ronnie's father, they killed his clone, or his "Manitou".

"Magic doorknobs" around how beings can port through different parts of the world. Frogmen come up in the pool, Optichord goes to earth and Burger goes to his underground labs. The door magically closes behind Ronnie and Burger behind them, as if the Magic is on their side.

Finally, the whole idea of SOCKBABY is the title. I called it "Sockbaby" then engineered a story out of the word. It had the name "sock" because it's a kung fu movie. The Baby is not just the Christ story of this's a fun word that was part of our past slang vocabulary. The titles in all of my stuff tells a story. So you have a Sockbaby-Jesus lording over a universe about fighting and odd-slang sayings.

I like to use the phrase "economy of elements" where I try to tie props and dialogue down to the plot by reinforcing it wherever I can. It looks like random humor but I don't like most random humor so I tie mine down a little more.

I could explain all of the above paragraphs, or I could just say "Sockbaby". . . .

I think it's more important to ground your story/acting/camera work into some kind of motivation just to make it more real while we're performing it.

Once it's done the editor tells the final story anyways, and at that point, it's less important that it's accurate and more important that it works.

Telling you about my motivation for writing the universe is only meant to tell fellow story-tellers that grounding your work into any kind of cohesive form is a good tool to lean on. I have all of these psycho scenarios I use to keep me drawing a comic every "If I don't do a page today I'll lose a year of my life."

Most story-tellers don't talk about their process...and I agree with not talking about how the magic happens. But I have a big mouth and can't resist.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Braid: Battle for Independents Edition

I remember sitting at a DICE conference listening to Seamus Blackley talk about the launch of CEG. The new group was going to change the game industry by making great games. It seemed the market had changed to be marketing driven and Seamus was confident that if he built it, people would come. One portion in particular stood out. His strategy, he explained, was to get the fans to pull the games in. If the press saw the games were great, and the fans demanded them in the forums, EB, Gamestop (they were separate then) and Wal-Mart would certainly stock them and put them in the end caps. Having just left my position at a publisher I couldn't help believing Seamus was overly idealistic, delusional, ignorant or a combination of the three. The friction in the information flow and market inequities were too great for consumer demand to have any impact on end caps. Braid shows Live to be a much more egalitarian market.

Seamus assumed perfect information in the market. He may also have assumed the demo market which gave rise to id's success was still alive and well. The reality is much different. Every inch of promotional space in a Gamestop - including the words out of the counter guy's mouth - is for sale. Publishers buy store windows, end caps, shelf facings, standee placement, space behind the counter, demo space, video screens and phone answers. These purchases have a direct correlation to store orders. It only makes sense. If something is prominently displayed around the store, people are more likely to buy it. Quality of title plays a more significant role with smaller publisher than larger publishers with strong pipelines, but consumer demand is only a distant blip on a store buyer's radar. By the time consumers start to buzz, buying decisions are already made and planograms drawn. When it comes to quality, store buyers will look at title demos and if the demo and marketing support are strong, they are likely to buy more. Publishers with strong pipelines may get strong buy in of weaker title based on Market Development Fund (MDF) commitments, mainstream marketing commitments, and implied short shipment of strong titles. "Do you want all those Guitar Hero 17s you ordered?"

It seemed like the pipeline and MDF issues would carry over to direct distribution as the market traded the Gamestop bottleneck for the Live/PSN bottleneck. The retailer may not move physical goods, but they were still determining positioning and promotion. Conventional wisdom dictates the markets on Live, PSN and PC will be very crowded and attention will be gained only through exploitation of franchise properties and brand names. Conventional wisdom could be wrong and the free market may prevail.

A while ago I was speaking to some folks from K2. They were talking about the release of War Rock, one of the lesser selling titles, but the numbers were eye opening. In my experience, on line sales were great, if you could get them, but they were always incremental. If you really wanted to sell, you needed a physical sku in the store. The stores were where people stood with money in their hand, and if you weren't there, you missed the sale. Expansion of broadband changed the rules. At the time of our discussion, War Rock had sold only about 17,000 units at retail in the US, but there were 3 million free downloads with over 10 percent conversion to payment. This was exactly the reverse of anything I had seen from US publisher's release of a front line title. Numbers weren't being flipped like that on Steam or Gametap. In the past few weeks, broadband connections, coupled with social networks led to the same consumer empowered response to critical darling, cum-breakout seller, Braid.

Jonathan Blow started to talking about the game he was building to gamers. The gamers thought it was cool and started talking about it amongst their friends. The buzz started to grow, reviewers started to review, the game was released without significant marketing, and it sold a lot. There was no Marvel or Capcom license on top of it, it was not launched in the middle of an Orange Box, it just went out on its own, and sold. Some may say 55,000 units is an example of a long tail product, but they are missing the point. The 55,000 unit were only the first week, and more importantly, put the game into profit very soon after launch, and perhaps launching a self-supported game career for it's creator. It also reflects a significant departure when critical and gamer darlings like Psychonauts were still born at retail unless they were supported by a publisher with deep pockets.

I am not saying our future is roses, kitties and bunnies, but quality and community may become a more significant factor in sales volume. Games like Braid, Geometry Wars, Portal, classic arcade downloads, and the PS2 games my son continues to feed into the PS3, show consumers favor the fun over the pretty. Expensive graphics are neat for the tent poles, but they are not imperative for repeat game play. Historically the issue was telling consumers where the fun was in a retail environment driven by marketing dollars. Let's hope Braid is the first example of the power of good games and on line community. More quality in the independent space may eventually raise the quality bar across the medium. The independents are not going to take over the world, and they will not at all diminish the position of the tentpole front line games, but maybe in a direct download world, games like Braid have just as good a chance as the latest sequel to Shitman and Toiletpaper boy.

P.S. In case you are wondering about the picture. . . Billy Tucci wrote about the battle of independent comic book creators in a market dominated by DC and Marvel in his historic Cyblade/Shi crossover. In real life, after his character Shi was rejected by DC and Marvel, Billy and his Mom borrowed enough money to launch the book independently. It went on to sell tens of millions of dollars in books and merchandise and at one time the comics held 3 of 10 positions Wizard's most wanted comics.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

iPhone Social Network: iPhone Killer App Edition

I remember when Bank of America introduced the first ATM. I moved my account to the bank with the Versateller because it was one less place I had to talk to people. It was slow, and it was monochrome, and it took much longer than walking in the bank, but I didn't have to talk to anyone. I know the bank teller doesn't care how my day is when he or she asks, and I certainly don't care about his or her day. I don't want to make small talk with them while they are waiting for the computer to process the data and the forced smiles were getting kind of old. No more "How's the family" from the gas guy? Great news to me. The feigned interest could be the repellent, but I really think I just don't like people. It's certainly not genetic. My grandfather had "girls" at banks, and cleaners and all those other places you visit on a regular basis who would greet him, and talk, and because he was a such a great guy, they really cared about him. Some even baked cookies. While he expanded his universe of casual, smile and waive slightly more than acquaintances in the physical world, I, and many like me moved them on line where our networks grow like a series of festering boils in virtual places like facebook, myspace, linked in, World of Warcraft and too many others to name.

The joy of the Versateller and urge to move closer to what I didn't even know was the Matrix, made it so easy, and compelling, to move on to The Source through my Apple ][ e at 1200 baud. There were people out there, and I was able to communicate with them without even having to talk. I didn't have to smile, I didn't have to look at them, I didn't even have to put pants on. The on line world only grew and each technological innovation moved me further and further from direct human communication and more dependent on machine intermediated communication. I went from text to graphics with The Palace and Worlds 1.0. With the advent of Amazon and the birth of CRM I did not even have to worry about humans making suggestions. The machine was able to figure out what I would like and recommend it. Gamespy was able to match me with other players, so I did not even have to know who they were, or invite them. In the real world this process of befriending a human being is referred to as "opting in." It means you have to make a friendly approach and listen to the response, while respecting their rule set. I was never good at that sort thing. You know, authority issues, arrogance, self centered and all. Yet another set of social cues the computer let me ignore. Finally, we got to the point where social networks let me have friends only because they are on line. People call themselves your friend even though they won't even send an ecard on your birthday. They don't even know your birthday and in many cases, couldn't pick you out of a line up. Conversely, you don't have to remember their birthday and you don't have to console them when their cat dies. It may sound hollow to the uninitiated, but these people don't get it. They still talk to bank tellers. Just as I grow more and more comfortable in my anonymous cocoon, protected by the hardened mucous layered upon me by years of computer mediated communication with the world, iPhone stands poised to destroy it all.

iPhone apps appear to be a great success. According to the Wall Street Journal, Steve Jobs said Apple distributed 30 million apps and made USD 60 million in the first month after launch. It sounds like people are hungry for them. And while the Versateller ushered in an exciting new age where thoughts were translated to bits for soundless, effortless, faceless communication, the iPhone drives people to talk to each other. I can't be the only one who sat down at a conference room table only to be "entertained" by a proud consumer sharing the latest iPhone app with the table as if they were displaying baby pictures. The only difference, is I have never found myself wanting someone else's baby.

For years, trading card companies and all manner of collectible companies cater to the human nature of collecting and showing off. Every time you hear an ad proclaim "collect them all" it is a call to this innate human instinct. You want the thing you don't have, and once you have it, you want to let everyone else no you have it - and they still don't. iPhone caters to this instinct. When the app store opened, people dove in to "dress their babies." They wanted their new toy to do new tricks, and here was a whole playground. Once they found a giggle inducing app, they felt a compelling need to share it. Fortunately, the iPhone's form factor is perfect for sharing. Instead of an anonymous linked in invitation, the iPhone forces the user to look across the table at someone, and talk to them. They give a live demo of the app. It would be no fun, and pointless unless you are actually in the room. This phenomenon is the first live social interaction driven by a computer since, well, since the computer (but you couldn't fit an Apple ][ running Visicalc in you pocket). Even cell phones themselves move us from talking to the people in visual proximity, to talking to people far away. The display of the apps run all the way from someone saying look at the light saber - which everyone already has anyway - to rehearsed patters surrounding the roaming cockroach or woman with the squeegee cleaning the inside of the screen. I even saw a magician at the Magic Castle do a little "trick" around ipint, as he faux drank his virtual beer. I know, it's not a trick, but there is no distinction between good technology and magic.

I won't necessarily - strike that - I will never be the one who proudly pulls an iPhone out of my pocket to share the latest big game landed by me, the great app hunter. I do use my iPhone to talk, but only to people I don't see in the room. I do find some humor and comfort in the iPhone's killer app and most unique attribute happens to be the return of one established thousands of years ago.