17 December 2007

I'm on GameTap Watch!

The GameTap video crew interviewed a couple staff members for the input on the best games we launched in 2007. I was one of the employees interviewed! The video is finished and now viewable in the GameTap.com/Watch area. Look for the video segment titled "Best of GameTap 2007". Recommend viewing in Internet Explorer rather than Firefox.

I provided some feedback on X-Com: UFO Defense, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and Civilization IV. Many thanks to the video crew for an editing job that didn't make me sound like a tool.

Follow Up to "Theaters = No"

This is a response to the post "Theaters = No" as discussed with friends of mine via e-mail.

Clint writes,
You make some good points Ryan. However a home theater system will never be as good as a movie theater for the following reasons:

720P on a projector using a DVD does not rival a film print shown on a massive screen. The sound will could probably come closer but I'd say most theaters worth their salt blow away a home system. Also there is the 3-6 month wait for DVDs to come out.

I agree about the commercials, prices, and loud movie goers. And I'm sure everyone would love to come over to your house (which requires MORE driving for some) and watch some DVDs but the theater is a completely different experience.
Kevin writes,
i had a friend who also thought that going to the movies was always a waste of money... i suggest going to the theater selectively. dont buy food unless you want. some people like going to baseball games, no one argues that this is stupid, even though it is undoubtedly cheaper to sit at home and watch every game at home with your own fmv hotdogs, people still flock to the stadiums. I still go see bands live even though i can watch them play cheaper on youtube.

I feel that there is an aura associated with the movie theater experience, and while i have already seen a pierrot le feu for free i will still pay 10 bucks to see it at the theater. watching movies on my shitty TV just is not the same (not to metioned the sacrifice in aspect ratios, i was amazed when i saw star wars at the theater for the first time. i felt like everything was new). Movies are made for display in theaters as well. I also use netflix and will one day have my own projector, but even then i will go out to the movies...that being said; i love watching movies at home too.
They brought up some great points that I wanted to share with everyone. Firstly, the quality of picture and sound in a theater versus that of the home theater. This, and really the subject of most arguments, boils down to preference. I completely agree that the quality of the presentation surpasses that of the typical home theater. Personally, I don't need it. The image quality of 720P and my 5.1 surround sound is all I need. I simply don't notice much difference other than screen size and volume. There exists a spectrum of taste- some people have no problem putting down a few extra bucks for a top notch presentation, others are fine watching movies on their 32" CRT television.

The second point was the turnaround time for movies to release on shelves in DVD format. My only rebuttal there is once you actually wait the three-to-six months and start seeing movies you missed in theaters on DVD, you're done! Shifting your perception of movie releases by three months is very easy to accomodate in the off season, typically winter.

This brings me to another point that wasn't clear in my first post. I don't advocate the total boycott of theaters. I still see the occasional movie in theaters... but it's usually 3-4 a year. When I do go, I make sure it's a matinée screening and that I smuggle in candy from a gas station! Kevin's e-mail made me realize that I had been too harsh in my first post. Theaters do have a certain experience associated with them and no perfect recreation of sight and sound in the home theater will recreate that aura.

16 December 2007

A Not-So-Brief Summary of My Recent Activities

I've been out and about the country these past few weeks. Rather than flesh out a complete post for each place I went, I'd like to highlight the important images and feelings in a single entry.

My first trip was to see my family for Thanksgiving. My family now lives in Burke, VA and it is quite trippy to see endless signs for shopping outlets and roads with your surname on them. Hopefully when I go back for Christmas, we can select a good sign with which to take a family picture. Anyway, it's a bizarre experience for me to visit them because for the past three years, every time I see them they are in a new house! Alabama to Greece to Virginia... same people, same stuff, new location and new arrangement. I play a little game with myself to find the locations of my favorite furniture & pictures in each new residence.

Anyway, it was great seeing them all, including my aunt and uncle and their kids who came to visit as well. Thanksgiving dinner was delicious as always! As an added bonus, I was treated to homemade Mom donuts a month early!

My favorite moment was making a mountain of leaves in the back yard and having fun taking turns diving into it. Check out the Picasa album and YouTube video:

2007.11.25 Mt Burke

Moving along to the following week, I and a few of my friends took a trip out to Colorado to see our friend Lisa and to go snowboarding at the Keystone ski resort. Before we got to snowboarding, Lisa showed us this amazing brewery in her town of Ft. Collins, called the New Belgium Brewery. You may have tried or heard of Fat Tire beer... that's this brewery. I had recently discovered that Belgian beers were the first beers that I've actually enjoyed and was thrilled to visit a brewery dedicated to that style. We did a round of taste testing a couple of their brews - they were all delicious! After that we got a free tour of the brewery by a very pleasant employee. Below are pictures and a video of me going down the slide at the brewery:

2007.11.29 New Belgium Brewery

Next up, snowboarding! This was only my second time snowboarding, so I had a lot of learning to do. It took me a long time to even get vertical and going down the mountain. Once I did, my entire first run down the mountain was me falling, flailing, and failing. The second run was much better. I was able to stay on my feet for segments, fall down, get up and do it again. It only took me an hour to get down the second time. The third and fourth times could more appropriately be called "snowboarding" and not "rolling". I can't help but mention my inspiration for skiing and snowboarding comes from the movie Better Off Dead: "Go that way, really fast. If anything gets in your way, turn." That kind of describes the way I was snowboarding that weekend.

Snowboarding is quite a rush. It's the closest I've ever felt to actually flying. I was really banged up after my first run and that severely influenced how much total snowboarding I could do that weekend. I am determined to keep going when I can and get better at it. I find it superior to skiing in that mobility and agility is better on a board than on skis. The toughest thing for me to get over was aligning my body sideways to go forward. It's a stark contrast to walking and every other typical orientation for forward momentum.

I don't have any pictures of me snowboarding (like hell I'm taking my camera or phone with me to fall down a mountain), but here a couple shots of the terrain:

2007.12 Colorado Snowboarding Trip

Let's see... after Colorado I was back in Atlanta for mostly a normal work week... then right out the door again, this time off to San Francisco on business. I flew out with a couple co-workers to get some training on Digital Rights Management (DRM), InstallShield's InstallScript, and how to package games for digital release. Interesting stuff, I feel like it is important to know these kinds of things as the industry makes moves towards significant sales coming from digital releases.

I liked the city of San Francisco. Definitely better than Los Angeles and New York City in my mind, however not quite as good as Seattle. (The relevance of those cities being different cities GameTap has sent me to on business.) Not too terribly much to report from a week in San Fran... good food and seeing my buddy Will were the highlights for me. I did find a totally sweet museum of arcade machines, but that is for another post!

I recommend the Edinburgh Castle Pub and Colibri, both found on Geary Street. Edinburgh was a dive bar in a sketchy part of town, but hosted a fun night of team trivia where people from Google and Berkeley are rumored to participate frequently. Colibri was an excellent upscale Mexican bistro. Yummy margaritas, fresh guacamole, and lamb shank!

I discovered the works of Alphonse Mucha via local art galleries near the hotel... and I'm in love. Highly recommend checking out his work; I know I will be adding some prints of his stuff to my house. I have trouble putting into words what I love about his work. I simply don't possess the art vocabulary to comment on the way he used colors and shapes, but I do know I love the borders he created and the vertical canvas he often used.

Alright, that should catch me up on where I've been and what I've been doing! Right now I'm chilling out in Greenville, SC with Josh and Casey for a few days. I absolutely love spending time with them here. It's so peaceful and we get along so well. I truly miss living with them. And I feel sad because once they're married in May, I don't feel like the opportunity will ever arise again to co-habitate with them.

I'm on a plane again as soon as Thursday... back to Virginia again to see the family for Christmas! =) I sense rocking in our future...

The Rock Band Post

Rock Band is the best money I've spent on video gaming. Ever.

That's a bold statement. It may be too soon since its release to make such a statement, but right now I can't get enough Rock Band. If this industry had any legitimate award societies, I would nominate Harmonix for Developer of the Year, Rock Band for Game of the Year. (Too bad the best we have is the Spike VGA program... complete with category "Most Addictive Game Fueled by Mountain Dew.")

Simply put, the amount of content to play is staggering. Four band roles, 45+ songs with more each week, a huge multiplayer campaign, dueling, and insane character creation. Compared to competitor Guitar Hero 3, which I find highly ironic is Harmonix's previous game series, this game shines in ways Guitar Hero will never know. That is entirely because Harmonix has a different vision for music games that is unique to them and no other developer. They make games to celebrate music and the essence of human-music interaction.

Let me start with the basic gameplay. The game comes with 45 tracks + a few bonus songs. I've already purchased a few tracks and I'm to about 55 total songs. You know I love math so here we go:

55 songs X 4 tracks per song X 4 difficulties per song = 880 unique tracks

Compared to Guitar Hero 3's total content (70 songs X 4 difficulties X 2 tracks = 560 unique) you can see already that Rock Band has 36% more tracks to play than its competitor. However, Rock Band isn't about how many songs there are to play, it's about presentation and simulation, or rather the "how" and "why" you're rocking out.

To get an idea of what Harmonix delivers with Rock Band, it helps to make comparisons to the Guitar Hero series. Guitar Hero 1 introduced me to the joy of simulating rockage. It was about solid rock tunes that are fun to jam. The learning of this game's rules and how best to hold and play the controller were exciting and stimulating. Hearing music in a different way, picking up on guitar notes and understanding rhythm and song architecture made Guitar Hero an educational experience pioneering further interest in music.

Guitar Hero 2 was a slight departure from the previous title. I already knew how to play the game; I jumped straight to Expert and played through all the game's songs in 24 hours. It was great to have new songs to play and master, but the overall feeling of the game was slanted towards earning 5-stars on much harder songs. It didn't have quite the same educational and exploratory experience as the first game. I can't say for sure, but it felt like the game lost a little bit of its soul under the publishing eyes of Activision.

Now comes Guitar Hero 3, crafted by established developer Neversoft, of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater fame. Harmonix had left Activision and Red Octane to work with MTV and EA on Rock Band. I dreaded what Neversoft would do with the series. Would they simply clone Guitar Hero 2 and add new tracks? Or would they insert their own takes on the music game genre? The answer was a combination of both. Guitar Hero 3 maintained the sense of style Harmonix left behind, but the gameplay was an even greater shift towards relentless solos and tricky guitar work.

This is the divergence of the two games I'm talking about. Guitar Hero 3 focuses on melting faces with amazing guitar skills, while Rock Band returns to the roots of what made Guitar Hero 1 so phenomenal. I've still got ties to the Guitar Hero series (nailing Slayer's Raining Blood on Expert for the first time is an intense feeling), but I am positively ecstatic that Harmonix renewed their vision for the music game genre with Rock Band. An experience of learning, having fun, and accessibility.

The two main reasons why I see a return to the original Guitar Hero experience: the drums and World Tour mode. Sitting down with the drums for the first time was exactly like picking up the SG controller with Guitar Hero 1. The sense of new and stimulating ways to play a game, figuring out how best to sit, how to hold drumsticks, how NOT to hit the 360 button... such a mind-expanding time. The vocals don't have the same effect; I've been singing in cars and showers for years =)

World Tour mode is the other masterpiece. Getting together with your friends, making rock personas, coming up with a band name and icon... what a great time to be alive. Moving from city to city and seeing these actual venues with your band's name on the sign, hearing the crowds sing along to the songs, timing Overdrive use to max out that score multiplier... I really salute you, Harmonix.

As you saw earlier, I hosted a launch party at my house for the game and invited about 15 people to come celebrate the game with me. The party was fantastic! Everyone was psyched to play the game they've been waiting for since it was announced. We jumped right into World Tour mode with the band name "omg play" as we were so impatient to get started. Having everyone sing along to the songs they love was an experience I witnessed first at PAX 2007. Seeing it then I knew I wanted the same thing for my launch party.

It's 3:20am and I'm just jumping around sub-topics here. Let's talk about character creation. It's the most insane combination of clothing, hair styles, and customization that I've ever seen in a video game. Players can select from either gender, four schools of style, several faces, so many hairdos, a fantastic amount of clothing from the four styles, and a small version of Photoshop with which to ink the skin! Math time.

Total character possibilities? First, let's exclude the gargantuan numbers introduced by the near-freestyle tattoo shop. Also these numbers are from best memory, just to get an idea.

2 genders X 4 rock styles X 6 faces X 20 hairstyles X (4 shops X 20 colors ^ (20 tops X 12 bottoms X 8 shoes)) = approximately 9.11 x 10^2500

Holy shit.

Throw on top of that rings, gloves, accessories, make up, and THEN a mini-Photoshop for tattoo creation that goes on both arms, chest, and the face? The numbers are STAGGERING. Oh wait, I forgot about all the instruments! There are plenty of models of real world guitars, bass guitars, drums, and mics to select as well. Those odds suggest that you will never, ever see the same Rock Band character twice.

Add to that the fact that not all of these options are available from the get go. There is an element of RPG character building at work. The clothing costs money, earned from playing gigs. Some of the nicer items cost thousands of dollars, while a single gig might only net you $20. See where this is going? It looks like Harmonix took a few notes before designing this game.

What else can I say about Rock Band? Tons. But I need sleep and more Rock Band. I'm looking forward to the complete albums coming soon, from such artists as The Who and Nirvana. I've also heard that Metallica will be premiering a new song exclusively on Rock Band as downloadable content. Amazing stuff. I can't wait to watch the full effects this game will have on TWO industries. In the mean time, come over to my place and play in my band, Zeus' Testicles.

15 December 2007

Catching My Breath

No posts in over a week! What a terrible blogger I am.

Truth be told this is the first relaxing day I've had in some time. In the last three weeks, I've been on six flights and bounced around the country between D.C., Denver, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Greenville! I'm taking it easy for a few days visiting Josh and Casey, but come Thursday I have another flight to see my family in D.C. for Christmas!

I've been rolling around some blog posts in my head that I'm committed to getting online tonight. I simply must talk about Rock Band, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, my trips to San Francisco and Colorado, a neat game mechanic I'm fleshing out, and a follow up to the post about theaters vs home theater.

Hmmm, that's pretty ambitious. Whatever I don't get to tonight will certainly be finished up tomorrow.

Also, check out the side panel for links to my favorite blogs!

04 December 2007

Theaters = No

I don't go to movie theaters much anymore. Can you blame me?

- Ten bucks for a single viewing, more if you purchase in advance via the web to skip the lines
- 400% mark up on all food and drink
- Commercials before the trailers
- Not guaranteed an optimal seat
- Put up with noise from other movie-goers
- No control over movie settings (volume, language track, pausing, etc)
- No control over room atmosphere

With the prices of home theater technology these days, you can easily have a 40" LCD @ 720p with 5.1 surround for $1000. For that price you get to watch movies your way and in the comfort of your own home.

Let's do some math!

That $1000 setup is multi-purpose. It serves as your setup for movies, TV, and gaming. That's three different functions, so let's assign a value of $333 to the cost of your movie watching. We need some movies to watch, too, so let's tack on $15 a month for Netflix's Two-At-A-Time plan. You can easily see 8 movies a month on this plan. Food and drink? Let's assume bag of popcorn, candy snack, and soda per movie. Getting this at the store runs you $2 at most per movie.

Alright, let's calculate our movie watching costs for a year.

$333 + 12 x $15 + 12 x 8 x $2 = $705

How does this compare to theater costs?

Let's assume the same eight movies per month, popcorn and soda per movie for $3.50 + $2.50, and one gallon of gas for travel @ $3.00. Total?

8 x 12 x ( $10 + $3.50 + $2.50 + $3 ) = $1824

Wow. That's a lot of cash going to the theaters. You can spend less on a home theater AND have the better experience. How about a few more comparisons to make you feel worse about your spending habits? Coming right up!

Add in the full cost of your home theater setup = $1372, still less than $1824 in the theaters
Half as many trips to the theater = $912, still more than your home theater

Two years of home theater use (@ full setup cost) = $1744
Two years of theater trips = $3648

Basically, you could spend $1000 on new home theater equipment every other year and STILL save money compared to going to the theater. And believe me, I plan on it.

John McClane vs Optimus Prime

While visiting my family for Thanksgiving, I had some time to catch up on two summer blockbusters I had skipped this year. Live Free or Die Hard and Transformers were pegged as the two biggest action movies of the summer. (Why did I miss them in theaters? Read why I don't pay for theaters anymore...)

Before either movie had come out, I was busy rolling my eyes at the trailers for each. A *fourth* Die Hard film? Helmed by Len Wiseman, director of the Underworld movies? I like the first Underworld movie... but to make the leap to the cherished Die Hard series was a bit much. Wait, the bad guys are hackers? And Justin Long plays his sidekick?? C'MON! These factors didn't add up to a Die Hard film in my head.

As for Transformers, I don't know why Hollywood keeps resurrecting IP from the 70s and 80s. It was a children's cartoon! Children's cartoon != summer blockbuster! Whoa whoa whoa, Michael Bay is directing? That's it, I'm out. I loved Bad Boys and The Rock, but every movie since has been over-the-top in a bad way. For some reason, people eat that shit up every summer, so who am I to argue against his movies? I can choose not to see them.

Imagine my surprise when these movies came out and received positive reception? I was shocked, but skeptical based on the people who were reporting they liked them. They were saying Live Free or Die Hard was a good ol' American ass-kicking action movie. It filled a hole that has been lacking in the last few years of film releases. I can respect that, but it's not enough to get me to the theater and spend ten bucks.

Five months went by of weekly "OMG you haven't seen Transformers yet?!" comments. They were poised to come out on DVD and I put them up on my Netflix queue. However, getting into November, I knew I would be out of the house a lot for a couple months, and decided to put my Netflix subscription on hiatus until January. Lucky for me, my family had a copy of both movies on DVD while I was visiting for Thanksgiving! I watched both movies back-to-back and here is what I thought-

Live Free or Die Hard = yippie-kai-yay, mother-fucker!
Transformers = one of the worst movies I've ever seen

Die Hard was just plain good. I understood about 30 minutes in what people meant by "good ol' American ass-kicking". It's just fun to watch Bruce Willis shoot some bad guys and blow shit up. Justin Long wasn't annoying at all and the hacking elements had physical manifestations that challenged the protagonists. I was concerned that if the bad guys were hackers, how would they be stopping John McClane?? He is ready and willing to bend you over and "drive this truck up your ass". How colorful. I was pleased with the writers' methods of translating hacking to physical conflicts. It's complete bullshit, but who cares, right? =)

Transformers was god awful. Too many actors, too many characters, not enough plot for 2.5 hours, dialogue and entire scenes that did nothing for plot or character progression, and can anyone tell me why they didn't shove the All Spark cube into Megatron's chest at the first opportunity? The Autobots certainly didn't give a damn that it was gone and it sure took out their worst enemy in five seconds. What's going on there?
You know what else? The CG sucked. I said it. Sucked. Impossible to track which robot is which; they all looked the same! The robots didn't look real at all, however the composition of CG with live footage was fantastic. Big difference.

The only reason to watch Transformers is right here: