I guess it’s inevitable that the Christmas-driven retail industry and, vicariously, the Christmas-driven game industry, would pick one month to release everything. Between now and a few weeks before Christmas all the big game releases will be put out, but for games which will be popular but not 100% guaranteed hits, they apparently get released in October. Two games in particular I’ve preordered – Quake 4 and Civilization IV. Quake 4 will be released October 14th. Civilization IV, comes out October 24th. I guess I don’t really care or mind – just October a never fails to be tight month, financially, and this doesn’t help. Oh well.

Anyway, I never preorder games unless there’s some incentive to – like some neato thingy or bonus or limited edition. Quake IV comes in a limited edition DVD version with extras and the preorder came with a T-shirt, so that was an easy enough sell. Civilization IV comes with a faux leather slipcase (!), spiral manual, CD soundtrack, etc. – but only if you preorder the game. Nifty.

The one thing that bugs me about Civilization IV is that I never really played the snot out of Civilization III, or at least not nearly as much as I played Civilization II, despite its being released four years ago. There’s a lot of reasons for this – my life is actually busy nowadays, there’s a lot more games nowadays, etc. And then there’s the “particular version” syndrome where a number of people detested Civilization III in comparison to Civilization II. I guess I can see this point – it’s not like Civilization III just took everything from Civilization II and upgraded it – they did pitch out certian things entirely. It’s not like a word processor where Word 2003 has everything from Word 2000 and more – they made certian controversial decisions that, it never fails, certian people see as deal-breakers.

But I can’t help but wonder if there’s something else, simpler, that people are missing. I don’t know what the sales numbers are for either game but I’d almost bet that, as popular as Civilization III was, it wasn’t as popular as Civilization II – that game became so popular that it inspired a famous pissng match over the rights to the name “Civilization” by other companies. The original game, Civilization, was a DOS game that preceded even VGA graphics. Civilization II was a Windows 3.1 game – a move which wound up working well for its longevity, but was a bizarre, baffling move at the time. People just didn’t do games to run “in” Windows. It was not only costly, performance-wise (anyone remember making boot disks or bypassing DOS to play DOOM?) but it was also really hard. The game was released in early 1996, some six months after Windows 95 and long before that operating system or DirectX would become even feasible. It used WinG, the precursor to DirectX. And the graphics weren’t really anything to write home about. But the gameplay was superb and highly addictive and it became the benchmark for turn based strategy games.

Since Windows 9x as a gaming platform was a ways off and Windows 3.1 as a gaming platform was pretty much untested. As a result, the first ever “Windows” games were pretty much just that – Windoiws applications whose purpose was not word processing or database management, but rather for entertainment. And in some ways, the Civilization series was perfect for this idea – they largely worked like interface applications anyway. In a game like DOOM 3 the Interface is this thing that’s used to tweak the control scheme a few times and get in the game, nothing more. The designers of Battlefield 2 decided the Interface was so secondary that they just used Macromedia Flash to do it. However, in “God games” like Civilization and Sim City, the paradigm makes sense. The initial interface for Quake III: Arena was a throwaway series of screen – later with the Quake III: Team Arena expansion, they fleshed it out to a pull-down menu style interface, something most Quake III engine games have used since.

But the fact that Civilization II was essentially a Windows application had one interesting and likely unintended consequence – it meant that the game didn’t take over your system when you were playing it, both in the respect that, between turns, it didn’t burn CPU cycles, and in the sense that it was not a DirectX full screen application. The game spawned two expansion packs and was reissued in 1998 as Sid Meier’s Civilization II: Multiplayer Gold Edition (side note, the titles of all of these have been prefixed with “Sid Meier’s” but that’s a pain to keep typing). The game was re-engineered to take advantage of DirectX instead of WinG but the end effect was the same – it retained the feel of a Windows application.

By contrast, Civilization III is a full-screen DirectX application. The designers decided to go with what has become conventional wisdom – make your application take up the entire screen, design it with the intention of owning the computer for the duration of running, etc. I don’t fault them for this – you can, in theory, do more with a full screen game. You have a better guaranteed palete (the makers of Civilization II didn’t even have the luxury of being able to assume 256 colors really), you can demand more of the system’s resources, and these days you can even use the hardware effects of the video card in your 2D game. You have to implement your own interface and you don’t get to use any of the built in widgets that come with the operating system, but it does make the game more portable (Civilization III even came out for the Macintosh)

But like I said, people in general, or at least vocal people, didn’t like Civilization III as much as Civilization II. And some of it is what I detailed above – changes, removals, tweaks of things which a number of people thought were fine, the fact that multiplayer came in the form of a commercial expansion pack and even then it was buggy and flawed, etc. Plus when Civlization II was released the market was much smaller and so a game could stand out more – today you have to contend with the daily Age of Empires game or the Brothers in Arms title of the week.

To their credit, Firaxis has addressed a lot of concerns with Civilization IV and also brought up new ones – chief among them being that Civilization IV has, for the first time, a 3D engine. One of the things about Civilization games is their use of icons to represent things, so an army is represented by a single soldier, the soldier is the same size as the entire “town”, etc. so when the game is more “realistic” looking, the fact that certian aspects of the game are almost intentionally unrealistic looking, stands out more. Still, it looks to be a fun game and I can’t wait to play it.

But I think the real reason that Civilization II may have been this: it was a simple Windows app. You think that the most popular game on the Internet is Hearts because Hearts is a good game? No – Hearts is the most popular since your grandmother can play it without a hardware upgrade. You can have Civilization II running in the background while you work and play a few turns when you have some time. It loads quick, it unloads quick. The fact that they made the decision to go to Windows in 1996 means this is probably the oldest game you can play to this day without resorting to a DOS mode or some weird-ass hardware tweak. And the dead-simple nature of the game actually helped things go as smoothly as they did because it actually made the game more addictive. Play enough turns and you’ll forget it’s a game. It really is more like a Windows application you use to run your empire.

And the other side of that coin is this phonomenon we’ve noticed lately where a game becomes more popular over time due in part to the fact that the game has low enough hardware requirements that a broad range of people can play it. Buy the crappiest computer Dell has to offer and can play Counter-Strike fine, explaining why there’s 60K people playing it online right now. The crappiest laptop you can find can play Starcraft like a champ. And hell, they even ported Civilization II to the Sony PlayStation (1) with its 2MB RAM, 2X CD-ROM drive and no hard drive.

So now we’re about to have Civilization IV come out, try to throw back to Civilization II but tack on the super neat 3D graphics and so forth. And I’m sure it will do well, but if it doesn’t people will scratch their heads on why it’s not as popular as Civilization II. Well you heard it here first – Civilization II was as popular as it was because it was a Windows application and no one’s ever going to guess that.

Microsoft understands reverse compatibility better than just about anyone else (Xbox 360 nonwithstanding). Windows developer Raymond Chen has documented on his blog the heculean efforts Microsoft makes to make games compatibile with their new operating systems, even and especially if the developer doesn’t care anymore.

It makes sense that the developer doesn’t care anymore. In the first few years of a game’s release it makes 90% of the sales it is ever going to make. It doesn’t make financial sense to go back and make your Windows 95 or DOS game work in Windows XP if it doesn’t already. This is assuming it’s more than a couple of lines of code and a recompile. And this is also assuming the developer still exists, still has the source code, still has some rights over the IP, etc.

This is the other talon of the DirectX approach. In addition to the notion that it makes games and hardware get along better, it also in theory assures that your games will continue to run on future versions of the operating system. Or at least that’s what Microsoft will tell you. And Microsoft Evangelists will also tell you that. And to their credit, they’re right 90-95% of the time. And the 5-10% of the time that they are wrong, it usually just takes a little nudge to get the thing working correctly. For Master of Orion II there’s a trick you have to pull with dxdiag.exe to be able to see the cursor. Kinda annoying, but whatever. With System Shock 2 a quick Google search will turn up a file which will get the thing running in XP somehow (on a side note, I’d love to know how these patches exist without source code). Reasonably simple. And for the majority of older EGA/CGA/VGA DOS games, there’s DOSBox, which is actually more impressive than it sounds.

But if your game used protected mode access to the operating system and XP and DOSBox can’t handle it and the developer never released the source code and/or it wasn’t popular enough a game to denote a fanatical following through the transition to XP, then you’re just out of luck. Granted, we’re talking considerably fewer than 1% of the games ever made here but it does make me wonder – how many games just get lost?

At QuakeCon 2005 the big game being hyped was Quake 4 (which, like DOOM 3, has apparently traded roman numerals for arabic ones). Quake 4 does something unique in the Quake series – it’s actually a sequel to a previous game, in so far as story is concerned. Specifically, it’s a sequel to the plot line contained in Quake II, wherein the plot centers around the Strogg race and invading their home planet. Part of the promotion was a Quake II tournament.

One of the luxuries of having a giant hard drive is the ability to basically take every game you’ve ever owned and keep them installed at the same time. Consequently, I came to QuakeCon with all three Quake games installed, patched, and complete with mission packs. When I fired up Quake III: Arena there were hundreds of games going, ready to play. Same with Unreal Tournament 2004 and various other games I wanted to play.

For fun, I fired up Quake II. Not so many games available there and many of the ones that were required things I didn’t have on my hard drive. Plus the integrated server browser is weak. It’s funny, back when games started shipping with server browsers I thought it was pointless since I used GameSpy or All-Seeing Eye. Not so at a LAN party where Internet server browsers are not really useful – I don’t know how we got by before server browsers were standard. Still, I did find a game to play.

I found myself amazed at how primitive Quake II seemed next to Quake III: Arena. Not bad, mind you, but just so many things about the experience have changed over the years. Like footsteps that match the action of the character on the ground. Or models that match what the player is doing. Plus Quake II went a little nutsy with the colored lighting. Still, like I said not a bad game and still a lot of fun.

Then I fired up the original Quake. Or tried to, anyway. Quake is not only a victim of the 9x to XP changeover, it’s also a victim of the DOS to 9x changeover. It’s still initially a DOS game. I wasn’t about to fire up “quake.exe” and see if it would take XP down with it. And even if I did, it’s a software renderer. I could fire up WinQuake, the Windows-based software renderer. Then there was QuakeWorld, the multiplayer Windows client that introduced client prediction for faster Internet play. I assume it wouldn’t apply here. And then there’s the OpenGL variants of the above two. And this is assuming I have current proper builds of any of them.

I decided to fire up “glquake.exe” – the OpenGL Windows Quake client. Well that didn’t work, something about a color mode. A slow-assed Google search (Internet access at QuakeCon this year not so swift) indicated it wasn’t liking the 3dfx-based “opengl32.dll” that it came with. I renamed that file and then the thing ran. In 640×480 mode. To run it in a higher resolution you have to specify command-line arguments. Whatever, let’s look for a game. When I go to find an “IPX” game…. it doesn’t find one. Bummer.

I think I’m on to something here – part of the reason gaming’s become so popular is because it’s so much easier now. I mean, now you fire up Quake III: Arena and find a server. Or any other modern game. They figure everything out for you. Half-Life 2 even figures out when you’ve done a hardware update and upgrades your graphic performance. And by that logic we know now why the best-selling PC games sell a million copies or two but a game like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas sells 9 million copies, 2 million in the first weekend alone – anyone in the entire world can take the disc, pop it into their $150 PS2 that never needs an upgrade (Final Fantasy XI nonwithstanding) and start playing. And it also makes sense why multiplayer games involving people sitting in the same room on a console do much better than having to play over the Internet – it’s just easier. The fact that Halo deathmatch sold scrillions of copies of that game while a scant 8% of Xbox owners ever bothered with Xbox Live says it’s easier to actually hunt down physical people and have them over to play then futz with a server browser with a game controller. Plus you’re less likely to have a 13-year-old scream obscenities at you that he just learned off of a Chris Rock routine.

When Valve made Half-Life, they wound up making a number of decisions in the design process which made the Half-Life platform very attractive to mod makers. This, coupled with the millions of copies the game sold, made it one of the most popular games of all time. The most popular mod in history, Counter-Strike, has at any one point in time, 60,000 players. That’s more people than reside in my hometown of Texarkana. The mod was so successful they bought the developers and made them Valve employees, and released commercial versions of the game for the PC and Xbox. Valve realized that if Half-Life 2 ever had a chance of succeeding, they needed to make sure the mods could come along as well, so they made a number of design decisions to ensure that mods could be ported over to the Source engine relatively easy and then upgraded later. The ultimate test for this was the ports of the Counter-Strike mod as Counter-Strike: Source and a port of the original Half-Life game as Half-Life: Source.

So Valve essentially made their new game engine “reverse compatible” with their old game. While this isn’t completely unprecedented, it is unusual. The traditional logic from AAA developers has always been “start over from scratch”. When id Software did the original Wolfenstein 3-D they did it with a real-mode 16-bit renderer. DOOM, their next title, was done with a protected-mode 32-bit renderer. Quake did the same, but it had a “true” 3-D engine – you could have rooms on top of other rooms, for one thing. These games were done in the time when everything in computing was changing – not the least of which is who owned computers and what they did with them.

But when Epic Games released Unreal Tournament, someone discovered that with a little tweaking, it could run levels from Unreal – the game which proceeded it a few years earlier. And Unreal Tournament 2004 is reverse compatible with mods and maps created for Unreal Tournament 2003. Epic has always had an attitude of not rewriting from scratch.

Now, I don’t think developers neccessarily set out to make their games not reverse-compatible per se – for example, id didn’t start over when they modified the Quake engine into the Quake II engine – mostly they just make changes to the engine which break the ability to run levels and mods from the old game, or they do rewrite from scratch. When they release the source code to older games, the fans do the work to make the game reverse compatible – for example, the ports of DOOM to modern versions of Windows, and the ports of the Z-Machine architecture, allowing games like Zork to run on everything from mainframes to the Game Boy.

But now Ritual is hinting at the idea of porting their 1998 Quake engine title SiN to the Source engine, perhaps as a preorder bonus for people who get the first episode of the Source-only sequel SiN: Episodes. This is a step in the right direction, I think. Sure, it will be a long time before the engines behind SiN and Half-Life become so antiquated that they won’t run anymore, but now it will be even longer before they become impossible to run. For example, if for some reason the GeForce 9900 board decides to do something to completely break all OpenGL titles written before 1999, the Source engine’s updates will take care of the old games.

id’s practice of releasing the source is cool, but what would be really cool is if someone were to take the source to Quake III and make it be able to run the levels and mods for Quake and Quake II. Of course part of the problem there is access to assets. For example, Valve can port Half-Life to the Source engine in part because they have access to and own all the original map files and source code for the original game. They can author a converter to take the levels of the old game, create compilable maps for the new engine, hit compile, and they’re there. Similar affair for the source code – especially since they could just apply wrappers and modern processing power will take up the slack.

Of course, I’m not saying that when a game designer writes a new game they have to drag every game they’ve ever done along with them. But I do like it when they take extra effort to make their games “forward compatible” with the standards and engines of the day. What keeps coming to my mind is the fact that I have old movies to watch on DVD. DVD didn’t hit the market until 1997 but I have movies dating back to the 1930’s (Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, some Disney titles) that I can watch on the format. What happened here is that the movie studios realized there was money to be made by making their old movies compatible with the newer hardware. More to the point, they realized that they could sell them again. And when the DVD successor comes around, I’m sure they’ll try to sell them again.

Of course “porting” old movies is easier than porting games. It’s not like our eyes and ears have changed. So long as the negatives still exist they can hire a firm to restore them and another to transfer them to DVD. They don’t have to worry about the operating system to a computer not allowing access. I guess a good analogy would be a DVD player which refused to play discs that featured black and white movies or that didn’t have at least 5.1 sound.

And yet there are companies out there like MacPlay and Aspyr whose entire goal in life is apparently to take existing titles and port them to the Macintosh. Perhaps a firm could exist to make older games work on modern engines.

Granted, whereas people will pay $30 for a 4-disc restoration of Gone with the Wind they’re probably not going to want to pay much for Quake in 2005. If you can still find the original disc in a store it likey sells for $5-$10. This is when the iTunes Music Store model would need to kick in – heck, it sort of already does in the form of Steam. Perhaps porting old games to new engines and then charging a reduced price for them (even cheaper, perhaps, if you can produce the original media) for download could prove lucrative for someone.

But then again, which games get the treatment? Today there’s a push to get pretty much every movie ever made on DVD, even bad ones. I have a DVD of Plan 9 from Outer Space, more or less as a textbook on bad movies. Will enough people want to play Daikatana ten years from now to make it worthwhile for someone? Watching a bad movie is two hours or so of entertainment, even if it’s just to make fun of how bad it is. Playing a bad game is an exercise in pain, especially if it has bugs and it never really worked well to begin with,

Plus there’s something to the experience of an old game. If you ported Quake to the Quake III engine would it look better? Would you go out of your way to make the game look the same? Little things like how it handles input and resource management in Windows are the main things I’m interested in improving, but what kinds of decisions would you make in the way of aesthetics? I mean, the game can very easily look prettier in the Quake III engine, but do you leave it the same to “preserve” the old game? What about that handling – how many things were the way they were in Quake or Quake II because of the way the engine handled? If you leave the game unchanged then what was the point of putting it in the new engine again? And if you change the game do you wind up with a Star Wars situation on your hands where a certian group of people want the enhancements that come with a new format or medium (in this case, the engine) but then want nothing else changed? And when a paradigm changes (like going from sprites to polygons) then what do you do?

I don’t know, but I do tend to think the way this can be avoided in the future for current titles is the emerging trend of not throwing everything away and starting over. Engine resuse is nothing new (DOOM and DOOM II, for example) but I think more retroactive thinking is a good trend. Make your engine with the intent of bringing the previous games over. If you keep doing this then it should be a minimum amount of effort to bring the old games along (and vicariously the games before that if you keep it up). And perhaps the grunt work of translating it can be out-tasked to another company who will keep a portion of the sales of the old game on the new engine via digital distribution.

Just a thought.

Way back in the day my favorite magazine was Next Generation. It was a platform agnostic magazine that eventually was dissolved by its corporate parent. I lamented its passing years ago.

Specifically, the thing I liked about Next Generation was the articles – they tended to be quite good and were amongst the first writing I ever read that treated gaming like a serious matter for adults. In the ensuing years I really never found a replacement.

But now there’s hope. Two sources of hope, in fact.

First, Future Publishing, the conglomerate name of what became of Next Generation‘s publisher, Imagine Publishing, has launched a new site called Next Generation, complete with logo that looks a lot like what graced the magazine. This new website is more of a “business tracking” website (thus the .biz TLD) but already I’m seeing better writing and more insightful articles than I’ve seen from most fluff sites in years. The old guard of Next Generation isn’t back or anything, but it is sorta neat to see this site around and know that intelligent gaming journalism didn’t totally die.

But the real second coming of Next Generation comes from a totally unknown place – The Escapist. I found this site via someone linking to an article there, and I was hooked. The idea is that it’s an online mahazine, which sounds like a 1996 cliche but it’s true and really works here. It’s really really good writing, like we’re talking Joel Spolsky good here (side note: Spolsky must be good if his target audience is programmers and my Wife likes his articles anyway). And they’re trying to go for “Magazine Aesthetics” – so their articles aren’t just well-written, they look good, too. They even have a PDF version for download. If they did do a print version it wouldn’t be a normal size magazine but whatever.

Oh, and they’re a weekly publication. They’re about nine weeks (issues) in and they’ve already had articles called “Death to the Game Industry” (one of those Modest Proposal type articles), an analysis of why CRPG’s will never really be D&D using Neverwinter Nights as a tool, called “Don’t Roleplay The Bugs”, and an article which convinced me to hoof it to Fry’s to dig up a $5 copy of Planescape: Torment, a game which I had always ignored due to it’s cover art apparently.

If they did have a print version I’d subscribe to it in a heartbeat, easy. A couple of copies.

One of my favorite shows of all time is Cheers. During the Kirstie Alley era, there was an episode wherein the bar was experiencing financial trouble and was in danger of getting shut down. An idea was hatched to save the bar by offering a promotial contest with a trip to Hawaii as a prize. The tactic worked, and soon the bar was full of people.

In one scene barfly Norm grumbled to his buddy Cliff: “I liked this place a lot more before all these people started treating this like it was some sort of public gathering place…”

The irony is obvious – Cheers is a public gathering place, but some of the regulars would rather it not be. The bar is the comfortable old pair of shoes that they don’t want to change. They also don’t like “new people”, though were it not for the public gathering bit they wouldn’t be there in the first place.

The game industry has grown quite a bit over the years. It’s worth billions of dollars now. It’s been through a major crash and it’s been through some paradigm shifts. As it continues to grow it becomes more mainstream. We now have rappers appearing in videogames and movie producers opening game studios. We have some games which make more money than blockbuster movies – a feat both helped and hindered by their higher price.

One of the worst kept secrets in the industry was that Microsoft was planning on releasing a new console in November of 2005, a scant 4 years after their freshman entry, the Xbox. I personally thought everyone was wrong, or that Microsoft was making a stupid move, one on the caliber of Sega’s Saturn console (it was released prematurely to beat Sony to the punch – and suffered as a result). Then Microsoft confirmed the rumors, and unveiled the Xbox 360 console in a hour-long show on MTV.

I TiVo’d the show since I was out of town. I tried to watch it but I turned it off right about the point where Sway started interviewing the guy that was showing him how they designed the Xbox 360’s casing. This was after fastforwarding past a musical performance from some group of 20-year-olds I’ve never heard of and couldn’t tell you their name today. I meant to go back to watch the rest but at some point TiVo purged the recording, and I figured I could get the relevant details from other sources anyway.

So Microsoft eschwed trade shows and decided to throw a party/concert to launch their console. I can’t help but feel like Norm on Cheers – I think I liked the game industry more when there weren’t so many people here.

I’vementioned it before – at one point I owned an Atari Jaguar and it was like being in on a great secret. It had a couple of interesting games but only a few total. The games for it were kept behind the counter at the local Babbage’s. It was in this odd period of time where a startup company could launch a console. Atari of course wasn’t a starup per se but they were struggling by that point. And 3DO was a startup. Today we have a software company, a hardware company, and one old guard game company. The two times in the past few years we saw a startup try to do a console (Infinium Labs with their Infinium console and Indrema with their Phantom console), they’ve failed before getting a product to market.

So they unveiled the Xbox 360. That name makes me laugh. We knew it was one of a few possible names when Microsoft commissoned a secret survey and one anonymous Internet poster told a website the names – Xbox 2, Xbox Next, Xenon, Xbox 360. I figure the least silly name of those was Xbox 2 but I know how people are with Bigger Number Equals Better Syndrome so the Xbox 2 would always be seen by some people as behind PlayStation 3. So they named it Xbox 360, either to have “3” in the title somewhere or to make it sound like they’re 357 generations past PlayStation 3.

Whereas the Xbox ran on the x86 architrcture (with an embedded Pentium III chip), the Xbox 360 is running off of PowerPC. When Microsoft shipped the initial development systems to developers they were G4 or G5 Macintosh towers running the NT/2000 Kernel. Years and years ago Microsoft thought it would be nifty to port the NT Kernel (somewhere between Windows NT 4 and Windows 2000) to PowerPC. They already had it running on Alpha chips, so it would be a third market to run it on PowerPC. But they scrapped the project for some reason (likey their precipitous relationship with Intel) and also ditched the Alpha port (which they had been mostly maintaining thanks to an old contractual obligation). But today they still have a shaky relationship with Intel, mostly because AMD’s chips run Windows better (ironically their 64-bit chips run the 32-bit Windows the best) so they dusted off the old PowerPC port and gave it a second go.

Ironically in the ensuing weeks Apple announced their switch to Intel. Hell’s pretty much frozen solid by this point.

But there’s a problem – Sony got caught with their pants down last generation. The PS2 ran custom hardware. But it quickly became apparent that they had weaker hardware than the Xbox. Heck, the PS2 is weaker hardware overall than the Nintendo Gamecube, but at least the Gamecube ran custom hardware. The Xbox was literally cobbled together for the most part from off-the-shelf parts. Seriously, it’s basically a Pentium III with a GeForce 3. The processor is 32-bit, a number associated with the lowly PlayStation 1 hardware. It’s always been a given that a PC could do better graphics than a console, but the console maker’s ace in the hole was their price point, and here was Microsoft with a PC that could blow away Sony and still go toe-to-toe on price. And Microsoft wooed all the PC developers since they already knew how to program the thing and it gave them a constant hardware platform, something they can’t rely on with the PC.

But today Sony is still the clear winner. There’s a few reasons. For starters, they were properly able to exploit first mover advantage. Sega tried with the Dreamcast. Hell, Sega tried with the Saturn. But the Saturn’s launch was a disaster – no games, hideously expensive, and they announced at E3 that it was already in stores so it wasn’t like they could retool it. Dreamcast did a whole lot of things right, but Sega didn’t have the money to properly market it, their reputation had taken quite a hit with the Saturn, and most people want to go with the console that will “win” – it’s less of an issue today but at one point if you owned a Sega Genesis and all the games you wanted were on the Super Nintendo (or vice versa) you felt like a fool. People decided to hold off and get the Sony PlayStation 2 and Sega decided to bow out and become a software company.

The second reason the PlayStation 2 worked, and it goes completely against logic, is because it was backwards compatible with the PlayStation. Commodore made their Commodore 128 computer backwards compatible with the Commodore 64 and as a result, no one wrote software for the 128. Osborne Computer Corporation had success with the Osborne 1 but when they announced successor computers several months in advance, the dropoff in sales for people waiting for the new machines bankrupted the company. And of course Atari’s efforts to make the 5200 reverse compatible with the 2600 backfired. So it’s always been a given that the new console severs ties with the old.

But people picked up PS2 units since they could play the new Madden games. And their existing library worked as well. And developers liked moving to the new hardware, especially since so many people had bought it. So Sony somehow parlayed reverse compatibility into a selling point. It didn’t hurt that the thing could play DVD movies at a time most people didn’t have a DVD player yet.

So it’s stunningly ironic that Microsoft, who for the most part understands the concept of reverse compatibility (which is why Windows XP still runs most Windows 9x programs and Office 2003 still opens Office 1.0 documents) has yet to announce how or if reverse compatibility works on the Xbox 360. They’ve hinted at “limited reverse compatibility” but what that means is unclear. It’s probably a given that Halo 2 will run on Xbox 360. It’s probably not a given for any other title. It’s known that Microsoft bought out the Virtual PC product and associated peoples from Connectix. Virtual PC on Windows basically is VMWare but on the Macintosh it allows you to run Windows programs on PowerPC chips. However, while it works, whether it runs games at any normal speed remains to be seen.

So it could be that they’re not announcing reverse compatiblity because they still haven’t figured it out yet. Or it could be because they didn’t want to cannibalize existing Xbox sales. But their other big problem is this – the PlayStation 3 appears to meet or beat the Xbox 360, power-wise. Sony decided to commission custom hardware again but this time they didn’t hold back. There’s even talk of porting operating systems to it and using the cell processor to power a new line of PC’s and servers. Oh, and the PlayStation 3 is reverse compatible with PlayStation 2 (and maybe even PlayStation 1). It does this by also including PS2 (and maybe PS1) hardware – which is likely now to the point of fitting on a single chip each.

And then there’s Nintendo. Nintendo is the Apple Computer of the game industry. They do a lot of things that don’t make any sense at all and though occasionally these things fall flat (Virtual Boy) they usually work. I’ve mentioned it before but it’s under-rated so I’m going to mention it again – when I saw that they were coming out with Game Boy Advance Video carts – carts costing $20 or so but containing not a game but an hour or so’s video of something like Spongebob or Pokemon, it seemed idiotic. But then again $20 is what parents regularly spend on videos and DVD’s for ther kids. Cartridges are more durable, the kids already have the GBA SP’s so that’s cheaper than getting a portable DVD player, it was brilliant and sold a ton. The DS seemed like a dumb idea but it’s got some really innovative games and has so far outsold the PSP, especially day-one sales.

Nintendo unveiled their Revolution console at E3, after Sony and Microsoft unveiled their consoles. And by unveiling the Revolution, they basically showed what the outside of the console looked like. Specifically it looked like a black box with a slot and some buttons on it. Many figured that this was merely a mockup, and a quickly done one at that. Whereas PS3 and Xbox 360 games were shown (but not playable) at E3, Nintendo showed nothing. They did say the Revolution was backwards compatible with the Gamecube, which has led some to think perhaps it’s not a quantum leap above Gamecube, hardware-wise, and is banking on some innovative feature – like maybe controlling it with your thoughts or something.

My theory is this – Nintendo may very well not be ready yet, but they also think this is all a bit too soon. Consoles used to follow something of a “rule of seven” – there were on average seven years between the unveiling of a console to the last trickle of titles. Unsuccessful consoles would of course die an earlier death, successful consoles could push a decade. By all accounts, Xbox is a success. But here we are only four years after the release of the Xbox and Microsoft is putting out Xbox 360. It’ll be almost literally exactly four years, which is at least one year too early. Sony went about five and a half years between PlayStation and PlayStation 2, and I think a lot of the success of the PlayStation 2 was its backwards compatibility. It’s five years between PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3, and they’re only doing PS3 right now since they don’t want to be seen as being “behind” Microsoft. It does say something that they let Sega and their Dreamcast get a whole year ahead – it says that they view Microsoft as a bigger threat.

Microsoft makes big waves about other things, as well. The Xbox 360 will have wireless controllers, exclusively. That’s neat, I’ll give them that. Save for the lack of a rumble feature, the Wavebird wireless GameCube controller is the way to go. Microsoft is making their typical splash about how the Xbox 360 will be the “center of your home digital hub….” etc. It’ll have Media Center Edition features, etc. to this end. But for all their hype, the Xbox Live service – the way to play over the Internet – only ever saw 8% of Xbox users ever use it. Remember how Nintendo said there wasn’t much of a market for Internet consoles?

Of course Sony is filled with their own line of crazy weirdos. They looked at Nintendo’s little GBA Video carts and said “we can do better than that! Hell, we own actual movie studios!” and to that end they rigged up a version of their UMD discs for the PSP to play movies and they’re releasing movies on UMD. Again, this completely misses the point. Sony thought the point was people wanted to watch movies on the go, or that they wanted their game console to also do movies. Nintendo thought the point was that kids want to watch cartoons on the go and parents want to shut their kids up with something more durable than a DVD. Nintendo got it right. Sony got it wrong. Sony thinks people want to spend $249 on a game device that can play UMD movies which sport a lower resolution than a DVD, have less features than a DVD (in many cases none), can’t be played on an actual television like a DVD, and yet costs the same as a DVD. Perhaps people do want to watch movies on the go but why do it with a PSP when a portable DVD player costs $128 and works with everything you already own?

And this was after the fact that tons of people in Japan were complaining that the square button wouldn’t work right. The creator of PlayStation said this was by design. Then Sony admitted there was a manufacturing defect. Then they latched on to this “Cell processor can do everything – put it in a PC!” idea. Just recently they announced the Cell processor will be so difficult to make and have so many cores that X% of the cores will be defective. Nice.

And Nintendo isn’t sinless in this regard. The Nintendo DS system, though interesting, is pretty much a stopgap system. The intent is not to have it replace the Game Boy Advance – that system’s successor is already in the works. The DS is a gimmick system – the gimmick is the touch screen and the fact that there’s two of them. Nintendo is serious about the system, but not serious enough to have it be a GBA successor. So why release it? And why now? I think it was less than a year between the time of the leak and the release of the system. The reason is simple – to beat the PS2 to market and undermine Sony. It seems to have worked – the DS sold truckloads whereas PSP sales have reportedly been tepid. The DS is cheaper, has a huge library of existing games due to GBA backwards compatibility, and some fine existing games thanks to – of all things – Nintendo 64 ports. Plus Nintendo made the DS durable enough that you can find demo units at places like Target. Sony didn’t do this – they’ve had a hell of a time making systems that didn’t ship with dead pixels right out of the box. That doesn’t breed consumer confidence.

So Nintendo released the DS early to beat the PSP to market. Microsoft stepped up the Xbox 360 to beat the PS3 to market, which might work but might not – it could be another Dreamcast situation since the PS3 is showing off better footage at this point and comes out roughly March 2006. And this is all because the industry has exponentially exploded. Sony wants to make their console competitive with high end computing hardware, Microsoft wants to make their PC-like console competitve with existing consoles. Actually Microsoft wants to make the Xbox 360 a hip accessory of sorts – which is why every piece of it looks suspiciously like the tragically hip iPod. And Nintendo appears to just want to make games.

I’m glad the industry is so big now. But I fear the competition may eat itself. Had Sega not bowed out circa 2001 we would have had four consoles on the market, and the last time that happened the industry collapsed. Though they’ve been better than I expected, Microsoft still shows some signs of treating their console hardware like they treat the software – it’s not right until version 3.0.

Which all leads to my biggest gripe – every time the console wars “heat up” (which basically mean the console companies announce their new hardware) the pundits all sit back and ask “Is PC gaming dead?” I can’t tell you how annoying that is. It would be as if every time a book like Harry Potter became popular people would prophesize “Is the Internet dead?”. And every time the consoles are finally released, PC gaming continues unabated. It’s the one hardware platform on a technology curve, instead of technology steps like console hardware releases. It’s the one platform that groups of crazy idiots can make a game in their bedroom. It’s the one hardware platform that’s ever gotten online play right. And if every console failed, it would be the one hardware platform remaining since people would have them anyway due to other uses.

My gripe is not that people think this. Or that they think it every time. It’s that we’re already hearing it again – four years later. Since it’s coming up so quickly this time, there are those who are giving it more clout this time around. I don’t want to see what will happen if Xbox 720 comes out in three years or something. And some of these people giving it clout are the heads of publishers who might want to put their next releases on consoles instead of PC. Eidos decided to make Ion Storm an exclusive PS2 company (not that it worked – they closed Ion Storm down finally after one PS2 game). Even id Software refuses to speculate whether or not their next game will be on the PC or consoles.

And all of this is because the industry is so crowded now. I’m glad that the game industry is so big now and I like the fact that there’s plenty of folks to play with online and buy games, but I kinda I liked it better when there weren’t so many people here.

Here’s something annoying. At some point, Amazon.com decided to offer its services to other companies. If you go to Borders.com, you really get redirected to a page on Amazon.com. Same thing for Waldenbooks.com (which is a sister company of Borders). Another site which is really powered by Amazon is Target.com though, for some reason, it retains the “target.com” in the URL.

Now this wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for one thing – it makes the site basically useless. You’re not buying your items from Target or Borders, you’re buying them from Amazon.com. On the surface it makes sense, Amazon.com stocks a lot of the same things as these stores, and in fact a lot more of them. Barnes & Noble sells a lot more stuff on their website than their store can carry, so it sort of makes sense that Target.com carries more than a Target store can carry.

The thing is, it’s something of a crapshoot. Target.com is the worst. There’s some sort of venn diagram out there of what items are available in Target stores, what items are available at Target stores but not for the same price, and what items are only on the website. So when you go to Target and you look for something you saw on Target.com, you likely won’t find it. And if you do find it, it will likely be for a different price than what you found online. And not just because the website will discount it, there’s different base prices entirely.

So Target.com isn’t really a website for Target. It’s just another front for Amazon.com only the people who run Target thought of it. When you go to the Target store and you find something you found on Target.com and it’s for a different price, when you ask someone there the person just shrugs and says “the website has nothing to do with what’s in the store”. Like I said, this makes the company’s website useless.

Moe once recieved a Target “e-giftcard” for a birthday. She then proceeded to Target.com and bought DVD’s twice, each time failing to actually use the giftcard. The reason was because even though she got the gift card through the Internet and tried to buy something through the Internet, the particular “e-giftcard” won’t work through the Internet. As I follow it, it only works if she actually printed out and took it to a brick-and-mortar Target – where I’d be willing to bet the cashiers then tried to tell her it only worked online. Plus, I’d be willing to bet that the website she had to check her balance on was hosted at Target.com.

For the most part there’s two big chains for video games – GameStop and Electronics Boutique. They both have pretty good websites – their websites’ inventory is more akin to what you’d find in one of their stores, their gift cards work at both online and brick-and-mortar stores, and their prices usually match between the store and the website. However, of the two for the longest time I found myself going to GameStop stores instead of EB stores. Part of the reason was because the closest GameStop was in a strip mall (ironically next to a Target) and the closest EB is in the middle of Stonebriar Centre which is a fantastic mall but a total bitch to get in and out of. But the other really big reason was the fact that GameStop.com has inventory lookup. You can search a 200-mile radius of a zip code and see which stores in your area have the thing you’re looking for. If you’re looking for Halo 2 then every GameStop has it. If you’re looking for the DOOM 3 expansion then you need to make sure the GameStop you’re headed to over lunch actually carries PC games (some are console-only). But if you’re looking for an old, out of print GBA cart, the inventory lookup is a godsend. Heck, you can even look up weird-ass old titles and see if you can find them locally. Apparently EB figured this out finally and put their inventory online.

The day I went to go find the GBA port of DOOM I had to travel out to an obscure GameStop location in Lewisville to find it. It was in a strip mall, so instead of mall locations where people flow in and out all day, a strip mall location has a more “apprehensive” feel to it. What I mean is, if you’re feeling antisocial then don’t go there since they say hello to you and ask what you’re looking for. Since I actually had something to look for I said I was looking for the GBA port of DOOM.

“Oooh… not sure if we have it”
“Well the website says you do”
“Well the website is usually wrong…”

By this point I’ve started scouring over the used GBA carts which are sitting under a glass display case like they’re watches in a jewelry store. I’m ignoring the person at this point since he’s already defending the store and demonizing the website. I was thinking “well, so long as I took the effort to come out here couldn’t we just go ahead and look for the stupid thing instead of making excuses?” but I didn’t say it. And sure enough the game was there. But it just killed me that the first thing the guy did was try and belittle the reason I came there in the first place. Sure, I’ve been in his shoes – sometimes customers get pissed when you tell them the thing they came there for isn’t there. Usually it involves a wrestling game. You start bullshitting excuses like “yeah the game got delayed because…” or the now ever popular “we only got four copies and they were all pre-ordered” (the latter of which is supposed to guilt them into preordering, which is in all actuality a method of ensuring that absolutely everybody in the world who didn’t preorder gets the game before you do).

But I think what was also going on there was a little apprehension abouit the website. Back when I worked for a Babbage’s (now a GameStop) they were putting these huge demands on how much we were supposed to be selling – then telling us to hang these signs saying to go to this website named something different and go buy the game there instead. But we didn’t get it – people were already in the store. They weren’t going to then go and leave the store and buy the game online, and be hit with waiting for it and paying for shipping (and tax too in this case since the Babbage’s was in Texas as was GameStop.com, which is in Grapevine).

GameStop has an incredibly useful website in that it compliments the stores, not tries to replace them. It doesn’t matter if B&N.com has a book for $11.99 if the store carries it for the full $19.99. If I want to buy the book online I’ll do it at Amazon.com. Yes, Amazon has won that little race, with their first-mover advantage. B&N.com might be cheaper when it comes to being able to use my Reader’s Advantage card (or whatever it’s called) but something about the fact that they almost expect me to go home, order, and wait irks me. I know they don’t really expect me to do it, but I never think to go to B&N.com. I think to go to Amazon.com.

Ironically this is something the Borders.com/Amazon.com gets right – you can check on Borders inventory, and even buy it online to pick it up in the store. Of course you pay full price for the book this way. It’s funny – they want to pass on a savings on a physical, shipped product – but if you buy a computer game like Half-Life 2 or Galactic Civilizations online, you’re expected to pay full price, since they don’t want to piss off the retailers.

So I guess I’m annoyed either way.

Despite my being a fairly serious gamer, one of the things I’ve never done is purchased a console on day one. The latest opportunity to do so came with the release of the Nintendo DS and I missed that one, too. I’m also going to miss the March release of the PSP but that’s less of a consequence since I really just don’t plan on getting that one at all.

It never fails that the consoles tend to launch when I just don’t have a lot of money to spend. Plus the last several console launches have seen the system launch without a lot of strong titles, so early adopters tend to get hosed. The DS had a PSX-ish port of Madden 2005 and Super Mario 64 DS which, despite what everyone says, looks worse than the Nintendo 64 version. The Metroid Prime: Hunters demo looks interesting but the game isn’t out yet.

Instead – I bought a Game Boy Advance SP. Seriously. While the Nintendo DS is reverse compatible with GBA games, it’s not reverse compatible with Game Boy and Game Boy Color games. Plus it can’t do multiplayer on those GBA games. So, I decided to go with the GBA SP, a purchase I had been avoiding long enough.

I bought a GBA over Christmas 2001. In January of 2002, Nintendo announced the GBA SP. I’m a big Nintendo fan, but this is the biggest chickenshit move they’ve ever pulled (waiting until after the Christmas buying season to announce the SP). Still, I had bought an Afterburner kit and decided I was going to make it work.

Well, the Afterburner kit was a disaster. The instructions for the kit left a lot to be desired and as a result, the installation attempts were all botched. The resulting trauma meant that my GBA never quite worked right again – the screen would intermittently crap out and I had to rig the insides with plastic shards to get the connection to the screen to work properly. This precluded me from being able to play GBA games for the most part. I got the Game Boy Player for the GameCube and it helped things, but I never really could get into the GBA.

In June or so of 2004, though, Nintendo released the “Limited Edition Classic NES” GBA. This, I decided, I wanted. They had released a Famicom version in Japan so I decided to wait and see if they were going to do a NES one and they did. Of course I pissed around and didn’t get one until Christmas 2004. Most of the time when a company lists something as “Limited Edition” they mean “Limited to however many we sell”. Not Nintendo. They don’t fuck around. I found out that these things were thin on the ground.

Luckily the Circuit City website lists the locations in the area where the item you find can be purchased. There were two within a hundred miles – one in Addison, and the other in South Lake, TX. So I darted out to the Addison one and found the empty box for the unit, of which there were like 2-3. When I went to the counter, the clerk told me “We only have one of these left”. To which I paused and replied “…ok, well I’ll take it.” I’m wasn’t sure why he thought I’d care that this was the last one left. Whatever. Then I had to go to the customer service desk and get the actual unit. After several minutes the woman came out to tell me that there wasn’t one in the back after all. I told them that they might want to get the other “Classic NES GBA” boxes off of the store floor then, since it looks to the average person that they had several. She said that they had to keep the boxes out there to reflect the GBA’s they had in inventory, “kinda like Xbox”. I refrained from telling her that Xboxen are usually identical and that people actually want different versions of the GBA. I then told her that the reason I was out here in the first place was the fact that the website said they had one in inventory to which she gave me some weird bullshit response which I can’t remember now, but it was essentially the “hey the website’s wrong sometimes” response. I refrained from telling her that the point of having the website tied into the inventory was so that it wouldn’t be wrong and perhaps she should see about getting it fixed. After getting a refund, I realized that the person who ran the register and this woman were both really young – perhaps someone had stolen the last one and they were covering for that person? Or perhaps they just wanted me gone. Whatever, I left.

I got smart about the second attempt – I actually called the South Lake store and verified that there was one in stock. Of course, it was a crapshoot if the person I was talking to was right, but whatever. I then did the “purchase online to pick up in store” bit, after which I noticed the website didn’t say they had it in stock anymore, so literally the last one. I drove out to South Lake before work (turns out it was closer to my workplace than my home) and sure enough, they had it. Probably the factor that helped was the fact that they were the only store in a brand new complex.

I was initially a little bit disappointed with the GBA SP’s illumination – mainly that it’s just a little bit on the blue side. Like the aforementioned botched Afterburner solution, it’s a “frontlit” soluition, not a “backlit” (for a frame of reference, your color cell phone screen is probably backlit – as opposed to puttng a light on a plastic screen in front of the screen). However, I got over it and I discovered – this thing is probably the most pefect little device I’ve ever encountered. As much as I curse Nintendo for pulling that maneuver in January 2002, I’m kicking myself for not getting one of these sooner.

Of course the first game I go buy is The Legend of Zelda from the “Classic NES Series”. I figure between the two times I bought it for the old NES (gold and grey cartridges), the special disc for the GameCube with the old Zeldas on it, and this GBA cartridge, this is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve bought this same game. And they say emulation will cannibalize these sales. And it’s just inheriently cool to run it on a screen with an old NES controller layout below it.

I then bought the GBA “port” of DOOM. It’s still pretty damn impressive. It’s just close enough to make you feel like you’re really playing DOOM, and just different and flawed enough to remind you you’re not. It’s a really really impressive tech demo and it’s a lot of fun, but the menu interface kinda sucks and in a few places the limitations of the hardware come out. Plus it just throws you off when the music is all different – I guess they didn’t want to re-license Bobby Prince’s music. Still, that I can run freaking DOOM and The Legend of Zelda on the same machine – one that I can carry to bed with me.

Of course therein lies part of the problem. My Wife got a little annoyed since I played it all the freaking time. I’ve had to learn how to balance play time with real life again. At least I can put the GBA away easily, which is more than I can say for those poor WoW players. I finally got around to beating Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Zero Mission, the second of which was particularly cool since the unlockable extra on completion is the original NES Metroid. Nintendo actually also came out with this on a separate $14.99 cartridge and I almost got it – not because I didn’t know about the unlockable feature but rather because of the way my mind works – I’d rather have the cartridges separated. Fortunately common sense won out. It’s funny, I beat Fusion and then beat Zero Mission and they were both incredible games and I did well and it occurs to me – I never really did beat the original Metroid. I watched friends beat it but I never did myself. One of my college roomates could go through the entire game in one sitting. I figured, while I was on a roll, I’d go beat Metroid and I’ve come to realize why I never beat it – that game is freaking hard. Well not only that but whereas in a “modern” game there’s all these gameplay conventions like being able to save in a bunch of spots and get recharged – in Metroid there’s none of that. You get a password (which the game saves for you – nice) and you start from one of like four places and have 30 health. Period. You have to build that back up yourself. Unless I’m forgetting some special trick, the only real way to get back to fully charged easily is to pick up another energy tank. Ouch. Plus the shock of going back to 8-bit graphics is bigger than I anticipated. Still, I’m having fun – this game is seriously hardcore.

Back to more current handhelds – I do plan on getting a Nintendo DS, mostly because I played Wario Ware Touched! at Target the other day. Yeah, I don’t see the DS as something long lasting. It’s neat as hell and I think when Nintendo or one of their partners writes games for it and it alone (not ported from some other game) it’ll get its due. The usage of the screen and stylus in WWT was nothing short of brilliant. But the Target unit’s screen already had scratches on it. I know your average kid at Target is a threat and all but I’m not sure that bodes well.

The thing that gets me is this – yeah it runs GBA games and all but the DS is somewhat close to the Virtual Boy – it’s not a GB/GBA replacement, it’s got an unusal, untested gimmick, and the standard development and porting process just won’t work for it. Unlike the Virtual Boy it’s not some sort of stopgap until Nintendo’s next “real” home console, but I’m just wondering what it’s like to have to develop for two screens now and take ergonomics into account.

The PSP though, I think I might skip. It’s supposedly got horrible battery life and I’m not thinking that the usual graphical yardstick applies. Nintendo comes up with souped-up SNES graphics for the GBA and it’s golden. I’m not sure it’s going to matter in the long run how many polygons the PSP port of Gran Turismo will run if the thing kills the battery in a couple of hours. Does anyone really want to play detailed games on a tiny screen? Maybe they do. But I can’t believe people are actually excited about UMD Movies. Let’s see, a movie I probably already own on DVD on a smaller disc with a substandard resolution and no extras that I can watch on a tiny screen and pay the same price as a DVD for? I’ll pass.

Of course to some degree what the PSP is doing is taking what Nintendo does and throwing more at it, hoping that will win out. They see that Nintendo has a huge hit with the GBA so they say “hey let’s do better hardware!” which the PSP is, but at the expense of battery life. Nintendo was so concerned about battery life that they waited from 1989 until 2002 – thirteen years – to give the GBA a lit screen. And the only way they’d do it is if the GBA had its own battery. Sure, people like me think the light thing is more important than batteries, unil we remember what it was like to play the Sega Game Gear and have six AA batteries last eight hours, tops. And more people care about batteries than light. By 2001 the Game Boy line had sold over 100 million hardware units, so Nintendo was doing something right.

Nintendo came out with “Game Boy Advance Video” carts. These were carts that somehow held video. I think their choices of content (Pokemon and Spongebob Squarepants episodes, for example) help witht he compression (animated content has the potential to compress better) but I thought these were stupid when they came out. But at $20 a pop for ~2 hours of content, they basically pan out with DVD’s and videos for kids. And kids watch the same DVD’s and videos over and over again. And these carts are more durable (I saw a child at someone’s house break one of their DVD’s in half trying to get it out of a case). And they’re portable and easier than a portable DVD player. So they sold truckloads. Again, Nintendo is the Apple of gaming – doing things that seem idiotic and turning them brilliant (usually). Sony said “hell, we have actual movies like Spider-Man 2 we could put on this thing! Stuff adults would want!”. I just don’t see it working. Why wouldn’t an adult just get one of the many existing portable DVD players I see people using at airports all the time – you can use your existing DVD collections (which adults tend to have), pop in a copy of one of the LOTR movies, and viola. Entertainment for hours.

Anywho, another month, another freakishly long post. I’m off to go play some more Zelda.

Preface: I started writing this post over a month and a half ago. For lots of reasons (real life, lack of direction) it’s drug on this long. However, I like it just enough to publish it, instead of trashing it (which is not unprecedented for me). So instead of putting it on a shelf forever, here it is. For some reason when I’m in this mode of writing a long, titanic post I never feel like posting other little things until the long post is done. Now it is. Hopefully we can all move on with our lives.

I’ve always been a little bit disdainful of the approach of overhyping something way in advance. Something about the concept of announcing something years in advance has always bugged me. There are games being announced right now that won’t see the light of day until Bush is out of office. I understand the need to hype your product, but in this day of delays and cynical expectations, I can’t seem to give a damn about your game coming out in 2009.

This was why I was really hoping Valve could have delivered Half-Life 2 a year ago when they said they would – just to prove you could develop something in secret for years and make the call on your ship date so well. Oh well. Spolsky details the “Apple Approach”, which is to wait until you have something to ship, versus the “Microsoft Approach”, which is to announce something as soon as the idea comes into your head.

Something that did do the approach which is the opposite of the industry is the recent game JFK Reloaded – though for reasons completely different than the approach I advocate. JFK Reloaded is the product of Traffic, a new developer out of Scotland. It was announced as being available for online purchase one day before its release: November 22, 2004 – the 41st anniversary of JFK’s assassination.

In the game, you assume the role of Lee Harvey Oswald (or, if you prefer, whomever was in the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository) and you get to try and assassinate Kennedy. That’s the entire game. Suffice it to say that this premise alone, coupled with the fact that it was released when it was and how it was (i.e., there was no publisher to stop or anything) got it national attention in America. It was on CNN and every other major news site and channel. The tactic worked, brilliantly.

When you’re a person like me and generally an advocate of all things gaming, it’s not an easy gig. There are games out there that are tough to defend, and there are games out there not worth defending. Usually due to violence. The Grand Theft Auto series of games is tough to defend, but since the games themselves are so good it’s worth it. Postal 2 is tough to defend but the game itself is crap, so it’s not worth it. The Godfather series of movies glorifies criminals but no one says we should get rid of them so that they don’t inspire children.

With me, the context of the violence is important. I have no problem seeing a violent movie like RoboCop or Starship Troopers but I can’t stand watching ER a lot of the time. Tons of sci-fi soldiers getting killed by giant bugs? Fine. A little old lady’s heart exploding in a hospital? I’ll pass. I can handle all kinds of fake violence. Some would call that hypocritical.

The other thing about this game is the mere situation involved. As games move forward one of the things to reckon with is what is and is not appropriate for a game.

For example, one of the things that’s been bugging gamers is that we’ve been given a glut of World War II games. Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Medal of Honor (3 games on the PC alone), Call of Duty, Battlefield 1942 – to say nothing of the niche MMORPG approach WWII Online. The biggest reason is that WWII games still sell well. That will probably come to an end soon thanks to oversaturation, but for now it’s true. The other reason is that WWII is a “safe” war to make a game about. There was a simple and clear enemy – the Nazis. There were simple and clear reasons for being in the war – the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor. And it’s sufficiently far in the past that most who were in it are no longer around to be offended (and the ones that are don’t care). There’s other reasons, too – WWII had planes and ground combat, and guns that didn’t take forever to reload.

Now compare that to other wars. Vietnam is still controversial (witness the attacks on Kerry during the recent election) due to the circumstances in which the war happened. The Civil War’s cause is controversial as well, plus its lack of technology is a tougher sell. Worse so for the American Revolutionary War (muskets, anyone?). And as for the recent Iraqi wars – there’s something odd about playing a game of a war in progress.

And yet of course games on all those wars do get made – just not as many as WWII.

At a recent family get-together, the topic of JFK Reloaded came up from an uncle-in-law. I had to confess that not only had I played the game, but I thought it was pretty neat. At this point a cousin-in-law proposed, “well then – why don’t we just make a game where you man the gas chambers at the concentration camps?” I very quickly assessed the situation (family, holiday, lots of non-gamers), decided a debate was inappropriate, and changed the subject. But she has a good point. We make games to emulate certian aspects of WWII (D-Day, the battles at sea, etc.) but not other aspects (the Holocaust, etc.). I personally thought it wasn’t in the best of taste to make the game Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, a game wherein you are an American soldier at Pearl Harbor. The shocking part is that it sold well in Japan.

So where is the line? Is it wrong to make a computerized simulation of the JFK Assassination? People have been doing that for years – mostly in the non-interactive quest to try and guess trajectories of bullets. So is it that much worse to make one that’s interactive? Or that runs on consumer-grade hardware in real-time?

The game itself is actually pretty interesting. For starters, it’s more realistic than you might expect. If you shoot and miss too many times, the motorcade speeds away. Shoot the driver and the car swerves. You can view the replay from multiple angles, including the Zapruder angle. Since the entire “level” is so small, it’s actually a very detailed recreation of Dealy Plaza in 1963.

Supposedly part of the goal of the game is to establish that it is in fact very plausible that Lee Harvey Oswald did in fact pull off the assassination alone. However, I got out of it three things. First, getting off multiple shots behind a tree is insanely difficult. Second, it would have made a whole lot more sense to shoot him on Houston Street instead of Elm (leading to the theory that someone else shot him from somewhere else), and last – it’s impossible to actually kill a president with a mouse. If anything, this game makes it harder to believe that LHO did it. Or more amazing that he did.

It’s less a game and more a toy. Specifically, it’s a toy for JFK consipracy buffs, which includes me – sorta. Back when the move JFK came out, I was taken in by the hype like everyone else. Today my viewpoint is mixed – I buy the idea that Oswald did it about as much as I buy the idea that he didn’t. If Oswald didn’t do it – what are the odds it could be kept a secret for 40 years? Then again the show Mythbusters has shown us that those things we take for granted as true actually are pretty unlikely (for example, the guy who flew using weather baloons – Mythbusters could barely pull it off but it did really happen).

My Wife and I went to the Conspiracy Museum in downtown Dallas. It was definitely intertesting, though it does sort of underscore why even if JFK conspiracy buffs have a point, it’s lost on the general public due to their demeanor. We got there and it was closed for lunch. We sat there for a minute and pondered what to do next but the man running the show showed up at that time to let us in. We paid our admission and started to walk around. We were the only ones in there, and apparently we were doing it all wrong. He told us which order to view the items in (always a good trait in a museum – difficult to navigate) and seemed a little offended at our “tourist” mentality. He then had us sit in the back in plastic white chairs watching some clips of the assasination, a clip from JFK, and then a very long documentary “banned in the US” (banned how, exactly?) whose main revelation was that the man on the grassy knoll doing the assassination was in fact David Ferrie. How no one else in forty years has come forth saying they saw this guy running away is anyone’s guess but I do have to give them some credit – in all the conspiracy talk you never do actually hear anyone name names on who did kill JFK – it’s secondary to the notion that Oswald didn’t do it (or do it alone) or which organization set him up.

Anyway what we figure out quickly is that this isn’t some guy manning the ticket counter – this is the guy who owns the place. Like I said the entire museum was neat but since it’s the “Conspiracy Museum” and not the “Assassination Museum”, it’s not there to be objective. They have a particular viewpoint on what happened and why. They believe that JFK, RFK, MLK and others were killed to feed the “Paramilitary War Complex”. The entire museum is not entirely unlike a child’s science fair project – lots of painstaking inexpensive detail, typewriter-made signs glued to cardboard, a painting of the limbs of a tree representing all the aspects of their theory, etc.

The guy running the place reminds me of my friend’s view on Apple Computer. Apple might make the best products in the world but everyone knows someone who’s pretentious about their viewpoints on them to the point of being off-putting, turning some off to the concept of Apple entirely. The guy running the place might be dead-on accurate as to why JFK was killed, but since he and his museum are representative of the conspiracy nuts of the world – magnifying the shreds of evidence that support their idea, ignoring the mountain of evidence that debunks it. Compare this to the Sixth Floor Museum, possibly the best, most unbiased and even-handed approach to the assassination I’ve ever seen. I reccomend it to anyone.

Getting back on track, like I said JFK Reloaded is less a game and more a “toy” for conspiracy buffs. Of course there’s a couple of things which somewhat preclude the “simulation” notion. For starters, they charge money for it. It can be argued that if it was free or had no commercial motivation the quality wouldn’t be as good. If it was a level in an existing game it would be limited by the engine of that game (versus being able to do whatever they want). But that the developer is trying to profit off of the JFK assassination hurts their cause. Of course, so is everyone who writes and sells a book about the assassination, so whatever. The other thing is the fact that they released it when they did – on the annniversary of the assassination. Sure, a brilliant marketing move, but not the most tasteful one. Also, there is a violence setting in the game – you can choose whether or not to have realistic blood in the assassination or not. Not sure how much of this is “optional realism” and how much is exploitation.

But the final thing they did which makes them harder to defend has to be fact that they have a $100,000 contest to recreate the assassination as per the Warren Commision. When you buy the game you get “tokens” to enter the contest. You have to hit JFK at the same angle, trajetory, and timing of the actual assassination. Meaning you also have to miss once or twice first. I wonder if they’ll actually give the prize out (as they claim they will) – if they do then the first 10,000 sales of the product go toward the prize. That seems more than questionable taste to me – it seems stupid.

But whatever, I started writing this post over a month ago and it’s drug on long enough. Is a game about a war too far? Is a JFK assassination simulator too far? Is a Holocaust simulator too far? If the game industry goes the way of the movie industry will we see lots of “artsy” projects with controversial depictions of things in ways people can’t handle? Are the same people who complain that DOOM 3 is just another FPS also the ones complaining about how tasteless it is to do something innovative like JFK Reloaded? I don’t know the answers, but in the meantime I’m going to go watch JFK again.

Schnapple’s nitpick of the day: Quentin Tarantino did not direct Hero

Hero was directed by Yimou Zhang (I’ve never heard of him either)

Tarantino has directed four films:
Reservoir Dogs
Pulp Fiction
Jackie Brown
Kill Bill Vol 1 & 2

(common practice is to consider Kill Bill once)

Tarantino saw the movie under its original name, Ying xiong, and pitched it to Miramax, who decided it was worth bringing to the states – but in an altered form. Tarantino pleaded with Miramax to not alter the movie for American audiences and Miramax agreed – on the condition that it carry the prefix “Quentin Tarantino presents…”

So now you know…

OK, I’m about to write a longish post but in the meantime here’s an update.

Halo 2 – still don’t got. But what’s amazed me is that not only are there still tons of copies of the collector’s editon in stores, but that people at work who don’t know me all that well still are amazed that I don’t have the game.

Half-Life 2 – got it. It’s amazing. Of course, a lot of people didn’t get to play it on day one since, despite not being an MMORPG, once people on the east coast started getting home from work, the Steam servers went in the toilet. I presume their infrastructure was smart enough to separate the “pusing 3GB of content per user” cluster from the “authenticate so people can play the game when they install it” cluster, but maybe not. I know that people who installed the CD version were complaining of not being able to play, but my DVD version told me it would just finish the process later and let me play in the meantime. Maybe we’re just special since we paid more.

But the whole Steam thing is fascinating to me. Part of me wants it to work – I think the industry would be better off with digital distribution and mandatory updates. But part of me wants it to fail – I’m amused by all of those who say that Half-Life 2 is a better game than DOOM 3. It’s like saying that, say, Gone with the Wind is better than Star Wars – not exactly a good comparison to begin with. Maybe DOOM 3 requires Windows XP (or Linux or Macintosh), but at least you could play it day one. Hell, some crazy fuckers got it running on a Voodoo 2

You want to know why we don’t have anything other than a white anglo-saxon protestant up for the White House? Why we don’t have black or female candidates for the presidency? Because the first few to try will lose and neither party feels like wasting their turn. You want to know why companies like id Software don’t want to do something like Steam? Because the first big time game to try it is going to get bit and no one other than Valve has the desire to tough it out. Stardock sells Galactic Civilizations online, but that game isn’t going to sell millions of copies. DOOM 3 was guaranteed to sell millions and id and Activision didn’t feel like messing with that. Hell, VUG is still going to sue Valve before it’s all over. A party will have to decide that it’s worth the possibility of losing before they put up a minority candidate, and a company like Valve will have to decide it’s worth the possibility of taking a bath on sales and PR before we saw something like Steam.

Metroid Prime 2 – I really want this game. Actually I really want to finish the original. Sure, it’s just more of the same, but the same was damn good.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – from what I understand, this is just more crazy weird shit, but not in a good way. People blast Quake for having no plot, but maybe that’s a good thing since the last two MGS games have had plots so bad no one wants to play them.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – I want this game just so I can drive around and hear DJ Axl Rose.

Tommorow is the release of Halo 2. Ironically, despite the fact that I consider myself a “hardcore” gamer (whatever that means) I won’t be getting it. There’s a couple of reasons why – the fact that there’s so many good games coming out, the usual “lack of time” issues, the fact that Half-Life 2 on DVD is eating most of my money, etc. But the real reason is this – I’m just not that excited about it.

Halo was a good game, don’t get me wrong – but it didn’t really “do it” for me. I personally thought that, as far as console based FPS’s go, Metroid Prime was a much better game. Another game I need to get to this holiday season is Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, but since I never got all the way through the first game, I need to go hit that up first. Heck, I never made it through Halo either. Of course, if someone out there got me Halo 2 I’d play it to death, but I’m not one of the millions of people sitting outside right now waiting for midnight and the game to drop.

Instead, I’m one of the ones wondering – what was the big deal, really, about Halo? I mean, it was a good game – there’s no denying that. It did a number of things very well. And when my born again Christian sister wants to do Halo deathmatch like she does at her Christian singles parties, I know it’s penetrated the Zeitgeist. Someone had a theory – people have a soft spot in their hearts for DOOM because it was their first FPS. Some have a spot for Quake because it was their first deathmatch experience. Halo attracts a ton of people who don’t game on the PC and never experienced an FPS before. Most PC gamers detest console FPS games because of the controller, but console gamers who love Xbox are more or less unanimous on their choice.

Plus, Halo was a launch title – Xbox wound upbeing the only one of the three consoles with a strong launch title. The PlayStation 2 could only muster up SSX (not even an exclusive) and the GameCube had Luigi’s Mansion (Metroid Prime didn’t come out for another couple of months). Microsoft is doing all it can to make Halo 2‘s launch rival that of early Rolling Stones albums. Apparently though there’s a bit of backlash from the hardcore crowd. That’s to be expected.

I’m not sure what went wrong but apparently the conversion of Halo to the PC has been considered “botched” by many. I never played it (already owned it on Xbox) so I’m not sure if it was just disdain over the course of the game’s development (originally a 3rd person PC game, then a FPS console exclusive, then two years delayed on the PC) or if it was just considered a below-average game by many’s standards. It occurs to me that I thought the Atari Jaguar game Tempest 2000 was an amazing game on that system, and the critics agreed – but the game was damned on the PC. It occurs to me – it could be that, by Jaguar standards Tempest 2000 was indeed an amazing game but by PC standards it was crap. Perhaps it was too with Halo.

And for some reason the “Special Edition” Halo 2 bugs me. Of course, if I was getting the game I’d probably get that one (same reason I opt for the Extended LOTR DVD’s) but to be so self-congratulatory on a game before it’s release disturbs me. At least when some movie gets a special edition DVD treatment, it’s because it had a chance to prove itself at the box office. But games don’t get a second chance really. Of course if they had released the special edition later, then gamers would be mad that they had been suckered into the “regular” edition. What a mess.

The ultimate irony however is that most non-print reviews I’ve seen of Halo 2 say that it’s essentially “more of the same” of Halo. It has online Xbox Live gameplay and the usual spate of enhancements, but it’s apparently just an improved Halo. Not that this is bad – the sheer popularity of Halo implies it was at least a good idea, and plus it’s not like it’s a mission pack or a pseudo-sequel like the last two GTA titles, but in an industry where innovation is supposedly everything (witness the quick backlash DOOM 3 experienced) people en masse seem to want exactly what Bungie is serving with Halo 2.

Well anywho, perhaps I’ll pick up the game. Ah hell, who am I kidding – I know I’ll buy it. Just not tommorow.