There was a point in time in which the group Guns N’ Roses was the biggest band on the face of the earth and with the exception of groups like Led Zeppelin or The Beatles, the greatest band of all time. And this was after one album.

Similar to my following of Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses is one of the other groups I follow. Their first album, 1987’s Appetite for Destruction is pretty much perfect – many rank it as the #2 rock album of all time, just under Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. At the time people even hailed them as the second coming of Led Zeppelin.

A follow-up EP, Lies, (or GN’R Lies, depending on how you read the cover) had their earlier independent release Live Like A Suicide and four new acoustic tracks, including the controversial “One in a Million”. A song like that would derail most careers, but GN’R had too much momentum.

Three years later GN’R came out with two albums simultaneously, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. They were much different albums from their previous efforts – they were highly produced, featured long epic songs and horn sections, and were promoted by the band’s first headlining tour. Most fans came along for the ride, some decided that the new albums were too different and the result of Axl Rose’s increasingly eccentric mind. Izzy Stradlin left the group before the tour started, which was the first sign of trouble.

1993 saw the release of “The Spaghetti Incident?”, a 12-song EP of covers, mostly of punk rock tunes. No one knew it at the time but it would be the last full release from the “original” lineup of GN’R (sans Steve Adler, their original dummer who was fired after Lies). A cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” appearing on the 1997 Interview with the Vampire soundtrack album would be the last song from the original lineup.

For a long time nothing happened. Slash quit the group and started a short lived side project, Slash’s Snakepit. Duff McKagan left at the end of his contract. Matt Sorum and Gilby Clarke were fired. Slash, McKagan and Sorum eventually did have a “second coming” in the form of hooking up with Scott Weiland and forming Velvet Revolver – a band who experienced an unprecedented amount of initial success based more or less off of the fact that they were considered the second coming of GN’R.

Of course the real second coming of GN’R (or the other one, if you prefer) was with the band that Axl Rose was now the only remaining original member of. He started hiring new replacements for his former bandmates and started recording new material. Somewhat quickly, this new GN’R had a song called “Oh My God” ready for 1999’s End of Days soundtrack.

Shortly thereafter, though, the band went into stealth mode recording a new album and very little was heard from them for months at a time. Occasionally a snippet of information would come out, like a producer for the album had been hired (or quit, or fired), or a new member of the band (like guitarist Buckethead – famous for wearing a mask and an empty KFC bucket on his head) had been hired (or quit, or fired).

At some point, the name of the new album came out: Chinese Democracy.

In 2002 there was some hope that the band was nearing completion of the new album when they were the surprise closing band on the MTV Video Music Awards. This was followed by a national tour. However, eight dates into the tour the entire affair was canceled (they had maybe played four or five shows) and the band went into stealth mode again. Years went by without a peep from the GN’R camp, other than from producers or members who had quit. Axl became the next Bigfoot – people would report on seeing him in the same way one would report seeing the Loch Ness Monster (of course, Nessie never gets interviewed by a surprise camera crew coming out of a hockey game)

However, in January of this year, Axl went on record (and more or less came out of hiding) as saying “you will hear new music this year”, which was pretty much accepted by most as meaning that Chinese Democracy would be released in 2006. In February, decent quality recordings of the songs “There Was A Time”, “Better”, “I.R.S.” and “Catcher in the Rye” were leaked on the Internet – the unconfirmed rumor was that Axl leaked them himself to test out the waters. That same month, Slash claimed to have heard the album and said it would be released in March, which obviously never happened. Over the intervening months, Axl occasionally dropped hints about the new album – the most prevalent being that there were 32 songs in some state of completion, 23 of which he was working on completing, and 13 of which would actually be on the final album.

Axl made a surprise appearance on the Eddie Trunk show in May (his first interview in several years), he allowed Harmonix and Red Octane to put “Sweet Child O’ Mine” in Guitar Hero II as a playable song. Over the summer the New Guns N’ Roses played several sold out warmup shows and tried out the new songs. The plans were in place for the European tour over the summer with the North American tour to start in October.

And yet time went on with no announcement of the release date for Chinese Democracy. Axl had a chance to avoid or deny the idea that it would still be released in 2006 when he was asked about it on MTV News backstage at the 2006 Video Music Awards in August, but he still maintained that it would indeed be released in 2006.

In October a strong rumor was posted on which indicated the album was to be released on November 21, but no one has ever confirmed it. When asked about the release date, GN’R’s manager just stated “there are only fifteen Tuesdays left in the year” (new albums are released on Tuesdays). A Harley Davidson ad featuring the final studio version of “Better” was placed on the website on October 21, only to be replaced by a version featuring “Paradise City” (from Appetite for Destruction) with the “Better” version changed to “coming soon”. When asked further on the release date for the album, GN’R’s manager stated “we might not bother with a release date – you might just walk into your record store one day and find it there”.

So that’s where it stands today – the tour is continuing (one canceled date notwithstanding) and the album is still “officially” being released in 2006, but no one knows anything else. As I write this there are nine days until the rumored November 21st date and still nothing from GN’R and/or their label. One potential problem is that the 21st is also the date that the new Jay-Z album is released (Jay-Z had previously “retired” so this release is seen as significant). Employees from record stores not only report that their usual indicators of an impending release show nothing for Chinese Democracy, they also show nothing at all whereas albums coming out in 2007 have at least some trace in the system.

Some speculate that perhaps the management wasn’t kidding with their statements that the album might just appear on store shelves one day. Given that the aforementioned Jay-Z album that’s being released on the same day has already leaked online and Chinese Democracy hasn’t, it might be that the album is being handled in such an interesting manner to thwart piracy (it’s hard to pirate an album if you’re not even sure it’s finished yet). While an album magically appearing in stores would not be the best maneuver from a marketing push perspective, the Eminems album still sold amazingly well when their releases were pushed up unexpectedly to odd days of the week (like the Friday before the scheduled Tuesday) to thwart piracy. Of course those albums at least had a release date to speak of, and GN’R’s popularity in 2006 doesn’t compare to Eminem’s popularity in 2002.

Still, Axl does have in his possession something resembling the final album – he’s used it as collateral to get into clubs (he used it to get a club to stay open on his birthday – the DJ reported handling two CD’s). The “13 songs” statement seem to indicate that the final lineup of the album has been decided on (I find myself wondering why he’s trying to finish the other 13 songs). Sebastian Bach, who hung out with Axl enough to get himself used as an opening artist on their tour, says that he’s heard the album and that it’s “amazing”. Rumors have circulated that people in the parking lots of Interscope (the label, I believe – “Geffen Records” no longer exists) were listening to it via loudspeakers on the building. It’s also been rumored that last week’s concert cancellation (the original official story was that the fire marshals were trying to force GN’R to tone down their show and really force them out, the “official” official story was that the local police would fine the group if they drank beer on stage – but why they would forego a $200K concert to avoid a $250 fine is weird) was due to Axl needing to fly to California to make some last minute decisions on the record (the other rumor is that since only 3,500 seats of the 5,000 seat venue were sold, Axl took it as an insult and canceled the show). Supposedly the cover art is finished and the marketing campaign is ready to go.

And yet – no album. Or release date. It seems extremely weird for an album that’s supposedly going to be released by the end of the year to not have anything remotely more concrete available in the way of information. But then again, nothing about GN’R has been normal thus far – Axl has used the same name of the group despite being the lone original member (Dizzy Reed is a holdover from the Use Your Illusion days but he still wasn’t in the original lineup) and then went on to spend close to ten years recording an album at a rumored cost of $14 million (perhaps that’s it – the record label has already spent so much money they don’t want to spend money to promote it). This truly is the Duke Nukem Forever of the record industry. It could be that Axl and crew have been mum because they’re working so hard on it. It could be that they don’t want to disenfranchise concert goers by stating that the album in fact won’t make it out in 2006 like they promised. It could be that they just don’t know yet at this point when it will be out. It could be that they’re targetting December 26, 2006 as the release date – the last Tuesday of the year. And it could be that November 21, 2006 will see at least something – a single, an announcement, etc. (the “Talking Metal” podcast believes the date will be December 5, 2006 – and there’s some speculation that they might have insider information).

My main curiousity is – what is the point of no return? At what point is it that it’s literally too late to get the album into stores? It’s been said that between Thanksgiving and Christmas record labels “shut down” (which is why the Christmas albums all come out in October or so) and so if it doesn’t make it by November 21st (the last Tuesday before Black Friday) then it will likely come out at the end of the year or not at all. But if this coming Tuesday (the 14th) comes and goes with no announcement does that mean that the 21st is impossible? Or will it really be one of those “walk into the store” kind of deals? And if it is, will the album be successful? Appetite for Destruction shot up the charts with no video or radio airplay or advance promotion, could Chinese Democracy do the same?

And overall, I’m curious about the album because the leaks, to me anyway, sounded good. I know this isn’t GN’R with Slash (the closest we will get to that is Velvet Revolver). I know this is essentially Axl’s solo project with the same name. It would be like if Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was also called The West Wing but it was still about an SNL show in LA and not The White House. I bought Daikatana the first day it was out because man – what a story. I want to hear this album because I want to know what an album from an eccentric perfectionist spending a decade and a small fortune sounds like. Was GN’R huge because of Axl, or despite him?

All I know is – no matter what, if I wake up one morning (maybe next Tuesday) and hear that Chinese Democracy is suddenly on store shelves, I’m stopping what I’m doing and running to the nearest store and buying it. And any CD singles with unreleased songs. It’ll be like 1992 again.

A couple of years back I picked up a game called Metroid: Zero Mission for the Game Boy Advance.

Metroid: Zero Mission is based off of the same game engine as Metroid: Fusion which for all intents and purposes was “Metroid 4”.

When the first screenshots of Metroid: Zero Mission came out everyone just sort of assumed that it was a remake of the original Metroid game. Nintendo had done this before – 1993’s Super Mario All-Stars for the SNES had the Super Mario Bros. trilogy from the NES (including the Japanese version of SMB2) and “tightened up” the graphics to 16-bit SNES standards. So people assumed that Metroid: Zero Mission was Metroid with the “All-Stars” treatment.

However it later was revealed that Zero Mission was something of a “reimagining” of Metroid. They had taken several of the facets of Metroid, like enemies leaving missiles, and some of the level layouts, and then taken a hard left. It was more like a “remix” of the original game.

As a bonus, it contained the original Metroid game, emulated from the NES, as an unlockable bonus when you beat the game (which was sort of weird since Nintendo was selling this game for $30 and also selling a ported cartridge with Metroid alone for $20 at the time).

So I got this game and started playing Metroid: Zero Mission. And it’s really good, and I’m really good at playing the game. And the whole time I’m thinking about how this game is so much like the original Metroid.

Thing is, while I love Metroid, I was never that good at it. I never beat it (though I saw others beat it) and actually I’m not 100% sure if I ever even beat the first boss. But before too long I had beat almost all the bosses in Metroid: Zero Mission and was on my way to the Mother Brain.

So I’m thinking to myself, “well, I bet it’s that in the last ten years or whatever since I played this game last I got a lot better”. And I don’t doubt on some level that’s true.

And at some point I finally beat the game and unlocked Metroid. I immediately fired up the game and played a few rounds.

Now I remember why I never got far in that game. It wasn’t because I wasn’t as good a gamer back then – it was because Metroid is fucking hard

Somewhere around the same timeframe, I got a disc for the GameCube called Mega Man: Anniversary Collection. This was a collection of the eight “Mega Man” games (as opposed to “Mega Man X”, “Mega Man Zero” or “Mega Man Purple Monkey Dishwasher”), the first six of which were on the NES and had more or less the same engine, the seventh was on the SNES, and the eighth was on the PSX/Saturn. I started playing the original games and yup – those games were fucking hard. Like, really really hard.

At this point I have a flashback of having to run down the hallway because my little sister decided after getting killed in Super Mario Bros the answer was to go to the NES console and start beating on it. A neighbor of mine’s younger sister had beat their NES so hard that it required a second cartridge to be shoved in to keep the first cartridge down – she had broken the “toaster oven” mechanism, it seems.

Now, Metroid was hard for various reasons, but one of them was that – the hardware (the NES) was limited and was so new that no one knew what they were doing with it yet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great game and a classic, but a lot of the gameplay mechanics were due to the fact that they were so limited with regards to experience with the hardware and with what it could do.

But it didn’t take them too long to figure out what they were doing – The Legend of Zelda is still a masterpiece and I think even a tiny change to its graphics or gameplay would have ruined it.

And the NES was groundbreaking in this way – for the first time, what you were playing actually sort of looked like what it was supposed to be representing. In this era of 3D graphics we take this for granted but at the time, the NES was the first game system where you were controlling an actual sprite that looked like what the character was supposed to look like, not some green square that you had to “pretend” was carring a sword (which was a green line)

But I can’t help but be amazed at, in hindsight, how hard those games were. In May, a game called SiN Episodes: Emergence was released by a developer named Ritual. It used a “dynamic difficulty” feature to adjust the difficulty of the game to your gameplay style (or lack thereof). There was a bug in the game when it shipped originally and as a result, one section of the game was excrutiatingly difficult. I kept up with the feedback on message boards (some of which were frequented by Ritual employees) and I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard so much bitching and outcry in my life, and I’ve seen people literally beat on consoles before. And most of these people were the kinds who played old NES games, back when games were really hard.

I actually went and playtested this game and what I didn’t realize before showing up was – they literally wanted me to sit there and play through the entire game. The idea behind it was that it was the first “episode” in a series of games and so it is shorter and also less expensive than other games. The concept is known as “Episodic Content” and depending on your school of thought, it’s either the best thing since sliced bread, or a horrible way to bleed gamers or more money.

Now I had a couple of problems – first, I’m not the best FPS player. Oh sure, I like them and all but realistically, I suck at them. And the second problem is – I rarely finish games.

Still, I was there already so I figured give it a shot. And I finished the game in a bit over six hours. And this was on one of their “beater” systems with a lackluster video card and long load times.

And I also beat it when it finally came out – before they fixed the bug which caused it to be too hard at one point.

It got me thinking though – I’m not sure how many games I’ve ever actually beaten before. I know back in the NES era I finished Zelda and Mega Man 2 and 3, and back when PC gaming got reborn, I finished Wolfenstein 3-D and DOOM (but mostly because they just ran out of levels)

Actually, I think it’s one of the big problems in the game industry is that people don’t finish games. They finish TV shows and movies (which is easy enough since the movie or show is at max three houts) and they usually finish books (unless it’s War and Peace or some book they can’t stand) but they generally don’t finish games.

And the biggest reason that they don’t finish games is because games are hard. Movies and television don’t require input. Books just require you to turn enough pages. Music just requires you listen. Games require you to play. Which is great of course – it’s the point. But unless you really really like the game you won’t keep playing. And even then, when the stupid boss battle kills you in seventeen seconds over and over because your last save point left you with 11% health, you still won’t finish.

So the game industry is trying some different tactics with regards to difficulty in length. Perhaps the bravest maneuver I saw was in the game Prey. In the game at some point your character earns some powerup (with a Native American name I can’t remember at the moment) and after that point, when you die, you go through this “afterlife” sequence where you’re dumped out back to where you were before. So basically, death has no consequence (other than a short but annoying cutscene). On the one hand, this on some level helped the game since it made it a lot easier to finish and, as a result, most people who bought the game did finish it. On the other hand this tactic may have backfired since it made the game artificially short – when coupled with the fact that the game just wasn’t that long to begin with, some felt ripped off since this game was full priced.

Another tactic is to break up the game into smaller chunks – like they do with episodic content. Of course, this tactic runs afoul of pricing problems – SiN Episodes‘ three pieces will run the end-user $59.97 if they all remain $19.99 and that’s about $10 more than your average PC game. Although you can pull out anecdotal examples from the past (like the $74.99 SNES version of Street Fighter II) or adjust prices for inflation, it doesn’t change the fact that the consumer basically wants to pay no more than $50 for a full-length game and no more. They don’t like that episodic content is trying to make more money in the long run. They don’t like microtransactions and smaller content releases (the tide turned on Oblivion quickly when the developer started releasing add-ons at $2-3 a pop). They don’t like that Xbox 360 games start out at $59.99. This drives them to wait out the cheap bin or go to used game stores.

And for this the user has to wait. I loved SiN Episodes: Emergence but it was released in May and Ritual hasn’t even released the name of the second episode or a single screenshot from the second episode, much less a name. And Valve delayed Half-Life 2: Episode 2 until January. Maybe that’s the other big problem – the movie industry generally makes their timelines, the game industry doesn’t.

Anyway, the original point of this it-took-way-to-long-to-finish rant is that games used to be really hard and somewhere along the way we stopped expecting them to be hard. We started to whine when we couldn’t beat them (and then we started to whine when they were too easy to beat). We used to eat what we were fed and now we’re complaining about the food. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. Rebellion is a good thing sometimes, and other times it kills otherwise perfectly good ideas.

Way back when I first tried Windows XP, I actually sorta liked the default “skin” that it comes preloaded with. I actually remarked at the time how it “felt” good, and not like it was for idiots or something.

Yeah, that didn’t last. I quickly grew tired of the bright green/blue contrast. I hated that the close/maximize/minimize icons were huge. And outside of “neato” apps, I don’t like the rounded edges of the windows. I’ve been on servers running Windows Server 2003 where the default start menu and its recently used programs list are left on by default. Yeah, I’ve never seen how that’s been seen as more useful than the Start menu we’ve had since Windows 95 or so.

So whenever I do an install of XP, be it for my personal machine or work or whatever, the first things I do, always, are to set it back to the “Windows Classic” skin and the “Classic” Start menu. I guess this makes me the XP equivalent of Dana Carvey’s “grumpy old man” character from SNL. “In my day we didn’t have these fancy windows, we had to know what to click on and we liked it!”

Now really, this is just a personal preference sort of thing but it does make me wonder – is it really just that or is there something else going on here? Do I just like things to be more complicated?

I make my living doing development and a lot of it is using .NET. Microsoft has two main programming languages – C# and VB.NET. VB.NET is their .NET version of VB and C# is more like a C/C++/Java type language. So for example – here’s a code sample in C#:

string s;

for (int i = 0; i < 10; i++)
    s += “x”;

And here’s the same code in VB.NET

Dim i As Integer
Dim s As String

For i = 1 To 10
    s += “x”

So as you can see, the two languages are syntactically very similar (especially in this dead-simple example).

So what’s the difference? Well the C# code follows the conventions put forth by C/C++/Java – semicolons at the end of the line for termination, curly brackets to denote groups of code to be looped through.

Big deal right? Well, the thing is VB people hate that. They see the semicolons as annoying. They see the brackets as redundant. They see C# coding as slow. And the VB.NET IDE enforces this mentality. VB.NET is not case sensitive but it doesn’t matter because the IDE goes through and fixes your code for you – if you had typed “dim” on that first line, it would have changed it to “Dim” for you. Same for all the other keywords. And when you put in that “For” it puts in the “Next” for you. The C# IDE, even though it’s the same binary, doesn’t do this for you (by default anyway, I’ve never looked for it).

So at first blush, VB.NET is the more productive language right? I mean, they do all this stuff for you right? Well here’s where my complicated mentality kicks in – I think VB.NET is annoying and slows you down.

You see those declarations of “i” and “s”? Look at the C# version – you declare s with eight characters. It takes fifteen with VB.NET. And what the hell is “Dim” anyway? It means “Dimension”. Err, what? I don’t want to “Dimension” anything. I just want a fucking string. Oh, and I also need an integer for the loop. I just need it for the loop. Afterwards I don’t want or need it anymore. Not in VB.NET – you have to “Dimension” a integer. You can’t define it inline like you do with C#/. Granted, after this loop, “i” still exists but at least we didn’t have to devote an entire line of code to declaring this just-used-once variable. And as redundant as those brackets are, they are less typing than having to put “Next” there. Plus they make the code, in my opinion, easier to read.

But a lot of people don’t agree with me. They say that the VB.NET code is easier to read. They see the “For” and “Next” (along with the VB.NET “If” and “End If”) as easier to read. No wondering what that closing bracket is closing, you can see the end of the conditional block using natural language. They like how the VB.NET IDE handles the case sensitivity for you (i.e., you type “string” in all lowercase and VB.NET’s IDE changes it to “String” for you). They like how VB.NET doesn’t let you go one second without telling you where you’ve screwed up (C# doesn’t catch certian types of errors until you compile)

So again, maybe I just like things to be more complicated.

Thing is, my belief is that having an IDE do too much makes you actually slower and lazier. Knowing you can get away with bad practices to be saved by the IDE is bad form. Being swift enough to know the syntax and putting your own semicolons at the ends of lines is actually quicker than writing a bunch of code in a malformed method in the hopes of purposely letting the IDE do the work for you.

But then again I use Intellisense and I let the IDE do the indenting for me, plus I like the syntax highlighting so I obviously don’t take this “more complicated” bit to its extreme. Like those crazy fuckers who use vi. I’m sure they’re the fastest text editing peoples known to man but what a way to live.

A cohort of mine shares the “C# is needlessly complicated” mentality and we often trade jabs with regards to “language snobbery” and so forth (I won’t leave C# for VB.NET without a fight, even converting VB.NET to C# by hand to avoid it sometimes, and somehow I’m a snob – even though my cohort does the same thing in reverse). His take is that the “hand-holding” VB.NET does for you is just fine and dandy and makes him more productive, despite the extra typing (in his defense, it does seem like for the extra typing you have to do while coding, the VB.NET IDE does then pitch in and do a lot for you).

And he thought that right up until .NET 2.0 came out.

You see, .NET 2.0 is actually a fairly significant overhaul. In .NET 1.1, an ASP.NET project would compile down to a single DLL binary file, and to deploy it you just copy that file along witht he aspx pages to the server. .NET 2.0 (and more specifically Visual Studio 2005) doesn’t do this. It actually runs the site off of a cache of the DLL in the temporary files folder. If you want the DLL to deploy, you actually have to “publish” your site. And by default, there’s a DLL file for every single page on the site – you have to configure it differently if you want to go back to a single DLL file.

Supposedly this was because people found the old way confusing. People would deploy their source code files by mistake, which is pretty much a bad idea. But to me it’s counter-intuitive. I would (and still do) use NANT scripts to come up with a site that can be deployed from source control. Yes, this relies on an external 3rd party program but it affords me more control.

Also with ASP.NET 2.0, project files are out. No more central csproj or vbproj file. Again, this is supposedly to make it easier for developers – more specifically, in old-style ASP there was no project file (mainly because there wasn’t neccessarily an IDE) – if the page was in the directory then it was on the site. Old-style ASP developers found the concept of a project file too confusing. But this also makes certian tasks (mostly in the era of compilation) more complicated. Something of a catch-22.

In Visual Studio .NET 2003 you decided to pick a project to create and then had to pick whether or not you were making a Windows Forms application, an ASP.NET application, etc. In Visual Studio 2005 you pick “Project” or “Web Site” – so if you create a “Project” you don’t get to pick an ASP.NET project. Apparently people found that too confusing.

So again, maybe I just like things to be more complicated.

And he hell of it is – my friend who likes VB.NET because it’s less complicated than C# hates the changes in VS2005 and .NET 2.0 to make it “less complicated”. I’m not sure if it’s because he and I are just used to the way it worked before and worked through the wrinkles and don’t want to have to change (somewhat akin to those people who decided that Windows 98 is their last OS and they haven’t moved to XP and won’t) or if it’s because a number of the changes that make .NET 2.0 and VS2005 “less” complicated actually make it *more* complicated because now everything you know has suddenly changed.

Of course maybe it’s also that I want to be in control, and I can’t stand not being in control. Well, when it comes to tech anyway.

Ever since a friend turned me on to PC building about seven years ago, I’ve built my own systems. I want control of what’s in the system and more importantly, what’s on them. I don’t want extraneous software. I don’t want anything on my system that I didn’t put there myself. I won’t install anything that comes with baggage.

I’m not the only one that thinks this way – hardcore gamers tend to be a rather picky lot. A company called Starforce makes an anti-piracy solution for games, also called Starforce. A Starforce game relies on a hidden device driver to be installed on your system when you install or run the game. The device driver is at Ring 0, so it could do whatver it wants. When you uninstall the game, the driver stays on. Some users of Starforce games reported that it caused random crashing and BSOD when doing normal things like putting an audio CD in the CD-ROM drive.

Gamers started to avoid purchasing Starforce-enabled games. Myself included. Starforce was indeed effective – since the executable is encrypted it cannot be cracked, but the bad press was enough to make most publishers ditch using it. The depressed sales due to boycotts were enough to negate the added sales due to lack of piracy.

Valve required that a program called Steam be installed in order to run or play Half-Life 2. Steam does several things – for one, it ensures that you’re running the latest version of the game, and updates the game if there’s a new version. It also gives Valve a method of banning online cheaters. Plus you can use it to buy games – I bought SiN Episodes: Emergence without visiting the store. And if my hard drive crashed tommorow, I could download the small Steam client, log in with my account, and have Steam download and install the latest version of all the games I own through it, without needing the install media.

But Steam has its problems. For starters, it’s another program running. You don’t really get to control the fact that it’s there – it’s required. It’s not like when a game comes with GameSpy Arcade and you say “no thanks I don’t want that” – you don’t get a choice. Steam also requires an Internet connection in order to create an account and associate your purchase with your account. It’s a reasonable requirement – it’s not like Internet access is scarce – but really if you were only going to play the single player game of Half-Life 2 you shouldn’t have to connect to the Internet. Steam connects to the Internet every time you play, to check for updates. If it finds one it downloads and installs it – and you’re not allowed to play the game until it finishes. The only solution to that would be to choke off Internet access to the Steam client (via a firewall or NIC disabling) and let it give up every single time. Plus ultimately Steam associates your CD Key with your account permanently. You can’t just take your Half-Life 2 discs and CD key and sell it to someone else. That copy is now permanently associated with your account. They have effectively used it to negate the Right of First Sale.

Personally, I don’t think the Steam thing is such a big deal – I don’t cheat, I like having things up to date, and I never sell games. And most gamers agree. But there is still a small minority who loathe Steam to the point where they refuse to play Half-Life 2 or any other game that uses it, period. I have to admire these people – they’re sticking to their guns. They’re sort of like the lunatic Linux fringe who think that being cross-platform is more important than sticking with Windows development and only getting 90% of the market (they’re small but in their favorite places they’re quite vocal).

But ultimately besides control (they don’t want any more apps on their systems than neccessary) I think the disdain over Steam comes back to liking things complicated – sure, Steam makes some things less complicated but others more complicated (now you have to have an account, Internet access, etc.)

It’s my understanding that acceptance of .NET 2.0 and VS2005 hasn’t been as quick or as swift as Microsoft would have hoped – developers are now saying they’re more productive in VS2003 and .NET 1.1 than they are in .NET 2.0. I think that’s part of the reason. Ironic then that VS2003 and .NET 1.1, which are more complicated than the new stuff are also what allow developers to be more productive. I think that part of that “Ready to Launch” event was not so much because MS wants to give away free software, but more because that tactic at least got it into the hands of developers – the ones they’re still trying to convince to use it.

So maybe I’m not the only one who likes things to be more complicated.

Back in November I went to a Microsoft event here in Dallas called “Ready to Launch”, part of the launch “tour” for Visual Studio 2005, their latest development IDE, SQL Server 2005, their enterprise-level database (probably runs your bank), and BizTalk 2006, a product I’ve only heard about from job recruiters and apparently no one actually ever uses. There was a lot of cool stuff there, vendors, lectures, etc. But the real reason everyone (myself included) went was this – everyone who went got a free copy of Visual Studio 2005 (and SQL Server 2005 and BizTalk 2006). That’s worth taking a damn day off of work.

So here was Microsoft spending untold gobs of money (they had it in the Dallas Convention Center which ain’t cheap) on top of the ton of money they spent to develop Visual Studio 2005 and SQL Server 2005. And this was one stop on one tour, which had hundreds of stops around the world (several units toured simultaneously). All to launch products which they had every intent of giving away for free to people who attended.

To the average person this logic doesn’t make much sense. Heck, to the average developer it didn’t make much sense either – but they went anyway since, ya know, free software.

So what was going on here? Well, this entire event was probably the single biggest and most obvious manifestation of Spolsky’s theory that Microsoft really wants to give away development tools and the only thing stopping them (other than DOJ antitrust violations) is the fact that if they did obliterate the competition (i.e., Borland) then Windows would be subject to vendor lock-in, making it a less inviting development platform (to some degree this is virtually what is happening, but on paper there are other options besides Microsoft)

But what winds up happening is that Microsoft makes compromises. They give away the software, but only to a select few. They only put on the event in select locations (mostly major metropolitan areas) and limit attendance to those who reserve well in advance. They only give away the “Standard” version of the software, the “Professional”, “Enterprise” and “Super Dragon” Editions they reserve for paying customers. And they drag you out to a day-long pep rally to make you excited about developing for Windows, complete with vendors and a catered meal.

And it works, of course. No one says “why would I go to that? I can get GCC or MONO for free and start developing now for free” – they sign up for these events in record numbers.

Microsoft, as everyone knows, relies more or less 100% on Windows. They also rely on Office, but Office is bascially nothing without Windows. They have to sell Windows, or else they can’t afford to do anything else. No one wants to buy Windows unless it can run popular programs. So Microsoft will do whatever is neccessary, just short of freely giving everything away, to keep and encourage Windows development.

Microsoft is in a pretty unique position in history. No other company has ever been able to do what they have done in the same way thay they have done it. They not only came up with the most popular of the early operating systems for personal computers, but they were able to attain a virtual monopoly prior to the massive expansion of the PC market. The hardware changed and got commoditized, but you still needed Microsoft’s operating system (be it DOS, DOS and Windows or Windows) or else you couldn’t run the popular software. Their revenues doubled every year even though no one was buying their software from stores at a retail price – it just came with their machines.

Few other industries are like this. Cell phones exploded over the last few years but no single vendor provides the underlying operating system for them – each cell phone vendor just makes their own. This is why things like Java and Brew come along to try and make programs run on cell phones (slowly, without 100% compatibility). Car makers go to a dozen or more tire manufacturers when they ship cars to dealers. Microsoft was smart, determined, but most of all: lucky.

Problem now though is this – now everyone has a computer. Everyone. Well, ok, not everyone everyone, but when my Grandfather-In-Law has a PC he uses to look up tractor parts, you’ve pretty much reached the saturation point. So now Microsoft can’t make as much money hand over fist like they used to. The only way they make money now, other than selling things besides Windows and Office, is to sell upgrades. So Windows 98 begat Windows ME which begat Windows XP which will soon begat (begit?) Windows Vista. And of course Office goes through more frequent upgrades.

The only other thing Microsoft could do to create more money is to enter into new markets. So you see them do things like create SmartPhone software – basically, their take on the operating systems you see in phones. Since you rarely see them in phones however, it’s obvious that Microsoft doesn’t have what it takes to enter that market. They’re doing OK in the PDA market – they had 30% market share with their PocketPC operating system in 2001 or so, but now they’re doing so well that Palm is considering selling them. Problem is though, people are using PDA’s less and less – they want one device in their pockets, not two (a PDA and a cell phone), so the PDA loses since it can’t place phone calls (and the ones that do are, you know, PDA-sized).

But there is one device which is already in every home in America, even more than the PC – the television set. Microsoft has tried repeatedly to get on TV sets. At the dawn of the Web era there was a company called WebTV that tried to get a set-top device with a wireless keyboard and mouse, allowing people to browse the web on their TV sets. A poorly executed idea (it used a propretary browser which rarely rendered things correctly) it was on its way to death when Microsoft bought it and marketed it as their product. It still lingers today as MSN TV but it never took off.

Microsoft tried to enter the PVR market with UltimateTV but it never made a dent in the market held by TiVo and ReplayTV. They have tried some one-off devices, things that hooked up to televisions and let you view photos and so forth. And most recently they unveiled the bizarre and underused Windows XP Media Center Edition.

But in 1999 or so a guy at Microsoft named Seamus Blackley had an idea that Microsoft should try and enter the game console market, currently dominated by Sony and Nintendo – he figured the inexpensive, powerful, and well known commodity hardware of the PC, coupled with the ease of use afforded by DirectX, would make for an unbeatable console.

Microsoft allowed the Xbox to happen for one reason – they saw it as their way to get onto television sets. And this time it might work.

Microsoft surely realizes that games are the only thing keeping Windows on top. OK, so it’s not really the thing that keeps Windows on top but it sure as hell does help. Firefox has captured over 10% of the web browser market from IE. People have literally moved web browsers, something many people don’t even realize is an option, because they’re so sick of IE and its issues. It doesn’t matter to them that they can’t visit their bank’s website anymore, they’re tired of worms. And a number of people would probably consider a Macintosh or maybe even something like Linux but they know that their games won’t come across, so they resist. Applications have substitutes, games don’t always. If you move to Linux then you can run OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office. Sure, you’ll be missing some stuff, but if you can live without them then you can make the switch (incidentally, the feature-OpenOffice-is-missing-and-I-can’t-live-without-it differs from person to person and collectively keeps the world on Microsoft Office and Windows). But Half-Life 2 is only on Windows. Period. Not on Linux or Macintosh. If you leave it can’t come with you.

So who cares about operating system politics when you’re killing headcrabs?

So Microsoft realizes that they can use the Xbox to get on American televsions. And it worked, pretty much.

The Xbox (1) was a game console, period. They did do a couple of things non game related – you could buy a software package allowing you to rip MP3’s to the hard drive, for example, but the real plans were for the Xbox successor, the Xbox 360. They finally realized that there had to be a hook in order to get onto American televisions, and high-end gaming was it. Unlike their forays into the cell phone and PDA markets, they figured the strength here was also to make the hardware as well as the operating system (in this case, the prorietary embedded OS built into the machine). Heck, they had even tried the make-the-OS-not-the-hardware bit when they teamed up with Sega to make a Windows CE port for the Dreamcast – and we know how that system turned out.

So – everybody wins. Microsoft wins, comsumers win, everyone wins. Right?

Well, one teeny tiny problem. Namely, the pre-existing game industry.

See, Microsoft was able to manipulate the game industry into helping it get onto the television sets of the world. Well, mostly in North America and Europe – Japan pretty much told Microsoft to stick it. And it’s not like the game industry didn’t also win here – they got to deal with someone who’s not Sony (totalitarian) or Nintendo (quirky – people tend to buy a Nintendo system and then not buy non-Nintendo games on it). Sure, it’s the same company that destoyed Sun and Netscape and anyone else who dared compete with it, but hey – at least it was an American game console, right?

The game industry, like all other game industries, wants profit. They see hurdles in the way of their profit. First off is piracy. Next off is the difficulties involved in supporting many platforms. Finally there’s updates, future content, and online play.

There’s two divisions of the industry – the PC and Consoles. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage of the PC is that you don’t have to run anything past anyone, No censors, no quality committees, and most importantly – no royalties to anyone. Microsoft gets a cut of every game sold on the Xbox or Xbox 360, they don’t get squat when a Windows game is sold. But the PC is also the home of the CD burner, so anyone, in theory, can pirate any game they want. Disc-based copy protections, online CD keys and so forth help, but they can all be overcome to some degree, and they’re harder to implement and support. Consoles can more easily lock out piracy (your average person isn’t ambitious enough to open up their machine and start soldering chips) and since they’re the exact same hardware every time, the support costs involved are much smaller – no trying to troubleshoot why someone with an off-kilter combination of hardware keeps getting a BSOD every time he opens a particular door. But on a console you have to get it right the first time. Prior to the Xbox’s hard drive, “patching” a game was impossible and even with the hard drive and the Xbox Live service, it’s not a given the person is even online or capable of getting the patch (it’s not really a given on the PC either, but it is more accepted). Plus the manufacturing options for console games are smaller and every unit sold means royalties to the console maker, on top of whatever the console maker gets paid to manufacture the game for you.

Still, what’s happened in recent years is this – with the increased costs of supporting the PC’s myriad of hardware, plus the fact that the PC has more widespread piracy, more and more publishers are loathe to make PC games. The Xbox essentially was a PC, with its Pentium 3-based processor and DirectX API. Microsoft figured this would make it easy to develop for the Xbox. It did – it almost made it too easy. Many publishers started to phase out PC game development entirely, based off of the idea that the effort to get the Xbox and PC versions in sync wasn’t worth it, so go with the platform that has less piracy and sells more units to people who can be guaranteed that the game will work when they get it home.

This poses a problem for Microsoft. If games leave the PC they leave Windows. If games leave Windows, then in theory one of the biggest reasons the home users stay on Windows at all goes away. The hell of it is though, one of the biggest vehicles for causing this change, the Xbox, was invented by Microsoft. And the Xbox 360, if left unchecked, could just make this worse.

So Microsoft came up with a way to do both – they call it XNA. Using it, developers can come up with an Xbox 360 version and a PC version of their games simultaneously. They even released the game MechCommander 2 for free to demonstrate it. They also give away XNA for free, not entirely unlike their approach with Visual Studio 2005 and the “Ready to Launch” tour.

So far the approach is working – id Software is developing their next game using it, even going so far as to say the Xbox 360 is their primary development platform now. When John Carmack endorses something Microsoft does, then you know they did something right. id released DOOM 3 for the PC in 2004 but it was well into 2005 before a second developer was able to get it running on the Xbox – with cut down levels and graphics. However, Raven was able to get an Xbox 360 port of Quake 4 ready for the Xbox 360’s launch, just one month after the PC version hit stores. And the current must-have RPG, Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, debuted simultaneously on the PC and Xbox 360, sporting some of the best graphics ever seen.

It’s no secret I’ve not been a big fan of the Xbox 360 for various reasons, mostly that I figured it might hurt PC gaming. But now I have a different take on it – Microsoft sees their Xbox 360 platform not as a PC gaming killer but rather as a complimentary platform to the PC. Both have their strengths – no one is going to play Civilization IV on their Xbox 360, but the 360 is cheaper than upgrading a PC and it takes advantage of HDTV. The 360 even integrates with Windows Media Center.

I still don’t own one and may not even bother with one this year, but I no longer hate the Xbox 360. I still prefer Oblivion on my PC though.

A few years back I joined the Stephen King Library, which is essnetially a book club (it is in fact owned by Book of the Month Club, Inc.). Every six weeks or so they would send you a hardcover Stephen King book. The book is designed to look like the original issue but they were usually obviously newer printings. A few books were even exclusive to the club, like the hardcover version of the Storm of the Centrury screenplay, or the misellaneous compilation Secret Windows. Between the SKL and Half-Price books I have a pretty complete collection of Stephen King’s work. Maybe one of these days I’ll even read them all.

Problem for the SKL right now though is – he’s not writing that much anymore. He “retired” a while back but he has like two books coming out this year so doesn’t look like the retirement stuck. Still over the last year or so the output of Mr. King has been pretty sparse. The SKL sent me a “Stephen King Desk Calendar”, which I immediately sent back. No thanks, I don’t even really use my digital calendars properly as it is.

Then a few weeks back they sent me another book – ‘Salem’s Lot: Illustrated Edition. I was tempted to send it back, too, but I got to looking at it. It’s the same old book but with some additions. First, it has portions of the book which were cut out initially, as extra chapters in the back. And the book is “illustrated” with creepy photos. And there’s also some additional side stories, written recently I presume. And the book is a lot thicker as a result. So on my bigass shelf of Stephen King books I constructed as part of my new redone home office, the last book on the shelf is this latest book.

But then a funny thing hit me – the cut out chapters? Those are deleted scenes. The extra side stories? Those are bonus materials. The illustrations? Those are concept art. The attractive packaging? That’s a menu.

The publishing industry has DVD Envy.

Can’t say I blame them – DVD’s sell truckloads. DVD of movies that failed in the box office sell truckloads. Music doesn’t sell, piracy hurts software, and the publishing industry has never really seen the glory it used to have, but DVD’s sell truckloads. Partially because they’re new but also partially because they’ve mastered value added content to the point where people who are otherwise stingy with their entertainment dollars will buy them.

So it makes sense that when you want to make some more money off of an old book you come out with a “special edition” of it that does more than put a leather cover on it.

In 2004 a game called Painkiller was released. A fairly standard FPS in the vein of Serious Sam, it gained a cult-like following without ever completely gaining mainstream popularity. It also spawned a mission pack. It did a couple of things really well and everything else just decently well.

A few months back the publisher/developer released what would for any other game be the “Gold” edition (a single SKU with both the original game and the expansion pack) but for fun they called it Painkiller Black. It included both the original game and the expansion pack on a single DVD. It also had the editing tools, a movie on making the game, concept art, a Penny Arcade poster, developer interviews, a music video, and CPL enhancements. All for $30 and in packaging that looked so good, I decided I had to have it (my Father-In-Law picked it up for me off my wishlist). Another game F.E.A.R., went a similar route and even has developer (director) commentary as an option. And of course Quake 4 had movies, extras, and even the original Quake II game plus expansions as extras in its DVD version.

So the game industry also has DVD Envy, but they can do one better – they can actually put the games not only on actual DVD’s but also in actual DVD cases. Of course in many instances they reluctant to put the games acutually on actual DVD’s but they are many times putting them in DVD cases – the new case a lot of them are using is actually thicker than a normal DVD case and can hold up to seven CD’s on a spindle.

The music industry is the worst however – they not only have DVD Envy and are even going to the lengths of including free DVD’s with music CD’s, but no one even cares really. Go to the music section of Target, or the music store in the mall. Most new releases are now in the special “dual jewel” cases with a free DVD enclosed. Even for really popular albums, when is the last time you ever heard of anyone mentioning the content of one of these DVD’s? This is both because they tend to be throwaway fluff, but also because no one’s buying them. The last one worth owning was included in the Nirvana boxed set, and even it was only worth watching once. So they’re driving up the cost of making the physical product that no one wants anymore.

Of course now everyone is predicting the end of DVD’s. I personally don’t see that happening. People point to the music industry and say that that’s a perfect example of the obsolescense of physical media. No, it’s because music is really easy to pirate, so people do it. Back when Napster 1.0 was hot I knew people who wouldn’t even steal a mint out of the candy bin at the grocery store with tons of music on their hard drives – I don’t think they even realized what was going on, they just thought it was some magical program where you typed in the name of a song and it started playing – something radio lacks. No, I think DVD will be around a while. HD-DVD or Blu-Ray will help supplant it, but you’ll re-buy Star Wars on whichever format wins, you won’t re-buy your DVD’s of TV shows since they won’t see improvements anyway.

People have too much of an attachment to physical items. You keep books on a shelf both to use and to display, and you do the same with DVD’s. The eBook didn’t replace DVD’s and neither will broadband. You don’t shove DVD’s into a binder and keep them in your car (unless you have a small apartment) but you do do that with music. In a way DVD’s can be said to have “Book Envy” but that’s another post.

First, before you read the last part of this post, read the post under it dated December 22, 2005. I really did write that on December 22nd but for some reason Blogger is having issues with the ISP I use to host this. Me and the ISP have narrowed it down to a Blogger glitch and I’ve notified Blogger about it but to no avail (you get what you pay for I suppose) so I finally got off my butt and worked around it.

Now go read the December 22, 2005 post and then come back

Ironically the day I posted that (unsuccessfully) a Century 21 sign went up and the lights at the house have been on ever since. So I guess we’ll never meet the phantom California owners. Wendy figures it’s someone whose transfer to DFW fell through. She’s probably right.

The house next door to ours is a bit of a mystery.

We bought this house in September 2004. There was a house there and occupied to one side. We met the people who lived there. On the other side of our house was an empty lot. I think there was maybe a slab but that’s it. We were told that there would soon be a house going in and sure enough construction began fairly quickly. I literally went to work one day and there was nothing but a slab, came home and the frame of the first floor was up. The next day when I came home the frame of the second floor was up. Within a week the house looked roughly 75% finished.

The house is pretty big, easily bigger than the one we bought. It has a rather large downstairs living room with second floor ceilings, hardwood floors, and a postage stamp-sized back yard. It’s for those who want more house and cooling/heating bills than yard.

At some point after the bricks, windows, etc. went in the “FOR SALE” sign went up. Stayed up for months. Then it was replaced by a “SOLD” sign. This lasted about a month, then was re-replaced by a “FOR SALE” sign. Then after some time the “SOLD” sign went back up. Stayed there for months, so maybe it “stuck” this time. Then the “SOLD” sign came down. Has stayed down ever since.

The odd part though is that no one is living in the house yet. No one’s ever moved in, the front porch light just stays on, and the sprinklers ran several times per day.

When one of these houses goes up the builder puts new sod in the yard, trees, etc. This requires a bit more water than the average so that the grass can “take” (or so I’m told). Centex, the builder, takes this into account when they set the sprinklers. Problem is, no one ever moved into this house so no one ever went in there and turned that off. So the sprinklers went off several times a day (my Wife swears it was like maybe twice, I say six times a day). Every single time I went to mow the lawn, no matter when, I got hosed.

This past summer Frisco went through a water shortage condition. There were literally signs all over the place telling you when you could water based off of the even or oddness of your home number. Once I had screwed up and not watered the lawn in two weeks and didn’t want to wait the 3-4 days to water again so I took the risk of watering on an off day (apparently you can’t program our sprinkler system to all go off at the same time so it took a couple of hours). I was hoping the water police wouldn’t drive by and bust me (fines for this were reportedly $2000 or more). I didn’t run into any issues, but my ghost neighbors still watered some six times per day.

Centex will take care of bills and maintenance of the property up to a point. When we moved into this house we transferred everything more or less immediately. It became obvious when Centex ceased keeping up the property next door, as the lawn started to take on a jungle-like appearance. The upshot of that was that it made it a lot less obvious when I was slacking on the job of mowing our lawn. One day a professional lawn service came over to mow the lawn, so presumably the owners of the house were mildly cognisant of how their lawn looked. Just as the riding lawn mower guy got started the sprinklers went off again. No worry, he just motored over to where the pipe shutoff valve near the road was and turned it off.

Finally, as we started to see the onset of fall this year, I decided to call the city and report my nonexistent neighbors on their water usage. By this point they were nearly flooding their yard and it was starting to affect ours. Plus at some point the weather was going to turn freezing and it’s extra illegal to have your sprinklers on, lest they put ice on the streets. The woman at the city offices said she’d call me back. She called me later that day and said that they had just recieved a call from the owners, who were in California apparently and were puzzled by their $400 water bill. They were sending over a brother-in-law to shut off the sprinklers. Within a couple of days the sprinklers ran no more.

So that takes care of the sprinkler issue – what about the fact that the house is still unoccupied? It’s been sold for probably close to six months now and no one’s ever lived in it.

It could be that someone bought it in order to rent or lease it out. But if that’s the case it’s really odd that a sign to that effect has never been put out front. I would imagine even if you wanted to remain low key about it you’d put a sign out front. Tackiness be damned, an empty rent house doesn’t do you any good. Still, I guess it’s possible they’re just advertising through newspapers or something, but wouldn’t someone have been by to see it by now?

The only other theory I can come up with is that someone bought this house in anticipation of a transfer to the Metroplex, and the transfer hasn’t gone through yet. By that logic, it’s possible the transfer will go through around New Year’s and so come 2006 we’ll finally see someone.

In the meantime it’s just sorta weird and creepy to have this huge house next to us that no one lives in.

I’ve got my full-time job in check, so lately the rest of my life has been taking up the slack in making me supremely busy for most of the time. Also for some reason I’m unable to keep the beginning of a post made with w.bloggar on my hard drive, so I’ll put off that post I was going to make and instead make this one.

Yeah so another year, another console launch I missed, again on purpose mostly. If you count the handhelds of consequence (i.e., the DS and the PSP, not the Gizmodo) then the launch of the Xbox 360 is the third one this year. Of course the Xbox 360 is the only one of the three with people camping out, blogging, smashing things, and the only one of the bunch that the retailers guessed (correctly) was going to be a big hit.

The main reasons I didn’t get one were just the financials – I have a giant desk I’m working on and quite honestly my main PC needs a serious overhaul before I even think of devoting fun money to another console. Plus as I’ve mentioned before, I’m just not that excited about the system.

That being said, I’ve always kinda thought it might be fun to wait on a system and get it as soon as it comes out. Oh sure, since I’m gainfully employed I won’t be waiting in line for 79 hours (especially since these things always launch towards winter and I get my fill of non-bathing geeks at QuakeCon – nuts to that) but to get a system as soon as it comes out is still a neat idea.

However, something that’s been brewing over the years and I frankly refuse to tolerate is bundling. No one will let you preorder a system alone – you have to preorder games as well. Now, if there was a bundle out there that let you get the system and a game that would be one thing – the machine’s not much use without a game of course. However, what about if you just want one and then the game you want comes out a week later? Or if you anticipate scarcity throughout the rest of the year and the game you want comes out a month later?

But that’s not really the issue – the issue is that all the bundles I spotted required preordering multiple games. Like two at least. And another controller. And a memory card (which was always basically useless on the Xbox). And a remote control. And as it turns out Microsoft is enforcing this – they won’t let your store take preorders unless you also have the customer preorder $X in additional items.

One or more of the games for the Xbox 360 launch didn’t make it, so if you preordered those games you had one of two choices – either substitute another game or cancel the preorder. You couldn’t just pick up the game later. You couldn’t just cancel that game. A few retailers wouldn’t even let you pick the substituted game – they decided which game. wound up sending some people two copies of Kameo. Don’t like it? Tough shit – just cancel your preorder and one of the other 10,000 people will take it.

Nuts to that – when and if (oh who am I kidding on the if) I get an Xbox 360 I’ll get it six months from now and pay for what I want. And that’s only assuming that there’s a killer app for it – that is, a game which is badass and only on the console. Right now that’s not happening. Xbox had Halo at launch. Xbox 360 has Quake IV, which I already own on the PC, Perfect Dark Zero, which has very mixed reviews, and like a half dozen racing games. So we’ll see.

On the off chance I have some cash over the next few months not commited to a PC upgrade, what I want now badly is a Nintendo DS. The DS launched with a single decent title – a port of Super Mario 64. And the titles at all, much less good ones, came out at a trickle. Many people figured the PSP would hand Nintendo their ass on a platter, launching a handheld that had PS2-level graphics. But their system, though selling well, hasn’t sold as well as Sony would have liked. And the killer launch titles were ports of PS2 games. And many people bought the thing to play homebrew apps, which Sony is playing cat-and-mouse to break. Today the titles for the PSP are tricking out and the DS is getting a ton of new games. And you can play Mario Kart wirelessly over the Internet. When your console has an exclusive Grand Theft Auto game that looks like its PS2 billion-selling counterparts and no one wants it, something’s wrong.

In any event, I’m off to work on non-post things like the giant desk that’s been kicking my ass for the last month. Long story.

Earlier this year, and several months late, I wrote a longish post about the game JFK Reloaded. I was looking back over that post (which, due to the haphazard nature of my posts, is just like seven or eight posts ago) I clicked on the link for the game’s site to discover that the site is dead, replaced with a terse message. This was last month, in September. The game was released on November 22, 2004 so the site didn’t even last a year.

Which is disappointing for several reasons, mostly that I never got around to actually buying the game. It had always been on my to-do list but I never actually did do it. I know at one point they had lowered the price of the game to $4.99 but still never got it. And now no one can buy the game.

But the part that makes it really interesting is this – JFK Reloaded, at least in its initial form, required that the user authenticate off of a central server when they played the game, somewhat similar to the CD Key copy protection employed by many games in the last few years. However, the argument against this has always been that of what happens when/if the company goes out of business and their servers go offline. In the case of a AAA title like Quake III: Arena, the argument is moot since the game (which only did this when it was played over the Internet) removed the requirement with the final patch to the game. However, as anyone with a stack of useless DIVX discs can tell you, it pays to be leery of conventions which require something you purchased to “dial home” first. Essentially anyone with a version of JFK Reloaded up to and including version 1.03 was screwed – they couldn’t play the game they purchased anymore. One could argue that this comes with the territory of an inexpensive game, and that you merely bought the “right” to play the game for so long as the company exists (MMORPGs are like this – you simply don’t get to play anymore if the company goes out of buisness and turns off all the servers).

Plus, there’s more weirdness. JFK Reloaded was made by a company in Scotland called Traffic Management Ltd. Other than the name of the Marketing Director, Kirk Ewing, no other persons in the company were ever known, other than the vague rumbling that they consisted of people who helped develop another controversial game, State of Emergency. Traffic, however, never had a website and never had another product. That’s pretty much the end of it. Some speculate that the closing was due to immense pressure, including threats from Ted Kennedy to prosecute and/or sue the developers (exactly how that would work given that they’re in Scotland has never been specified) but I don’t think that’s it – I think they didn’t make as much money as they needed or wanted to on the title (not a good sign when it only costs $10 and you have to cut even that in half), I think the $100,000 prize (which we have no evidence was ever won) would have broken them, and I think they just called it a day and closed up shop.

It turns out, however, that just prior to disappearing, Traffic did release JFK Reloaded version 1.1. This version did not dial home or check the Internet, did not care about license codes or any DRM, and also appears to have no traces of the online contest to recreate the assassination. Since it was released prior to the closing of the site it would appear that Traffic knew of their imminent demise. It doesn’t appear that anyone won the $100,000 contest, either (or at least not that I’m aware of).

As a result of this – the fact that the developer has disappeared off the face of the earth and the fact that no other parties (like publishers) are involved, it appears that JFK Reloaded is not just abandonware (software no longer sold or supported), it’s orphanware (software whose parties have disappeared entirely). This makes it pretty much safe for Home of the Underdogs, an abandonware site. You can download the full version of JFK Reloaded here.

The game, if you’ll recall, experienced a large but brief amount of hype when it was released almost a year ago, and for the most part was forgotten. It’s still brought up from time to time – I heard X-Play mention it the other day in the same context as other games like Postal 2 which most gamers wish never existed because it “hurts the cause”. A large number of people still seem to think the game went the traditional route of being put on CD’s and released in stores, or that it was developed by an American developer. And it’s become apparent in the people I talk to that I’m probably one of the only people who think it’s a neat concept. Sure, the “scoring” concept is a bit ghoulish, as is the “gore” option, but as an interactive simulation it’s still quite an interesting exercise, especially since most of the non-interactive computer simulations have been concerned with straight and instant trajectories, not concerned at all with the effects of gravity, wind, non-instant bullets, etc.

I thought perhaps my aforementioned blog post would be the last on the subject, or that no one was as interested in this software post as I was, but someone out there did do a very detailed analysis of the game and put it up at their oddly named site, JFKaos. This site is a fascinating read since in order to put the game in context, it does a rather thorough crash course in the Zapruder film, the various commisions, and the details of what is known and what is speculated about what happened in Dealy Plaza, along with critiques of the game from both sides – people who liked it and people who detested it. I believe the author is overall cynical of the actual aims of the game (which include profit) but the site is pretty fair and even handed on the handling of the subject. If you’ve always wondered what the big deal was with the JFK assassination (other than who did it) and wondered why there’s such a controversy, this site does an excellent job of dissemenating the situation. It appears that the site was put online roughly a month before the JFK Reloaded site went dead.

Anywho, for anyone out there who always wondered what this game was like but wasn’t interested in paying for it, now is the time to check it out. My take is that JFK Reloaded is an interesting concept of an interactive recreation of an historical event, similar to how a wargame is an interactive recreation of an historic battle. It’s far from perfect, and will ultimately go down as a footnote in gaming history, but it’s definitely interesting.

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.