Friday, March 30, 2007

World War II : WWII

One of the most popular choices for video game settings is World War II. I’m sure some World War II veterans aren’t terribly pleased that one of the more harrowing experiences of their lives is now the subject for extremely popular and lucrative video game franchises.

Nonetheless, it seems like every year even more World War II titles are released. What’s so appealing about using World War II as a setting, as opposed to World War I, or the Grenada invasion of 1983? A couple reasons come to mind.

First, taking an extremely simplistic view, it’s clear who the “good guys” and “bad guys” were. The good guys were the Allied forces (again, we’re taking the simplistic view here) fighting for freedom, apple pie, and all of that. The bad guys were the Axis, particularly the Nazis, and if there was ever a group that everyone loves to hate, it’s the Nazis. It’s important, in a video game made to appeal to the masses, that there is a very clear distinction between who is “good” and who is “evil”.

Second, World War II, for the younger generation at least, is seen as a very epic war, spanning several geographic locations, with long drawn-out battles that used weapons and technology that aren’t (yet) completely outdated. Perfect fodder for a video game.

I’m not a huge fan of World War II based games. I think on some level everything that we could present using the video game medium for this setting has been done by this point, and it’s really time to move on to something else. However, as always, my tastes aren’t the norm, and there’s nothing I can do to influence the decisions to make games based on World War II, other than to let them run their course and eventually run out of steam.

To help in the latter effort, I decided to create a “World War II Videogame Name Generator”, using various bits and pieces from existing and fictional game franchises. Go ahead and try it out below. Feel free to use the results, or copy my awful Javascript, and have at it, brave soldier!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hello, I’m a Proprietary Office Software Application

Over the last couple years, I’ve slowly tried to wean myself off proprietary software and find free and/or open source alternatives. This is not because I’m some weird hippie, but rather because I’m a cheapskate.

Well, actually, the more accurate reason is because I’m finding that proprietary software prefers placing the user in an “upgrade or become irrelevant” vicious cycle. For example, I still use Windows 2000. I never upgraded to Windows XP because I checked carefully and decided that the new features were either features I did not need, or features that I didn’t think were worth the cost and hassle of upgrading. As I write this, Windows XP is already yesterday’s news (although still worth at least $120 dollars on Ebay for XP Pro, apparently) and Windows Vista is what Microsoft wants me to use. I actually acquired (legally!) a free copy of Vista Business from the “Power Together” promotional website, and I still haven’t installed it, again, because there really isn’t anything there that I feel I need. I paid good money for Windows 2000, and it works fine for me, so why is Microsoft insisting that I’m a moron for not upgrading? Oh, and tell that Steve Ballmer to get off my lawn before I hit him with my cane.

So, anyway, rather than spend the money on something I don’t need, I figured I’d either stick with what I have, or look into free/open source alternatives. I’m fairly happy with some of the things I’ve found. I browse via Firefox, check email with Thunderbird, avoid virii thanks to Grisoft’s AVG Anti-Virus, use Comodo as my firewall, let IZArc handle my zip-file needs, and use ConTEXT as my text editor of choice this week, among many other nifty programs (legally) available for free.

Unfortunately, there are some pieces of my software toolbox that I’ve resigned to stick with whatever I currently have. Adobe Photoshop continues to not be truly challenged by things like The Gimp, in my opinion, at least when it comes to the interface. But I’ve stayed with version 6 for the last several years. Another fairly important one is the dreaded Microsoft Office, of which I’m “frozen” on Office 2000.

I tried to switch to the free alternative, OpenOffice, once, and felt the performance and feature set wasn’t quite up to what I needed and got from Office 2000. This was a little while ago, so today I was tempted to download the latest 2.1 version of OpenOffice and try again. But I didn’t. Why did I balk? I’m not really sure.

It might have something to do with the size of the task. I switched from Outlook to Thunderbird, and I don’t miss Outlook at all, but my email needs are rather simple. I use Word and Excel for a variety of tasks, however, and some of them are, well, not necessarily complicated, but “unique”, perhaps. I’ve spent a bit of time getting acquainted with both applications as I needed to. I’m not saying that OpenOffice couldn’t do what I need, nor am I saying that Office 2000 is a particularly great application. But at my age, do I really want to experiment?

I guess my conclusion to all of this is, when it comes to software, I'm cheap and resist unnecessary change like a grumpy old man. Maybe in 30 years I'll download OpenOffice and try again.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

These Sneakers Made From Dolphin-Safe Materials

Marc Ecko, the “urban” fashion designer, produced a video game a short time ago. It’s called “Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure”. As always, I’m not making this up.

In this game you are some sort of graffiti artist, tagging to make a statement against “the man”. I assume you get to wear ecko brand apparel while doing so.

Many years ago, and no relation to this game, Sega (here I go, picking on Sega again) made a game called “Ecco the Dolphin” in which you are a dolphin, swimming to make a statement against sharks, and other underwater hazards.

You can probably see what I’m about to do here. Yes, that’s right, imagine, if you would, an alternate reality where Sega decided to let Mark Ecko make the next Ecco the Dolphin game. I give you:

Mark Ecco the Dolphin Getting Wet: Contents Under Water

In this game, you are a street-smart, hip dolphin, decked out in a smart-looking ecko branded dolphin wetsuit, tagging submarines and off-shore oil drilling stations, to make a statement against war, pollution, and of course, “the man”.

Yes, I’m having a slow week.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

May Require Tools and a Pint of Blood

Today I bought a toothbrush. It came in one of those awful, clear plastic, tightly molded packages that are impossible to open. Armed with a pocket knife and scissors, five minutes and several close calls later, I had my toothbrush.

It seems like almost every small retail item these days comes in this sort of packaging. I learned, thanks to Wikipedia, that this is “clamshell” packaging, not to be confused with “blister” packaging (that is similar, but uses clear plastic attached to a piece of paper or cardboard). I wondered just what the actual advantage to the retailer or the customer is. The only relevant info I could find on the web was an article on Wired.

The summary is: It helps retailers show off their item and avoid theft (no, really) and has zero benefit for the consumer. The theft thing, as the Wired article notes, is confusing, since the clamshell packaging is being used on cheap little items like toothbrushes, which are already relatively small packages to start with. But remember that “shoplifting adds up” (according to retailers) and that they usually stick a cheap magnetic strip inside the clamshell pack to boot.

The article claims companies are starting to make “easy to open” clamshell packaging, but I haven’t seen it. What I have seen is more and more products in these packages. What I’d like to see is some sort of device that you could clamp on the edge of the packaging and slice or melt the edge off. Further web searching reveals a few such devices:

Klever Kutter: which honestly seems more like a box cutter, and I can’t see how this would have worked on my toothbrush package. Oh, and apparently it's a French product.

Open-X: A cutter that slides between the front and back at the edge, it appears. Seems like it would have problems with some clamshell packages I’ve seen with extra thick or well-sealed edges. Oh, and I think Open-X is police code for prostitute.

Package Shark: A cutter that has a recessed groove with a razor blade inside to cut off the edge. Again, could have problems with extra thick edges. Oh, and it bears no resemblence to a shark.

So there you go. I can’t endorse any of these products since I haven’t tried any of them. However, I will say, if you buy one and it arrives in a clamshell package, you have the right to scream at the top of your lungs.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sonic: The Wonder Years

Sega, many years ago, decided to create a blue hedgehog as their flagship video game character. They named him “Sonic”. If all of this sounds new to you and you think I’m just making this up, you should probably stop reading now.

Many Sonic games have been created since then. Most fans of the series would say that the games have, surprisingly, gotten progressively worse, even as the technology behind them has improved. Part of this could be attributed to those now in charge of Sonic games at Sega not really fully understanding what made Sonic games enjoyable. Recent examples of this include their decision to introduce an “urban” gun-totting companion hedgehog named “Shadow”, and a general trend to include strange, elaborate, but terrible back-stories to each game.

The back-stories recently took a particularly bad turn in the recently released (and creatively named) “Sonic the Hedgehog” for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. I had the bad fortune to watch the short CG movie that the player is rewarded with upon completion of the game. This video is available on YouTube, but I will not link to it, because, well, trust me, I’m doing you a favor.

In this video, Sonic is apparently dead, or sleeping, surrounded by what appears to be regular, somewhat realistically rendered people. In some horrible Sleeping Beauty story gone wrong, a woman kisses Sonic and revives him with a flashy light show, and Sonic and Shadow go off to live with these humans, happily ever after. Or so it would appear. My description, however, does not do this short clip justice. I somehow managed to convince a co-worker to view this movie, and what follows is a chat-log captured as he watched the clip:

A: WTF. It’s like FF, except with Sonic instead of Aerith.
A: He’s dead, or something.
Me: yeah
A: Oh god, she’s GOING TO KISS HIM
Me: See, I warned you
A: She kissed him, and he turned into Super Saiyan Sonic
Me: ta-da
A: Have they gone totally mental at Sega?
Me: Yes, yes they have.

The thing is, Sonic, like many cute, mascot-like video game characters, really doesn’t need any sort of back-story. He’s a blue hedgehog who spins into a ball and likes to run really fast. There’s your back-story.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

I’ll Have 1000 Glasses of Water, to Go

Jeff Orkin at MIT Media Lab is working on an “indy” PC video game experiment that he plans to enter into the 2008 Independent Games Festival. He calls it The Restaurant Game, and you can try it yourself for free, here:

I’m usually drawn to stuff like this for the sheer creativity quotient, so I downloaded it and gave it a shot a week or so ago. The objective is basically to order a meal at a virtual restaurant, with one player acting as the customer, and the other player acting as a waitress.

My first experience went something like this:

I walked into the virtual restaurant to see the waitress player stacking plates and plates of pie on the counter. Sat down at a random table. Waitress continued stacking pie.

Grabbed a menu from across the room with my powers of telekensis. Asked the waitress if they had any pie. Waitress proceeded to walk over and sit on my table and spin around in a circle.

Got up, walked over to the counter, ate two plates of pie, paid my bill, and left. Waitress was still spinning in circles on the table. Objective complete.

The problem is that the game environment is fairly free-form – you can pick up almost any object in the restaurant, and walk around freely. In such an environment, it’s common amongst us nerds that we’ll proceed to try and do something outside the usual rules or boundaries, since it’s a risk-free virtual world, and we’re inherently curious and mischievous.

Based on reading about this game on various web forums, other peoples’ experiences vary from a very by-the-book dinner experience, to customers ordering 1000 glasses of water, and while the waitress’s back is turned, grabbing the cash register and running out of the room.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Chewbacca is the Life of the Party

I went to a party the other night at the LucasArts campus at the Presidio in San Francisco. This past week was the Game Developers Conference, which means absolutely nothing to those not involved in the video game industry. For those involved, however, it’s a big deal. Well, for some people at least.

LucasArts was attempting to recruit and also stoke their egos a bit and decided to throw a party. They piled a bunch of guys on a bus and drove us to the Presidio, gave us a nice tour of parts of the facilities, and had a little music-and-dance shindig in their dining hall.

The facilities are rather impressive. Picture a large, fairly cutting-edge silicon-valley tech company campus smack dab in the middle of the city of San Francisco, and you’ve got a rough idea of what it’s like. I work for a film company, and I was impressed with their screening room, which felt more like a real movie theater (plus wood paneling) than my company’s little screening room (in comparison). In their dining hall, you can look out and see the Palace of Fine Arts across the street, and to your left, the Golden Gate Bridge. George must be pleased with the location and view, to say the least.

At the party proper, they had a number of actors dressed up like (first trilogy) Star Wars characters. No one dressed up as Luke, which made me realize that in all the occasions I’ve seen actors dressed like Star Wars characters, I’ve never seen a Luke. I wonder why that is? About half-way through the party, suddenly people started screaming “Chewie is here, Chewie is here!” and a rather tall person in full Chewbacca costume made his way through the crowd, giving high-fives, back slaps, and generally making his presence known. I watched Chewie cozy up to the few ladies present, use his height to make fun of the many balding men present, and start busting some moves in front of the DJ. I swear at one point Chewie was going to start break dancing. It was funny to watch, because really, no one at the party was having more fun than this guy dressed up as Chewbacca. I hope Lucas paid Chewie well.

At the end of the party, they had a raffle contest. The prizes were mostly Star Wars action figures (supposedly rare, first series figures, I was told). I must say I have never seen a room full of grown men so excited about dolls in my life. In retrospect, it’s a pity I did not win, because I would have been strongly tempted to take my newly acquired action figure and rip open the packaging right in front of the crowd. Chances are I would have been beaten to death shortly afterwards.

My Life with Nerds

The quick intro: I’m a self-qualified (computer programmer) nerd. As such, I find myself hanging out with nerds, and generally being privy to the nerd way of life. At the same time, I’m observing that some things that typical nerds would consider rather mundane, others would consider unusual and funny, so I decided to create a blog to note the more amusing nerd-in-the-wild stories I come across.

Oh come on, that wasn’t too bad an intro, right? Fine then. Just keep reading, nothing to see here.