Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Super Nintendo Turns 25

[Originally published on Sub Cultured as The Super Nintendo Turns 25]

The Super Nintendo – or the SNES for short – celebrated its 25th birthday this week. Granted this may not mean much to the Sega faithful from the 80’s and 90’s, but as I’ve mentioned in previous posts I was a Nintendo kid growing up. My formative game time came courtesy of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The Super Mario Brothers / Duck Hunt double cartridge for NES sank so many of my hours that it would be tough to tabulate how many fire flowers I digitally ingested or how many rounds I popped off on my Zapper light gun. When I discovered RPG’s and action/adventure games, that would put my hours logged shooting ducks to shame. I liked the obscure stuff – the stuff that none of my friends had, so I had some stock in trading cartridges with them like Yo! Noid and Seicross. And of course, my personal favorites Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, The Legend of Zelda, Ninja Gaiden and The Goonies II.

My friends and I all thought we were in the golden age of video games, but little did we know that the next-gen console introduced at the turn of the decade would change how the game is played forever. And you know, we were kids. That’s not an exaggeration even given my penchant for hyperbole – in 1990 the Super Nintendo, affectionately known as the SNES, changed everything.

Back then terms like “16 bit” didn’t really mean much to me – all that I was able to see then was how I could do more things, and how games were deeper, and how the technology now existed to make better music and more memorable stories. We had a unit at home now that brought the flash of the arcade to our living room, and gaming went from single player to social time with friends. But still, what was so special about the SNES that brought about this change? It even overtook the Genesis, its 16-bit rival from Sega, which was already on the market with a number of games available.

First off on the list of excellence was the SNES controller. This was the first console controller to feature six buttons with triggers on the corners to make gameplay more complex and fun. This stomped on the Genesis, which only gave us 3 buttons to play with. Sega was forced to make a 6 button version in 1993 to keep up. Anyone who’s played Street Fighter II Turbo and tried to pull off Vega’s jump dive on the Genesis will more than surely attest to what kind of pain was removed just from having more buttons. And that was one of the things that made it great – a six button controller made arcade fighters playable without a cabinet, and more importantly, without the aforementioned pain. It played right into the control scheme of the Street Fighter series with 3 punch and kick buttons each. Even Mortal Kombat titles needed 4 to be played cleanly – 2 each for punch and kick buttons. So instead of standing around in an arcade bleeding quarters into a game for play credits, round robin “winner keeps playing” sessions were how we did things. And good lord was it fun – the multiplayer of our time.

The controller setup was copied and used as a standard for generations to come. Look at your current PS4 and XBOX One controllers. They may have a couple of extra triggers and thumb sticks but what is the core control? 4 buttons, arranged in a diamond, with triggers on the side. Even though it was a big jump from the A and B buttons on the 8-bit NES, it let players have a control method that became second nature.

The controller was only as good as games that were made for it, and the titles pumped out in addition to arcade fighters for the SNES were legendary. Upgraded games with familiar characters came to life on the screen, starting with the Super Mario World title that shipped with the console. That game on its own took existing IP and brought it into a new generation with scrolling levels, a vast world map to travel and multiple power ups.

Even the pure graphical power, clearly able to be seen when dozens of cannons with moving projectiles came at you on side scrolling levels in World 8 left a player wondering what else this machine could do. The Legend of Zelda was upgraded and we had a new adventure with A Link to the Past, arguably one of the greatest video games of all time. And with each game release, developers showed what was possible by pushing the SNES engine – Pilotwings. StarFox. Donkey Kong Country. F-Zero. Each great in their own way, each memorable for different reasons, and each being a genre flagship on which future titles for future systems would stand on the shoulders of. It was quite literally a Super Nintendo. Better tech meant more colors, music with enough tones to provide mood, and it even dabbled in 3D gaming with the help of the SuperFX chip (self contained without the add-ons Sega was investing in, I might add).

And I must make special mention of one of my favorite games of all time, Uniracers. Thanks for wrecking that one for us, Pixar Legal.

Final Fantasy fans in particular were given installments II and III in the series, re-branded from the Japanese IV and VI. Again, these games opened the door to what was possible when technology allows for good storytelling, and elements and themes of these games are even visible in the upcoming Final Fantasy XV.

The SNES became more than just a game console. It was a solid proof of concept that games as a medium could tell a story and draw players into a virtual world where they could connect with their characters, require them to even take notes on some of the more complex puzzles, and give greater choice to the player on how he or she wanted the game to go. It launched an era that made games evolve from mindless entertainment to a real digital experience. And from indie developers to triple A studios, it’s a legacy that still influences what a game should be.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Archetype, Age, and Leveling Up

[Originally published on Sub Cultured as The Aging Gamer: Archetype, Age, and Leveling Up]

What do you kids know about archetypes? They are a set of what psychiatrist Carl Jung called “elements of the collective unconscious” a long time ago- basically roles people play, or a persona if you will, underlying their behaviors. I’ll skip the rest of the the psych lesson for today but whether you know it or not, in our sphere of geekery, archetypes are the basis of what forms characters and situations in movies. And that includes video games. In my opinion, it’s why we’re drawn to certain characters that we play. For games that allow character customization it’s even more true – it’s why we design them the way we do.

Since I started my gaming life with the first Final Fantasy on the NES, I’ve I’ve encountered two types of gamers over the years. The first is the watcher, experiencing the game in the third person – connecting with with the game world from the third person, acting like the game’s God. The second is more me – and that’s the player that not so much sees him or herself outside of the game looking down, but draws parallels to the characters and identifies with them. And it’s interesting to see what kind of characters one identifies with since I do think it says a lot about that person. It’s a combination of what we see in ourselves and maybe a little bit of something we’d love to see in ourselves too. What’s coming next doesn’t really apply to that first type of gamer, since what i’m talking about is player identification with characters. But like I said the second type is all me. And there’s a lot of different archetypes that players like me could identify with.

To break it down a little better, let’s work with some material we should all be familiar with – the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Let’s look at a few of of the characters and how they’re portrayed through archetypes in book and film. Not a complete list, but here we go:

  • The Hero: Aragorn (ok arguably Frodo but I’m sticking with the son of Arathorn here) – the central character around whose journey we see things, struggling to find himself and realize his true potential.
  • The Sidekick: Legolas (or Sam if Frodo’s your hero) – The hero’s trusty and faithful companion. Not the main character in the story but without their help the hero would fall.
  • The Sage: Gandalf – the wise old man there to offer guidance to our young hero and unlock their hidden potential.
  • The Villain: Sauron – for whatever their reason, just wants to watch the world burn.
  • The Trickster: Pippin – through their actions they mess with everyone else’s plans, but inherently their antics magically help save the day.
  • The Maiden: Arwen – the intuitive female and usually the hero’s counterpart.
  • The Mother: Galadriel – Nurturing and love.
  • The Shapeshifter: Smeagol/Gollum – Brings uncertainty to the hero’s journey, possibly a turncoat bastard.
So there are more than that depending on who you’re talking to, and yes in modern times a lot of these are subject to modification, but I think you’re picking up what I’m putting down. We can see them as character classes.

(short break for game rage – if you roll a rogue in World of Warcraft, I’m going to give you hell for your overt trickery and cowardice on principle).

When I was young I always identified with the classic hero. Strolling through killing monsters with sword and board, pushing the attack, and fulfilling prophecies sounded pretty good. Going back to that Final Fantasy on the NES, my lead character was a fighter named Tush (we only had the 4 letters in the 8-bit days). I’d set up my support and away I’d go. I wouldn’t lead with a black belt character for example, because in my head “the guy leading the charge doesn’t wear wooden armor, what’s with that?” And in every RPG since then for a long time, that continued. Little did I know until later that this mildly squishy character evolves to become the game’s best pure physical damage dealer by a mile – unarmed to boot. The same holds with Gandalf in our Lord of the Rings comparison – how much did you cringe when he didn’t know which way to go in Moria? or when he was chilling with his pipe weed from the shire? Little did we know that wasn’t even his final form. Gandalf the White tore it up in Minas Tirith and worked with the story’s trickster to (surprise) trick everyone into lighting the beacons for the greater good.

Ironically now I’m a Jiu Jitsu blue belt with a penchant for collar chokes so you know, things change. My retro-apologies to the black belt class back in ’89.

As we get older (or at least as I got older), we change into different people that place higher value on different parts of life, and have a more balanced and nuanced view of ourselves, including which traits we foster and which we ignore. It’s like our stat sheet changes, we level up like mad, and we start multiclassing for the sake of party balance.

I stopped identifying with the brash and unexperienced hero. There’s a fading amount of that material I connect with anymore. It’s different seeing what’s around us instead of understanding only what we can see. Shooting from the hip was replaced with forethought and battle plans long ago. So who I do see more of myself in is the Sage. I’ve done a lot, I’ve gone through a number of trials and tribulations, and now I have wisdom to pass down and help people as a seasoned sage. I help coach kids in martial arts. I mentor younger geeks trying to make a name in the field. Struggles are different, and one sees thing with a wider lens. I’ve gone from Tidus to Auron. Wrynn to Khadgar. Pharah to Ana. Neo to Morpheus.

Wolverine to… well, Wolverine.

And that seriously affects how I play games these days. As much as the internet has turned Overwatch‘s Soldier:76 into a old man dad for all the other characters for example, there’s pieces of him I can get on board with. Sometimes one feels grizzled or grumpy, or hell I’ll say it, Clint Eastwood-y. And Soldier:76 kind of speaks to that. He can still do damage but can take care of others with heals. And he’s not ashamed to use tech to help him get the job done. Tactical visor activated all up in this point, bastards.

I heal more too. While when I started World of Warcraft I wasn’t about to heal any dungeons, but now in Overwatch I break it down with LĂșcio keeping everyone up with those heals. Healer and Mage classes that stack intelligence over strength speak louder to me now, because that’s my primary stat in life. I live because of my brain, and manipulate tech to do my bidding with a digital staff which doubles as a whoopin’ stick for young whippersnappers that get insolent.

It’s not just games this holds true for – there are other spheres of geek media that this spill over into. I have more appreciation for a well written complex character who’s a little bit older but has far more depth. Because I’d like to believe that about myself. Dumbledore was my homeboy in the Harry Potter series, and I know this may come as a shock and some of you may get a bit angry for what I’m about to say, but Peter Capaldi’s my Doctor in Doctor Who, more so than Matt Smith and David Tennant.

I’m not saying that there’s no room for young and hotheaded in the games I play. I’m just saying people change, and their tastes in things like this, while mundane to most, weirdly have a lot to say on who we are. And I’m in a place now where I can appreciate that.

Because make no mistake – I still have my means for taking down the metaphorical Ganons out there like a champ but…

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Square-Enix @ NYCC - Deus Ex Mankind Divided

[Originally published on Sub Cultured as Square-Enix @ NYCC - Deus Ex Mankind Divided]

Last week at New York Comic Con, Square-Enix was one of the major gaming presences in the city. Among the previews and demos they offered was the upcoming Deus Ex: Mankind DividedMankind Divided picks up where the story left off, with our favorite augmented human Adam Jensen rocking a few new upgrades from past titles in the series. I will say this - the game looks really good, and adds a new formula for gameplay that makes this the most attractive entry into the series yet.

Eidos Montreal has the player reprise the role of Jensen, following the Aug Incident of 2027, when a malicious signal broadcast by Hugh Darrow to all augmented humans caused them to glitch and go insane, forcing them to violently attack anyone around them. After the death of millions, augmented humans (Augs) are viewed worldwide as a threat to humanity, forcing Augs underground into slums and squalor, while Aug manufacturers shut down around them. This environment - that of repressed Augs in a Apartheid-style world of forced segregation - is where the game begins.

Jensen is still working as a covert operative, whose job it is to help find the people responsible for the events of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. While the series has been known to offer players some choice in gameplay, the options in the new title go beyond that, giving the player complete control over how they want Jensen to act, and thus augmenting how the story unfolds.With his various new upgrades, Jensen can be played a number of different ways. As this is a Deus Ex game, the combat option is there, allowing the player to progress through the game through running, gunning, and dispatching their foes with extreme prejudice. There's also a non-lethal option, giving players the opportunity to progress through levels without killing - for example choosing to knock someone out with a takedown after sneaking up on them instead of a ferocious aug-based attack. Also available is the ability to stealth through  the entire game, forgoing violence altogether and focusing instead on not being seen. This might be a great plus for gamers who love stealth games like Thief Assassin's Creed. 

Of course, then there's the tech! Jensen's new upgrades would make any IT department on earth jealous (mine included). New skills include the Icarus Dash and Icarus Ram, some of the skills that are helpful in a non-lethal play option. The coolest upgrade, in my opinion, is the Titan Shield. This baller-as-hell aug upgrade lets Jensen encase himself in a sweet shield, rendering him impervious to damage as he handles business. Also visually probably one of the most satisfying things from the demos.

Mankind Divided also provides an upgraded hacking system as well as smart vision, allowing Jensen to see loot that would normally not be seen by the player's naked eyes.

But there's a bit more to it than that. Even though this was a big demo at NYCC, I recall a conversation I had with Stéphane Roy, Executive Producer on the project back at E3 this summer about some major themes in the game. I asked him about some of the details of this separatist society portrayed in the game evoking player emotions, and whether or not there was any social commentary involved in that aspect. His response:

"It's complex. It's complex because we work on that type of details for guys like you, you know? We want to make sure that if you play and pay attention you will notice all these small things and you're going to start really being in this universe. Nothing is black and white in real life so we want to make sure that the subtleties are around you and you truly believe in this. So it's a lot of work for us because if we decide to change something here there are ripple effects and it could mean that we have to change something in this mission by changing something here. So it's demanding for the team, but at the same time at the end when everything is like this, I really want to suck you into the story and you're trapped. And to be able to do that, we have to have this kind of details."

He went on with some more commentary on choice in games:

"We want to make sure that choices and consequences are really important. I want to make sure when you're faced with choice, it won't be easy. 'What should I do? Who am I? What are my values?' So like you just said because you saw this guy and think it's unfair, when it will be time to make a decision, I guarantee it's going to affect your judgement, and I think this is where the richness of the product will flourish. You can see it."

Mankind Divided so far looks like way more than than just a shooter or an action game. Eidos Montreal has really used the medium to try to deliver something that's more than pure basic fun. Want to see what we did at the last couple of shows? Check out the gameplay trailer below complete with commentary.

Look for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided to release on February 23, 2016.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Adult Swim @ NYCC: Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter

[Originally published at Sub Cultured as Adult Swim @ NYCC: Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter]

Imagine, if you will, a small peaceful town in Vermont, land of the Bed & Breakfast. Now mash it up with werewolves and a neon-clad savior intent on stopping them. Now envision that whole strange and twisted scenario in the hands of Adult Swim. That is Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter, and it's coming soon to a television near you.

This past week at New York Comic Con I got the chance to talk to some of the folks that are a part of this project to see more on what this show is all about. The show stars Jon Glaser (you know him from Parks and Recreation, Girls, and Delocated) as the titular Neon Joe, who makes it his life's work to battle lycanthropy in this tiny B&B-laden Vermont town. Also featured are Scott Adsit(30 Rock, Big Hero 6) as a colorful local who wants to be Joe's BFF and Stephanie March (Law & Order: SVU) who plays, in her words, the "randy lesbian mayor" of the town.

The show was recorded as "the craziest miniseries of all time," being chunked into five 30 minute episodes with a continuous storyline, which is a bit of a departure from the deliciously random 15 minute episodes on Adult Swim that we're used to enjoying. "It's just like Roots," Adsit joked about the miniseries format. "With werewolves, definitely no vampires, we can be very specific about that" March added.

But the real fun is how the show even came to be in the first place.

"I was on Jimmy Fallon's show I think it was 3 years ago maybe to promote the finale of Delocated, another show I made for Adult Swim," said star and creator Jon Glaser. "And I wanted to do something just dumb to amuse myself for the segment and not have a straight interview, so I took the two articles of clothing that I own and that I use for live comedy shows in New York, one of which was a neon yellow hoodie and a knit cap from American Apparel and another of which was a pair of Coors Light sweatpants. And I just paired them arbitrarily and went on the show and I just said 'I'm really sad Delocated is over but I'm really excited about my new project it's called Neon Joe,Werewolf Hunter and I'm dressed as the character right now. And that's really all we have right now but we're excited to kind of figure out the rest.' And that was 100% made up, it was a fake idea. It was not a real idea for a TV show I had, and I kinda thought at the time I could see Adult Swim knowing it's a joke and saying it still sounds funny, could that be a show? And I said sure, and that's what happened. So we had a meeting and they said why don't you write a pilot and see if it's something."

Yes kids. This show was born from an arbitrary joke Jon Glaser made to Jimmy Fallon. That joke became a meeting, that meeting led to a character, and now we'll be able to see the final product on Adult Swim.

"It's really treated like a super dramatic show - it's a stupid comedy" he said about Neon Joe.

That one joke and idea with a crazy set of characters was enough to draw a great cast of actors for the project, all of whom were trying pretty hard to tell us things without really telling us too much of the plot. Within a twenty minute timeframe, the show was described as being an epic miniseries with tones of Don Quixote and a little bit of Batman. "I would say it's about our hero's epic journey to himself. To return to himself as we follow his plights and his struggles" was what Stephanie March could tell us about the character of Neon Joe. As for the plot, "By the end you will know definitively whether there's werewolves in this universe or not" from Scott Adsit.

That comment later on sparked a bit of hilarious tension between Glaser and Adsit to the delight of everyone at the table.

"It's Glaser sensibilities," Adsit said about the show's humor, "and Glaser is a brilliant original voice in comedy as far as I can see. Everything filters through him and he's so incredibly funny in this role he's created for himself. It's really really a pleasure just to be on the set and watch him work through this script that's really funny, and he's really good at it."

I also got to speak with Steve Cirbus (DelocatedGotham) and Steve Little (The Heart She HollerAdventure Time, Eastbound and Down), who play the town's sheriff and janitor. The sheriff has almost a buddy cop relation with Neon Joe, with Cirbus agreeing with me (one sec while I praise my own ballerdom) that their relationship is akin to Commissioner Gordon and Batman. Steve Little had his own fun story on why he joined the cast:

"I had a good time on The Heart, She Holler, then I got an email about this and then I forwarded it to my manager because sometimes like you get something called Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter and you don't know how to even process that. And then my manager was like 'Oh! I love this!' - you know, a testament to her." He'd never worked with Glaser before so he wanted a second opinion, watched Delocated and jumped in.

Do yourselves a favor and watch this amazing trailer from Adult Swim:

Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter starts on December 7 and will play one episode per night through the 11th at midnight. Seeing a cast that has this much fun together with a plot as wonderfully twisted as this is, I can't wait to start watching.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Konami Sells Insurance For Your Metal Gear Solid Base

[Originally published on Sub Cultured as Konami Sells Insurance For Your Metal Gear Solid Base]

Yesterday I read about a... well we'll call it a questionable microstransaction opportunity from Metal Gear Solid V, specifically targeted towards multiplayer action. In multiplayer mode, players operate FOB's (short for forward operating bases). And much of the play relies on infiltrating other players' bases and causing as much havoc as possible through event FOB missions. Of course when a FOB gets raided, there's going to be some damage. There's going to be a loss to the player that got raided that has to be replaced. So what can a concerned FOB operator do to gain some peace of mind during these troubling raid events? They can spend real money for fake money to insure their precious bases.

In digital software, especially in gaming, we've all begun to grow accustomed to the now-standard revenue scheme called the microtransaction. For the sake of the uninitiated: A microtransaction is any kind of purchase a player makes for an in-game benefit, from cosmetic changes like costumes and skins to game-changing items like powerful weaponry or even an expansion pack.

Yes, it's a fancy word for DLC with less emphasis in the C.

Even on the surface it smells like bullshit, and we've all gone for it. I've paid for character unlocks and costumes and skins and a number of other things for the games in my collection, feeling both dirty and satisfied at some sort of perceived value simultaneously. See that's how they get you - they set the price low enough so that it doesn't seem so bad to pay it, and makes you forget that you probably already spent upwards of $50 on the game you're playing. And if the game is free to play up front, you're even more inclined to purchase DLC because "hey, I didn't actually pay for this game to begin with."

Microtransaction riddled freemium games... have a special place of scorn in my heart, but this post isn't about that particular scourge right now.
I'm not saying it's all bad. Anyone who paid for Burial at Sea for BioShock Infinite for example is not complaining about the money the spent for that particular nugget of DLC. It got rave reviews across the board. But then there are others that fall far short of that mark - hell, fall short of anything positive at all. Remember World of Tanks' custom paint job that you could buy as premium, content? And remember when that premium content expired?
So it's easy for us to traverse from the good to the bad. But then there's the outright strange. So where was I again? Right...

FOB Insurance.

I kid you not my friends, you can now sign up for an insurance policy with Konami to compensate you for any losses during a raid on your base. It insures your base from theft. The player doing the raiding still keeps all of their spoils, but you, the hapless victim, are entitled to compensation. See details right from the MGS:The Phantom Pain website.

It's actually a fairly original idea as far as player services in multiplayer games go, but here's the issue - insurance is paid for with MB coins, a resource that is sporadically given out for free as bonuses, but has a very real exchange rate with real world currency. I couldn't find anything on the US PSN Store, but the South African PSN Store charges R 14.00, which is a little over $1 US. Here's official word from Konami:

Your FOBs are always at risk of coming under attack. Now, you can rest easy with FOB insurance (paid service). If you sign up for insurance, then during the insurance period you will be compensated for any materials and staff lost due to rival infiltrations.
* Staff/materials stolen by the rival will in fact remain on your base, and an identical amount of staff/materials will be handed over to the rival instead.
* MB Coins are purchased with real money, but free MB Coins are also distributed periodically as login bonuses, etc.
* The following are not covered by FOB insurance:
Staff/items that are not fully your property, such as abducted staff being held in your Brig (FOB)
Wounded staff (staff lost due to death or extraction will be compensated)
Staff used by you to deploy in defense of the FOB (neither death nor extraction will be compensated)
Nuclear weapons

Well hell, my nuclear weapons aren't covered? Lame. So you kids take that in, and let us know what you think about this next level in microtransactions in the comments below. How would the pitch go when the insurance salesperson comes to your house? "Do you ever worry that all your base are not belong to you? I'm selling peace of mind."

But how important is that piece of mind? I'm not sure how many people would take part in this insurance program, especially at the cost of real money. Granted, it's only about a buck or so for 100 coins but there's no word on how many coins a insurance policy would be. The risk of any loss at the base is part of the multiplayer experience though, and I'm fairly certain that those playing Metal Gear Solid V already accept that as part of the mechanic. Whenever a base does get hit a player is still only feeling a... Phantom Pain. It's a weird safety net addition to the game, and as all safety nets do, in my opinion it'll result in slightly more reckless play. Maybe that was the plan to begin with?

In the meantime I will be contemplating using real money for virtual money to protect virtual things from thievery. Maybe my insurance company could bundle this with my house and car? 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

14 Year Old Irving, TX Technology Student Arrested for NWB (Nerding While Brown)

So I haven't put anything up here in a good long while. Sorry kids, I've just been busy. You know, life and everything. So you can imagine it's something fairly noteworthy that would make me pull out the keyboard and put some digital pen to paper without delay.

See late last night there was something I saw on my social feeds that took my mind through a number of degrees of pure fire. I only had the energy to pen a handful of tweets as a preliminary rant but this is something I still woke up mad about in the morning. A 14 year old student was arrested for bringing a homemade clock into school to impress his teachers.

OK. So on its face, regardless of any additional facts this is an absolutely ridiculous headline. Now let's add some details - the student's name is Ahmed Mohamed and the school district is Irving Independent School District in Irving, Texas.

Ahmed is a budding technologist and tinkerer and the clock in question is a basic circuit with 4 seven-segment displays - 2 for the hours and 2 for the minutes. Anyone that has even seen anything similar can tell you it is a pretty basic circuit that executes the simple function of counting. However when he showed the clock to his engineering teacher (his engineering teacher), Ahmed was advised not to show it to anyone else. When it beeped in English class, he took his invention to show his teacher afterwards. Her response? That it "it looks like a bomb." The clock was confiscated and later he was pulled from class to a room where officers were waiting to interrogate and search him.

One even remarked "Yup. That's who I thought it was."

"...Yup. That's who I thought it was."

The officers weren't there to tell him his clock was cool. they were there to accuse him of trying to build a bomb while the school threatened him with expulsion. Soon afterward he was escorted out of the school in handcuffs by police, taken to a juvenile detention center, fingerprinted and had mugshots taken.

Ahmed tinkers and creates a number of inventions at home, and was part of his school's robotics club in middle school and was looking for ways to continue that interest as the high school year began. Watch his video interview below from the Dallas Morning News:

In the interview he states that he wasn't able to talk to his parents until after the interrogation and they could collect him from the juvenile detention facility. "I went home and talked to my parents about it because I couldn't call my parents during the interrogation," he says before he explains his digital clock - you know, since this incident tells us that some people don't know what digital clocks are, and every timed seven-segment display is wired like a "movie bomb." He goes on to detail the demoralizing and dehumanizing process he then went through as authorities tried to trump up his basic tech project into an act of terror.

We're living in an era now where young students across the country are being encouraged to pursue projects and knowledge in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math). And that's exactly what this was. It was a kid with a lean for technology. And while it should have been fostered and encouraged, the elements of a stereotype attached to a name and a shade of skin color are what made this different. Lets's be honest now - if this was about a stereotypical-looking American kid named Billy and not a brown kid named Ahmed, it would have been a gold star and a "way to go" instead of cuffs and fingerprints.

That's right kids, Texas. Where you can arm your kids with assault rifles, but God forbid a brown student interested in technology conducts a technology project in a school district that brags about their "top digital district" award.

This isn't the first case of educational authority criminalizing minority curiosity. A 16-year old Florida honor student was expelled in 2013 for an outdoor science experiment, and in addition to that arrested and charged by the Assistant State Attorney with possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school and possessing destructive devices. Both are felony counts where she would have been tried as an adult. The criminal charges were dismissed, but the felony arrest takes five years to clear from a record, according to her lawyer.

Curiosity should be for everyone, especially America's young people. These are our future scientists and engineers that will push American ingenuity and technology forward. In addition to that, what Ahmed had to go through is the nightmare for brown people across the country. It's incidents like this that erode the trust of American minorities in authority - harmless and innocuous events being picked up by people in power and puffed up to make it look like they're fighting the good fight for the security of our country against the dangerous scourge that is a 14 year old kid. Congratulations Texas, you made him say this: "It made me feel like I wasn't human. It made me feel like a criminal."

No kid should have to shoulder that.

The engineering teacher should have been able to tell authorities that it was in fact just a clock and there was nothing nefarious about his project.

And to preemptively counter arguments on "well maybe it's not about being brown," let me stop you right there and explain something. Everyone that looks like Ahmed has gone through several incidents or experiences in the last 15 years that change how they see the world and the society, by making us very aware of our name, and the tone of our skin, and the immediate fear of that difference leading to ill consequence. How do I know? Because I've been there. Thank the universe that it was nothing as severe as what Ahmed had to go through this week, but these kind of events change a person, and I say that as an adult. I cannot imagine how it would possibly impact a child.

Here's to me the worst part about it - how will this story affect other young minority makers, tinkerers, scientists and engineers in their comfort level and perceived ability to share and work on something with their teacher or the world without threat of consequence? the country's nerd hearts must have simultaneously broke when they read "he's vowed never to take another invention to school again."

I wonder how me and my tech loving cohorts would have fared in life if teachers called cops whenever we had physics lab?

If this is a case of a prohibited item being brought into school then ok, I get it. But I get it proportionally. Punish him accordingly if that's the case. Maybe detention maybe for not following the student handbook? 1 day suspension at worst? Definitely not suspicions and accusations of a bomb or hoax bomb.

See more of how people around the country stand with Ahmed with the twitter hashtag #IStandWithAhmed.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Nintendo's Satoru Iwata Dies at 55

[Originally published at Sub Cultured as Nintendo's Satoru Iwata Dies at 55]

Nintendo Co., Ltd. deeply regrets to announce that President Satoru Iwata passed away on July 11, 2015 due to a bile duct growth.

The gaming flag flies at half mast today, as that was the long and the short of it in an official press release from Nintendo yesterday marking the death of President Satoru Iwata, one of the titans of the game industry in recent history. Due to his medical condition he had to skip this year's E3 under direction of his physician and shortly after underwent surgery to try and remove the growth as he revealed in a letter to shareholders on June 24.

The loss of Iwata isn't isolated just to Nintendo but rather to the entire gaming industry. This was the man who took the reins from Hiroshi Yamauchi, the revolutionary that took Nintendo from a playing card company to a household name in video games. During his tenure as President of the company (and the first person to be so outside of the Yamauchi family), Iwata continued the legacy and oversaw the development and overwhelming success of the Nintendo DS line of handheld consoles as well as the Nintendo Wii. That's not to say that during his time we didn't also see the underperforming GameCube and Wii U, but through all of the company's ups and downs, Iwata was still an icon and loved by the industry and fans.

Part of this can probably be attributed to his start as a developer, working on games like EarthBound and the Kirby games while at HAL Laboratory and ending up creating Super Smash Bros for Nintendo. It was that technical background that helped him to jump Nintendo from the Game Boy to the DS line of handheld devices, as well as the Wii on the home console side. For those keeping score, the Wii was one of the first consoles to offer games played using motion control as opposed to a traditional controller or gamepad, beating (and/or inspiring) Xbox's Kinect and PlayStation's PS Move by 3-4 years. It's not overly common to see someone who started as a programmer end up as a CEO, but for Iwata it was one of the drivers for his success.

He always strived to keep the spirit and original core of Nintendo alive - to make games for everyone from children to adults. Something we could easily see by games like Brain Age for the DS that target folks outside of the stereotypical gamer demographic. He also unabashedly was a developer and kid that loved games at heart, and loved the fans that loved him back. We saw that in things like Iwata Asks, where he gave gamers and fans behind the scenes looks at games by interviewing developers himself on franchises like Zelda, Mario and other games across Nintendo platforms. And here's another bit from his 2005 keynote at GDC that speaks to the kind of leader he was:

If you don't mind, I will finish today with memories from one more franchise in my development career - Super Smash Bros. At the time it was being developed for Nintendo GameCube, I was already working full time for Nintendo. But my heart told me I was still a developer. So, as president, I assigned myself to HAL to rejoin the team finishing the game. Once again, I was living on the developer's diet of chips, pizza and rice balls, and working through the night.

For all he's done for Nintendo, for all he's done for the gaming industry, and for all he's done for the fans - Thank You, Mr. Iwata.

Friday, June 12, 2015

10 Years of Zenescope - a Q&A with Ralph Tedesco

[originally published at Sub Cultured as 10 Years of Zenescope - a Q&A with Ralph Tedesco]

A few weeks ago I met with some of the folks at Zenescope Entertainment at Wizard World Philadelphia. You may know them from their core titles in the Grimm Fairy Tales universe. They've been a mainstay here in the Philly area for 10 years now, and you can't really talk comics in Philadelphia without including Horsham-based publisher Zenescope. I got a chance to speak with co-founder Ralph Tedesco about their 10th anniversary and how the company's come up over the last decade.

Tushar Nene: First off, congratulations, 10 years is a huge milestone. So now 10 years in, if you look back at what your mission or your idea was back then and look at that versus where you're at now - how do you match that up?

Ralph Tedesco: "Hm... Different! Wow that's a good question, you stumped me early! We didn't really know I don't think, we first just set out to make a comic book series, we were never going to make more than a couple titles initially. And we had also thought about doing creator owned and finding a publisher such as Image - at the time I think there were other creator owned typed labels out as well back then that we considered going through. Then it kind of just took on a life of its own and started to evolve into more of a publishing company and doing more titles, and we realized after a year or two we had something special going on. And we decided to expand and try to compete in this market. And 10 years later, I can't complain. Of course you want to be competitive and being a top 3 publisher is hard, I mean you have Marvel or DC and other great publishers out there. So I guess we're happy but never satisfied."

TN: A lot of your success over the last decade has come from the Grimm Fairy Tales universe, which has a lot of popular titles drawn from a lot of familiar Grimm characters. What is it about that universe that makes it work for you - or where that draw comes from?

RT: "It just seemed like it made sense - when we first decided to publish Grimm Fairy Tales the first series, we just had a simple idea. The original fairy tales are dark and twisted, wouldn't it be cool if we went back to the roots of the originals and added our modern twist to it and make it different, you know? It was simple - it was The Twilight Zone meets fairy tales. But then once we did that and had a positive reaction and started selling copies right away we thought hey this was something we could do with other public domain characters, and public domain stories like Wonderland. It kind of made sense to say since we're going this way with a lot of our titles, let's just create a universe that's interwoven like Marvel has their universe and DC has their universe, right? So I think again, it was initially not planned, then a couple years in we started realizing it made sense, and it just became very... I guess natural, it was a natural evolution. And then we said hey this fits like Robyn Hood - let's reinvent her as a badass archer and she's female. Let's reinvent Sinbad - and then it became really fun. Let's reinvent all these characters that people know and then add new characters to these worlds that we invented, and it became our world."

TN: I was here last year talking to Pat Shand about BAR Maid. You have a couple of titles like that are completely outside of the Wonderland universe - you guys have any plans for more stories that aren't a part of that core?

RT: "We do that now and we've done that for a while - not every story we want to tell fits inside the Grim universe so we always expand outside of that. For example we've done stuff like Monster Hunter Survival Guide, The Waking, Fly."
"I think a few titles a year we like to just kind of say hey, not everything needs to fit into this universe - only if it makes sense and it works. Of course Grimm fans and the fans of the universe want to see more universe stuff, so it's a harder sell I think sometimes - I think sometimes it takes a bit more marketing and a little bit more hey, if you like our main titles in the Grimm universe take a chance on this stuff outside the universe."

TN: You're also known for a lot of racy art on your covers, and you have a lot of racy variants. So when you bring back a character like Robyn Hood in your universe as a badass archer and there's these sexy variants of her, how do you feel about that and what kind of reaction do you get from readers?

 "One thing we realized early on, if you read our books the interiors are not really sexualized, there's not a l
ot of risque going on inside of the books. The covers - we will do variants that are sexy. I mean it sells books - unfortunately that's what the market said.  What we started doing was doing some variants and we'll have some sexy variants and non-sexy variants - I mean I think the people that complain about some of the covers don't read the books a lot of times, because we have made an effort to really make sure - our titles have never been about anything to do with sex or being over the top for the sake of being over the top. They're about telling good stories. So the people complaining about the covers probably are the people that don't read the books. Fair enough, but at the same time we feel it's a minority that are up in arms about it, so we don't worry about it too much."
TN: So literally, you're saying don't judge a book by its cover?

RT: "Haha right, don't judge a book by its variant cover. That's the best I can say it. I mean we have a ton of female readers so that's what's cool, we have a lot more than I think some other companies do - I'm not saying it's a majority of readers - I don't think there's a majority of female readers in comics unfortunately, but it's growing. A lot of female readers have come to us and said Hey my boyfriend took me to a comic book store and I didn't want to be there, and I saw your titles on the shelf and I love your stuff. Most of our characters are female leads and they take care of themselves. Yeah there's variant covers that have a sexier vibe to them, nothing pornographic that I feel is overly suggestive - especially now as we've evolved we've been more conscious about that. And then we have covers that are just plain badass and cool, so there's something for everyone."

For their 10th anniversary they're publishing 6 10th anniversary one-shots based on their titles, from Snow White to Van Helsing. Tedesco said these are meant to be new reader friendly oversized double issues that someone new can jump immediately into, and are coming out with new titles later this year's at SDCC. Some of the new titles? One for one of their newer more popular characters, Baba Yaga, and Aliens vs Zombies, described as just a mash up of different genres.

So in the Philly Area, Zenescope continues to grow both their company and their core Wonderland universe with more titles on the horizon. You can check out more of what's going on at Zenescope at their blog here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Diablo III's 3rd Birthday Party? Totally NOT the Cow Level

Happy Birthday Diablo III!

Blizzard’s latest installment in the demon-slaying action RPG series turned 3 this past weekend, and they decided to do something a little special for D3 players by addressing all things bovine and the secret cow level.

The cow level was mostly a running gag by Blizzard that began back in the first game in the Diablo series. If you clicked one of the cows in Tristram enough times, instead of the requisite “moo” the player’s character would break the fourth wall and talk to the player – telling us either “Yup that’s a cow alright!” and reminding us that “Hey, I am no milkmaid!”  As we clicked more, the game cycled through more of these quips from our character. This little easter egg was what prompted the rumor of a secret cow level, which as legend has it, stated a portal to it could be opened if a player clicked a cow enough times. It’s alright, I clicked the hell out of those cows too – it was such a ridiculous thing that I had to see for myself.

Of course while taking the official stance that there is no cow level, they fed the rumor machine by making “thereisnocowlevel” a cheat code in Starcraft.

Diablo II took that rumor and ran with it, creating a cow level that could be accessed combining a tome of town portal and Wirt’s leg in your Horadric cube. It eventually became a popular place for players to grind experience and culminated in a battle with the Cow King.

Diablo III, I suppose sort of in that vein, replaced some treasure goblins with treasure bovines instead. And much like the rainbow goblins open up a portal to Whimsyshire, these treasure cows open up a red portal described as the following:

"Leads to a place that does not exist. The Burning Hells are not responsible for events that transpire there. If you claim to have been to this place, you will be called a liar. Void where prohibited."

The cow level  NOT the cow level is filled with shrines that you will need because of the mad quantity of mad cows coming to get you.  I was playing on Master difficulty with a 40-something monk and those shrines and sweeping wind were my best friends for the next few minutes. Scattered around are farmers, no doubt slain by the new bovine masters, dropping tons of gold on top of the already ridiculous number of chests on the map. I had to make 2 trips to town for salvage to actually collect all the loot.

There are gags harkening back to Diablo II, like a quest from the ghost of the then-slain Cow King, who wryly quips that these cows must have some sort of beef with you on a quest called “Tipping Point.” And if you take a look at the pictures, that’s right, some health globes are actually steaks.

I will close by saying this – this place is difficult. On Master difficulty rare spawns showed up with multiple packs of elites (seriously always with fire chains) and my first time through while dealing with them I stumbled upon the map boss, the Cow Queen. She throws so much lightning that I would rank her as more difficult than many of the bosses in the game just based on the sheer damage output she hurls at you, and in my case my gear wasn’t exactly dripping with resistances. This is one of the rare times I died playing with this character so far – she takes very little damage, and there were times when both potions and breath of heaven were on cooldown, leaving my to my doom. But when you’re done with her you do get 4 radiant chests.

Unfortunately no, there were no bovine-themed legendaries, at least none that dropped for me.

The cow level was over on May 21st, but who knows? From the minds of those that came up with both the cow level and Whimsyshire, you never know what’s next in the realms of Sanctuary. Check out some more images below:

Friday, April 3, 2015

April Fool's Double-Cross: Amazon Dash

So it may be Game of Thrones month for the upcoming season 5 premiere in a lot of internet sites devoted to nerddom, but there was another important day this week that for the last few years has made the internet come alive in the name of comedy and foolishness.

That means shenanigans and hijinx.  April Fool’s day, to be precise.

Every year a lot of companies in the nerd space assail us with pranks for new games or new products or just weird stuff in general – and with each passing year we’ve come to expect it. Google reversed everything with and let you play Pac-Man in your Google maps.  ThinkGeek advertised a Game of Thrones based edition of Clue taking place in Westeros, as well as a steam-powered Steam Box you could enjoy while drinking your Groot Beer.  Microsoft went old school and “launched” MS-DOS Mobile for Lumia devices. And Blizzard, with their tried and true pranks, introduced the T.I.N.D.R. Box as an in-game item.

(Sorry kids, the link for Game of Thrones Clue was taken down.  I’m hoping it’s because they’re going to MAKE IT REAL.  You hear me, ThinkGeek?  MAKE IT HAPPEN!)

But there was one trick I couldn’t figure out – and it was being played on me by Amazon.  You see, they introduced Amazon Dash on April Fool’s day, a series of push-buttons you can affix anywhere in your home so that you will never (ever) run out of stuff.  Stick a button marked “Tide” on your washer.  Press the button when you need more.  And more is bought for you.  And delivered with Prime shipping.  Check out the video below:

So clearly, this was just a joke, right?  There’s no way I’m putting buttons all around my kitchen for Amazon shipment so I don’t have to go to the store to buy things, is there? Crap.  I might.  It’s possible highly probable that I’m just that lazy.

So I gave it a couple days and let it sink in.  I figured maybe it would be a double cross and the reveal that it’s fake would be April 2nd.  Or maybe they were bucking the trend and trying to hit me with a slow roll prank.  Days passed and it didn’t go away.  It just got more fleshed out.  And it was then that it struck me – this is legit. I’ve signed up and I’m waiting for an invitation.  Amazon Dash is part of their Amazon Fresh service, and you can sign up for it here.  My address isn’t in the delivery area, but those April Fool’s buttons were just the start and I’m eagerly awaiting an expansion.  If nothing else, I’ll have something to review for you kids, right? Now it looks like there’s a barcode scanner, with voice, that will scan and link anything you swipe with your Amazon Prime account, setting up an order.  So in the wake of the confirmed legitness of Dash, to Amazon I have one thing to say:

You are absolutely brilliant.

From every aspect, Amazon is using the new “Internet of Things” craze to help people shop – and though these buttons are a bit weird, they might just save the day for people and families that are legitimately too busy.  Doubly true for routine things we buy on a regular basis, like laundry detergent, coffee, and razors for shaving.  What’s more is that big brands are getting in line to partner with them and be part of the program – after all, it’s their stuff we’re buying.

And how about debuting the program on April Fool’s day?  If nothing else, they made Dash a household name within 24 hours of internet exposure – they made sure that regardless of whether we thought it was a prank or not that we at least knew the name.  And whatever you truly believed, we were all scratching our heads on the 1st wondering if it was real.

So is this new IoT buying experience going to help streamline our busy lives, or is it taking us one step closer to what some would call our inevitable WALL-E future?  I guess time will tell as Dash rolls out to more markets, and makes its way to a home near you.  Here’s the latest from Amazon:

So let's see how this goes.