Tuesday, April 26, 2011

72. nintendo announces successor to the wii's throne

[Article first published as Nintendo Officially Announces Successor to Wii's Throne on Blogcritics.]

It’s official! After a week of making the rounds in the videogame rumor mill, the console that will be Nintendo’s successor to the Wii has been officially announced, and should be hitting our living rooms in 2012. What, you don’t believe me? Nintendo even has the announcement on their website. We won’t have to wait long to see what it can do either, as the press release states that Nintendo is planning to have playable demo model at this year’s E3 conference in early June.

Currently codenamed “Project Café,” the new console is rumored to be able to do a few things that the current Wii cannot, like provide HD graphics that are on par with or beyond the abilities of the Xbox 360 or PS3. Another rumor, which is far more interesting than just graphics to me, is the controller, which is said to be a tablet-style touchscreen, which may or may not be able to stream media from the console in addition to controlling games.

This is the right time to announce the new system because Nintendo is facing a drop in Wii sales this year, causing a drop in profit to ¥77 billion, a 66% decrease from last year’s ¥228 billion. In addition to people spending less for entertainment while the economy struggles, the uniqueness of motion control that Nintendo hung its hat on has been more or less eliminated with Sony’s Playstation Move Microsoft’s Kinect. Sony and Microsoft, however, have both stated that their new consoles won’t be released until 2014, giving Nintendo a window to launch a console uncontested by the other two gaming giants. If there was ever a time for an innovative idea, that time is now.

Now I’m just a guy who plays games, so if I understand the advantages of being there early, then Nintendo president Satoru Iwata definitely must, and could therefore have some tricks up his sleeve. Iwata said about Project Café that “it will offer a new way of playing games within the home.” Calling game-changers is what Nintendo has always been good at, from when we saw the NES Zapper light gun in 1985 to the first release of the Wii in 2006. Even their R.O.B. controller was a novel idea, despite it only working with two games and never really catching on with the gaming public. I’m not even sure the Move or Kinect exist if it hadn’t been for the instant and sustained popularity of the Wii. Nintendo wasn’t involved in a race with Sony or Microsoft to produce true-to-life images and media capabilities but was still highly competitive in the market. I personally don't even care that Wii’s graphics haven't blown my mind. It just focuses on fun, and presents itself at an affordable price for a family console.

The main point is that Nintendo knows how to think differently, and that includes creating ways of capturing people that don’t traditionally fit a “gamer” profile because of it. From that alone I would venture that “HD visuals” is only going to be a minor bullet point compared to what they could have planned for control style and other functionality. I, for one, am very excited to see what they have in store for us at E3; if they can combine their novel ideas with doing more for games made by third party developers, we could see some very interesting things. Additionally, that two year head start sure doesn’t hurt.

Monday, April 25, 2011

71. not that easy for kids to buy M-rated games. just ask the FTC

[Article first published as FTC Report: It's not so Easy for Kids to Buy M-Rated Games on Blogcritics.]

When it comes to behavior, videogames and the gaming community at large always seem to be on the receiving end of some criticism.  There always seems to be some important-sounding scientist clad in a lab coat somewhere talking about how their study links videogames to violent tendencies in young children, and how it’s to blame for all the world’s ills.  That can’t be totally right.  I’ve been playing games since I was a wee lad of seven as did many of my friends, and over 20 years later we all are contributing to society, holding down good jobs, maintaining healthy relationships with others, and... there was one more thing… oh right, we’ve never gone on uncontrollable streaks of game-fueled violence.

I understand that my crew may not be a representative sample of gamers at large, but in my head, whenever I see one of those studies in the news all I can think about is how these games got into the hands of children to begin with.  Do parents these days bond with their 10-year-olds through a rousing game of Grand Theft Auto?  They’re not flying blind – parents have help from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to show them the content of games like movie ratings do, so they can determine which games are appropriate from their kids.  ESRB ratings range from EC (early childhood, i.e. a “G” movie) all the way up to AO (adults only, i.e. an “NC-17” movie) with many steps in between.  For example, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz is rated “E” for everyone, while the upcoming L.A. Noire is rated “M” for players 17 and up.  They’re pretty clear guidelines that are easy enough for parents to follow, but with older kids, parents have less control, leaving it up to retailers to enforce ESRB ratings.

Through part time jobs, allowances, birthday money, or whatever, kids and young teenagers are able to buy games themselves instead of asking mom and dad.  It’s a primary argument of many anti-game groups – that kids and teens have almost unfettered access to mature content and games without any sort of adult supervision.  So how does the industry prevent these kids from buying games that are meant for older audiences?  Should they be carded like someone going to see an R rated movie or buying an adult DVD?   Well… yeah.  This is where enforcement of ESRB ratings has to come into play.  Most people reading this have probably never been carded buying an M-rated videogame and may think that ratings do nothing for actually filtering who plays what, but there is some work being done.

the Federal Trade Commission runs a yearly “secret shopper” study, in which they hire 13-16 year olds to try to get into R-rated movies and buy mature rated media such as R-rated/unrated DVDs, CDs carrying parental advisory labels, and M-rated videogames.  The study showed mixed results through the different forms of media.  Sixty-four percent of teen shoppers who tried to buy CDs with the PAL label were successful.   R-rated DVDs fared a little better with 38%, and box offices allowed about a third of the teens in the study into R-rated movies.  The most successful segment left the others in the dust, and that segment was videogames.  Game retailers only allowed 13% of their shoppers looking for M-rated games to get their hands on them.  That 13% figure is incredible, and a vast improvement over the 20% mark from the FTC’s last similar study.

Perhaps this could turn the tide with anti-game groups?  According to the official FTC report on this year’s study, their arguments hold less and less ground every year since every iteration of the FTC study shows higher levels of enforcement.  These results have seemed to already have made some impact.  Family advocacy group Common Sense Media is praising the efforts of retailers to enforce ESRB ratings in the Los Angeles Times, but not without adding their opinion as well, "It’s good to see signs that retailers are making progress on enforcing the ESRB ratings about content that’s not designed for kids," said Alan Simpson, vice president of policy for Common Sense Media.  The VP of the advocacy group in San Francisco added, "But as the FTC points out, there is more work to be done. The study is a reminder of how important it is to have adults making sure that unaccompanied kids aren't purchasing M-rated games – and it raises serious questions about the ESRB’s troubling decision to use computers, instead of adults, to auto-rate downloadable games.”

I’m interested to see how this report will affect the outcome of the videogame laws in California, a high profile case which is still in limbo.  And, on a personal note to the FTC, if you’re looking to offload some of those games you picked up during the study, you know where to find me.… Fine, you can play too.

Friday, April 15, 2011

70. FBI raids students for gold farming and bank fraud, stormwind's SI-7 nowhere on the scene

[Article first published as Federal Agents Raid College for Suspected Gold Farming on Blogcritics.]

When I think of “raiding” and the World of Warcraft, I’m generally thinking about the Blackwing Descent raid encounter that my guild is trying to power through or disposing of the Lich King in Icecrown Citadel with extreme prejudice.  Never do any of those thoughts feature United States law enforcement kicking in a door or any sort of real life crime.  Recent events may have two students at the University of Michigan seeing things a little bit differently than I do after this week though.   A sophomore and a junior in Ann Arbor had their Towers apartment raided by the FBI for the purposes of "potentially fraudulent sales or purchases of virtual currency that people use to advance in the popular online role-playing game World of Warcraft."  For those that don’t keep up with MMO vernacular, that’s “gold farming” – acquiring virtual currency then selling it for real world cash.  The two students maintain that agents have the wrong people, as neither of them even play WoW.

But why should anyone really care?  A common response when I was telling others about this story was some variation on “Come on man, it’s just WoW gold.”  Well for starters, not all gold farming is legit (as far as “legit” can properly apply to this practice anyway).  Some of the virtual gold that’s meant to fetch real dollars comes from account theft.  I’ve seen firsthand what happens through guildmates getting their accounts hacked in WoW.  They log in one day, only to find that anything and everything saleable on their person or in their inventory was cleaned out.  To some gold farmers, that’s most definitely a quicker and easier resource than grinding out quest chains or working the auction house to make some digital dough.  This is one of the 4 primary reasons I haven’t or won’t ever buy gold for real money:  (1) I’d rather not give some shady person my credit card number.  (2) It violates my end-user license agreement and that may open me up to the Blizzard ban hammer.  (3)  It promotes the practice, which promotes, to some extent, account hacking.  (4) I already pay almost $200 a year to play.  I don’t want to shell out more.

Reading up on this topic has given me a fifth reason.  Computerworld has found some information linking this kind of activity to botnets through a Canadian study, which details to some extent the seedy underbelly of the digital world, or as the study calls it, the “dark universe.”  It’s an adequate name, as what I read in the report involved some pretty scary information about all sorts of digital places i want no part of.  Here’s a little snippet about MMO’s and persistent virtual worlds to illustrate my point:  “These environments have not escaped the notice of terrorists, spies, and criminals. Virtual world terrorism facilitates real world terrorism: recruitment, training, communication, radicalization, propagation of toxic content, fund raising and money laundering, and influence operations.”  It goes on to talk about how some gold farming and power-leveling operations could be arms of criminal organizations that use them a whole host of shady enterprises.  There could be a possible link here, as the FBI agents involved with this raid believe that there was a “scheme to set up fraudulent bank accounts to buy and/or sell 'virtual currency' or 'gold' to be used in the game.”  Bank fraud does indeed sound like something within the realm of the aforementioned dark universe.

The information above made me glad to see details on something called Project Reynard from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).   Project Reynard works on the premise that real world characteristics are reflected in virtual world behavior, and looks to identify criminal behaviors and trends online that may translate into any real world threat involving the users behind them.  With the increasing presence of virtual worlds and MMO environments, it would appear that intelligence gathering in the real world isn’t enough to catch everything.

Perhaps World of Warcraft is the new Matrix.  Maybe it's time to learn some digital kung fu?


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

69. video game music gets some overdue respect

[Article first published as Videogame Music Gets Some Overdue Respect on Blogcritics.]

have you ever sat down for a nice gaming session and found yourself humming a tune from the game after you log out or put the controller down? how about replaying game cut scenes in your head because the music in the scene is really what tied it all together for you? i sure do, and I don't think I'm alone. there must be countless gamers who spend their days at work, school, or even on the bus or train silently rocking out to their favorite game diddy. whether it’s some rock rendition from an action game or a slow melody from an RPG, game music is far more sophisticated now than the beeps and boops you’d get from pac-man back in the day. i’m actually playing the song “hepatica” from xenosaga episode III in my head as i type this.

when used properly in a game, music just has that ability to wield power over us. it’s what’s responsible for evoking feeling and delivering subtleties to the player that dialogue and visuals can’t do alone. for example — the ending to final fantasy X would have done absolutely nothing for me if it was just dialogue and sound, nobuo uematsu’s music that went with it is what made me want to keep beating the end boss over and over. there are a ton of scores and songs from games that do the same for others, and i’d like to see them get more recognition, because in my opinion, they’re every bit as good as those from movies and require every bit as much work and talent to pull off.

one song that garnered a large fan base is “baba yetu,” by composer christopher tin. The piece was used in sid meier’s civilization IV, and after hearing those choir vocals, it’s tough to shake it out of your head. are you wondering why it sounds familiar even if you’ve never played civ IV? it is probably in your short term memory banks as it was honored with a grammy in the 2011 grammy awards as part of tin’s album calling all dawns. mr. tin left that day not just with a grammy, but with the first grammy ever awarded to a song written for a videogame. “baba yetu” has been a huge hit for years before the award, it was used as a song during the opening ceremonies of the world games of 2009 in taiwan, and featured in video games live, a concert series based solely on music composed for videogames performed by top orchestras and choirs.

it looks like this moving of game music to the mainstream is just the beginning. recently, the grammys were restructured a little bit, and in that restructuring was the addition of videogames to the description of four awards, instead of just keeping them lumped in as "visual media." in an interview with industry gamers, bill friemuth, VP of awards for the recording academy, said, "I think this could be viewed as a first step in the direction of videogames getting their own category.” he also added that “many people from the game community have been asking us to create a special category for games over the years, but the main reason we haven't is because we have received very few entries from game publishers.” well why would you be receiving submissions if they were probably just going to be ignored anyway? steve schnur, worldwide executive for music at EA has his own opinion as well: "This acknowledges that film, TV and games can stand side by side and be independently recognized," and further, "hopefully, this will create an even playing field when people vote next year. I expect there to be a tidal wave of submissions from the game industry.:

for those interested, here are details on the four awards i mentioned earlier:

  • the music for visual media (motion, television, video game music, or other visual media)
  • best compilation soundtrack for visual media (motion, television, video game music, or other visual media)
  • best score soundtrack for visual media (motion, television, video game music, or other visual media)
  • best song written for visual media (motion, television, video game music, or other visual media)

so finally, we see a little bit of respect for a score (no pun intended) of songs that have so long gone unappreciated outside of those nerds who love them. i hope this allows people to see games on the same standard of movies and TV — not just as playthings for children, but art.

industry gamers
christophertin.com (image)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

68. remembering jerry lawson (1940-2011)

a lot of younger gamers are too young to remember the days when video games weren't released on a cd or dvd or blu-ray, or more importantly remember a time when those technologies didn't even exist.  i'm sure those a little longer in the tooth would say the same thing about me - that i'm too young to remember consoles that only allowed you to play the games that were pre-loaded onto it.  see in my heyday it was cartridges.  my gaming life was kicked off with the NES as my first console when i was 7 years old, so the first game i got my tiny little hands on was the super mario brothers / duck hunt double cartridge.  jerry lawson, a pioneer in games and that technology that led the way for cartridge based systems and gaming en masse, passed away this past weekend at the age of 70.  so it's only fitting that we pay him some well-deserved homage.  he was an engineer, tinkerer, unsung genius and one of the original gaming geeks.

in the late 70's there were a number of video game consoles that were available to the public.  the problem was that the only games you could play on them were games that were pre-loaded, with no room for change and expansion.  ... well, that and most of the games were basic variations on PONG.  this included units from coleco, RCA and tandy.  but in 1976 the game quite literally changed.  that's when jerry lawson and fairchild semiconductor produced the first console that could take interchangeable game cartridges - the fairchild channel F.  a lot of folks still think atari were the OG's of cartridge games, but they wouldn't introduce their 2600 system until a year later in 1977.  this was a pretty big deal for gaming as well as a technological breakthrough, and lawson celebrated a series of firsts for the industry.  in addition to being the first console that could use interchangeable games, it was the first console that allowed you to play against AI, thanks to lawson's F8 processor that operated a a blazing 1.79MHz.  other consoles at the time lacked the power for this feature, and required users to have a player 1 and a player 2 to do anything.  i doubt anyone would argue that this man paved the way for every console game developer and designer from then to now and into the future.  he didn't stop at console though - lawson produced the arcade game demolition derby as well.

lawson was also part of the homebrew computer club (the only black member at that), an organization of computer nerds, engineers and hobbyists in the 70's and early 80's out in silicon valley.  from discussions in this club came today's great minds of personal computing - and as such jerry lawson can be put on the same list as people like steve jobs, steve wozniak and george morrow.  his work was finally recognized at this year's GDC by the international game developers association - recognition that was too long overdue.  it was one that might not have even come without the suggestion from john templeton, a publisher who has highlighted achievements and breakthroughs made possible by black technologists.  joseph saulter, leader of the association's diversity committe, wholeheartedly agreed, even though until that day he had never heard of him. "I was really very emotional about it," says saulter, who is himself black.  "As a matter of fact, I started crying -- just for somebody like him to be left out."  he further went on to say that lawson's story is inspirational, especially to the small percentage of people in the industry that are black.  templeton added that lawson's recognition can inspire today's young black engineers and tinkerers who might otherwise have been discouraged to try to get into the gaming industry.

family friend david erhart recounted events before lawson was admitted to el camino mountain view hospital: “He continued building devices to control telescopes, lasers, tools, etc. up until the day he went to the hospital,” he said. “His workbench had more tools than most people would even know what to do with. He taught me quite a bit and I’ll miss him sorely.”

so the next time you fire up your ps3 or xbox 360, think about jerry lawson as the reason you're even able to do it in the first place.  "The whole reason I did games was because people said, 'You can't do it,' " he recently said. "I'm one of the guys, if you tell me I can't do something, I'll turn around and do it."  from growing up in a federal housing project in queens to an industry legend, we can all learn a lot from him.

you can see more about lawson in a 2009 interview with vintage computing and gaming here.

mercurynews.com (the images too)
vintage computing and gaming

Thursday, April 7, 2011

67. US DoD turns to gamers to test submarine software

screenshot from dangerous waters
given the popularity of gaming in pop culture today, it's surprising the number of people i talk to that still maintain that video games offer no value.  they still imagine the old 8-bit heyday of the NES or older, generally discounting how it's evolved over the years.  aside from just entertainment, i've seen the platform be used for education, as tools to increase social awareness, recruitment, and with certain games nothing short of works of art.  and that's just the software side.  on that topic, our military is no stranger to pairing gaming with some outside-the-box thinking to develop educational and training tools.  remember when the army-sponsored america's army was released in 2002?  it wasn't meant to be just a game, but to provide a soldier experience for the player that was as informative as it was entertaining.  it's also a perfect example of gaming being used for a purpose, in this case communicating to citizens and potential soldiers about what it's like.  and it's still doing well.

so now it's the navy's turn.  recent developments from DARPA shows a piece of software that simulates submarines behavior and evasive maneuvers.  called the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) continuous trail unmanned vessel (ACTUV), the software asks players to try to track down those elusive subs.  it's a novel way of using technology to train personnel for an important goal, and it will eventually be rolled into actual toolkits for the ACTUV program, but of course there needs to be a lot of testing before autonomous software is used.

so how do you get a good base of testers for something like this?  given that the software lends itself to making a good simulation game, much like america's army, they did just that.  well, sort of.  the actual ACTUV tactics simulator is available online as a free download from DARPA, but they've also worked together with sonalysts combat simulations to integrate the software into a game called dangerous waters.  the game goes for realism, putting players in positions that reflect warfare situations.  you control a tracking vessel with realistic tools at your disposal, tracking down a submarine that's programmed to use probable and realistic evasive maneuvers to shake you off their trail.  but, like in a real scenario, you share the seas with other commercial ocean traffic, making navigation around civilians a concern in your hunt.  you get points for completing mission objectives (i mean what's a game without points?) and can share your scores, tactics and suggestions through leaderboards and a community site.

this is just an example of how the DOD is increasingly looking for public input into their technology development.  another recent project, the experimental crowd-derived combat-support vehicle (XC2V for short) used crowdsourcing in the form of a design challenge to come up with a next-generation combat support vehicle.  the army is also developing a virtual world to provide training for its peacekeeping operations - something similar to second life.  maybe it's just because i'm an all-purpose nerd but it's cool to me that this kind of development isn't only possible but actually happening.  i'm looking forward to what this kind of collaborative development along with other efforts in design competitions and social media can bring.  you can find some links to DARPA and the dangerous waters game below.

and on that note, you folks have a fine day doing whatever you're doing - i'm off to hunt me a sub.

and maybe a sub sandwich.  but i don't need tracking software for that.

information week via gamepolitics
DARPA official website

DARPA ACTUV simulator page
sonalysts combat simulations - dangerous waters

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

66. the NFL's concussion awareness campaign hits madden 12

image - amazon.com
i always talk about how closely art imitates life imitates art and on and on in an infinite 2-way loop.  sports games is where that sentiment is taken pretty literally, where studios like EA do their best to accurately replicate every sound, team, player and environment to enhance their customers' experience.  the TPC sawgrass course in the tiger woods franchise, for example, looks just about as nice as it does watching golf on tv in HD, and stuff like the 17th hole on the stadium course appears to be just as difficult to play without hitting the water.  i say appears to be because a tee time for 4 at sawgrass would set you back about $1500.  you have that kind of scratch to spend on one afternoon?  but anyway, back to the real matter at hand.

the case just illustrated is no different with EA sports' flagship franchise madden NFL.  these games have the graphic power to accurately track player motion down to the last detail - different players have different strides when walking or running the ball.  they even visually differentiate that way different quarterbacks throw the football to their receivers.  but the most recent addition to the madden line of games doesn't have to do with visual realism, it has to do with a more serious aspect of real NFL football - concussions.

concussions and player head injuries have been a big topic of discussion during the NFL's '10-'11 season, primarily injuries stemming from hard hits and helmet to helmet contact.  to emphasize the seriousness and risk of this sort of injury, new madden football games will show when one of the players' digital little team members suffers a concussion on the field, and more importantly, will show that player leaving the field for the remainder of the game - no exceptions.  this is a big change from earlier iterations of the game, where a concussed player could be back on the field after just a couple of downs on the sidelines.  when you think about that as what younger players see on the screen, it makes sense that it could possibly convey the message that head injury is isn't so bad.

john madden, who is still involved with the development of the games that bear his name, believes that it's time for that to change for two main reasons: (1) to make the game more realistic to actual NFL play, and (2) to show younger sports gamers and youth football players how serious a football head injury can be.  according to madden in an interview with the new york times:  “concussions are such a big thing, it has to be a big thing in the video game.” he goes on to say, “it starts young kids - they start in video games.  i think the osmosis is if you get a concussion, that’s a serious thing and you shouldn't play.  or leading with the head that you want to eliminate. we want that message to be strong.”

sports injury isn't something that i've really seen positively addressed at all in all of the sports games i've played over the years, but there are a few examples where it was handled a little... differently.  blitz: the league kind of goes the other way, allowing you to "juice" a player through an injury and run the risk of more severe injuries.  and EA's own NHL '92 showed recipients of hard checks lying unconscious in an almost comically growing pool of blood.the NFL and EA are working very closely to make sure that  head injuries are accurately portrayed in madden 12 and beyond.  "we want it handed off to the next generation.  there was a time when someone would get a concussion and you’d say he just got dinged, take some smelling salts and get back in the game. those days are over.”

this is a definite positive step being taken by EA and the NFL.  i'm sure there's going to be a flood of players that are going to argue that it's a game and that this will take away from their gaming experience.  those players are probably at least teenagers and really don't care about games being used as a medium for any sort of safety message.  but you have to consider the number of younger people and kids that play this game, and given what i've seen on my tv on sunday afternoons, it's definitely something i'm glad is being addressed.  it speaks not only to responsible game development, but the idea that a game is a medium that's large enough to encompass more than shooting bad guys and throwing touchdowns.

and that all aside, i'm curious about how james harrison feels about all this.

new york times