March 2008 Archives

links for 2008-04-01


links for 2008-03-30


Nice Work If You Can Get It

On This American Life, Astronauts talk about their work when they're not in space, and John Hodgman talks about being recognized, in an excerpt from his recent talk in Los Angeles. Also on the show, a person who changes lottery payments into lumpsums from annuities, a Western explorer, and an undocumented college student.

links for 2008-03-29


Silent Spring at Gallery1988 SF

Today, I made a trip up to the city to attend the gallery opening of Stella im Hultberg's new show, Silent Spring at Gallery1988 SF. I arrived there to take a look at the paintings and sketches before the huge crowd started to fill the gallery; even on a rainy Friday evening, there were at least 75 people inside the gallery when I left.

I spoke to Stella before I left, complimenting her on a wonderful showing, and thanked her for doing a show in San Francisco. Stella was both amazed and impressed by the crowd, and seemed appreciative of all the fans who came out tonight.

On one wall were large oil on canvas paintings, while the other featured ink and oil paintings on tea stained paper.

All the pieces for the show can be seen here.


Adobe Photoshop Express Beta

Adobe recently released an free online version of Photoshop called Photoshop Express; meant for the amateur market, it offers a similar set of tools to that of Photoshop Elements, but is completely free, and platform independent.

Photoshop Express is a web based Flash 9 application, and at the moment completely worthless as anything but a slideshow of other people's pictures.

As a product in beta, it's one thing to expect bugs, but so far I've had a terrible time trying to get it to work; as far as I can tell, it so far only works in IE with Flash 9. The site is incredibly slow, and whole experience seems more frustrating than using some of the older online apps such as picnik or Picasa. The tools on Photoshop Express are fairly standard fare; correction of exposure, red-eye correction, tinting, cropping, and a limited number of distort functions.

Express Beta lacking several features that more dedicated photo sites have as a standard such as tagging, and the ability to search through galleries. The inclusion of the gallery feature itself is somewhat puzzling -- on one hand it's a way to showcase your work, but establishing any kind of community or finding photos is somewhat impossible, although they do have functions for favorites, and keep track of your most recently viewed items.

As it stands right now, the product is a waste of time and an exercise in frustration; users would be better off using a more polished product.

Laptops of the Future

Computerworld has a feature story on the kind of laptops we'll see in 2015. The pictures they present in the gallery are concept designs, but my own personal viewpoint on the future of laptop designs is that we won't see anything so radically different from the design we have today.

I bought my first laptop in 1993. It weighed close to 10 lbs, had an Monochrome Passive Matrix LCD screen, a 20 MB hard drive and a floppy disk drive, it had the standard laptop keyboard, along with a trackball. Honestly, the laptop of 15 years ago did not look drastically different from the modern incarnation. With the laptop closed and in it's clamshell configuration, it might be mistaken for any standard PC laptop you'd be able to pick up at a big box electronics retailer.

While the MacBook Air is certainly an innovative product, not only in the size and thinness, but in its design, it is not the overall trend for laptops in the future. There are only a limited number of companies who would be so daring and bold to release such a radical design, and even fewer who would follow in Apple's footsteps.

I believe that realistically we shouldn't expect laptops to get much bigger than they currently are; nor should we expect them to get much smaller than the MacBook Air. While the iPhone is a wonderfully networked pocket device, the experience of major applications such as word processing or playing World of Warcraft still leaves much to be desired.

I'm skeptical of the touch-screen slate designs, simply because touch-typing would be difficult, if not impossible, and somewhat dubious of any change of that magnitude taking place within the next seven years. As soon as the touchpad on laptop keyboards was introduced as an alternative to a mouse, we saw a dramatic shift away from the trackballs to the touchpad; while there's definitely a lot of enthusiasm with touch computing with the iPhone, but I don't see a whole movement away from traditional keyboards to touch keyboards happening anytime soon.

One of the improvements I do see happening is a movement away from traditional fluorescent backlights to LED and OLED lighting for the screens; brighter and more efficient. I don't think we're going to see substantial improvements in screen resolution; LCD resolution averages have increased about 25% in the last 8 years, the average laptop in 2000 had a 1024x768 screen, the average laptop in 2008 has a 1280x1024 screen. In 2015, I predict we'll be running a 1600x1200 display.

Diesel Sweeties

One of the first webcomics I obsessively read was Diesel Sweeties, which has a style which resembles the pixel-painted early PC adventure game art (it reminds me of Maniac Mansion, both in visual style and off-key humor).


Coincidentally, the number of this comic strip is 1977, the same year Star Wars released.

links for 2008-03-25


Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, once again tackles the subject of food in his new book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. The U.S. book cover has the words "Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants." wrapped around a head of romaine lettuce, which summarizes the whole of the manifesto; instead of tracing food from the source to his meals as he did in The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan instead takes a look at the food-like products which fill our daily lives, and how nutritional science has altered our views on food.

The book is split up into three sections: The Age of Nutritionism, the history behind modern thought about food and the way we look at food at a nutrient-level (Vitamins C, B12, protein) rather than at the ingredient level (fruits, meat, vegetables). The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization, in which Pollan explores the different diseases that plague those who switch from a more traditional diet to a Western diet. And finally, Getting Over Nutritionism, in which Pollan describes how to change our diet, back to one which uses real food vs. processed food.


What happens when you combine movies, machinima and World of Warcraft?

MMovie, a parody of famous movie lines with the World of Warcraft characters:

You can see the first ten minutes of MMovie on, which sadly, isn't half as entertaining as the trailer.

links for 2008-03-24


BSG cast reads Top 10 List on Letterman

Top Ten Reasons why you should watch the upcoming season of Battlestar Galactica:

links for 2008-03-23


links for 2008-03-22


Vertigo Tarot - 20th Anniversary Edition

While I was at Berkeley, there were two great comic book stores in the area -- Comics and Comix down on Telegraph, and Comic Relief on University. In my later years, these comic book stores became more dangerous once I started working, as I had income, and I might pass them on the way home, or from my comings and goings on the BART.

My interest during that period was not in mainstream American comics at the time, but rather the ever increasing popularity of manga during this time period -- Nausicaa, after many years on hiatus had begun releasing the last issues, both Ranma and Maisson Ikokku releasing monthly in a format more similar to single-issue American comics. At Comic Relief, the area devoted to manga was minuscule, amounting to about a shelf, and consisted of Ranma, Maisson, and Antartic Press' comics, and Robotech. At Comics and Comix, the fare wasn't a whole lot better, but they did have a rack for back issues, which made their manga section about 5 times larger than Comic Relief's. Comics and Comix also had an incredible two bookcases devoted to Sandman and DC/Vertigo material in the back corner of the store, which rivaled the amount of space for mainstream Marvel and DC titles. More out of curiousity than anything else, I flipped through the Sandman offerings, the contents within which didn't impress me as much as the cool covers on the books. The covers of Sandman are the work of artist Dave McKean, when I heard that he was doing a limited edition Tarot set, I bought one. I remember at the time thinking that for $50, it was a rather expensive item, but if I was disappointed I could always resell it.

This limited edition was a print run of 5000, and I remember already realizing at the time that limited editions weren't all that limited at all, but that it did mean that if I saw this at any comic shop, I should pick it up, as it meant that at most, any shop would only have a few of these.

Apparently, there were many fans of Dave McKean (more than 5000), and the first edition of the Tarot set sold out quickly enough that the aftermarket price was almost twice what I paid for it. I held onto it, more as an art fan than a Tarot practitioner, and felt fortunate that I managed to find a set before they became absurdly expensive.

Six years later, in 2001, DC/Vertigo re-issued the Tarot set, although this time with a different box, and a different book cover, and at $30 about $20 cheaper. I picked this one up as well, intending to sell my original and just keep the reprint to play with; but sadly, I never had time to open it, much less play with it.

Of course, here we are in 2008, and DC/Vertigo has just announced that they'll be reprinting the Vertigo Tarot set again, in honor of the 20th Anniversary of Sandman. It's $10 more than the version offered in 2001, but it includes a velvet-like bag, and gold foil stamping denoting the 20th Anniversary of Sandman. Despite this being the third printing, I expect these to disappear quickly, and as their release in November coincides with the holiday shopping season, and I expect these to be gone very quickly, as it seems that no matter how many they print, demand always surpasses supply. has a full scans of all the Vertigo Tarot cards, and many of the Major Arcana are characters from the DC/Vertigo imprint, such as Death from Sandman and Tim Hunter from Books of Magic as the Magician.

While I'm not a major fan of licensed goods, I must admit that some of the items coming out of DC/Vertigo these days (such as The Sandman and Death bookends are pretty cool.

Where in Silicon Valley is the Amazon Kindle?

You would think that hanging around universities and cafes in Silicon Valley that I would have seen an Amazon Kindle by now, but I haven't. Maybe it's one of those hidden picture puzzles where the longer you look, the more you see things which aren't what you're looking for. My MacBook Air count is also 0, but my iPhone count is up by about 15. Seriously, it really feels like 1 in 5 people in the Valley who visits Starbucks has an iPhone. One thing I've noticed is that the iPhone is primarily a guy's phone -- while I've seen a handful of girls with iPhones, it's definitely more popular with the men than the ladies (or perhaps men are the only ones more likely to clip it to their belts).

The Amazon Kindle has been selling well, according to Jeff Bezos, with some customers waiting nearly six weeks for theirs. With over 2,000 reviews of the Kindle, it's definitely one of the most reviewed products on Amazon (the Nintendo Wii only has 984 reviews, to compare). In just glancing through the reviews, it seems as if people really love it (5 stars) or really dislike it (1-2 stars), but many of those who gave it 5 stars are beta testers reviewing on the day of the announcement, which makes me wonder if part of why they love it so much is because they got it for free when it costs the normal person $400. Five months after the announcement of the Kindle, no one knows exactly how many they've sold; though if I had to guess, it's still well below the 100,000 mark.

The Amazon Kindle is geared for travelers and commuters, but reading has never been one of those things I've enjoyed doing on a plane or a train, I preferred to read comfortably at home. For me, the greatest problem with the Kindle is that I already feel as though I've bringing enough gadgets with me when travelling, and the Kindle is not a convergence device, it's extra baggage. The one place I see it saving weight and space is the replacement of travel guides; instead of carrying around a thick Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, you could carry them both on the Kindle saving both weight and space, but as far as I know, neither of them have made their books available on the Kindle. As it stands now, you'd have to buy a whole lot of ebboks to make the Kindle worth it.

links for 2008-03-21


links for 2008-03-19


links for 2008-03-18


links for 2008-03-17


links for 2008-03-15


Paul Pope on DKNY 2089 Design

Comic Book Artist Paul Pope has been enlisted by DKNY to design a future forward collection called 2089, which envisions the style of New York City in 2089:

A Spontaneous Musical at a LA Food Court


For more information: Improv Everywhere

Movie Poetry

Haiku + Movies = Haikuvies. They use the 5-7-5 pattern to give a short synopsis of the movie. Here's a short excerpt:
    Missing cover sheets on your TPS reports did you get memo?
Haikuvies: Office Space

links for 2008-03-11


LEGO Indiana Jones: Gameplay Trailer


links for 2008-03-10


links for 2008-03-09


links for 2008-03-08


Hanako and Stitch?

One of my favorite Disney movies is Lilo and Stitch, which has a great combination of great writing, humorous characters and heart. The franchising of Lilo and Stitch has not fared so well; while the tv show and the followup direct to dvd movies have done well money-wise, the storytelling and comedic aspects of these efforts have suffered. The news today is that Disney is developing a new Stitch property fills me with both anticipation and dread. Developed jointly by Disney and Toei Animation's Madhouse (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) and titled "Stitch!", the setting has moved from Hawaii to an fictional island in southern Japan (very similar to Okinawa), and introduces a girl named Hanako as Stitch's new sidekick. Madhouse has managed to produce some great anime series in the past such as Deathnote and Dennou Coil, and contributed to the Animatrix in the "World Record" short.

Apple's iPhone SDK

One of the things people have been asking for since the announcement of the iPhone, is an actual iPhone SDK -- previously iPhone apps had been limited to web apps which ran in Safari. An SDK allows writing custom apps specifically for the iPhone without needing network connectivity. There are already many iPhone apps out which require the iPhone to be jailbroken in order to install them, and an SDK will help legitimize these efforts. I can say from experience that developing apps for a much more limited device involves a certain amount of reductionist philosophy, as it is the core of the application that really matters. Apple released the information about the SDK, and here are the talking points:
  • Apple has licensed ActiveSync for the iPhone to talk directly to Exchange, which includes the ability to remotely wipe the iPhone.
  • iPhone SDK includes Core OS, Core Service, Media and Cocoa Touch
  • iPhone simulator and Instruments for measuring performance on an iPhone.
  • OpenGL for graphics and OpenAL for audio
  • EA demos touch version of Spore running on the iPhone
  • AOL demos AIM on the iPhone
  • Sega demos Super Monkey Ball on the iPhone
  • Also, Salesforce and drug UI lookups for more business related apps (not nearly as exciting)
To get these new apps into the hands of the iPhone user, they've set up a program called the App Store, to be installed in the next software update. It functions similarly to the iTunes store and will also be on iTunes on the computer. Think iTunes, but for iPhone apps -- the revenues from the program are split 70/30 -- 70 for the developer, 30 for Apple, with no fees for credit card, hosting and marketing, revenues paid monthly. Free apps have no charge.

There's a list of program types that are excluded from being part of the App Store, which include porn, privacy, bandwidth hog, unforseen, malicious and illegal.

iPhone software 2.0 goes beta today, with a final release in June for free. iPod touch will get similar updates, but there will be a slight charge for it.

SDK is available on website for free, and joining the iPhone developer program costs $99. The iPhone SDK weighs in 2.1 GB, so as you can imagine, Apple's developer website is getting pretty slammed right now.

New VC fund called iFund, $100 million initiative from Kleiner Perkins, in order to fund young, innovative developers.

My Reactions to the iPhone Roadmap

Today the iPhone SDK was revealed, along with a roadmap of the next couple of months. In effect, it looks like this:
  • March 2008: SDK, iPhone software 2.0 beta
  • Late June 2008: iPhone software 2.0 final
And that's it. No mention of 3G or additional iPhone hardware, and the Late June 2008 date (one year anniversary of the iPhone) bears some significance as a possible drop date for a 2.0 hardware revision of the iPhone to go along with all the software revisions. Well, that's my belief anyways.

The iPhone is a great little mobile platform, and while the business tasks are no doubt interesting in how they can make a difference at their workplace, I can't help but to think that the iPhone is going to be a great platform for gamers -- making a game for an iPhone is going to be similar to developing a great Nintendo DS game. I'm not sure I can make the same claim for the Android SDK, since the hardware will be so varied.

I think we're going to see an explosion of indie and casual game developers on the iPhone -- yes, the platform is small, and hopefully that'll force the game devs to focus on the important aspect of the game: the gameplay.

Tabula Rasa a bomb; Austin loses workers

After getting ousted from EA Origin following the cancellation of Ultima Online 2, Richard Garriott (aka Lord British) cozied up to NCSoft to create Tabula Rasa, a new fantasy MMOG in a new NCSoft studios in Austin. The game released a few months ago with little fanfare, and rumors of Tabula Rasa being a financial disaster certainly circulated about, not just in the U.S., but in Korea too. With an estimated cost of 100 million USD (which repordedly wildly inaccurrate), Tabula Rasa has managed to bring in only 5.4 million dollars. Official statement by Tabula Rasa's producer Starr Long, can be found here. A portion of his statement reads:
    "I would be remiss if I don't clarify the matter of rumored "massive layoffs" within NCsoft North America and the Tabula Rasa team. While the game has not taken off as quickly as we had hoped, we also launched in an insanely competitive time frame, with several well-known intellectual properties launching follow up products at the same time. However, the fact of the matter is that we are transitioning from a pre-launch crunch-mode development team to a live service team. This is standard in our industry--you ramp up to launch a game and then ramp down once it's live. This is what we are doing over the next several weeks, and it only affects the Tabula Rasa team. Once all is said and done, we will still have a substantial live team for industry standards. As you can see by the new features we're working on, we're still planning on lots of great content and updates all year long."
Tabula Rasa launched at the end of October, beginning of November, and they were up against some stiff competition, since that marks the holiday release season; however if you're depending on seasonal sales to make your sales figures, the holiday season is not it -- it's not because of the hardcore gamers, but because the buyers out there are the non-gamers; they're the grandparents and rest of the family that don't play games, and their gut instinct is to reach for a brand they know. I've always felt that the summer months, when the kids are out of school is the best time to launch a new title.

That being said, what other massively multiplayer intellectual followup products were launching at the same time on the PC market? Just for a point of reference, November and December of 2007 were two of the biggest months for videogame sales; Novemeber 2007 raked in 2.63 Billion dollars, while December 2007 brought in 4.82 Billion. That's some big numbers, and yet of that 7 billion, Tabula Rasa managed only 5 million. A Top Ten game like Call of Duty 4, which came out a few days after Tabula Rasa has managed about 1.7 million sales, putting their revenue estimate to about 67 million in the same time frame, which means that Tabula Rasa is not doing well at all.

Starr Long mentions a ramp up and a ramp down; that would be true on some level, as artists and programmers move from one project to another, but you don't have massive layoffs to do that unless you're planning on finishing up the projects at work and shutting down the studio. If I was at the Austin studio, I might be polishing my resume right about now.

Why Apple Didn't Announce iPhone 3G Today

It's an old adage that one should never buy the first generation of an Apple product, because it's usually packed with bugs and missing features that become standard in later versions of the same product; I can say from experience that this is usually the case, and there's no truer case than this with the iPhone. The bugs with the iPhone are rather minor things and after 14 revisions of the firmware, most of them have been fixed. Save for a newly upped storage capacity on the iPhone, nothing significant has changed since the release in June of last year.

Apple's strategy in the past has been a "same-day-announcement-release" of their products -- to a certain extent, this works well, but judging by the reception of the iPhone at MacWorld 2007 and the release in June, having a long release period doesn't seem to dull the enthusiasm much. There are design issues with the iPhone, and while I believe the external casing for the 2.0 iPhone won't change much, I think we're going see some some pretty substantial improvements for the hardware inside. There's two things ways that Apple can approach iPhone 2.0: all new hardware, or old hardware which is faster, smaller and more efficient. Since the biggest gripe about the iPhone is 3G, I suspect that once the iPhone 3G is released, the griping on the iPhone will shift from "it doesn't have 3G" to "The 3G iPhone's data plan is too expensive!"

I also think that we're going to have a good number of upgraders when version 2.0 comes out, of people who bought a version 1.0 iPhone and want to move up to the latest and greatest -- now what happens to their old iPhone? I suspect a great majority of them will be given away to other family members or be resold to fund iPhone 2.0.

While I think it's possible for Apple to sell both EDGE and 3G iPhones at the same time, I don't think this going to be the case for the iPhone, unless they can make the EDGE iPhone substantially cheaper than the 3G iPhone; I'd envision the 3G iPhones slotting in at the same price as their current EDGE products, so a 8GB iPhone with 3G would be $399, and the 16GB iPhone would be $499 -- the only reason this would be able to work is if the price of memory continues to drop, and they keep the hardware more or less the same; the cost of the chips required to make the iPhone EDGE capable were priced at around $16, the cost to include 3G is in the ballpark of $20, yielding a $4 increase in cost of manufacture, which definitely means that it benefits Apple to continue selling EDGE as long as they can (or to increase the price of the 3G iPhone by $50, but I have a feeling that the resulting numbers of $449 and $549 are too ugly).

We all know that 3G is coming, so why not announce it today? Because this would negatively impact the sales of their current iPhones; keep in mind that for the first iPhone, the waiting period for the iPhone was 6 months -- people neglected cellphone upgrades during that period in order to line up and be one of the first to own these devices. In that case, having an early announcement benefited Apple; competitors didn't get potential iPhone users when they knew the iPhone was coming. With only 3 months to go before the announcement/release of the 3G iPhone, Apple is likely benefiting more by continuing to keep sales brisk through this quarter. When the 3G iPhone appears, it will be available that same day -- make no mistake, Apple wants to make that 10 million iPhone goal, and having people hold off purchases for any period of time runs counter to their purposes. 3G is not as widely available as GSM coverage, but it's getting better -- the last thing Apple wants is a bunch of returns after launching iPhone 3G with customers complaining about 3G coverage.

The iPhone started with a per-unit profit margin of about 50% -- in three months, the price was cut, and the profit margin amounted to only 35%, and the 4GB was discontinued, yielding a 17% profit margin on their remaining inventory. This $200 price drop had a huge effect on sales of the iPhone, and refurb iPhones sell out quickly (I suspect the majority of these iPhones are bought by the gray market and resold internationally, I know very few people who have purchased a refurb). My guess is that the current product lineup maintains a 35 - 40% profit margin, and that this is the price that Apple wishes to maintain -- too much of a shift in either direction would not be good for sales. When 3G is released, I expect Apple to drop the price of EDGE handsets to quickly move them out, and I suspect the biggest push is going to happen at the end of the year, around October. What's currently hurting Apple's sales of the iPhone right now is their rollout internationally; once they secure more deals with carriers, they should be able to make their 10 million sales easy; what's stopping them is that a fair chunk of them use CDMA and 3G as the network technology, not GSM.

For Apple, it's the 10 million mark that matters, and 3G is the way they're going to do it.

Apple's Intel Mac iPhone SDK

One of the clever things that Apple did when they made the iPhone SDK was tailor it to XCode and the Intel-Macs -- you won't be able to use an old PowerPC Mac to develop for the iPhone, and the XCode IDE is included with every Mac, making it pretty easy to get started on. In making this Intel-Mac only, one can definitely sense the shift that is about to occur in Cupertino, with the next MacOS likely to follow the same trend away from PowerPC.

Every mobile phone developer wants to make a program for the iPhone, or at least port over an existing app to the iPhone, and that means they're getting a new Intel-Mac (if they don't already have one); the long term effect of this of course, is that things will slowly shift from PC workstations to Mac environments for developing on the iPhone. I find that the Mac actually satisfies my needs for an development operating system pretty well -- it functions as a Mac, a Unix box, and a Windows box if I so choose.

The uncompressed SDK runs about 5GB in total, but the installer includes gcc, which no doubt accounts for a large chunk of the SDK. Some of the installed apps in the SDK are pretty buggy; in trying to run the, I ran into an infinite loop when it came to trying to quit without saving, and was forced to Force-Quit the app.

This SDK was likely rushed out the door, but it should suffice for the time being, allowing developers to get started on their projects to port (or to create) programs for the iPhone in time for the June launch of iPhone 2.0

I'm really looking forward to seeing some of the programs that are released for the iPhone, though I must admit, the addition of AIM is what I look forward to the most.

Why the Apple iPhone SDK is Important

It occurs to me that I've been a bad journalist today, and I haven't really explained just why Apple's iPhone SDK is such a big deal; I certainly didn't go as nuts about the Android SDK and spend the entire day writing about it, but it's because the iPhone SDK changes things in a big way when it comes to mobile.

First of all, the iTunes App Store. It functions the same as iTunes, making software downloading and installation a snap. Have you ever tried to install a program on your cellphone? On my previous phones, it was near impossible. Things have gotten better with the inclusion of mini-USB ports so that cellphones can be hooked up to computers, but the process isn't an easy one. For the average consumer, or even a more tech-savvy one, mobile program installation is hard. A couple touches at the App Store, and it's done.

For the developer, things are also complicated -- there are multiple approaches to distributing their software. The first and most profitable means is to get their program bundled with the handset. Developers could also negotiate with the cellphone carrier to have their program on the carrier's website to download. Another method would entail setting up a website from which they can take payments and then send the program to the customer's cellphone. Of course, before any of this can happen, the program must be written and compiled for the proper handset. Apple's App Store simplifies this process greatly -- no need to worry about compatibility, because there's only one iPhone -- installation of the program is a snap for users, Apple sets up the website, so the program is on a central location, Apple splits the revenue with the developer if there's money involved, freeware doesn't cost anything. Most developers are going to be happy with the 70/30 split -- the distribution of software alone is going to be worth it.

The new App Store simplifies it both on the consumer end, and the developer end.

Although the business applications of the iPhone were certainly not nearly as glamorous as their gaming cousins, Enterprise software is a big segment of the smartphone market, and Apple is very smart to embrace their needs as well. One of the things that Apple is going to do for the Enterprise is to set up a App mini-Store just for that business, and that's certainly going to change how things get done.

For instance, an e-mail can just be sent notifying the employees to update their iPhones with the latest version of whatever proprietary iPhone app they're running, and with a couple of touches, they're finished.

Today, Fake Steve Jobs wrote:

What Fake Steve is saying is that it's 'game over' for the other smartphones -- the iPhone platform has the infrastructure and support structure that's been largely missing from the other mobile manufacturers, and it's a difference that consumers, businesses and developers are going to see and experience. If these other handset makers want to survive, they've got to follow Apple's lead.

links for 2008-03-07


Diablo 3 Hand-drawn? Probably Not.

Mark Wilson has penned a op-ed piece on Kotaku called "What King of Fighters Taught Me About Diablo 3, in which he advocates a hand-drawn solution to Diablo 3:
    With these boundaries in mind, the solution of hand drawing (and sticking with sprites) seems perfect. Without the limitations of polygons--current screen resolutions combined with Blizzard's artistic talent could create a Diablo that we've only seen in our mind's eye, one that is essentially concept art imported directly into the game without the artistically-limiting technical compromises of 3D modeling. (In short, it'd look a lot like Diablo 2 with the gloves off.)
I think what a lot of people don't realize is that the first Diablo game is mostly pre-rendered in 3D. The artists at Blizzard North (called Condor back in those days) used 3D modeling programs to model the background AND the characters. Sprites were assembled using each frame that was rendered, and this is what is chiefly responsible for the 3D look of the Diablo games. The decision to go sprite-based again in Diablo II was strictly a technological one: polygons rendering and shading in realtime hadn't yet approached the level where the artists were satisfied with the look of the game, and the number of polygons one could handle on the screen couldn't come close to what Diablo II required.

It's interesting to look at the game all these years later, because even though were were sprite-based, a lot of people back then thought it was real-time 3D with a locked isometric perspective, and now the assumption seems to be that since it was a sprite-based game, Diablo must have been hand-drawn. There's a number of issues when it comes to hand-drawn art, and our computers and game systems have not been designed for it. There are no sprite-based graphics accelerators to help optimize the drawing of pre-rendered frames, and there's a finite limit to how quickly data can be brought in through the system.

For Diablo II, the sprite sizes were significantly bigger than anything in Diablo I, and there were portions of the game that could lag or pop due to the sheer number and size of loading the sprites into memory. (If you've ever been killed by Duriel at the end of Act II dungeon before you finished loading the area, you know what I'm talking about).

One of the issues I've had with King of Fighters' claim to be hand drawn is that they don't explicitly define what this means; does this mean actually putting pencil to paper and drawing out each individual frame, before they are scanned in, or does this mean that an artist is using a Wacom tablet with an animation program on the computer? Both can qualify as being hand drawn, it's just that one way is much more labor intensive than the other.

With all of that being said, is it possible for Diablo III to be hand drawn? Yes. Is it likely? Probably not -- first think about all the combinations of armor and weapons that a character in World of Warcraft has, now imagine hand drawing 30 frames for each of the following: getting hit, casting a spell, attacking, talking, and running and you've got just the basics -- that doesn't account for all the different directions the character could be facing, or any of the extra variations of getting hit or casting a spell you might want to include. Doing all that work by hand just to create a look doesn't make sense when you can emulate that look with much less work using 3D animation tools.

Three Greatest Gaming Innovations

At a recent press gathering in which Sid Meier hosted but didn't really talk about Civilization Revolutions:Sid offered up his list of three greatest gaming innovations:
  1. The IBM PC, for being created.
  2. SimCity, for the idea of creation being a gameplay element, rather than destruction.
  3. Nintendo's Seal of Quality, for offering a gamers a certain level of quality in their games.
Given that Sid Meier has been in the games industry about 20 years longer than I have, I think his focus on the 1980s as the era of game innovations is an interesting one; my own list would probably look something like this:
  1. DirectX, for not requiring all game programmers to develop their own graphics drivers.
  2. Magic: The Gathering, for inventing a game genre that was collectible, and didn't include all the playing pieces necessary to play a game.
  3. Maniac Mansion, for moving adventure games away from text commands into the age of point-and-click.
There's definitely many more innovations out there, like the Wii, which finally included cordless controllers that responded to kinetic movements. (Remember those old days of playing Nintendo when you'd practically pull the controller out of the box because you were "jumping" so high?) When I think about gaming life in the 80s, and now, there's a lot that has been changed and invented in the last three decades -- we've gone from playing videogames at the university-owned mainframe to being able to play our games on our watches or our cellphones, and making sure that a device is capable of playing DOOM (an innovative game created in 1993) seems to be a popular hobby of hardware hackers these days.

On Game Criticism

When I went to the GDC in 2004, one of the issues that was brought up in one of the more academic panels was the attempt at defining games as art, and a lack of game critics as one of the barriers to entry in the art world.

Criticism is not the same as reviewing, and it's for this reason that I think the popular site Metacritic is misnamed; it really should be Metareview.

The purpose of a review is simply to tell the reader whether or not they should buy the product. A critic is different from a reviewer, as critics are supposed to understand the object in depth and explain the merits and importance of a piece of work.

links for 2008-03-06


Sushi Pack

The Sushi Pack isn't a special bento box or a special order at your local Japanese eatery, but rather a new animated series by CBS and American Greetings. At a mere two inches tall, these five crime-fighting pieces of sushi fight against the Legion of Low Tide. The initial treatment for this series was written by Tom Ruegger and Nicholas Hollander, the writers/producers of "Animaniacs," "Tiny Toon Adventures," and "Pinky and the Brain.


links for 2008-03-05


links for 2008-03-04


Review: Soon I Will Be Invincible

One of the things I alway wondered as a teenager was why there weren't more superhero books in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore; the licensed properties section was dominated mainly by Star Trek novels and role-playing game based-novels; if you wanted to read a Batman story or a X-Men story, you had to head for the comic book rack. During this time, you had the short-story-based anthology series Wild Cards, and a few years later another collection of shorts called Superheroes.

Managing to publish a superhero book today isn't easy. Publishers would rather be pushing out books about alien civilizations or elves, but it's probably gotten a bit easier with the release of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the success of supers at the movies lately, as well as Marvel and DC putting out novels about their most mainstream heroes.

In Soon I Will Be Invincible, the story takes the point of view of two different characters: the evil genius Doctor Impossible, and the newest member of a super team called the Champions, a female cyborg named Fatale. The whole book has a feel of being ripped from the pages of a 1940s era comic book, where villains and heroes are fairly simply defined; villains try to take over the world, heroes try and stop them. Part of the challenge of this book is creating the myriad of characters needed to populate a superhero universe, and creating the history behind them.

I don't recall if the book's author, Austin Grossman was a DC reader or a Marvel reader, but it's obvious that he enjoys reading comics, as there are plenty of homages to those familiar archetypes; Blackwolf is more or less Batman, Mister Mystic bears similarities to Doctor Strange or Doctor Fate, and there are names of superteams that ring all too familiar.

In the end I think the book tries to be too many things; it wants to encapsulate a whole superhero universe, and has to tell the origin stories of this cast of characters, and it is much too short to do it all within 280 pages. My disappointment with the book is not the writing; the prose itself is very readable, it's the lack of innovation and content involved in the book, in a storyline which feels much too predictable.



Video of Austin Grossman Talking at Google:

State of the Games Industry 2008

People wonder why I'm so pessimistic about the games industry, and the reason is this: I worked in it for 8 years, and managed to ship one game. Pretty much everything else that I was working got canceled or indefinitely postponed. I probably could have shipped more if I was working somewhere like EA, where I would have probably shipped 10 to 14 titles in the same timeframe. Everyone's fingers is in everyone else's pie at EA. What it really comes down to essentially is that there are two ways to ship a title -- you can do it the Blizzard way or the EA way.

The Blizzard way involves looking at the game, polishing it, making sure it's fun to play, taking as much time needed to make a game, and basically ensuring sales through quality. The EA way involves looking at the game, making sales projections based on other games in the market, and doing a cost analysis based on projected returns versus estimated cost of development. If it's not a proven product, it gets axed. A game like World of Warcraft would never have been approved at EA, because EA's estimates sales figures of an MMO wouldn't have supported the cost of development of WoW. Sometimes a Blizzard game just isn't good enough, and at that point, there's not much you can do -- you can keep throwing people on it, but something is wrong at the core of it, something that can't be fixed, that can't ever translate into fun, and Blizzard would rather not ship than ship a game that tarnished the brand. In the same situation, EA would rather just put enough money into the game to make it shippable, ship the unfun game and hope to recoup the development costs in the initial release.

Blizzard took a huge risk in developing World of Warcraft; it was then, and still is, the most expensive project in the history of Blizzard, and involved huge upfront infrastructure costs. These kinds of costs are what the risk-averse shy away from; publishers want games that recoup their costs quickly -- every game must make a profit. World of Warcraft was not profitable right away; I estimate that they were losing money for the first year or two they were in operation, but now at 10 million subscribers, there's no question that they're turning a profit every month that likely surpasses the original development cost of World of Warcraft. WoW has pretty much taken over the hardcore game market on the computer, so almost all efforts now concentrate on casual games and console games. The funny thing is, if you ask any of the developers who worked on World of Warcraft, they will all tell you that they never could have predicted the number of subscribers they have today -- the expectation was half a million, maybe one million at most, certainly not ten times that number.

Rather than taking risks, more companies are trying to do it the much safer EA Way,by running cost analysis, predicting their hits, and canceling the rest. This is what happens when business decisions come ahead of gameplay decisions.

A recent casualty of this method of thinking SCi, the parent company of Eidos (of Tomb Raider fame), who is restructuring, canceling 14 projects, and bringing their staff down to 800 people, losing 25% of their workforce.

"To get SCi on track we have to act rapidly and effect change quickly. We must allow the world-class people that we have within the Group to focus on strong, profitable titles which will create the value our shareholders deserve."

Of course any time you've got layoffs, combined with focusing on profitable titles, it sends one message throughout the games industry: the company is up for sale, and it's time to make the books reflect the offer they hope to get.

I don't see a bright future for the Games Industry, because it's becoming so business like, and personally I think it's likely that what we're going to see is a lot more franchised titles from here on out; forget innovative titles like Katamari Damacy, and while I love Zelda games as much as the next person, I don't want everything to be "Link's Crossbow Training" or Sim(something). The number of original titles goes down, while the number of franchised titles goes up, in a trend similar to that of the failing movie industry.

Issues for Presidential Candidates to Think About

It occurs me that I don't really know how the different candidates for President stand on the issues. While the nomination for the Democratic candidate is still up in the air, the Republicans have pretty much decided on John McCain as their candidate.

Here's how they stand on the really popular issues:
Barack Obama
John McCain
Hillary Clinton

Obama is the only candidate who is thinking about Technology, but McCain is the only one who is thinking about the U.S. Space Program, and Hillary is busy thinking about strengthening the middle class.

And while all of that is important, those aren't the real issues I'm worried about. I want to know how they feel about issues such as nanotechnology, which only 29.1 percent of Americans find morally acceptable, or what the President will do if we are attacked by alien visitors. Can John McCain fly a F-16 Eagle like President Whitmore did in '96? Will Hillary be strong enough to lead us amongst the stars toward the Twelve Colonies in a reversal of President Roslin's actions despite her chamalla addiction? Will Obama's plans be enough to save us from a comet headed for earth? Can Obama keep Evil at bay by recruiting Corben Dallas as President Lindberg did in '97?, or will he call upon the services of Jack Bauer as President Palmer did in 2002? What are the candidate's policies on mutants, and how do they stand on the Mutant Registration Act? How do we know that John McCain isn't a blue-skinned shapeshifter in disguise as Senator Kelly was?

McCain reminds me all too much of the dethroned Emperor Palpatine who had to be ousted from power in 1983 in a coup d'etat by Lord Vader and a band of insurgents led by his son. But ultimately, I'm opposed to whoever wants to continue funding Skynet.

links for 2008-03-03


LA to New York in 4 minutes

... with the use of time lapse photography and directed by Michel (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind, Rewind)and Olivier Gondry.

Lacquer's Behind music video: