Thursday, October 27, 2011

Over-The-Shoulder

I’ve been playing Grasshopper Manufacture’s Shadows of the Damned recently. It’s the latest in a series of third-person action games inspired by Resident Evil 4 that my Gamefly account has been dishing up.
            I do like these games, though I think some definitely do it better than others. Dead Space 2 was a wonderful blockbuster “popcorn” game, very story driven but none the worse for it. On the other hand, Alan Wake’s gameplay was a tiresome chore, and the story’s ham-fisted references to Stephen King and Twin Peaks were much the same.
            One of the debates in the world of video games has been about how to properly implement story, or whether or not to do so at all. I think there’s certainly a good way to do it, as long as you accept the limitations. That’s what these aforementioned games specialize in – limitations.
They’re all based on Shinji Mikami’s “over-the-shoulder” system presented in RE: 4, which freezes the player in place while enemies slowly (or not so slowly) stalk toward them, claws outstretched. This is a great mechanic for horror games or action games because it builds suspense, an emotion you want to express in those genres.
Gears of War presented a mutated version of the same mechanic, injecting more FPS-style action. However, the game took control of your character more than an FPS would have, with A-triggered dives for cover and Mortal Kombat-style brutalities.
These mechanics are about presenting smooth action pacing and flashy visuals – attributes you typically look for in cinema. And AAA games, having been adopting more cinematic styles for a while now, are adapting these game mechanics in stride. Halo: Reach had more mini-quicktime events than previous games, offering GoW-style brutalities. Those brief moments where the game takes control away from you are where they cram in all the game’s presentation and character. It’s a clever dash of Hollywood Movie Magic.
So game designers have finally found ways to corner players into serving themselves their own cinematic experiences. In SotD, I’m constantly backed against a wall having to press B and push demons back, much like in Left for Dead. When I do this the camera zooms out a little bit and shows me what my character is doing: bonking a zombie on the noggin.
That’s all well and good but what about this debate? Some developers and players have been bemoaning the rise of cinematic elements in video games for a while now, though it’s obvious that they sell. Just ask Batman Arkham Asylum. Or RE: 4. Or Gears of War.
I think we already know what the worst-case scenario looks like. It’s called Metal Gear Solid. I’m not saying they’re bad games, but they are the best examples of games where play is crowded out by story. I also touched on this issue when I talked about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. The style/substance ratio was just off.
There are games that can do it right though: Dead Space 2 brought a lot of characterization to Isaac Clark (Gunner Wright) and Ellie Langford (Sonita Henry) with impressive voice acting and visual technology. Additionally, they got the pacing right, deciding not to repeat the first game’s slow reveal; Dead Space 2 is an action game. It’s also short, not pretending to be anything more than a deadly romp through the Dead Space universe. Grand Theft Auto 4, Gears of War, and to an extent Mass Effect 2 also got it right in their own ways.
The key to making these games correctly is to admit what they are – cinema/video game hybrids – and Direct/Design accordingly. Gameplay elements need to complement the mood and story of the game. Shadows of the Damned is doing this well so far. Executive Director Goichi Suda (AKA Suda51) labels the game a “Suda Joint,” making reference to film director Spike Lee’s tendency to labels his movies “Spike Lee Joint”s.
Suda51’s cinema aspirations are obvious enough throughout the game. Dialogue is flowing constantly, and the camera is always cutting away to objectives, enemies, and cut scenes. The style – undoubtably Japanese, extremely raunchy – injects itself as often as possible, through obstacles (strange goat heads that emit light), enemies (a variety of demons) and the main character’s Swiss Army Ex Machina, Johnson (a floating skull that turns into weapons, a motorcycle, and a variety of other things). Everything talks. It’s like Pee-Wee’s playhouse mixed with Tenacious D.
           As to where that leaves us in the debate, I’m not sure. I need to play the game more. In general, these games are Triple A or sub-Triple A titles (Triple B?), so I don’t think this style of game is likely to be adopted by the indie community, which is more happy programming procedural worlds and rivers made of voxels. Which is fine. We can have both.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Sketch of the Austin Gaming Scene

If the internet is another dimension, then the city of Austin is an axis mundi, a portal to that intangible realm. The relative high quality of life here means that most Austinites have some connection to the web and know how to use it.


From the screen to the scenery, memes carry over to Austin street art

That same quality of life also draws developers from the world of video games, bringing them into a population already profoundly affected by web and gaming culture. Recently, many of these developers got together for an IGDA picnic/party thrown at Castleton Village, owned and maintained by Richard "I went into space and live in a castle" Garriott. I was there, working sign-in from 4:30-6:30, eating barbeque, drinking beer, and shmoozing with people in the industry.

But here's the thing: it's not just an industry anymore. It's a scene. A small one, sure, but one that's growing. The gap between the video game players/enthusiasts and developers/designers is slowly, but surely, closing. At different video game related events I'm seeing the same faces, from players to journalists to developers, and we're becoming friends.

Events like the Global Game Jam not only strengthen the bridge to the broadband aether, but they encourage relationship-building between game enthusiasts locally. During the last game jam I worked on a game called C.O.O.P. Never before have I learned more about programming and design while being part of a team.

It helped that the team was awesome. We programmed in Actionscript 3 using Flixel, a game engine developed by local indie developer (and creator of Canabalt) Adam Saltsman, who I've interviewed for EGaDS. Our lead was industry veteran Shay Pierce, who also recently released awesome puzzler Connectrode for iOS using the same engine. Also programming was Will Swannack, who, while going to SMU for their gaming program, worked on Intertia, which beat Limbo in the most recent Indie Game Challenge. Then there was Robin Arnott, whose game Deep Sea has been impressing the gaming press with its unique sensory deprivation features.

The Game Jam was exactly that - a jam. An opportunity for people with various skill-sets and experiences to get together and make art. It was also a celebration of the process, a mutual enjoyment of the activity that is game design. I learned a lot, had fun, and made new friends. These are the kinds of activities that build not only community, but culture.

Another such event, or series of events, is Juegos Rancheros, a new series of get-togethers put on by the people that brought you Fantastic Arcade. These events also serve to build the Austin gaming community, focusing on the tremendous amount of indie developers in the city. The last event they had was a video conference with Pendleton Ward of Adventure Time and the Canadian developers of Sword and Sworcery EP. The aforementioned Adam Saltsman hosted it.



On my end, as an aspiring game developer and the industry officer for EGaDS, I'm making it a priority to involve us in this scene as much as possible. I'm going to be bringing in and interviewing a lot of guests from the industry in town, and posting videos of their talks to us online both here and on the EGaDS website.

Today in the Texan I saw that an Austinite uses his home as a venue and an Arcade once a month, for charity. When the general populace is celebrating video games as art and coming together to talk about and make them, we have culture. This isn't just an industry anymore - it's a community. I'm looking forward to seeing how it develops, and being an active part of it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"The Cloudy Future of Recorded Music"

I wrote a new article for Invisible Oranges about the cloud and what it means for the average music consumer. It's in the vein of the technology-related stuff I've been writing on this blog, but I pepper in music references IO readers will find relevant throughout. I had been planning on writing a similar, lengthier post for this blog, but having a deadline for a specific website really helps focus my writing.

The Cloud itself is a myth borne of advertising. We've been storing and streaming data to and from faraway servers for about as long as the internet has been around. Only recently have we installed the infrastructure in America to be able to deal with the bandwidth demands these cloud services make. The cloud is suddenly relevant to the modern iConsumer.

Additionally, the reason these services can gain any foothold at all is because people have more internet-connected gadgets than they used to. Gone are the days when your desktop and your phone shared a wire. Both of my parents have laptops and smart phones, and I'm not sure they even know how to use them correctly (I'm kidding, mommy). To the consumer that's always connected to the internet, the cloud will look much more appealing than it will to somebody like me, who has no smartphone (for my birthday, mommy?).

I also made an appeal to support local, independent radio stations in that article. Here are links to the Austin radio stations I recommended: KVRX, KOOP, KAOS. KVRX is the station I work at, KOOP is the station we share a frequency with, and KAOS used to be a pirate radio station on the FM that got shut down by the FCC (or similar) not too long ago. They still broadcast online and it's high-quality content.

In my iTunes, I downloaded each radio station's streaming file and put them in a playlist. Doing so lets me listen to the radio like I would in the car, easily flipping between stations.

I wish I did have a smartphone so I could test and recommend apps for listening to internet radio. If anybody knows of any apps that let you save internet audio streaming files and actually stream them, let me know. You'd think they'd just build a simple tuner into these devices, it's gotta cost about a buck.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Crosspost: How to Be a College Radio Sensation

My buddy Andy Bonney guest-DJ'd (more like guest-starred) on my radio show FOR THE DEAD last thursday night and wrote a funny article about it. Here's a bit:

Since I'm such a cool guy, I wanted to help you, my readers, worm your way onto somebody's specialty metal radio show the way that I did. It's fun, and if you want to beam your inane opinions to people on the radio, here's a step-by-step breakdown of how to do it.

Step 1: Make friends with somebody who has a radio show. This can be difficult, because relatively few people have radio shows, but it's not impossible. Try handing out pork rinds; Will loves pork rinds, and when I give him pork rinds, he becomes very docile and agreeable. It's like Inception; you have to make him believe that it's HIS idea that you go on his radio show, even though you've been fantasizing about being the next great radio sensation for years.


Read more at his blog

As he mentions in the post, he and I will be doing a regular podcast soon. More details soon, probably!

Cowboys, Gladiators, and the Experience Economy

When was the last time you went to the gym? How about church? Would it be more appealing to go to church every week if, by doing so, you were also a cowboy?



The Daily Texan ran two stories today about, more or less, marketing. The first is about Camp Gladiator, one "boot camp" in a larger fitness (read: business) trend focused on such camps. The article outlines the benefits of the camps, promising "an abundance of high-fiving" and "no warm-up[s] or stretching." Sounds intense, right?

Meanwhile, Cowboy Churches are apparently spreading outward from Texas. These churches offer a cowboy theme to go with non-denominational Jesus-worship. Brisket with a side of divine flesh.

Both of these services are participating in what authors James H. Gilmore and Joseph Pine II call the "Experience Economy" (warning: PDF). Basically, businesses today sell not only products and services, but experiences. Sure, Cowboy Churches are "spreading the word of Christ," or whatever, but what they're really selling is the experience of Being a Cowboy (Who Goes to Nondenominational Christian Church). Similarly, Camp Gladiator isn't selling fitness so much as they're selling a boot camp experience - one that is gaining in popularity. Another example from the world of video games: guitar hero doesn't sell you a video game so much as they sell you a rock star experience.

The articles in the Texan focus on the experiences provided instead of the services offered. Instead of just religion, the Cowboy Church offers horse racing, catfish fries, bluegrass and boots. The creator of the fitness camp is a winner of the NBC reality TV show American Gladiator, so she has... experience in staging experiences. Instead of just fitness, Camp Gladiator offers high fives and encouraging words from professional trainers. These are great ways to get people to participate in specific programs, but I wonder how effective they are in getting people interested in fitness and jesus.

Right now I'm reading a book by the aforementioned authors called Authenticity. It's about how consumers perceive whether or not offered experiences are authentic. I haven't finished it yet so I can't flavor this post with that particular information juice, but I can offer the following advice: if you're interested in fitness, go get a book on fitness. If you're interested in religion, stay away from Texas.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fallout: New Vegas



I was a big fan of Fallout 3. Having never played a Fallout game before, I was pleasantly surprised by the odd, retro-futuristic aesthetic and loved to explore the huge world Bethesda Game Studios made. I played that game for at least a good sixty hours, though I don't think I got anything close to finding everything in it. The pure volume of content simply amazed me, and the quirky, black-humored sci-fi was appealing to me in the same way The Twilight Zone is. In that game, once you think you've found the weirdest thing, something or somebody else comes along that's a lot weirder. The world was populated with super mutants, talking trees, vampires, zombies, and people with strange, horrible problems. Raiders who look like punks roamed the DC-area wasteland, Mad Max style. For somebody (me) who grew up watching Planet of the Apes with his (my) dad, it was a dream come true.

Fallout: New Vegas is much of the same, but also a little different.

Obsidian Entertainment, known for making high-quality, yet buggy, RPG sequels, made this high-quality, yet buggy, RPG sequel. Vegas, as in Knights of the Old Republic II, focuses more on story and story mechanics than it does on creating new gameplay mechanics (most of that work having been done by Bethesda and Bioware respectively). The various tribes and factions you meet in the Nevada wasteland all have unique, engaging backstories and characters, from the technophobic Caeser's Legion to the agoraphobic, artillery-happy Boomers. So, a lot of fear-driven violence. But you know what they say: war never changes.

American RPGs, at least the AAA ones, tend to promise "choose-your-own-adventure" levels of story immersion, but usually fail to deliver. The primary problem with the "choose your own path" idea is that RPGs are written by human beings, and human beings can only account for so many possible outcomes. Every choice and consequence must be written. As a result, a single playthrough of any of these RPGs will show you less than half of the work the writers and designers put into the game - but who has time for more than a single playthrough?

Vegas deals with this problem in much the same way Bioware's Mass Effect 2 did, letting the players know early on that there's going to be a giant showdown at the end of the game, and that the actions they take are going to affect the outcome of the battle. But while ME2's story options were limited by the promise of a sequel, Vegas has no such limitations. There are quite a few different endings in the game, and all of them are determined by the complex network of choices you make in regards to the factions in the wasteland.

The game's predecessor seemed more focused on making a true-to-form Fallout experience, but this time around the developers were clearly more interested in telling their story. Instead of throwing you out of the vault and saying "okay, figure it out," Vegas seems to guide the player a little more, setting them on a path through the world that introduces all the factions and important story figures before cutting them loose in Vegas and letting them decide the fate of the world. Because of this guidance, most of the side-quests in the game tie more directly into the story than they did in the last game.

Most of the quests are linked to the game's reputation system, which profoundly affects the player's experience. Actions you take in one town will affect how another town perceives you, so they carry a lot of weight. I know I missed out on a lot of potential quests because I made a bad first impression with Caeser's Legion. Because they decided to just shoot (or really, spear) me on sight, I figured I'd just go kill Caeser. So I did, cementing my terrible relationship with that faction but gaining good karma with others.

Fallout: New Vegas is a more unified experience than Fallout 3, and every action taken in the game feels like it carries a lot more weight. I found that I was taking the story more seriously, and as a result was more invested in its outcome. I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that no other game in history has made me feel like it was telling me my story.

As mentioned above, the game does have more than its fair share of bugs. I didn't have too much of a problem with them on my Xbox, though sometimes my machine would get stuck on the loading screen. I certainly didn't have the issues presented in the video below (warning: NSFW).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tablets and Journalism

This picture belongs to the NY Times

Ars put up an interesting article yesterday about the NY Post putting up a paywall for iPad users only, supposedly forcing them to download the paper's app. It mostly outlines how badly they executed this idea, and doesn't really go into the potential for it. I first saw the article on Reddit, where most of the users seemed to be outraged that somebody would charge for content online. The ones who weren't outraged were the ones who know that the NY Post is really only good for trips to the bathroom, and not for reading material.

Journalism is in a sorry state these days, with newspaper sales in decline across the country and an increased reliance on TV news, which has about as much substance and integrity as a Taco Bell burrito after it goes through your digestive tract. Papers aren't doing well because users expect to read all of their content online for free, and ad sales aren't picking up the slack. Every journalist in America is wringing their hands right now, wondering when some new commercial model is going to come along and save them from endless weeks of ramen.

While the New York Post obviously didn't think their idea through very thoroughly, I think there is still potential for it. What if you could download a newspaper's app for free, have access to some free content, and then pay a small amount of money for the day's stories? It would be equivalent to picking up a paper in a store, reading the front page, and deciding to buy it. Remember when you used to do that?

Tablets are a perfect venue for a system like this. I can easily imagine a (near) future in which coffee shops are filled with people staring at their little rectangles, reading the day's news. Additionally, the hardware is still new, and there's still an opportunity to get users used to paying for stuff (as opposed to on the web, where it's all free). But substance wise, why, you may ask, would this be more engaging than TV news?

Consider Wired Magazine's tablet app. Where in the print magazine it simply has photos, the app features videos and other interactive media. The ability to share that content with your friends is supposedly easy too. The New York times has a similar app, apparently with similar functionality. Subscribing to the New York times unlocks all the features, though you don't have the option to buy a single day's paper. I wonder how much money this is making them?

Also: what if Wired's dream comes true, and tablets replace the laptop and desktop computer for most casual media consumption? If they're cheaper and do everything schoolchildren and office-workers need, I can see it happening. If there's a precedent for paying for online content, then maybe media companies can start making real money again.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

This is Worth Posting All By Itself



We just watched this in the "Intro to Video Game Design" course I'm taking this summer. I've seen it before but I forgot how important it is. It directly ties in with my video game thoughts and what I'm trying to do with How To Be a Cyborg. Schell understands that one of the major issues in software design today is how much we're controlled by technology versus how much we control it, and that we're going to need more good designers. I'm starting this guy's book, The Art of Game Design, really looking forward to reading it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

I sent Castlevania: Lords of Shadow back to Gamefly yesterday. I don’t think I have the patience to make it to the second disc. According to the game, I wasn’t even halfway done, even though I had easily put ten hours into it.



The other day Frank Lantz from the NYU game center was complaining about the Witcher 2, saying “The 1st hour of Witcher 2 - cut scenes, set pieces, quick time events, and a bit of perfunctory gameplay. Might as well have played LA:Noire. Triple A is becoming a genre unto itself. One I don't have much taste for.” By his description, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow fits perfectly within that same genre.

Lords of Shadow isn’t really a Castlevania game. Or, to use a genre descriptor: Lords of Shadow is NOT a metroidvania game. Instead, it’s a “re-imagining,” using the Castlevania license to provide pretext for fighting vampires and werewolves with a whip.

I don’t like it for the same reasons Frank Lantz didn’t like the first hour of the Witcher. Style in LoS is clearly more important than substance. I spent the first couple hours of the game trying to find the “primary game loop,” which felt like looking for a single brick in a bucket full of LEGOs. Of course, the best way to find out what that is in any game is to think about what you spend the most time doing.

Combat in LoS plays like it does in God of War: swing chains at monsters that come in different shapes and sizes. You can and have to dodge, deflect, and grab enemies, which prevents you from button-mashing your way through the game. Also as in God of War, you get four magic attacks, each one loosely based on abilities in previous Castlevania games (holy water grenade and throwing daggers among them).

A light/dark magic system adds to the complexity in combat. Switching to light magic is the primary way to regain health in the game, as every hit landed on an enemy adds to your HP. Dark magic gives you more powerful attacks and combos. Of course, magic isn’t free, and the primary way to get more is to land varied attacks on an enemy without getting hit, which fills up a magic meter on the bottom of the screen.
Why is the merch for Castlevania games always so good?
The combat system is genius. The designers of the game obviously wanted the player to use all of their abilities, and the magic system encourages players to do just that. If you don’t use different attacks and combos, the magic meter won’t fill up, and if the magic meter doesn’t fill up, you can’t switch to light magic, which means that you can’t gain more health while in combat. You need to think creatively, or else you will lose. When you get it though, it looks and feels pretty cool.

In fact, the entire game looks amazing. I’m not really the kind of person who gushes over graphics, but I think it would be unfair if I didn’t mention it at all. Lords of Shadow is a beautiful game, from the huge-scale environments to the fantasy monsters clearly inspired style-wise by Pan’s Labyrinth or something similar (Pan himself is an important character in the game, and he even looks like he does in the movie). MercurySteam clearly pulled all stops to make this game look beautiful.

Unfortunately, in video games today high production value often means cinema-worship. Enter the cutscene, the quicktime event, massive quantities of exposition, extreme linearity, and Patrick Stewart. While most Castlevania games since Symphony of the Night have focused on Metroid-style exploration and backtracking, (“metroidvania”), Lords of Shadow asks you politely to keep your hands in the vehicle at all times. It feels as though there’s this big beautiful world they spent a lot of time creating, and all you get to do is take the guided tour. Game developers, I don’t want to be a tourist in your world, I want to LIVE in it. The game is two discs long. Ten hours in, I can hardly believe that it’s two discs of gameplay.

It’s not all bad. There are little touches that make the world seem that much more alive. At one point you meet an imp (the game oddly calls it a chupacabra) that takes all your equipment away and makes you play hide-and-seek to get it back. The tone in this section of gameplay is a welcome respite from the holy crusade that is your primary quest. Small encounters like these do wonders for building the game’s mythos.

In the end, my adoration for the combat was not strong enough to fight my distaste for the game’s cinematic trappings. The “exploration” sections of the game were frustratingly linear, and the glowing objects that denoted “secrets” only added to that frustration. Challenge in these sections consisted mostly of figuring out what you’re able to jump to next, which when not highlighted can be a pain in the ass to find. So that’s a lose-lose. The Shadow-of-the-Collosus-Style bosses were impressive, but Shadow of the Collosus simply did it better, and without quicktime events.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Here We Go!

I've decided to start blogging again because I'm not a horrible writer and I haven't done it in a while. I haven't really written anything since that J. Randall interview at Invisible Oranges (this is a plug). I haven't really been too busy to do it either, I just haven't felt inspired to. But whatever, it's not like this manure is poetry.

So I'm gonna write about video games and stuff.

Monday, February 7, 2011

J. Randall Interview & Some Thoughts on Punk

I interviewed J. Randall (of Agoraphobic Nosebleed fame) about his new online label, Grindcore Karaoke, for Invisible Oranges.

Originally, I was playing with the idea of interviewing him for my blog here but knew that wouldn't really work out because nobody reads this blog. Then I thought about Cosmo and I asked him if I could do the interview for IO and he was down. He liked the interview so I might do some more stuff for him in the future.

To me, the most interesting part of the interview is when J starts talking about lyrics and spreading ideas. He says "A lot of bands, they’re pretty one-dimensional. Their lyrics, the ideas are almost an afterthought. The fucking riff rules right now. No one’s saying fucking anything anymore."

Adbuster's article on hipsters comes to mind now when I think about the metal/hardcore/punk scene at large. "We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum," says the article. "So while hipsterdom is the end product of all prior countercultures, it’s been stripped of its subversion and originality." The underground metal/punk scene has not escaped this cultural void.

My punk friend Jthan told me once that "punk is an undead scene." It strikes me as true. The vitality is gone but the club of wayward 20-somethings with poor relationships with their parents still remains. The music isn't a rallying point for people so much as it is an accessory. Style rules over substance.

Lyrics in punk songs embody attitudes now much more than they do systems of belief to be shared. J was right: if Biafra or Rollins or McKaye were up-and-coming today, they'd be all over twitter and the internet trying to get their message out. Biafra would be calling people out and naming names too. He still does.

The ghost of Hardcore's past still haunts us today. With the recent gamut of new "power violence" bands, Infest has been exhumed, stripped, and made meaningless through mindless references and repetition. The message is gone. "Where's the unity" is more of a catchphrase now than an actual call to unite. Infest is more of a patch to be shown off than a band to be understood on their own terms.

J contrasted Hardcore and Hip-Hop in the interview, saying "Hip-hop, it’s beats, but it’s lyrics, too. But with hardcore, you can get away with not sharing a fucking idea." There's another relevant contrast between the two scenes that I think is worth mentioning: promotion. In the world of Hip-Hop, artists are constantly competing for attention and trying to raise their status through as many means as possible. Hip-Hop is shamelessly about trying to make it big.

I went to a Wu-Tang concert a couple months ago. I had never been to a Hip-Hop show before and was surprised when I saw the artists on stage throwing out free CDs and merch to the crowd. On a promotional level, this makes perfect sense: these guys are literally putting their music into the hands of potential and actual fans, who may spread it around to their friends. Giving away a free t-shirt is like putting an ad into the world at very low cost.

Additionally, Hip-Hop artists release free mix-tapes all the time, freely available to download online. Lil Wayne's career is based on the success of such mix-tapes.

Punks are a lot more conservative about their releases. Splits and EPs are released on vinyl 7"s or tapes, which require antiquated hardware to play. The scene literally isolates itself this way. Of course, releasing music in a physical form does serve some economical purposes for bands, like providing a source of revenue for touring and other band expenses. But what is touring but a promotional vehicle?

What I'm getting at is this: if the music is going to remain relevant, the current scene status quo needs to change. The way we do things is outdated and encourages groupthink and stale music. Bands should re-evaluate their existences and think about what they stand for and how they're going to get that message out to people. Outsiders shouldn't be shunned so much as they should be converted. Punk needs to be a movement again, not just an exclusive club for people with tattoos and piercings who dress in black. Where's the diversity?

As far as Grindcore Karaoke's role in all of this is: with the signal-to-noise ratio way out of whack today, having a recognizable name like J. Randall play a gatekeeper/tastemaker role does a lot to help find the "signal." A little name recognition can go a long way in the constant competition for attention on the internet. Perhaps J's new "label" (which is more of a PR firm/showcase for bands) is one of the first in a new wave of free online Indie Vanity Labels curated by people with vision for what this music and scene can be. That'd be cool.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

For the Dead


I do a radio show every week called For the Dead on 91.7FM KVRX Austin (or KVRX.org to the out-of-towners). It used to be the metal show, but I decided to narrow it down to the place where metal and punk collides. Sludge, grind, and thrash wouldn't exist without hardcore. So on my show I play that, then I play some death metal and doom metal too, just for good measure. I'd play hardcore, but the show right before mine is two hours of straight hardcore/punk (It's called Depleted Resource and you should listen to it). Anyway, the show comes on at 1AM every Thursday night/Friday morning (Texas time).

This year I decided that I want For the Dead to be as awesome as possible so I'm trying to have local bands come in and play sets that I can play on air. Stuff that people wouldn't normally hear, like local sludge band Esclavo or Houston's War Master (still trying to hunt them down if anybody can help). I'm also giving away tickets to local shows every week, FOR FREE.

If you want to see my playlists so far, you can do so here. I'm pretty proud of the last three.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Face of the New Information Economy

Originally I was going to write a big piece on the new Information Economy, and how it works and doesn't work with our current economic framework, but I decided to strip everything away but the most interesting stuff. This is the second part in a series on the impact of the Information Age on society.

As I talked about in my original post about the media "distribution paradigm shift," as a reader put it, the Information Economy is primarily user driven. Information (meaning music, books, software, other forms of media, etc) is more or less freely produced and distributed by the users, as the means of production continue to become democratized. All content, whether the source be a lone user or a giant corporation, competes in the same user-driven aggregating and filtering systems.

Surely this is only a good thing! People making content for other people, and often higher-quality content than if they were paid to do it.

Our problem arises when we reach the question of compensation. Most information producers aren't paid to do what they do, but instead do it out of passion. When was the last time you heard about a band making a living by touring? (Touring being pretty much the only possible way to make any sort of cash in the music business now). For the last decade or so, all our problems with copyright and piracy have bubbled down to "how can we make sure the people who dedicate their time and energy to their work are being paid for it?"

In our current economic framework, goods are priced based on scarcity - that is, the more scarce an item is, the more monetarily valuable it is. Other factors add in for sure, but it all comes down to questions of scarcity and abundance. The problem with the Information Economy is that it's based on the Internet, where information is pretty much infinitely abundant. Putting a price on data is like putting a price on water - you can do it, but there's plenty of it available for free. There are no limits to the amount of copies of any piece of content you can make and distribute. If you download something, you're making a copy of it to your computer instead of taking away from some imaginary limited number of that thing.

There have been many solutions so far to try and make sure people get paid for their work (or more cynically, that users are paying to use it). The most simple way to get paid for work is to charge for it! E-stores like iTunes, Steam, and the Kindle Store all allow users to purchase and download media without having to deal with packaging or waiting for deliveries (or walking out and going to a store!). On a more basically user-driven level, on a site like Bandcamp, artists can "sell [their] music & merch directly to [their] fans." Cutting out the middle man (record labels, publishers, etc) and paying the artist directly for their work is actually quite satisfying.

Needless to say, offering a priced option does not take away the appeal of "free." Copyright protection on media used to be more widespread halfway through the last decade, when all iTunes songs had strict DRM (Digital Rights Management software, meant to protect copyright by restricting use) on them and so did many video games. User-driven uproar and easy ways to break DRM caused this kind of protection to go (mostly) out of style though. DRM or not, people still pirate information. Right now, e-stores exist in a weird place where they're charging money for goods that aren't scarce right next to the blogs that are giving the same stuff away for free.

Another way people have tried to make money off information is by imposing scarcity. The bottled-water model is entirely relevant here, because it's another example of taking a resource that is abundant (water) and putting it in a form that's scarce (bottle). For music, vinyl has recently made a resurgence. I saw a shelf full of records at Best Buy not too long ago, which says everything about the music industry. Often, video game publishers will release their products in a limited physical form, which imposes both physical and time scarcity, which lets them jack up the price. Underground bands nowadays sell tour-exclusive releases, which provides incentive both to buy the product and go to the shows.

Unfortunately, this imposed scarcity doesn't really solve the compensation problem so much as it momentarily steps around it. People are still going to download music and games for free just as they're going to continue drinking water from fountains and streams. Not to mention the amount of waste produced by having to make physical products.

So "free" has an immense, easy-to-understand appeal (that is, for consumers). There are a few kinds of free though: one which I'm going to get to, which is free in the Anarcho-Communistic sense, and one I'm going to cover now, free in the corporate-sponsored sense. And of course, none of it is really free because you still have to pay for the infrastructure (which I'll get to another time).

Hulu was a pretty cool idea that is still decently cool. Provide TV shows, on demand (no time constraint like on TV!), for free. But this is the "corporate-sponsored" kind of free, so there are advertisements involved. So for the price of being exposed to advertising, you can watch your favorite TV shows. Not too different from TV, except advertisers aren't paying for time slots anymore. However, Hulu recently implemented the pay-for Hulu Plus, which still has ads but provides much more content. Why the new plan? Presumably because advertising wasn't paying all the bills.

In a similar vein, underground band Magrudergrind recently released an EP for free through Scion, a car company owned by Toyota (one of the largest corporations in the world). Scion has been courting the underground for a few years now, providing free festivals and putting on some killer shows. One can only assume that this is a marketing scheme to build brand loyalty, which begs the question "how long will this last?"

Obviously advertising and corporate sponsorship will continue to play a large role in the Information Economy, but advertising money is not steady and only flows as long as a sponsor gets use out of it. Sure, Google can build a company based on ad money, but how many others can say the same? Still, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, money spent on internet advertising has only gone up in the last decade. Of course, this then leads us into questions about the pervasiveness of advertising in everyday life.

So far I've covered the solutions currently being put forth as valid in our current economic framework. In a way, each of these offers an answer to the question of "how can we make sure the people who dedicate their time and energy to their work are being paid for it?" But maybe we need to ask a broader question, such as "how can we make sure the people who dedicate their time and energy to their work are being properly compensated for it?"

This next part of this essay is going to hinge on the belief that Information Work is valuable and that Information Workers need a form of compensation that isn't "work at Torchy's Tacos between tours" or "soul-sucking IT job that uses little talent." If you don't agree with at least the first part of that statement, you can stop reading my blog, and get off the internet.

One of the things we can do (in the US) is to push for government incentives to do Information Work. Content producers, like bands or open-source software developers, need to be fed and housed. Maybe producers could have tax incentives based on how much work they do and how valuable it is. However, this is a messy proposition that involves the government making value judgments on specific works. I myself would be happy to pay a few more tax dollars (when/if I have a job...) if I knew that they were going to some programmer or graphic designer in his cheap-ass apartment somewhere.

Working through the government is always a tricky proposition though. I don't need to go into detail, but just look at the history of our social programs in America. Additionally, the idea of giving financial incentives to artists and programmers would not go over well in the decade that began with the rise of the Tea Party. So maybe table that.

And so we come to anarcho-communism. I only use the term because Richard Barbrook did back in 1998 when he wrote "The High-Tech Gift Economy." Back then, Barbrook was arguing against the technologically-determinist-minded folks at institutions like Wired magazine, saying that while free information on the internet is a wonderful thing and all, it's not going to change the entire economy, but merely add another dimension to it. (A decade later, Malcolm Gladwell would assume the role of the "voice of reason" against Wired's current editor on mostly the same issue).

Barbrook's ideas about the gift economy and functional anarcho-communism on the net are still worth reading today. The "High-Tech Gift Economy," in which internet users share and build upon each others' works, is still in place today and is thriving far more than it did in the late 90s. How is it "anarcho-communism?" According to him, "[internet users] collaborate with each other without the direct mediation of money or politics." This is still absolutely true. The user-driven part of the information economy isn't based in any particular government or economy, but it and its fruits of labor are available to anybody in the world with an internet connection. Barbrook says
"Net users will always obtain much more than will ever be contributed in return. By giving away something which is well-made, they will gain recognition from those who download their work. For most people, the gift economy is simply the best method of collaborating together in cyberspace. Within the mixed economy of the Net, anarcho-communism has become an everyday reality."
The important thing to note here is that Barbrook isn't proposing that anarcho-communism is going to replace our economic model, but instead is now simply part of it.

All that's well and good, but what about the starving artists? You can program as many open-source operating systems or release as much music for free as you like, but it won't make you any less hungry (while mindlessly rolling Burritos at Chipotle will).

Anarcho-communism may play a role in the real world too. As the gift economy has been vital to the development of the internet (and technology) for the last two decades or so, only recently are we seeing these attitudes beginning to permeate Real Life.

Take, for example, Reddit. In addition to this list of good deeds the community has done, just yesterday the site got a homeless man "with a golden voice" a job at a radio station. On the site, people often give gifts to each other with no personal incentive, including video games, needed money, and pretty much anything else you could think of. I would call them "random acts of kindness," but they aren't so random. Indeed, Reddit is a rare example of a community that embodies the idea of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Structurally, Reddit isn't a site based around gift-giving. The wave of altruism the site is experiencing is a happy coincidence arisen from the nature of the userbase and the "wisdom of crowds." But altruistic it is. Just recently a user decided he was going to travel across the country and stay at fellow Redditors' households. Reddit said "sure, you can stay at my place. Let me help you map out your journey and feed you when you get here." Just check out the subreddit made specifically for this one dude.

I'm not sure how much stake we can put in the kindness of strangers, but if Reddit is any indication, it's a resource to be tapped. Free of government programs and corporate sponsorship, participants in the high-tech gift economy are slowly building an effective form of anarcho-communism in the real world, in which resources are shared and given freely based on need.

In the future, we can probably expect more websites to pop up (perhaps Reddit spinoffs) that take advantage of the gift economy and the altruistic nature of many internet users. Maybe bands will be able to plot their tours based on who offers a place to stay and food to eat for the night. Maybe people will sponsor programmers they know are doing good work. Perhaps users will drift further away from corporations and the government and will rely more on each other.

I'm not trying to promote the sort of technological-determinism-influenced thinking that got people so excited in the late 90s, but I am noting that somehow the internet has made it cool to give to other human beings.

No matter what new (or old!) anarcho-communistic beliefs bubble up and influence user behavior, it would be folly to say that the Information Economy is headed in any one specific direction. Like Barbrook, I believe the new economy is a mixed economy, comprising aspects of traditional scarcity-based capitalism (somebody has to build and pay for the computers), corporate sponsorship (advertising and marketing), artificially imposed scarcity (paying money for intangible goods), and the high-tech gift economy (anarcho-communism). I'm sure there will be Governmental changes to copyright law as well, and perhaps other changes that benefit users. There is no one "right" way to be compensated for one's work, but instead a lot of different ways. I have absolute faith that as technology develops, we will find even smarter ways to distribute goods to people who need them and compensate Information Workers for their valuable contribution to the world wide web.