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.