I Aten’t Dead

Frangible Time Update: Finished Episode 3 tonight, bringing the word total up to 46.1K. I’m giving myself a one-day mulligan due to illness to hit the 50K line, but that means I need to re-work my outline for the next episode to match the great heaving plot twists that have been introduced over the last two episodes. On the one hand I love it when my characters derail my plot like this; on the other hand, it irritates me to rewrite stuff I thought I had planned out.

Like the above says, the illness and trips taken over November made writing… problematic at best. However I’m on track, doing better than I expected to (I honestly didn’t think I was going to get even this close to 50K by the end of the month), and overall I’m very confident I’ll be able to finish the story before the 1st of the year. Well before the first of the year, in fact, because I have two episodes planned out (loosely) already, with just a single episode in the middle to conjure up based on the pre-existing plot. I may have mentioned that FT is a very different story, thematically, than what I’ve done before; what I’ve written tonight pretty much seals that, I think. You guys probably won’t see it until June or so. Just take my word for it.

One other thing. Remember how, years and years ago, I said that writing fan fiction prepares you for being a real writer in that you get to work with themes and concepts applied to characters you know? Yeah. Tonight validated that, too.

Apparently, I Can Be Bought

Last week– a week ago today, actually– I posted some very specific reasons my I would not buy Modern Warfare 2. That post, which I was very proud of, is now completely invalidated as of about an hour ago, when I accidentally won a copy of that very game.

In my defense, I was playing for the big screen TV that was the top prize. I missed.

As I was thinking about how best to destroy it, though, I started thinking, maybe I’m being wrong about this. Activision’s business practices are pretty repulsive to me, but in all honesty, the damage has been done. DJ Hero has underperformed, Tony Hawk Ride isn’t getting such a hot reception, and, well, my individual resistance to MW2 has done and will continue to do precisely jack shit in the grand scheme of things. Mostly because I seem to be about the only person who actually tried to hold out. One way or another, though, Activision’s been taking a beating in public opinion and in their bottom line (though MW2’s literally unprecedented success may mitigate their lesson somewhat).

It’s often been said that the only difference between a strong man and a fanatical zealot is the inability for the zealot to reverse his position. I’d like to think that I’m being a good person about this, particularly because I’ve already relented on at least one of my no-buy orders (Electronic Arts). I am, in fact, capable of admitting when I’m wrong. And besides, I despise people who complain about games without playing them first.

More to the point, I wrote last week that I can appreciate Infinity Ward’s work. That’s the absolute, God’s honest truth. Being a software developer myself, I know how important the code is to a developer like IW, and when a publisher (or in my case, client) decides to metaphorically jam all that hard work up their rectum, it gets more than a little discouraging.

The thing is, I can’t have it both ways. I cannot say that I want the games industry to expand to nontraditional gamers, and at the same time claim to be entitled to directing how the industry should move. Even within the so-called ‘hardcore’ sphere of the games being released, there’s an astonishing number of people playing them who likely haven’t been playing for nearly as long as I have; not because they’re younger, but because they just didn’t do it before. Really, if they want to play endless mediocre sequel after endless mediocre sequel, who am I to say they’re not entitled to those? And more to the point, what right would I have to respond to them when they say I shouldn’t be playing the games I do enjoy? If the constant sequel mill either funds games I like, or gets new people into the hobby, then I have no real room to complain.

Obviously the game’s not getting any play for the foreseeable future, because I’m still in hardcore-writer mode. I won’t be cracking much of anything long-term open until the story’s at least halfway done, which, assuming I get back to writing now, should be Sunday, after the end of Episode Three; I’ve run long on my word count, so it’s likely that I can cut two of the episodes out and still have enough content for the full year. It’s really disconcerting for me to be writing this post out now, because I feel like I should be focusing on the novel right this second.

But the plan is this. I’ve always said that you have to accept most of the lot that life gives you, and change what you can within your own capabilities. I’ve also said that, in the games industry, you sometimes have to take the bad with the good, because those are both subjective– what I consider bad pays the development costs for what I consider good, while for someone else the opposite is true. So, I’m going to use Modern Warfare 2 as a bit of a test-bed. It’s not exactly within my preferred genre of game, although I do enjoy first-person shooters. I’m also not likely to play the multiplayer modes with any regularity, because I’ve heard so much about the single-player campaign from the first one that made me wish I was playing it, rather than simply reading about it. If I can come away with the impression that I would not feel ripped off if I had paid for MW2– if the game impresses upon me a sense that this is the destination of the fat stacks of cash that Activision rakes in from all its franchise milking, and not into Bobby Kotick’s pockets– then I’ll reconsider my stance against Activision’s games, and boycotting within the industry in general.

In all honesty, if half the hype about this game is true, then I’ll be abandoning the self-flagellatory (and, I’ll fess up, self-important) boycott tactic. I’m starting to think that, maybe, “it’s only a game” should apply to buying them, too.

Pulling The Bandage

I realized this afternoon that I am making things much, much harder on myself in terms of getting ahead in writing up Frangible Time. Therefore, I’m probably going to go into total lockdown mode for the duration of the writing. I should have been in this mode since the first of November, but I wasn’t; and then once I got sick I used that as a crutch and an excuse to not write. This irritates me beyond the capacity for reason.

Until further notice, I’m suspending regular blog posting, Twitter updates, forum participation, gaming (both offline and online), and, well, pretty much everything that isn’t writing. This also means that, despite my best efforts, I’m probably going to have a lapse in posts on Linguankery now that A Civics Lesson is done. I’ll post status updates on that site, and once I’m closer to a respectable goal I’ll post here again. (I have to finish FT before I can start posting it there, because I refuse to start posting something I’m not going to finish.)

That’s all. Sorry for the abrupt and terse tone, but it’s like a band-aid. Best to pull it off in one quick motion. Catch you all in a couple weeks.

Faceplant

Tired now, so no writing was done and no post of any kind of quality. Sorry.

I realize that I’ve been coasting along, phoning in pretty much all of my content and posts since, oh, 2007. I’m making an effort in 2010 to not have another bad year in terms of stuff for you folks to read. But for the interim, while I’m recovering from crunch mode and getting Frangible Time together, please bear with the inanity for just a little while longer.

Daily Disasters

Today was… very, very busy. I got a decent amount done at work, and not all of it was completely obsolesced before I left, so that’s a tick in the ‘plus’ column. The Xbox 360 Fall ’09 Update landed providing me with mostly useless features– but it does include last.fm, meaning I can finally have a good trance stream again, after living for a year without The System 82. And, to top it all off, a personal issue that had been looming over me is one major step closer to becoming resolved. But, something else happened today. Or rather, didn’t happen.

I didn’t get to wish my father a happy birthday.

It’s been just barely under nine months since he passed away. Nowadays, the pain is only there when I go looking for it, usually, but even then it doesn’t take long to surface. I got a chance to go through some of my old posts here and there over the past week or so, and one particular gem stood out. About this time last year, and I’m not even sure of the context on this, I had made an off-handed remark to him, saying, “Well, I’ll take a vow of silence!” His immediate response was, “Even if you did, you couldn’t.” The exchange had me in stitches then, and when I came across it again, I once more laughed until I cried. Of course, the crying was for a different reason.

I’m not entirely sure how I should go about this whole grief thing, either. On the one hand, his absence is still a really powerful force on me, and I’d be a callous liar to simply drop him out of my life just because he’s not here. On the other hand, I can’t let his memory, good as it is, drag me down in everything I do. In February, I wrote that the wound should not be left open too short or too long. The problem I have now is that I’m looking at an emotional and spiritual trauma with scientific and logical eyes, which means I’ll never know the answer. At least, not until it’s passed, and I recognize if I’ve chosen well or poorly.

In the interim, though, it’s enough to simply spare him a thought now and again, and to take each step as it is laid before me. Knowing that I have the love and support of so many people, and knowing that I take these steps with his memory by my side, I cannot falter.

Quick Impressions: pop’n music (Wii)

Konami, you got some splainin’ to do.

I will say this, though. The presentation is, without a doubt, light-years beyond what Beat’n Groovy was. This actually feels like a real pop’n game in terms of the visuals and sounds. However… it controls terribly. It’s nearly impossible to hit the blue notes by themselves, and there’s no option to alter the sensitivity of the controls. I can forgive mucking with the menus (they’re closer to something like We Cheer than the traditional “wheel” menu); I can totally understand dropping the honorifics, and the very very minor edits to the characters are also understandable (Poet no longer has her halo, mostly because the backstory that explains her as an angel of Christmas is kind of not there). You guys even get props for not having horribly-mangled Engrish voices, and even more points for using master tracks (seriously, Ace of Spades ’08, by real-live Motorhead? AWE. SOME.).

But all that goes away when you can barely control the damn thing. Die-hard bemaniacs (like, well, me alone around these parts) will want it just to support the concept, but unfortunately I doubt Konami will manage to try again with a proper control scheme. I certainly hope they do, but it just doesn’t look likely.

(This entry was set up on time-delay, so don’t fret: I just wanted to make sure that I got my thoughts out of the way and a post set up for today, Sunday. Most of today will be spent at Legions in the North Hills, taking part in my first-ever Warhammer 40K tournament. My greenskin Boyz are definitely ready to kick some ‘oomie butt. Maybe if I get a little bit of extra time this week I’ll write up a report on the process… hm, sounds like a fun thing to do. I’ll shoot for that after I hit 30K words on Frangible Time.)

Technical Pacifism

Over this past week, Microsoft announced that their Xbox Live service had reached a usage level of over two million simultaneous users. This is apparently unprecedented for the service, though it’s not hard to believe; having used all of the major consoles’ (and handhelds’) online services, I feel Live stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of content and ease of use. (And I’m not just saying that because I won enough credit for the service that I haven’t bought marketplace points since February and I’m paid-for until 2011… though the points are getting a little thin now.) Still, something unusual had to have happened to drive usage up that much, and the answer is simple.

This week, Activision and Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released for both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. (The Wii, instead, received a port of the previous Modern Warfare game, subtitled “Reflex Edition”.) Most news outlets– and here I’m talking about mainstream news outlets, not specifically the gaming press– have called it the must-have game of the year. While I congratulate Infinity Ward on releasing a product that has received almost universal acclaim from reviewers and the media, I have to quietly and calmly repeat my statement that I will not buy the game.

It’s not for the reasons you think. A “boycott” of the PC version was organized in the run-up to the game’s release, owing to the fact that Infinity Ward elected to shift some control of the game’s online environments– the servers that run multiplayer matches– away from the users’ hands, where it had usually been for PC games (MMOs excepted), and also strip away some control over how users interact in the gameworld (no automatic kicking, griefing control, etc.). These people are somewhat misguided, considering that (from what I’ve heard and read) the online experience for the original Modern Warfare was already a de facto MMO: players gain experience in their persistent profiles, advancing in rank as if they were part of a military organization. Retaining control over the means of governing this system– the servers– makes sense in this light, though to be truthful the answer could have been a bit more elegant (see: Team Fortress 2‘s unlock and progression system), particularly because the PC version uses Steam.

You’ll note that I put the word boycott in scare quotes up there. This is because the boycott, as it were, fell apart within seconds of the game’s release. Hundreds of players who joined Steam Community-based “boycott MW2” groups were spotted to be playing Modern Warfare 2. So much for solidarity. (The argument could be made that many of these people are simply trolls who joined the group with the express purpose of discrediting the whole. I sincerely doubt this is the case for all of the picket-breakers.)

However, my issue isn’t with Call of Duty, or Infinity Ward, or even with the people who play the game. CoD has been acclaimed as having a strong military story, and I’m attracted to well-told stories. Infinity Ward has to be doing something good if they’re able to muster over a million players– on one of the three platforms (Kotaku has a post up showing a screenshot from the Xbox Live version indicating a seven-digit “players online” number). And thanks to the controls on Xbox Live and Steam, I don’t have to worry about random jerks; were I to loosen my bond, I would make an effort to join with a group of players I knew and trusted. No, my problem is where it has always lay. It is Activision, the game’s publisher, who has made it adequately clear to me that they do not want my money.

I’m a very calm and sensible individual. I also take my responsibility as a gamer very seriously; my responsibility being to comport myself in a manner that reflects positively on the hobby as a whole, and to guide the industry, by voting with my wallet, into actions and releases I think would be most mutually beneficial for developers, publishers, retailers, and players. (This is separate and distinct from taking “gaming” seriously. It’s just a game when you’re playing it; but when you’re buying it or talking about it, watch yourself.) Usually I accomplish this with what I call “political purchases”– games that I want to play, and pick up even if I’m aware of the flaws or don’t have time immediately for them. The biggest beneficiaries of these political purchases, though, are the publishers.

The game industry works in ways that attempt to mirror, but can’t exactly replicate, the print industry. In print, you have a single or small group of writers who will be signed to a publisher once they’ve completed a work. In gaming, the “writers” are represented instead by a development studio, such as Tri-Ace, High Voltage Software, or Infinity Ward. These development studios are individually composed of a revolving-door stable of coders, artists, musicians, and designers; the game industry is not a place to work if you want a steady job, with a very important exception (which I’ll get to later). Since making a game is an exponentially more expensive process than writing a book, a studio will instead approach a publisher with a concept and a design document. In the above examples, the publishers are Square-Enix, Sega, and Activision, respectively. The publisher then funds development (read: pays the studio) to work on the game, with the provisos that a) the game will be exclusive to that publisher once released, and b) the publisher has the right to end development if they feel they’re not going to get a decent return on their investment (or really, for any reason– Konami ran into hot water when it was noticed they were attached to Atomic Games’ Six Days In Fallujah and dropped them due to the controversial nature of the game; this is an entirely different can of worms, though, so let’s just gloss over that for now). If a game is dropped by a publisher prior to release, then the studio is free to look for another publisher to finish up the game, or to can the project and move on– or fold. The developer can also cut ties with the publisher if they feel they’re getting pressured too much, or they don’t think the publisher is willing to live up to expectations.

As for the exception, that’s when a development studio is owned in-house by a publisher. Examples include Rare’s relationship with Nintendo in the late 1990s, Clover Studio’s relationship to Capcom, and Infinity Ward’s relationship with Activision. In this case, the studio is completely under the thumb of the publisher, who can dictate any number of terms to the developer they want, up to and including what games to make. On the one hand, having a metaphorical “sugar daddy” allows a development studio to explore a few different concepts here and there– Okami would be a hard sell to a publisher, but because they were part of Capcom the game had a bit more wiggle room and eventually got the go-ahead. On the other hand, it’s a balancing act between working on pie-in-the-sky projects and focusing on bread-and-butter releases, and if the balance tips too far in one way or another, the results are almost universally disastrous.

It’s considered a devastating blow when a game is cancelled while still in development, and even more crushing the longer the game has been in production. For example, axing a concept that’s barely made it past the initial alpha-version-on-test-hardware phase is considered a pretty normal and routine way of doing things, while canning a game that’s seen one or more playable E3s is treated with a jaundiced eye. This is because, to kill off a game that late in development, you’re not just making a statement about the profitability of the game, you’re also stating that the money was wasted, disparaging the work of the individuals who toiled on the project. In some cases, like Duke Nukem Forever, this is a perfectly justified view to take– 3D Realms had proven that they were not committed to the project in any way, shape or form. For something like Brutal Legend, the act is more damning.

Brutal Legend, along with Ghostbusters and Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, are the three core reasons why I’m not willing to support Activision. Each one has its own set of circumstances, but the points are basically that in each of these games, Activision didn’t just disregard the games’ capabilities to make a profit, but they also took legal action to block the release of each of these games. In one case, they have even succeeded in killing off a competitive product.

Let’s start with Brutal Legend. Double Fine Productions, the studio behind the game, had been working on BL for a while after acclaim of their previous game, Psychonauts, had buoyed them to a fond place in many gamers’ hearts. (Psychonauts itself had some mismanaged publication issues as well, but let’s not get into that now.) Sierra, a division of Vivendi Universal, had contracted with Double Fine in order to release the follow-up. Vivendi was subsequently purchased by Activision in 2008. However, during a purge that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick indicated was a desire to focus on “exploiting” their core franchises (and the word “exploiting” is probably not the most attractive one to use there, regardless of accuracy), Activision dumped Brutal Legend. Not a problem initially, as this sort of thing happens all the time. When Electronic Arts (a previous bete noire in the industry, since somewhat reformed) picked up the game in December 2008, though, things began to go sour. Activision filed a lawsuit in February of 2009 to block the game’s release, stating that it was still the publisher. Double Fine countersued, noting (perhaps accurately) that the publisher had let them go, and that the timing of the suit was designed to sour its reputation. The game remained in a “will-it-or-won’t-it” state until August, when an out-of-court settlement permitted EA to finalize plans to publish. The game came out in October of 2009 to general well-acceptance.

This wasn’t the only time a reluctance to produce sequel upon sequel killed an Activision property. Also acquired during the Vivendi purchase was developer Terminal Reality’s Ghostbusters: The Video Game, which had been hotly anticipated as it reunited the cast of the original movies. As part of the July purge, the game was dropped from Activision’s schedule, and later picked up by Atari (itself a company with a checkered past, though it now exists only as an imprint of French publisher Infogrames). Activision’s Kotick said that the game, and I’m quoting the man here, [didn’t] “have the potential to be exploited every year […] with clear sequel potential and […] become [a] $100 million franchise“. The game sold 1 million copies within 45 days of its release, effectively putting the lie to that particular statement. Though it is true that it would be infeasible to get Dan Ayckroyd, Bill Murray, et al into the studio year after year for a new game, that doesn’t mean that doing it once wouldn’t be special or profitable.

Finally, we come to Scratch. In the middle of April 2009, publisher Genius Products sued its own developer, 7 Studios, after they were acquired by Activision. Activision bought the company in order to get its hands on Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, which would either become or compete with its then-announced DJ Hero. 7 Studios initially rebuffed Activision, but were later the target of a hostile takeover. That’s when 7 Studios stopped cooperating with Genius, prompting a lawsuit that eventually went in Genius’s favor a week later. It took well over two months for Activision and 7 Studios to comply with the legal order to turn over the source code to Genius, though, by which time it was practically guaranteed that Scratch would be delayed until long after DJ Hero was on the shelves. DJ Hero was released in late September of 2009; Scratch has had two changes of developer since then and is still said to be on track for a 2010 release.

In all three cases, Activision has shown a complete disregard for artistry and instead reveals that it is unwilling to risk even a single penny in order to do something different or unique that cannot be then made mundane and pedestrian. While DJ Hero is an interesting addition to the music-game lineup, it is neither new (beatmania has been out for well over a decade) nor particularly innovative (it makes only slight alterations to the Guitar Hero formula, which itself is based somewhat on Konami’s Guitar Freaks). Focusing on grinding out sequel after sequel, instead of looking for ways to innovate the arts of storytelling, game development, or fun, is not only greedy, but short-sighted as well. Activision has done nothing but cement its reputation as a company which relentlessly drives its intellectual properties into the ground. I have nothing against sequels, per se, but they should be used to help fund the production of new, truly innovative games. Using a sequel mill as an ouroborous to fund more sequels ends the way the ouroborous does: it devours its own tail, self-cannibalizing.

I won’t buy, play, or rent an Activision game until either Bobby Kotick steps down as CEO, or a game not based on any existing IP, property, or franchise is released by the company and afforded the same amount of advertising and promotion that their sequel-mill games are. While I know that my individual contribution is at best negligible, I at least sleep well at night knowing I’m not a hypocrite– since I made my stand in June, I’ve only played a demo kiosk of DJ Hero twice, and I’m not about to go back to them now. (Even though I really want to– hearing that “In a Big Country” is in Band Hero tempted me greatly, but it’s not called a sacrifice for nothing.)

Gamerscore Milestone: 10000 Points

Today, my Xbox/Games For Windows Live Gamerscore exceeded 10000 points. The achievement that put me over this plateau was “Deja-Vu (All Over Again) (30G)” from Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard. My current count for achievements is 577 individual achievements across 80 games, totaling 10240 points. The average value of each achievement is 17.75 points, with an average count of 128.00 points per game (Xbox.com reports 20.54% gamerscore completion and 25.37% achievement completion, with two fully-completed games). It took 70 days to reach this point from the previous plateau of 9005 on September 5th, 2009. 70 achievements were collected in this time, totaling 1235 points, with an average value of 17.64 points, and a collection rate of one achievement each day.

If my Gamerscore reaches at least 11790 points before January 1st, 2010, I will have doubled my Gamerscore over the course of 2009, the second year running I would accomplish this feat. As it stands, 2009 is still the most productive year in terms of Gamerscore increase (2871 in 2007, 3024 in 2008, so far 4345 for 2009).