August 31, 2005

Myst III: Exile

by peterb

I feel that since I mentioned that I recently picked up Myst III, among other games, for the Xbox, I should post a brief follow-up: I have finished the game.

I enjoyed it a lot; it was definitely worth the $9 I paid for it, and a bit more besides. Let me see if I can quickly outline what I liked and didn't like about the game. I won't spoil any of the puzzles, and I'll try not to reveal too much of the plot, beyond what you'll find out in the first few minutes of the game.


  • The plot, in rough outline. Some of Atrus' chickens come home to roost, in the form of one of the inhabitants of the Ages ravaged by his sons, Sirrus and Achenar, seeking revenge. This is an angle I've always wanted to see developed a bit more in the games. Atrus is so precious, with his cream-coloured paper and his quill pen and his deep meditations on nature and reality, but always in the back of my mind, I'm wondering: if you're such a sensitive new-Age guy, how did you manage to raise two twisted little monsters? The writers of Myst III: Exile don't really pursue this line of questioning to its logical conclusion, but they at least raise the issue.
  • The puzzles. Nearly every puzzle in the game seemed impossible to me, and then I'd stare at it for a long time, slowly put the pieces together, generate hypotheses, and use them to solve the puzzle. At which point I felt like the smartest man in the world, which is exactly how a properly-designed puzzle game should make you feel. There was only one puzzle in the game (fairly early on, unfortunately) where I had to resort to a walkthrough; it was one of those "analog controls, and you are off by one millimeter" situations. Other than that, the puzzles were perfect.
  • The concepts underlying the ages were well thought out and well-executed. Lots of breathtaking scenery and clever spatial design. I enjoyed looking at the game.
  • The music was the best of the three Myst games I've played so far. It's a little detail, but one that helped keep me immersed.


  • The acting. But I expected that would hurt going in, so it's not such a big deal.
  • The user interface. If you'll recall, Myst was essentially a glorified Hypercard stack: static pictures with a cursor, and sometimes the cursor would change into another shape. The player could then click and something would happen: he'd move forward, turn around, open a book, flip a switch, and so on. The interface in Myst III: Exile is a hybrid between that view of the world and a first-person shooter. In any given game location you can move the cursor and rotate freely, looking all around you. This would normally be an improvement, but there are some irregularities in how the game indicates that there is something interesting to do. Sometimes, your cursor will change into an "action" item indicating there's something you can click on. Other times, it doesn't — you need to touch some device, but the cursor is in its "default" shape. Because of the seemingly random behavior of the cursor, you're reduced at times to the most basic of strategies: start moving the cursor around the screen and press the mouse or joystick button wildly in order to "locate" the hotspots. This one interface glitch was my least favorite thing about the game. It added no actual intellectual challenge for me to find the hotspots. It just aggravated my obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
  • A side effect of the "free look" is that there are a few places in the game where I had exhausted everything I could find, and wandered around for a long time looking for "the next puzzle." I was unable to find the next puzzle easily because it involved going somewhere and then turning around to see the barely visible little alleyway that I had walked past 30 times without noticing. I guess one could claim the same thing happened in the original Myst, but it seemed less egregious there. Perhaps I'm just getting hypersensitive in my old age.

This game is on bargain racks all around the country, for a variety of platforms. If you like puzzle games it's an easy choice that will provide hours of thoughtful stimulation. Go down to your local non-chain game store and buy a copy tomorrow.

Posted by peterb at 09:43 PM | Comments (1)

August 30, 2005

Things I like in Pittsburgh II

by psu

As promised, here is a second list of things that I like about PIttsburgh. Also as promised, no food places.


The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the Jansons era was among the best in the country IMHO. We haven't been to Heinz Hall that much in the last few years, but I haven't heard anything to indicate that things are much different now that Jansons is gone. The only thing that keeps this band down is an apparent requirement for unimaginative repertoire. If you have any interest in Classical music at all, you owe it to yourself to go.

The Y Music Society

An excellent series of chamber music concerts at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. This is the other major place to see and hear great music.

North Park

North Park is a mile from my house and when I ride my bike at all, two out of three rides start out through the park. While not really a perfect place to ride, it does lead to what IMHO is the best road riding area in the Pittsburgh area. The park itself also makes for a great loop that mixes flat roads with some good climbs.

The Neighborhoods

As a city, Pittsburgh is not so much a sprawling urban metropolis as a loosely organized group of small neighborhoods, each of which has its own character. I like this about the place because each area of the city is somewhat self-contained with respect to activities, food, services, and shopping. You hear the joke about people who live in the area and never leave their neighborhoods, and such stories have a ring of truth to them.

Carnegie Library

A fabulous public library. You should go.


Filmmakers runs three of the local independent movie theaters in town and in addition it also provides film, photography and related classes for the local universities and colleges. When I got back into photography as an adult, I took the three basic black and white classes that they teach here, and they were well produced in addition to being really fun.

Frick Park

A huge sprawling green-space right in the middle of the city near CMU. Apparently there is a huge cult of people who do nothing but train their dogs here. There is nothing quite like this in other cities I've been to. Other cities have parks, but they look like parks. Frick looks like the woods. A particular place of honor goes to "The Blue Slide" playground, with its huge blue slide built into a hill.

Downtown Light

I was working Downtown when I took those black and white photography classes, and I used the area as the subject for the the last portfolio that I did for that class. The city has a great quality of light, especially on cold winter afternoons. This makes for great urban landscape and architectural shots.

One of my favorite pictures is a shot I took just off of Grant Street for the class project. The picture captures the late afternoon light shining down on the side of a building, creating wonderful specular highlights on just the edges of the windows. I had seen light like this in Paris all the time, but could never get it on film. It took an afternoon in Pittsburgh for things to work out. Sorry, I don't have a scan of the print, so you'll just have to imagine it.

My House

My house has a huge floorplan and a huge lot and I can ride 100 miles on my bike from my driveway. What more could you ask for? One of the major reasons I will never move to California is because my house in California would cost seven to eight figures, and that's just stupid.

The Strip on Saturday Morning

Really, this isn't for the food. It's just a great place to sit and watch the world go by. Probably the most interesting area of Pittsburgh to just stand in on any given day.

Posted by psu at 08:37 PM | Comments (0)

August 29, 2005

Welcome Joystiq Readers

by peterb

The "Gamer's Bill of Rights" article referred to in today's Joystiq entry is here

Posted by peterb at 04:31 PM | Comments (0)

August 26, 2005

Inferiority Complex

by psu

I feel somewhat self-concious about writing about games. I feel OK writing about my impressions of specific games. After all, those are just my observations. I feel like I am on shakier ground when writing about more general issues in games, gaming, or game design, if for no other reason than I only have my experience to go by and it seems like others have a lot more experience than me. But, since this site is mostly a place to experiment with writing, I have tried to write about some larger issues, and have had some success and some failure.

During this period, I had the following experience a couple of times. I would start writing a fabulous article with some witty insight about the nature of games or game design. Then, halfway through, I would look up the phrases in google and find that Ernest Adams had already written much the same article years ago in his game design column at Gamasutra. I found this to be frustrating, but would post my piece anyway, reasoning that I had taken a slightly different angle on the subject, even if this reasoning was usually wrong.

Mr. Adams did this to me when discussing immersion in games. He did it too me again when discussing game length and replayability. He even beat me to the idea that Madden Football is really more of a strategy sim than a sports game. He's also published most of my pet peeves against evil game designers in his classic set of twinkie denial articles. Of course, none of this should be surprising. He has spent more time building games than I've spent playing them.

Luckily, Pete is smarter than me. I am happy to report that for once Tea Leaves got the jump on Mr. Adams. In his most recent column at Gamastura, Mr. Adams lists a set of "Gamer's Rights", and lo and behold they overlap with Pete's Gamer's Bill of Rights from a while back while taking a somewhat different point of view.

It's pretty cool for the web space I share to get a mention like this, even if, again, it's a smarter guy than me doing the writing. As usual, Adams is completely right in every point that he makes, from the ability to control cut scenes, to the fact that games should tell you quickly if you have failed. But, what really warms my heart is the section in the piece on saving games: "The player's right to save the game is absolute". Amen brother and testify again. Truly this must mean that we are on the side of light and goodness here.

The only thing I see missing from the article is a heading that reads: The right not to have to fight a stupid Boss. On the other hand, I think the other items in the list point to the general truth that bosses are stupid.


The Game Designer's Notebook is absolutely required reading. Twice. The No Twinkie series is particularly enjoyable.

Posted by psu at 07:42 PM | Comments (1)

August 25, 2005

Lights, Action, Camera

by peterb

The camera in Neverwinter Nights sucks. This article is about why. I'm telling you what the article is about up front, because I'm about to take a leisurely detour through many seemingly unrelated topics before circling back around to the actual point.

As I think I've mentioned before, my mother didn't like Dungeons & Dragons very much. When I would hang out at Junot Diaz's house and play all day, she'd always call me after a few hours and harangue me into coming home. This made me bitter, because everyone else got to stay there all day and most of the night playing, and I only got a taste of it. At the time, I was convinced that my mother didn't understand how cool D&D was, and how creative and fun it was, and she just hated me and didn't want me to have any friends at all.

Now, with the perspective of many years, I've finally come to understand that my mom didn't hate D&D. She didn't think it was satanic, or evil, or unbalancing, or immoral. In fact, she probably didn't know anything about it whatsoever. My mom applied a very simple and sensible test: anything a 14 year old boy is willing to spend 20 hours in a basement doing can't possibly be a good idea. I can't really argue with that. Mom was right.

There was at least one unintentional side-effect of this, though. By constraining my D&D experiences, Mom turned the game into one of my semi-permanent latent objects of desire. Even though I personally have never had all that much fun playing D&D, either in person or on a computer, I'm convinced that somewhere within the maze of rules, tables, and Erol Otus drawings lies the joyous heart of all ludic pleasure. So, years later, the 14 year old in my head still wants me to purchase Dungeons & Dragons-based computer games.

Mom did let me spend 20 hours a day playing computer games, presumably because of a misbegotten belief that computers would somehow make me smarter.

One of the games I spent hours and hours playing was SSI's classic dungeon crawl Eye of the Beholder. This game still holds up well (under emulation) even today. The rules were simple, the puzzles were surprisingly sophisticated given the limitations of its user interface, and it moved at just the right pace. Eye of the Beholder took everything good about Wizardry and imported it wholesale into a Dungeons & Dragons universe. The first two Eye of the Beholder games are the best computer-based dungeon crawls that have ever been made.

Recently, I heard about a mod for Neverwinter Nights that basically reimplements Eye of the Beholder in the NWN engine. So of course, I have to have it. It doesn't matter that it won't be as good as the original. It doesn't matter that I own the original and can still play it on just about any machine, under emulation.

It's shinier. I have to have it. The only problem is that in order to play it, I would have to buy the latest add-on pack for Neverwinter Nights, which I didn't yet own (and suddenly, the reason this module is being touted on Bioware's site becomes clear: now that's good marketing).

Since I have a job and the add-on pack isn't that much money, I bought it.

Before purchasing the add-on pack, I fired up Neverwinter just to refresh my memory. And that's when the trouble began. Now, I'm going to compare Neverwinter Nights to its console nephews, Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. I'm well aware that those are later games, and that they were able to learn from the mistakes made by Neverwinter. But it needs to be said: the single biggest misfeature of Neverwinter Nights as a product is that the camera is terrible.

I don't work for Bioware. Despite the fact that they liked my little Jade Empire-inspired toy, The Inscrutable Denominator of Heavenly Glory, I've never hung out with them, drunk beer with them, or gone on press junkets with them (memo to Bioware: have your people call my people. Let's do lunch). Despite that, due to my amazing psychic powers, I can tell you exactly how Neverwinter Nights ended up with its lousy camera.

Early in the development cycle, one of the engine programmers produced an internal-use-only demo of the 3D engine. The demo had various 3D objects arrayed around a landscape. To show how cool and truly-3D everything was, he provided some simple controls to drive the camera around via the keyboard. At the same as time the engine was being developed, work on other parts of the product was advancing: 3D models were being created, scripts were being written, and levels were being designed.

At some point, a year before the game was released, in mid-February — these things always happen in February, no one knows why — a meeting was held to determine what camera angle should be used in the actual game. The modelers and artists wanted a low, tight camera so that the beauty and detail of their work would be apparent. The programmers wanted a god's-eye view so that the player could plan their strategy. The producer wanted a view between those two extremes because that seemed the least likely to cause a mutiny in his ranks. The level designers were insistent that if the angle of the camera was too low, the player would never figure out where to go and their game would be ruined, ruined! The graphic designers pointed out that if the camera was zoomed out too far, the game looked like a much less attractive version of Diablo. Harsh words were said. Snarky emails were exchanged. Finally one of the engine programmers, figuring he has already spent the time making the flyaround functionality work, says "Let's just leave the demo controls in. Then the player can figure out the best view for himself."

The result, of course, is that despite its advanced graphics engine and nice shiny modeling, Neverwinter Nights looks terrible compared to Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. It plays worse, too. I probably spend about 25% of my time in Neverwinter dorking around with the camera. I'm not doing that because I want to, but because I have to. The game's levels haven't been designed with a single fixed camera perspective in mind. Knights of the Old Republic and Jade both allow some camera control, but much less than offered by Neverwinter. And they are stronger games for it. (The game also loses dramatic potential because it doesn't have the over-the-shoulder medium shots during dialogue that the later games have, but that's a separate issue.)

Worse, since Neverwinter has a three-dimensional camera, I have to worry about the zoom level. The part of me that wants pretty shiny toys wants to be zoomed in all the way. The hardcore gamer who only cares about "winning" always wants to be zoomed out all the way. Whichever one I choose, I have made a part of myself unhappy. Sure, I could try to set the wheel somewhere in the middle. But first, a UI element that requires me to hit a target "somewhere in the middle" is clumsy. Secondly, it would have been better if that view had been set for me, and then I wouldn't be obsessing about whether I have set it wrongly.

The camera in a 3D game needs to operate without the players' supervision. Whenever possible, it should give them a sufficiently close view of the action so that they can enjoy the pretty pictures. When a more strategic view is necessary, it should be presented to the players without their intervention. The best of all worlds is for the levels to be designed such that moving the camera around to achieve a strategic view simply isn't necessary. Level design should conform to the realities of the in-game camera, not vice-versa. Requiring the players to move the camera to play the game well reminds them that they are above the game world, and not a part of it. In the text adventure milieu, we'd say that this breaks mimesis.

Software developers see certain patterns of screw-ups again and again. Some of them are just coding mistakes, but some are more fundamental questions of design. One of the most common mistakes you see made by software teams, especially those that don't have the benefit of having their butts regularly kicked by competent UI designers, is what we here at Tea Leaves call "violating the axiom of choice."

The axiom of choice comes into play when software engineers on a team disagree about some fairly trivial but user-visible behavior of the product. They will have a few meetings about it, where they will make a lot of grunting noises, but won't be able to come to a decision. Eventually, one of the software engineers will say "Well, why don't we just expose this as an option to the user, and let them choose which behavior they want? That's easy." Everyone will be relieved at not having to make a decision, and the meeting will end.

The end result of this is an inferior product.

The hard part of software development is not, it turns out, writing code. The hard part is deciding in advance how the product is going to behave.

Lest you think I'm picking on Bioware, let me reiterate that the good things about the game overcome the lousy camera (by which I mean "I am obsessed with trying to relive my childhood"). The product is good enough that after all these years and all these complaints, I'm still giving them money. And it's not as if Bioware is the only group to ever release a software product with a lousy UI. Hell, axiom of choice violations are practically a time-honored tradition for open-source projects.

I just hope that when I line up to buy Neverwinter Nights 2 like a good little consumer drone, someone has actually made a decision and chosen a camera angle for me.

Additional Resources

  • The entry for the original Eye of the Beholder at TheUnderdogs
  • has a download link; it runs fairly well in DOSbox on both Windows and Mac.

  • The easiest legal way to play the game, if you don't already own it, is to find a used copy of Forgotten Realms Silver Archives. I bought one of these. It's a bargain. It comes with about eight thousand D&D games, most of them intolerable. But you'll get all three Beholder games in one fell swoop, so it's worth it.
  • For many gamers who grew up in the '70s, Erol Otus' artwork is Dungeons & Dragons

Posted by peterb at 12:12 AM | Comments (22)

August 24, 2005

Bundles of Whining

by psu

The Xbox 360 pricing and various bundles have been in the news a lot over the last week. The general mood among the fanboys appears to be a mixture of anger and betrayal. As usual, my feeling is that most of the traffic on this subject shows a startling lack of intelligence.

Whining about the 360 system pricing seems to take one of three attack vectors.

1. Microsoft promised a hard disk based console for $300. Microsoft are dirty liars!

2. Having more than one "SKU" (it's amazing how many people suddenly know what this means) will "confuse the market". Microsoft are stupid!

3. The split tier will keep the hard disk from being well used in games. Microsoft are crippling my pony!

I think it's easy to refute each of these attacks. The first is, pure and simple, the result of wishful thinking colliding with harsh reality. Nothing in the hype running up to the pricing announcements indicated that there was any guarantee at all that Microsoft would be selling a $300 console with a disk in it. In fact, for reasons I will get to later, it was pretty clear that Microsoft was backing away from putting the disk into the console at all.

The second argument is just FUD. The market will not be "confused" by having two choices. The market will choose the one it wants and move on. I think most people are pretty sure already which one of these bundles makes sense for them. In addition, if they have a pulse, it's pretty clear that the $400 one is their choice. But, others have said this better than me.

The third whine, about the hard disk being underutilized, is the one that comes closest to having some justification in reality. In fact, it would be a pretty compelling argument except for one little problem. Think back into the annals of Xbox gaming history and count up the number of games that actually use the disk. Then subtract the ones that only use the disk to store game saves. Now subtract the ones that only provide custom soundtracks. Finally, subtract the ones that only use it to store content downloads that could just as well be delivered in some other way.

If my memory is correct, then there are two games left in the pile, and they are both called Halo. Pete says that Blinx also used the disk, and there may be a few others that no one remembers at all. What this says to me is that even if the disk is in every console shipped, game developers won't use it anyway. Therefore, I think the disk is in the 360 purely for the functionality unrelated or tangentially related to games (music, downloads, etc) and to provide backward compatibility. People who opine for some candy-colored land of instant level loads or gigantic transparently cached game-worlds should keep in mind that most games on the PC don't even do that stuff. In fact, the one game I've played that comes close to the transparent barely noticeable level loads that Halo and Halo 2 have was God of War on the PS2, which, as well all know, has no disk. What all this means to me is that as far as games are concerned the disk is a mostly non-issue.

I guess it's not surprising that people should be looking for something to complain about. This, after all, is what the fanboy gamer does. The arguments don't need to be rational or even peripherally based in fact. Almost any semi-coherent barely formed chest thumping will do if what you want to do is post on some 733t gaming forum. This leads to a general level of discourse which is probably below the median intelligence level of the average consumer. However, as misguided as all of this chest-beating is, it is nothing compared to how stupid Gamestop and EB think we are. An $800 launch day pre-order bundle? Who exactly do they think is that desperate? Just walk into Target. The hardware will be there.


Don't let something like this happen to you. Just go to Target.

Posted by psu at 09:35 PM | Comments (9)

August 23, 2005

Things I like in Pittsburgh I

by psu

I have a reputation for not liking anything. I don't think I deserve this, because I rant at least as vociferously about things I like as things I do not. But, for some reason people still have a distorted view of my inner pysche, leading them to comment on my articles and ask questions like: "Is there anything in Pittsburgh that you like?"

Of course there is. In fact, there are probably too many to list in one article. So here the first of a few.

Since the comment that I mentioned above was on one of my food rants, I'll start with food places. Sitting down to list food places that I like, I find that most of them have been mentioned in these pages again, but I will mention them again.

La Prima Espresso: Simply the best coffee anywhere. I don't think I've had better coffee at retail anywhere else on the continent of North America.

Il Piccolo Forno: A sublime bakery next to La Prima.

Rose Tea Cafe: Finally real Chinese food in the city.

DISH: I think this is my favorite or second favorite place in the city for a fancy dinner.

Penn Mac: A great food store with a concentration on the Italian. Best cheese counter in the city.

: A good Asian grocery. More importantly, a good source for a lot of fresh vegetables that other places don't have. Don't buy ginger anywhere else. Good fish too.

Whole Foods: If you can't find it at the first two places, come here. A bit expensive, but the fact that they have a fish counter that is open past 5pm makes up for it.

Tessaro's: Yummy burgers.

Dee's and the O: Yummy hot dogs. I still like O dogs more, but the fries at Dee's are better (shhh).

Vivo: The other place on my short list for fancy dinners.

Taco Loco and Taqueria Mi Mexico: Good tacos. 'Nuff said.

Chaya: Decent sushi by any standard. The other Japanese food is also good.

Cafe Grand Canal: A great pasta place. Get the veal cannelloni.

Shenot Farm Market (Wexford): Really excellent corn. The best fresh corn in the area, that I know of. If I catch you buying "fresh" corn at Giant Eagle or even Whole Foods, I'll cut you.

I think that's a respectable list off the top of my head. For more food I like, look at the places listed on my restaurants page with two blue gumdrops. Any other questions?

Posted by psu at 07:35 PM | Comments (5)

August 22, 2005

Tea and Sympathy

by peterb

There are certain items that I run out of on a regular basis, but am too stupid to pick up ahead of time.

I don't have this problem with some things, such as milk, or bread, or fruit. But some items I seem to be wired to run completely out of before going to get more. Cat litter, for example. Coffee, for another. Wine. I'll watch the stocks of whatever-it-is getting lower and lower. "Huh," I'll say to myself. "I really should go get some more before I run out." And then I don't, and I run out exactly five minutes after whatever store sells it has closed, and then I'm grumpy for the rest of the night.

I have this problem with tea.

And of course, there's absolutely no reason to ever run out of tea. My regular source is mail order from Upton Tea Importers, as I have discussed before. They make buying tea as easy as Amazon makes purchasing books via One-Click. I could just spend 5 minutes on the web and it will show up at my door a few days later, preventing my having a caffeine crisis. But I just can't plan ahead: I need the panic to motivate me to buy the tea, apparently.

I was in this state of utter tealessness the other day when I remembered that there was a shop in Squirrel Hill that sells tea, and coffee, and chocolate. I'd stopped in a few times just to check them out, and this seemed like a good excuse to try their tea.

The shop is called "Wicks and Beans", and despite the somewhat unfortunate name has a nice and eclectic selection of tea, coffee, European chocolates and candies, and assorted tea pots, coffee mugs, and other paraphernalia. I chatted for a while with Margaret, the owner, about how she started the shop, and how she decides what to stock. She also carries several lines of apparently fancy European skin products. But I haven't tried those, yet.

I haven't tried her coffee yet, either, because there are so many good coffee roasters in Pittsburgh already, and I'm set in my ways. But her tea selection was interesting and wide, and she understands how to keep the product fresh (the glass jars are mostly for show; there are sealed airtight packets on the shelves underneath.) And I like her selection of saucers and teacups.

The most unfortunate thing about the store is how hard it is to find. It's a storefront on Murray Avenue, next to Kazansky's Deli. I must have walked past this place ten times before I actually realized it was there. I only discovered it because one day I was desperate for chocolate and, well, a man in need of chocolate can transcend his limitations.

I'm always worried that the place will disappear because it feels more like a stimulant-based five and dime than anything else. This isn't Mon Aimee chocolat; there's a few well-chosen chocolate bars and a variety of candies, but not an encyclopedic array. There's a little of this. A little of that. In this age of specialize or die, I find something mulishly satisfying in a store that insists on offering a few well-chosen items in a number of categories. I love the dazzlingly array of choices that the specialist stores give me, but be honest: how many hundreds of types of single-plantation Venezuelan chocolate does one need to be satisfied?

Is Wicks and Beans' selection as good as Upton's? Not even close. It's a tiny little shop, their web site is just an eBay store, and the only employee (that I know of) is the owner. Pittsburghers spend a lot of time complaining that there aren't enough quirky local stores, and that the suburban mega-chains are constantly encroaching on our territory. Well, here's a quirky local store in the heart of Squirrel Hill that sells quality tea at reasonable prices.

Stop in and say "hi." Have some chocolate for me.

Posted by peterb at 08:24 PM | Comments (2)

August 19, 2005

More Road Food

by psu

We did the drive from PA to Eastern New England again to visit the parents. Found a few more places to eat along I-90.

Charlie The Butcher, Buffalo NY

Another Beef on Weck place, but with a different style. The meat here is more roasted than the other places I've been. In addition, they actually have some interesting sides, and other types of meat worth eating. The roast turkey, for example, was excellent. They have various desserts as well, but we didn't try any.

Dinosaur BBQ, Syracuse NY

Here is a completely unexpected pleasure. When someone comes up to you and says "Hey, there is good BBQ at this place" and "this place" is north of Chapel Hill NC, you should look upon that someone with extreme skepticism. But, here is a case where that skepticism is wrong. This is the real thing. Don't get anything here but the pulled pork, because it is done correctly and their sauce is also excellent. You can tell it's done correctly because the meat has texture and character (as opposed to just being a chopped mess) and it does not need the sauce to be interesting. The place has dozens of kinds of beer too, but that's for someone else to try.

If you are driving within 2 hours of this place, it's worth the side trip. I'm serious. Be ready to wait in line.

Antonio's Pizza, Amherst MA

Pizza by the slice. Excellent crust. Crunchy and bready at the same time. A wide assortment of toppings, many of which feel like a Mexican restaurant fell on top of the pizza oven. Go here after spending your savings at For the Record which is across the street.

Posted by psu at 10:41 PM | Comments (0)

August 18, 2005

Get Out of My Head

by peterb

Currently eating away at my brain (in the good way) is Michael Penn's song "Walter Reed" from his new album, Mr. Hollywood Junior, 1947. An MP3 of this song is downloadable, for free, as part of the press kit for the album. Go forth and suffer as I have suffered.

If you have iTunes (and who doesn't?) you can also watch the video.

Michael Penn is married to Aimee Mann, and has done a lot of the production on her albums. More or less the song sounds like Aimee Mann. With a sex change.

Excuse me, now I need to go listen to Hyperballad 47 times to try to get this out of my head.

Posted by peterb at 06:37 PM | Comments (0)

August 17, 2005

My Robot Overlords 2: The Rice Cooker

by psu

We all know the way to cook rice is with a rice cooker. For most of my life, I had used simple one button rice cookers. I had seen these "fuzzy logic" cookers, but never figured it was worth shelling out for one. On the other hand, I had also noticed that whenever you are served the really excellent Japanese rice, it comes out of one of these cookers. So last week, under the pretense of obtaining a non-stick bowl, we bought a ten cup Zojirushi. The thing is a miracle.

First, it sings. It plays a little tune when it starts and stops. Completely useless, but a nice touch of levity in an otherwise serious and mechanical undertaking.

Second, being able to set up the machine to provide cooked rice as you get home from work is a joy that is difficult to describe. No waiting an hour for food. The stir fry goes in the pan and we can be eating in twenty minutes with rice that is sushi-restaurant perfect.

But here is the thing. The first time I programmed it to make rice on a timer, I set the timer incorrectly and the cooker had to keep the rice warm for twelve hours. When we got home, the rice was still as good as fresh out of my old pot. I'm not sure what kind of bizarre liquid recycling technique the thing uses to do this. It should, it seems to me, be impossible to do this without drying the rice out.

Ultimately though, what sets this machine apart is the quality of the rice. Buy high quality short grain rice and properly calibrate the liquid to rice ratio and what comes out of this machine is just the right amount of sticky, soft and tender in the middle, and just a bit toothy on the outside. This is perfect rice, every time, ready made when you walk in the door. Who wouldn't be a slave to such a machine?

Posted by psu at 07:40 PM | Comments (6)

August 16, 2005

David Mullich: The Interview

by peterb

When I had the opportunity to interview David Mullich, designer of some of the most unusual and quirky Apple II games I played in my youth, I was a bit anxious. Mullich, after all, has been working in the industry for 25 years. What are the chances he'd want to talk about his earliest works? Imagine you are, say, a writer. You've been writing for decades. Every year you put out a new book. How annoying would it be if people only ever wanted to ask you about your first novel?

My sensitivity on this issue might have been heightened because I had recently read an essay that infuriated me. It was an article by a very well-known game designer. This designer is influential despite having a track record of having created some of the most arduously, gruelingly unfun games ever created. The theme of the article was how the designers he knew in the past had, he guessed, moved on from the industry. The refrain of his overwrought meditation was that these once-famous designers had disappeared, like grains of sand in the wind.

A few things bothered me about the article, not the least of which was its tone, but probably the single biggest annoying thing was this author's section on Nasir. Nasir Gebelli wrote a string of hits for the Apple II back in the early 80's. Our drama queen designer opines:

And then, a grain of sand, a gust of wind, and Nasir Gebelli was gone. Sometime around 1983 or 1984, in the general collapse of the games industry and the specific collapse of Sirius software, Nasir Gebelli disappeared from the scene. I don't know where he is now.

Of course, Nasir was doing what he had always been doing. Writing games. You may have heard of The Secret of Mana or Final Fantasy or some of the other small games published by an obscure outfit named SquareSoft.

So this article annoys me on a literal level, because the only reason the author didn't know what Nasir was doing was that he hadn't bothered to find out. But it also bothers me on a more fundamental level, because it buys into a pathology that we see expressed from time to time: the idea of the game programmer as a celebrity.

The corporate game industry eats this stuff up, because it keeps a steady stream of naive undergrads streaming in to the industry willing to spend time working too many hours for not enough pay (or stock options) in the hopes that they'll be the next John Romero. But really, the world has changed: the only people who know the names of any game designers are game geeks. Do you know who Will Wright is? Or Sid Meier? Of course you do. Because you are a game geek. You are not the mass market. You are not who determines whether a game product is successful or not.

The reality, of course, is that modern commercial games are much more products than they are works in the artistic sense. I say this not as an insult, but as a bare fact: the technical realities of game production are that they are a complex software product, and the game industry is not yet as good at abstracting away the complexities of production as Hollywood is at abstracting away the complexities of movies. The game industry has had a few D.W. Griffiths. But it will be a few more decades before it has its Hitchcock. I don't think it's any shame to be a competent producer or software engineer who works on a large team putting together a complex product. But to the game designers who pretend to celebrity, having a role like that is as glamorous as driving a truck.

So when I talked to Mullich (remember him? I mentioned him about 10 pages ago), I was nervous about doing the same thing to him as the designer who I will not name did to Nasir. I didn't want to imply that the only works that mattered were the ones that he had the top byline on. But I still wanted to know about his earlier games, because I am, perhaps unjustifiably, fascinated by that era in software development. In the meantime, he'd been a producer on a number of top-shelf titles (including some of the products in the humongously successful Heroes of Might and Magic III series).

Hopefully, I managed to ask good questions about the early days without giving short shrift to his later work. You be the judge.

peterb: What have you been doing since 3DO/New World Computing folded? Mobygames says you worked on Vampire: The Masquerade. What was your role there?

After I and most of the Heroes team were laid off from NWC, I was hired by Activision to produce real-time strategy games based upon the Star Trek license. That was a real treat for me, since I had been a Star Trek fan since watching the original series premiere episode and later became a cartoonist for the Star Trektennial newsletter put out by Gene Roddenberry's secretary, Susan Sackett. However, with the box office failure of Star Trek: Nemesis and the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise, Activision felt that Paramount was no longer supporting the license and announced that it was ending its agreement. All work on Star Trek games halted at that point, which was a pity because one of the games I was producing was shaping up to be pretty spectacular.

I was then assigned to produce Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, which was already a year or more into development without an Activision producer being attached to ensure that everything was running smoothly. As a result, things were in a pretty sorry state when I came aboard: an unfinished design and game engine, technical problems with the multiplayer code, many game levels that were created and then thrown out, and so on.

My job was to work with the developer, Troika Games, to get the game back on track and bring it to completion. I eventually wound up staying onsite at Troika, which required me to drive a 180-mile round-trip commute each day through the worst of Los Angeles traffic. I'd usually leave my house at 7am and often wouldn't get back home until 2am that night, and this went on for six months until the game was finished. It was a very grueling project, and I was happy when it was all over.

My three-year contract with Activision recently expired, and now I'm in negotiations for a new business venture that's a little different from what I've done before, and for that reason among others, it's very exciting for me. Unfortunately, I can't discuss it yet.

Let's be blunt. Heroes IV failed. What went wrong? If you could fix just one thing with the product (technically -- you're not allowed to say "better marketing!") what would it be?

I think that characterizing Heroes IV as a failure is overly harsh. While it wasn't the enormous critical and financial success that was Heroes III (which, I was pleased to recently learn, was named by PC Gamer magazine as the 25th Best Game of All Time), Heroes IV received good reviews and had its share of fans. The challenge with sequels is trying to make a game that has enough of the same things that made its predecessors fun, yet is different enough that it doesn't feel like the same old thing. Sometimes you strike the right balance, and sometimes you don't (George Lucas, anyone?).

However, things did go wrong on the project, and the two biggest problems were the Forge Town and Legends of Might & Magic. Allow me to explain.

New World Computing's two main franchises were the Might & Magic fantasy role-playing game series and its offshoot, the Heroes of Might & Magic fantasy strategy game series, for which I was the development team's leader for five years. Both franchises took place in the same universe, and their respective designers often worked together to make sure that there were no inconsistencies in the two franchises' storylines and to occasionally intertwine the storylines together.

When we got the green light to do a second expansion game to Heroes III, my lead designer, Greg Fulton, decided to build the game around the "forge" -- a machine capable of building weapons that could dominate the world and featured in the recently released Might & Magic 7: For Blood and Honor. His idea was to create a new type of town for the Heroes series, the Forge Town, where there would be a mixture of fantasy and science fiction elements. So, in this town, orcs would be armed with ray guns and minotaurs equipped with jet packs.

Now, while this mix of fantasy and science fiction had always been a staple of the Might & Magic RPG franchise, it was new to the Heroes series and there was an angry backlash from Heroes fans. As soon as we released the preliminary concept art, the fans became so upset, they immediately organized a boycott of the game and New World management ordered us to come up with a new concept for the expansion. One fan was so angry at us for even considering introducing science fiction elements into the Heroes series that he sent a death threat to Greg. Naturally, this rattled my designer, but when our management made light of the threat, Greg was so incensed that he quit his job.

This left me with no designer for our next big project, Heroes IV, and when I couldn't find a replacement for Greg in time for the project's start, I took the unusual step of giving Heroes III AI programmer, Gus Smedstad, the dual role of lead programmer and lead designer, since he understood the strategic elements of the game better than anyone except for Heroes' creator, Jon Van Cangehem.

As we began planning the design for Heroes IV, Jon (or JVC, as we called him) thought it was time to "completely reinvent" the Heroes series, and he encouraged us to rethink every element of the game. He also thought it was time to scale back the game by reducing the number of town and creature types available to the player.

With those marching orders, Gus completely revised the magic, skill, and town/creature system (my main contribution was the idea of moving the “heroes” off of the sidelines and onto the battlefield during combat). Gus also thought the game engine needed to be redone from scratch (some of the code was quite buggy and dated back to the game King's Bounty, the predecessor to the original Heroes game), although JVC didn't think the time was right yet to go with a real-time 3D engine.

Once JVC signed off on the design, I calculated that the project would require about 6 programmers and 18 months of work. Unfortunately, our parent company, 3DO, was having severe financial problems and ordered New World to begin work on a third franchise, Legends of Might & Magic, but without giving us any additional staff to work on it. Many of New World's best programmers — some of whom I was counting on to work on Heroes IV — were assigned to this new franchise, which also consumed all of JVC's attention for almost two years until it shipped. (Legends was the real failure. It was a total commercial and critical flop as well as being finished a year behind schedule, as I recall.)

So, instead of six programmers to program the game, I had only two — one of whom was also busy with the design work, while the other was also tasked with creating six new Heroes "mini-expansions" needed to supply 3DO with additional revenue. I tried for over a year to beg, borrow or steal additional programmers, but between 3DO-mandated salary and hiring freezes, I wasn't able to bring additional programming help onto the team. 3DO finally responded to our dilemma about six months before we were scheduled to ship the game, and I was given what I needed to hire on a bunch of new programmers in a hurry. However, the problem of the mythical man month (you can't have ten people do in one month what a single person can do in ten months) reared its ugly head, and as a result, Heroes IV shipped with underdeveloped AI and no multiplayer gameplay.

As for the one change I would make if I had it to do all over again, well, that has to do with another problem I experienced during the project. At the completion of Heroes III, my manager criticized me for being too "hands-on" during the game's development and ordered me to give the leads under me more latitude on future projects. While I disagreed with his criticism and thought that my leadership style on Heroes III had resulted in a pretty darned good game, my manager remained firm on the matter.

It so happened my lead game designer and lead level designer on Heroes IV didn't see eye-to-eye on a number of issues. Gus saw Heroes as primarily a strategy game but felt that the level designers were creating game levels that were more appropriate for an adventure game. While I sided with Gus — I thought that the game levels being designed had too much story text, too many artifacts for boosting hero attributes quickly to very high levels, and intricate storylines that conflicted with the premise that the heroes could now be injured on the battlefield — my orders were to let my leads make their own decisions within their own areas of expertise.

While my manager gave me a better performance review for my leadership on Heroes IV than on Heroes III, I felt that Heroes IV was a poorer game in large part due to the conflict between the game design and level design. So, if I had it to do over again, I would have followed the adage "to thine own self be true" and managed things a bit more closely as I did on Heroes III.

With regards to your older games on the Apple II: did you use any particular development environment for the games? Prisoner 2 appeared to largely be in Applesoft -- were you just typing code in to the shell directly, or were you using some early form of IDE, or were you working a design and code on paper beforehand?

I wrote the original The Prisoner entirely in Applesoft BASIC as Edu-Ware employee #4 in 1980, and I designed the game as I programmed it — all in about six weeks time, if I recall correctly. The following year, when we decided to remake the text game in hi-res graphics and call it Prisoner 2, I was Edu-Ware's development manager with several programmers working under me on several projects simultaneously. I would write a game design document and draw screen layouts for each game, and my programming staff would program them in Applesoft and use a graphics engine and text parser that I had written in 6502 assembly language using an assembler. Those tools, which I created some twenty-five years ago, were among the last programs I actually coded myself.

If you tried to make The Prisoner game today, you would stop at a very early point to secure a license to use the name and likeness. At the time, were you at all worried about trademark issues with The Prisoner (vis-a-vis the TV show that clearly inspired the game), or did you simply think it was a neat idea, not worry too much about the consequences, and run with it?

My idea was to create a game that was merely inspired by The Prisoner television series, and so I renamed The Village as The Island, No. 2 as The Caretaker, and so on to avoid copyright infringement. However, when Edu-Ware told me that they planned to call the game The Prisoner and use the television series' title font, I asked them to get permission from the show's copyright holder, ITC Entertainment. I later found out that all they did was call ITC and ask if they minded if they created a Prisoner-themed restaurant, and when they replied that they didn't care, Edu-Ware took that to mean that they could get away with releasing the game without acquiring the copyright. Nobody outside the game industry paid much attention to computer games in those early days.

Ironically, a few years later I joined Disney Software, where part of my job was to protect Disney's properties and characters. I've sinced worked with many licensed properties, from films ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit?") to television ("Star Trek") to literature ("I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream") to pen-and-paper RPG's ("Vampire: The Masquerade"), and things are vastly different now. The combined revenue generated by interactive titles is much greater than that by movies, and so copyright holders are very concerned about the use of their intellectual properties in computer and video games.

Who playtested the game? Was there any feedback?

Edu-Ware's founders, Sherwin Steffin and Steve Pederson, playtested The Prisoner. While they realized that it was a groundbreaking game, there were concerned that I had designed it so that you could win the game from the beginning if you knew what to do: visit the Caretaker and tell him "The Island is just a computer game." I argued that it was thematically imperative that you could win the game from the beginning, since your "imprisonment" was entirely due to the fact that you were freely choosing to spend your time playing this computer game. We argued all night about it, and I threatened to quit if it was changed, and so the game was released intact.

As it turned out, none of our customers reported that they won the game too soon, but for the remake, Prisoner 2, I changed things so that you could not visit the Caretaker until late in the game.

Who did the cover art for the cool poster with the faceless man?
I don't remember who the art director or photographer were, but the faceless man was Edu-Ware president Steve Pederson.

Did Empire 2: Interstellar Shark and Empire 3: Armageddon ever actually ship? I've never seen these games, certainly not in stores and not even in disk image form in the present day. And if they did ship, where can I find them?

Interstellar Sharks shipped in 1982. However, when Armageddon shipped in 1984, Management Sciences America had acquired Edu-Ware and marketed our products through its Peachtree Software accounting software division, and for reasons that elude me, they marketed the RPG as being educational software. As a result, I doubt that the final installment sold many copies.

I do have a few copies of both games in my garage, but I don't know where else you can find them now.

What is the copyright status of your old Edu-ware games? Who owns the rights?

Edu-Ware Services was the copyright holder for all of the games I created as its employee. Management Sciences America acquired the rights when they bought Edu-Ware, but I don’t know if they later resold the rights or allowed them to expire. About a year after Edu-Ware was bought out, MSA closed down our offices and I got together with a couple of other Edu-Ware people to start our own publishing company, so I never found out what eventually happened with the Edu-Ware titles.

Empire I: World Builders seemed to me, if anything, to be even more elliptical than The Prisoner. I remember that the Missionary track seemed the "most playable" of the careers to me at the time. There were three religions (I guess 4, if you count the "Lord of Light), and I figured out the desired responses for the fertility cult and the death cult, but never really figured out the third. How was the player meant to determine what to do? Was there actually a way to win the game?

I remember very little about Empire I's gameplay — it's been twenty-five years, after all! I do remember getting a letter from fantasy author Roger Zelazny expressing concern that advertisements for the game made reference to The Lord of Light, which happened to be the title of one of his novels. It turned out to be just a coincidence. I wrote back to tell him that I hadn't read his book yet, but he never replied.

It's 25 years later. Imagine you have a budget and a team to work on the Empire saga. Knowing what you know now, having worked on big projects, would you proceed with it? Is there a market for that story, or has its time passed?

I don't have much interest in revisiting the Empire saga. I originally wrote it as a replacement to Edu-Ware's Space franchise, which the company's two founders had written based upon Game Designer Workshop's Traveler science fiction pen-and-paper role-playing game ;— without securing the license, naturally. (I did write an expansion to the initial Space game). GDW sued Edu-Ware, and I was tasked with writing a science-fiction RPG to replace Space.

I was given the assignment in the summer of 1981. Steve Pederson provided me with the basic story outline: the first installment would be about colonization of the galactic empire, the second would be about expansion and corruption, and the third would be about its downfall and destruction.

Since the first installment was needed in time for Christmas, I had about three months to design the RPG system and scenario gameplay, and to program it. The programming included the graphics engine that we used for all future Edu-Ware games, so the whole thing was very rushed. I didn't have much creative passion for that game series, although Empire I wound up winning Computer and Electronic Entertainment magazine's "Best Sci-Fi / Fantasy Game of the Year" award. This was the only one of my Edu-Ware games to win a major award, although I am best remembered for creating The Prisoner.

At the time you were writing games for the Apple II, did you play games yourself? What were your favorites?

I played lots of games during my Apple II days — many more than I can find time to play now. The games I remember spending the most time playing on the Apple II were Space Invaders, Wilderness Campaign, Ultima II, Wizardry I, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Kate Bush describes the experience of being a songwriter and listening to Pink Floyd's The Wall and having the feeling: "Well, that's it. Time to stop making music. There's no point anymore -- they've done everything I wanted to do, only better." Eventually, she got over it. Did you ever have this moment when looking at someone else's product? Which one?

It’s funny that you should mention that Pink Floyd album. Edu-Ware president Steve Pederson always wanted to write a game based on “The Wall.” He never did it, so there’s a least one game that’s yet to be done.

I've never played any game that made me think, “Well, that’s it.” Every time I play a game that really excites me, I think, “I want to make a game just like that, only better.”

Thanks for your time.

Additional Resources

  • David Mullich's rap sheet at MobyGames will give you a more resume-oriented view of what he's been up to in the intervening years.
  • In the Apple II years, Programmed by Nasir was enough to make a game sell like hotcakes. How many orders of magnitude more people have heard of Final Fantasy than of Nasir personally? Which of his games do you think he is prouder of?
  • Though it pains me to link to it, the insufferable "Grains of Sand" article can be read here. And writing a book about your games doesn't make them any better.

Posted by peterb at 12:01 AM | Comments (1)

August 15, 2005

My Robot Overlords

by psu

Back in the day, I served two useful purposes in the car: pick the next tape to play, and keep track of the navigational information on the road map. The iPod has long taken over the first of these duties, leaving me with nothing to do but dictate the next turn. Except for the occasional tendency to reverse right from left, I believe that i have always done a credible job. We've found obscure restaurants and other locations in places ranging from North Central PA to North Carolina to San Francisco. But now my last job in the car has been taken from me.

We originally had purchased a Garmin GPS/Palm device that tried to be an in-car navigation system as well as a Palm-based PDA. It sort of worked, but wasn't really optimally good at either job. As a Palm, it was overly large and power hungry. It ran down the its batteries quickly and IMHO was somewhat difficult to charge.

As an in-car navigation system, the unit also left a lot to be desired. Once you got the thing into navigation mode, it provided excellent and detailed directions, complete with lots of dorky stats like time of arrival, average speed, and the name of the next cross-street. On the other hand, I hated the interface you had to use to set up the navigation mode. To me, it was a maze of bad defaults, stupidly labeled buttons, and teeny leetle inscrutable icons. It was also hard to use while the car moved, especially if you needed to use the stylus to pick things on the screen. Also, you could only search in areas for which you had downloaded maps. Since the unit had limited memory, it could not hold detailed maps for the entire country all at the same time. Once in a while, you'll find yourself driving out of an area for which you have downloaded the maps, and everything just goes blank.

Finally, the power problems persisted. Woe betide the user who leaves the unit in GPS mode and then turns off the car. Rather than just shutting down, the thing drains the battery, leaving you with the empty husk of a zombie PDA.

I had not noticed any of these problems in the Hertz Neverlost units that we had used in rental cars, but Karen did not like Neverlost, so we came to an uneasy peace with her managing the Garmin and me pestering her to buy a Magellan every once in a while when the thing failed again. The upside of the situation was that I had not been replaced by automation.

But, last week, the unit failed for good, and I got the order to just buy a Magellan 700 for the trip back east to visit parents. This unit almost exactly emulates the search interface and navigation mode of the Hertz Neverlost. As such, I find it straightforward to use. I happily push a few buttons and the map comes to life telling me where to tell Karen to turn the car. There are some gripes compared to the Garmin: the address book storage area is ludicrously small, considering that the thing has a huge disk in it. The on screen display also has a much lower dork factor, not even displaying your current land speed. The thing also seems like it is a bit late in barking instructions for on-ramps, but that could just be the inherent slop in GPS accuracy.

Almost everything else is better. It has no power problems, it comes up quickly and finds the GPS system almost instantly. You don't need to load maps except for updates. Finally, it has a streamlined interface to search for street addresses and other landmarks. As far as I am concerned it is perfect for in-car navigation. The downside is that I have lost my last useful job in the car. I am now reduced to mindlessly repeating the instructions of a simple automaton to make sure Karen has heard them. When the robot overlords come to take over the earth they will surely do it in subtle ways like this.

Posted by psu at 08:49 PM | Comments (1)

August 12, 2005

Soba for Barbarians

by peterb

I have a superb Japanese cookbook, Japanese Homestyle Cooking by Suzuki Tokiko-san. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. Love, because it's a great book with many delicious and interesting recipes. Hate, because most of those recipes require what seems like days of effort to make properly, and Suzuki-san is very insistent on proper procedure. "The rice must be washed eighty-seven times, until the rinse-water is absolutely clear." "Scrub the burdock root using a brush made only from the shinbone of a cow. The cow must be one that weighed no less than 550 kilograms, and no more than 650 kilograms. This is critical. If the shinbone is unbalanced, the dish will be an abject failure, and you will shame your family."

OK, I admit it. Suzuki-san doesn't actually say those things. But as I read her book, I feel like she's saying them. Because at the end of the day, I find the recipes to be too much work. I want them to be quicker. Easier. More convenient. I need recipes more suited to my swinging, space-age-a-go-go lifestyle. Something from a cartoon: open the packet, pour the water on to the powder, and poof! There is a cloud of orange smoke, and as it dissipates I find a full meal, beautifully presented.

In other words, I am a barbarian, because it turns out that I am willing to settle for food that is only half as good as it could be if that means I only have to do one-tenth the amount of work. (At least when I'm the one doing the work. If you're doing the cooking, I require nothing short of perfection.)

With that in mind, here is how to make soba noodles if you don't care a whit about authenticity. This is soba for barbarians.

Unfortunately, not every dish can be made with a side of beef, one carrot, and a magnum of cheap red wine. So you'll need to get some ingredients from your local asian store for this dish:

  • One package soba noodles.
  • 2 packets of dried bonito flakes.
  • One package dried wakame seaweed
  • Soy sauce

So the overall strategy here is to make something that vaguely approximates dashi, and then add soy sauce and noodles. Then, we will eat it.

To make a true dashi, of course, you'd need to follow a careful and precise process, and use konbu instead of wakame. But konbu is a pain in the ass, and you can't really eat it without a lot more effort, and I like actually eating the seaweed, and I'm too lazy to spend the time to make a real dashi today. So instead we're going to make mock-dashi.

Fill a large bowl with hot water and start soaking the wakame; when it has soaked for about 10 or 15 minutes, pour the water down the drain and set the seaweed aside. In the meantime, put a medium saucepan of water on the stove and heat. Take some bonito flakes (I use two 5 gram packets) and put them in a tea strainer (or cheesecloth, if you're all fancy that way). When the water is boiling, turn off the heat, and when it stops boiling put the tea strainer into the water. Let that sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Take the tea strainer out and throw away the bonito flakes. Add soy sauce until it looks, smells, and tastes about right (it should have a pronounced but not overwhelming soy taste.) Bring the pot back to a boil. When it's boiling, put in the soba noodles and stir; they should cook for about 5 minutes. Don't overcook them. You can put the wakame in at any time after it's back at a boil; the earlier you put it in, the more flavor it will give. Personally, I just throw the seaweed into the pot at the same time as the noodles, because that's the laziest thing to do.

When the noodles are done, take it off the heat and serve immediately. It will taste great, and will get better in the fridge over the next couple of days.

Posted by peterb at 05:52 PM | Comments (2)

August 11, 2005

Madden Time

by psu

Another August, another copy of Madden NFL. I can't help it. People will mock me. The general public's evaluation of my intelligence will plummet. What little cred I had as a "cool" or independent-minded personality will go down the toilet. But that's OK, because nothing changes the fact that the game is fun.

With the exclusive license and other press around EA in the past year, it has become fashionable to decry Madden as a symbol of everything wrong in the modern game industry. EA, we are told, is the great Satan, churning out the same game year after year to great reward while crushing the creative spirit of the poor serfs who must toil under intolerable conditions in their slave-master's dungeon with a large masked man standing over them beating a drum. This is bunk.

If EA is somehow evil for franchising great gameplay, then why aren't people taking Rockstar, Bungie, Valve, id, and most of all, Nintendo to task for exactly the same set of sins? It is not rational to me that someone can tell me that GTA:SA, or Zelda:Minish Cap or Halo 2 is some great artistic achievement and in the same breath spit on Madden as mass-produced drek.

When I look at Madden, I see a large scale piece of application software that is released with relatively major changes on a yearly schedule. This is not an easy thing to do. You either have to use staggered teams on longer schedules, or a single team on a very short production schedule. Either way, it's hard.

And look at what is new in this year's game, just off the top of my head

- A completely new passing mechanic. Sure, it looks kind of stupid, like a yellow Eye of Sauron scanning the field, but you can't say they aren't trying.

- Many small tweaks and adjustments added to the pre-snap controls, especially on offense.

- When you are running with the ball, the right analog stick gives you a power move. I think this is the third right analog stick mechanic in the last three years.

- New graphics for the front end.

- New motion capture for player animations.

- Music from NFL films (great stuff!).

- A new "superstar" mode. This also appears to be stupid.

- The PS2 version of the game can apparently download games to your PSP where you can play them and then upload the results back into the PS2. Sweet.

- Various AI tweaks are apparent from playing a few games.

- Added two platforms (DS and PSP).

Any one of these new features would be a large production effort for any development team. And you have to tip your hat to a team that can integrate all this together and keep the game feeling basically the same as before. Everything that makes Madden fun is still in the game. Some things work better now than they did before, other money play holes have been plugged up. There are still annoying bugs (hello, why can't I turn off the Tony Bruno show under my menus?) and many of the same strange glitches (bullshit long passes near the end of close games). But when you filter all that out, what you end up with is a simulation of the football experience which is just good enough to be believable once in a while, and a game that makes you feel like a genius several times a night. And that's just irresistable.

With that though, I'll bring this little EA ass-kissing session to and end, and look forward to swimming in a sea of angry anti-EA screed.

Next time: How Madden football is really a strategy/RPG in addition to a sports game.

Posted by psu at 09:26 PM | Comments (5)

August 10, 2005

False Nostalgia

by psu

I had a feeling of nostalgia come over me a few weeks ago and got out the old manual film camera to shoot a roll of black and white and send it to a lab I found that does process-and-scan.

Aside from the Leicas, there is no current production camera that is as old school as the Nikon FM3a. It has manual focus, manual wind, and that signature manual camera snick noise when you take a shot. It feels and sounds and works just like a real camera should.

But, don't be fooled. The truth is that old cameras suck.

Here's what you do to get ready to shoot some pictures with an older camera

1. Open can of film.

2. Open back of camera.

3. Pull the leader out and stuff it into the little slot in the takeup spool that doesn't hold on to the tab quite right so the leader falls out when you try to wind the first shot, so you have to try three times before the film finally catches.

4. Shoot a blank. Wind the film. make sure it is going on to the takeup spool.

5. Close back of camera.

6. Shoot 3 or 4 blanks to move the film past the leader.

It's easy and fast once you get the hang of it. Well, actually it isn't.

Here's what you do to get ready to take some shots with a digital SLR.

1. Put in a memory card.

2. Turn on camera.

To be fair, there are auto-load film cameras with nifty motor drives. But, these are not nostalgia items. People don't fawn over their classic controls and sleek metallic bodies. For the most part they handle just like digital cameras with their faceless and efficient electronic interfaces. Of course, this also means that they are actually usable.

There are three things you want to do with a camera to take a picture: frame, focus, and set exposure. The modern film or digital camera has three handy dials that do each of these things quickly without requiring that you remove your eyes from the viewfinder. Various auto modes can also make the process faster if you know what you are doing. The old stupid camera has a handy focus dial on the lens and a fantastically huge panoramic viewfinder that projects the scene into your eyeballs with the brightness of a thousand suns. That's where the beauty ends though. To set exposure, you are likely going to end up taking the camera off your face to find the tiny little shutter speed dial that is on the camera top that is impossible to turn with just a finger. You will paw at it with your huge fingers, straining to see the tiny little numbers that are barely visible in the low light. Don't worry though. This is the classic camera interface, and it's good for you.

If you use the automatic mode in the FM3a and you want to set exposure compensation (so that white comes out white), the situation is even more insulting. Not only do you have to turn a tiny little knob, but it has an even tinier little locking button that you have to push down before you can make a setting. This is so you don't turn the tiny little knob by accident because it is so easy to reach up there and accidentally grab it with your two smallest fingers in the death grip needed to actually make it move. This is the legendary ease of use of use of a classic camera. The camera keeps you from setting things easily, so you don't do it accidentally.

Having reacquainted myself with the wonders of the classic camera interface, I shot through my roll of film. I was surprised when I hit the end of the roll could no longer wind the camera. I must shoot in batches of 50 or 60 with my digital. So I flipped the rewind knob up to rewind my shots back into the can, and it did not turn. Worse, when I gave it a little nudge, I heard the film break off. It turns out that you can't rewind the film without first pushing a small button on the bottom of the camera to reverse the transport. I had completely forgotten that this button exists. More of that classic design helping me out.

So here is the last wonder of the film world that I will have the pleasure of experiencing: losing 36 frames because the fucking film transport system breaks the film out of the canister making it impossible to retrieve without going into a darkroom.

Yes, it is truly sad that the hallowed days of capturing images on emulsion are behind us. We are missing so many tactile pleasures now. Like opening up the back of the camera (in daylight) and ripping out the film we just shot so we can tear it up into little pieces on the driveway and stomp it into oblivion.

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, especially when it is so easily cured. Anyone want to buy a slightly used Nikon FM3a?

Additional Notes

This commentary in Gizmodo is infused with the same false nostalgia that victimized me. I've use that Pentax body. It has stupid dials. His griping about exposure compensation is especially laughable, since that is the easiest thing to set on most modern cameras.

Posted by psu at 09:40 AM | Comments (2)

August 09, 2005

My Brain on Ico

by psu

When I got a PS2 last Christmas, the one nearly unanimous game recommendation that I received from the crack dealers friends I know who play games was Ico. Over and over I heard "You gotta get Ico". So I bought Ico. That was six months ago, and I finally got around to finishing it this weekend. For most of the this time, I've had a mixed relationship with Ico. As much as I wanted to love the game as a truly transformative experience, my brain would always get in the way, as illustrated by this inner dialog.

Me: What a beautiful cut scene. What an amazing sense of place. Wow, you can just soak up this atmosphere.

Brain: What the hell are we supposed to do? I'm completely lost. Why is the rendering all jaggy and shimmery? Let's go play Ratchet and Clank and blow stuff up, or collect gay porn in Shadow Hearts.

Me: Wow, these environmental puzzles really make you explore every corner of the world.

Brain: Where is my shotgun? Where are the zombies? There is nothing here. Bored now.

Me: The game presents such a strong bond between the two main characters. This is a unique and immersive gameplay mechanic in addition to being an effective source of dramatic tension in the game's narrative.

Why won't the bitch follow me?? I get twenty feet away to explore some puzzle and what happens? She lets herself get dragged away by those black dust clouds and I have to replay half the game. Jesus christ on a stick.

Me: Of course, the control mechanics are perfectly tuned to the requirements of the exploration and puzzle solving. There is climbing, jumping, scaling walls, and so on.

Brain: Wait wait.. jump now, no no no don't run off the cliff, JUMP. Oh jesus not again.

Me: I just can't get enough of these environments. It's astounding how many different moods the game captures.

Brain: Why can't I tell if I can make that jump or not? Why is the camera behind me when I need to judge horizontal distances and above me when I need more perspective? Why do I have to replay this 20 minute section over and over again because he fell off the chain instead of jumping to that platform? Why aren't there more savepoints?

And so the inner battle raged on. But, in the end, the game delivered. The end game was as organic and compelling as any gaming experience I have ever had. It was paced perfectly and evolved naturally from the gameplay elements established throughout the rest of the game. Even the end Boss did not offend, because the solution was clear from the environment and the setup. So, the last entry in the dialog is

Me: Wow, that was the most emotionally mature ending I've ever seen in a game.

Brain: Sniff, sniff, what a nice little girl, er, I mean, where the hell was the savepoint I needed halfway to the end boss?

Posted by psu at 12:10 AM | Comments (1)

August 08, 2005

The Hero With a Thousand Extra Lives

by peterb

There's no real point behind this, and we weren't very strict about the theme, but sometimes you just have to make a list of videogame titles crossed with famous works from other media. This is one of those times.

52. Planescape: Yenta [peterb]

51. The Chain-Gunning of Lot 49 [nlanza]

50. Atlas Quaked [peterb]

49. City of Lost Koopas [peterb]

48. The BFG 9000 [fpereira]

47. The Satanic Versus Mode [nlanza]

46. Which one of these replicants doesn't belong? [psu]

45. Gravity's Rainbow Six [peterb]

44. Super Karamazov Brothers [nlanza]

43. As I Lay Waiting To Respawn [nlanza]

42. The Legend of Zelda Fitzgerald: A Drink in the Past [peterb]

41. About a Boy and His Blob [rlink]

40. Song of Savepoints [nlanza]

39. Flashdance Flashdance Revolution [rlink]

38. Sonic the Hedgehog and the Angry Inch [rlink]

37. Far From the Team-Killing Crowd [jferro]

36. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Gnome Artificer [nlanza]

35. The Hero With a Thousand Extra Lives [jferro]

34. A Winter's Cutscene [nlanza]

33. Pikmonomicon [jferro]

32. Heart of Eternal Darkness [nlanza]

31. The Camera Controls of Our Discontent [jferro]

30. STAR80Topia [jferro]

29. I, Robotron [jferro]

28. Nine Princesses in Another Castle [jferro]

27. The Stars, Like Grains of Katamari [jferro]

26. Kublai Ghost Rekhan [jferro]

25. Mr. Smith Goes to Save His Game and Discovers His Memory Card is Full [jferro]

24. Boss Battle on the Prairie [jferro]

23. Lady Chatterly's Levelup [jferro]

22. Uncle Tom's Cab Missions [jferro]

21. Johnny Got His BFG [jferro]

20. Daikatanetics [jferro]

19. The Picture of Guybrush Threepwood [jferro]

18. Jak and Daxter are Dead [jferro]

17. Does Spyro Dream of Pixelated Sheep [jferro]

16. If On a Winter's Night a Goomba [jferro]

15. Everything That Rises Must Be Undead [jferro]

14. The Rise and Fall of Sid Meier's Civilization III [jferro]

13. Beowulf: Total War [jferro]

12. American McGee's The Bible [jferro]

11. I'm OK, U R the suXX0rZ [jferro]

10. War and Robinett [jferro]

9. Grand Theft Auto: A Tale of Two Cities [clamen]

8. Summer of Sam and Max: Freelance Police [rlink]

7. Dude, Where's My BFG? [jch]

6. Run, Lolo, Run [rlink]

5. Sim City of God of War of the Roses [rlink]

4. How Stella Got Her ShadowCraft Gauntlets Back From That Fucking Looter Leeroy [jferro]

3. Around the World in 10 Days in God Mode [jferro]

2. If I Ran the Duck Hunt [jferro]

1. A Fistful of Rupees [psu]

Editorial comment: It's clear to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that jferro won this round.

Posted by peterb at 09:10 PM | Comments (4)

August 04, 2005

Zombies = Profit!

by peterb

Lately, some friends and I have been playing a web-based massively multiplayer online game called Urban Dead.

The basic concept behind the game is that you are in a town that is infested by zombies. You either play a survivor (one of various different "classes" — policeman, soldier, fireman, scientist — or you play a recently animated corpse.

The thing about this game is: it isn't any fun. Not even a little. Nearly everything about the game is bad. The user interface is bad. The graphic design is bad. The game is paced super-slowly. Most of your time is spent waiting for "action points" to accrue. Or spending action points trying to hit someone, and missing. Earning a level can take a week. As we play it, everyone involved is complaining vocally about how almost every aspect of the game sucks.

But we're still playing it.

The only explanation I can come up with is: "Wow, we sure do love us some zombies!" This leads me ineluctably to the conclusion that the first company to deploy a zombie-based MMORPG that is actually fun will become rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Posted by peterb at 10:31 PM | Comments (3)

August 03, 2005


by psu

The later part of the summer means there are no more fresh crabs to be had. Therefore, to make you suffer, here are my two favorite recipes for crabs and crabmeat, both of which I made up accidentally.

Pan-fried Soft-shell Crabs

When we lived in North Carolina one of our great pleasures in the summer was going to Tom's seafood shack and picking up the soft-shell crabs that he had just brought back from the east coast of the state. The first time we did this, I wasn't really sure what to do with them. I looked in a few books and found complicated recipes involving soaking the crabs in milk and various elaborate breading schemes. After some thought, here is what I did instead, and the recipe that stands as our favorite for the crabs:

- Take 1 egg and beat it up, add tepid water to make an egg wash.
- Put some flour on a plate
- Dip each crab in the egg and then dredge it through the flour until it is well coated.

Heat up a pan over medium high heat. When the pan is hot, add olive oil and then drop in one or two crabs depending on how many fit. Turn the heat down to medium or medium low. Cook the crabs 5-7 minutes on each side. They should get nice an solid feeling, but not dried out. You also want to tune the heat so the outside doesn't get scorched.

Serve on salad greens with a nice dressing and some bread.

Crabby Crab Cakes

It's hard to find good crab cakes, especially in Pittsburgh. Your average crab cake tastes more like the breading or the dressing than the crab. So when the local fish stores start to get the fresh crab meat from Maryland or Mexico, it's time to buy a tub or two and make your own.

Here's what you need:

- 1lb of jumbo lump crab meat. This is usually what one container holds.
- 1 or 2 eggs. If you have big eggs, use one. If you have small eggs, use two.
- 1 bunch of green onions.
- a small handful of parsley
- bread crumbs
- salt
- pepper
- cayenne pepper

Put the crab meat in a bowl. In a different bowl, beat up the eggs. Chop the green parts of the scallions and the parsley as small as you can make them. Mix the onion, parsley and egg into the crab meat. Then add the breadcrumbs and mix them in. If the mixture is still on the wet side, add some more. I like to add enough to provide a bit of crunchy crust, but not so much that the breading overwhelms the crab. Finally, throw in some salt and pepper and hot pepper to taste.

Heat up olive oil in a small frying pan. While things get hot, form the crab mixture into small patties. Drop two at a time into the pan and cook them 3-5 minutes on each side until each side is nice and brown and the cake is heated all the way through. The crab meat comes pre-cooked, so you don't have to worry about that.

You should get about 8-10 crab cakes from this recipe. Serve the same way as you serve the soft-shells.

Posted by psu at 07:19 PM | Comments (2)

August 02, 2005


by peterb

Allume, the publisher of facehuggerware product Stuffit has been acquired, for $11 million in cash and $2 million in stock. To put those numbers into context, realize that it is less than half of what Microsoft books in earnings, on average, every day.

Maybe there is some justice in the world, after all.

Posted by peterb at 05:22 PM | Comments (3)

August 01, 2005

Life is Too Short

by psu

These days, the average large scale action game is clocking in at between ten and fifteen hours of gameplay. This brings howls of complaints from the hard core gaming set and the gaming press. Over and over again, you hear people complain about the main failing of an otherwise excellent game: "It was too short". This is nonsense. Ten hours is, if anything, usually too long.

First, there are my own physical constraints:

I can't play any game in a set of long uninterrupted sessions. For me, a two hour session is pretty long. If I manage to get one of these per day, I can be guaranteed to annoy the other members of the household. So let's say optimisitically that the maximum amount of time I get to play is two hours per weekday. Also, remember that I am old and sucky. This means that if you include replay time due ot death, stupid savepoints, and other insults, my actual wall-clock time for a "ten hour" game is closer to twenty hours.

God of War provided the best recent example of the "I am old and sucky time dilation" effect. There was one area that takes 5 minutes of game time to clear actually required about an hour or more of real time to play because the goddamn camera didn't let me see the freaking jumps and I died 35 times. This sort of thing makes a game feel a lot longer. In any case, even the shortest of the short games gets me two full weeks of ultra-violent entertainment. I think this is a reasonably good value on a full priced game.

So, I don't really think game length is an issue, except that most games are too long. That is, most games, even the good ones, are not good for ten whole hours. Most recently, I could have done without the part of the second act and all of the third act of Riddick, which pretty much just stopped being fun and turned into a repititious maze of vents, shafts and really really horrible AI. Like many games, by the end the only thing that kept me going was wanting to see that last cut scene.

Large scale single player games have to work hard to hold on to your attention:

1. They must construct a fairly large and complicated game world, and convince you of its fidelity.

2. There must be enough content and variety for the game to stay interesting.

3. Consistent pacing.

In the case of Riddick, the game has to make you believe you are in this huge space prison. In the early parts of the game, this was done very well. But later in the game the place lost its sense of inner consistency. Riddick also failed to provide enough variety. There really were only two or three different kinds of enemies (small and dumb, and large and dumb), and only two or three different ways to get rid of them. God of War did a nice job with the game world and variety (at least in my opinion). But, for me at least, some stupid jumping puzzles and gratuitous backtracking threw the pacing off. Prince of Persia also had a relatively awful pacing problem at the end of its first act.

Most games eventually fail along one of these dimensions and this is why so many games sit on the shelves unfinished. You start the game and everything is fine, but ultimately something in the mechanics or narrative or gameplay wears out its welcome and you put the game down. Once you put the game down, picking it up again requires that you reconstruct the world of the game in your head again, which means that you will reaquaint yourself with whatever wore out its welcome before. So you put the game down again. in addition, the more complex and rich the game world is, the harder it is to go back to it once you have left. This fact alone keeps me from retrying many games that I've put down (let's see... KOTOR 2, Thief, Zelda: Wind Waker, Beyond Good and Evil, etc).

What is interesting to me is to contrast this situation with games that I have spent much more than ten hours playing. Consider Counterstrike. Our local Counterstrike crew played off and on for maybe six months, mostly humans-on-bots, on the same set of a dozen or so maps that came with the game. Each round was about 5 minutes in length, and we'd play four to five rounds on each map before switching. I would estimate that that we easily played 60 hours of Counterstrike over six months.

I find this to be an interesting paradox. God of War , Riddick, and similar games combine multiple settings, diverse gameplay styles, embedded narrative and all the other tools of AAA game production, and yet can only stay interesting for about ten hours. How can Counterstrike, with its 12 maps that have been around for five years and bots that while fairly sophisticated are also pretty predictable, stay interesting for six times that length (actually, longer, I feel like playing more now)? I think three factors contribute:

1. Short rounds in a simple world.

2. Excellently tuned and consistent gameplay.

3. Just enough variation.

The key here is that the game is designed for replay value rather than for a long initial campaign. A given round of Counterstrike is pretty simple. You are in an Office building, and you need to rescue the four hostages. You always spawn in the same place, with similar weapons, trying to get to the same goal. Within this framework, the gameplay is tight and enjoyable, and the game engine throws in just enough variation to keep the game from being repetitive. The short rounds mean if you are having a bad day, you get to try again quickly. All of these things make the game easy to play over and over again.

I find that sports games like Project Gotham and Madden also have this nature. You can play them almost indefinitely in short spurts, against either computers or real people, and continue to have fun. These games do basically the same thing as Counterstrike, but in a single player environment. Simple worlds (a race track, a football field), familiar rules, and good gameplay make the games easy to replay for long periods of time.

What we are observing here is two sides of a single design question: do you design the game to be a compelling and lengthy world, or do you design the game to be short and replayable? The best games manage to hook you in both ways at once. They keep you interested in playing by some brilliant combination of narrative, world design, and gameplay design. Thus, you'll hear of people playing both the light and dark side of KOTOR, twice. Or other people who might be playing through Zelda or Final Fantasy XXVII for the 18th time. For me, the two single player games that came closest to doing this were Halo 2 and Resident Evil 4, both of which I played twice.

But games like these are rare. Most games, like Riddick, ultimately fail to provide enough brilliance to keep you sucked in for their entire length. Long before their ten hours are up, you've put the controller down and walked away. Life is too short for games that are too long.


Originally I got to thinking about this issue because almost every review I read of The Chronicles of Riddick complained that the game was too short, and I found it to be about 2 hours too long.

As usual, by the time I thought up this idea, other people had already written it down first. Ernest Adams did a particularly nice job discussing both gameplay and narrative from the standpoint of replay value.

He also has a nice piece on the design of sports games.

Posted by psu at 06:15 PM | Comments (2)

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