The Itching, Burning Crusade

I’ve looked at the news for the new World of Warcraft expansion, and my reaction is pretty much “meh.” Of course, I’m still going to buy and play the hell out of it, but I can’t get all that excited about it. Partly because it seems like it’s most appealing to people who are either at level 60 and have run out of stuff to do (I’m not), and/or people who have played all the Warcraft games and see some recognizable back-story there (I don’t). Plus I’m just tired of Blizzard and have realized two things about the company:

  1. Blizzard has dicked over enough of my friends now that they have officially become “the bad guys.”
  2. You’ll only get my World of Warcraft game away from me when you pry it from my cold, dead, Wizard’s Ring of the Monkey (+10 Agility, Soulbound, required level 33)-wearing fingers.

So it’s kind of a love-hate relationship.

And that’s why articles like this one piss me off. It’s kind of old news: WoW has a program that runs when the game is running, monitoring other apps on your machine to make sure you’re not running some cheat software. One of the things it does is check the title bars of your other open applications, a commonly-used and publically-available Windows API call for years, to look for known cheat programs.

What pisses me off is that now, like with New Orleans vs. the Bush Administration, I’m finding myself siding with the bad guys (Blizzard) over the good guys (the Electronic Frontier Foundation). Now, I support the EFF (in spirit, not financially) and think it’s good to have them around. But they’ve taken what is at heart a great concept that everyone can agree with, and gone too extremist with it, much like Greenpeace, PETA, the ACLU, and NAMBLA.

From the article:

Digital rights group The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) branded The Warden “spyware” and said its use constituted “a massive invasion of privacy”.

The EFF said that it was not acceptable simply to take Blizzard’s word that it did nothing with the information it gathered. It added that the Blizzard could get away with using The Warden because information about it was buried in licence agreements that few people read.

A “massive invasion of privacy?” Please. And getting upset about what Blizzard might do with the information is what gets branded you an alarmist and conspiracy theorist. The last part is the worst, though. Anyone who’s alarmed and upset and blaming Blizzard should maybe, oh I don’t know, read the license agreements that they agreed to.

One quote from a different player of the game, who has a surprising amount of common sense for a Blizzard fan:

“If someone is afraid of the program reading sensitive information from their programs, one possible solution is simply to not run any additional programs while playing World of Warcraft,” he said, “which is certainly advisable from a performance standpoint to begin with.”

What a novel concept. If you don’t like Blizzard knowing that you’re looking at porn sites or on an AOL chat with DarkNEO2731, then just close those windows before you play the game.

Here’s the bit about the Brainiac who “discovered” the “massive invasion of privacy” by “dissasembling the code” of the program to watch in action (read: he ran a copy of WinSpy):

Writing in his blog about what he found Mr Hoglund said: “I watched The Warden sniff down the e-mail addresses of people I was communicating with on MSN, the URL of several websites that I had open at the time, and the names of all my running programs.”

Mr Hoglund noted that the text strings in title bars could easily contain credit card details or social security numbers.

Okay, complain about Blizzard all you want on your blog, yeah whatever. But let me give you some helpful advice: if you’re dealing with a bank or company that puts your credit card details in the title bar of its site, it’s time for you to stop complaining to a videogame company and start finding yourself a real bank. Sheesh.

Having to read all these tech news websites, especially where privacy rights online are concerned, just makes me realize what a bunch of whiny, paranoid bitches computer people are.

Procrastination Nation

Man, I thought I’d learned everything about procrastination from college and then working at EA, but that was strictly amateur class. Now that I’m working from home, I’ve gone professional in my time-wasting.

Before, it was The Sims 2, where I’d do stupid stuff like see an interesting house in the city and then go into the game to try and build that and then put a family in it and then try to get them hooked up with one of my other Sims or have a baby and then before I knew it three or four hours had passed.

That was nothing compared to Civilization IV. That game is pure evil. I always made fun of the people who claimed they had an “internet addiction” or were addicted to games like Everquest and World of Warcraft, and I still do, because they deserve it. The idea of being addicted to a videogame is absurd. But this game is just weird. When I picked it up on Thursday, I was resigned to waste a whole day on it, and that’s exactly what happened. I got it home around 4pm, and the next thing I knew it was 2am and dark outside and I just felt gross. Really stupid, but I saw it coming so whatever.

But it’s worse than that. Yesterday I was reading a review of the game that mentioned this opening sequence (narrated by Leonard Nimoy) that I didn’t remember seeing. So I started up a game just to check that out. And the next thing I knew, it was 4 hours later. Not even my usual “I know I shouldn’t be doing this now, but I’ll make up for it later” thinking; I genuinely didn’t realize that much time had passed. So, I’ve decided to put that game aside until after I finished my work. Seeing as how I’m not a damn twelve-year-old.

So that’s left all the other stuff to creep in and take over my attention. Like how I became convinced that I wanted to add my AudioScrobbler recently-played tracks to my website like all the cool kids do. Even though I don’t listen to iTunes all that much, and nobody who reads this thing is all that interested in my music — that’s not the point. The point is that it could all track this data that nobody’s interested in, automatically. That’s Web 2.0! The future of the internets! And what’s more, I got it working perfectly, writing the code to get the data and parse it out and put it in a nice little list on the sidebar, rationalizing that I was learning about web programming as I went. But for whatever reason, it doesn’t work from my webserver, and AudioScrobbler’s service is only up intermittently. So scratch that.

But hey, check this out! Some guy made a bunch of Flickr Toys to make calendars, mosaics, Magic cards, magazine covers, and such from your Flickr photos. And what impresses me is that Flickr has complete documentation for their API, so you can write your own toys and galleries and stuff using your photo collections. That means I’ve got to write a new gallery for all my travel photos, right?

Maybe later. After I get past the outline stage and writer’s block I’ve been having with work.

For now, there’s another SFist column up. I’m only supposed to do one a week, but again: it lets me get distracted from what I’m supposed to be doing.

And finally: Happy birthday, Mac! Welcome to your 30s. It’s not as horrifying as I make it out to be.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants… Then Stabbing Them Repeatedly In The Head

It’s way past my bedtime, but I wanted to get a post in about Shadows of the Colossus before tomorrow, when Civilization IV supposedly comes out and takes up all my attention.

I’m only two battles in, and the reviews are saying that it gets better as you go along. My initial take on it is that it’s a tremendous achievement for videogames, but it’s still not quite as good as ICO. You’ve got to compare the two, not just because the same people were behind both games, but because they’ve got the same sensibility. You’re dropped into an unfamiliar fantasy world, given some unconventional tools and shown how to use them, and then you push a story along to its conclusion.

That sounds like it could describe just about any game, but what’s remarkable about these two is that hundreds of games try to do that, but only a few actually succeed. When I started working in videogames, I was assuming and hoping that as games matured, they’d get better at telling stories. Ten years later, there’s billions of dollars in the business, but still not that level of artistic achievement. There are definitely standouts, but the hit-to-miss ratio is still even worse than comic books, much less movies. Either the story is so heavy that the game is over-simplified or reduced to something mundane and predictable, or the game mechanic is solid but it ends up being irrelevant because you’re a space marine or a dark elf.

ICO and Colossus are both original, they’re both unconventional, they both have beautiful settings and great art and sound design, and they both have a story and game mechanic that work together to further each other. Colossus, though, is just a little too gamey — it feels a little too much like a string of boss battles, instead of a story that I’m involved in.

The boss battles are really cool, though. I’d read descriptions of the fights — you climb up the body of a giant as it’s moving, trying to find its weak point — and had even seen it played at E3, but actually playing it is different. Because the interface is so simplified and what you’re doing is so weird, it doesn’t feel like a series of jumping puzzles like every other game, but that you’re actually climbing up on a big monster to kill it.

But at least so far, that’s all you do. There’s a little bit of horse-riding (which is a neat interface on its own) and using your sword to focus light to tell you where to go next (also neat), but it’s really a series of giant, moving puzzles. I used to describe ICO as “like Myst, if it ran in real-time and you actually cared what was happening.” Colossus is more impressive in a lot of ways, but it loses some of the relevance; even with its interminably long opening cutscene, I don’t really care what’s happening. I’m just waiting to see the next little bit of spectacle.

And I haven’t finished it, so this isn’t a spoiler, but I’ll bet a million bucks that the giants turn out to be good.

Knee Deep in the Dull

Man, I’m disappointed. Even with the reviews, I was still holding out hope that they got it right with DOOM. But they did everything wrong. It ended up being neither good, nor so bad it’s good; it’s just there. Boring and completely uninspired.

The reviews I’ve read still miss the point; they warn how it’s based on a videogame, and so it’s supposed to be big dumb mindless action. But that could make you think, “Well damn, I’m in the mood for some big dumb mindless action, so I’m going to lower my expectations and check that sumbitch out!” The problem is that it’s got big and dumb, but no action. It’s not a good horror movie, or a good action movie, or a good videogame movie, but it thinks it’s all three.

And remember how I said that from the trailer, it looked like they didn’t make the mistake of treating it like they were making a horror movie? I was wrong. For most of the movie, they either don’t show the monster at all (see, because that’s suspenseful), or they have a showdown with one of the monsters just decimating a space marine. DOOM the game isn’t about suspense; it’s about shooting a ton of monsters and finding keys that lead to more monsters. At the beginning of the movie, they say that there are six scientists involved. Six. I was wondering if maybe the movie’s CPU wasn’t powerful enough to show more monsters.

The Rock let me down, is the worst part. He was going on interviews and such saying how the movie gets it, that DOOM is a balls-out action movie for fans of the game. And the only thing sadder than somebody who just doesn’t get it, is someone who doesn’t get it but thinks that he does. His dialog was bad, but it wasn’t interesting bad, just dumb bad. And he didn’t do anything to knock it over the top. Plus, I suspect his involvement is what turned the finale into a wrestling match instead of a shoot-out.

Oh yeah, that’s right — the DOOM movie, the movie about the world’s best-known first person shooter, ends with a wrestling match. He fires the BFG once, he misses, and then starts camping against the Lord of the Rings guy until he jumps out and it turns into the WWF.

They should’ve ditched the zombies, first. Sounds like sacrilege, but DOOM is sad proof that zombies don’t automatically make everything better. No aliens either; they should’ve kept it a portal to Hell. If they didn’t want to have all the cheesy high school goth kid pentagrams and flaming skulls and such, they could’ve just called it a portal to “some mysterious other dimension.”

They should’ve ditched the space marines. I know it’s hard thinking up new ideas, especially when so many other movies use a team of space marines. But DOOM isn’t about a team; it’s about being one guy against a ton of monsters. Keep Eomer and The Rock, lose the rest. Keep Eomer’s sister as Doctor Exposition if you want, but don’t waste time trying to make her a character. Either give her a gun and a callsign, or leave her alone until it’s time for her to explain something.

They get points for including the first-person sequence at all, but there was a lot wrong with that. It was their big showpiece and you could tell, but after the build-up, it was a huge disappointment. I’m not even that good at shooters, and I’ve had sequences in DOOM the game that were much more exciting than DOOM the movie. What’s in the movie is more like a cheesy carnival haunted house, done up in CGI.

The heartbreaking thing is they were so close to getting it right with that. They had a guy in a control center who was watching all the video feeds from the different marines. They should’ve had the movie frequently switch to POV from the marines, showing their decreasing health and ammo counts on-screen. Not only would it have been true to the game, it would’ve been a better horror-suspense movie. None of the marines in DOOM the movie were killed in interesting ways, but if they’d just switched to their POV and showed them walking down a dark creepy hallway with dwindling health, that would’ve added something original to the whole mix.

Maybe they’ll learn how to get it right by the time of Daikatana: The Motion Picture.

I remain indifferent to the boogie

Another SFist post is up today, about the robotics convention I went to last weekend. I have to say it was kind of a disappointment (the convention, and the column), probably because I’ve been jaded by all the money that gets poured into E3 shows. I’d expected to see more ASIMO and AIBO and less Lego Mindstorms and circuit boards.

In other news, the Wallace and Gromit movie is just awesome, probably my favorite movie of the year. I was thinking there’d be no way they could keep up the level of the shorts in a feature film, but they did. I also saw Serenity a second time, and it was still good, but I don’t have much desire to see it again. Now the wait’s on until DOOM.

And apart from that excitement, I’ve been playing a lot of DOOM 3 (because I’d been feeling guilty I hadn’t given it enough chance, when it turns out I had), waiting to get into a Battleground in World of Warcraft (I’m not yet convinced they actually exist), and playing the Sims 2 expansion pack, “Nightlife.”

They did a good job with it; in fact, I think that this is the expansion pack they should’ve released first. I still believe that the “University” expansion is too separate from the main game; when most of us were still just looking for more content for the main game. One of the things that always impressed me about the Sims franchise and kept me from getting totally burned out on it was that they were really committed to making the expansion packs have real content instead of just being shovelware. But with “University,” they went too far in that direction; just an updated “Livin’ Large” pack would’ve been welcomed.

“Nightlife” is the right balance — it’s the same theme as the old “Hot Date” pack but adds a lot more, and it’s all well-integrated into the main game. All the new interactions and locations are welcome, and there’s just a lot more to do. I’m one of the sad little people who plays it like a soap opera, setting up families to watch them intermingle and fall in and out of love and make each other’s lives miserable, so I appreciate all the new features making it easier to get your computer people to get other computer people into bed with them. It’s still frustrating in places, and the pack introduces a whole bunch of new bugs, but on the whole it’s engaging. Probably not enough to draw in somebody who’s not already interested in the Sims, but good for those of us who are.

Currently I’ve got the Gordon family moved in with the Wayne and Prince families; I’m hoping that Bruce Wayne will make the moves on Diana Prince and kick his current wife Selina out to the curb. I think the only thing geekier than having comic book families in the Sims would be Lord of the Rings families, but I never claimed to be highbrow. As an example: because the Sims 2 doesn’t have a “young ward” option, I had to make Dick Grayson Bruce Wayne’s son. None of the game’s built-in aspirations are really suited to the Batman, so I just figured he was obsessed with family and should have the family aspiration. So now all his wants are “Tickle Dick” and “Play with Dick.” Which is high comedy.

Can you smell what The Rock is cutting up with a chainsaw?

What was almost as good as Serenity was seeing the trailer for the new DOOM movie which is going to be out at the end of the month. Hot damn, I can’t wait.

As much as I love the Resident Evil movies (no, really), they still cling to this idea that they’re somehow real movies. They think that deep down, they’re still horror movies using a videogame franchise as the basis for their stories. This is a mistake. And if the trailer is any indication, the braintrust behind DOOM has escaped that trap and made the first true videogame movie that is going to kick so much ass. They’ve got The Rock, who’s awesome; they’ve got the chainsaw, which is awesome; and they sure as hell better have the first-person sequences in the movie, and not make that just a gimmick for the trailer. Because that’s what’ll make this not just another cheesy sci-fi action flick, but a truly transcendently cheesy sci-fi videogame movie.

I didn’t even like Doom 3 that much and lost interest after about a half hour. Looking back on it, they had the reverse problem — it’s a mindless videogame that thought that deep down, it was a sci-fi horror movie. Some games — Half-Life 2 for one — can pull that off, but the Doom guys couldn’t. So the whole thing came across as bland and uninspired. And really, really dark.

In other Martian news, The Pixies Sell Out is coming out on DVD tomorrow. It’s a DVD of last year’s tour with, I’m assuming and hoping, brief interviews and such. There’s a clip from the DVD on ifilm.com which rates a big “meh.” But it was still a good show.

Hooray for Marketing!

Civilization IV adI couldn’t be looking forward to Civilization IV any more than I already am. Especially if they keep this screenshot of The Internet wonder.

But they’re trying to make me more excited, with their genuinely funny CivAnon ad campaign. It’s in competition with the Burger King and Geico ads, and of course Cartoon Network’s bumpers, to make me think advertisements are actually worth watching again.

My current guilty pleasure for a commercial that I can’t help but like is the one for travelocity.com. It’s the one with the gnome talking about how easy the website is to use and dispelling the myth that American appliances don’t work in European outlets. It’s the bit where he says, “Am I going to die?” Sorry, I can’t help but laugh at that.

The End of E3

I was having trouble telling whether my inability to find anything interesting about this year’s E3 was because a) I don’t have the patience or industry clout to see what’s going on behind closed doors; b) since I’m not actually working in videogames anymore, I’m just not that invested in it; or c) there’s really nothing that interesting about the show. After hearing some other people’s recaps, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

The bar has been raised pretty high, and pretty much everything you find on the show floor is fairly polished. But nothing stands out. “Katamari Damacy” is the only game I can think of that truly invented a new style of gameplay, and its release this year is a sequel. There were plenty of games that looked interesting — “Sly Cooper 3” and “Kingdom Hearts 2” for example — but of course they’re sequels too. I’ve got a feeling that whatever becomes a hit from this year’s crop of games is going to be just due to random chance. Mac and I waited around the Square-Enix booth for a while to see if they were going to release any details of “Final Fantasy XII,” but it was another behind-closed-doors trailer movie. Again, it would’ve been easier just to stay at home and download all the movies from videogame websites.

But even when I was more interested in games, I was down on E3 as just marketing nonsense. The best part has always been getting to hang out with friends after the show, and I got to do that tonight. It was a nice, fairly low-key time with friends from the Sims 2 Console team, with the reassurance that people are still passionate about making good games, and it’s just not what “drives” me anymore.

Also, Anouk described part of what is so awful about LA, something I’d forgotten because I always drive into the city. She said as you fly into LA, you can see nothing from the plane except for a perfect square, paved grid that stretches out as far as the eye can see. And that’s totally true; it’s just depressing. While it did make it relatively painless (except for traffic) to drive from place to place tonight, it does tend to suck the soul out of a person. My geekified reference is that it’s like seeing one side of a Borg cube buried in the middle of a desert.

Most exciting bit of the day was that I got to go on a mini-tour of the Disney Imagineering facilities. I had either gotten so jaded, or it’s been so long, that I’d forgotten how that’s been a lifelong dream of mine. And it’s damn cool just to be able to see it, much less to have the opportunity to work for them. I was so excited by it that I’m thinking about heading down to Disneyland tomorrow and pushing my way through all the 50th Anniversary crowds by my lonesome. I’ll see tomorrow morning if I still feel like it, or just drive back to San Francisco.

Cool! My blog’s first cliffhanger!

My Last E3

So yeah: the show itself. It’s tough to come up with anything to get excited about. Microsoft has a huge booth set up for the Xbox 360, but it’s fairly unremarkable. The highlight is a big game from Rare called “Kameo”, notable for having hundreds of enemies on screen at the same time, but to be honest I assumed it was running on an old-school Xbox at first. Apart from that, there’s an unforgivably cheesy “Grand Theft Auto” rip-off, a racing game, and a couple of sports games out on the floor. Nothing to get all that excited about; it seems it would’ve been better for Microsoft to milk another year out of the original console before putting all that expense into showing off a lack-luster successor.

To be fair, it’s quite possible that Microsoft were showing the good stuff in private. It’s been at least three years since I’ve been to an E3, but it seems to have outlived its usefulness to the general videogame public; it’s a lot easier just to let the press and retailers deal with the nonsense and catch all the real info online. The last show I went to was Sega’s dream year, with big, impressive displays for “Jet Set Radio” and “Space Channel 5;” this year, everything worth seeing is sequestered away from the smelly masses. The PS3, the new Zelda game, and a game based around Peter Jackson’s King Kong movie, all had semi-private showings behind closed, huge, very expensive-looking doors, each with at least an hour-long wait in line. As it is, I just kept thinking of how expensive all these displays must’ve been.

Part of it could be that this is The Year of the Handheld, and there’s more new stuff to show for the PSP, the GBA, and the Nintendo DS, but handheld games don’t lend themselves to the huge screens and excess of E3. Sony went balls-out on their booth, with a huge video screen showing off the PSP, but it’s all over the place instead of focusing on anything. There’s a platformer spin-off of “Jak and Daxter” called just “Daxter” that looks really nice, but wasn’t all that fun to actually play. Apart from that, and a version of “Animal Crossing” for the DS, none of the handheld stuff really caught my attention.

There were a couple other minor highlights: a Japanese ink-brush themed game called “Okami” for the PS2, and “Shadow of the Colossus” from the makers of ICO. Bethesda Softworks had a bunch of announcements of cool-sounding games, “Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion,” “Fallout 3,” and “Call of Cthullu” game, but they weren’t showing anything except for a non-interactive trailer for “Oblivion.” I’ll see if I can make today the “survey” day and see stuff in more depth tomorrow.

Another thing: I saw Brian Posehn again. I see that guy everywhere — the Wonder-Con, E3, and an episode of “Tom Goes to the Mayor” featuring him was just on TV. I think he’s stalking me or something.

Electronic Entertainment Expo

Speaking of weird obsessions, I’m driving down to LA for the big E3 show tomorrow-which-is-actually-today. If I had any sense, I’d be leaving in just a couple of hours, but I ain’t been to bed yet. Turns out that sitting around surfing the web all day isn’t as tiring when you don’t have to commute down to San Mateo to do it on Corporate Entertainment’s dime. So I’m still wide awake.

But when I sleep, I’ll dream dreams of driving six hours on three hours’ worth of sleep to go into a convention center packed to the sweaty and unshaven gills with gaming nerds, smarmy frat-guy producer types, and near-nekkid women with giant fake guns and even more fake grimace smiles held in place only by the thought of the cash they’re making and how that somehow makes it worth having hordes of blue-balled game developers ogling them with perverse thoughts so pathetic they can’t even fantasize about having sex with them without an internal monologue of stuttering, flaccid analogies to force feedback joysticks.

I can’t wait!