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!

You Can’t Fire Me; I QUIT! Eventually. If that’s okay.

I put in my official resignation letter today, after telling my boss on Friday. He was really cool about it, saying all the stuff you’re supposed to say when an employee’s about to go, asking what they could do to have me stay on, offering to help get me on another project if it meant I stayed at the company, etc. It was appreciated, but of course nothing he could’ve offered to make me stay was more powerful than the inertia that’s kept me from quitting that place already in the past two years, so once that broke down there was nothing left to keep me.

I realize that four weeks’ notice is a bit on the extreme side, but I wanted to make sure they knew ASAP so they could schedule around it, instead of my leaving in the middle of the crunch towards E3. Also, I suck at keeping secrets, so once I’d made up my mind I just wanted it out and done with. Four weeks of lame duckitude is probably worth it just to know that freedom (and unemployment) await on May 6th. It turns out that that’s also content lock for the game, meaning it’s actually somewhat good timing through no fault of my own. If all goes well, I’ll get a month off between gigs, the longest time I’ve gone unemployed since college. I can’t wait.

I’m potentially missing out on some bonus money in there, by leaving before the end of May. I’m having a hard time regretting that, though. Even if I didn’t enjoy being able to pat myself on the back for saying that I have INTEGRITY for choosing to leave on my own terms instead of waiting for a cash payout. There’s still the issue of my soul gradually getting squeezed out of my body.

That’s not a case of yet another disgruntled EA employee leaving and running home to talk about it on his weblog — a year ago, I would’ve been all “Fuck you, EA!” but now I see that they’re just a bunch of people running a business. Frequently, they screw up, and when they screw up it messes with hundreds if not thousands of people. But it’s not the dark cabal some would make it out to be. They’re pretty clear with what their priority is: a full set of product ready every E3 and Christmas; product comes first and foremost. It’s not as if it’s a secret. That’s what keeps the money coming in and the stock price relatively stable.

Hell, it’s taken me three and a half years to leave, and I like to think that I’m a little better at “Detect Evil” than that. It’s a very comfortable environment, because it’s stable, they pay pretty well and give all the benefits. It’s just not an environment that I can do well in. I just haven’t really been happy since I went there — I haven’t been unhappy, just not as happy as I used to be. And every few weeks or so, I just start crying for no good reason. Nothing more than a sense of “This isn’t how my life was supposed to be, and I don’t know how to fix it.” Leaving the job isn’t going to fix everything — I’m probably still just an oversensitive, delicate flower, or else I’m mental and don’t realize it yet — but it’s probably a step in the right direction.

Sony PSP

My friend Seppo from work bought a PSP this morning, and I went to check it out. Even though I should’ve known my “just checking out” a shiny new piece of personal electronics would be like Robert Downey Jr. “just taking one hit” off a crack pipe. I became like a man possessed.

I finally found one at the Best Buy in Palo Alto. I had to get the bundle, which is what I’d been trying to avoid, but in the end I don’t think I got screwed too badly. I would’ve bought a game anyway (I got Tony Hawk Underground), and I figure paying too much for useless pieces of plastic in the form of a screen guard and a clunky cover is just a fine for my having no patience. The whole escapade took two hours, so I had to stay late at work, but it was worth it.

After using it for a few minutes, I was like Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona. “I love this thing so mu-u-u-u-ch.” The screen is what sells it; it’s just astounding. And the whole thing is just slick and, for lack of a better word, futuristic. They tried to go for the whole “We are Sony. Welcome to the 21st Century.” thing with the PS2 front-end, but it really works on the PSP. It feels like using a tricorder, but without all the nerdy connotations. It’s just damn cool.

They include Spider-Man 2 with it, which was a nice touch because I would’ve written off its potential as a movie player otherwise. Again, the screen is what makes it worthwhile. The picture is remarkably clear, and it’s as easy to navigate as a DVD player. I might even build up a little UMD movie collection, although it’ll never be more than a novelty.

I really hope that Sony’s not serious about its being a “Walkman for the 21st Century,” because its potential as a media center has all kinds of problems. It’ll never take the place of the iPod, because it doesn’t have a hard drive and you can’t fit that much data on a memory stick. It’s too large and heavy to replace a Flash-based MP3 player, so the iPod Shuffle is safe there. Movies are fine, but again, UMDs are never going to replace DVDs. And I thought at least I’d be able to pop pictures from my Sony camera onto my Sony PSP as a little novelty, but I can’t even do that because the memory stick format is completely incompatible. That was a spectacularly boneheaded move on Sony’s part.

So it’s a game machine, and that’s fine, because the games are already the best available for a handheld, ever. The other game I got is Lumines, a Rez-meets-Tetris game which is so good at showing off the PSP that it should come standard. It’s just a fairly simple 2D puzzle game, but it’s insidiously addictive and presented extremely well — music and visuals and multiplayer capability and it’s aimed right at their target market.

And speaking of Lumines, the song they use on the first level sounds a lot like “Star Guitar” by the Chemical Brothers. The video of that song happens to be by Michel Gondry, I found out, because I bought a DVD of his videos the other night. I think it’s overtaken “Weapon of Choice” by Fatboy Slim/Spike Jonez as my favorite video ever, partly because I have no idea how it was made. Watching the rest of the videos on that DVD was neat but a little depressing, because I couldn’t stop thinking, “I will never ever have that much imagination.”

Half Life 2

I really didn’t think it were possible for me to get this much into a videogame again. Sure, I had a good and unhealthy obsession going with The Sims 2 when it came out, but it’s always been and is always going to be more about the potential of what you can create out of it than just being an “experience.”

And the whole “Steam” copy protection/installation nonsense for Half Life 2 sucks ass. It’s intrusive, it’s annoying, it’s slow, and it’s even offensive in its Big Brother-ness. As my friend Cory would say: F MINUS. In fact, the whole installation process pissed me off so much that I was all set to hate the game. I spent the first fifteen minutes or so thinking, “Big deal. Textures aren’t all that impressive. Whole setting is boring. Nothing I haven’t seen before. And they got the havok engine. Whoop-de-shit. Great. A big physics engine demo. With a see saw and some cinder blocks. Bravo, Valve. What else you got?”

Then, I’m in an apartment building and the shit hits the fan. All of a sudden noise is going on all around me and people are yelling at me to get to the roof. And all of a sudden, I’m no longer thinking about level design and triggered events and texture maps and enemy spawn points, I’m just thinking I’ve got to get up to the roof. Running through hallways, not even bothering to stop and look, oh crap there’s another bad guy!, where the hell did he come from?, out the window, up to the roof, getting shot at, not looking back to see who or what is shooting at me, until I finally get to safety. And when it was over, I just stopped and though, “Okay, now that’s the way you make a videogame.”

Sure, I’ve still got issues with it. It’s not really a big virtual world; you can tell that there’s a single path through the levels and a solution to every puzzle, even though they’ve attempted to integrate that into the story. There are jumping puzzles and a whole Mario-esque sequence I still think was too “gamey.” And they rely on some of their gimmicks, especially the physics engine, a little too much to where it knocks you out of the story.

But then, I’m riding in a speedboat, jumping over dunes, turning tight corners, running down evil guards and hearing the beep of their communications failing fade off behind me into the distance, knocking down scaffolding to kill other evil guards, being chased by a helicopter shooting at me and dropping mines to slalom around, narrowly avoiding a burning car to smash through a barrier and jump over a big wall of fire made from more exploding cars, and tears of joy are just streaming down my face. It’s just bad ass; there’s no better way to explain it.

I’m going to have to take a week off for Thanksgiving, and I’m already missing it. Is this going to mean I’m actually going to like playing videogames again?

Free at Last?

This is the first weekend I’ve had that I can remember where I wasn’t either at work or feeling like I was supposed to be at work. It seems that this entire year has been one long crunch mode. Over and over again I’ve turned down offers to go out and do stuff, because I just didn’t have the time. My Tivo is hemmoraging perfectly fine programming that I just don’t have time to watch. I’ve got a stack of videogames that I said I’d check out when I got time, a stack of DVDs I’ve bought and haven’t yet unwrapped, and (most daunting) a stack of books that I’m determined to read to make myself more literate.

And this weekend I did nothing. Yes, I spent a lot of it just sitting and staring. Everything seems like too much effort; even watching a movie. I just wanted to be. I’ve been in that weird state of hyper-boredom — plenty of stuff to do, but not wanting a part of any of it, and still desperate for something to happen.

I did finally go see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and I thought that it was just amazing. Except for Gwyneth Paltrow, but she gave it her best shot. There was just so much that the movie got dead-on right, that it seemed like it came directly out of my subconscious — that is exactly what a ray-gun is supposed to look and sound like!

Other than that, though, nothing. And it’s been driving me nuts. Maybe I’m still just decompressing. I hope it’s over with soon.

Corporate Rollout Strategy

This is the part of the year where I write stuff not because it’s interesting, but just because it’s something else. I left work at 5:30 AM on Monday after being there all day Sunday, then got back in at about 2 this afternoon. Or yesterday afternoon. I’m not really sure.

At some point during the day was our big two-hour all-hands corporate roadmap meeting. All highly classified, so I can’t divulge details. Except that the question came up of why we worked so much, including the teams that have mandatory 6-day workweeks (my team’s aren’t mandatory, they’re just required). The answer was, basically, “Because it’s the videogame business.” Of course, worded with a lot more double-talk. The dreaded phrase work/life balance was again used.

I’m honestly trying to get back my motivation for the whole games business, to remember the excitement and whole “creative impulse” I felt when I wanted to get into it in the first place. But then I realize that it’s 3 AM and I’ve only been home for an hour and I’m still alone and I don’t have any towels to use for my shower tomorrow because I haven’t been able to do laundry for three weeks now.

E3

This week is the Electronic Entertainment Expo down in Los Angeles, a trade show for the videogame industry. Every year it’s the same thing: we work like crazy for months leading up to the show date, trying desperately to get a game demo ready for the show. After that, there’s an explosive decompression as we go from working 12-or-more hour days back to having not much to do to fill up 8 hours worth of time.

It all really sucks.

First, because it’s a completely artificial deadline that is driven solely by marketing.

Second, because the crunch to get read for E3 is independent of the overall life cycle of the game — you go through two peaks of horrible crunch time (pre-E3 and pre-Christmas) instead of having a steady, manageable rate of development throughout the year.

And third, because it’s a loud, flashy marketing show, the emphasis is always on flash instead of substance. So all your shallow, glittering particle effects and button-mashing gameplay elements get all the attention first, while the overall core game design gets put off until the end.

I haven’t been to the show in the past three years, partly because it’s inconvenient (companies never pay for employees to go to the show unless they’re working at it, and EA makes employees take personal time off to see it). But mostly because it’s depressing to see the state of the videogames industry. Lots of stupid, flashy stuff with no substance.

I’d wanted to go this year, just for the novelty of it, but couldn’t book a hotel room. It’s just as well; it sounds like I need at least another year to get back in the mood to see another loud, flashy trade show.