Guess I’ll watch TV instead

In South Korea, gaming is taken to a completely different level than it is in the United States. It’s a way of life. It’s considered a very social activity. Many people gather in internet gaming cafes, called “bangs.” Gaming can be a profession, and the best have attained star status, complete with their own fan clubs, paparazzi and press events. One of the most popular games in Korea is Starcraft, a real-time strategy game, with almost ten percent of the South Korean population being players at one point. Not bad for a country with a population just under 49 million.
Recently, a new law was passed that would require gaming companies to restrict the gaming of children to prevent addiction and ensure they get at least six hours of sleep per night. The “Shutdown Law” will prohibit teens’ online game play from the hours of 12-6 a.m. Originally, this law was written for PC games but is now being expanded to include consoles, affecting both Microsoft’s Xbox Live service and Sony’s PSN. Sony, which tracks the age of its PSN users, has a lead on its Microsoft counterpart, which never elected to collect this information from its South Korean users. Civic engagement group MoonHwaYunDae filed an appeal with the Korean Constitutional Court on behalf of Korean teens, stating that is a violation of their right to pursue happiness. And with professional gaming being an option for Korean students to pursue, this law may also be getting in the way of some well-needed practice for a future career.
Though this plan is facing some opposition in South Korea, what would happen if someone tried to make a similar law here in the U.S.? For starters, it would have to be very specific. The easiest way to go about it would be to ban internet access for all minors from 12-6 a.m. Of course, there would have to be concessions made for certain basic forms of information, weather reports, journalism. And who can say that a teen shouldn’t know the sports score of a game that goes past midnight? These are some of the questions that would have to be addressed in restricting internet access, but limiting online games is almost as complicated. Certain very strict guidelines would have to be set for what a “game” is. There’s also the issue of getting an accurate age out of anyone on the internet, something we’ve never taken seriously as a society. I can imagine a scenario in which, we needn’t pass a law at all. The major online gaming companies could form a neutral board (like the ESRB) to regulate late-night play and ensure that minors don’t have access to internet-based games after midnight or so. Of course, our culture views gaming in a completely different light and addiction seems nowhere near as prominent. So is a law of this nature even necessary here? I can think of several reasons: freedom of expression, time zones, sleep-disorders, emancipated minors and several other extenuating circumstances why this kind of action wouldn’t work in America.  Can you think of a good reason why this wouldn’t work in America or how someone would go about banning games for minors in America from 12-6 a.m.?

Toying with my emotions

Kids these days…oy. Back in my day we used to have toys. Star Wars toys, LEGO toys, Ninja Turtles toys, dolls. Wait, did I say dolls? I meant G.I. Joes! Kids these days have… well, they have videogames. Star Wars videogames, LEGO videogames, Ninja Turtles videogames. Something’s changed, but at the same time, something hasn’t…
Paul Reiche, a long-time videogame designer, has been tasked with remaking a classic game from the original Playstation era, Spyro the Dragon. What sets this game apart from others is the way it integrates special figurines called Skylanders. Sold in meatspace toy stores, the Skylanders figurines interface with a podium peripheral that comes with the Skylanders videogame. Depending on the figure being used, different actions or skills are made available to the player, therefore granting access to new in-game content. Reiche’s motivation is that kids are getting away from the use of toys as in the days of yore. He knows that videogames are taking the place that had previously been held by Monopoly and Operation, but he feels there is a way to integrate videogames and toys of the more traditional sense.
Since the rise of videogames, they have progressively been assuming the role previously held by toys. The Sims is like a dollhouse. Wrestling games replace action figures of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Ultimate Warrior. Baseball video games replace trading cards. LEGO Universe, a free-to-play videogame based off of its namesake property built a name for itself starting in 2010. Based on the same basic principles of construction and morally simplistic combat, Minecraft, released later that same year, quickly became the favorite, reaching four million copies sold as of earlier this week, twice that of LEGO Universe. All this while Minecraft is still in beta. For those of you not so tech savvy, that means the game has yet to officially launch–an almost unheard-of feat. LEGO Universe is now scheduled to close its servers early in 2012. Just as videogames had been doing to established toy properties for decades, Minecraft bullied LEGO out of the multiplayer gaming space. It’s hard to blame Minecraft alone for this, but it’s plain to see that the two games occupy an overwhelmingly similar niche.
As time and technology progress, it’s no surprise that videogames have started phasing out more traditional toys. It’s refreshing to my inner child to see developers integrating conventional play with contemporary play. Minecraft shows that the videogame market is a very different world than what traditional toy companies are used to playing in. The question is: will the Skylanders toys be able to mount a formal invasion from the virtual into the physical?

Funky phone-call fiascos

If you have read some of my past entries, you might have noticed a theme: how amazingly fast technology has progressed in the past three decades or so. So I ask myself, how are people still making mistakes that could so obviously be avoided by employing some things that have now become second nature?
Earlier this year, YA (young adult literature) author Lauren Myracle was informed that she had been chosen as one of the five contenders for the National Book Award, a prominent literary award, for her novel Shine. At a later date, author Franny Billingsley was chosen as a sixth contender for her book Chime. The administrators of the award admitted that a misunderstanding had occurred during a phone call where Chime was mistaken for Shine by the selection committee. Myracle was later asked  to withdraw herself from the running, which she did, with the concession being made that the National Book Awards committee make a donation to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Shepherd being a major inspiration for her would-be nominated novel.
On an eerily similar note, and within an eerily similar amount of time, Game 5 of this year’s World Series featured a similar phone-based miscommunication. With the score tied in the eighth inning of Game 5 of a tied series, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa supposedly called the bullpen and asked for reliever Jason Motte to take the mound. You can blame the noise in the stadium, confusion on one side or another, or fate itself if you are so inclined, but La Russa ended up with Mark Rzepczynski on the mound. The Cardinals lost the game 4-2. No need to worry, they swept the next two games to win the series, but there was no excuse, really, for such a close… call. After the game, La Russa took the heat for his team, blaming the appearance of Rzepczynski on a phone-based miscommunication. La Russa may have been taking the fall for a mistake made elsewhere, but isn’t the excuse (if it is an excuse at all and not the truth) as lame as the mistake?
Not everyone is holding to the ways of the past, though. Two teams in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are integrating fairly new technology to assist their staff. Players on both teams have been issued iPads to replace the three-ring binders that were the playbooks of old. The iPads allow the players to see not only how each play looks on paper, but also how the play will look in action. Their iPads serve not only as playbooks but also as dietary guides and practice/game calendars. League rules do not currently allow players or coaches to use computers or video devices during the game, but hopefully, if this practice catches on with enough teams, the league will change the rules.
With the huge leaps in technology that have been made in recent years, it amazes me how many mistakes could have been prevented with a simple email, or text message. Some people feel that due to the exigencies of life, there isn’t time or reason to confirm via email or text. Some also feel that email and text are not professional and are even impersonal. I agree with them, to a point. While they might not feel as personal, they are much more accurate than a phone call. I was in the Marines. As a helicopter avionics technician, we often had audio-only contact where we had to monitor for comprehension quickly because lives were on the line. We studied a system, we learned it and we took it seriously enough that we almost never made mistakes.  Maybe some higher-ups making decisions for huge book awards and hundred-million dollar sports franchises should be held to the same standard as 19-year-olds? Just a thought. Alternatively, you could call plays like the Oregon Ducks do. Or, for sports especially, encrypted networks could operate using peer-to-peer technology on local networks to share multimedia information on the fly. I know, I know, sounds like futuristic sci-fi. Except for the fact that my 6-year-old Nintendo DS does that and so does the One Laptop Per Child laptop. The technology exists. Which solution do you think is best?

Playing head games

Controlling objects with one’s mind is a common theme in science-fiction lore. Luke Skywalker stands on one hand while moving rocks around, Neo stops bullets mid-flight and Charlie (played by Drew Barrymore) displays pyrokinesis in Firestarter. It has always been the dreams of Star Wars geeks and fantasy dorks world-wide, but it has never been an attainable goal…until recently.
In 2008, OCZ Technology, a computer hardware developer came out with a product named the NIA (Neural Impulse Actuator). It was advertised as a device to reduce the reaction time between thought in one’s brain and action on screen in-game. As it turned out, the NIA did not actually use brainwaves to accomplish this. A series of sensors on a headband read minute muscle movements in the head. It was an admirable try, but it did not quite live up to expectations. Mind Flex Duel, a game from Mattel, worked on the same principle. The problem, up to this point, has always been the step of translating what the electrical signals from the brain mean, as illustrated in the picture below:
This image was taken from a demonstration performed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the Oxford of the Ivy League) by Gerwin Schalk, a researcher from the Wadsworth Center. It is meant to be a representation of the amount of information processed by the brain in a short time (through numerous relatively simple processes), and the amount of information processed by a computer, in roughly the same amount of time (though with fewer active processes). The thin bar at the bottom represents the information allowed by standard human-machine interfaces (controllers, for example). The researchers at the Wadsworth Center have taken patients with preexisting electrodes in their brains (due to necessary medical procedures) and used the neurological data they gathered to sift through some of the complexities of brain noise. Then, they created a system for interpreting thoughts as basic video game inputs. If you have the time, you should watch the video (I would skip to the 10minute mark). It is a long, but VERY informative video about a branch of scientific research that will only become more significant in the coming years.
In this (much shorter) clip from a study done at Berkeley, a brain’s interpretation of scenes are shown alongside the video being viewed by the patient. By using MRI machines while the subjects watched videos, the researchers created a database of what visual information looks like as it is being processed by the brain. Using that code, they then showed the subjects new information and decoded their brain information into data.
These two studies, while ground-breaking, have a long way to go until they are applicable to everyday life. This might take some excitement and amazement away from the Kinect, but I would rather not have pins and needles stuck in my brain, just so I can shoot a zombie that is trying to eat my gray matter. Anyone disagree? I didn’t think so.

The brave new world of freemium gaming

The past few years have seen a rise of a new type of game; dubbed “freemium,” these games basically advertise as being free to play, but if you choose to pay, additional options are unlocked. Depending on the game, the charges are based on a monthly subscription, usually around $15, or a one-time fee that might give you one item, like a hat or weapon.

You have probably played some of these games without even knowing it. Popular titles such as Angry Birds and Farmville are both examples of freemium games. With huge social media outlets like Facebook, Android and iOS hosting these games, they have reached a substantial user-base in a short amount of time. Even though most of these games are free, with revenues generated by in-game advertising or virtual-good purchases, the money being made is so substantial that the question for these companies isn’t whether to go public, but WHEN.

Facebook and mobile games are one example of freemium gaming and would fall under the category of “one-time fee.” Another category would be the subscription based. DC Universe, Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online would all fall under the second category. These games offer huge amounts of content and provide hundreds of hours of game play…for free. The monthly subscription comes into play for the hard-core gamers who “need” that extra mission or weapon or character class.

If you feel that the gaming market is saturated, you’re right. There are a lot of games out there, and it can be very difficult for a game or developer to get noticed. Going, or starting out as a freemium title ensures that price won’t be an issue in attracting an audience. Going freemium can be used as a reward to the user base of a very successful product, as with Team Fortress 2. It can also be a response to a crowded market, as with DC Universe Online, going free to play in the crowded MMO market. Games can also be freemium by design, as with the famous Angry Birds. Once you have the user base in place and emotionally invested, you can charge them for that little extra something. They will end up shelling out for free games.

The fall of Xbox Live?

Digital distribution of video games is nothing new. It wasn’t really done right until it was done by Microsoft in 2004, when it launched a service for the Xbox dubbed Xbox Live Arcade. The service allowed consumers to buy digital copies of games and download them directly to the Xbox console. Most games range from $5-20 and offer games from major publishers like EA and smaller indie developers.
XBL was the clear front-runner in the rapid-growing video game digital distribution business. It set a standard that other companies were forced to follow or risk falling behind. Things like friends lists, leaderboards, achievements and downloadable bonus content helped foster a sense of community and show everyone what the online games market could be. This type of service was revolutionary at the time and quickly, others jumped on board. Valve released its version, Steam, for the PC platform, and Sony released PSN for the Playstation 3.
And then Microsoft lagged.
Lagged might be the wrong word. It was more like they did nothing else. Other companies expanded into this new niche of cyberspace by adding new features to the XBL formula; Microsoft perched on its laurels as the angry birds came home to roost. While Microsoft did…nothing, Valve aggressively expanded into the PC market, their penetration driven by having two of the all-time top-rated PC games at the time (having since added two more to the Metacritic all-time top 10). While Microsoft led with its hardware, Valve led with its software and innovation.  Console rival SONY got in on the metagame as well.  Releasing at a higher cost, but with superior hardware that included a larger hard drive, the Playstation 3 platform’s Playstation Network further split the market. Copying all of the popular XBL features along with subscription free service and integrating the Playstation 3 network with their wifi-enabled portable platform, the Playstation Portable, gave Playstation an arguable edge. Now consider that Nintendo has digital distribution services for its Wii, DSi, and 3DS consoles and the impending threat of mobile and tablet-based gaming, and the digital distribution looks really crowded all of a sudden. Microsoft will have to make some changes before it’s game over for the XBL.
A recent prescription for success that’s been getting some buzz of late comes from Ron Carmel, writer for the 2D Boy blog and former EA developer.  Ron provides a large body of relevant evidence to support his claim, citing the well-known frustration of his indie-developer colleagues.  Carmel’s advice boils down to this simple list, a practical 10 corrections:
  1. Create a fair contract for publishers/developers.
  2. Raise awareness for the product.
  3. Allow indie developers to self-publish without assigning a producer to oversee.
  4. A better system for updating instead of forcing TCRs(technical certification requirements)
  5. Get rid of the exclusivity requirements for the developers.
  6. Get rid of the greenlight process and open development to anyone.
  7. Give every console the ability to develop.
  8. Automate everything for the developers. They should be able to submit, set price and set a release date all from a web interface.
  9. Get rid of the current ESRB system and allow developers to set the rating on their own.
  10. Don’t force developers to make game-related avatar-items.
As I’m sure you can tell by reading this list, giving the developers more control will only help to provide better and more games, faster. Which we all want…at least I do.
Then again, who is Ron Carmel to be questioning Microsoft?

Tommy Milner’s basement

Tommy Milner is a professional race car driver.  Drivers are typically known for what we find in their garages, but what’s interesting about Milner is what’s in his basement.  The winning driver of this year’s LeMans, Milner’s basement features a gaming chair on top of a PVC frame, with a gaming wheel attached to it.  Milner used this custom gaming rig made out of cheap (to a winning race car driver) parts, to train for the LeMans.  Milner attributes much of his success to time spent on his custom simulator, but we know that unlimited access to simulation is not all it takes to dominate as a driver.  As one of my favorite television hosts, Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear demonstrates there is a limit to what can be learned through simulation alone. There are many more factors that need to be taken into account when not in a simulation. Driver fatigue, fitness level and experience… all can affect performance, even with all the know-how a top-level simulator can give you.

It isn’t news that professionals have been using games to hone their skills out of the office. Surgeons have been using them to increase dexterity in their hands, the military uses them to familiarize troops with different weaponry and squad tactics, and pilots use them to train for scenarios that are too dangerous to do with an actual aircraft. Can simulators help us sharpen our skills and prepare for the unexpected? Definitely. But it can only get us so far. In order to succeed, knowledge, hard work and talent are necessary.