Monthly Archives: March 2014

Last Gas, Fifty Miles and Five Years Ago

Written Last November

For the past week I was on the road, a lot. My father-in-law passed away (more about that on another post) and we drove from Colorado Springs to Southern Indiana in an 18-hour marathon driving session. The last time I did this trip was about five years ago and it really struck me just how much had changed on the trip itself. I don’t mean the usual ‘new housing edition back home’ sort of thing, but simply how things have dried up for travelers themselves.

While we all know that the economy has been in a relative downturn for several years, the drive out and back really drove this point home a bit. Anyone travelling a great distance East and West in the United States will likely find themselves on the long, long stretch of I-70 through Kansas. In fact, in years past, “driving through” has been a bit of a boon to the little towns and interchanges on that lonely highway. Every 40 miles or so, there would be the usual exit to gas stations, small hotels, and convenience stores. Small towns actually sprung up just to provide services for road-weary travelers.

The downturn, though, has hit travel. While most of us instantly think of plane tickets and vacations, the truth is that all travel has been hurt hard. Without exaggerating, nearly a third of the little gas stations and convenience marts that were on that stretch just five years ago were closed, with more very likely to join them in the short term. The “Oasis”, on the western part of Kansas, looked like a deserted ghost town with the majority of stops closed up. Some intersections which had services just a few years ago were completely shut down, making careful planning and watching your gas an absolute necessity.

It’s a bit sad to see the skeletal remains of Stuckey’s lining the Kansas countryside, or the empty gas stations, or hollowed-out convenience stores. Yes, the large, almost mall-like truck stops are doing fairly well an taking up the slack in the market, but it’s clear that they’re not meant for the casual traveler. Indeed, the age of the road-trip for the non-professional may really be over. Rising gas prices and a bad economy has made high-mileage car trips expensive and impractical. If what’s going on in Kansas is just a more obvious example of what’s going on all over the country, then we’re really losing something, and really are reducing nearly all of our huge nation to just ‘flyover country’. And that’s a very sad thing to see.

Remember When Nintendo Invented the Video Game?

Remember how in 1985 Nintendo created the first video game and how all of video game history was dependent on the game Super Mario Brothers? We all know that there were never any video games before that time, and any rumors to the contrary are just figments of the imagination by people who talk about Carter and Reagan, something about a Cold War, and the idea that Coca Cola would ever change their formula to completely fail to compete with Pepsi.

If your knowledge of gaming history comes from most modern sources, such as the trade magazines (“The 50 best games of all time!”) or internet sites, you might just be forgiven in making that assumption. According to even those inside the gaming industry, Nintendo might has well have been first to make video games, as the previous 15 years of gaming apparently just wasn’t important enough to warrant mentioning. Remember the Atari 2600? That whole craze from 1978 to 1983 apparently didn’t happen. Ever hear of PacMan, Space Invaders? They weren’t important enough to warrant a mention in these retrospectives. For video gaming, everything started with the launch of the NES.

Since I’m apparently now quite old, and outside of the gaming industry’s marketing concerns, all of that early history, along with my spending cash, is now completely inconsequential. The idea that history should include anything older than the Millennial generation is dismissed as ‘immaterial’. This is all, of course, despite the fact that the average gamer’s age is now approaching forty.

The latest culprit in this generational lapse is Greenheart games’ Game Dev Tycoon.  To be fair to the game, it’s actually a fairly good casual simulation of the software industry. But, like most current ‘retrospectives’, the entire period of development from the Magnavox Odyssey through the rise of Commodore up through the C-16 is just forgotten. The C-64 is introduced in the game, thankfully, but as a bit of an afterthought as a competitor to the PC. The entire rise and fall of Atari, the age of the Colecovision, and the rise of Apple are just ignored.

Video Gaming has a long and rich history that dates back to crazy men in suspenders getting Space War to work on a mainframe, to the advent of the Playstation 5 and the Xbox One. Those claiming to be knowledgeable about that history, and want to draw upon it for their own projects, really should respect the accomplishments, and fans, from the years that happened before the NES revived the ailing market back in 1985. It’s frankly a little insulting to simply write off all those years as ‘too old for a young audience’. That just spreads ignorance.


What Hasbro Owes Fans

One thing that’s a bit fun about going through my old archives and doing the ‘bin diving’ is seeing what’s still relevant in some of the posts. While I’m not longer active as a Transformers fan, I have recently paid enough attention to the recent response to ToyFair 2010’s announced figures to notice that everything seems so familiar… This post is old originally appearing on usenet back in 2001!

Being part of the ‘fandom’ for so long, I’ve noticed that many fans over the years somehow come to expect preferential treatment from Hasbro. I don’t mean the preferential treatment that Hasbro already extends to the fans, such as BotCon exclusives, and the occasional ‘bone’ thrown within each toy line. I mean, basically, that a number of fans honestly expect that Hasbro run their business in precisely the way that they, as a group, demand.

The idea stems from this thought: “We have been fans of Transformers since day one, so you owe your continued success to us.” Of course, the corollary to this is that the fans, in their infinite wisdom, obviously know much better than Hasbro. And, more to the point, the fans have obviously lined Hasbro’s pockets for the past twenty years. In fact, every success that Hasbro has had can be attributed to the dutiful and diligent fans. Hasbro, therefore, owes us, and must do what we say.

The thing is, no matter how much of Hasbro’s market that the fans comprise, Hasbro, honestly, doesn’t owe us very much. Hasbro is a toy company. Their entire purpose for being is to manufacture and sell toys. Hasbro doesn’t owe us these toys, there’s never been a contractual agreement between Hasbro as its target audience saying that ‘Hasbro will do precisely what a small group of fans want’.

When a fan buys a toy, the fan enters a ‘buyer’s agreement’ with Hasbro. The idea is that this fan gets a certain quality of toy for his or her dollar. In return, the fan pays for that toy. That’s the limit of what Hasbro owes fans – giving the fans, as well as any other consumer, a product worth the money that they’re spending.

Saying that Hasbro somehow ‘owes’ us a certain toy or toyline, or that Hasbro ‘owes’ us a certain look and feel, or that Hasbro ‘owes’ us our exclusives, is just a little shy of totally ludicrous. As I said, Hasbro doesn’t owe the fans very much. They just have to produce product that’s going to sell.

The end point of all this is simple. If you don’t like the current direction that Transformers is taking, you’ve got two avenues. The first is to simply not buy the toys. Hasbro will notice if a line fails due to lack of sales. The second recourse is to send in a small, professional letter, stating what you don’t like about the line. This isn’t likely to work as well, unless a lot of people state the same problems with the toys. Either way, if enough people are unhappy, Hasbro will indeed take a new direction with the line next time around.

And maybe that time, the fans, as a group, will get what they feel is ‘owed’ to them.

La Canonista

Since I’ve started moving all my Trek-related stuff over to I’ve had to deal with a certain type of obsessive ‘fan’ called a ‘canonista’. These are the fans that interpret everything they see about any given franchise absolutely literally, and use that interpretation of ‘canon’ as a weapon against other fans to prove how ‘right-think’ they are and how ‘wrong-think’ other fans are. To a ‘canonista’, worshipping at the mantle of ‘canon’ is a religious calling.

‘Canon’, though, in the actual sense of the words really consists of what the writers in the franchie have to adhere to when expanding on the official fiction. ‘Canon’ was never something for the fandom. It became that, certainly, largely by the fandom defining it for itself (as in the case of Star Trek), and largely to establish a ‘pecking order’ within that fandom. Still, the actual canon, the ones that the writers have to pay to, probably won’t resemble any ‘fandom’ canon all that much.

Personally, I don’t really care about canon all too much. But I do care about believability and consistancy. This is, ironically, is why I don’t care about canon all that much. Why? The handlers of Star Trek, all the way back to the first season of the original series in 1966, absolutely sucked at it. That’s why the internet is full of the same discussions about ships, registries, warp drive, and all those tiny little details, that were around back on usenet before Al Gore invented it.

So, for MY purposes, yes, I get to use what I like, discard what I don’t, and that’s pretty much it. So long as I explain my rationale and try to be internally consistant, I’m golden.

Wither Spychanger City?

One of my most frequently-revisited by never completed campaign ideas for Mekton is “Spychanger City”. Spychanger City is, basically, a reworking of the Transformers universe into something more consistent and suitable for gaming. The basic premise is the same as Transformers, with two groups of robots (the Autobots and Decepticons, originally) crash-landing on Earth and finding themselves needing to adapt to the modern world.

The heroic robots would adapt to various forms of civilian-vehicles, primarily cars, trucks, and the like, just like the Autobots did in 1984. Likewise, the villainous robots would adapt to primarily military vehicles, like jets, tanks, and the like, just like the Decepticons did in 1984.  The villains would tend to be more powerful in combat than the heroes, but be far fewer in number. So to beat your basic “Blitzwing”, your party had to work together to bring him down.

If you’re read this far and thought “Aren’t you just ripping off Transformers”, then you’ve already identified part of the problem. Of course this campaign, as it was, was ripping off Transformers, and not just because it started as a “Let’s make a Transformers campaign for Mekton II” concept back when I was in high school.

The real problem is taking the very basic conceits of Transformers and making an original campaign out of rather than just making Transformers with the serial numbers filed off.  It’s an enormous effort to rewrite the Transformers universe into something new that remains compelling, and it’s repeatedly met with failure each time it’s tried – all the way back to Hanna Barberra’s half-assed “Gobots” cartoon.  Sometimes, in the hands of good writers, you can get something as good as “Beast Wars”, but this is sadly a rarity.

So, where did this leave Spychanger City? Despite my confidence in my own writing, I never could divorce the campaign concept enough from the Transformers universe to make it stand on its own. When doing so, I gutted too much of what I wanted out of the setting in the first place. Yet it obviously can’t be a Transformers setting as owned by Hasbro, Inc. Having two different, and conflicting, directives has stalled this project for some time.

For Spychanger City’s future, I’ll probably revisit it at least once more to at least do something with all the work invested in the project. Yet this is really a lesson to myself and to other writers and designers out there. Following coattails, no matter how big and nice the coattails are, isn’t likely to result in a quality product. Every writer and designer needs to make their project truly their own, and without that, they’re just not going to get anywhere with anything good.

The Video Game Crash of 1984

This is an old post that I wanted to save from the burning remains of my old sites. It’s a small article about what really was going on during the first great crash, and the implications for the gaming industry at the moment.

For gamers, in 1984, the world ended. That was the year that the first major ‘video game crash’ destroyed the video game industry, ruining everything forever and forcing everyone back to the TVs to watch Superfriends and Bugs Bunny on Saturday mornings. It was all Atari’s fault and no one wanted video games anymore, nor would they ever again. Retailers, convinced of their reasoning, dumped all their video game products for pennies on the dollar. Games, like Defender, which had sold for $50 in 1983, was selling for a buck or two in the K-Mart discount bins. The fad was finally over, and retailers could take that precious space to sell real product, like those Polo shirts everyone wants.

Of course, twenty-five years later, we know how much of that wasn’t even remotely true, aside from how retailers took the ‘video game crash’. While retailers and business leaders simply felt that the ‘fad’ had passed, or was ‘maturing’ into that more-sophisticated home computer market, it’s important to note that the actual demand for video games increased during the crash. Total sales increased, and volume was good.

The problem, really, was that the supply of games exploded to an insane degree, with everyone from Kool Aid to Chuckwagon trying to cash in on the ‘fad’ of the time. Hundreds of cartridges were released for the Atari 2600 alone in 1983, and most of them were simply rushed piles-of-code meant to catch unwary consumers with inferior product. It was a bigger pie, but it was being divided into countless shares all fighting for an increasingly jaded consumer base. In other words, the video game industry actually killed itself.

While the Atari 2600 was the dominant console for this era of video-games, it suddenly found itself competing with a growing number of platforms. Not only could a consumer choose between the venerable 2600, and with the chief competitors Colecovision and Intellivision, but there were large number of ‘cloned’ consoles (mostly 2600 knock-offs), the ill-fated Vectrex, the Emerson, and a number of others. To complicate matters, both Atari and Intellivision were wisely cloning out their systems to Sears and Radio Shack futher cluttering the market.

It also didn’t help matters that the ‘big players’, notably Atari, couldn’t exactly be counted on for churning out good quality games. Atari had churned out the awful 2600 port of Pac-Man, which could have single-handedly turned the fortunes of the company around, but instead threw in a few hundred nails into Atari’s coffin as a rushed, badly sounding, badly played, horrid excuse of a ‘port’. Atari had also spent a fortune on making the video game version of the movie E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, which was basically an awful puzzle-adventure game which delighted a grand total three people with its masochistic game-play. Sadly, both of these games were produced in insanely high numbers, which didn’t sell (even at the $1 price-point the following year) and many had to be thrown in a landfill somewhere in the Southwest Desert, ready to be discovered by an intrepid archeologist in the future who will be left to wonder just what the hell the 1980s were all about anyway.

The last bit contributing to the crash, though, was just mere ‘obsolescence’. Coloecovision had already gained ground against the Atari 2600 with superior graphics and sound capabilities, but even that system was looking dated by 1983. The question was ‘how do we move forward’, and all three major companies were stalling and fumbling. Atari had a successful computer line (the 800 series) which seemed to pave the way forward. Intellivision and Colecovision both decided to ‘update’ their existing units into computer systems. Colecovision came up with the ADAM, a computer that boasted the innovative feature of perpetually erasing its own data. Intellivision came up with a lot of promises and never delivered.

While Atari seemed poised to move forward based on their 800 computer series, Atari had to prove to the world that they too were not without great incompetence. They were already working on a new system, the upcoming 5200. The problem was that the unit had limited game support, couldn’t play Atari 2600 games (a feature which helped propel the Colecovision forward), and had some of the worst controllers envisioned by mankind until that date. The loss of both prestige and funds was so great for Atari that even their successful 800 series would be impacted, and Atari, as a company, would never recover. The message to video gamers was clear “The future is coming, and we don’t know what the hell to do about it.”

With the nails in the coffin, the coffin in the ground, all that was left to do was to bury the body. This, of course, came with the rise of the ‘cheap’ computer, notably the C-64. The Commodore 64 was a ‘light cost’ computer, but still had superior capability to all the video-game consoles out, and generally a superior game library to boot. Many gamers that hadn’t already resigned themselves to their existing (and substantial) game libraries just went to the C-64 (making Commodore a giant for a few brief years). With that transition in 1984, the age of Atari was effectively over.

Retailers, of course, completely misread the audience and figured that the ‘fad’ was over. They were wrong, of course, but since they were stuck with millions of unsold consoles and cartridges anyway, it would have been difficult or impossible to convince them otherwise. The big players in the industry, of course, never really admitted their own culpability with their myriad of mistakes. Atari would struggle for a few years trying to push old technology at premium prices. Coleco went on to sell Cabbage Patch Babies and then promptly go bankrupt when they screwed up that line. Intellivision would simply just disappear.

That, then, was that, at least as far as most of the ‘intelligent’ people were concerned. Time Magazine famously declared the era of video games as over. No one wanted to be told otherwise. Oh, there was this little upstart company in Japan making something called the ‘Famicom’, but who wanted another video game? Confident in their genius, retailers and trade shows shunted out all video-game materials for a couple of years. Some kept to the C-64 and the fledgling IBM PCjr, to give the kids something to do when daddy wasn’t working on important flowcharts you see (every household made flowcharts and pie-graphs back in the 1980s, apparently), but the fad was dead.

Of course, the Famicom would get another name soon, the Nintendo Entertainment System, and another phase of video game history would be written, proving the stupidity of the same people who caused the video game crash in the first place hadn’t relented. But that’s really the lesson of the 1983 crash, isn’t it? Make enough bad decisions and you too can turn a pile of gold into a pile of salted manure.

About Syria…

Truth be told, I don’t like using my ‘daily writing’ up on politics due to the fact that such little snippets are pretty much guaranteed to alienate a part of my readership. Politics have become insanely divisive and spiteful, with anger and hatred often winning out over calm, reasoned discussion over the political issues of our time. In short, it’s a pretty unpleasant exercise pretty much guaranteed to win me no friends.

But every now and then there comes a major issue so important that it’s really time to talk about it, at least just a little bit. Many of my online friends have asked about the current situation in Syria and if we have the right or responsibility to take military action against Assad’s regime. Unfortunately this has become a very partisan question due to our President’s mishandling of other recent events (such as Benghazi) as well as some very questionable statements by some leading Senators who are wanting to rattle the sabers for no more reason than to ‘restore Obama’s prestige’.

Syria is currently led by the Assad regime, which has historically been brutal, vicious, and a major supporter of international terrorism. The regime has been aided somewhat by an alliance with Russia who sees Syria as a ‘counter-balance’ to American interests in the region. Opposing this regime is a hodge-podge of various groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which wishes to establish their own brand of militant Islam into the nation’s government. The Muslim Brotherhood is the ‘political wing’ of Al Qaeda, the group that attacked New York City and Washington DC on September 11th, 2001. This means that the enemy of Assad is also an enemy we’ve been actively fighting for over ten years.

President Obama has pursued peaceful, if not outright sympathetic, relations with the Islamic Brotherhood in the nations of Iran, Libya, and Egypt, and has even had American troops engage as support for the Brotherhood in other African nations. In fact, in all five current military engagements that American troops have become embroiled, the Islamic Brotherhood figures prominently. In two of them, they are the overt enemy. Yet, in Syria, the goal seems to be to aid this same movement.

The sad truth is that there are no good guys to support in Syria. There is no ‘secular establishment’ with which to build a new Syria after a conflict. There is no ‘moderate political group’ with which the United States can hope to find an accord. All the political groups are enemies of the West, and in some cases, quite literally so. Though our hearts may yearn to aid the victims of these groups, the Syrian civilian population, there are no pragmatic solutions to do so which would not require the United States to conquer the nation – which would not go down well with either Russia or China.

The calculus here is that there are no good options, but that Washington (between Obama’s saber-rattling and threats about ‘red lines’ as well as eager hawkish congressmen) has painted our nation into a bad corner. With only France backing intervention, and most of the world vehemently opposed to it, Obama may have little choice to back down. While this will no doubt harm the prestige and projection of power of the United States for quite some time, Washington’s reckless policies in regards to the Middle East should have never taken us here in the first place.



Where Crystal Skull Failed

In one sense, today’s topic is a bit like beating a dead horse. The fourth installment in the Indiana Jones movie series is a well-known disappointment. Millions of fans have echoed their disappointment in the film, enough so that it’s been cited as one reason why George Lucas is giving up film-making and seeking retirement. While it’s unfair to say that Crystal Skull was a terrible movie, it may be one of the most disappointing movies ever released. The real question is: “How did the movie fail so spectacularly?”

While much has been made of the “nuke the fridge” meme, and it certainly did the movie no favors, I’m going to skirt that this time out and focus instead on what is really the weakest part of the film: the overall narrative. The real plot of the film can be summed up as “Mutt Williams must recruit Indiana Jones to save his mother from Soviet Agents who are looking for the secret of the Crystal Skulls”. And that, honestly, becomes the main problem.

The plot of the movie is technically resolved about a third of the way in, where the Jones Boys meet up with Marion and have their reunion. The personal tension and character drama that the audience should be hooked with, as well as the primary motivation for the main characters, just completely disappear. Instead of throwing in a solid twist in that relationship and hooking the audience in deeper with Marion, the movie simply throws everything out there and calls it “done”.

What’s left after that point is a hodge-podge of unfulfilled characters (particularly Mac and Irina), a poorly-explained threat (the Skull), poorly thought-out gags (the Tarzan yell), and a very long chase sequence which movies absolutely nothing along. Worst yet, much of the dangling plot threads are just left hanging. The audience has so little invested in the characters of the movie by the end that when Mac makes his big sacrifice no one really cared. Even Indiana Jones himself seems utterly disinterested in what happens during the film’s climax. Like the audience, he’s more interested in figuring out his new family and the whole “Soviet Chick versus the Alien” bit is dismissed with him simply walking away.

The failing of the overall narrative is really what kills the impression of the movie. There were bad gags in the previous three films, of course. There were bad character moments and some very iffy scenes and plot threads as well. But each movie also had great and motivated characters, emotional sequences, and clear tension throughout. By relying too much on empty actions sequences, gags and sub-par CGI to pad the movie, Crystal Skull let itself and its audiences down.

The Customer’s Fault? Really?

This is actually something that’s been on my mind since the release of Mass Effect 3, and it suddenly became timely again with the insanely botched release of the new SimCity from EA Games. This is basically a big red button pointing out the serious lack of professionalism within the computer gaming industry. In a nutshell, it never looks good on your company that when something is botched, the first official response is “It’s the fault of our customer base”.

Understand, of course, that fans can be fickle even in the best of times, but it’s not the fan’s job to be loyal to a company, either. It’s the company’s job to keep the fan base (otherwise known as “paying customers”) interested and content with their purchases. A company disappointing customers with bad writing and seriously reduced features (Mass Effect 3, Dragon Age II) or with awkward interfaces and awful design choices, or serious bugs and terrible requirements (SimCity) is not a key to success.

But even worse than the above is when these issues are pointed out by paying customers, the official response becomes “Get over yourselves, we’re the game company here!” With Bioware, a once-giant in the gaming industry, the response was so abrasive that the company even included attacks on their (now largely former) fans within their games themselves! With EA, the response has even included threats to ban all game accounts to customers who dare complain about serious, legitimate issues.

It’s impossible to image Chrysler telling their customers “Yes, the car can’t go past 30mph, but you shouldn’t be driving that fast anyway and next time you call we’re taking the car back without a refund,” but that is exactly what EA has done. Can there really be a more asinine way to run a company than this?

I apologize if this is more of a rant than anything really solutions-based, which I normally try to do. Unfortunately the solution isn’t something that ‘one man ranting’ can accomplish. What it really requires is for millions of people to say “You know what, screw you too, game company” and just stop buying their product. The company may not learn their lesson, but at least people won’t be throwing good money after bad anymore.

Do You Recall?

An older post, just keeping it from the archive…

Once again I’m bending my own writing rules and talking about politics. Today’s a bit unusual, though, as Colorado voters have made a little bit of history by recalling two prominent Democrat state senators from office. Before I go too far with this, however, I want to admit up front that I’m really not totally comfortable with the idea of recalls unless there has been criminal activity or substantial fraud. Anything less makes me worry that we’ll see a stream of ‘anti-elections’ handed out whenever there’s a very close race between the two parties and there’s a chance that the public mood may have shifted direction a little bit well before election time. Upset you lost a close race? Wait for the other guy to screw up and get a recall!

So is this recall any different? That’s a tougher call. I can’t really point to any real criminal activity nor fraud, but if there were poster children for a recall effort, John Morse and Angela Giron certainly would fit the bill. On the surface, the recall seemed to be about expansive gun-control regulation, but it did go far deeper than that. Morse’s committee (which included Giron) engaged in unethical practices to stop testimony, ignore voter concerns, and abuse senate rules in order to ramrod unpopular and ill-conceived gun-control legislation by playing on the reactive emotions of the Trayvon Martin shooting, in particular, as well as Columbine and other shootings.

The law was so restrictive and punitive that hunting has all but stopped in Colorado, at least one major gun manufacturer has left the state (at a time where the state can ill-afford to lose jobs) and the vast majority of sheriffs and police have flatly stated that they would refuse to uphold the laws as unconstitutional. Morse’s response? “The objections were undermining the rulership.” Morse telegraphed to Colorado that he felt he was above the State’s people.

And to top all of this, it was clear that Morse was getting his marching orders not by any political group of Colorado, but straight from controversial New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Morse was perfectly fine ignoring his own constituents but $500,000 of Bloomberg’s money (a much larger sum that the NRA spent in the state) was enough to get his ear. In no uncertain terms, Morse was loyal to Bloomberg’s checkbook, and Colorado could hang itself.

So where does that leave us? Both recalls went through with the opposition, the Republican party in this case, becoming the minority vote. Despite this, Republicans won both seats. That means that, yes, in Giron’s case in particular, more Democrats voted to replace her with a Republican than Republicans! For Morse, the Libertarians made up the decisive difference. Despite the solid evidence to the contrary, however, the leadership of the DNC, along with Giron, couldn’t help themselves to blame a conspiracy of racism and voter suppression. It couldn’t possibly be that Colorado voters simply demanded no more than to have their constituents listen to them rather than a New York Mayor’s wallet?

So, no, I’m not happy that a recall occurred, but it couldn’t have occurred to a pair of more deserving political hacks in Colorado. Maybe, hopefully, this will be a message to the rest of the state house to pay more attention to the people in their community, than the money of a corrupt out-of-state mayor. We may not have had crimes or fraud this time, but there was certainly enough unethical behavior from these two to warrant the end of their political careers.