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CliffHicks Blog

The Hard (Drive) Conundrum

I want to comment on something by Fearless Leader today...

He theorizes that there may be a problem for developers who have trouble debating on whether or not they're going to use the hard drive in their game. I posit to you that no such problem exists, and I'll tell you why. Because only an idiot would have a 360 with a hard drive.

Developers are going to use this hard drive left and right, and I'll tell you why. They can put new content on a hard drive. They can decrease loading times with a hard drive. They can make save games contain every particle about the game's environment on a hard drive. You know what memory cards will get you? Checkpoints and bad attitudes.

I know a couple people in the development business. Those of you who know my background know that I worked for Westwood Studios, Maxis Studios and Konami, in addition to spending a year in gamer press, and another year as a freelancer. I've met people. I know people. I've heard stories and I've sent out a few queries. You know what I found? Every single person I've talked to has said that the $299 version the 360 might as well not even exist. Sure, people are going to buy them. Sure, there's going to be a push by some of the bigger retailers to carry it. But there's also people pushing to get Harry Potter books banned for "advocating witchcraft." There's a reason for this.

People are morons. This is an argument irrefutable. In a conversation with a random stranger on the train ride home a few weeks back, I had a guy tell me that someone should write an autobiography about him some day, because he was "real interesting." When I sold computers at Best Buy, a guy came in to tell me he was having problems moving his mouse across the screen, as it blocked his view. (Yes, pick up the mouse, put it against the screen ... that's what this guy was doing.)

I have seen the short end of the stick when it comes to humanity, and believe me, I am not impressed. We're not all going to be Nobel Prize winners, but we have got the bottom of the barrel around us some days.

Don't think I'm making fun of a region -- I'm from middle America originally (the Heartland -- Omaha, NE) and there are just as many brilliant people there as there are intellectual lepers. Don't think I'm making fun of a political side -- I've met the highs and lows of both sides. Don't think I'm making fun of any people in particular, other than the half-wits.

If you're thinking about buying a $299 360 on launch day, I can only offer you this ... don't. Between the hard drive, the wireless controller, the remote control and the high def. cables, you'll be spending well over that additional $100 to get caught up to everyone else. The hard drive is required if you want backwards compatibility, but it's also going to be required for over 75% of the games that come out.

But here's the real trick -- since everyone's been talking about how you need to get the $399 version instead the $299 version at launch, no one's asked the real question ... do you NEED one at launch? Is there a launch title that makes this system a "must have" purchase?

As of yet, I say to you... No.

360 - The "Bend Over" tale (A long rant...)

And here I thought I wouldn't have anything to talk about this week...

You want to know what really chafes my hide? They're putting hard drives in Xboxes now, and it's cheaper than this. For $299, you get the shaft and Microsoft personally kicks you in the shins then runs off with your dog. I'm not kidding, let's break it down the number of ways you as the consumer get the short end of the stick here...

The $299 model slaps you in the face repeatedly with all the things that you get to miss out on. Start here: NO HARD DRIVE. Remember how cool the hard drive has been in the Xbox? Remember all the great things about getting new content for your games, like the new maps for Halo 2 or the golf courses for Links 2004 or the new mechs for Mech Assault? Yeah, forget all of that. Or be prepared to shell out for your hard drive later. And if Microsoft intends on most games not using the hard drive, why the hell are they putting it on the system anyway? Oh no, they are going to make a lot of games that use it, don't get me wrong. They just want you to pay more for it. And you know why it's detachable? So they can use the thing to replace memory cards. Like THAT's a brilliant idea. I know, I know, there'll be other memory options, but let's be honest -- other than bringing it over to your friend's house, why else would they make it detachable? (Well, I'm sure there's also that unspoken thing about security, designed to try and prevent people from modding their Xboxes, but again, who are they kidding? In the world of distributed engineering, I give this thing maybe a year before someone's got it modded. MAYBE.)

Next place the $299 punts you: WIRED CONTROLLER. Remember how there was this big to do about how the controllers were wireless, it was the way of the future and it would be the thing everyone would be doing? Yeah, well, that was nothing but a lot of talk and a (E3) badge. Because if you're cheap and don't buy the package Microsoft wants you to buy, you don't get this new fancy wi-yer-less gizmo they made such a big deal about. Wireless controllers aren't new. They aren't revolutionary. Don't blow smoke my direction and try to tell me it's just the San Francisco fog coming in. In giving people the big shakedown to save yourself a few bucks up front, you want to deny people one of your key selling features? Scratch that, a couple of your key selling features?

Step three: NO HEADSET. Actually, in thinking about it, this might be a good thing. One of the things that keeps me from playing on my Xbox Live account too much is listening to my fellow players. No offense, guys, but I happen to enjoy not being reminded that I'm typically playing with a lot of thirteen year old kids who like to swear at me because their parents aren't home. Because the 360 "core" set (why didn't they just call it "bare bones" and get it over with?) still comes with an Xbox Live Silver membership. The "Silver" membership is really something of a misnomer anyway. You're not getting much for it, despite what they tell you. That's why it's free. Sure, the PR spin says that you're getting all these cool things like gamer tags, and the ability to download new content, as well as play games. But here's some of the catches -- the gamer tag really is useless if you're not playing games, and you're not playing games, because, well, you really can't do that without the Xbox Live GOLD. The downloading new content? Well, yes, you can do that, but you know what? Based on the model set up thusfar, you're going to be paying for a good part of it, or you'll be waiting until long after release to get it. This whole "micro content" thing riles my feathers up more than I can even begin to tell you. While I think I may make an entire rant out of this on Friday, the short end of the deal is that content like this should be used to luring in gamers who haven't bought the game yet or to keep the gamers who have still playing so when you pump out the inevitable sequel, they're excited for it. Stop gouging them for their every last nickel. Speaking of which...

Step four: NO REMOTE. Okay, so at least this time the system will play DVDs out of the box, no questions asked, but come on? Is the $7 remote really that much to ask? I know, I know, you're charging $29.99 for it but seriously, is this piece of technology really that advanced? Why is every bit of additional hardware here made out of plated gold?

Step five: STANDARD A/V CABLES. So apparently the HD-generation... does not apply to you, core buyers. You are not special. You are not part of the HD generation. Do not plan on being special. It is not for you. Your time has not come. Go back and find a coaxial cable or something.

I could keep ranting and raving on this for some time, but the end point of the matter is that the $299 pricepoint is a load of malarkey, and is nothing more than a fictional number designed to imply that if you really, REALLY wanted to, you could get a 360 for $299. It would just be a castrated one with only one leg and an eyepatch. My good friend said it best to me -- "Why don't they just make the price point $360 and get it over with?"

Ugh, I hate how the next generation of console wars is shaping up already. Someone shoot me now...

Quiet month...

It's like the calm before the storm, and it's going to drive me nuts. Not much in the way of new gaming experiences this month. Then next month we get mauled with a virtual glut of great games, as the holiday rush starts. I mean, new Burnout AND new Katamari within a few weeks of each other? You heartless people you.

I've been playing Katamari again recently, despite the fact that I could tear into things like Jade Empire (unplayed) or Mercenaries (played a little), or continue to work through the Conker remake. I don't know why, but I enjoy the primal experience of rolling something up into a big ball. Rolling up people is particularly satisfying.

And I've had this urge to fire up Links 2004 again lately, which I might do. I'm not a big fan of golf games, generally, but it's somehow relaxing and enjoyable, something I can do without driving myself bonkers or putting an intense amount of concentration into it.

Oh, anyone else find it majorly annoying that some smaller stores are now selling the "unrated!" version of GTA: San Andreas for in excess of $100? Or the "Hot Coffee" mod on CD for $20? Seriously... profiteering in the most foul of forms.

Judas Priest: The Videogame

You mark my words, this insanity isn't over by a longshot. Lawsuits flying, retailers buckling, a federal investigation... a freelancer colleague of mine is convinced it'll all blow over soon, but sadly I think we're looking at a year or two of this, at least.

See, many of you are probably not old enough to remember the 80s all that well, but there were a number of people suing over the rap lyrics of the 80s. That failed. There was a lawsuit saying that the rock band Judas Priest had included subliminal messages driving kids to suicide. That failed. (Which should be obvious. As the late comedian Bill Hicks pointed out, there's no better way to ensure that you have a big audience for your music than to make them all kill themselves.) The whole "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics" stickers are a result of that.

Really, in the 80s, we were in the height of the Cold War, the economy was a mess, people were panicking and things were a mess. Any time there's a lot of trouble, people are always looking for someone to blame. Music, games, television, you name it... something somewhere is corrupting kids all the time.

Nevermind the fact that this 85 year old grandmother who's suing bought an M rated game with the warnings for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content and Use of Drugs in it for her 14 year old grandson. Never mind that the warning includes "Strong Sexual Content" and to get anything more than that, he had to modify the game. No no, let's overlook all of this. Let's also overlook the fact that without sex, the kid wouldn't exist. These are not important things.

Let's remember this instead... politicians start their campaigns early. But anyone who thinks this is winning them brownie points in my book had better reevaluate their strategies.

Comic Con (finally!)

So Comic Con was interesting and bizarre on many levels this year for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the elevated presence of gaming companies. This isn't something new. Several years back, the first Oddworld game for Xbox was being shown off and I realized this was going to be a trend we were going to see much, much more of.

This year, I saw, among others, LucasArts, EA, NCSoft, THQ, Activision and Nintendo. Some of them had good reasons to be there. Some of them were just trying to cash in on the fact that Comic Con is basically Ground Zero for the Geek Culture. Someone called it Nerd Prom, and you know, it isn't that far off.

I saw another fantastic trailer for Serenity, I saw the Doom trailer (meh), I saw several show pilots, I got to watch Stargate/Atlantis/Battlestar Galactica with Erin in a roomful of my people, I had good food, I schmooezed... I enjoyed myself. But the fact that I saw Nintendo there weirded me out a little.

I understand they wanted to show off Zelda. I understand they wanted to get people's attention. But it was odd. We're starting to feel overcrowded at SDCC, and they keep expanding to fit it all in. There's been a big encroachment of sci-fi/fantasy sort of overflowing the comics section, but this year it went even further. I'm okay with that, as long as we don't devalue comics. But that was kind of the thing I was afraid I was starting to see.

When I go to E3, I don't go to see comics. Comic based games? Sure thing. All for it. But let's try and keep these cons from overlapping too much. I was at Comic Con from Wednesday night until Sunday afternoon, and while I felt like I saw everything I wanted to see by Sunday morning, not everyone's there that long. If we're not careful, we'll find all sort of crazy things there next year.

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In another note, I hope EA sues Jack Thompson for slander/libel. His preposterous complaints about Sims 2 are officially way too far (you'll note he's made no such complaints about Barbies -- oh wait, because he'd get sued -- right) and it's time he be put back into his place. Free speech is one thing -- what he's doing has crossed past that.

More nonsense..

I really keep meaning to talk about Comic Con, but stupid things like this whole Hot Coffee thing spring up, and then Jack Thompson has to make it worse.

So I'm going to keep this relatively short today, and hit you with my opinions in fast bursts.

The ESRB did the right thing -- Is it a little silly? Sure. Does the whole thing annoy me? You bet. But, at least when it comes to the PC copy, the content is just now too easy to access. Rockstar either needs to strip it out or bury it under so many locks and keys that we never see it again. They also need to openly fess up and admit how the whole thing happened, so we can not have to endure this kind of thing again. But it's not over, and we all know it, sadly.

Jack Thompson -- I, one of the biggest free speech advocates I've ever known, would love to sock this man in the jaw. 'Violence is bad. Nudity is bad. And most of all, videogames are bad, bad, bad!' ... Look Jack, just do us all a favor and be quiet, okay? Ken and Barbie representations are bad? So why haven't you gone after Mattel and tried to ban Ken and Barbie? Oh. Right. You know you'd lose in a heartbeat and wouldn't get any publicity. And you're getting more publicity just from me talking about this. But you know what? You're going to lose again. Most people are smarter than you, and the holes in this latest argument of yours I could sail the Titanic through. It irks me most of all that we as Americans are so damn prudish about our own bodies. I advise anyone with an issue with nudity to get over it.

Make it stop! CoffeeGate continues...

We're only a few weeks into CoffeeGate and already I'm going nuts about the whole thing. It's like some tawdry soap opera, filled with lies, deceit and confusion. And everyone's talking about it. It seems like you can't throw a stone without hitting someone making noise about the whole deal.

As fearless leader GregK pointed out in his journal, the thing is a mess. What I want to do is give you sort of a highlight reel of the scandal thusfar.

Phase 1) The discovery.
Someone who's combing through the code of the game comes across a chunk of unused code. He starts fiddling around with it and comes across the simulated sex acts that, while coded into the game, were not implemented in the final version. For those of you who haven't done programming before, I'm told this can happen fairly often. Some times developers intend to go in later and remove it, or to patch it in later. In either case, the code is not easily accessible to the end user. It takes a good bit of knowledge on how to program to be able to find this kind of thing, and even more to make it accessible. The PC version, however, can be modded, so the amateur programmer who comes across the code unlocks it and posts this "mod" up for everyone to find.

Phase 2) The break.
As reporters start to investigate the mod and word of it begins to circulate, people all over the net start talking about it. Soon, it's gone past just the net and gotten politicians in arms. Soon, a couple of troublemakers (and I do mean the politicians, not the mod maker) have gained a few more minutes in the spotlight.

Phase 3) The denial.
Rockstar claims that this is the act of hackers, and makes sure the wording of their statement is as ambiguous as you can get. Yes, once again, it does depend on what your definition of the word "is" is... Thank you, Bill Clinton. The problem is that the code is their code -- the Rockstar North guys had this code in the game at one point or another, and turned it off before ship. But the code is, in fact, theirs, as can be proven with the PS2 version of the game and a couple of tools. Rockstar has yet to come forth and admit this. And shame on Rockstar for this.

Phase 4) The fallout.
Is it going to mean a reevaluation of the ESRB? I doubt it. The ESRB will continue to evolve, and frankly it's probably due for a bit of an overhaul right now anyway, but this one incident isn't going to cause it. Is it going to mean the ESRB is going to comb through every line of code? Not on your life. As GregK said, the ESRB has neither the time nor the responsibility to evaluate what actually isn't in the game. What players do with games post-ship is not the responsibility of the game maker. If someone makes a Mickey Mouse skin for Unreal Tournament 2004, Disney can't go suing Epic Games over the deal.

Phase 5) Acceptance.
Like all forms of entertainment, videogames are going to go through their share of heavy scrutiny. We're seeing a shift of the pendulum back towards the prudish and tame, sadly, which means expect to hear more people complaining about how much "filth" there is in the world. But this, too, shall pass. Just like the puritanical '50s gave way to the free-love moment of the '60s, everything shifts. And sooner or later, people will have a new target to focus their complaints about society on. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, it was rock music (who's gotten the brunt of this several times) and you know what? People are still rocking and rolling. And games will keep on going. If they want to make people flash ID to buy M-rated games, that's fine. But the minute they start hiding the presence of those games, that's when we have a problem. I don't mind having to prove I'm old enough. I do mind when you try and take my choices away from me. And I know how to affect the market -- whenever WalMart says "We're not going to carry that game," it's just another reason for people to go elsewhere. And when they start to lose videogame sales and the Gamestop/EBGames megalith grows even more, they'll know why.

Friday, I'll talk all about my experience at ComicCon, and how surreal it was to see that many videogame companies there this year.

GTA Madness

I really wish this GTA nonsense was over already, but somehow I think it's going to carry on a while longer, which makes me very, very sad.

I'll write more on it tomorrow. I'm still decompressing from my vacation, which I'll also write about, because the oddness of all the game presence at Comic Con... well, it was odd.

GTA Scandal: Part Too Many

So maybe you've heard about the latest flap regarding the Grand Theft Auto franchise. I swear, the Rockstar guys push the edge each and every time, if this was them. And I want to use this as a springboard for something else. Sort of.

Is it the developer's fault what people do with a game after it leaves their hands? This isn't like when the precursor to South Park slipped out in the added space on a Playstation disc so many years back, although it's not that different. In that case, any user could just pick up the Playstation disc and put it in their PC to find the file. In this case, users had to alter the code to add this functionality in. Whether or not it was there when the game shipped is still unknown. And, frankly, it's immaterial.

Look, the mod alters the game. That's not something the developers most likely had in mind. (Although this is Rockstar, and one never can tell with them.) If we start down this path, anyone who makes a PC game is going to be in severe trouble soon. Nude Sims 2 skins suddenly meaning an AO rating? How far do we want to take this?

But this goes beyond my issue with the ESRB and Senators wanting to use it for a political tool. This goes to the underlying issue -- why do we have such a stigma against nudity and sex in this country? Do we really need to be this prudish? People are born without clothes and without sex, none of us would be here. They say sex is hereditary -- if your parents didn't have any, chances are you won't either.

Can we get past the scare tactics? Can we get over our social taboos and learn to accept who we are? Probably not, but that doesn't mean I can't hope we'll grow as a people sooner or later...


Finding music from videogames?

So several years ago, I stopped listening to the radio. I couldn't stand to listen to it any more. It was a good decision and I stand behind it. I was tired of hearing the same song several times a billion times in a row, especially when it wasn't one I wanted to listen to. This point was only driven home to me four years ago when I worked for Westwood and we had a woman in the office who insisted on turning her radio on and cranking it up. I heard the same Stain'd song seven times a day for nearly six months. If I ever meet that band's front man, I'm going to punch his face it, and it's nothing personal. I didn't like the song the first time I heard it, though, and I don't ever want to hear it again.

A lot of people ask me, around this point, how I find new music to listen to. Well, I was a rock music critic for about five years, so I already had a large CD collection to start with. On top of all of that, I follow a lot of bands, and I read a lot of music press, especially the British music press, because they're always years ahead of us. That's how I was listening to the Killers' first single before a single radio station had played a note from them on this side of the pond.

Beyond this, though, I'm always willing to give things like iTunes/MP3.com the chance to play a bit of music for me. I love song previews. Because I don't mind spending a buck to see if I like a song. And if I like a song, I might buy more by the band. Or the album. Or all of their albums. Their free songs are even better. That's how I found Ryan Adams, among other people. I also encourage my friends to play music around me. I also wander into Tower Records all the time and go through every single CD on their playing stations - just quick listens, usually, but sometimes I find a ton of new music that way.

I'm constantly on the hunt for new music. That much has been obvious to me since I was a kid. I just didn't think I'd be finding out about bands from videogames.

Sure, there was Wipeout XL way, way, WAY back when, which introduced me to Future Sound of London and Fluke (I already had heard of the Chemical Brothers, but it was good to see them elsewhere). But after that, it seemed like music in games was back to people composing music, which I was fine with. I own a lot of videogame soundtracks too. But this whole movement of putting music in videogames... I can get behind this.

It was nice to have flashbacks to real music in San Andreas and Vice City, but Burnout 3 made me go out and buy an album yesterday. And that's the first time that's ever happened. I don't think it'll be the last. And as long as I can turn specific songs off, I can get behind that.