The Return of Baldur’s Gate (Now Postponed)

Baldur's Gate Enhanced EditionWhen Penny Arcade reminisced about Baldur’s Gate, a video game that Bioware came out with in 1998 on five CDs (this was long before a DVD would replace multiple CDs), I had to read the blog post to see what prompted this.

Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis) is coming out with Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition for the PC, Mac, iPad and Android. Now updated with new content to run on current platforms, this seminal game is being introduced to a new generation. Alas, it won’t be out today as it has been postponed until November.

I was a video game tester at Accolade 18 months before Infogrames bought it out in 2000, which later bought out Hasbro Interactive for the Atari and Dungeons & Dragon intellectual property rights, moved the company to Sunnyvale and renamed the company toAtari. (The multiple identity crisis came from the managers of each new acquisition being given a shot at running the mishmash company.) I remembered the impact that Baldur’s Gate had on the QA department after the game first came out.

A half-dozen senior testers bought and installed CD drives with a six-disc magazine into their work PCs. Baldur’s Gate was notorious for requiring the player to switch discs every so often and interrupting the game flow for several minutes each time. The workaround was a disc changer that made the disc switching automatic. Those weren’t cheap at $250 USD. They played the entire weekend in multiplayer mode over the network, starting Friday evening at 6PM and stopping Monday morning at 6AM. I don’t recall if they finished the game or not.

Management wasn’t thrilled that a third of the QA department had called in sick that morning and was out for several days to catch up on sleep. Fortunately, this was after the holiday rush of getting new products out the door. The disc changers were removed and Baldur’s Gate was banished from the department.

I never played Baldur’s Gate when it first came out. I’m not sure if I’ll play when it comes out again, either for the PC or the iPad. Role playing games require a considerable amount of time to finish. Prior to Neverwinter Nights being released in 2002, a single programmer spent 500 hours to play every quest in the game. Even then we weren’t sure if that game was thoroughly tested from beginning to end. I tried playing Neverwinter Nights on my own after I left the video game industry in 2004 but lost interest after playing for 20 hours.

Between a full time non-writing job during the day and running an ebook publishing empire at night, my attention span for any video game is pretty limited to 15 minutes. Tiny Tower for the iPad is the current game that I’ve been playing for the last two months (I just added my 50th floor). If there is any game for the PC I really want to play, it’s probably Diablo III that I tested for a weekend earlier this year.

Gaming The Presidential Election Into Space

Are you sick and tired of the 2012 presidential election yet? Wouldn’t you like to pull either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney aside and beat the living crap out of them without the Secret Service paying you a surprise visit? If so, download “Vote!!!“, a free video game for the iPad and iPhone, to start whacking away at your favorite presidential candidate.

If you’re not a registered voter, a button on the main menu will take you to Register to Vote to sign up. Do your civic duty, study the issues and vote for your candidates!

If politics isn’t your cup of tea, there’s always “Angry Bird Space: The Red Planet” to play with later this fall. As @IdioticInuit tweeted over the weekend after the death of Neil Armstrong was announced: “Smartphones today have more computing power than NASA in the 1960’s. They went to the Moon. We launch birds at pigs. “

Review – The Wild Bikini Girls Of Diablo III

The Wild Bikini Girls of Diablo III
The Wild Bikini Girls of Diablo III

Blizzard Entertainment put Diablo III into open beta to stress test the servers over the past weekend, giving everyone an opportunity to play the new game for the first time before being released on May 15, 2012. I wasn’t impressed. If you played Diablo I and/or Diablo II, you’re playing the same game.

As a male player, I like to take on a female persona. When I was testing Unreal Tournament 2003 multiplayer at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis), all the testers—including the few women testers—went with the generic male avatars. I went with the slim Asian female avatar. That made me stand out in the game as I extensively tested the sniper rifle from various hiding spots throughout the levels. My coworkers howled for my head from their cubicles. They ganged up to flush me out and chase me into open space, finding out that I was just as good with the rocket launcher and flak cannon.

When I fired up Diablo III to create my avatar, clicked on the female gender button and was disappointed by the style of female avatars available. The Demon Hunter, Monk, Witch Doctor and Wizard were all skinny young things that look like plague victims—or fashion models. Only the Barbarian was a good solid woman, reminding me of Aviendha in Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, whom someone else pointedly told her: “Those hips are made for babies.”

I was somewhat surprised to find that my Level 1 Barbarian started off in bikini underwear. I can’t imagine any women—barbarian or not—going into a demon-infested hellhole wearing nothing more than two pieces of leather to cover her privates. But this is the video game industry, where little boys like to play with their joysticks and imaginary women. All the other female avatars also starts off in bikini underwear. This is only a temporary condition. As you pick up more equipment to cover up your bikini-clad avatar, the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz will become more recognizable than your avatar.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the female Barbarian’s voice has an Ahnold-like accent (think Schwarzenegger with a strawberry-blond wig).

As for the rest of the game, the new user interface takes advantage of today’s video graphics and wide-screen monitors. Rats scurrying from dead bodies, ravens flying from trees, and abandoned houses collapsing as your avatar walks by are nice little touches. Alas, being beta software, the transparency effect for torches and other “flashy” items were pixelated blocks on my ATI Radeon 3780 512MB video card—well above the minimum video card specs—that made gameplay difficult at times.

Without a doubt, Blizzard has another solid winner here. Now if they can only drop the price down to $20 USD from the outrageously high $60 USD that they are planning to charge for the game. Otherwise, I’ll finish off Diablo II that I picked up last year when Blizzard dropped the price.

Saying No To Protect Your Personal Intellectual Property Rights

Shay Pierce, an independent video game designer and programmer, earned the dubious distinction last week as being the only person at OMGPOP, developer of Draw Something (a Pictionary-style clone) app for the iPhone/Touch/iPad, to turn down the $210-million USD buyout package from Zynga, developer of Farmville and other popular games. As he wrote in a Gamasutra article, he had a legitimate reason to walk away from the deal.

It was a reasonable contract. But there were a couple of consequences of signing it which concerned me. Zynga sells puzzle games on the iOS App Store. I sell a puzzle game on the iOS App Store. Was this a “conflict of interest” under the contract’s definition, or not? If so, would Zynga act on that fact, or not? I didn’t want to lose ownership of Connectrode, or have to remove it from the iOS App Store.

Connectrode is a game that I developed independently in 2011, while I was working as an independent contractor. I designed it on my own, did all the coding in my spare time, and contracted the visual and audio work to talented friends here in Austin. (I finished and submitted it to the App Store shortly after my employment with Omgpop began, with the company’s awareness and permission.)

Financially, Connectrode had performed the same as most spare-time indie game projects: not terribly well. It was reviewed positively by TouchArcade, Joystiq, and others, and it was featured by Apple for three weeks; but it never broke into the top 10 or sold millions. It wasn’t changing anyone’s life.

But… I love Connectrode. It’s a very personal creation. My wife (who’s played hundreds of hours of Dr. Mario with me) encouraged me to make it; when you first launch the game, you see a dedication to her. (The code has a special case so that on her phone, this dedication appears on every launch.) And designing a compelling abstract puzzle game is more difficult than you might think — I’m proud of it. It’s not much, but it’s mine.

For many people, signing the job offer would be a no brainer since they have nothing at stake. But for those of us who are creative in our own spare time, the intellectual property rights (IPR) form can be a kiss of death depending on how it is worded.

When I was at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis) before the dot com bust, the QA department was presented with a revised IPR form that was so broadly worded that everything the employee thought of at work or home belonged to the company. Not only did we have to signed the form by the end of the day, we had to submit a list of every personal copyright, trademarks and other intellectual property rights we had to be evaluated by the corporate attorneys.

This sparked a rare uprising in the department—no one signed the document.

Some threaten to call their attorneys. A few threaten overwhelm the corporate attorneys with hundreds of pages to document their extensive copyright claims. Others talked about a strike—a popular topic since Sony paid their testers $4 USD more per hour. At the time, I only had my personal website. I was keen enough on IPR to know that I wasn’t giving the company anything beyond the labor they paid me for. The HR rep, seeing that the QA department wasn’t going to budge on this issue, went back to the corporate attorneys for a much narrower IPR form that everyone could sign.

The CEO of OMGPOP, Dan Porter, posted a few tweets (now deleted) about Shay Pierce over the weekend, creating a brouhaha about what happened and confirming that douchebaggery is alive and well in the video game industry.

These days whenever I’m presented with an intellectual property rights form for a job, I leave it blank. Like last week’s social media password controversy, my anonymous alter ego has nothing to declare. As a tech worker, I’m there to do the job I’m paid to do. Whatever I do and think on my own time is my own business. If a push comes to a shove, I won’t hesitate to say no.

Putting A Headshot Into That Old Monitor Cable

Whenever my friend comes over to my place to watch a DVD, we sometimes end up playing Unreal Tournament 3 multiplayer. This year we been playing team deathmatch with six bots and low gravity enabled to make the game crazy enough to actually enjoy. (Unlike the perfect gameplay of UT 2003/2004, the gameplay for UT3 was compromised for better eye candy and stopped being fun for enough players that the developer decided not to put another UT game in the near future.) The one thing I was always disappointed with when I played on my multiplayer machine because  the LCD monitor had a 15-year-old unshielded SVGA monitor cable that produced a fuzzy picture. A cable designed for 800 x 600 screen resolution doesn’t handle 1280 x 1024 that well. I finally switched the cable out. I told my friend to expect my headshot count with the sniper rifle to increase dramatically.

Headshot!

Headshot!

Headshot!

Headshot!

“Oh, come on!” my friend cried from the other computer as the game kept announcing my kills.

Headshot!

Headshot!

Headshot!

A sharp screen makes it possible for me to be extremely accurate with the sniper rifle. At one point, the announcer screamed “Head hunter!” (15 headshots). The bots were somewhat stupid when someone is shooting the sniper rifle at them. (The bot AI setting is one notch below the “hand your ass back on a silver platter” mode.) They stop and turn before firing their weapons. Within that brief moment I can score a headshot. I’m vulnerable if someone is charging me head on or at an angle with guns blazing while I’m zoomed in on the scope. Something my friend knows all too well.

I tend to be a defensive player who enjoys hanging back from the heat of battle to pick off my targets and striking forward only when I have a significant advantage. The game becomes longer as I take the time to rack up my headshots. If I can’t play with the sniper rifle or flushed out of my hiding spot, I switch back to the rocket launcher and go on the offensive. The game then becomes much shorter as my body count stacks up. Either way, I get my kills in deathmatch.

Fairchild Video Game Inventor Passed Away

The San Jose Mercury News posted an obituary for Jerry Lawson, who passed away at 70 years old, the inventor of the first cartridge-based video game system in 1975. I had to scratched my head over that one, having never heard of the Fairchild Channel F video game system. At least, not in a store. I was surprised to find out that the Atari 2600 came out a year later. Video game didn’t take off until the early 1980s, where home systems and arcades at the mall became more prevalent. Besides that Atari 2600, there was the Magnavox Odyssey 2, Mattel Intellivision and Coleco ColecoVision. All cartridge-based systems. The Channel F must have been a very short lived system.

In the mid-1970s, he was director of engineering and marketing for the newly formed video game division of Fairchild Semiconductor, and it was under his direction that the division brought to market in 1976 the Fairchild Channel F, a home console that allowed users to play different games contained on removable cartridges. Until then, home video game systems could play only games that were built into the machines themselves.

During the 1970s I had two video game machines, one that plays tennis and another that plays tank warfare, both require two players. You could play by yourself if you wanted to operate both sets of control. There was no Artificial Intelligence (AI) to play against. I also had handheld games like the Coleco Electronic QuarterbackColeco Quiz Wiz and Mattel Battlestar Galactica Space Alert. These single player games had an AI to play against, but they were very predictable AIs that were easy to defeat once you learned the patterns. Which was why the Coleco Quiz Wiz was a huge disappointment for me. I only had three quiz books before I realized that the answers for all 50 questions in every quiz book were identical (i.e., question 1 / button a, question 2 / button c, etc.). The electronics for these early games weren’t sophisticated enough to have an unpredictable AI to play against.

I developed the life long habit of recognizing patterns from these games, which became useful when I became a video game tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises). I was the lead tester for Atari Anniversary Edition (Game Boy Advanced), which was a collection of classic arcade games that I played back in the 1980s. (I routinely shocked younger testers who believe that there were no video games before the Sony PlayStation in the 1990s by telling them I played Pong when it first came out and introduced them to another tester who tested pen-and-paper strategy games in the 1970s before they were born.) Since the original arcade game ROMs were being run in an emulator, I remembered all the patterns and re-discovered all the bugs that would never be fixed. Last week the Atari’s Greatest Hits for the Apple iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad came out. Didn’t take me long to reproduce an unfixed bug in Pong to show off to my friend because the original ROMs were being run in an emulator.

I always wanted to be a historian when I grew up. That never did happen. A blind pursuit of mathematics—and video games—caused me to drop out of San Jose State University. If I ever win the lottery and/or score a multi-million-dollar book contract, I would go back to school to finish a degree in Silicon Valley history. (With school funding being cut back and prices being jacked up, you need to win the lottery to avoid being debt for the rest of your life.) I’ll need to add Jerry Lawson and the Fairchild Channel F video game system to my list of research topics.

Scaring Young People To Save More With The Proteus Effect

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about scaring young people into saving more money for their retirement by showing them a digital image of themselves when they are in their 70s. Researchers at Stanford Labs have determined that if young people see who they will become in 50 years, they will feel more sorry of about themselves and take the most appropriate action. This is known as the Proteus effect, according to the article, where changes made in the virtual world often reflect changes made in the physical world.

How does the Proteus effect make people more willing to save? “Imagine that you just got a horrible haircut or bought a great new suit,” says Jeremy Bailenson, a virtual-reality researcher who runs the Stanford lab. “You already know that your physical appearance affects your attitudes, your emotions and your behavior even if you’re not consciously thinking about it. The same thing happens in virtual reality, when you become this person with a different body or face. Those features of your avatar affect your mind.”

After reading the article a half-dozen times, I think the writer took the latest scientific research in virtual worlds to re-slant a generic article about saving more money for retirement. I seriously doubt that young people would go to a financial adviser to see a virtual image of themselves in their 70s to scare themselves into saving more money. If young people want to see what they look like in the future, one look at their grandparents should be enough to scare them. Most older people haven’t saved enough, were wiped out when the real estate market crashed, or haven’t considered that being retired means spending way less money to live within their means.

If they are going to a financial advisor in the first place, saving more money will already be on their list of priorities. Most credible financial advisers would recommend saving six months of living expenses for a rainy day fund, max out all available retirement funding options, and use any left over money for investments. Of course, there are plenty of financial advisors who would churn the account to generate fees for themselves and use gimmicks like virtual images to beguile gullible suckers.

The Delaware Chancy Court ruled against the private equity buyout of Del Monte Foods because the bank was managing all sides of the transactions to generate excessive fees. Once upon a time in America, the financial industry used to grow wealth by investing in new companies with innovative products. Not anymore. Now the financial industry is all about slicing-and-dicing the same ever smaller pie of wealth at the expense of everyone else.

According to the Wikipedia article, the Proteus effect describes the changes people make when playing an online avatar that doesn’t reflect any changes made in real life. Another article describes how people who played tall avatars were more willing to make outrageous demands and people who played shorter avatars were more unwilling to accept an unfair offer when trading. All this research is quite fascinating.

My second novel project is about two hacker groups to going to war inside a virtual world that uncovers in an international conspiracy. I’m hoping this will be a modern successor to “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, which introduced avatar and virtual worlds before the technology became even practical. The Proteus effect, and the differences between the real and virtual worlds, will be a central theme.

When I was testing Unreal II and Unreal Tournament 2004 at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises), I selected a female avatar for multiplayer games for a very simple reason: everyone else—including the female testers—were using male avatars. By being the only female avatar with a wicked sniper rifle in the game, everyone in the department knew who was scoring multiple head shots. I grinned every time my name was cursed out loud over the cubicle walls. Management asked me to stop using the sniper rifle. I switched to the rocket launcher, the cursing still didn’t stop.

Using a female avatar wasn’t because I wanted a smaller waist, woman-boobs and more options to fondle myself, or have a latent desire for a sex change operation, in real life. Using a female avatar was about being standing out in the crowd. As the old Japanese saying goes, “The nail that sticks out the most gets hammered the most.” Naturally, my female avatar was an Asian woman of modest portions. It’s all about having fun. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now I don’t play MMORPGs where playing an avatar of the opposite sex requires a distinctive mindset (i.e., you can’t play a female avatar like you would a male avatar). Those players often invest significantly more time and money into maintaining their avatars that the differences between the virtual and the real can blur significantly. (A great book about that would be “Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot” by Julian Dibbell.) But it can also lead to some awkward conversations: “You do know you’re trying to pick on up on a fat white guy in his underwear?”

Tuesday, 29 March 2011 @ 3:00PMThe Wall Street Journal writer posted a followup article defending his logic for scaring young people into saving. Didn’t make sense last week, still doesn’t make sense this week.

Duke Nukem Forever’s New Fanny Smacking Feature

The Penny Arcade web comic had a strip about Duke Nukem Forever’s new game feature. Alas, the punchline within the strip falls flat and the commentary that goes with it was incoherent (as often is the case). But, this is the reason why I read this particular web comic, it points out that Duke Nukem Forever—the AAA-title first person shooter that’s been in development since 1996—has a new feature. What kind of new feature? The ability for Duke “Come Get Some” Nukem—think John Wayne on steroids—to physically throw a woman over his shoulder and smack her fanny in a Capture The Babe multiplayer mode.

The Duke Nukem video game franchise always did treat women as a sex objects. The first level of the original game featured a strip club and porno theater where the women strippers danced on the tables and showed their pixelated boobs for money. (Not surprisingly, there was a hack to remove the pixelation.) Now DNF will have a Capture The Babe multiplayer game mode, which should be outrageously over the top without being too sexist and too politically incorrect. Then again, maybe not.

When I worked at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises), I tested “Duke Nukem: Land of The Babes” for the Playstation in 2000. The Duke was brought into the future to rescue Earth from the evil aliens after all the male humans were killed off, leaving behind an all female resistance force. Yes, there was a strip club and porno theater in the space station. I don’t recall seeing any pixelated boobs. I did find a blurry black-and-white picture of someone’s cock on the porno screen inside the game. The CEO was visiting from France to check out the new games when the lead tester called him over. He didn’t like seeing someone’s cock in the game, which may or may not have belonged to the head programmer, and a few angry phone calls had the picture pulled from the game. The publishing rights for future Duke Nukem games were sold to another company since Accolade/Infogrames/Atari was becoming a more family friendly video game company (although that wasn’t the last time I bugged cocks in a game). I loved the Bill Clinton ending where the Duke opens up the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House to long lines of women waiting their turn to be impregnated by him as he single-handledly repopulates the planet.

Duke Nukem Forever is finally coming out after all these years years. I’ll believe when it I see it.

The Mythical Wii-Beast of Black Friday

This past Black Friday was a Wii-less one. After I went into work to find out that I wasn’t needed for the special shift, my friend and I didn’t start prowling the stores until noon. If any Nintendo Wii consoles were available on this sacred shopping day, they were long gone after 5:00AM.

First stop was to Circuit City for my friend to pick up “From The Earth to The Moon” DVD box set for $15 USD (normally $60 USD). We found no mythical Wii-beast there. We told one guy in line that we were hunting for the Wii-beast; he mentioned that he got his own months ago through a friend at EA. When I was a lead tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis), I won a Sony Playstation 2 at the company Christmas party in 2003. I sold it to a friend unopened for $200 USD because she wanted one to give to her boyfriend for Christmas, but kept it for herself after the relationship went south. Since I was the Nintendo guru at work, it didn’t make much sense to have a Playstation 2 at home. That’s how video game company connections usually work.

The parking lot at Fry’s Electronics in San Jose was more interesting with three idiots for every open parking spot in front and no one going in back to park. (We did get a parking spot in front.) A sign inside the video game department greeted us with the bad news: “Wii Sold Out!” We didn’t buy anything at Fry’s since the line to the cash register was two hours long.

The sign at Best Buy at Santana Row was no better: “Wii No Longer Available!”

The mythical Wii-beast of Black Friday eluded us among the many boxes of the Sony Playstation 3 and Microsoft XBox 360 that no one wanted. Since I told all my relatives that I was looking for a Wii this holiday season, maybe the mythical Wii-beast will make an appearance for Christmas.