“Wii Christmastime”

It’s the most shoptacular time of the year! And in honor of Black Friday, Jude and I have whipped up a holiday parody song about the lack of Nintendo consoles on store shelves. “Wii Christmastime” is now available over at paletteswapninja.com.

However, if you’d like something longer and more refreshingly vulgar to listen to, the song made its debut during Episode 29 of TalkRadar, which is now available via GamesRadar.com or on iTunes right now. At the 32 minute mark, they talk about the contest and debut the song. But you should listen to the whole show, as Rob Smith is a guest, discussing his new book about Lucasarts, Rogue Leaders. Oh, and if you’re never listened to TalkRadar before, here’s your explcit content warning. As podcasts go, it’s vulgar, drunken, and rambling. In other words, it’s funny and quite popular.

More importantly, there is the topic of phat lewt: TalkRadar is hosting a video contest, and the person who makes the best YouTube video for the new song gets a sweet Creative media player. Full details are over at the PSwap site.

Palette-Swap Ninja was one of the projects I wanted to focus on when leaving Fast Times so it feels good to turn something around so fast. If you like what you hear and want to follow along in the social networking space, I’d love some love at Facebook, MySpace, and/or Twitter.

Dealing with the haters

A friend over at Xbox.com just asked how I handle the hate posts that appear — people saying, you know, you guys are all idiots and this score is wrong and that score is wrong and this magazine used to be great but now that I’ve seen this one review that I totally disagree with, I’m cancelling my subscription because you all huff dong. Doesn’t that make you feel bad, he asked, doesn’t it wear on you? The answer is yes — but I just put it in perspective, and take what I can that’s useful. Because there’s no other way to take it.

The hate posts are inevitable — but I have to accept them the same way a game developer has to accept that not all the reviews will go their way. Some people obviously truly enjoy being hateful about stuff, but you have to consider the source of their anger. Sometimes, they are legitimately disappointed in the product, or really think the review missed something important, and want to speak up about it. That’s the good kind of angry post — it’s really constructive.

Mostly, though, I find the hate posts fall into two camps: a) people who are insecure in their own instincts and feel threatened by the fact that they like a game and we don’t like it as much, so can no longer use OXM to “prove they are right” about a game, and b) people who want this job and are jealous. Now, I didn’t buy that last one for a while, because I saw it as an egotistical cop-out — “oh of course everyone wants to BE ME.” But now I’ve realized…yeah, some of it is people who see a game review and go “I could do that, it’s not that hard” and just sort of think if they challenge the authority and make me look dumb in a public forum, then somehow my bosses will go, “Hey…that kid in the forums…he’s got moxie! He’s hired!” You know, like a rags-to-riches movie from the 1940s, where people wear fedoras and talk fast. It doesn’t work that way, but it doesn’t stop them from tilting at windmills thinking “I will make him look dumb and therefore look cool myself.” It’s the same bully mentality you see on grade-school playgrounds.

Here on my site, I can make the rules and say what I want, more or less. If you start bugging me, I don’t need to tolerate it so much. But when I represent the magazine, I can’t just kick out people that I don’t like, even the rude fuckwits. I have to let them express their fuckwittery and sort of dig their own grave — and that works really well. Even as they rant, some of them don’t realize that the entire forum has just tuned them out and branded them a troll.

If they start ruining everybody else’s fun with how they express their hate — or if they turn it on someone else — then I will take action. But if they’re just venting their spleen about the magazine and making me the target of their hate, well, I kind of have to let them. I don’t show up in a forum and expect a shower of roses; I’m a target. And when you get down to it, even the hate is often legitimate feedback; I would prefer they gave it politely, but the lack of tact doesn’t negate whatever kernel of truth may be lying under all the bile.

So it’s not always fun. But it is often educational.

Song ideas

I realized as soon as I left Fast Times that I was going to have to deliver. I left to focus on other musical projects that were being put aside while I worked on the cover band. Mostly it was a time sink and a mental block. But now that I’m away…it’s publish or perish. I gave up a good thing and while I am happy about my choice, I owe it to myself to actually write those songs and record that other material.

Next week I should have a new Palette-Swap Ninja song to announce. We’re trying to get it done this weekend so it will be in plenty of time for Thanksgiving. I have an arrangement with GamesRadar that they get to debut the song first, and there may be a contest involved. So hopefully that will happen.

For the original stuff, I’m finding I have to do some editing. I have kept a big purple folder full of song ideas for several years now. I went through and audited it a few weeks back. It was hilarious and embarassing and inspiring all at once. Some of the ideas still have merit. Some of them do not. Some of the stuff I’m keeping because it’s horrible, and I need to remind myself not to do that any more. I have about 10 to 15 feasible song concepts that I plan to mess around with. One or two are already written and just need to be recorded (or re-recorded) so they feel “done” to me. Anything I’m proud of I will share.

The other thing is I’m finding I am not up to speed on Pro Tools. I used to use Vegas on PC but in the last few months I’ve adopted Kat’s old MacBook Pro, gotten an mbox mini, and switched over to PT LE 7.3.1. How hard can it be? My audio degree is basically irrelevant in the digital age, but I used Vegas for two or three years, maybe more — same thing, right? No. There’s all kinds of functions and features and stuff that I’m either not using right or not using at all. I am seeking out some training videos to crash my course.

So, you won’t always see the progress. But progress is being made.

How not to be a cutting-edge games journalist

Is there anything new to be said about “the state of games journalism”? Not here. It’s yet another reflective “hmm” piece with no real insight, other than…well, what any blogger with no direct access would say. It’s a forum post with bigger words, but it’s not actually critical or helpful in any way.

One of the things listed as a sign of print magazines struggling is Edge launching a website. Well, that’s not true; it was more a rebranding an existing one, Next-Gen.biz, which was named for the US print magazine Next Generation, which was the American version of – you got it – Edge. So in a very roundabout way, Edge was simply reasserting its own strong brand. That may or may not have a positive impact on the print product, but it certainly has no negative impact on its print product, if you use logic, which the internet often does not.

What’s more, the irony is that the site that posted this article, which talks about how online sites are changing the face of journalism, a) seems to primarily repurpose press releases about games being announced, going gold, or going on sale, with the occasional regurgitation of original work done by other websites, and b) does not allow users to make comments on its articles, nor does it embed email links to the authors, which are both staples of the new medium. I was going to post my opinions on the article in the comments under the feature, but I couldn’t. Hell, if I don’t want a two-way street, I’ll stick with print.

The last paragraph is unintentionally funny – suddenly it becomes an “I told you so, you creaky old print mags” as if someone had challenged the author or told them they were wrong about the online movement. Certainly nobody from the print world challenged the author; nobody from the land of print was interviewed. But the author did listen to Sid Shuman on a podcast. Also…the most modern game you can cite that people want to express opinions about is Final Fantasy VII? Really?

There are some online sites doing cutting-edge work – but this is a good indication that simply being online doesn’t make you cutting edge.

Introducing the Vertigo Twins

Most people quit a band and then sell the gear. Not me. The day after I left Fast Times, I found a rare bird on eBay and jumped.

First, a story. About two years ago Kat and I became enamored with the Fernandes Vertigo bass, and after some searching I found one on eBay. The Vertigo shape has been described by the Blue Book, not exactly in a complimentary tone, as having the look of an “art-deco coffee table.” They made it in guitar and bass, and while the bass was long ago discontinued, they still make the guitar today, albeit without the nice white boomerang pickguard that gives the thing its Jetsons vibe. Clearly, this is not an instrument for the squeamish.

Kat had sworn she saw one of these things in teal or green, but research told me that it came in three factory colors: black, sunburst, and silver. Believe it or not, despite having so many guitars and basses in the house, none are black — I think it’s a cliche and have actively avoided it. Sunburst is just as tired to me; I like a good blueburst, I like to see interesting gradients done in colors, but the old black-brown-orange-wood thing is as unimaginative as it gets. So I was happy when I found a Vertigo bass on eBay in silver — and it had already been upgraded with aftermarket pickups, tuners, knobs, and a BadAss II bridge. Score.

When it arrived, it had seen better days; there were a few nicks and cuts which had been hastily filled with what looked like automotive touch-up paint. Kat and I could not shake the idea of a teal or green Vertigo, so we said, hell, the thing’s damaged anyway, we could have it custom painted.

Enter Greg Philpott, who not only said he could paint it but would actually like to do so, and suggested Sherwood Green, a classic Fender finish from the 50s. I had seen some lovely Sherwood Strats over the years but they were all deep, dark green; the paint sample he showed me was much lighter. Turns out the 50s-era nitro-cellulose laquer makes them yellow as they age, and yellow plus light green makes dark green. Kat approved the lighter shade and in a few weeks we had a custom-painted, one-of-a-kind, non-factory-finish Vertigo Bass.

It should have ended there. But I always have a mental list of guitars to look out for, to grab if I ever saw a deal, and the Vertigo Standard guitar — the one with the cool pickguard, like the one on the bass — was one of them. They made it in a nuclear orange so that was the one that intrigued me most. Also, the bass guitars came with a flat white pickguard, but the guitars had a pearloid one, which I thought was pretty but almost unnecessary. What, did the guitar lack character?

The week before my last FT gig, I saw a listing go up on eBay: “Rare Sherwood Green Fernandes Vertigo Guitar.” You’re kidding me — a custom color from the Japanese factory, the same shade as the one we had made in a guy’s garage in California? Pull the other one. I could have a complete set of Vertigos! Kat and I on matching instruments, like those sad families you see on vacation!

The starting price was also very low — like $75. As you might expect, the Vertigo is such a specialized (notice I didn’t use the word “ugly”) shape that it doesn’t command a high price; what’s more, the main run of them had a painting defect that caused the finish to flake. Most serious collectors ignore them. If my guitar collection says anything, it says that I am not a “serious” collector in the way that other “serious” collectors are “serious.” (Read: None of my guitars are black.) Still, this is a fairly uncommon specimen — the Fernandes logo on the headstock is an older script style, and the witch-hat knobs also seem on the early side. The Vertigo was originally called the H-65 in Japan, so I figured that’s what I was looking at — and the only other one I could find in this finish was on an Aussie website for a lot more money. And if it’s really a custom color from the factory, that means it probably doesn’t have the paint defect that the others suffer from. The pickguard was flat white, not pearloid — another great match for the bass. Plus, check out those pickup covers — plain chrome, no screws! Awesome.

My last FT gig was Friday night. The auction ended Saturday afternoon. Five hours before it went off, Kat gave me a slightly weary permission — like “I have run out of reasons to say no.” I sniped it for well under $300 (plus a hell of a lot of shipping, but it came very well packed) and got it today.

There’s more damage than a listing saying “excellent condition” would suggest, and “a few dings” is not the truth of “the guitar’s awkwardly large rear wing has clearly been rammed into walls several times, so you can see the wood underneath through multiple gouges.” But the neck feels great, the frets are immaculate (very surprising considering the body damage and the age), and after a fretboard cleaning, a string change, the obligatory strap locks, and some mild adjustments to the action…well, it still probably needs to go to Greg to have all that stuff done right, but it’s definitely a keeper, and it sounds great through my little Marshall combo. Very full, very thick slabs of tone — there’s a lot of wood here! — and it’ll be a great rhythm guitar. I might even sacrifice one of my others to keep it.

I still don’t know what year it’s from, or if it’s really a factory custom color or just a limited run. No visible serial number, and the headstock logo is an older one than the bass. But it is Sherwood Green, it does look and feel right, and it’s a close enough color match that I’m a happy camper. And nobody will hurt it any more.

And yes, it really does look like that.

Lich King

It’s been a particularly busy shipping week at work, and a very bad one for game-playing. Especially bad, then, that the WoW expansion Wrath of the Lich King shipped this week. We got two copies through friends at work (I’m on surprisingly few product mailing lists) the day before it came out, but didn’t get a chance to really do anything with it until this weekend. The big perks are a new continent, taking characters to level 80, and a new class, the Death Knight. He’s badass. See below.

He’s a melee warrior with his own magic rules, sorta. He’s also a bad guy — you are in the service of the Lich King, who wants to take over Azeroth, and therefore your missions involve stealing horses, turning people into ghouls, and brutally slaying local peasants, who scream and run when you approach. Best part: A town siege on the back of a flying mount, commanding your creature to spit death down below and, when mana is needed, swoop down and eat villagers. It was fucking awesome.

I say “was fucking awesome” because it does not last. After two or three levels (and you start at level 55, which gives you a chance to skip to the good stuff), you swap sides in a cheesy cutscene and go back to fighting evil again. You keep the class and your abilities, but you quickly fall into the old missions.

I didn’t expect the Death Knight’s path would be so short. I mean, we split it into two days to make it last, but you could do all his missions in an afternoon, easily, probably about two or three hours tops. The new abilities and skill tree will be great to play going forward, and I already see that I’m more powerful than my other characters were at level 58. It’s satisfying to go back and mop up foes who used to piss me off last time I came around. But being bad felt really good, and I wish there were more to it than just that opening arc.

Other than that, I spent my weekend building a new hutch for my desk, organizing my stuff, and recording some bits for the next Palette-Swap Ninja song, which will be done in the next two weeks.

And sleeping. I finally got some sleep.

Fast Times: The Last Gig

It went well. Since it was my last show, all the little less-than-glamorous things that any gigging band has to do were amplified — can’t find parking, load-in is a hassle, small dressing area, not enough space to store gear — and I re-injured myself right before the gig, so I had some trouble moving around and really pulled a whole network of muscles on my left side on a guitar jump, which may or may have been evident. But I have no doubts that the audience had a good time, and I truly believe we put on a show worthy of a rebooking. That was kind of the point of this gig; before I decided to depart, it was to be the new beginning, getting out into SF clubs and rebuilding our reputation as a great live band worth booking. We’d kind of gotten so into doing weddings and casinos that we lost recognition around town. The band had snap bracelets with our URL made up to give out the crowd, and the crowd loved them — smart marketing when everybody’s drunk. You wake up the next day and you remember who you danced to. So we left a good impression and set up for future gigs — can’t ask for better than that.

It was also nice that so many friends were in the audience. I didn’t want to market the show as my farewell for the marketing reasons stated above, but I did let folks at work and in the industry know that this was sort of the last chance. Andy, Bissy, and Meghan have always come regularly, so it wouldn’t have been the same without them; Chris Kohler was there, who not only genuinely seems to like the band but has dragged friends to see us as well; I heard that Will Smith (the other one) and his lovely wife Gina were in attendance, but I didn’t get to see them; and the happiest surprise was that ex-FT bassist Tim (aka Chewie) and his wife Susan showed. Tim’s been understandably shy about seeing the band after leaving it, so it was a nice moment.

Kimzey made cupcakes for the occasion. They all had frowns on them. Six of them were decorated with faces of band members. The only smiling one, she said, was supposed to be me.

That was sweet on many levels. And I was delicious.

Post-election deep breathing

I’ve kept the political yammering on my blog to a minimum, but now that the voting is over, this is the only thing I want to say, and then I’ll get back to guitars and gaming.

Like a lot of people, this was the first election I really paid attention to. Fear had something to do with it, but I think it was also the first one that made me feel inspired. Watching those debates, I wasn’t looking to throw darts at the other guy; I was listening. Is the question being actually answered? Do I like the logic behind these answers? Do I want this person to represent me for four very long years? Obama seemed rational and calm; despite the “straight talk” catchphrase from McCain’s campaign, I thought Obama really was talking straight about the challenges problems to be solved. He looks like he knows what he’s up against. He really seemed prepared to do this incredibly difficult job. So he got my vote.

I live in California, so it should be no surprise that I think America’s gone off the rails a bit. I don’t agree with the Iraq war and never did. There have been several times in the last eight years that I just said to myself, “What?” Many times, our country’s moves and actions adn ways of handling things simply didn’t make sense. I wasn’t angry so much as scared and baffled. So I feel like this is more than just a regime change; it’s a real chance.

And not a chance for other people to do something. Last night’s speech by Obama addressed the one thing that I think has been sorely lacking: responsibility. For all the talk of “hard-working Americans,” I think a lot of us are selfish and lazy, looking for the easy way out or to cover our own asses, and we don’t really think of anybody else when we do stuff. But if we all really were hard-working Americans — if we accepted the responsibility for our own decisions and actions, and if we considered the potential ramifications of our actions before we took them — we’d be better off. And that’s decisions of any kind, from big sweeping social changes to daily interactions with other people. I think the world would be a better place if everybody who was in love could get married. I also think the neighborhood would be a better place if the guy down the street turned down his stereo a little bit so I could hear my own music. If we do Thing A, what is Result B likely to be? I would love for the default answer to no longer be “I don’t care, I’m doing Thing A because I want to.”

So it’s a mix I’m looking for in the future. More personal responsibility, mixed with more consideration — an awareness of self with an awareness of others. Solve our own problems as individuals, ask for help from those around you when necessary, but don’t just assume someone else will do it for you, and just be nice to other people as a default. Many of you reading this blog can do this. Hopefully most if not all of you already are.

So that’s my hope for change, and I am hoping the new guy can inspire that in other people, too.

Fast Times: The Long Goodbye

This Friday, November 7, is my last gig with Fast Times. I thought about it a lot before deciding to go, and since I announced I was leaving about six weeks ago (giving five gigs’ notice), I have thought about it even more. Is this something I really want to do? Am I making a mistake? Will I miss it when it’s gone? What’s worse, abandoning my bandmates or staying and phoning it in? But these past five gigs have really represented the best and worst of what my time with the band has been about, and I feel I’m making the right decision for several right reasons — and one really big one.

On one hand, we played Black Oak Casino and I think it was one of my best shows ever. The energy was very high, I was in good voice, the audience was totally into it, and the mistakes were minimal and trivial. I had friends in the audience and I felt it was a pretty impressive show for what we have to offer. I love being on stage and playing songs with talented musicians; we really do complement each other well in the band and I trust my bandmates. If you’ve ever been in a really good band or a great sports team or some other group effort where everybody pulled their weight and relied on each other to take care of their part of the deal, then you know what it feels like. It feels kind of like invinicibility, like this is the way the universe is supposed to work.

On the other hand, I immediately realized…there’s nowhere to go after that show. I wish Black Oak had been my last gig. That’s as good as it gets, and in terms of my singing, there are no more goals in Fast Times. I can do all those songs again, but I doubt I can do any of them significantly or noticably better than I’ve done them in the past five years.

What’s more, this weekend largely illustrated some of the things I won’t miss. We played back-to-back shows on Friday and Saturday nights, which is something I’ve repeatedly said I do not want to do, because it’s murder on my voice and I usually can’t sing as well on the second night — I lose entire chunks of my range because I’m not singing from the diaphragm when I’m mimicking the original singers, I’m singing out of my throat, and I growl it up and belt and push and all that stuff, without properly training or warming up. That may not be the right way to do it, but it’s one of the reasons people like our band — “he sounds like the record.”

We played a Halloween show at a venue not known for live music; fearing that nobody would come and it would not help the band’s visibility in the long run, I voted against taking the gig at all. (I would rather stay home and watch horror movies with Kat on Halloween, or walk around the neighborhood dressed as a Ghostbuster). I was outvoted so we took the gig. About 25 people showed up to see us, 11 of which were friends of mine. It was embarrassing as well as stressful, having to load gear into the city on a busy street with cops everywhere and an active campaign by the city of San Francisco urging people to stay home for Halloween and not cause trouble in the city. This was successful, which means we played to an even smaller potential audience than on any other given night. We were effectively penalized for taking a holiday gig.

We then played a wedding in Palo Alto the next day. I couldn’t sleep the night before because I was uncomfortable/exhausted and stressed. We were all tired, I was congested and my range was not complete, and it was raining all night. I wound up slipping in the rain and wiping out on the cement driveway. I narrowly avoiding hitting my head, but went down flat on my back. It’s hard not to think “I didn’t want to do back-to-back gigs” when random, painful misfortune like that hits, even if it’s not logical or fair. I found out when we got there that I had to play emcee after we’d specifically asked and had it in the contract that I would not need to do that. It all turned out okay, but…extra drama, extra stuff I don’t want to do, extra stuff that isn’t showing up and singing. And even that’s lost its luster.

Both nights we used different substitute keyboard players; this is a change from when we used to have a “no subs” policy in the band. In many bands, subs are common, so maybe it was only a matter of time before our rules changed. But I know from experience that if you want to be a tight band, you have to play with the same people. When you start using subs, it’s less about performance and more about survival on a gig-to-gig basis. Working with subs also adds rehearsal time as you train and retrain new people for one-off performances; I’ve always felt you should only use subs as a CYA move for gigs you’ve already booked where scheduling conflicts with the main players arose after it was too late. So naturally, I don’t think taking a gig where you know you’re going to need to hire a sub to complete that gig are worth it. It makes the band money — and I do like money — but gig money is a nice by-product of that band dynamic thing, and while it became a motivator, it was never my goal when I joined. It’s nothing against the individual players who sub in; it’s just counterproductive to me, and actually makes it less fun and more work.

“Less fun and more work” is pretty much the key phrase. I have been in this band for five years or so, on and off. I joined to have fun, and I accepted the work as a necessary part of having it. But when I started wanting to say “no” to all potential gigs, I realized the whole thing was work to me now, and the fun was increasingly minor. I’d gotten super picky to the point of no longer really being a team player. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. So I’m gonna go and do that and not inconvenience, hassle, or restrict anybody else.

But things like “no more subs” and “no Friday night shows” and “no more lugging heavy gear” and “no more not seeing Kat on weekends” are all small perks of leaving rather than reasons to leave. The main reason to go is that I feel like I just want to spend my energy somewhere else. The core truth is that I have nothing else to prove to myself in FT, and six weeks of ruminating has only solidified that belief. Failing on an original musical idea is way more interesting than succeeding at “You Spin Me Round” yet again. I proved to myself that I am a singer; now can I be a musician?

It sounds horrible to say, but I don’t think I will miss Fast Times. I do not say that out of bitterness at all. I could not have asked for a better cover band. But I’ve got a bunch of songwriting ideas that interest me, I have bought the URL paletteswapninja.com as part of a renewed commitment to that, I have a long-suffering personal project that is tantalizingly close to completion, a new business idea to explore with Kat, and I am trying to put in more creative effort at work. A lot of things are asking for my attention and they are all inspiring me more right now.

I left the band once before out of panic, and then I came back when invited because it felt right. I am in a very different mindframe this time, and leaving feels right instead. So, if it feels right to you, come see Friday’s show in San Francisco and help me close the book. No cover. Last call.