2008 in review

So, when I think about it:

  • Sold a few guitars; bought a few guitars
  • Went to my first CES
  • Got an iPhone; life changed
  • Retired my PC keyboard of 10 years (but didn’t get rid of it)
  • Played my last gig with Fast Times
  • Built a quad-core PC
  • Won my first (albeit small) poker tournament
  • Sold my drumset; bought a drumset
  • Went back to NYC for the first time in too long
  • Went to Vegas for the first time not on business
  • Survived a hard drive crash
  • Made my laptop way more awesome than yours
  • Liked Cloverfield so much, I bought a Slusho hoodie
  • Battled my first online stalker
  • Acknowledged my man-crush on Dave Grohl
  • Got totally hooked on Top Gear, Big Bang Theory, and Gordon Ramsey’s The F-Word
  • Shook Jimmy Carter’s hand
  • Performed a Van Halen song live for the first time
  • Registered to vote; voted
  • Late to the party, discovered Jonathan Coulton
  • Started looking for a house; stopped
  • Saw the motherfucking Who
  • Broke 1,000,000 in Folding@Home
  • Didn’t lose a guitar in a devastating rehearsal studio fire
  • Wrote and edited the Guitars & Gaming one-shot

That’s enough, I think. Gotta leave something for 2009.

My Dinner with uWink

In-between yesterday’s day-long computer massacre — the sound card took another six hours, not one, before it was tamed — Kat took me out for a meal at uWink, which is Nolan Bushnell’s latest business venture. He’s the man who founded Atari, then launched Pizza Time Theater, a.k.a. Chuck E. Cheese. The guy knows about games and restaurants colliding. I got excited when I heard about his plans for an adult gaming eatery two years ago in a Wired article; Nolan spoke of ordering via digital touch-screen menu, then using that same screen to play games with the people at your table and everybody else in the restaurant. That sounded like heaven — not only do I still go to Dave & Buster’s whenever I can find an excuse, but I used to go to TGI Friday’s just to play NTN trivia (now Buzztime) against everybody else in the place. I was thinking, okay, this is like that only NTN is not an accessory to be turned off when a big football game is on the other screens. So as soon as I found out (also through Wired!) that a few locations had opened — including one in near-enough Mountain View — Kat and I planned a late lunch.

Well, that was the plan; it turned into dinner. See, we got there only to find that uWink is open from 11am to 10pm…but not in a row. The place is open from 11 to 2 and 5 to 10. We arrived at 4, so we walked around town a bit and I actually heard someone say “look at that guy” while I was in the used bookstore; I turned around and they were pointing at me, then laughing. That made me feel great.

So when we finally arrived, I was in for the first surprise. I thought the original article said that the touch-screens were built into the tables, like the Microsoft Surface. Instead, flatpanel screens are bolted onto tabletops.

Kat and I were escorted to a booth. The tables are wide so you still have room for meal plates.

Ordering is easy and kinda cool; I always feel weird asking for my food in a restaurant and I never ask for anything off the menu or special. If it comes with tomatoes and I don’t like them, I just take them off. But with a touch screen, I can say “hey, hold this and that and the other thing” and it’s all good. Of course, that also meant that I accidentally took the blue cheese off my blue cheese burger, but I felt fine knowing it was my fault and not the kitchen’s!

Servers bring your food and drinks to the table, so Kat asked about the games. The system works like any other arcade, where you need to buy credits. Since we were sharing one bill for the whole table (all two of us), we asked if we could also split the credits between us. The manager said yes, so we ordered a big pile, thinking we would likely burn through games quickly.

Aside from non-interactive fare like some 360-degree digital photos and movie trailers borrowed from IGN, many of the actual games were single-player variants on old standards — a solitaire card game, a straight-up Bejeweled clone, a version of Who Wants To Be a Millionare? cleverly retitled Zillionaire. I thought, cool, we’re going to poll other players in the restaurant for lifelines…but no, it’s really just single-player. There were only five selectable multiplayer games in the system, which included a clone of Taboo called My Word!, an awkward social question-and-answer game called First Date, and a strategy game called ColorWar, where you tried to connect your wave of colored icons with others on the playfield to own 51% and win. That was a one- or two-player game…but the problem was, it was only a two-player game on my side of the table. Kat played and her screen was not networked to mine. What we realized was most of the multiplayer games were designed for a table of four people. Even My Word! kept score by simply having a button that said “We got it!” So, high tech, but kinda low-tech too.

So where was my big restaurant-wide trivia game? It’s mentioned on uWink’s website, something called Trivia Live, and it was exactly what I was looking for. I never got the chance to play it, in a 90-minute visit. At what I guess are standard intervals, the large screens that adorn the walls (which were showing baby photo slideshows and — of course — football) announced that there would be a group game in two minutes; all you had to do to be invited was exit whatever you were playing by then. It didn’t tell you what the game would be, though. We played a “spot the differences between these two photos” game, and an anagram game (twice). It was cool to see my name up on the board, but the games didn’t happen frequently enough (I thought they were on a 15-minute rotation until they stopped coming up that often) and there was no way for patrons to start them on their own. Like, I figured I would be able to enter a queue of interested players — “click here if you would like to sign up to play trivia, or anagrams, or whatever” — the way you can if you go to a casino or card room and ask “Who’s up for low-limit hold ’em?” And then if enough people sign up as interested, the poker game starts. Unfortunately uWink doesn’t work that way; the restaurant picks its own games and you either play or you don’t. In an interactive restaurant, I want more chances to interact.

And speaking of which, Kat and I actually didn’t interact much with each other during the meal. We found the First Date game boring and forced, and the other games needed either more players at the table or a different seating arrangement so we could share a screen for ColorWar. But I think it was only natural that we both wanted our own screens — we are both gamers, after all. Also, having two monitors bolted into the middle of the table means you only get to see the top of your friend’s head.

Also, the single-player games have no pause button, so we actually both lost our respective timed puzzle games when a server interacted with us. For a new social eating experience, it was weirdly insular.

At the end of the meal we realized our $10 worth of gaming credits was still untouched, even though we’d played the whole time. When I signed the bill (with my finger  — which I had to do three or four times to get it to look like my actual name), I got a note that said I could redeem unused credits for coupons. So I asked the greeter, and she said “Oh, we don’t do that, since all the games are free right now.”

Um, they’re free? Remember when we asked the manager if we could split one pool of credits? He said yes, not “actually, they’re free at the moment.” Mistake or slimy tactic? Not sure. We got a refund for our game credits.

Ultimately, uWink was underwhelming, especially having been eager to see what Nolan had planned for two years. The food was merely okay, the social aspects were strained, and — while I’m sure there was no way for uWink to predict or react to a market change like this — we had comparable single-player gaming on our iPhones. Hell, I was Twittering during the meal and I was thinking about The Price Is Right app that I’d downloaded last month from Apple’s Marketplace. If I didn’t want to play games with Kat, I could have ignored her at the table using what I brought with me! When a cell phone can give me more compelling gaming options than a restaurant built expressly to embrace gaming, it’s time to revise the software and put more power into the fingers of the diners. Whether they know it or not, uWink is still in beta.

Computers are fun

That is sarcasm. Kat had a 1TB drive (two 500s in RAID 0) from Maxtor that died right before Christmas. I didn’t realize it was a RAID but I should have. Then her 500GB MyBook snuffed it. That left me with a holiday project.

I thought some of the drives might be saved. The Maxtor fan died do I thought, hey, could be the enclosure, right? The data was important but not crucial; we resolved that it was gone. Still, I tried — I ordered a NexStar enclosure and some new drives but tried the old drives in the NexStar first. Drives good; data unrecoverable. So after some complicated formatting, I got two new 1TB drives in there for Kat’s new rig. They are FAT32 but I want them to be Mac Extended. Can’t find an easy way to do that via an enclosure tho.

The MyBook was a total loss. Second one of those to completely shit the bed in four months. At least I knew how to take it apart.

But since she now has 2TB of new storage, I got the old Maxtors (which turned out to be Seagate Barracudas). Now I have a big 500GB backup drive, a spare 500GB in its own enclosure (for music file transfer), and my old 200GB backup is floating free but still quite good.

Oh, and the nice new sound card won’t play nice yet. What up, Fatal1ty? Another hour and all should be fine.

Computers aren’t all bad. I wrote and posted this in the car on an iPhone.

Top 10 Games of 2008

I has come to my attention that if I do not make a Top 10 Games of the Year list, then I will lose my press credentials. Here, therefore, are my personal faves, representative of my own tastes and not speaking on behalf of any publication, which I shouldn’t have to say, but there you have it: 

Left 4 Dead
The zombie apocalypse finally arrived and it was everything I hoped it would be. Pure mechanics, pure gameplay, pure mayhem. My personal game of the year, and the only one I’m playing consistently on both 360 and PC. 

Rock Band 2
What sophomore slump? The second album rocked. Online play slotted in perfectly, the import function from RB1 was genius, the new guitar feels better, and career mode as single or multi on the fly on any instrument was a brilliant tweak. 

Pure
I think a lot of people ignored this ATV stunt game but it’s brilliant. I’m playing through on my retail because playing it once for the review wasn’t enough. 

Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe
I didn’t think it would work. I was very skeptical and very loud about it. But when I took off the WTF goggles, I found a really fun game that didn’t take itself too seriously and — most importantly — brought back the fight mechanics I liked from MK2. Accept the Elseworlds angle for what it is and enjoy the game. 

Geometry Wars 2
I didn’t know how they were going to make it better, honestly. They found six ways.  (I still suck at it.)

Fable II
I never played the first game but I’m sure glad I played the second. The voice acting alone in this one was brilliant. 

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
Well, of course. I only wish there was more to the Death Knight’s unique campaign, but it’s a fun new class and I’m still enjoying myself with this game.  

Honorable Mention: Lexitron for iPhone
I got the free version of Word Warp, then graduated to this. Simple but slick anagram gaming on the go.  

 

Before someone asks in the comments, Fallout 3 is missing because I only played about an hour of it so far, but I plan to go back and do more. Same with GTAIV except for the going back part. Not being able to save anywhere is a major stumbling block for me; I want to get lost in games, but sometimes life just doesn’t let me. And traveling for 10 minutes to shoot someone and then get shot and have to do it all over again quickly lost its luster, so I’ve been staring at it on my shelf without actually putting it in.

Wikipedia

I dabble in Wikipedia but I honestly haven’t done much with it. But when I realized that people like Todd Mowatt had entries as video game critics and Andy Eddy didn’t, I had to do something about it. Please make it better. I still don’t know how to add his photo, but I do have one that I took and am willing to release to public domain. I focused on establishing facts that would show Andy actually is important, because if you don’t, the editors like nothing more than to delete pages.

Speaking of which, I want to save the Flux page. The magazine was cited pretty majorly in JC Herz’ book Joystick Nation, which I do not own — but if someone can add that reference, it might keep the page alive and make it relevant. It was basically the first gaming lifestyle magazine, but we didn’t call it that at the time — it was “the anti-Details” and was ahead of its time in 1994. I think that’s important enough.

Oooh, whadjaget?

Aside from the time I wanted to myself for Christmas, I also got some nifty things.

Got some lovely books (Neil Zlozower’s book of Van Halen photos, some musical instruction, and some deep-thinking-about-game-criticism stuff), Darth Tater, a Han Solo Hoth Mighty Muggs, an aluminum wallet (!), and Metal Slug 7 for DS (a big deal for a Slug nut like me). Also, the most awesome Gears of War action figure ever made, which will only be cool to people who snipe. (And for being extra good this year, I am told that an X-Fi sound card and a new pickup for one of my guitars are both en route. Apparently, the reindeer got delayed.)

Also, I don’t know where you find metal guitar ice cube trays, but my dad did. 

The necks are swizzle sticks. Awesome. Brownie points for anybody who can name the three models of guitar represented here. 

I think the niftiest gift is one I knew about ahead of time. Instead of getting the Fender Custom Shop calendar again, Kat made me a custom calendar of my actual guitars, which is super cool. (She also got me actual “geek” business cards with my photo on them, so I could be a card-carrying geek.)

I had a nice holiday and I am grateful that people like me enough to get me stuff.

Why does EW suck at games?

Ok, full disclosure: I pitched myself as a freelancer to Entertainment Weekly in the mid-90s when Gary Eng Walk gave the Virtual Boy (and just about every other Nintendo product he reviewed) an A in its pages. I saw that and thought, okay, they don’t get games. It’s relatively new on the cultural landscape, they’re just starting to be taken seriously, and EW isn’t up to speed yet. Since I was already in NYC writing game reviews for Time Out New York and Flux, this was a potential opportunity. But they passed, and I kept on reading the mag, even if more insightful games coverage ever evolved. I’ve always liked it.

Over the break, I’m catching up on several issues I didn’t have time to read. (Because, yes, even outdated EW is still a good read.) And I’m stunned to see that all these years later, despite the evolution of gaming on artistic, cultural, and business levels, EW still doesn’t treat gaming with the respect and, in some cases, core understanding it has earned.

November 14, 2008, page 14. The Beatles have signed a deal with MTV Games to create a new video game, and author Shirley Halperin expresses surprise that the band’s first foray into digital business comes “in the world of gaming  — of all places.” Oh, you wouldn’t expect to see innovation down here in the ghetto? Better still, Halperin hopes that after slumming it in ConsoleWorld, this will finally open the door to having the Beatles music available for sale on iTunes. It’s as if the iTunes thing is so overdue that the press can’t see beyond it — like, this news story I have expected to write for two years now needs to be resolved before I accept that the Beatles may have spent the intervening time thinking beyond merely selling MP3s. Digital distribution of music was hot shit in the mid-90s, when the tech was new and the labels were stupid; it’s nothing special now. But having someone like Harmonix creatively explore your entire musical catalog and open it up to a new generation, that’s not valid news enough? Nah, fuck potential — we here at EW just wanna buy your CDs as DRM files, and whatever Super Ringo Bros. is going to be, we don’t care. Also, why are all these fucking trees blocking my view of the forest?

The annual Best of 2008 lists came out a few issues later, and Jeff Jensen did a very good job of explaining his picks. (Whether I agree or not with year-end lists really does not matter to me; I just want to see the person explain why that made their cut. But I happened to agree with his picks.) And the reader poll results — which game was your favorite? The winner, by 61% of the popular vote, was Guitar Hero World Tour/Rock Band 2. Yeah, I love that game almost as much as I love that Star Wars Star Trek movie, or Harry Potter and the Breaking Dawn. Because all those supernatural teenage things are the same, just like all the movies with the shiny spaceships are the same. The bizarre icing on the cake: a reader poll on the site gives people an either-or choice. Did some ignorant editor say “yeah, same thing” and smash them together?

And even when EW does say nice things about how games do have a place in the entertainment landscape, they’re misinformed. (I attended the conference call from Apple Corps and Harmonix, and for the last fucking time, there will not be a Beatles edition of Rock Band.) These are simply factual errors — ones the magazine does not make in other realms.

I don’t get it. How can such a good magazine — which clearly respects the slavish fanbases of other pop culture obsessions like The Office and James Bond and Friends and Star Wars enough to consistently nail the details and talk the proper talk — get gaming so consistently wrong? As a fan of this publication, it kills me. As a gamer, it angers me. And as member of the press…

EW has had its high points — I’ve noted in the past how Geoff Keighley used to write good stuff for them, but he doesn’t write much (if at all) now that he’s transitioned into a television producer and host. But as I’ve noted before, EW just doesn’t seem to have the passion for or knowledge to cover games, yet they still stab at the topic half-heartedly because, you know, they sell those things at Best Buy too, so we should probably be covering it.

My advice, like my freelancer clips in the mid-90s, is unsolicited, but here it is: Do it right or don’t do it. Either stop trying to cover this stuff and focus on your core strengths as a movie/TV/music magazine, or hire someone to be your gaming editor (and don’t dress it up with a euphemism like “Interactive Entertainment Editor”).  When you attempt to cover a topic unprepared and lacking passion, you wind up misinforming your existing audience and alienating the potential one.

Happy Etcetra from Dan & Kat

Kat and I don’t care if you celebrate Christmas, Yule, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or Wookiee Life Day. We just want you to enjoy it this year. And in that spirit — as well as the spirit of not killing trees with paper cards — Kat has created a digital holiday card for you. Enjoy.

It makes sense once you’ve heard the whole thing.

No present like the time

What do you want for Christmas? Some years ago I realized that the answer to that question was “time to enjoy all the stuff I already have.” No joke — at 37 with no kids, I am surrounded by all forms of entertainment. Books, music, movies, games, you name it. I am also blessed with the tools to make any of that stuff myself when inspired to do so. But I’ve gotten to the point where two hours to watch a movie and not do anything else seems like a very long time. I do not need any more expensive toys; I need the time to play with them.

I want time to do nothing, and by nothing I mean nothing planned — whatever I feel like doing. Let’s play a little Rock Band. Hey, I’m going to read this magazine. That’s a good song; let me try to figure out the bassline. I’d like to get through another level in that game I’ve been chipping away at. I like being productive with my time, but I like being random, too, and often I just find myself thinking about the next looming deadline. I know it’s not healthy.

So, after some careful planning and a very intense week of work (today was a 13-hour stretch with lunch at my desk), I have completed more nearly all my assignments for the next issue. I have edited stories, I have written previews and reviews, I have answered the reader mail. I have one or two things left, but they can be done when I return to the office…on January 5. I look forward to forgetting I am employed.

I have plans New Year’s Eve. Other than that, I have just a few ideas of things that would be nice to do if the opportunity presents itself. Some songwriting, some online ProTools classes, maybe make a mix tape for a friend, check out a new restaurant, screw around with the MAME machine downstairs — hell, even blogging. But no schedules. When you live in a world dictated by deadlines, schedules of any kind are the enemy. I think that’s why I find it so hard to relax when I go away on vacation — there is a flight to catch to return home, and the clock starts ticking the moment I arrive. Why leave in the first place?

Last time I had two weeks in a row off was 1995, when I went on my honeymoon. But, after years of asking for it, I’m finally going to get the time I so desperately want for Christmas.

That said, my Amazon wish list is four pages long, and I could use a new wallet.