An invention I’d like to see

A graphite travel guitar. I was away on business this week and I thought of actually traveling with my travel guitar. Problem is, it’s made of wood and I was somewhere very cold; extreme temp changes hurt guitars. There are carbon fiber/graphite guitars — impervious to weather and humidity (and some would say tone) — but Rainsong‘s are full-sized and the ones from Palm are too expensive. I’d think a reasonably priced, near-indestructible travel guitar would be a good idea.

An eBay tip for weird emergencies

What do you do when you put something on eBay, and someone bids on it, and then you find you cannot sell the item because the item got damaged between the time you posted it and the end of the auction? Well, if there are 12 hours left, you’re screwed — you can’t edit, revise, or cancel the thing. And I had a bid on it, so I had to cancel that and explain why I was doing the very thing I said I would never do. Every time someone says “how much to end the auction early” I say “no, we’re going forward, it’s a free market.” So this is the first time I think I’ve even had to end an item early with bidders involved. I mean, it was for a different reason than “yeah, I can be bought off” but it’s still messy.

So I explained to the guy with the bid as to why I was cancelling it (namely, it’s busted and you wouldn’t be able to use it), then I wound up having Kat do a Buy-it-Now to end the thing. We then cancelled the entire transaction and issued a PayPal refund. If anybody else gets snagged by the 12-hours-to-go lockout thing, now you know at least one workaround.

For the record, the Mbox got sopping wet last night and won’t work today. At the moment, PC and Mac both say “what audio device?” (I think they just like the UX2 better.)  Who knows, maybe it will dry out and work in a month — it’s solid state — but how am I supposed to sell it knowing it was damaged? Into the closet it goes and we’ll pray for a resurrection.

This whole Pro Tools thing needs to go away.

Almost famous

I’m not super-involved in the Wikipedia editorial community, but I dabble. I’ve got an account, and I generally try to be fair and balanced about the OXM page. You would think editing it would be a conflict of interest, but I have never hidden my involvement, I’ve never violated the Wikipedia rules about neutrality, and I’ve never deleted anything that wasn’t outright false (like the rumor that one of our interns died). In fact I’ve added links to discussions where people allege that the magazine is biased, because the entry regarding those allegations said “citation needed” for about six months and nobody bothered to prove those claims. So, there you go, that’s what “they” are saying.

Over the holidays, I made a page for Andy Eddy and was thrilled when it was not deleted, simply because that meant I did something right when I built it. Wikipedia is very finicky about its citations; it’s not a fan club, it’s got to be verifiable information and preferably neutral in tone, like a standard print encyclopedia would be. I tried to follow the format correctly and tried to present information about Andy that suggested why he should be noted alongside other game journos on Wikipedia like Jeff Gertsmann and Dean Takahashi (who has done much more than his Wiki entry suggests). For instance, Shane Bettenhausen is well known and certainly deserves the entry, but whoever did his page didn’t cite any sources for him, so a Wikipedia editor tagged it as unverified and potentially removable.

I know Wikipedia is for people who are actually important and that other people can prove are important. It’s also a key battleground for nerds to discuss the minutia of fictional characters (Charlie Barratt from GamesRadar proved just what serious business it is). But still, my ego has always thought having an entry would be cool someday.

So while I was tweaking the OXM page last week, I clicked on my name just to see, and lo and behold, podcast listener SquishyDog2 apparently made a Dan Amrich entry. It doesn’t have all the things that long-lasting Wiki entries have, like proper citations or categories or for that matter a reason to exist. But it’s there. And that made my ego smile.

So since it will probably disappear in a matter of moments, I wanted to say “Cool! Look at that!” while it existed.

Farewell, Mbox

About nine months ago I decided I wanted to a) stop using bootleg software for audio work, which I’d been doing for several years; b) learn Pro Tools, which is the industry standard, and c) set up a better home studio, with dedicated monitors and a simplified interface. I have a great desktop mixer but it’s kind of overkill for what I need, and I don’t have tons of space on my desk.

I found a nice Mbox 2 Mini package with monitors and Pro Tools LE 7, and I thought, well, that’s that. I adopted Kat’s backup Macintosh (as a freelancer, it’s important that she have a spare if her main machine goes down), installed Pro Tools, and set about going legit.

There were only a few problems with this plan:

1) Pro Tools kept giving me error messages about the hardware buffer. The MacBook is totally up to the task — dual core, more than 2GB of RAM — and it’s saying “no.” But it’s a laptop and apparently PT needs a second drive just as a target recording drive.

2) Oh, and my USB 2.0 drives wouldn’t work — it had to be FireWire.

3) And it had to be a FireWire drive using a specific Oxford chipset.

4) When I plug the Mbox 2 Mini into my PC laptop — an unimpeachable, rock-solid Dell Latitude D630 — it blue-screens. USBDRIVER.SYS totally vomits all over itself. I rooted around online and found that it could be this device overloading my USB bus. It’s a laptop; it’s not something I can change. And I really want the convenience of using my existing XLR condenser mics with either machine — so this was the last straw. If it doesn’t love my computers, I shouldn’t keep it.

Therefore, it’s on eBay. I am keeping Pro Tools LE because at least that puts me on an upgrade path should I find a future version is perfect for my needs. But I’ve found a Line 6 TonePort UX2 on clearance that seems to do everything I need and with more stability (and for about the same money I’ll get for the sale of the Mbox). I’m a Line 6 fanboy so it feels good. Also, the UX2 does more and looks fucking awesome:

I’m also going to give GarageBand a whirl, because a) I have already it, b) Jude uses it for his half of PSN, and c) lots of people say nice things about it. Maybe some day I will take another swing at PT, but for now, I’d rather have fun making music than fight the tools I’m using.

Nintendo: The Town Crotch

Okay, there’s something about game fans that has always baffled me, and a recent news event has triggered me to talk about it. Fair warning: it’s going to get vulgar.

I grew up playing coin-ops and Atari 2600; all my nostalgic warm fuzzies about videogames stem from those experiences. A few years after I got into gaming, the NES inspired a whole new legion of fans. At the time, Nintendo meant arcade games like Donkey Kong and Popeye. To me, Nintendo was a really good game developer and publisher. But to the next generation, that NES generation, Nintendo became something more. They became…a hero. Or maybe something much more salacious.

Now, just like actors or bands or authors, I am a fan of some game development studios. I think Harmonix does really good work and I am always interested to see what they are working on. I like David Jaffe‘s games quite a bit. Valve knocks things out of the park more often than most. But, just like Van Halen has put out some lousy albums, every game has to be taken on its own merits — in no way do I believe that any of those creative, talented development teams is more than just a bunch of people doing their best work on that project at that time. They are very fortunate to be able to make artistic products and creative statements while they pay the bills by selling the games they make. They do it because they love it, but they sell it because we all gotta eat. The video game business is — as it was since Al Alcorn went to Andy Capp’s Tavern to find out why Pong had broken down — a business. Buying the games of talented people is the best way to show my appreciation, and them making more is the best way for them to say thank you.

To Nintendo’s biggest fans, these common-sense rules do not apply. Nintendo’s track record of quality first-party software is undeniable; more often than not (and more often than just about anybody else), they make games worth playing — too many consistently fantastic franchises bear this out. But since these people’s first videogame experience was a Nintendo game, Nintendo is not merely some incredibly talented people making games. To the otaku, Nintendo is unimpeachable, godlike — perfect. The company inspires a blind loyalty that I find frightening and cultish.

I finally figured out why: Nintendo took their gaming virginity. Whether it was Super Mario Bros. or Pilotwings or StarFox or The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo gave these people an amazing experience they had never had before, and one which they would never forget. They had been searching for something personal, something special  — and in the definition of appealing to all their senses, something sensual — in their prepubescent lives, and Nintendo was the first company that gave it to them. Nintendo was not only the prettiest girl in class — a voluptuous dare of color and sound and lights, a little older and more experienced and mysterious than everyone else they knew — but she came with a power button, so she was good to go any time. To borrow a term from Jonathan Coulton, she was the town crotch.

What’s more, their friends all did her too, with ubiquitous NES decks and Game Boys and N64 consoles in the hands of all the other kids at school. Everybody played with her, everybody blew into her slot when she wouldn’t cooperate, and everybody felt loved. You were an outcast if you didn’t have intimate relations with Nintendo.

But it’s a one-sided relationship. You love Nintendo, but she doesn’t love you. She thanks you, takes your money, and moves on; she makes a new console and a new game with a new price on it. You were just another notch in her sales belt; she doesn’t call. Yet to the gamer, there’s a relationship there; what do you mean you don’t love me back? “What about King Koopa?” you stammer. “What about the Triforce? What about Princess Peach, whom I have now sexualized in several erotic pinup portraits? You gave me a fairy wonderland and I intend to live there! That was special! We had something! I love you!”

To which Nintendo replies, “Kid…who doesn’t?”

The latest bit of self-brainwashed naivete comes from this story. Bob uses homebrew tools to create Bob’s Game, a DS RPG that has reportedly consumed 15,000 hours of his life. That’s really cool, that the single-person dev spirit is still alive and active. But now he’s ready to become a legitimate licensed developer and get Nintendo’s SDK so he can see this passion project made real. So he applies to be a developer…and Nintendo says no.

So, to be taken seriously as a game developer, Bob locks himself in his room for 100 days, calling it a “tensai sit-down protest” (there’s the Japanese word for “genius” in there, so Nintendo knows he’s looking right at her through the webcam) to tell the world how angry he is that his former imaginary girlfriend doesn’t want to get married.

Keep in mind: He applied to become a full developer, and Nintendo denied his application. That’s entirely within Nintendo’s rights as a company — he’s not entitled to the princess, even if he did collect all the stars and find all the secret warps. Nintendo does not want the SDKs for its systems to get out into the wild; they will only approve people who they trust to be serious business partners.

Unfortunately his protest only lasted 30 days, after which he trashed his room in a gesture of professionalism. His melodramatic farewell letter (“Why does this HURT so much?”) is a riot, but it does contain some very hard-learned lessons…that the rest of us, who respect and buy Nintendo’s products by choice instead of compulsion, already knew:

In reality, if Link approached the castle gate, a guard would just throw him out. It doesn’t matter how much courage he has. It doesn’t matter how talented he is with his sword, or how pure hearted he might be. He’s wearing a dirty tunic and he has no credentials. “Get out of here, you stupid kid.” The evil kingdom of Ganon (Or should I say “Gantendo”) spreads across the land, Zelda dies, and the credits scroll. Game over. That’s the real Nintendo, I guess.

Nintendo sells all these games about “doing your best” and “being the hero,” telling kids “you can do it if you try,” but in the end that’s just a story, a marketing lie that sounds good. They’re just another heartless corporation, only interested in the biggest profits.

Bob had sex with Nintendo years ago, but on this day, he became a man.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Nullus.

Props to fellow Watchmen nerd Ethan Hurd (whose animation work you may have seen in such tiny art-house films as Shrek, Toy Story 2, and Bolt) for pointing me to this open letter from one of the film’s producers, taking the moral high ground in the Fox vs. Warner legal battle over the movie.

Maybe Fox does have the legal rights to do what they’re doing, but it’s hard for any fan not to paint them as the villain here. And knowing some of what the project has gone through since I started tracking it and collecting shreds of info in the mid-90s — not long after Ethan introduced me to the novel, actually — I do tend to believe that Fox would simultaneously own the rights and refuse to use them.

All I know is I would like to see this film, and I was working on some Watchmen-related contests for OXM, which went from perfectly timed to “not currently being pursued.” So that’s a personal AND a professional disappointment.

Also, while I understand it will not be admissable as evidence, I hope the judge will have read this before announcing a ruling.

(PS – Next person who calls the movie or novel The Watchmen gets thrown out the window of a very tall apartment building.)

How not to fuck up a guitar, hopefully

So I have this guitar and I love it…except for all the parts in it. I got this Fender Esquire GT on clearance a few years ago and I adore it. (For the non-guitar geeks, an Esquire is a Telecaster with one pickup — The More You Know!) The body is a carved top, it’s a set-neck, I like the flat-D neck shape, I like the light weight, I love the bright blue with the white racing stripe and the matching headstock with a silver Fender logo. My guitar tech/hot rod enthusiast Greg dubbed it The Bitchin’ Camaro and it stuck.

But…they designed it as a pop-punk machine and nothing else — one pickup, one volume knob, no tone options. The pickup is a Seymour Duncan Invader — as used by Blink-182 in their prime — which is one of the highest-output, gnarliest pickups ever made. It screams! But I’m thinking I have less opportunity to scream than I did when I first got the guitar. Also, they went with briefly-trendy black chrome hardware on the tuners, the pickup ring, the knob, and the bridge. The problem with black chrome is it tarnishes if you, you know, touch it. Also, the logo on the headstock is standard silver, and the frets are in great shape…it’s like this guitar really needs a chrome makeover.

So…that’s what I’m doing. My Christmas haul included this stuff:

Chrome replacements for all of the above (Sperzels because I found them on sale!), and for the pickup, a white Seymour Duncan JB. I had one of these in a guitar I later sold and I thought it sounded fantastic. I don’t care about a tone knob; I just want that pickup’s natural voice flat-out.

So…I’m wondering if I should try to do the swaps myself. I am not good at this kind of stuff and I’m super nervous about damaging one of my guitars. Like, what if the tuners need bigger holes than the ones that are there? I usually take this stuff to Greg but maybe it’s time to learn to do relatively simple stuff on my own. Hell, it’s only one pickup with one knob — how hard can it be, right?

Gulp.

Some good magazine news

The economy is in the dumper. Last year Games for Windows ceased to be a print publication. Rumors are swirling that EGM is next to go, and that 1up may be bought out. Clearly, says the internet, because Ziff-Davis properties are having trouble, all print magazines are doomed.

Well, I’d say it all depends on who makes them and how. Here’s what my publisher is doing right.

I know people on the interwebs find it stunning and unbelievable that print magazines about games are still in business, because a) they only read one and b) when that one goes away, they illogically assume that everybody is similarly screwed. So when someone can articulate why all print magazines are not alike and what makes some of them more successful than others, I think it’s worth bringing up.

Future has made some tough and unpleasant calls in the last three years, taking preventative measures — not the least of which include cancelling magazines that employed my wife. I’ve seen the dark side, but I also see the reasons for those unpopular decisions. I don’t know how the other publishers work, but I know mine is proactive and cautious. This is not a company that nods and smiles and says everything is fine; this is a company that says “Yeah, that’s a problem, it needs to be solved, now.” These are the things that internet wags cannot comprehend. What they see is “Magazine A is dead, so Magazines B through Z must also be dead.” But that’s just ignorance; they don’t know how the publishing business can or should work, but they will often pretend that they do, based on such incontrovertible evidence as disagreeing with a recent review. Truth is, they simply don’t know better. Stevie Spring knows better.

I’m not trying to dance on anybody’s grave, or hasten the fall of quality publications that are trying to recover from bad luck or bad decisions. But just because they’re fucked doesn’t mean we’re fucked.

Update, four hours later: Believe it or not, I had not read this rumor or this confirmation when I wrote this entry. I mean, I had heard those rumors a few weeks ago, but I didn’t know that the story was flaring up again. My post was not intended as a direct response to those developments, but it sure reads like one now.

I will only add that the one thing that IDG and Future had in common when I was at both companies was a cautious nature when it came to business. Ziff’s plan with EGM looked more like “pump it to dump it” — they were looking to sell the magazine, so they invested in different areas that maximized attractiveness rather than stability. That’s my outsider take, anyway.

I would also remind people that a business deal does not reflect on the editorial quality. EGM was and is held in high regard — I can’t count the number of times I was envious of what they were doing and tried to push harder to counter it. That’s the hallmark of healthy competition. I’m remembering the good bits and find myself more than a little surprised that the mag’s run is apparently over.

But quality magazines do go out of business, just like nice people die. You don’t pick when your time is up, no matter how good you are.

Update 2: And sadly, Kotaku’s report was exactly what I predicted. “RIP, games magazines.” Joystiq chimes in with “the dying breed of print media.” Sigh. Did I call it or what?