Monday, December 24, 2007

Self Publishing with Kindle

I haven't really blogged about the Kindle yet, as I didn't have anything particularly relevant to add to the many discussions going on about this device, and I'd rather comment after seeing one first-hand. In case you haven't run across those many discussions, the Kindle is Amazon's new e-reader, an electronic book with tight connectivity to the Amazon store.

I'll leave specifics about the device aside, as I still have yet to see one in person. However, I came across this fascinating tidbit - anyone can self-publish e-books to the Kindle, using Amazon's new Digital Text Platform. Books can be between .99 cents and 200 dollars, and the author gets 35% (read the legal contract before signing up, the terms may change). One interesting tidbit is that you must agree to allow Amazon to sell your book without DRM, even though they do not currently do so.

In order to try this out, I e-published my earlier story, WishBox, affordably priced at one dollar. (Not so affordable if you are counting per word price, but hey, you can read it here on my blog for free, so nothing to complain about, right?)

If there's interest, I may publish the old Scorched Earth manual as an ebook - that's officially out of print now (a collector's item if you happen to have one) - although I doubt the demand is very high.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Comic Value of Entertainment

Comics as Collectibles

In this post, I will revisit my value of entertainment article with respect to comics.

Let's start with a comment by RwP:
Unfortunately, you have served to highlight just what a bad 'deal' comics are in the entertainment scale of economy. ;-) Won't stop me from collecting them, though.

In my graph, comics had the second worst cost per hour, at about $18 per hour. (The worst was a cd, if you only listen to it once - but that's a topic for another post). I think one of the keys to the cost is the other phrase RwP used: "collecting". More so than most other entertainment media, comics strive to present themselves as collectible. There are entire websites and magazines dedicated to tracking the prices of back issues - speculators may "invest" in comics, hoping to turn a profit. I think this is intended in part to justify the higher price.

Let's do a quick test and search eBay for Conan, my example in the earlier article (chosen more or less at random). Issue 46 has a cover price of $2.99, and is still readily available at most comic shops. It looks like there are 858 listings for Conan categorized under Comics. A bunch of single issues from 1975 are at a starting bid of $1.00, still with no bids. (And of course, the $2.50 shipping extra cost.) The cover price is $.25 for that issue, which gives us a 4 times increase in value over a 32 year investment. But it's not selling. At the moment, quite a few of the current series (issue 19 for example), are listed with starting bids of $.99 (and no takers), (with $3.41 shipping). That's a 66% loss over something you just got off the shelf.

So, at best, treating comics as investments is a fidgety business, particularly recent releases, which more often than not can be bought 6 months later in bargain bins for $1 per issue. Real value lies in significantly older issues, with the accompanying effort to maintain high grade issues. If you build old issues in quantity, you can often get them for pennies on the pound.

Nevertheless, in order to maintain the market as much as possible, the current big two publishers often release runs as close to the initial demand as possible, so they sell out, and create a short term bubble of demand, driving up prices very temporarily. As a reader, this creates a rather significant nuisance - you can't always rely on being able to follow a series.

Comics as Art

A further argument for the value of comics is that they are works of art, and should be appreciated in same way as a Picasso or a Rembrandt. Maybe. The reality of big publishing is that it's much more of a business. You may be reading a perfectly good story, when some fill-in artist creates an issue to meet some deadline. Then you've got some potentially mediocre drawing, with a churned out by-the-numbers story, with the same cost as your best artwork by your favorite artist. Artwork quality can be dodgy, and writing quality equally so, especially since meeting a fixed schedule over a long period of time can challenge even the best writers.

Comics as Marketing

There are some interesting trends in comic marketing worth noting. Traditionally, comics have been published as individual issues, perhaps 32 pages - if you miss an issue, you have to hunt around conventions, local shops, or perhaps go online to find them. Sitting on top of a large pile of content, though, publishers have realized there's a bigger market for that content. Most books can now be bought in collections (trade paperbacks), often collecting 4 to 8 issues in a single nicely bound volume. Generally these cost about the same as the equivalent single issues, with the benefit of no ads interspersed in the story, although they don't lie flat.

A market for premium versions is also evolving - with hardcover editions, or my personal favorite, oversized hardcover editions. For example, Absolute Sandman contains 20 issues of material, with extra bonus content, in a deluxe oversized edition for $99 (about $5 per issue if you break down the price). These are indeed closer to art books, and generally only popular or quality content gets this treatment.

One of my favorite series, Invincible, provides a wide spectrum of buying choices - once per month, you can get the single issue. Every 6 months, a softcover TPB is released with 6 issues. Every year, an oversized hardcover is released collecting 12 issues. Every other year, a limited super-oversized hardcover with more premium hoo-hah (the technical term) is released. You might end up buying the same content multiple times, depending on what you want, and how often you want it.

And sometimes, the TPB will contain extra material not in the issues, or vice versa. All of which can detract from the core entertainment of reading a story, but feeds into the collectible mindset of comic collectors.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can get 500 issues of Iron Man on CD for the low price of $49.99. And Marvel recently started a subscription service for all you can read comics online.

Free Comics

If you want to read some online comics for free, you can try the new Zuda website by DC, an experiment in online publishing which I hope to participate in. Or, there's my favorite web comic, Order of the Stick. Also, the online version of Dark Horse Presents has a monthly series featuring the same quality of talent as their offline offerings.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Are You Getting Full Value From Your Video Games? (3 of 3)

The A,B,C Rating System

In the two previous posts in this series, I covered the idea of using achievements to figure out how much value you're getting out your Xbox 360 games, and showed how to compare your progress to that of other users. As promised, this post will bring things a little closer to home. How much value do I get from my video games?

Since getting my Xbox 360, I've been trying to be much more careful in what I buy - checking reviews, deciding whether I'm likely to actually play a given game, or whether it will just sit on my shelf. Partly this depends on how attainable the achievements are (i.e. how accessible the game content is), and partly this depends on how likely I am to play the game in question. As a rule, I don't really enjoy the traditional sports titles - even if it's the best Football/Baseball/Basketball title on the market, I probably won't get very far. And my favorite genre, best exemplified by games like Jak and Daxter or Ratchet and Clank, isn't very well represented on the 360. But I have been enjoying combat racing games, first person shooters, and a variety of other games.

After all of the previous, relatively complicated analysis, I decided to break it down to the A, B, C's. Each game I purchase is given a very simple ranking.

A: An "A" game is one which I haven't started playing yet, or I popped in and ran through the opening setup, but haven't gotten any farther.

B: A "B" game is one which I have played through for at least an hour, often more, but for one reason or another I stopped short of completing the game, or getting far enough in a game without a solid conclusion that it felt incomplete.

C: A "C" game is one which I have completed. This doesn't need to mean I'm done playing it - maybe I want to squeeze out a few more achievements, or just play more because I like it so much. But in terms of getting the core entertainment value, these ones are done.

Using this simple scale, I was able to quickly sort my games into three piles. As it turns out, I have the following ratios:
A: 38.8%
B: 27.7%
C: 33.3%

While creating this list, a few things popped out.

1. I have a lot of games I haven't started playing yet. Some of these I bought on sale, and others I just haven't gotten around to starting.

2. 33.3% completion, for me, isn't bad. I've gotten this far because I've been focusing on completing games - rather than bouncing between titles, I find it more rewarding to focus on one title, with a specific goal. I won't let myself move on to the next game until I reach that goal. Achievements are a big help in setting and tracking these goals, however you use them.

3. Of the games labelled B, the issue is occasionally one of difficulty. If I reach a point in the game where it's too hard to progress, I'm stuck. Sometimes you can get past this with the help of an online guide, like GameFAQS. Don't be ashamed to get help to move past an area where you are stuck - this is entertainment, and if you aren't having fun, you're doing it wrong.

4. Of the games labelled C, I do have a fair amount of DLC (downloadable content), which I've purchased, but not played. I should either make an effort to use that, or stop buying it.

5. I've got a bunch of games I want to play more. Looking at the games I still have to complete makes me want to go back and work on them some more. For the most part, I'm pretty happy with my collection of games.

Enough blogging about games... time to get back to playing them!

This wraps up my look at video games for the moment - I've got some more ideas related to the family of topics I've been covering recently, but if there's anything in particular you would like to see discussed, leave a note and let me know. Ideally we could have some more open discussion here, even though it's "just a blog".

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Are You Getting Full Value From Your Video Games? (2 of 3)

In my last post, I described the Xbox 360 achievement system, and shared some thoughts on what works and does not work about the system. In this post, I will go over more specific examples.


One nice thing about the Xbox 360 is that there is an API to interact with Xbox Live (a not so nice thing is that access to this API is limited to a very small number of services). At any rate, one of these services is My360Stats. This site tracks data from a large sample of gamers. Using this data, you can learn all sorts of interesting things about how people are responding to a given game. In particular, you can see how many people are actually completing any specific game.

One of the simplest reports available is the Completed Games report. This shows what percentage of people who have played the game have earned every possible achievement. The highest completion ratio goes to Avatar, with a whopping 97.5% of users who've played the game having earned every possible achievement. Close behind is TMNT, with a 72.5% completion rate. These games are generally considered easy, since most people can beat them completely. These are the games people like to play during challenges to earn achievement points quickly - five hours of King Kong, and you've got 1,000 points for relatively little effort.

At the bottom end of the scale, we have Guitar Hero 2, with a dismal .3% completion rate (108 of 33,341). It's safe to say you are unlikely to get 100% gamerscore for this game. Let's look at this game more closely. The average completion rate (by achievements) is 46.6% (by score it's 34.9% - this is a common pattern for games which give big rewards to the hardest achievements, and is the reason I'll only be using percentages for number of achievements in the rest of this post).

If you look at the graphs for how many people have completed how many achievements, you can learn all sorts of interesting things. Looking at Guitar Hero 2, you can see a very large hump, centered around 25 achievements (the half way mark). This means that most players get to about 50% completion, and stop playing the game. What's interesting about this game is that the hump is so broad. This means there is a lot of variation about how long people play the game, well spread out. The end of the graph is always interesting - it indicates how likely you are to be able to get 100% of the points if you really try. If there's a large spike at the end, it means a good number of people who were trying for the end were able to reach it. If the end is very small, it indicates people tended to give up before getting that far. Guitar Hero 2 has a pretty small spike, so you can count on it being a hard game in this sense.


To see all the achievements, check out the site This lets you see all the achievements for any game, often with guides on how to get them. Note that this may include spoilers, as some games have secret achievements you are only supposed to figure out during game play - the names and goals of these achievements may give away certain elements of the game. (Unfortunately, I know of no way to determine what the success percentage is for any specific achievement - that could be an interesting number.) For Guitar Hero II there are a number of Online Mad Skillz achievements (Get 1,000,000 points on a song in Cooperative), and some other offline Mad Skillz (Earn five stars on all songs in the Expert tour). I expect these are the source of the low completion rate.

Overview of Recent Games

Some quick analyses of a few other games mentioned recently in this blog:


Average completion: 57.4% (Only 5.85% score 100%)
My score: 94% (47 achievements)

Here I've pretty thoroughly trounced the game, and I hope to still earn the last three achievements.

Looking at the graph, we see:
9 indicates the first "give up" point.
29-31 indicates a point where some people tend to give up
43-45 means "completion" for many gamers
50 shows a nice spike, indicating %100 is reasonably possible

It's interesting to see the game abandoment happening around 9 and again at 29-31. These problem correspond to completing specific areas in the game, and losing interest.

Halo 3

Average completion: 46.9% (Only 7.08% score 100%)
My score: 24% (12 achievements)

Here I've beaten the game in co-op, but done essentially nothing else. This has only scored be a fourth of the achievements.

12 - first give up point
27-29 - second completion point
49 - big spike

Here I am, clearly at the first give up point. The second spike likely applies to playing a reasonable about of multiplayer, and 49 is probably getting most of the doable achievements - leaving the remainder as serious Mad Skillz goals.

Gears of War

Average completion: 39.1% (Only 1.56% score 100%)
My score: 12% (12 achievements)

I beat this game in co-op, and only got a meager 12% of the points. Clearly I still have work to do if I want to earn what this game has to offer. It's an awesome game, but how many times do I really want to play it?

1 indicates the first give up point. (wow)
10 indicates second Casual
23 indicates third Hardcore
30 indicates fourth Insane
48 indicates fifth (Co-op, Online Play)
relative small bump at 57, hard to complete

The give up points here map fairly well to achievements. Looks like a lot of people get stuck early one - one achievement. The other give up points seem to correspond fairly well to the difficultly levels, each of which have their own achievements. Note that the Co-op and Online Play achievements wouldn't necessarily break out exactly as shown above.

That concludes this part of my analysis - you can easily pick your own favorite games, or games you are thinking about buying, and see if you can guess where you will lie. In the next post of this series, I'll conclude with a final set of more personal observations about how much value I get out of a typical video game.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Unintended Consquences

The recent Xbox Dashboard update included one easily overlooked minor change. When you play a trial of a game, that information no longer shows up in your play history. Now, when you look at the games you have played, those games (which cannot earn you achievements) are treated as though you had never played them.

As a side-effect, services built on top of the Xbox APIs no longer have access to this information either. So, my Xbox no longer counts these when it blogs - previously this would show up in the blog, and count as activity it could discuss and consider in the very simple AI. On the bright side, services tracking statistics can now get more accurate information on zero achievement cases, because that now means a purchased game with zero achievements can be distinguished from a simple trial game.

Minor point, but interesting how a small change like this can trickle through the API and affect a variety of third party services.

Are You Getting Full Value From Your Video Games? (1 of 3)

This is the first of many follow ups to my earlier post about the value of entertainment. Actually, noodling on this is what inspired my earlier post - I wanted to lay a basic foundation before I started digging into some of the areas more specific to video games.

So, my basic observation is this - of all the entertainment media that I personally interact with, the one format I'm most likely to not get the full value of is the videogame. What do I mean? Well, once I start watching a movie, I'll probably finish the movie (unless it's really bad). It's a relatively small investment in time. Video games, though, require heavier investments in time, and tend to have less well defined periods of play. They may also require, to be frank, some skill on the part of the person playing the video game.

Defining Completion

Some games are story-driven, and have natural arcs. These games tend to have natural conclusions to the story (even if they are open-ended to leave room for the inevitable sequel). If gamers are not following through with the story, does this mean the game was not compelling? Does this limit how likely game designers are to try to tell compelling stories? Do you have to be playing an RPG to get a story?

Other games are more gameplay driven (or focus heavily on multiplayer, for example), and may not have the same kind of natural arc. These games may have an end goal of reaching a certain skill level in the game, and often require heavy investments in time, performing the same tasks and perfecting certain skills. These are generally not the kinds of games I enjoy, even if the gameplay is otherwise excellent.

Short games can be "beaten" in 5 hours. Others may take 80 hours or more. Some games have no real notion of what "beaten" even means. I tend to favor the current trend towards games which last about 10 hours to complete the main experience. That's long enough to enjoy the basic ideas and story, but not too long to require a lot of time, especially if you don't have endless hours to sit around and play games. I like co-op games, too, since it becomes more of a way to spend time with the kids. I recently finished Halo 3 and Gears of War with my son, and that was a lot of fun - it's not clear if I would've bothered to play through those games completely if it wasn't for the co-op. I did beat BioShock by myself, though.

Measuring Achievements

So, how can you evaluate whether you are getting the full value of your games? One way is to calculate how many hours you are spending on each game, and divide the cost by the number of hours, as I did in my earlier post. Not all games will take the same amount of time to enjoy fully, though. It's also a bit of a nuisance to try and track your game playing time down to the hour.

Xbox 360 games provide an alternate means of determining completion: achievements. Each game is (typically) worth a total of 1,000 achievement points, broken down into (typically) 50 or so goals. You can rate your completion percentage either in achievement points, or simply the number of achievements earned. Looking at some sample games, I believe measuring percentage in achievements is a closer measure of the game's completion - many games tend to stack up later achievements as being worth more points, to provide a juicier reward for earning them.

I tend to broadly group achievements into four categories:

Core Game: Core game achievements occur naturally as you progress through the game. You don't need to seek these out, you just need to move forward. Typically, there is an achievement for "beating" the game, however that is defined. There may be different sets of achievements for different difficulty levels of play.

Side Quests: Side quests are achievements for things off the beaten path. In Crackdown, you can get achievements for juggling cars with explosives, or performing a variety of optional stunts. These achievements are most effective when you know about them, so you have a goal to shoot for - they encourage you to explore the game more deeply, but can be ignored by people only looking for the core experience.

Online Play: Since Xbox Live is a big part of the 360 experience, many games have achievements that specifically relate to online play. This encourages people to get online and work with (or against) other players. People who do not have online accounts are often unhappy that these achievements are effectively unreachable for them.

Mad Skillz: Basic achievements that are rewarded for particular excellence in game play. These require mastery of the game in question, and will only be earned by dedicated players.

The above categories can be combined - for example, Online Play Mad Skillz achievements may require you to win 1,000 online matches.

Different games will combine these categories in different ways. For example, King Kong has very few achievements, all of which are earned simply by playing through the game. Geometry Wars effectively only has Mad Skillz achievements - despite many attempts, I still have failed to earn a single achievement in that game.

Side Quests can either be easy (perform a specific unusual but simple task), or almost impossible (collect all 300 orbs hidden across a city). Garnering points for the latter is a task only for the OCD gamer. YouTube videos can help track down some of these. For my money, extremely difficult side quests, like collecting all of a group of hidden items, work best in combination with some way to get clues about where the items are. For example, in earlier Spyro games, you would get clues late in the game to help you find secret gems. Without these clues, or an online guide, I have very little interest in completing such quests.

Proper use of achievements can increase the entertainment value of a game by providing clues on how to play the game. Not in the sense of "move this box, to reach a higher platform", but in the sense of "try exploring different combinations of weapons", or "try playing in cooperative mode". Badly designed achievements fail to encourage or reward the player appropriately - often because they are either too easy, or too hard.

In my estimation, achievements work best when you can get approximately half of them by completing the core game, with a reasonable number of basic side quests. An additional 25% can be alloted for online play, and the final 25% divide between trickier side quests and mad skillz. For the most part, I don't care if I get %100 of the achievements for a game, but I do like to get a reasonable reward for beating the basic parts of the game.

Next up, some more detailed examples.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Blogging About Blogging

In talking to a few people reading this blog, it appears my new update schedule may be generating a bit too much content. So, rather than shooting for my twice per day update schedule, I'll slow it down to once per day. If there's a second post, I'll try to keep it to something fairly terse, like this one.

As part of the ongoing blog overhaul, I've added a custom Google Search box to this site - this lets you easily find old posts or related posts if you are only interested in a specific subject. I've indexed my friend Richard's blog as well, since our topics often overlap. If you know of any other sympathetic blogs which might be useful in the custom search engine, let me know, and I'll consider adding it.

Old Spice Strikes Again

Just a week ago, I was posting about the Xbox Rewards program, wondering if there were going to be any more challenges. Well, it turns out that Old Spice, the sponsor of the original Xbox Rewards challenge, is indeed sponsoring more challenges - but not, apparently, through Microsoft.

Their new partner is 360Voice, the site which powers my Xbox's blog. You can read about the new Old Spice Experience Challenge on the 360Voice blog.

It's been in beta for awhile, but apparently the official launch is December 5th, the day after the Dashboard update. I may be a bit fuzzy on the details, but here's what it looks like to me: These are smaller challenges - one user will propose a challenge, and invite some of their friends to participate. The lowest tier requires 5 gamers, and the highest requires at least 20. The duration ranges from 7 to 30 days. Whomever wins within that group will receive actual prizes ranging from $20 gift certificates at the low end, to year long GameFly subscriptions and Xbox HD DVD Players at the high end (prizes sponsored, of course, by Old Spice).

In other words, this is more of a way to sponsor small scale events - sort of like what Wizards of the Coast does with Magic: The Gathering, where local stores are given prizes to run small tournaments, hoping to promote a community of fans. Here we've got that model opened up to a more virtual community, with an outside sponsor.

If you're interested in participating, leave a comment. Maybe we can have an official "Whicken's Blog" event.

Monday, December 03, 2007

BioShock - Video Game Design Review

This post will review the game BioShock, by 2K Games. It's available for both PC and Xbox 360, but I only played it on the Xbox. You can learn the gritty details on Wikipedia BioShock page, which includes an astounding 122 references. Suffice it to say, the game has received amazing reviews, and it deserves them.

What I'd like to focus on in this review are some of the design elements. I'll try to stay away from any major spoilers, but depending on how picky you are, one or two small things might slip - if you are concerned about this, stay away from this review until after you have played the game.

I'll divide this review into kudos and rants. Kudos describe aspects of the game that I like, and rants describe aspects I think could use improvement.


Style: The most outstanding aspect of BioShock for me has to be the overall presentation. The design of an underwater city with a retro theme is done just right, and the sound environment is nothing short of stunning - this is a game that demands to be listened to with the volume turned up. Little audio diaries with nice voice work fill in the back story as the game progresses, helping you experience life in this foreign environment.

Pacing: I prefer games with lots of variety - I like to keep getting exposed to new and interesting environments or game play elements, and I don't like getting hung up on overly complicated boss battles. BioShock provides a number of disturbing and interesting areas to explore - from power facilities, to research labs, to apartment buildings complete with bathrooms. For most battles in the game, you can die with almost no penalty, getting brought back to life in a convenient resurrection chamber. This lets you slowly whittle down any tough enemies even if you are low on resources. No doubt some people who prefer more challenging gameplay will dislike this feature, but it suits me fine. I want to see what happens next, not spend two hours trying to get the button press timings right to unlock the next area.

There are a few sub-features within BioShock - hacking machines to control them, or photographing enemies to research their weaknesses. In these cases, as you progress far enough in the game, the sub-features disappear right around the area where they might otherwise become boring. I think the hacking worked out about right for me, but I could have done without the last bit of completing my research. These items are optional, but I liked how they naturally faded away as a game element, instead of being forced on you to the end of the game.

Another clever trick involves the use of upgrades. There are effectively two different economic systems in the game - Cash and Adam. Cash can be used to buy ammunition and medical supplies, while Adam is only used to upgrade your character. I like this separation because there's no anxiety about having to save your money for character upgrades, or worrying about trade-offs between ammunition and upgrades. Similarly you have four separate areas of active genetic upgrades - these could have been combined into a single track, but the existing separation encourages players to explore the different areas of the game: Combat, Engineering, and Physical prowess.


The rants are fairly minor issues - by the time the game ended, though, I did come up with a few issues worth noting.

Money Cap: Limiting resources is one option to control game play and encourage exploration. For example, the different weapons have fixed ammunition limits. So when the Shotgun goes empty, you will tend to use a different weapon. If there were no caps, you might be inclined to stick with your favorite weapon. For the ammunition, this works ok. However, the money is arbitrarily stuck at $500 (especially arbitrary as the money uses four display digits, so it caps at "0500"). I suppose this is to prevent the game from becoming too easy, but it seems very artificial, and just annoyed me any time I hit that cap, as I hated leaving money lying around that I couldn't use. Another cap is on the number of parts you can collect to invent new items - the problem here is that the distribution seemed skewed somehow. I'd have tons of one item which I couldn't use without another item that was scarce. Then I couldn't pick up more of the abundant but unusable items - not a big deal, just a bit odd. Another minor nit (maybe I missed something) - when inventing items, you aren't shown how many you have in stock. So it's possible to invent items which you can't carry, wasting your supplies. Figuring out exactly how many more you need is a hassle, and pulls you out of the game.

Button Mappings: For the most part, the controls work fine. In two instances, they did not. The A button is used to both activate items, and to play audio recordings (by holding down the A button). So sometimes I would hold the A button to hear a diary, but instead an item would have popped into view and get used instead. Since some of the items have negative effects, or get consumed when you use them, this was annoying. Similarly the X button is used to both reload (which can consume your genetic resources), or to initiate hacking. While hacking security bots, the X action often toggles as things move around, and it's easy to get the wrong action to occur.

Dominant Strategies: This one's in the eye of the beholder more so than the others. A lot of the depth of the game lies in exploring the different genetic modifications. However, I didn't care as much about some of the options which seemed clearly inferior in terms of beating enemies than some of the core attacks. There was, to me, insufficient motivation to explore how all the different plasmids worked - I'd try them once or twice, and lose interest. This extends even to the later weapons, which I appreciated for variety, but didn't seem to have useful advantages over the early weapons.

User Interface: One very minor issue - at some points you can travel between areas using a public transportation system. Areas you haven't been to yet are left blank, as is the area you are currently in. This caused some confusion, as it wasn't apparent that's what it meant. It would be better to show the current area in gray, possible with some kind of "You Are Here" marker. This is supposed to be a public transportation system after all.

Downloadable Content

At the time of this review, there are 100 unreachable achievement points for BioShock. These were enabled about two weeks ago, which typically indicates upcoming DLC (downloadable content). Searching the web I found an interview with the game's creator, Ken Levine, discussing possibilities for DLC. Based on that, it sounds like the additions will focus on extra reasons to play the game a second or third time, rather than the usual standbys of new levels. I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with, although I expect it will be more along the lines of some of the extra features which I didn't fully engage with.

WishBox - Author's Notes

I hope you enjoyed the WishBox story. I would like to dedicate it to Frederik Pohl, science fiction writer extraordinaire.

Without overchewing my own story, there are a few points I'd like to make. First off, I hope this story makes you think. Consider it a thought experiment in economics and human psychology. Note that the full title includes the phrase "An Abundant Fable". I suppose a literary critic may take me to task for that, as this is not a "fable" in the traditional sense - there are no anthropomorphized animals, plants or objects. Perhaps the word I should have used was parable, which is used to categorize brief stories that illustrate moral lessons. That doesn't seem to fit quite right either - too preachy, and with a overstated sense of self importance. Perhaps I simply meant fantasy, not in the sense of hobbits and dragons, but in the "don't get hung up in the details, just go with the flow" sense.

Let's focus for just a minute on the word "abundant". Abundance in the story comes from the WishBox, which creates an environment of unlimited physical goods. In our modern world, we have many different kinds of abundance - as more of our economy turns to digital media, or intellectual "property", it turns out the WishBox is no mere fantasy, it's reality. Want a complete copy of Shakespeare's writings? Let me copy it to your memory stick.

This saga is playing out now. The writer's guild is striking because the ideas they created (the scripts and stories), are being endlessly copied and commercialized by businesses, and the writer's want their cut of that abundance. In other industries, people are still more accustomed to only getting paid for their immediate work - in the technology sector, it's common practice for inventors of patents (ideas), to sign those over to the company which hired them to perform the work of inventing. That abstract notion becomes non-physical property, which the company may then "resell" without limit, and without further compensation to the original creator.

Okay, enough of that digression - I expect virtual property is another topic I'll ramble about in the future. Let me finish this conclusion with one final observation related to abundance.

Back in paragraph two, I was discussing possible categories for my story. People like to make categories - they provide convenient labels for dealing with abundance. Sometimes, they don't quite fit, especially in creative fields, where people become aware of artificial categories and make conscious efforts to break them. In music, we have the genre system - again, convenient, but problematic in the details. If we are living in an age of intellectual abundance, how are we going to deal with it? Will corporations paint us into tiny boxes and tell us what content to consume? Will individuals be liberated to speak directly to their markets? If so, how will they find their market (i.e. how will their market find them)? And what kinds of economic models will allow this to happen? These are issues I hope to expand on in future posts.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Top Performers of Favorite Christmas Songs

As I mentioned earlier, a post I wrote for another blog last year is suddenly getting a lot of traffic, as people start searching the web for Christmas music. This post has the searchable title Top 100 Christmas Songs, and lists the most popular Christmas songs according to MusicDNS.

As a follow up, I now present the most popular versions of the top 10 Christmas songs. Who's performance of these classics has won the popular heart and mind? These numbers are based on how many people have these songs in their music collections, not radio play or record sales. Running some quick reports across a data export of MusicDNS, it looks like the answers are as follows:

1. Silent Night 145 artists

  • Mariah Carey
  • Sinéad O'Connor
  • Boyz II Men
  • Stevie Nicks
  • Nat King Cole

2. White Christmas 103 artists

  • Bing Crosby
  • Otis Redding
  • Elvis Presley
  • Dean Martin
  • Kenny G

3. The Christmas Song 104 artists

  • Dave Matthews
  • Nat King Cole
  • Vince Guaraldi
  • Christina Aguilera
  • Céline Dion

4. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas 79 artists

  • Frank Sinatra
  • The Pretenders
  • Kenny G
  • Luther Vandross
  • Christina Aguilera

5. Winter Wonderland 105 artists

  • Eurythmics
  • Bing Crosby
  • Peggy Lee
  • Jewel
  • Doris Day

6. Jingle Bells 87 artists

  • Diana Krall
  • Jim Reeves
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Techno Christmas
  • The Simpsons

7. O Holy Night 75 artists

  • Mariah Carey
  • Trans-Siberian Orchestra
  • Céline Dion
  • Nat King Cole
  • South Park

8. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town 66 artists

  • The Pointer Sisters
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Frank Sinatra / Cyndi Lauper
  • The Jackson Five
  • Perry Como

9. I'll Be Home For Christmas 64 artists

  • Nat King Cole / Bing Crosby / Frank Sinatra
  • Bing Crosby
  • Amy Grant
  • Kenny G
  • Doris Day

10. Silver Bells 58 artists

  • Kenny G
  • Jim Reeves
  • Dean Martin
  • Bing Crosby
  • Mannheim Steamroller

Those are some interesting names - many expected, others more surprising. If your favorite isn't listed, I'm sure they were up near the top, there are a lot of artists who get dropped in a top 5 format like this, including many excellent performances. Some of the unusual items include the South Park and Simpsons versions (likely popular downloads), and the Techno Christmas version of Jingle Bells.

For me, Christmas just isn't the same without Bing Crosby.

WishBox: An Abundant Fable in Five Parts (5 of 5)

New to the story? Start with part 1.

Part 5: What Went Wrong

It wasn't until I checked out of the hospital three days later, that I got the full explanation of what had put me there. The doctors were only concerned with keeping my senses healthy, protecting the consumers, as was their mandate.

Only with my vision full of friendly agents and full grid access restored did the pieces come together.

As corporate researchers focused their attention on the WishBoxes, seeking for means to control them or competitive edges in marketing them, a fuller understanding of the mechanics had uncovered a loophole. It seems certain quantum structures, so rare in nature as to be effectively nonexistent, could not be created by the WishBoxes. These theoretically uncopyable artifacts were dubbed distorted reality matrices. With enough effort and care, the matrices could be inserted into objects in sufficient quantity to create true one-of-a-kind items.

Once again, you could own something truly yours, in a way that would not shortly be duplicated to perfection. The attention price was high, as the market was kept short, both by businesses desperately seeking to maintain scarcity, and by the requirement, now so foreign, of bringing in manual labor to work on the distorted originals.

The downside, as their usually tends to be, is that distorted reality is, by its very unnature, an unstable phenomenon. Such consumer goods would tend to collapse in various ways over time, requiring their replacement. This only delighted the businesses more as this maintained scarcity, and the processes were altered to make objects even more unreal.

In my case, a particular unstable pair of designer sunglasses had exploded into my skull, putting me into a short-lived coma, leading to my regrettable stay in the logosphere.

As I lay back in my lounge chair and zipped back to my apartment, I brought up my WishBrowser, and started searching for a new pair of shades. Hopefully I'd have better luck with the next ones.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Xbox Fans Get An Early Christmas Present

As children eagerly wait for Christmas, anticipating unwrapping their presents, Xbox owners can look forward to Tuesday, December 4th.

On this day, Microsoft will deliver an update to the Xbox Dashboard. For those of you without an Xbox, Dashboard is the main user interface for interacting with your Xbox when you aren't playing games or watching movies. In fact, there's a lot of things you can do there, most of which are mentioned in a post entitled 360 406 Reasons to Love Xbox 360.

Here's my take on some of new features we know about so far. After I play with the update, I'll follow up on anything I might have gotten wrong.

Xbox Originals: This is a straightforward extension of the digital download market, but an excellent move - you will now be able to purchase games for the original Xbox as digital downloads. Not only is this a great (and cheap) way to enjoy some of the older titles you may have missed (pricing should run $15 per game), but this will also drive down the aftermarket prices for those games, which you will probably be able to pick up for about $10 if you'd rather have them on CD. This isn't particularly original - Wii already lets you download classic games from other systems, as does PS3 and PSP. But it's nice to see the trend growing. I'm particularly looking forward to Psychonauts, which I've been wanting to play for some time, but just hadn't gotten around to. Since these are full downloads, you may need to expand your hard disk space if you have a lot of content there - I picked up the extended 120 GB drive, so I'll be prepared (more money for Microsoft, since those drives are considerably marked up).

Xbox LIVE Arcade Hits: A rather indirect way of saying reduced prices on selected XBLA (Xbox LIVE Arcade) games. This is a digital analog to the Greatest Hits strategy used on all the consoles, where the most popular titles are released at a reduced price about a year after the main sales are done, to bring in extra revenue. I already have the titles getting this initial discount, but I applaud the price cuts in any case. Some of the cuts are being applied to some titles which have been considered over priced in the past (Billiards and Lumines) - those may be more market adjustments than a traditional greatest hits strategy, but whatever works.

Xbox Social: The Xbox is pushing a little bit into more social aspects. This includes minor tweaks like an enhanced online biography, and more visibility into other users' friends. Email was sent out about this a couple weeks ago, giving users a chance to opt-out before the system was turned on. It looks like nothing too ground shaking here, though - it's not like we have Facebook or Twitter integrated into the Xbox.

Enhanced Parental Controls: Here's a little item that may make some kids unhappy. Parents will now be able to impose time quotas for their Xbox - either per day, or per week. Unfortunately, this is a system-wide lock, and not a per user lock, so if you have multiple children, one of them can "use up" all the time alloted to the console, and leave the other kids with no play time (reminding me of the hungry philosophers problem in computer science). For me, this feature would primarily be useful for locking the Xbox while the kids are home alone, if they've been punished - otherwise, it's just a bit clunky. Or maybe using it to just give everyone a week off from playing games now and then. I can see some parents actually getting use out of this, though. As a parent, I'd probably rather see a feature to show me how many hours each day each user was on the system - this might help arbitrate disputes between the kids on whether the time is being shared fairly, without having to resort to any complex manual record keeping. (Note that one of my absolute favorite features on the Xbox 360 is the excellent user account system with individual passwords, which has been invaluable for avoiding the "You corrupted my file" arguments we get on the other systems. It's a shame they seem to have side-stepped that with this feature. I consider that a step backwards design wise.)

Finally, there's the usual pile of bigger, better, faster features, include updated navigation, better video codecs, and so forth. So, what feature are you most looking forward to? Leave your comments, and let me know.

WishBox: An Abundant Fable in Five Parts (4 of 5)

New to the story? Start with part 1.

Part 4: Are You Paying Attention?

Although there were some parties that would've prevented it if they could have, it didn't take long before the Dr. Barker's first WishBox was everywhere. After all, unlike the fickle genies of old, this one was perfectly happy granting a wish for another WishBox.

Overnight, shortages were a thing of the past. Most people couldn't understand the complex equations governing the use of the WishBox - without visible power sources, it could instantly replicate anything it already knew about. And every WishBox knew how to make itself, Dr. Barker had seen to that.

Without needing to work, society rapidly fractured into divisions of personality. The available supply of workers was reduced to those who found it a preferable alternative to the boredom of idleness. Scientists set about to using their new resources to innovate in a suddenly accelerated cycle of development, where the only scarcity was human labor.

And businesses struggled to redefine themselves in world where the old definition of profit had suddenly disappeared.

Still hungry for power, ingrained to old ways of marketing, the remaining businesses fought for abstract notions, like mind share and dynamically changing memes. Someone was needed to provide new templates for the WishBox, to satisfy a generation raised with a voracious appetite for the new. Each company wanted to be the provider of those new ideas.

When the public resisted, the companies moved into politics, forming the Sponsorship Party, with a platform of resources and legislating the one remaining limited resource - your attention. Fractions of a second, bought and sold in a nebulous relationship of reciprocal benefits. For a minute of focus on one company, you might be first on your block to wear the latest fashion. The pledge of allegiance was replaced with a national 30 second infomercial, informing children across the country of today's hottest new trends.

I pledge allegiance, to the brand...

Part 5