Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Because Life is Not a Movie or a Videogame

The Gulf Coast had the holy hell smacked out of it; lend a hand if you can.

Ding! Gratz!

They did it. World of Warcraft has booked more than 1 million paying North American subscribers. Worldwide, that's now 4 million plus for WoW.

In other words, beanbag chairs in the Blizzard offices are now stuffed with cash.

This milestone is exciting chiefly because it expands the market for MMOGs, instead of continuing the pre-WoW trend of dividing the same piece of gamer pie into thinner and thinner slices. World of Warcraft will be a whole new group of people's EverQuest, that first heady massively multiplayer online gaming experience.

Good, because most of us who played EverQuest or UO or Meridian 59 (and, peering back through the mists of time, text MUDs before that) have moved on more and more quickly from each new game. As Damion Schubert writes in a comment to a recent Zen of Design thread:
Most people I know played EQ for 2 years, SWG for 6 months, and WoW for 2 (or some similar pattern). Once you’ve levelled up a character on one game, it’s a lot easier to walk away from a ‘bag of experience’ on another.
It's pretty clear that WoW has the hottest bags at present, but I don't think anyone would disagree that their take on the genre is evolutionary not revolutionary.

Come to Me, My Pretty

Happy dance! Happy dance! I finally broke down and ordered a new gaming PC, since my previous 'chine's video card is circling the drain.

If I was smart, I would've ordered it to arrive before the Labor Day weekend, but I've been finishing a script and don't trust myself to ignore any new teh shiney.

(Also, I always need to be dragged into large purchases after much thought and research. I drove a '64 VW bug daily for over four years, including a 15 mile commute for two of those, before finally buying my current car.)

But my new rig is on its way now! I didn't go too nuts: 3.2 GHz P4, GeForce 6800 (v. unhappy with ATI and Radeon right now), 2 G RAM.

Bejeweled is gonna fly.


Sunday, August 28, 2005

Another Monkeywrench in the Turbine?

Gamespot posts that Turbine is closing down its Santa Monica outpost, the home of the original Asheron's Call. The staff are being offered jobs at the main office in Massachusetts, so it's unclear what's in the cards for AC.

With high-profile (and pricey licenses) Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online in development, this news and AC2's closing could indicate the studio's desire to direct resources to games that might bring a larger subscriber base than the < 40k and < 20k of AC and AC2 respectively.

I never played AC2, but had fun with AC and was impressed by a lot of their innovations: the fealty system, episodic content, a changing world, live events. 2000 was the year to be playing, and culminated in the famous Defense of the Shard, which people are still talking about. Here's hoping that LOTRO and D&DO include some of this good stuff.


For a little pillaging and plunder to wrap up your weekend, set sail with the Discovery Channel tonight. Tune in for "The Quest for Captain Kidd," "Real Pirate of the Caribbean: Captain Henry Morgan," and something called "Sunken Treasure Bling."

I love pirates. I loved pirates before they were cool. I've seen all the golden age pirate movies you've heard of and many you haven't. My favorite? AGAINST ALL FLAGS, an obscure but terrific Errol Flynn/Maureen O'Hara swashbuckler, with poor Anthony Quinn tarted up yet again in bronzer and bad Italian accent. I own both a VHS and a slightly sketchy DVD copy.

For a while, I subscribed to a pirate 'zine. I still get the email version. Yes, it has been that bad.

A play I wrote about pirates, rip-roaring (three swordfights!), heavily researched, and written with the Chieftains soundtrack to TREASURE ISLAND playing in the background, was produced before CUTTHROAT ISLAND poisoned the well. Huzzah to Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, Disney, et al for digging a new well, and for their somewhat counterintuitive wisdom of mixing earnestness, camp, and zombies.


Saturday, August 27, 2005

My Friends Are Not Only Imaginary, They're Trying to Sell Me Stuff

Yesterday's post rang up a site high of 10 comments in an hour-- all from adbots.

I don't know if spammers have spiders scraping Blogger's "recently updated" list, or that the word .s_e-x. fired up a jackpot klaxon in some dank basement somewhere. I suspect it's the latter, as the crickets and tumbleweeds have reappeared now that I've removed the offending word.

It's silly of me to get a little thrill when a comment appears, but it's pathetic to go read the comment and find out it was posted by a piece of software advertising ligitation funding. Or credit line counseling. Or "bench press tips." Or phentermine.

My imaginary friends are hucksters who think I'm financially irresponsible, possibly a felon, and fat. The bastards.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Friday Fish(ing Minigame)wrap*

A bunch of interesting MMOG newsbits today.

Asheron's Call 2 to Close

From the official site:
Closing Asheron's Call 2

Dear AC2 subscribers,

In spite of our hard work and the launch of Legions, AC2 has reached the point where it no longer makes sense to continue the service. We will be officially closing the Asheron's Call 2 service on 12/30/05. Until then, we plan to run live events, but we will not be adding any content or features.

We deeply appreciate the many dedicated fans of AC2 who have stood by us over the years. You have our sincerest gratitude.

Best regards,

Jeffrey Anderson
CEO, Turbine
I imagine WoW like a WWII-era B-52 bomber, its nose dotted with little stencils of sword-wielding elves, each representing a vanquished competitor.

SOE Makes Bank with Station Exchange

Sony's in-house real money auctions for EQ2 equipment and characters saw $180,000 in transactions during the service's first 30 days. SOE charges listing fees depending on what's being sold as well as a 10% transaction fee, so while they won't reveal how much they've made, they've raked in at least $18,000 so far. Small potatoes, maybe, but those potatoes are free, mac.

Toontown to Be Sold in Stores

Sony again, this time their publishing arm, signing Disney Online's Toontown for publication and distribution. Toontown's been available as a download since launch, but has not yet reached a very wide audience despite the failsafe Disney brand, savvy game design, and consumer-friendly low technical requirements. During a presentation at last year's Austin Game Conference, developers noted that many people in the mass market still are hesitant to buy software online, citing security and technical concerns. Plus, you can't give a download as a gift. A boxed product that comes with two months gameplay makes a lot of sense.

Game Rental Outfit Hunting Down Loose AO Copies of GTA: SA

Ok, so it's not an MMOG, but The Boyfriend and I are now part of the Hot Coffee kerfuffle! Quick, book us on Fox News for some poorly sourced commentary!

Dear The Boyfriend,
Our records show that you currently have Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas rented.

As you may know, the ESRB recently changed the rating of GTA: San Andreas from M (Mature) to AO (Adults Only).

Due to Take 2 Interactive's recall of this AO-rated version, GameFly is offering you two options for this title:

• You may place a Keep It order for $29.99*, and we will send you the case and instructions. Shipping and handling is free for members.


• Return the copy you currently have rented by September 9, 2005.

If you do not place a "Keep It" order, or we do not receive your rented copy by September 9, 2005, GameFly will charge you the "Keep It" price for the game.

An M-rated version of the game will be available soon. You may add this version to Your GameQ today, and we will ship it once it becomes available.

Thank You
GameFly Support
Just to be clear, we got the game before the scandal broke, not after. Ahem.

* With apologies to the late Herb Caen.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Sometimes You're the Snakes, Man, and Sometimes You're the Plane

I don't know if this is the The Triumph of Met Expectations Part II, or B My Valentine Part II, or both, but apparently there's a Samuel L. Jackson movie coming out next year entitled SNAKES ON A PLANE. Maybe. At least Sam thinks it is. And Sam strikes me as a cat who knows the titles of the goddamn movies he's in.

Snakes on a plane. Fantastic. What more do you need to say?

The more I learn about this movie, the more AWESOME!!! OMG!! it becomes. Here's the IMDb synopsis:
On board a flight over the Pacific Ocean, an assassin, bent on killing a passenger who's a witness in protective custody, lets loose a crate full of deadly snakes.

Suh-weet! One of those inefficient assassins who think a hermetically sealed tube, 35,000 feet up, that arrives and leaves from buildings with metal detectors and armed guards is a really swell place to off a target. Do we know why he or she decides a box o' snakes is the best way to fulfill a hit contract? Do we care? Did I mention that this movie has four credited writers?

Another fun fact: Sam is joined on his reptilian travels by Julianna Margulies, no stranger to at-least-you-know-what-you're-getting movies. GHOST SHIP was, as promised, a ship. Full of ghosts. And Gabriel Byrne.

Screenwriter Josh Friedman describes his personal run-in with the aforementioned airborne serpents on his new RSS-worthy blog, as well as the koan possibilities: "Snakes on a plane" as a 21st century "Shit happens" or "Whatcha gonna do?"

SNAKES ON A PLANE. 2006. I am so melonfarming* there.

* Best TV profanity overdub ever, bar none. Actually witnessed in its original form ("melonfarmer") by The Boyfriend, spoken by none other than Samuel L. Jackson, repeatedly, in a bowdlerized rendition of DIE HARD 3.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Who's On First

Over on Ink Slinger, Paul Guyot details taking notes from the network on his new pilot. The whole thing's worth a read, of course, but I was particularly struck by his take on one of Hemingway's famous (apocryphal? I've never been able to source it) adages on writing: The first draft of anything is shit.

Paul's point? "First" may not mean what you think it means.

Not the first completed draft (which also will suck, true), with its minor holes and nubby bits that don't work right, but the first solid draft. This may not make sense unless you've heard M. Night Shymalan's description of how it took something like five drafts of THE SIXTH SENSE to figure out that Bruce Willis' character was dead, and another several to get it right. He had five first drafts.

One of my feature scripts was finished, baked, soup-to-nuts done. Except that one core thread of the story involved a long-buried conspiracy, something that my readers, bless them, didn't find very interesting.

First draft.

Another script, likewise scrubbed pink and glowing and ready for school pictures, upon closer examination revealed an abrupt tone change halfway through. The movie at the script's end was not the movie at its start.

Another first draft.

This realization can be crushing, because unlike the smaller chores of catching typos and tweaking dialogue that characterize version 0.5 of a script, there's nothing to do in these cases but haul the patient into surgery and open the fucker up. Then, faced with entrails and tubes and panicked nurses, figure out how to repair what didn't seem broken.

That past conspiracy? Gone. Lots of hard rewrites, doubting my ability to reknit a sweater from all that loose yarn I'd pulled out. I centered the script on the present, found the right places to reference the past, and I'll be damned if a richer story didn't emerge.

It's not perfect, of course. But it's a second draft.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

B My Valentine

I so totally heart the Sci Fi Channel. Not only is that where bad sci-fi goes to die (and, in the case of Farscape and Firefly, where good but dead sci-fi lives on), they bring us movies called MANSQUITO.


How can you not watch a movie called that? Me, I'm not that strong. Actual line of dialogue from the movie:

He's... more mosquito than man by now...

With this, FRANKENFISH, and HAMMERHEAD: SHARK FRENZY, you'd think that DNA fun and games gone awry would be the sole bread and butter for these cinematic jewels, but if so, you'd be forgetting the shaking camera and falling drywall standby, the natural disaster.

TORNADO! -- exclamation point theirs -- with Bruce Campbell (EVIL DEAD). TIDAL WAVE: NO ESCAPE -- dire subtitle theirs -- with Corbin Bernsen (LA LAW). EPICENTER, with Jeff Fahey (LAWNMOWER MAN) and Traci Lords (uh, lots of porn. And CRY BABY). Wherever there's a plummeting styrofoam rock and the same three stuntmen getting tossed like quoits scene after scene, my channel is there. I watch, and swoon guiltily.

According to the IMDb, Corbin's also in something called RAGING SHARKS, which if it hasn't aired on Sci Fi, damn well better. Can. Not. Wait. It's got sharks! That rage!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

My Mom Is More Uber Than Your Mom

The family that plays together, stays together! Here's a gem of a post from the World of Warcraft forums:

Q u o t e:
ok i have a proposition for the horde, let us kill Korrak while you sit and watch. and well let you get all the honor youll ever want=}. no? ok well it shall be a great battle then, hope to see everyone there!


Pardon me for hijacking the thread, here..

But, Brion - if you don't want your mother to know you were up and on the computer at 3:29 in the morning - DON'T post on a forum that she reads.


Full thread begins here. Humor aside and provided it's not teh h0aXX0rz, I think it's great that this family is wreaking havoc in Azeroth together, same server, same guild.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Guided by Voices

One of my first produced plays was a coming-of-age piece that followed the friendship of three girls from age 5 through high school graduation, a sort of alpha/beta/gamma girl character study before those terms hit the pop consciousness.

The play dealt with serious stuff: the characters betray each other mean-girl style, take up with bad boys, and generally grow up and apart. Y'know, a drama.

Opening night, full house. Lights up, and you could knock me over with an Olsen twin.

Holy cats, I gaped, the audience is laughing. The good kind, too, laughter of recognition from the women in the audience, and so-that's-what-the-girls-were-on-about laughter of discovery from the guys.

Dang, I'd written a comedy.

Sort of. A bittersweet comedy, anyway ("sharply wistful" went one review). The audience loved the Wonder Woman lunchbox bit, the getting caught smoking scene. And these moments, instead of steamrolling over the darker sections, helped reinforce the drama of the play as a whole. Growing up, after all, is a mix of the funny and the tragic.

Learned a couple of key things here.

One: A little comedy helps any story.

Two: Get your work spoken in front of an audience to truly understand what you've written.

Just speaking the lines yourself, as you write? This will save you from the clunky phrase and inadvertent tongue twister, but you won't understand how the actors' back-and-forth flows, or, more importantly, what the audience will draw from it. Writing groups and classes are handy for this, since typically the participants take turns reading aloud each others' work, but getting actual actors to read your work is even better. These folks know how to take the words off the page, and your audience can give themselves over to listening and reacting rather than reading ahead or anticipating their own next line.

If you have warm bodies willing to read and others willing to listen, you'll be surprised at what you learn about your own script. Plus, for pure narcoti-- I mean motivational value, it's tough to beat.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Triumph of Met Expectations

Tired of tuning into TV movies and not knowing what you're in for? Titles like ARTIFICIAL LIES and VOICES FROM WITHIN just too oblique to commit two hours of your life to?

Try these, actual titles spotted on Lifetime during some guide-surfing this weekend:



A quick pass of their website turned up a few more:





BABY BROKERS (clearly an Issue of Interest to the Lifetime audience)

As an aside, aliens uncovering the ash-choked ruins of our civilization will, upon dusting off the scorched vault of Lifetime TV movies, draw the not unreasonable conclusion that the female of our species was all about murder, kidnapping, love affairs with wholly unsuitable people, mental illness, facing adversity with pluck, and occasionally buying or selling babies. We all also looked liked Gabrielle Carteris. Or, on a good day, Daphne Zuniga.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

"Theatre Is a Well-Lit Hell"

Fan of high-quality TV? Shakespearean theater geek past or present? Check out Slings and Arrows, a six-episode Canadian series airing this summer on the Sundance Channel.

Meet the asylum inmates of the New Burbage Festival: the former Hamlet whose insanity runs at full strength offstage as well as on; the Blanche Duboisy leading lady, a literal drama queen; the self-loathing old artistic director who's no less bitter now that he's, well, dead; a viperish (American) corporate sponsor; the malsocialized general manager who sees plays as just the noisy prelude to gift shop sales; winsome apprentices whose winsomeness doesn't mean they're above skipping call time for a Corny Smacks audition.

These people are nuts, but only about 10% more so than the real deal. I know. I've been one.

At its heart, Slings and Arrows is a workplace comedy (the GM is right out of The Office), but for workers who giggle knowingly when a stage manager mutters "35 to 65" into her headset as a director tries to get the lighting just so-- for an onstage funeral.

Finely acted, articulate, and touching, the show's nonetheless not above a sight gag involving a semi hauling Canada's Best Hams. It's funny for all audiences (the creators include a Kid in the Hall), not just those who know what the Equity Cot is.

I'm utterly charmed by the fact that a TV series, mini- or otherwise, about a Shakespearean theater festival can find mass market acceptance and recognition in Canada. Not something I'd imagine happening here in the States.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

FAQ Checker

Alex Epstein of Complications Ensue has a wealth of info about TV writing up on his site, and a book on the way.

Wonder what it's like to break a story in the writers' room? Where TV writing differs from feature writing? When to have your specs ready for staffing season? How threaded together the A, B, C stories should be? Look no further.

Archibald Leachapalooza

Today and tonight TCM features a trainload of classic Cary Grant movies, including NORTH BY NORTHWEST, TO CATCH A THIEF, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, and GUNGA DIN. Mix up a martini (2 oz. vodka and a short half-ounce of vermouth, shaken, is the house recipe Chez Fresh Hell) or three and check 'em out.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

"It's a Unix system!"

One game I'm playing now (more about it to come in a future post) features a puzzle where you clean up a fuzzy digital photo with a fake image enhancer. You fiddle with various sliders until the picture comes into focus.

Sound familiar? Yep, it's that hoary ol' technology chestnut of mysteries and procedurals, where the lead comes into the lab of the day player geek with a digital picture of the crime scene. The resulting convo goes like this:

Can you enhance this image?

Sure thing, boss.

Aaaaargh! Not possible. You can't
derive a high-resolution, sharp image
from a lower-res mass of blurred pixels.
The data simply isn't there!

(into radio)

Blowing up a blurry pixel gets you a bigger blurry pixel, not the killer's face or a license plate or an incriminating spangled pink thong. Someone decided once that this is something computers can do, and a slew of identically wrong scenes using this tired device were spawned.

Dramatic license is dandy, but works best when grounded in the plausible. Technical advisors with hard-science cred were brought on board MINORITY REPORT to consult on everything from the form factor of the cars to the amazing orchestra conductor physical interface of the Pre-Crime Unit's computer (and those same advisors went back to MIT and created a working version of that interface).

Research is fun! You learn nifty stuff, and it's procrastinating from writing that still feels productive. Did you know that you can make a battery from nickels, pennies, and paper towels soaked in salt water? How cool is that? I can't wait to use that somewhere.

JURASSIC PARK's classic computer moment, the "Unix" flythrough past 3D models marked "/var" and "/usr," is my fave mainstream culture technogaffe. What's yours?

Monday, August 08, 2005

Somewhere, the Editors of the OED Quietly Burst Into Flame

Richard Wade, founder of "freespeling," suggests that illiteracy can be combated most effectively if we just give up on standard spelling and let people spell words however they want, based the way they sound. Height becomes hite, business becomes biznis, and crackpot becomes krakpot.

I love that Wade trots out the rotting and presumably horrified corpses of no less than Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I to make his case.

The idea is so patently loodakris that I almost believe it's a hoax, except that if it is, both the BBC and assorted debunkers have been snowed.

Personally, I'm excited for the arrival of "freemath." 1 + 1 = llama, baby!

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Now Read This #2

Why I Hate Saturn by Kyle Baker

Vacationers in Mexico should make sure to see the neon, the giant video screens, and the mini-skirted blondes. I must've missed out on all that when I was in Mexico, but, fortunately, the designers of El Caliente restaurant did not.

So begins the 1990 graphic novel by author and illustrator Kyle Baker, who won two Eisner awards at this year's Comic-Con.

Toxic breakups, crap bars, an unfinished manuscript entitled "Man, That's Grapefruit," a loopy neat-freak sister with weird and dangerous secrets... New York writer (part time) and bitter neurotic (full time) Anne has a lot to deal with. Which brings us to the aforementioned Mexican restaurants, "the only place you can drink abusively with your meal and not look like a lush."

The writing's funny as hell and pointed without being arch, sneaking in social criticism among the jokes and cinematic action. Baker's artwork, effortless-seeming sketches in three colors, captures the story's moments both large and small with amazing economy and authenticity, from Anne in full rant mode to a skanky bus ride to San Francisco.

Never read a graphic novel? Think they're just comic books? As proclaimed by the sales pitch on Saturn's back, "Hey, nothing wrong with comic books. Comics are pretty hip right now. Musicians read them."

Friday, August 05, 2005

Tell Me What I Want, What I Really Really Want

A surfeit of bigsplashynoisy summer movies has left my brain feeling a little bloated and ill*, the way your stomach feels when you work late and have to eat dinner out of the vending machine.

So now that the Cheesy Poofs and Chocobombs have worn off, I want something else, something real. But what?

Yahoo! Movies Recommendations to the rescue.

I've been skeptical of these "You Might Like" tools, simply because I hadn't yet found one that could reconcile the fact that I like movies as disparate as HIS GIRL FRIDAY, DIE HARD, THE SOUTH PARK MOVIE, and DROWNING BY NUMBERS. Well, this one does.

Far better, for my money, than the systems behind Amazon and Netflix, this engine understands that while SHALLOW HAL and BRINGING UP BABY are both romantic comedies, they're very very different. Whether you align with critics, tend to seek out particular actors or directors, or only see movies with explosions in them, it knows.

The engine's not psychic: the more ratings you feed it the better the recs it returns. But I'm impressed at any algorithm that can tell I want to see both CRASH and THE WEDDING CRASHERS.

It also suggested THE EDUKATORS, ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, and MURDERBALL. Now, whether I act on those recs for a cinematic meal rather than another helping of summer movie SugarPretzelToes is another thing.

*I know I'm sick in the head because yes, that's a Spice Girls reference in the post's title.

Mental Jumper Cables

Push-start your Friday brain with Planarity, a simple but addictive Flash puzzle game.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Say Howdy to Microtransactions

Three Rings Design, the studio behind the pirate puzzle MMO Puzzle Pirates, have announced their new game, Bang! Howdy.

A Wild West-themed strategy MMO geared towards casual gamers is plenty compelling, but the thing I find most interesting about the new game is that the business model is based solely on the sale of in-game items.

This is huge business in Asia, particularly in Korea. The item sales revenue model is how half of the 30 most popular games in Korea's PC-bang game rooms make their money.

In the US, both There and Second Life, while still niche products, boast impressive stats on player purchase of virtual items for real money. Sony's Station Exchange brings ebaying in house with the company taking a cut, albeit to an audience of only a few hundred thousand. For console jockeys with cash to burn, Xbox 360 games will include microtransactions.

The booming ring-tone and cell phone wallpaper businesses indicate that charging small amounts of money for electronic trinkets works if you make it easy and make it about personalization.

Is the North American mass market ready for virtual item sales in their games? Three Rings is certainly bettin' on that hoss.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Cherchez la Scenariste

The HBO show Entourage is growing on me. I didn't like it much last season. The four main characters, womanizing jackasses, were not people I was interested in spending time with. Either I've mellowed or the show has: more time this season has been spent on their career and life choices, and while the characters are still womanizing jackasses they also seem callow and vulnerable, dare I say endearing.

Entourage has featured all manner of genus and species from the Hollywood food chain: actors, agents, managers, publicists, corporate publicists, producers, studio execs, hangers-on, assistants of all stripes, real estate agents, interior decorators, high-priced hookers, maitre d's, valets.

And no writers.

Scripts make an appearance, debated, touted, denigrated, or read at high speed zooming down Wilshire by Jeremy Piven's land shark Ari Gold, but not the people who put the words on the page.

This, I submit, is weird, even if some of the show's best moments were improvised ("Hug it out, bitch!"). Is the absence of writer characters an elaborate, bitter in-joke by the show's own writing staff? An inadvertent and ironic reality check? An intentional televised wedgie? You make the call.