Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On writing again, briefly

It's a new year. And so, I've determined it's time to make a conscious effort to write again.

I while back I realized I am not a particularly good writer. There are many reasons for this, but the big one is that I don't do nearly enough of it. I might expound on the smaller reasons later, but for now, this will do.

In order to improve, one needs to practice. And practice requires motivation. So, for 2013 I've decided to give myself a reason to write something every week.

As a coincidence, I've got another habit I've been failing to get into, which is playing all the video games I've accumulated over the years. According to the Lambent Stew Steam Analysis, I've only even played 48% of the games I've purchased. I've spent the majority of the past five years playing just 5-6 games - Team Fortress 2, Minecraft (which isn't tracked since it's not a Steam product but would probably rank #2 on the list if it were) Civ IV, The Binding of Isaac, Left 4 Dead 2 and Plants vs. Zombies. Over 50 percent of that time has been just TF2.

So, I've decided I'm going to sit down and start playing these games. And, I'm going to write about them. I made a handy Excel chart which lists all 181 games on my account (after deleting some DLCs, pre-orders and demos). Each Tuesday, I'm going to pick one using a random number generator and commit to playing that game for a minimum of two hours that week, then writing something about it the same week.

I have other things percolating I'd like to write about - business/workplace stuff, maybe a touch of politics and parenting. But I'm less confident in the credibility of any committment I might make to blogging on those subjects. Video games, on the other hand, are something I thoroughly enjoy while feeling like most video game writing out there is just awful, so why not?

The number generated for today is 91, which corresponds to Alan Wake on my list. I've downloaded it and will give it a run tonight.

Happy 2013. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Markets are a means, not an end.

This thread over at the League is pretty interesting and deeply involved in what I do every day. I'm still trying to come up with something to write about it, but I've found that eight years of writing e-mails all day to people who speak English as a second or third language has really, really eroded my writing skills. Well, it's honed certain writing skills while many others have atrophied.

The one think I know I want to say is: I'm over 'markets' as a virtue. 'Markets' are always thrown about like they're an end unto themselves. I'm certainly someone most people would describe as a 'free-marketer', but I every time I read people justify things with 'markets!' I wince. While I often agree with some/all of what they're saying, it also tries to justify things I don't agree with.
It was the comment thread above that let me put my finger on it.
What I realized is that what I really value is not markets. Markets are an artifice. What I value when I say things that are 'free-market' is not a 'market' - it's the process of voluntary exchange. Markets are vulnerable to all sorts of problems, at best we only have imperfect ones.

Maybe I'll try to develop this more. I'm sure I'm still light years behind the cool internet kids on this, but if this is conventional wisdom, it hasn't gotten around well enough.

Friday, October 14, 2011

On The Binding of Isaac

(note, this post contains major spoilers for the game starting about 1/3 of the way in, take my advice and play it first).

I’ve long contended that it’s wrong to try and view video games as art, that those who insist on it are misdirecting their passion for gaining popular acceptance for video games are ignoring the cultural importance of games themselves in favor of trying to make them into bad movies.

Now that’s not to say that they can’t be art at all, just that, mostly, they aren’t. The more they try to be art, the worse they generally are as games - most of my favorite gaming experiences over the past decade are in games that have mostly or entirely discarded the goal of being an interactive narrative at all – Team Fortress 2, Minecraft, Battlefield 1942, Civilization IV and Plants vs. Zombies to name a few.

Of course, there’s room for giant exceptions in this view. The Binding of Isaac sits right in the middle of that room and threatens to knock the walls out altogether.

Ostensibly a Rogue-like Zelda knockoff, I got the game thinking it would be worth an hour or two of novelty, and for $4.49 it’s not like I was risking the rent money. It turned out to be a lot more than that, it’s probably the most affecting game I’ve played in my life, its haunted me ever since I started playing. What’s more, I find it hard to stop playing.

In Isaac, the introductory scenes recount a modern version of the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. Isaac’s mother, a devout Christian, hears the voice of God command her to kill her unclean son as proof of her devotion. Isaac escapes through a trapdoor in his room and finds himself in the basement, surrounded by monsters and is forced to fight his way out.

The extra jab at those crazy fundie Christians aside, it all sounds pretty typical. Isaac goes from randomly generated room to randomly generated room, killing monsters, finding powerups and navigating his way through a maze. The whole thing is intended to look an awful lot like the Legend of Zelda.

As you play, however, it starts to become clear that there is a lot more going on than they first let on with poor Isaac. The enemies, which Isaac must dispatch with only his own tears, are cartoonish horrors that attack Isaac with flies, blood, feces, and urine. The rooms are littered with piles of excrement and fire. When Isaac picks up powerups, most of which are related to his mother (a bra, maxi-pad, shoes, lipstick), Christian/demonic imagery (a crown of thorns, an inverted cross, a rosary), or something unclean (piles of feces, dog food, a cat’s dismembered head) his appearance changes. Isaac himself grows more and more disturbing, perhaps no more so than if you find the Wooden Spoon, which increases his speed and covers his skin in small spoon-shaped welts.

In between levels, we see Isaac huddled on the floor shivering, his eyes closed with tears streaming down his face, surrounded by the grotesque monsters and small dream sequence of Isaac being humiliated, attacked or neglected as he falls deeper into the basement.

Now, before I get further, I should make a biographical note that I am the father of a two-year old. Some of my emotional reaction to this game comes squarely from dealing with a toddler who still occasionally wakes up crying in the middle of the night for no discernible reason. Several nights, I’ve had to pause the game to retrieve her from the crib and soothe her back to sleep, all the while that image burned in my mind of Isaac, naked, curled up and helpless before his demons. Though my daughter lives a life that is surely the envy of millions born to less fortuitous circumstances, I can’t help but transfer Isaac’s terror to her and cradler her even more closely. When I go back to the game, I see her tearful face, not Isaac’s.

(spoilers start here!)

It becomes clear that the conceit of The Binding of Isaac is not a modern re-telling of the biblical story at all. It’s the sad coping mechanism of an abused child. Beaten and terrorized by his mother, he retreats into his subconscious, where he confronts his fears and shame in the mode of the video games he finds as his solace, all infused with the perverted views of Christian theology held by his abuser.

Inevitably, the game leads to a confrontation with his mother, who calls his name throughout the battle, first sweetly, then menacingly, and then in a rage. The battle consists of her foot crashing down to crush Isaac, while from the locked doors on all sides, her eyes or nose poke in, sending monsters after Isaac. Occasionally, a hand bursts through a door to swat at Isaac.

When you defeat Mom, the game, of course, is not really over. When you play again, the game becomes longer. After you defeat Mom the second you continue deeper, into the womb (I never said the game was subtle) where the enemies get harder and health and powerups rarer. If you survive to the end you must destroy your Mom’s heart to win. But the game isn’t really over, still. You can keep playing over and over again, each time unlocking a new item and seeing a different, very short ending as Isaac joyfully pulls a relic from the chest that appears – some silly, some terrifying. I am still disturbed by the second complete playthrough where Isaac finds a noose, then hangs himself with it before we return again to the title screen for another attempt at the game.

At this point, I found myself conflicted. This game is definitely a work of art, but is it profound or merely exploitative? I found myself entranced by Isaac, but flummoxed for any possible meaning. Surely Florian Himsel and Edmund McMillen mean for us to take something from The Binding of Isaac, right? Yet, they’ve eschewed any outcome outside of despair, are they really making a work of art that posits abuse victims have nothing but pain and despair possible for them?

As a narrative frame, the game design itself integrates ingeniously into the narrative. The randomness of the world you explore, the frustration at not finding enough bombs, or not having a key or enough coins when you need them, the way fewer and fewer hearts drop as you get closer to the end, all work along the theme of powerlessness (and make the game a lot harder!). The presence of fire and blood and shit everywhere reflect the shames and fears of a small child, no more so in the way Isaac wets the floor when entering a room with low health. Most importantly he becomes more grotesque himself with each item pickup –becoming a monster himself.

But what’s the takeaway, what are we supposed to get from playing The Binding of Isaac, other than that being abused is pretty shitty?

It seems likely (and I’m not that far yet), that with the 10th successful playthrough, another final villain will be unveiled yet. I’ve tried to decide what I expect to happen there. Will the final boss be another incarnation of Isaac’s mother? His apparently absent father? Himself? Will Isaac escape or is he doomed forever to his nightmares? How the game resolves itself will go a long way for me to decide if the game is good art or bad art, but for certain, it’s a moving piece of interactive art that puts the vast majority of big narrative games to shame.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I guess I am jumping on the bandwagon here, but for some reason today I could not stop thinking about how blindingly obvious it is that OnLive is perhaps the least-likely-to-succeed gaming technology idea I have ever seen.

The idea of how the subscription business model would have to work has occupied my brain all day. Like anyone who has ever played a video game over the Internet, I am highly skeptical of it as a technology. I see I don't need to talk about that because Eurogamer eviscerated it already. I am a little late to the party on questioning it's bandwidth assumptions, TheGameReviews also did that already (though I would have a lot more nuanced argument that I may make later).

What I question, is assuming they've magically programmed these two concerns away (and iuf they did, why on earth they're selling a video game equivalent to DiVx instead of making bajillions of dollars selling the technologies to, say Microsoft or Google is unfathomable), what must their pricing model be in order to profit, and is that level sustainable in the marketplace?

I thought about it, and came up with a simple-ish equation:


In this equation:
F= the monthly fees, aside from game purchases.
M = the cost of one hardware machine they need to run a game for one user
r = the ratio of machines to users required, expressed as a decimal.
Θ = the expected lifespan of one of the machines
C = colocation costs per Machine per month

Roughly, let's estimate the numbers as follows in what I assume to be fairly conservative numbers:
M = $1000
r = 0.25 (meaning one machine for every four paying subscribers)
Θ = 18 months
C = $22 (or the equivalent of $700 for a 16-slot rack running 32 CPUs at a fairly inexpensive co-lo facility with enough bandwidth to serve)
That leads us to a monthly subscription cost of at-least $36 to break even on operations. It doesn't service debt, it doesn't pay for marketing, doesn't pay back development costs or the investors much less pay management and overhead.

If I go crazy low I could change the variables to $800, 0.1, 24 and $18, that still puts you at $22/month break-even on operations and assumes they'll have exactly the right facility/hardware spending in place to service their customers.

My high end guess would be $2000, 0.4, 15 and $30, leaving a break even price of $83/month.

Now, maybe their service, despite the aforementioned technological problems, is pretty darned good. What I say, is a new XBox 360 Pro and 2 years of Live! service costs $400, or $16/month, there's no way anyone will pay for OnLive if the cost is much more than that, I don't see how it's possible, I think it's more likely the cost will be at least double that.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Creation and Mission Statement

Hi, welcome to PlinkoBlog.
I am starting my own blog again because I want to start writing again. I used to blog regularly years ago but it fell pretty deeply in to what many of the blogerati would deride as wankery. I intend to not repeat that mistake here.

First and foremost, I am going to do this anonymously. I work for a publicly traded corporation and I may have things to say about my industry at times. Let me say that I live in a small city in a Southern U.S. state. I am married with our first child on the way. I graduated from a large, well-regarded public university in the midwest. I am a liberal and an agnostic. I harbor no illusions about being read regularly much less ever making this a full-time occupation. Take that for what you will about seriousness or committment.

I have a few areas of interest I will try to focus on because they are of interest to me. I don't feel it's worthwhile to make inane declarations on subjects I do not understand. My main subjects (and their reasonings) will likely be:

Newspapers/Publishing/Media (I once worked in this industry and still have financial ties to it)
Secular/Sacred Society and Political Tensions
Imprt Trade, especially Apparel/Garments (this is my field)
Social Programs and Progressive Politics (my wife is a social worker, so it's often discussed at home)
Adoption (I am)
Gaming, Geekery (my main hobby)
Business, Economics (another interest)

Yeah, it'sa mish-mash, but so is every other interesting blog.