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On Qwikster and Tone Deaf Moves [Mr.D/FB/IB]
Sep 19th, 2011 by Dan

Netflix

Missed Opportunities (Image courtesy hapa boy on Flickr)

I understand the reasons for Netflix spinning off its DVD business as a discrete and separate entity. They recognize a sinking ship when they see one and, theoretically, this would enable them to eliminate tons of overhead (buildings, postage, the employees who check and stuff discs, etc.) increasing their profit margin for the foreseeable future. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the massive overhead reduction results in a huge profit in the next quarter.

I get it. There’s just a better way to do it.

Remember, in the current news/media environment, what’s most important is what happens directly surrounding an event. This increased revenue will surely allow Netflix to do new, better things with its money, but consumers are not seeing the benefit right now. They’re only seeing inconvenience. We now have two queues to manage, two websites that have our personal/financial data, and, most importantly, two discrete entities handling what used to be one integrated experience. The sum inconvenience might not be all that bad, but it will be blown up because Netflix did nothing to make themselves simultaneously better (in public perception).

Consider these two scenarios:

1. Netflix announces the Qwikster split and simultaneously announce a major content coup. Maybe they have concurrent releases of a network’s lineup this season. Maybe they made a deal with a major network to score their entire back catalog or they’ve got a movie studio’s releases. This distracts consumers from what they’re losing by showing them what they’re getting.

2. Netflix announces that they’d like to pass some of the savings along to you and drops its streaming cost by $1 per month or something. It represents a loss of $12 per customer, but if the DVD shipping business was costing them more than $12 per customer, they wouldn’t have tried to wring $96 per year out of us by splitting the plans.

Either of those would do amazing things for Netflix’s public perception. Instead we see them as inconveniencing us while simultaneously increasing the perceived value of Qwikster, the service they see as dead in the water, by adding a new feature: video game rentals.

It reeks of desperation and tone deafness and I can’t believe that ostensibly smart people have made such a stupid decision. Of course, they could be counting on people forgetting that this is a big deal in a month’s time and hope that subscriptions will climb, but I don’t foresee them picking up the customers they lost with this move.

You’ve made some odd decisions, Netflix. Let’s see what America does now.

Google+ [Mr.D]
Jul 1st, 2011 by Dan

So I got in on Google + thanks to Julie Geng. More to come as I form an opinion.

Google Music Beta [F/MD]
Jun 16th, 2011 by Dan

I got into the Google Music Beta! More info as I figure more out, but so far it seems great. My music is being uploaded to the cloud as we speak and I’ve been able to listen to it on my phone wherever I have a signal. It’s nice to have such a mobile library!

Amicitia sans oris [Mr. Digital]
Jan 7th, 2010 by Dan

Last month I found myself worrying about a friend of mine who was going through a tough time. Kim had just lost a friend and was headed to Louisiana for the funeral, so I wouldn’t be hearing from her for a week. I told her I was sorry and that I was there for her and then she left. Funny thing is, I’ve never met Kim. I only know her because I love to play Left 4 Dead. I’ve never even seen a picture of what she looks like and I’m only 98% sure that Kim is even her name. With all those layers of abstraction, you’d think it would be difficult for me to call her a friend, but I’ve come to realize that there can be value in the tenuous, ephemeral online friendship, so long as it doesn’t replace the ones you have in your physical life.

The first friend I ever had who I never met was back when I was about twelve. My family had moved back to Florida a year prior and I had finally overcome the intense social barriers of being the new kid and starting a new level of school at the same time. The circle of friends I had developed was, oddly enough, composed almost entirely of people who used to torment me at every turn the year prior. One of those friends, Josh, had an elementary school friend who had moved away to Connecticut right before middle school started. I don’t remember the circumstances behind it, but I somehow because friends with Abbe (that was her name) through an e-mail chain and eventually started chatting with her on a regular basis.

It wasn’t the great friendship that defined my life and I don’t think I’ve talked with her since I was 14, but for someone who I’d never actually met in the flesh, we had a pretty decent friendship. She and a friend called my house and we talked on the phone once or twice (she told me once my voice was sexy (for a 13-year-old)), but beyond that most of our conversations took place over AOL Instant Messenger. I don’t remember much about what we talked about, aside from a particularly strange health teacher she had, but I do know that she was an interesting friend in my life who I’m surprised I’ve never forgotten, considering I have no idea what she looks like anymore (I saw a picture once).

I don’t think I made any strictly online friends again until I was 20 during my junior year at Cornell. At the encouragement of my friend Chris, I started playing World of Warcraft again (I had quit the year before the first time Ashley broke up with me) on his server with the intention of hanging out with him and his roommate in-game. My character, Torvalds (named after the Master of Penguins himself), was able to power level up to level 60 during my fall semester and start attempting to join guilds not long after. I eventually managed to make my way into my guild of choice, Revelation (which, sadly, no longer exists on Cenarion Circle), and started working working on the last bit of endgame content before the expansion pack, slowly building up a group of friends on the way.

After winter break, the expansion pack came out and, as one of the junior warlocks in the guild, I was assigned to the B team, which also happened to be the West Coast team. Thanks to my luck, this meant that I was raiding Karazhan twice a week starting at 2300 and going to 0300 the next morning on days when I had an 0800 class. Needless to say, I missed a lot of class that semester (and my grades suffered from it), but the crummy conditions and B-Team status combined to form a strong sense of camaraderie. We used to get yelled at for not completing the dungeon fast enough, but that’s probably because most of our nights were filled with laughter and jokes instead of serious boss planning as we cleared our way up to our weekly boss wall.

Whenever I think about going back to WoW, it’s because of these guys: Moonsbreath, a school nurse from California by day and a Tauren Resto Shaman by night, Samuwen, our Orc Hunter team leader and a copy store employee by day, and Emil, our Undead Warrior tank whose profession I did not know, but whose infant child often made nightly cameos during our raids. On nights when we were mixed in with the entire guild, you could bet that we’d still be joking around with each other either over Ventrilo (we were easily the most talkative bunch outside of the guild leader) or through the in-game whisper system. The night that our guild leader, Athen, disbanded the guild to leave WoW was a devastating blow to everyone. We all tried to hold it together for a few nights, but the loss of direction caused our merry band to disperse to the winds. More than one of us quit the game, myself included, which spelled the end for our friendships since none of us knew each other in real life.

When thinking about these virtual friendships, it becomes clear that the worst part about them are their delicate, ephemeral nature. Their very existence often relies on the medium within which they are created. Just like that, our guild disbanded and I lost three cool in-game friends. When I returned to WoW for a month or two last year, some of these guys were still around, but the construct which formed our relationship was gone and it just wasn’t the same.

When I met Kim I thought it was actually going to be kind of different. My roommate, Darek, and I liked to play Left 4 Dead online with an old friend of his from university named Eric. One day Eric invited Darek and I to join a game that Kim was in. Her general friendliness with Eric and Darek, both of whom seemed to know Kim, made me assume that she was also a former classmate. Since she was associated with real people I knew, that made her a more “real” friend than the other ones I had made online. I later found out (nearly a year later) that Kim randomly met Eric playing a different zombie video game and that they’d been playing together since.

I wouldn’t say that Kim and I were best friends or anything, but we’ve got enough of a rapport that people who play with us for the first time assume that we actually know each other in real life. We both know what the other does for a living, but beyond that, I’d say that the only two things we know about each other are our personalities and how good we are at Left 4 Dead.

Thanks to the more robust communication tools available through Steam, I don’t worry so much about losing touch with Kim if I were to stop playing Left 4 Dead, but it does worry me that, should she decide to quit games forever, I’d probably never talk to Kim again. That’s where the other boundary with online friends rears its ugly head again. I don’t even know her name, so I couldn’t just friend her on Facebook. If I were to visit Texas (where she lives) would it be normal to hang out with her?

It’s clear that the world of online, anonymous communication can be socially interesting and rewarding, but it’s also full of strange perils and confusing social conventions that seem like they could be just as paralyzingly complex to the socially inept. The lack of real life contact is perhaps the most pressing issue with online friendships. Sure, I can hear the voices of all my friends thanks to fast, cheap VoIP, but with no real way of contacting each other, we could, I dunno, die, and no one would be the wiser. We’d just assume that the other person left our online space for greener pastures.

That’s no way to have real, lasting relationships, in my book, but as the relationships with my former classmates become increasingly digital due to distance, it’s becoming clear to me that many of my relationships are facilitated primarily through 1’s and 0’s, not any kind of human contact. It’s mostly thanks to her job that I find myself seeing Kai so often, but 75% of our interaction comes from blogs, tumblr, and twitter. Some of my other friends, like Lee, Yin, and Duffy, I see far less often and talk to only through gchat. I’m kind of losing my way here with respect to any point I might have, but suffice it to say that I’m infinitely glad that technology has allowed me to make and keep all of these friendships.

Game Overview: 16-Bit Runner-Ups Part 2: RPG Edition
Jun 10th, 2008 by Dan

Back on Saturday we took a look at two excellent games that didn’t quite make the cut. Today, we examine another three, all of them the superb 16-bit RPGs.

You know the drill by now about the “Table of Honor” and whatnot, so let’s just get down to the clue and game:

This first game I want to examine jumps out at you from the world of platforming. You might doubt his ability to manage, but once he jumps, you’re filled with utmost confidence. Yeah, it’s Mario’s RPG debut, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.

Runner-up: Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

For some crazy reason, nobody in the Mushroom Kingdom will believe that you are Mario. You’re probably the most famous savior of the land, but it’s not your dashing mustache or your red overalls that will prove your identity, it’s your trademark jump. This running gag is probably my absolute favorite part about SMRPG. No matter what part of the world you’re in, someone will inevitably ask if you are really the plumber. The dialog will pause, you will be unable to do anything else until you finally push the jump button and prove your identity.

The rest of the game is full of comparable humor and character that exude from every pore. Dialog makes sense and is pretty slick, the story is actually not that bad for what you’d expect it to be, and, most importantly, that trademark tight gameplay that Squaresoft has always been known for makes for a great battle system and actually meshes pretty well with Mario’s more typical platforming roots. Battle returned to the more traditional turn-based type affair, but now your special attacks were powered up by timed button presses or other similar tests of button-pressing acumen. This system was so slick and exciting that every subsequent Mario RPG (sadly none of them Squaresoft created) and even the new Penny Arcade Adventures has got timed button presses for defense and interesting special attacks.

I’m sure that many were skeptical about SMRPG’s ability to be a valid, entertaining game when it was announced. Just adding a big-name RPG developer to a franchise character does not make everyone believe it will rock (just look at Sonic Chronicles, no one thinks it will succeed). That SMRPG is able to succeed on all fronts and still be one of the better RPGs on the console is a testament to the talent of old-school Squaresoft. What a great game…

I just can’t resist throwing in yet another video game commercial for this game. This one’s quite bizarre…

This next game was published in America by a company whose motto is “Serious Fun,” but it’s not the farming sim/RPG that you might be thinking of. The main character fights very sinister beings in order to save the world in this one. This one’s a bit tougher, but it’s Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals.

Runner-up Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

This one might fall a bit outside of most of your game radars. It’s not A-list like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, not even B-list like Breath of Fire or the Secret of series (you can bitch and moan all you want about this, but you’ll never convince me that the Seiken Densetsu series is anything more than B-list). Lufia is a pretty firm C-list series, with regards to RPG popularity. There were two SNES games games and one gbc game in the series canon, with another gbc gaiden. That’s it, that’s the entire series. To be fair, it was mostly concluded with the GBC game, but I feel that they did leave it slightly open-ended.

Gameplay isn’t that special, it’s your typical RPG with turn-based battles. There was one notable battle mechanic in the capsule monsters that you could capture and have fight on your team. These monsters were computer controlled and could be leveled up and evolved by feeding them weapons and armor. The interesting thing is that this idea came about a full year before Pok√©mon was released. Pretty cool if you ask me.

What does make this game stand out and what earns it a spot on this list was its story. As a prequel in a time before prequels were cool (this was way back in Japan in 1995), Lufia II picked up the story before the events of Lufia & the Fortress of Doom (a game I never played). You were Maxim and, like most RPGs, you are told by a mysterious figure (a woman named Iris in this case) that you are destined to save the world. You head out to solve a monster problem for your village with your childhood friend Tia (you reluctantly bring her along) and from there you bounce from town to town solving problems and adding the brutally strong Guy to your party. Iris saves your life after you learn about the Sinistrals and you go on to add another party member, the female soldier Selan, before you finally learn the identity of the first Sinistral, Gades, after he brutally destroys an entire town.

Excited yet? Your party certainly is. They set off to confront Gades and make him pay for what he’s done. He responds by soundly kicking your ass. In yet another video game “oh shit, I hope I was supposed to die” moments, you are revived by Iris who revives the party and tells everyone but Tia that they are meant to confront this evil light with Maxim. Another dude, Dekar, joins the party and Maxim, Guy, and Dekar head out to kill Gades after learning from a lieutenant of the Sinistrals, Idura, that Gades plans on sinking an entire island. This time Maxim manages to kill Gades, but he still manages to activate the machine after all. Maxim heroically gets to the machine on his own, but deactivating it mostly kills him in the process. Iris teleports in, decides to be useful, and saves Maxim.

In the aftermath of this event, we are treated to a touching cutscene where Ti– no, wait, Selan (?) confesses her love for Maxim. I still remember this plot point coming straight from left field. You mean to tell me that Tia, who’s been hitting on you this whole game, isn’t gonna end up with Maxim? As a player, I didn’t mind, since Tia was annoying and Selan was arguably hotter (in that 16-bit way), but still, it really messed with me to see the developers not take the easy road, and I respect them for it. Tia honorably realizes she’s not gonna win Maxim’s love, tells Dekar that she loves Maxim the man, not Maxim the warrior, and sets off to find a man as good as Maxim to marry. That’s seriously the last you see of a character you’ve spent hours developing. The game sort of “ends” here as Maxim and Selan are married, buy a little house, and have a kid.

If you couldn’t guess by now, I’m a fan of these drastic world- or game-changing events in a video game. Be it the loss of Naked Snake’s right eye in MGS3 and how it affects first-person view from then on or something like the World of Ruin, these huge, irreversible events never cease to amaze me (I guess, if Iabsolutely have to I’ll admit that Aeris’ death is kind of cool in that way, but it never really had the same emotional impact on me as any of these other ones). Here I am, yet again thinking that I beat the game, and then Idura kidnaps your son and you’re forced to take up arms again. Iris comes in and claims that it was Maxim’s fate to die after the battle with Gades, but her actions have changed the future. As the gamer, you don’t yet know that these are lies. Heck, you don’t even know the huge twist yet at all (maybe you might if you had played the first game, but I certainly didn’t).

You do more quest-y stuff, Dekar dies after you kill Idura, and eventually you get to the final confrontation with the Sinistrals which is, not coincidentally, precisely the way that Lufia & the Fortress of Doom opens, which means that you fight the Sinistrals and kill three of the four. While trying to escape, only Guy and the elf Artea (he joined you in the second half) make it out alive. Maxim and Selan die, but are forever remembered as the heroes who vanquished the Sinistrals. It also turns out that this whole time your “helper” Iris was the Sinistral Erim. Erim is unique in that so long as she lives, the Sinistrals can be continually reincarnated. Also unique about her is her ability to take on human form, which some fans speculate is a result of the Sinistral Daos testing humanity. The real twist here is that Iris/Erim is later reincarnated as one of the main characters in the first Lufia game. By the way, you’re probably wondering why this game is even called Lufia if there are no characters named Lufia anywhere in the game. I can see your brains connecting the dots. Lufia is Erim and she is a character who fits a similar role to Tia in the first Lufia game to one of Maxim’s descendants. She didn’t change history by allowing Maxim to continue his bloodline, for Maxim and his descendants were always meant to counter and eventually defeat the Sinistrals. Erim makes one final appearance as a party member in the third Lufia game, as she gathers up yet another of the bloodline of Maxim and a crew of strong warriors. She builds them up this final time to destroy the Sinistral menace forever. Erim had tired of life as the Sinistral of Death and wanted her life to finally end.

I should also mention that Lufia II had a pretty solid puzzle and monster mechanic. Monsters appeared on the field and got to move every time you moved. There were also some pretty neat and difficult puzzles for the player to solve as he made his way through the many dungeons. I distinctly remember some of these being so tough (this is good!) that I had to consult old issues of Nintendo Power to figure out how to progress.

There you have it, a fairly convoluted plot and a game that’s ultimately average in its battle execution. Still, I can’t help but love Lufia II for it’s creative puzzles and that zany story. Prequels were still a pretty new concept to me back then when I played it and knowing what was to happen to Maxim and Selan made for some interesting, if fatalistic gameplay as I watched the drama unfold. There’s something cool about playing a game that fits into a pre-determined timeline. It’s both futile and awesome to fill in the details of a future you know will one day occur. I’d like to see more games try this with their storylines. Have a sage/oracle-type character tell you that completing the game will lead to your death. It could be fourth-wall or even within the game itself. Watching the main character grapple with what he knows to be the greater good at the expense of the personal good leads to good drama. They did it in FF VI with Terra, but the devs didn’t have what it took to let her die and not have a happy ending. That may be a good thing anyway, since I’m one of the few people who can be satisfied with an unhappy or unfair ending.

The Japanese commercial for this game is pretty lame, so here’s something that a fan put together for the 11-year anniversary of the game:

Yeah, the video’s not that cool, but it gives you a taste of what the game looked and played like. If you ever get a chance to play this game, I do recommend it. It’s well worth your time.

Our last game of the day had a mother of a time even getting released in America. To this day, the first and third game of this series have still never seen the light of American day. If you’re a fan of the Runaway Five, you also already know that I’m talking about EarthBound.

Runner-up: EarthBound

The brilliance of EarthBound lies not in its genre, but more in the originality and character that it brings to an already tired formula. How many sword and sorcery-themed RPGs does the video game market really need? (Answer: Don’t be stupid, sword and sorcery-themed RPGs rock!) Still, it’s refreshing to see an RPG take place in a modern setting like the country of Eagleland (a not-so-veiled reference to the USA). It’s hilarious to see that your weapons consist of baseball bats, yo-yos, and bottle rockets.

The story centers around Ness, a boy of tremendous psychic power who is tasked by a bee from the future named Buzz Buzz to destroy the evil force known as Giygas. Ness sets out from his hometown, Onett, and encounters and recruits Paula, Jeff, and Poo to save the planet. Along the way, they fight cultists, zombies, dogs, ninjas, bails out the Runaway Five twice, and eventually have their souls transferred into a robotic body to enable them to travel in time to fight Giygas. It’s strange, but in a quirky way. Even the final boss isn’t your typical encounter. You defeat the mighty Giygas by repeatedly praying, eventually getting the entire planet to unite and defeat Giygas in a Dragon Ball spirit bomb-type fashion.

EarthBound makes this list (just barely) because of the character that it exudes from every pore. Destroying the Happy-Happy cult is still one of my favorite situations in a video game mainly because of how bizarre it really is. Another plus for EarthBound is that it’s really hard. The game definitely doesn’t pull any punches with its difficulty.

Unfortunately for us US EarthBound fans, the series didn’t sell all to well when it first came out for the SNES. As a result, Nintendo decided not to release the sequel, Mother 3 (EarthBound = Mother 2), stateside citing poor sales of EarthBound. No matter how many fan campaigns Starman.net tries to put together to bring Mother 3 to North America, Nintendo continuously refuses to release. Interestingly enough, the Nintendo of America guys actually love the Starman dudes, which I think is what has allowed the Starmen to still have a Mother 3 fansub in production without a cease-and-desist order being issued.

Many fans speculate that EarthBound’s upcoming release on the Virtual Console (it was rated by the ESRB => it will be coming out) will be a barometer to test the validity of releasing Mother 3 in Eagleland. You can bet that the day this game comes out anyone, and I do literally mean anyone, who is on my Wii friends list will receive a gift of EarthBound for the SNES unless they tell me they’re planning on buying it already. I just want to drum up sales because I’d love to see Mother 3 hit our shores.

Yet another Japanese commercial that doesn’t make too much sense. Enjoy!

With that, we’re almost done with our 16-bit all-stars. Just one more entry on Thursday to finish these guys off.

Mr. Digital: Missed Opportunities: Delicious Library
Jun 3rd, 2008 by Dan

So I see this link on a Penny Arcade rant to some piece of software called Delicious Library has released version two. The name is intriguing, so I head over and see a program that actually looks pretty sick.

You see, you can document your media library just by scanning the barcode using your webcam. How cool is that? For someone like me, software like that is about as close to guaranteeing that you’ll be able to earn $40 from at least one person. I’m pumped! Then I look at a screenshot of the software and think “Hmm…this looks rather like it’s a screenshot running in OS X. Uh oh.”

A quick foray into the Help Page confirms my fear: only for the Macintosh. Not even Linux gets to have the program. How disappointing. I would have been happily scanning my software, book, and movie library in a month’s time, but now I can’t do it at all. Damn you Mac enthusiasts for thinking you have a real operating system. Seriously guys, your market share is too low to be idiotic and only develop for the OS X, but then again, that’s probably why your product costs $40

Mr. Digital: iPod Touch
Apr 17th, 2008 by Dan

So my iPod Video decided that my right ear was incidental, so it stopped transmitting sound to my right headphone, unless I applied pressure is some sort of arcane, randomly determined direction at all times. Lucky for me, since I got it pre-owned off of eBay, I put a SquareTrade warranty on it, so they will cut me a check to replace my old iPod.

With said money being more than half the cost of an iPod Touch, I forked over the cash to pick up a brand-spanking new iPod touch. Let me just say that it is awesome. Here’s the Pro/Con breakdown

Pros

-Sleek, small, sexy
-Flash memory instead of a hard drive
-Connects to the internet through 802.11
-Touch screen interface is totally intuitive and works well
-If you do Jailbreak your iPod Touch, you can update in Amarok via 802.11 and scrobble while listening and a connection is present. Otherwise, scrobble data is stored and uploaded when network resources do become available
-Tons of neat little things you can do with it, especially if you Jailbreak it

Cons

-POOR LINUX COMPATIBILITY (when not Jailbreak-ed)
-Hard to impossible to adjust volume and skip tracks without seeing screen
-Unless you have magically oil-less fingers, you will smudge the glass screen to all hell
-Apple SDK is not out yet, so you have to Jailbreak the iPod for now to download third party software and interface with Linux

I don’t know if it’s too subtle, but my main gripe is said lack of Linux support at the moment. God knows Apple’s never going to waste its time adding Linux support to their product just to appease a computing minority, but why do they have to radically change their systems so that they no longer function or interface with old software? Until I either Jailbreak my iPod, Amarok comes out with better Touch support, or the SDK fixes things, I can neither easily scrobble tracks or even use Amarok to interface with my iPod. Instead, I have to use the one piece of software that I loathe, yet deal with as a necessary evil as rarely as humanly possible: iTunes.

Everything else is great though. Great sound output, internet capability, easy e-mail checking of Gmail, Google Maps integration, and the usual video, music, and picture capabilities. My recommendation: worth a purchase, especially now that there’s a 32 GB model available.

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