Archive for Random Thoughts

The Future of Video Games

The more I hear about the Xbox One, the more baffling the whole thing is. I say that as someone who was a huge fan of the original Xbox and pretty happy with the 360. At a time when PC gamers simultaneously dread the violence that Steam sales do to their bank accounts and adore the amount of games they get out of it, when the iOS app store is ludicrously large, free-to-play games are a major force in gaming, and the 3DS is hugely popular, we have the new Xbox going off on its own tangent that’s more expensive and laden with more unnecessary limitations than any other platform.

The big thing with Xbox One is the sheer ridiculousness of the DRM on it. It needs to connect to Microsoft’s servers once ever 24 hours to function at all, and while there are a lot of people for whom that’s not that big of a deal, the list of people for whom it is a problem is not small. From what I’ve heard games like Halo and Call of Duty are pretty big with members of the U.S. military, and oddly enough places like Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t known for having great broadband. There are also countries in Europe that Microsoft isn’t supporting initially ( which may in fact be illegal by EU law ), so that there are people who could literally walk to a place where their game machine wouldn’t work. That’s on top of the limitations placed on lending and reselling games ( which Sony smartly and rightly mocked ). While it seems pretty clear that games that come on discs are on the way out, we’re not there yet. While people are still buying games on discs–and for the Xbox One paying $60 for them, possibly even more–they’re going to feel like they ought to be able to sell them off or let a friend borrow them. People don’t mind not being able to lend games on Steam, but then Steam makes it easy to buy and give away 4 licenses for a game, often for less than the cost of one new Xbox 360 game.

Cost is another big thing. Although Sony’s doing better than Microsoft, neither seems all that interested in a non-premium market. The PS4 is going to debut at $399, and the Xbox One at $499. To get the full benefit of the new Xbox you’re also going to need an HDTV, a broadband internet connection, and probably a subscription to the console maker’s online service too. If you were to start from scratch and buy everything you need to play on Xbox One, you could easily spend over $1,000, possibly $2,000 or more. And on top of that, the tradition of screwing over European gamers price-wise isn’t even slowing down, with the number of Euros in the price being the same as the number of dollars in the American price. There’s not much that Xbox One doesn’t lose out to price-wise, except maybe a really ridiculous gaming PC rig. And that’s before we talk about Kinect. Setting aside all the Big Brother references the Xbox One version has inspired, whoever designed it was just very optimistic about the sizes of people’s homes. I have one friend who lives in a house where rearranging the furniture could just about make room for a Kinect, but he has three roommates to live in that house. I have a brother-in-law who has on occasion made six figures, and there’s just no way it would work in his current house.

For a while now it’s seemed like video games are diverging, splitting off into two separate approaches. There’s the AAA-driven stuff from the likes of Microsoft, Sony, Square-Enix, Bugie, Rockstar, Activision, Ubisoft, etc., and then there’s the non-blockbuster stuff, ranging from more niche titles for expensive consoles all the way to the guy making homebrew Atari games. There are some really great games you can get for cheap or even for free through a variety of venues, and there are games that fit a wider variety of people and lifestyles besides the guy who can park in front of his HDTV for several hours on a regular basis. There’s a lot of overlap between the two kinds of video gaming of course, and along pretty much every axis possible. While there undoubtedly is a mainstream audience that sticks to big-budget AAA titles, gamers as a whole have made stuff like Xbox Live Arcade and Steam plenty successful, and that’s before we talk about games that are able to reach out to people who aren’t hardcore gamers. The internet and other new technology has democratized a lot of technology, and just as it’s become at least as easy to get a Jonathan Coulton album as music from a major label, it’s become far easier for indie video game designers to make something polished and fun and get it out to people. [1]

Under the circumstances, I have no idea what to make of Microsoft seemingly aspiring to make its game console more like the major record labels and less like all the stuff that’s looking like it’ll be the future of music. I’m tempted to check to see if any executives from SCEA have moved over to the Xbox team, because Xbox One is producing the kind of tone-deaf statements that used to be the purview of Sony execs pushing the PS3. [2]

I started playing video games… actually with the family’s Commodore Vic20, but I started seriously playing on the NES [3] . For a while I would come home from school, start up Super Mario Bros. , and go into a sort of trance and then come out of it to find it was dark and my thumbs hurt. But I think it was when I was playing on the original PlayStation and Sega Saturn (and then the Dreamcast, plus a bit of Neo Geo Pocket Color) that my video gaming was most distinctly mine . I was a huge Japanophile, big on JRPGs and fighting games, and totally obsessed with certain puzzle games (most notably Bust-A-Move a.k.a. Puzzle Bobble ). I ended up owning a bunch of games that were niche if not outright obscure (for example, I had the PS1 version of Touki Denshou Angel Eyes ). There’s a certain gamer archetype that I fit, but I’m pretty far removed from the mainstream, especially in the U.S. I prefer games that are a solitary experience, I’m not impressed by “realistic” graphics (I still think Phantasy Star Online is far better to look at that Gears of War ), I’m not terribly interested in DLC or achievements [4]

All of that helps explain why when I took it into my head to buy a handheld system to play on the bus I ended up getting a new PSP for $95 at Target. It’s a system that got a lot of love from Japanese developers, and it doesn’t hurt that a lot of those games are available for cheap (though retail stores where you can walk in and buy them are few and far between now). It also came just before the whole game industry when totally crazy with DLC and achievements, while being new enough that it nonetheless has an online store available. I get my cheesy JRPGs and whatnot, ready to take anywhere I go, without breaking the bank.

Today I went to a hole in the wall used game shop (actually it’s in the basement of a computer store) to look for PSP games. GameStop does used games in a way that’s kind of terrible for everyone concerned (including but not limited to their own employees), while most retailers have little if anything for any game systems not in active production, so most any store that steps away from that is welcome. This place (“GameShop”) seems to be doing pretty well for what it is, and has a ton of different things available. I picked up a copy of Lumines II , and I also saw a little kid there with his dad buying an Atari 2600 and some cartridges. I really do hope that that moment represents some slice of the future of video games. If it is, I think the future’s going to be pretty great all told.


[1] There’s also the possibility of cheaper hardware that does more. Although the Ouya looks to be having some serious issues, the fact remains that the mere idea of a cheap Android-powered console got 63,000 people to open their wallets. When either Ouya gets itself together or someone properly pulls off what they were attempting, it could be something pretty big.

[2] “So good you’ll want to get a second job to pay for it” and such.

[3] I can’t remember the exact year, but the guy I bought my NES from was nice enough to show me his brand new Super Famicom and hoooooly crap I just felt this huge tidal-wave of 8/16-bit nostalgia.

[4] Though for the Xbox Live Arcade version of Lumines I did end up getting basically everything offered of both. Lumines remains the only 360 game where I got ALL of the achievements, and the “Single Lap Quarter Million” one was pretty brutal.

Happy Things

“In December 2004, Duchamp’s Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British art world professionals.” –Wikipedia (Also, clearly this is the BEST way to start a blog post titled “Happy Things.”)

Penn Jillette has been on the Nerdist podcast twice now, and one of the threads of his conversation with Chris Hardwick is that in recent years cynicism has become the cool thing, but earnest expression is always better, and all the more powerful in a time of ironic cynicism. More recently, there’s been the whole Daniel Tosh rape joke brouhaha. One insightful commentary on it came from a Tumblr post by Dave Holmes , who observed that good comedy challenges the status quo, and today “the status quo is fucking dark.” Trivializing rape is tasteless, shocking, and reprehensible to some, but unfortunately it’s just not in any way outside the norm. [1] Art (in the broadest sense of the term) has gone through a series of challenges, where artists push boundaries and change what’s within the bounds of “normal.” Paintings had to be clear representations of something, poetry had to follow a form, and so on, and pioneers and experimenters gave us new ways of thinking about things. The problem is that there are also a lot of people who like to do transgressive stuff for the sake of being transgressive, imitating the surface aspects of the likes of Duchamp without the originality or substance. Tosh seems to thrive on making people uncomfortable, but does so without the artistry of the likes of Louis C.K. I don’t shun things that are dark or shocking, but I have enough of a sense of what does and doesn’t have actual substance that there are some things I don’t bother with. I’d rather watch just about anything by Tarantino than The Human Centipede , for example.

Thinking about this stuff, I realize that I genuinely, unironically like things that are optimistic and uplifting. Obviously [2] I’m not suggesting that cynical, grimdark stuff is bad or needs to go away, but there’s room for happy shiny stuff too, whether it’s slice of life manga or the sleek utopianism of Star Trek . An e-mail conversation with a Neko Machi fan made me feel like my preference for creating and enjoying this kind of thing makes me stand out a bit. I like doing things that make myself and others happy, especially when it comes to creating things. I like a bright, happy aesthetic that for me at least engenders those kinds of feelings. [3] Certainly the only other RPG designer I can think of whose overall style is like that is Daniel Solis .

When it comes to cute, happy stuff, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and its adult male fans are kind of an elephant in the room. Max Gilardi (who does parody animations based on MLP amongst others) has an interesting insight on the brony [4] phenomenon . While it’s true that the show is well-made and has excellent voice acting and animation, Gilardi contends that the real core thing is that “…it has something to do with the show’s ability to reach a certain level of cute without crossing that line over into schmaltzy or sugary,” and further that it’s “…a children’s cartoon that, unlike Pixar films, doesn’t cater to adults as well as children, but rather, caters to the children INSIDE adults.” The internet is a big factor too of course, but I think his insights go a long way towards explaining why it has a lot of male fans when any number of other cartoons and other properties aimed at girls don’t. [5]

My childhood was weird and often unhappy, and in early adulthood as I was getting into anime I acquired a fondness for cute things. I was really big into Card Captor Sakura for example, which I think rode a bit closer to the “Saccharine Line” than MLP, but didn’t cross it. In some ways this was a second go at childhood for me, even as I was starting college and entering the work force. I don’t know how much the emotional content of fandom of MLP and cute anime lines up with my own, but I feel like there’s a largely untapped audience for something more optimistic and happy that still has a core that feels genuine. Today the better cartoons are probably the place where this aesthetic comes through the strongest, and it’s why I gravitate towards stuff like MLP, Gravity Falls , My Life as a Teenage Robot , Fairly OddParents , and so on. It gets into some of my RPG projects (notably Adventures of the Space Patrol and Raspberry Heaven ) and my writing ( UFO Girl and Tiny Aliens , and maybe a bit of I Want to be an Awesome Robot ), and I think defines a major part of where I want to go creatively. I want to be honest and genuine and happy.


[1] Another Tumblr poster observed that if anything it’s much harder to talk about rape in a serious way than to joke about it, which is all kinds of messed up.

[2] Though not so obviously that I feel comfortable neglecting to mention it.

[3] There’s an aspect of this that comes from finding certain aspects of the real world nauseating, but I won’t get into that here.

[4] Another place where I find myself nodding along with Gilardi is where he says he enjoys the show but doesn’t strongly identify as a fan. My experience with bronies so far is that they’re generally pretty cool, and their major flaw is simply not knowing when to shut up about ponies. Compared to the problems with, say, gamers, that’s not too bad.

[5] Though the way companies market to girls is a whole other issue. I still can’t get over the time I went into a local Toys R Us and saw an endcap of board games for girls, and all of them, including the likes of Jenga and Monopoly , were in that burning Barbie pink color. Also, I get pretty annoyed at the people who can’t seem to accept that a guy might like MLP or CCS without having some kind of depraved kink involved (not that those guys don’t exist, but I don’t see any indication that they’re the norm), and the inability to conceive of non-pervy fandom to me says a lot more about the accuser than the accused.

Riffing Advent Children

I’m a huge fan of RiffTrax . If you’re not familiar, it’s a thing where three Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni have banded together to produce downloadable commentary tracks for movies. They’ve been at it since 2006, and have done over 100 feature films, and a ludicrous quantity of shorts (of which ” Drugs Are Like That ” remains my absolute favorite).

In 2008 they launched a thing called ” iRiffs ,” where other people can sell commentaries through their site. iRiffs are all over the place of course, but a few really excellent ones have emerged too. I really like Cinester Theater ‘s riffs of the Back to the Future trilogy and Total Recall , and Blame Society has also done some top-tier stuff. Riff Raff Theater ‘s crowdsourced riffing has also produced some great riffs. More recently Team Four Star (the guys who mainly do Dragon Ball Z fandubs) put out a richly-deserverd iRiff of Dragonball Evolution .

Not unlike with RPGs, with riffs I see a dearth of anime/Japanese stuff, which got me motivated to try my hand at it. I recruited my friend Mike Mallon to help with the project, since in my experience solo riffs just aren’t as good, even when Mike Nelson is doing them. Mike Mallon is one of those people who can barely stand to be serious for five minutes, and for a while did he did a “Great Teacher Largo” panel at various anime conventions, where he would basically do in-character improv comedy for an hour at a stretch. For me watching YouTube videos of the GTL panels from FanimeCon is surreal because it’s the exact same humor he throws around in everyday life, so to me it doesn’t feel like an act exactly. There’s a certain kind of internet humor that he’s immersed in and really grasps in a way that I struggle to keep up with. He can also do the Group X voice pretty much perfectly.

While MST3K concentrated on obscure, terrible movies, RiffTrax has let Mike Nelson and company take a crack at big, mainstream titles that beg to be mocked. For both ventures (not to mention Joel Hodgson’s excellent Cinematic Titanic ) I’ve found that what makes a movie good for riffing isn’t being bad exactly, but being ridiculous, especially if it does so with an air of self-importance. That’s why the RiffTrax of movies like 300 and Avatar turned out so great, while the riff of Daredevil was so-so. It’s also why our riff project is going to be of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children . It’s a fun, entertaining movie, but it also treats most everything as Serious Business.

I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed right now.

I don’t expect to make much of any money from this–iRiffs are a niche within a niche after all–but it’s been a fun project to work on so far. Plus, maybe between our respective followings Mike and I can at least get some people to give it a chance. Last night we gave the movie a once-through, and it highlighted how different our styles of humor are. Mike is incredibly spontaneous, while I have to craft and script things more often than not. 20 minutes messing around with Wikipedia gives me a couple of solid sentences of joke, while Mike effortlessly comes up with these amazing running gags. From here the plan is to get heavily into the writing, and after that we’ll be getting into recording and editing, for which I’m going to have to buy some equipment (which fortunately will be useful for podcasting too).

Books and E-Books

A while back there was an article in the Telegraph with the provocative title ” Jonathan Franzen: e-books are damaging society .” I wasn’t familiar with Franzen, and the extent of what I know about him now are that John Hodgman portrayed him as Oprah’s right-hand man in That Is All , and that some of my friends who read more literary fiction than I do have described him as being really phenomenally overrated.

E-books are a challenge to the way things have worked for books for a long, long time. [1] I don’t want to accuse Franzen or other e-book haters of being luddites or whatever, and I would expect some people to dislike using a Kindle for purely subjective reasons alone. However, calling e-books a threat to civilization is a bit much. At least as quoted in the Telegraph article, Franzen explains why he has a personal preference for paper books, along with some trite complaining about the capitalism of e-book readers [2] , but utterly fails to connect that to anything of greater significance to society. Given how great of a writer he’s supposed to be, it’s rather strange that he makes such a weak argument.

The permanence of print is a great thing, but I for one don’t only read Certified Classics that I’m sure I’ll read over and over, and some of the widely praised classics are overrated anyway. There are books I treasure in print, but (for example) the book on iPhone app design I’m currently reading will be obsolete in a few years, and I’d just as soon not add that bit of wood pulp to the clutter in the basement. I also don’t have unlimited space for books–it’s getting pretty ridiculous and I’ll have to sell some off before too long–and being able to put countless books on my Kindle is useful from a purely pragmatic standpoint. It also makes it much easier to get certain out of print books, and public domain classics can be had for free to boot. When I decided I wanted to re-read The Devil’s Dictionary , I went on Amazon and got a free e-book sent to my Kindle instantly. I didn’t get a Kindle in order to do away with paper books, especially because I own a lot of RPGs, [3] but rather to expand my options. I can put smaller RPG PDFs, fan-translated manga, free e-books from the likes of Cory Doctorow , and independent weirdness on there, along with professional e-books from the Kindle store proper.
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Ufology

And apparently I’m still getting over the shock of having the new site up and running and going nuts posting stuff. Since the site is named “Studio UFO” I suppose I should do a post about the actual subject of UFOs. [1] By and large I’m a skeptic and a materialist. That doesn’t stop me from finding wonder in the world, but there’s plenty of wonder to be had without making shit up. Human beings have a tremendous capacity for acts that inspire me to hope, even if they’re at least as capable of evoking despair. I prefer to put the phenomenon of ufology in the former category as much as I can, despite the fact that I can’t take the actual truth claims seriously.

In a universe that contains, at a conservative estimate, 9 sextillion stars, it’s all but guaranteed that there’s intelligent life out there somewhere , but the observable universe is also 46 billion light years across. The idea that spacefaring aliens have visited us is not impossible, but certainly improbable. More importantly, I’ve yet to hear of an alien sighting that couldn’t be explained by the treacherous nature of the way the human brain processes things. Memories are a thing we construct rather than record, and the pattern-matching system that let early hominids spot predators before being eaten has a way of producing false positives. The kinds of false positives that lets you mistake a clump of leaves for a wolf that wants to eat you don’t interfere with your ability to survive, but the kind that let people see patterns in politicians and natural phenomena interfere with our ability to rationally understand the world.

None of which means I think UFO believers are bad people. I’m sure some of the things I think are true will turn out not to be, and I suspect that includes some of the stuff that helps me get through the day. UFO believers come in many varieties, but I think a lot of them are people who want something to give them hope and a way to make sense of the world. [2] A while back I read Gregory L. Reece’s book ” UFO Religion ,” [3] a skeptical but warm look at the many ways people relate to UFOs. Some people are just following what they think is the truth, and try to maintain a scientific approach. Others have founded religions, and I very strongly suspect that the founding of the likes of Raëlism wasn’t so different from that of Christianity and its ilk. The dividing line between cynicism and sincerity can be hard to see, but the people preaching about aliens seem to have by and large bypassed teachings of hellfire at the very least.
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Getting Started

“Studio UFO” was originally supposed to be a label for me doing freelance translation work, but for a variety of reasons that didn’t really happen, and I’ve been leaving this domain with the same unused page for ages. The other day it occurred to me that with the web changing a bit I have a bunch of stuff that doesn’t quite have a proper home anymore. My RPG stuff has a good home in the form of my Yaruki Zero Games blog, but with LiveJournal all but dead among my social circles, DeviantArt shambling along with its own B.S., and avenues like Google+ and Twitter being geared towards shorter, less customizable stuff, I decided I needed a new web space of my own.

This is going to be kind of an eccentric “everything else” site, covering basically everything of mine that isn’t either RPG-related or able to fit in 140 characters. That’s going to include what personal stuff I’m willing to put online for everyone to see, my non-RPG writing, and maybe ill-advised musings on other stuff in real life. I’m going to be posting up stuff about, for example, the novels I’m working on, in much the same way as I post about RPGs I’m working on over on YKZ. Like my RPGs I really need to get my shit together and actually finish things, and like with RPGs self-publishing is looking more and more attractive. But, we’ll see.