On Games

I don’t usually talk much about games on my blog, but this just needed to be said: Sony dropped the ball. Let’s look at the facts:

  • their “new, innovative” controller is a ripoff of the Nintendo Wii that from reports coming in from the press conference indicate doesn’t work as well (namely that the demonstrator was flailing about in order to use it, and looked incredibly uncomfortable holding it)
  • The price is $499 and $599 respectively for the two versions of the system, which is fully $200 more than the core and full versions of the Xbox 360, and up to three times as much as the Wii is speculated to cost (we’ll find out how much soon, their press conference is… tomorrow I think).
  • their “core” version lacks memory card support, HDMI, wifi, and the hard drive is 20gb (a third the size of the full version). Considering their vaunted 1080p claims, it’s pretty absurd that some of their systems will be physically incapable of supporting it.

I’ve seen live PS3 footage, and it really does look spectacular. I really wish I could get excited about it. There are even some exclusive games for it that I’d really LIKE to play. It’s just not going to happen. Maybe in a year or two when the price has gone down a few times.

Of Birthdays and Boots

As a birthday present to myself, I spoke with a friend at Microsoft, and bought a new copy of Windows XP Professional SP2 via employee discount (if you haven’t heard about this… the general rule of thumb is that you pay roughly 10% of the retail cost on any program they offer… so a $300 program is $30. Hella handy if you know someone who works there). I think most of you already know where I’m going with this: as of today, I’m now dualbooting on my MacBook Pro… it’s a 120gb drive, split 85/35 (Mac/Windows). I’ve only just barely finished installing all the updates that have accrued since the version pressed to disk, along with a few basics (Firefox, various media players). Once I have free time again, I’m planning to install a some things:

  • Unreal Tournament 2004 (so I can do some mod and level work… it’s worth pointing out that the Mac port of UT2k4 doesn’t come with UnrealEd)
  • Half-Life 2 (also for access to the modding and level building capabilities…)
  • Anarchy Online (I’m using a free account, and like logging in every once in a while)
  • Final Fantasy XI (I have an account there, including monthly fee, but have been out of town so much and busy when I AM here that I simply haven’t even had a chance to log in for probably a month and a half or two months… hoping to correct that this way)
  • XNA (I received a beta and demo disk while at GDC, figure it might be worth checking out)

It’s worth noting that I MAY also pick up Oblivion at some point, at which point that’d be going on there as well. That’s a big if, though; until I actually land a job, I need to watch my spending. As far as games go, there are a slew out there that I’d like to pick up, but simply can’t justify right now, especially since I have TWO pay-per-month games on my roster right now (FFXI and World of Warcraft… which I’ll continue to play on the Mac side). I may end up finally dropping FFXI, but I’ve been holding out mostly to see what they do with the expansion that is coming out shortly.

My birthday weekend I spent in Providence, not doing a whole heck of a lot. It was a work weekend for both Erica and I (not that I actually got much done *cough*), and then my actual birthday I spent driving back north to Vermont (but not without getting a parking ticket in Providence), followed by dinner with my parents. I was hoping to hang out with folks in the Upper Valley for a while after dinner, but by then I was completely wiped out, and instead opted to drive home and head to bed. I’m now officially in my mid-20s (25), and I’m simultaneously struck by the wide variety of things I’ve seen and done, and how few things I have to actually show for it.

GDC 2006 Confirmed

I’ve just completed making arrangements to attend the Game Developer’s Conference 2006. This is not an inexpensive trip by any means… between the conference itself, airfare, and hotel fees, I am already looking at well over $3000. That said, the potential opportunities and contacts I can make while there are invaluable, so I don’t feel bad about, just… drained, financially speaking.

For those who might want to know:
I fly into San Jose on Friday, March 17th a little after 5pm. I’ll be staying at the San Jose Doubletree from then until Monday, March 27th, when I fly back east. I’ll be busy with tutorials and the conference from 10am to 6pm Monday through Friday, but my time before and after is free, and I’d love to see people.

I’m both excited and nervous as hell about this. And most things, lately.

Up and Running

With four days to go until my school residency, we finally have an internet connection at the house in Montpelier (JUST finished getting it set up). A lot has happened since I gave a real update, so let me sum up: I’m living in Montpelier with Uri, Andy, and Kate, and will be starting my final semester this Friday. UberCon VI was a lot of fun, and I did indeed pick up a sword (it’s sweet), and ended up selling my graphics tablet (Wacom Intuos2 12×12) to Erica, who is an extremely talented artist and fantastic person in general.

In fact, she and I are now seeing each other. It was unexpected and entirely welcome. I went down to drop off her tablet, and we ended up spending the day together… While I’m aware that I’m getting into yet another long distance relationship, and with someone who is insanely busy, I really like her and we both want to see where things go. This is my first real relationship since Mickey, and I’m a little nervous that I’ll end up carrying too much baggage with me, but I’m going to do my best to simply be as open, honest, and caring as I can, and hope for the best.

Okay, if I keep talking about that, I’ll get mushy, so let’s move along. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of people lately that I haven’t seen in a while, in particular my friend Tiffany, who is a leet gamer that also writes reviews and is a contributing editor for Computer Games magazine. She’s getting me back into Final Fantasy XI (I know, I know… however, I am planning to critique the game for my study), which should be jolly good fun, in that “OMG, I’m hardlining MMOs again” sort of way. Just in general, though, I’ve shipped my game systems out from Seattle and picked up a Nintendo DS under the auspices of my study, and am aiming to try and get a press kit from Nintendo about the Revolution, so I can write about that in particular. (The DS and the Revolution are key points in how my study is formulating in my mind, more specifically how they view/affect the concepts of gameplay and interfacing with games.)

All in all, it’s starting to look like the shitty period is drawing to a close, and things are really starting to look on the up and up. I’ll try and be a bit more cogent/coherent later… still feeling a little scattered and worn out, so I’m going to go drink a couple gallons of water and go from there.

Improve Thyself

I’m back home now, freshly and officially divorced. Freya is adjusting well to her new home. Maybe it’s just shellshock, but I feel pretty resolved, finally… the actual divorce (all 5 minutes of it) seemed to bring a certain amount of closure, which is appreciated. Despite all the stress and tension over the past few months, Mickey and I managed to part friends, and I wish her the best with her life.

As for me, I’m on a bit of a self-improvement kick. I’ve hung out with usual crowd the past two nights (since I got back), and I’m just not feeling like I’m fitting in, and I’m kind of ready to get into a more productive mode. Even girl watching isn’t all that appealing right now. I just want to dive into all the things I’ve wanted to do, but didn’t for various reasons. I purchased my books for the upcoming semester yesterday from Amazon, and I’m looking forward to jumping head first into the topic. I also went over to Borders today and ended up picking up O’Reilly’s Learning Java, and Killer Game Programming for Java, plus a collection of Kanji Cards and a introduction to Japanese course (book and 8 discs).

I’m looking into the possibility of auditing a programming course at Dartmouth… I need to talk to Admissions tomorrow about what the process will be to do it. I’m also looking into taking ballroom dance classes with my friend Liz. I definitely need to haul ass on these, since the Dartmouth semester starts soon and dance classes start the 22nd.

The last time I felt like this was three years ago.

In other news, the more I read about the next generation consoles, the more I want to develop for the Nintendo Revolution. Here are a few reasons why. On a related note, I’m currently working on building a backlog of essays for Critical Games, and will be reviving the site once I get a few weeks ahead (I want to post an essay a week, and want at least a month’s buffer).

Annotation: The Art of Final Fantasy IX

I love beauty. I think it is a crying shame that the word has become so tied to a fairly vapid, superficial definition for so much of society, since the notion of beauty when boiled down to its most basic principle, is simply a method to name and identify that which draws us to a person, place, thing, or even abstract thought. It is with this in mind that I say I love beauty, and it is this idea that colors everything I strive for in my life. I suppose that is one reason why I tend to prefer the fantastic in art: more often than not, fantasy grows out of taking the beautiful from the mundane. The Art of Final Fantasy IX is an excellent example of this concept, creating an entire world that is beautiful and fantastic.

The Art of Final Fantasy IX is a companion book that was published when the game Final Fantasy IX was originally released, back in 2000. I bought the book at that point, and promptly lost it in a move. It resurfaced at my brother’s apartment this past April, as I was preparing for this semester, and I am extremely grateful for it. With my desire to learn the process of creating a world and characters such as (but not like) this, being able to see the actual original concept art that the game was built upon is invaluable. The majority of the art is by Hiroyuki Ito, Hideo Minaba, Akira Fujii, and Shin Kajitani, with a smattering of Yoshitaka Amano’s work on the lead characters. There is very little in the way of written work on it, though what there is was done by Dan Birlew, hence why the Library of Congress calls him the technical “author”. Interestingly, back when I thought the book was gone, I looked into buying a new copy… it has been out of print for several years now, and used copies are selling for over $85 (it was originally $20). I only wish they would turn this collection into a series, and release the art from some of the other games made by Squaresoft (makers of the Final Fantasy series, of which there are currently eleven released and another two in development. They also developed Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, as well as the Mana series of games, and Xenogears, all of which were visually stunning in their own right), but I don’t think it made enough money in sales to merit it.

One of the interesting design choices they made for this this game was the use of caricatures, taking character traits of the individual to an extreme to create unique flavor to the environment (for instance, a gluttonous individual looks like a hippo, a set of pompous nobles have horns for noses so that they can “toot their own horn”, et cetera). It all ties into the underlying theatrical theme of the story, because in theater, things are also often exaggerated for the purposes of creating a robust atmosphere out of what could have been a very dull stage.

There are some images that I find particularly appealing or informative that I’d like to mention. Right off the bat, I’d say some of the most fascinating work is the work on the town of Final Fantasy IX. There are three primary cities, each with a very unique flavor: Alexandria, Lindblum, and Burmecia. Alexandria is largely influenced by pre-industrial European, with heavy emphasis on ornate religious symbolism, thatched roofing, and towering castle spires. The central design element of the city is a large (easily over 100 meters tall) crystal obelisk that crowns the center of the castle, which ends up playing a central role in a particularly magnificent scene later in the game.

Lindblum could easily considered a “sister city” to Alexandria, remaining strongly influenced by European architecture, but with a greater emphasis on technology and industry. The entire city is filled with clock towers and massive gates to allow airships to pass through (airships are a central aspect of all the Final Fantasy games… they are a recurring theme). Despite the fact that you are actually only able to explore a portion of the city, the designers do an excellent job of depicting a massive city citadel that has built upward rather than outward, with the entire city contained inside the gargantuan castle walls. (If pressed to choose between the two in preference, I would say I prefer the atmosphere generated in Lindblum, but appreciate the beauty and grandeur of Alexandria more.)

The third major city in Final Fantasy IX is an entirely different culture, and is called Burmecia, the City of Eternal Rain. It has VERY strong Indonesian cultural references, and I would argue that it is the most interesting of all three cities. We never get a chance to explore Burmecia in an undamaged state (it is invaded and decimated very early in the story), but even the ruins are truly beautiful and epic. Giant stone statues guard the gates to the castle, with lesser statues lining the streets. There are three themes to the landscape of Burmecia: that of battle (many warrior statues), that of music (in particular, harmonies and bells), and that of spirituality (especially revering one’s ancestors). It paints a remarkable backdrop for a fascinating culture, without even needing to say a word about it.?
A lesser town but still worth noting is the city of Treno, which is mostly drawn from Victorian era design. The city is mostly stone manors, and is circular, with the nobility living on the lower, inner ring of the town. What really makes this town notable is the overwhelming references to games. Several of the walkways take the form of large playing cards, and the nobles each take their name from chess pieces, playing cards, and the tarot (“King of Wands”, “Bishop of Coins”, “Queen of Hearts”, et cetera). The overall mood created by this design choice is really quite unique in the game. I think it may be my favorite town in the game, at least partially because of the juxtaposition they create in it: it is a two-tiered system. There is no middle class, you are either wealthy, or dirt poor. There is a certain amount of irony in binary socioeconomic classes that is interesting to observe, even in a fictional setting.

I’m going to address the section on the monsters they designed separately, because I would like to accompany my writing with some attempts of my own based on their work. Suffice it to say, they are well crafted and interesting, doing an excellent job of reasonably depicting what various beasts of legend should look like. Instead, I’m going to close this annotation by talking about airships.

Airships are a central, recurring theme in every Final Fantasy game, one of a very few recurring things. (Others include “chocobos”, large chicken-like birds that you can ride like a horse, and some character in the game named “Cid”.) It should be noted that no two Final Fantasy games take place in the same world… the theory goes that each Final Fantasy is the final world-affecting story of a given story universe. Airships have been in every single Final Fantasy game since the very first back in 1987 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. That said, they have never been as ornate, detailed, or well thought out as they are in Final Fantasy IX (that includes games after IX).

Put simply, the airships in Final Fantasy IX are beautiful. They are massive and ponderous, and take on attributes of both sailing ships and fish (but not airplanes). In particular, the “Prima Vista”, a theater ship. It is called a theater ship because it in fact houses a stage on the aft of the ship. It is ornate and festive, designed with the need to house (and hide) the band and the various props and set pieces that might be needed during a performance. It is a delight to look at, pure and simple, physics of such a contraption be damned.

Truly, this book is a real treat for anyone interested in the art that goes into game design. The artwork itself is delightful, and the amount of information that can be gleaned from it is remarkable. While I would certainly not suggest purchasing it for the $85 a used edition is currently going for, I would definitely recommend finding a copy to borrow from somewhere to anyone interested in such a field. I said it earlier in this piece, and I’ll say it again: I would LOVE to see them turn this into a series of art collections, for the rest of the Final Fantasy series and other games as well.

Birlew, Dan. The Art of Final Fantasy IX. Indianapolis: Brady Publishing, 2000.

I gots me a job

Well, the constant job searching for many months finally paid off. I had my orientation today — mostly just signing LOTS AND LOTS OF PAPERWORK. Said paperwork also included not one but TWO NDAs, so unfortunately I won’t be able to talk about my work all that much other than generically.

The job is that of game testing for the XBox. The pay is $9.25 an hour, and I am only “on call”, so some weeks will be a lighter work week than others, but the bright side of this is I can choose how proactive I want to be. It also means when things come up (like the time spent away in Chicago this June for a wedding), I’m simply not available for work that week.

They also offer benefits, training (and I don’t mean “job training” — I mean they offer classes in various tech related topics), and other nice things… they’re even willing to help you polish your resume so you can land more permanent work. The drawback is that it means being AT WORK at 7am, at least at first. Work starts at 8am, but until you’ve done it a bit and know the routine, they want you there by 7. I’ve never been much of a morning person, but really this just means getting up… two hours earlier than I do now (and, in fact, earlier than I had to get up for school, which used to start at 7:50am).

Going back to the scheduling thing, talking to the lady giving my orientation, it sounds like generally it’s 2-3 days a week, and that a 5 day work week doesn’t happen all THAT often. While we could certainly use the 40 hour work week (and the potential for overtime that doing a full week allows) in terms of money, I’m actually kind of relieved about this, since it means that I’ll be able to continue to dig into this semester.

All in all, I’m pretty excited about it. I’m aiming to start work on Tuesday (Saturday is Mickey’s birthday, and she has a half day tomorrow at work, plus Sunday is Mother’s Day, and Monday I have an appointment).
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New Post! What?

Okay, a little background: I’ve had an account with GamaSutra (THE major website for game development professionals) for about… hmm, three years now. Each week, they send out a newsletter that basically lists any game related announcements from news sources, any new articles on the site, information about the Game Developer’s Conference, projects for contractors, and… new job listings. Very handy little email, really, and I’m always glad to read through it when I get it.

So, I was reading through this week’s email, and noticed a new job posting for a game designer at a place called Cranky Pants Games. I looked at the job qualifications (which almost invariably say in large, unfriendly letters “INDUSTRY-RELATED DEGREE REQUIRED, 4+ YEARS REQUIRED”), and — lo and behold! — I actually fit the qualifications, with flying colors no less.

I sent off my resume about 5 minutes ago (took me some time to write the cover letter, as I don’t do the “form letter” thing), and I’m really, really nervous, hoping to God that I get it. So that’s what this little post is about: please pray for me if you believe in prayer, or just send me well wishes if you don’t, and hopefully this’ll work out. Considering how stressful and downright depressing the job hunt has been so far, I could really use all the help I can get.

Wish me luck!

Ebb and Flow

Forgive me if this post is a bit sporadic.

Barring the necessities of breathing, eating, drinking, et cetera, I have done five things in the past two days. I went to my chiropractor appointment this morning, which is one of those five things, and is the one I don’t plan to talk about further (not that it was bad, so much as that it was a non-event).

I have, in fact, been working on my schoolwork, at least a little bit each day. I’ve been reading through the Kitab-i-Aqdas, and feeling very sluggardly about my progress. We’ll see if I kick up the pace some more in the next few days. Something that is interesting about the Aqdas is that (after the introductory remarks), a great deal of the first part of the book is updates to the Laws of God declared by previous dispensations. I don’t know why, but I do find this somewhat humorous, looking back at some of the things that had been forbidden previously. Less humorous but interesting is the part where he addresses the leaders of various countries, and pretty much foretells World War I.

I’ve also been working on getting the site redesign ready for a smooth transition. If I stay on task, it should be ready by the end of the week, like I said before. Basically, what’s been keeping me is the minor variations that I have between the different sections. For instance, the visual gallery is currently set up to show 2, sometimes even 3 images across, assuming they were all posted on the same day. Also, the layout of the archives is slightly different, so I need to make sure I don’t break anything when I implement things there.
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I received an interesting email from my friend Randy today (no, not RK). He’s apparently applying to JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching program) to teach English in rural Japan for a year, and wanted second opinions on his statement of purpose. This is a program I’ve always been intruiged by (I’d love to go to Japan for a year), so I really hope he gets the position.

Reading over his statement, it really got me thinking about what my own purpose is. It is often easy to lose track of your goals amidst the chaos and little deaths of day to day living, and sometimes you just need a swift spiritual kick to the head to get back into the swing of things.
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