On the Love of Bad Movies

Apologies for this one being a bit late, as I have had yet another busy week dashing around the country and had no time to write & polish this before Monday evening.

There’s been a lot of negativity in the air around this blog the last few weeks, so I thought I’d redress the balance and talk about something I genuinely like this week: Terrible Movies. No, really, there’s something incredibly entertaining to me to sit down and watch a film try it’s hardest and yet fail so hilariously completely. It’s something that’s becoming increasingly common across the media consuming public, especially with the rise of the internet as a corner stone of modern culture. But, still there are some in my experience who don’t fully get why we do, so here I am, explaining my reasonings to you in blog form. You lucky, lucky people.

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On The SciFi Ghetto

So there I was, dear hypothetical reader, browsing the wares in a local branch of Popular Music Chain, and I ventured into the basement to look at the DVDs. No, not those kinds of DVDs, mind out of the gutter, please. Anyway, it seems a recent change to the layout of the store has seen a new section added off to one side, hidden at the side of the counter behind the blu-rays. This section is exclusively for Science Fiction films, ostensibly at least. This sort of thing is incredibly common, walk into any branch of Popular Bookshop Chain (and indeed many independents) and you’ll see something similar, Science Fiction and it’s stable mate Fantasy are often deliberately separated from everyday Fiction based on entirely arbitrary distinctions. There has always been this bizarre attitude that scifi, and often only specific kinds at that, is somehow “less worthy” of being considered alongside other works of fiction, that it is somehow a lesser work of creative endeavour. This, folks, is the Science Fiction Ghetto.

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On Smart Watches

As ever, technology marches on. Just take a look at how things were at the turn of the century compared to now, and then go back even further and contrast with now. Within my own lifetime, a paltry 25 years, consumer technology has gone from clunky CRTs, beige computers dominated by command lines and the internet being a niche oddity to sleek, flat touch screens, silver tablets with intuitive GUIs and the internet dominating modern life from how we talk to how we shop. This process will keep going whether we like it or not, with new things coming out of the woodwork and then its up to us to figure out what to do with them. And one of the latest bits of technology to present itself to us is this weeks subject: The Smart Watch.

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On Fandom

Currently we live in an age where communication with one another is easier than ever, so long as you have the right equipment any one person on the planet can, theoretically, contact any other near instantaneously. This has assisted many facets of society, not least of all shared interest groups, or what I’m going to continue to refer to as “Fandoms.” Now fandoms existed before the coming of the Internet certainly, but far in less expansive and interconnected ways. What the internet gave these groups was a way to grow and interact in a much more fluid manner than before. As soon as they became connected, groups that had existed in isolation developed discussion forums, fan sites, constant growth and so on to the point many stopped being niche and gained almost, but not quite, main stream appeal. Many certainly became more well known than they would have done previously. The march of technology brought people with similar interests together the face of shared interests were changed forever.

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On The Xbox One (Again)

A while back I ranted for a bit about the announced used games/trading policy on the Xbox One. It’s the post immediately prior to this one in fact. It seems I wasn’t the only one to feel this way, as the backlash was something to behold, that rare moment when gamers became collectively self aware enough to realise how both that and the always-on DRM (combined with a genuinely creepy Orwell-esque permanently on camera device) was a very bad thing for them as consumers.

Well, it seems Microsoft was deeply effected by said backlash, and has done a rather spectactular U-turn on things and now both the always online element and the trading nonsense is gone, as announced this very evening.

I’ll leave that in a paragraph of its own so it can sink in. Hell, I’ll even put it in bold. So it seems the people in charge at Microsoft aren’t as mad as first thought. Now, do I think it had anything to do with them actually listening to the fans? Well… yes and no. I doubt the complaints themselves had anything to do with is, not directly anyway, as they rarely do with big companies making any kind of decision. What I do think influenced this is the fact that since the announcement of the stupider features, the console has allegedly tanked in most markets. This would suggest a threat to profits, and that’s clearly what matters most to big business. Which gives tremendous credence to the whole “Vote with your wallets” thing myself and a number of other opponents of some of the sillier business practices have been saying all along. Take Heed, gamers, as this is a good thing for all of us as consumers.

Another positive to come out of this, as RPS’ John Walker points out, is that it starts to establish that Always-On DRM, another major bugbear of mine, and its invasive ilk is a direct threat to profit margins. If this becomes engrained in corporate consciousnesses we may see an eventual end to the practice. Again this is a good thing for all of us. I somehow doubt that the industry will become all pro consumer rights, at least not for a long, long time, but if they start to see that their own practices aren’t going to make them money it may come about by ulterior means. And if that’s what it takes to be treated reasonably by big business, I’m ok with that.

As for the Xbox One itself, as a device… well… while I will admit the removal of the silly stuff is a point in its favour, I remain unimpressed by Microsoft’s offerings from E3. Much like the previous 2 generations, if I am to buy in to this one, I’ll probably stick with either Sony or Nintendo, as both have demonstrated, through better consumer relations, less features that seem bad for gamers, cheaper/free online services (though I’m none too pleased about having to get PS+ to play online on a PS4, even if that doesn’t affect me that much) and even better exclusive titles, they’ve once again collectively incited me far more than the Xbox-du-jour.

Now that’s done with I’m hoping to come up with some more varied content for future posts, including some upcoming fiction, and hopefully not mentioning the XBox One for a looooooong time. I am so desperately trying not to turn this into Yet-Another-Games-Blog. Hopefully I can keep to that.


–Likes an absence of companies playing silly buggers

On the Gaming Industry’s Unique Aversion to the Second Hand Market

Hello again everybody, everybody! After deciding to take some time off from the factual blogging lark, I have returned, and have some ideas to write over the following weeks, along with the previously promised bits of fiction.

So at risk of turning this into a gaming rant blog, the big news in the gaming world this week has been the unveiling of Microsoft’s next big assault on console gaming, the perplexingly named XBox One. It’s only just finished at time of writing, just to give you an idea of how far in advance I write these, and if my twitter feed is anything to go by then apparently it wasn’t that impressive. Honestly, I don’t care that much. I’m personally not much of a fan of the XBox series of hardware or it’s various exclusive titles, being a Sega and Sony man myself.

No, what I found most interesting about the whole thing was this  little snippet of news from Computer And Video Games (based on a piece from Wired in that way tech and games journalism seems to work these days) that was brought to my attention. For those not wanting to read, apparently the Xbox One requires the games to be installed  on a hard drive, which is fairly standard for anyone who’s used a personal computer for gaming in the last 25 years, but this install, and the disc itself, is tied in to the Xbox Live account active on the console at the time. This sounds fairly standard practice given the current trend towards online-only direct distribution and the like, but here comes the kicker: if you purchase a disc second hand, it will not install unless you pay Microsoft a fee. This isn’t so much an outright ban on second hand sales, but it certainly is a metaphorical sledgehammer to the knees.

This does highlight something that has preyed upon my mind for a while: The rather unique opinion the gaming industry, specifically the publishers, towards second hand sales. Unlike most other media production sectors, who for the most part either ignore or tolerate second sales of their goods, gaming publishers seem to think that they, singular amongst all purveyors of ways to pass the time, are somehow above it all, and as a whole have been pursuing more and more ingenious ways to prevent it, of which this Xbox news is merely the latest iteration. This is an attitude that both perplexes and annoys me, not only as a gamer, but also as a consumer.

One common justification given for this tends to be “but wait, the publishers don’t make any money from second hand sales.” To which my response is thus: No. They Sure Don’t. But that’s specious reasoning anyway, since they have already made their money from the product, since to be Second Hand, that generally suggests that at one point in the past it was First Hand, and there is where the publishers make their money, since it is presumably purchased from them. This also disproves another common argument of “but it harms sales,” again this is an absurd notion when you consider the above. It would only harm sales if second hand sales outnumbered first hand, which in a rational universe like ours is impossible. Anyone with a basic understanding of ownership and commerce should be able to understand this, and yet still these reasons are given for the crusade-like campaign against second hand.

Along with the justification comes a slew of techniques to combat this perceived assault on games publishing. Some of this follows the same kind of pattern as the anti-piracy Digital Rights Management that I’ve railed against previously. Indeed, the invasive, always on style of DRM present in things like EA’s Origin service presumably could also be used in an attempt to regulate the sales of physical media, which is pretty much what Microsoft is doing with Xbox Live. There has also been talk of restricting some features from second hand copies via single-use codes included in new copies. Less invasive penalties for purchasing second hand also exist, usually via some form of downloadable content available either on day one or as a “pre-order bonus” (another bit of modern gaming that annoys me, but that’s a rant for another time). Whilst this is preferable to the total lock out method, it is, in my opinion, no less acceptable.

As mentioned previously, this whole aversion seems to be unique to the gaming industry. Compare other forms of media distribution here, book publishing has positively thrived from the second hand market for centuries, and while home video and music has begun to move toward the more controlled digital distribution platform, the usual complaints from those areas veer towards piracy rather than second hand sales. This is not to say these areas don’t have any issues with it, just the sheer volume of complaining from video gaming outweighs both areas substantially. And in all honesty the absurdity of gaming’s measures to prevent second hand sales is made very apparent if you try to apply it to other media forms. Imagine if, say, Penguin Group printed books that were tied to a single owner, and if you tried to sell them on they rendered themselves blank unless the new owner paid Penguin further money. Or if Warner Brothers only put the first half of a film on a DVD, only allowing a consumer to access the final half with a single use code, rendering the disc useless to anyone but yourself. See how ridiculous it all is?

But much like the appalling trends towards DRM, this is yet another way of the publishers controlling their product post-sales. One phrase I’ve heard to describe it is the transformation of software from product to “service.” Which is more a fancy way of saying that they’re trying to erode the concept of ownership of a game. Time was you had the physical media in your hand and that was yours, regardless of whether it was console or home computer, yet clearly this did not satisfy the publishers. Over the last decade or so we’ve seen a move, slow at first but now gaining speed at a terrifying pace, towards the publishers having total control over what you do with the product you’ve just spent your hard earned money on. And much like the DRM thing, this all worries me, as it’s starting to impinge upon basic consumer rights. Once again real thing we can do about this is vote with our wallets, hopefully if a system with such a terrible scheme in place tanks it will show the powers that be that such a system has no place in the modern world.

As a creative myself, I more than appreciate games makers desire and right to profit from their creations, however this should never be at the expense of the customer. This lack of respect for the people who essentially give them money can only end badly for all involved, and while I predict there will always be some who buy into it blindly, this number will decrease over time as more and more get wise to how badly those who control the industry treat those who fund it. I can easily see this leading to another crash of 1983 proportions if trends continue, and that will be a sad day indeed, especially if the industry could have done something to prevent it.

Whilst I can see this degenerating into a more long winded rant, I shall finish up with this: I shall not be getting an XBox One as long as this ridiculous system is in place, and I urge anyone reading this to do the same. I honestly feel like I keep repeating myself, but it is time for Gamers as a whole to get more aware of how the industry is treating us, and taking us all for fools. Only then will this kind of thing end.

–Not surprised, just disappointed.

On Writing Fiction, and Upcoming Content

When I wrote the first entry here the other week I mentioned in passing that I’d be uploading ” the fiction I write for my own entertainment” and thought I’d elaborate on that point a bit, talk about my writings and what I was talking about and give some info on current and future projects. This is also a way of both coming up with something to post this week, and a simultaneous update for my “scores” of Weasyl and DevArt followers, so two birds with one bloggy stone as it were.

Anyway, to abuse an oft-paraphrased and misquoted movie line “All my life, all I ever wanted to be a writer.” Ok, maybe not all I ever wanted to be, my career path shows as much, but you get the gist. From an early age I was coming up with random weird stuff, which friends and relatives can attest to (possibly to my eternal embarrassment). As time progressed the random weird stuff became less random, and more crafted, turning into stuff that, while rough, actually resembled stories and similar.  At school I loved creative writing, so managed to get duped into doing the LangLit flavour of English A-Levels on promise of doing more (which turned out to be something of an exaggeration at my school, both courses did the exact same amount). Despite heading into a career of Graphic Design, I kept at the writing mostly out of fun, and fell in love with the art of world crafting. Often coming up with how a setting worked was as, if not more, fun than writing within it. It was around about that time I decided, in spite of my erratic levels of self-confidence, to start uploading whatever I was writing to the internet. The reception was… almost nonexistent but I kept at it, which brings us nicely up to today.

Moving in to the here and now, currently I upload my work at the art sites Weasyl and DeviantArt (links under the blog title), and am planning to upload anything new simultaneously at both and here if possible, although certain things may be limited to one or the other due to the different way sites handle formatting. While I’m not particularly tied down to any particular style or genre, though because I’m a massive geek I do write a fair bit of science-fictiony stuff, simply because it interests me how much can be done with it. There’s also usually a cynical edge to a fair bit of what I write, which is mainly a reflection of my world view.

Which brings us neatly on to what I’m currently working on, which will probably be what you fine people will be seeing soonest (unless I write something in it’s entirety on a whim). As of now I have two major projects in the works, both extending onwards from pieces I have already written:

First off is “…But It Pours,” the follow up to an earlier piece of mine  “Ricochet”, part of  setting I’m calling “Century23.” Essentially it’s a cyberpunk piece, currently in short form, following the exploits of a nameless hitman in a 23rd Century urban dystopia. The setting started off as an affectionate parody of things like Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, but has evolved into a slightly more serious world, but I’ve still used some opportunities in the background notes to parody the world as it is today. Currently “…But It Pours” is working out to be a longer piece than Ricochet, but still within the realms of a short story. Unless I really go overboard it should be split into 3 parts when finally posted, although currently I’m not giving any time frame for it due to other concerns. Depending on how I feel after it’s out in the world, there may be more Century23  stories coming in the future.

Secondly is an ongoing project called “Redshift: The History of the 36th Century,” which started with this piece (which I may repost here at some point for continuity’s sake). This one is a bit more unusual, as it’s going to be a series of pieces written in false-document form chronicling a future history heavily inspired by things like Battletech, Firefly and the 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica. This means, unlike the previous, it’s unlikely to be prose based or indeed tied down to a single style and format, since I want to be able to experiment while writing entirely from an in-universe point of view. Also, unlike the previous cyberpunk world, this one will be more harder sci-fi than the “rule of cool” employed in Century23. I’m currently trying to keep the “One or Two big lies” method, meaning beyond a couple of unavoidable breaks from reality, the whole thing will be grounded in plausibility (if not possibility). Since I’ve got over a millennia of time to play with, I imagine this will go on for a while, and depending on how long and how well received it is I may spin it off into its own blog to avoid filling here up.

And there you have it, that’s where I’ve come from and where I plan to go with my little writing hobby. Honestly, I don’t write for anyones pleasure beyond my own, but hopefully someone will get something out of it. And as always, any opinions and criticism are always welcome (although please, constructive criticism), so if you have something to say on anything I type, factual or fictional, please speak up, I do like to hear what others think of my work!

–A Man Of Words!

On Video Games, Consumer Rights & Always-Online

Anyone keeping up with the world of video games of late will no doubt have caught wind of the disastrous release that was the Sixth (or Fifth depending on how you count them) instalment of the venerable Sim City series. And “disastrous” may be an understatement for the ages here. The resulting fall out quite rightly doesn’t seem to want to go away, and I thought I’d lend a few thoughts to the whole thing from a consumer’s perspective.

Firstly, before I get into it, this won’t be an Electronic Arts bashing article, I feel the slew of “ZOMG EA IS TEH SUXOR” sentiment that flooded the internet has allowed anger to muddy the issue somewhat, this also won’t be going too deep into the concept or technology of always-on DRM, as I’d wager smarter people than I could do a better job of explaining why it was unnecessary, nor will it be commenting on the quality of the game itself as I simply do not wish to own it (despite SimCity being a personal favourite series of mine). No, I’m going to write my opinions of the consumer implications of it all, and particularly my dismay at how other gamers don’t seem to be willing to do much to prevent it happening again.

As we creep ever closer to an age of total digital distribution of media, those who distribute it is looking for more and more ways to control their product. We see this in the sudden proliferation of closed systems such as iTunes, the Kindle Store and EA’s own Origin system, and it is all ostensibly in an effort to make distribution easier and cheaper and at the same time safeguard us against poor counterfeits of “official” products. While it is understandable that a company wants to protect its revenue streams, these methods are becoming more and more invasive to us, the consumer, and somewhat bizarrely we seem to be accepting it rather than questioning why it needs to be so.

In gaming, Always Online authentication, usually justified in a myriad different ways depending on the publisher and game, is one such system, and one that seems to be gaining popularity amongst publishers. Now creating a game with online multiplayer is not something I have issue with, although most multiplayer games are not ones that appeal to me, neither is a game that is online only, such as World of Warcraft and its ilk. It does, however, become an issue in my eyes when the online component becomes a requirement to run a game in single player. In an age where we’re still downloading and/or installing the majority of the game’s information into our local area this strikes me as unnecessary.

Now, one common counter to this is “But you’re rich enough to own a computer to run this, you’re able to have an always on internet connection.” There are 2 problems I see with this argument that totally ignore the issue: 1. Always on internet may be commonplace, but that does not mean reliable. I live in a well populated area in a major Western Nation and my internet provider is terrible, I wouldn’t trust them with handling anything for any great length of time, and 2. it ignores the rather pressing question of what that always on authentication is doing. If, as they often say, it’s there to protect us from inferior “pirated” product, why always on? Surely a single activation code like the CD-keys of the old days on install would suffice? But the very fact it is essentially constantly looking over your shoulder, and often apparently refusing to work if it cannot do so, strikes me as a lack of trust in the consumer. It honestly feels like the companies distributing the product are going on the assumption that without constant supervision we’ll all be doing devious things with their technology even after paying for it.

And therein lies my major objection to always on systems. Regardless of intention, it feels like the companies that engage in this kind of thing are assuming you or I, the average consumer, are potential criminals. In an attempt to protect their revenue stream from the relatively few people out there who actually do pirate software they are happy to lump all consumers in the same boat. Also, the fact the system requires a remote server to give it the go-ahead adds another alarming level of control over the consumer: The servers can be switched off. Years from now, if the game doesn’t sell well or if it’s superseded by the next game in the series, the publisher can go along to the servers and flick a switch, disabling them and rendering the game you spend £20-60 on totally useless from afar. Again this is something I find staggering as a consumer, the fact the game is essentially not property but a long-term rental with no set due date, something that seems to have happened without any fanfare or consultation.

Ordinarily I’d say all this would risk alienating their clientele, but curiously this doesn’t seem to be the case. Yes, there exist people like myself who refuse to have any part in such activities and are vocal against it, but the fact that these games will still make money, hundreds-of-thousands to millions will still buy them thus promoting the rather dodgy practices, and allowing them to continue, and further eroding our positions as consumers. The only way to stop practices so hostile to consumer rights is to vote with your wallets, and refuse to pay into any organisation that promotes it.

There have been people who have said, in regards to the server issues that plagued SimCity upon release, “Oh give it a week/month until they iron out all the problems and then I’ll buy the game.” The issue I have with this is they won’t have solved the problems, the server issues (which boiled down to not stress testing them as far as I can tell) were not the root problem but a symptom of the invasive levels of control present in the game. The only way those problems can be solved is with a shift in thinking with the publishers, and the only way we can bring about that is if we don’t pay for the pleasure of having our rights eroded.

I, for one, have decided to not buy from any publisher that espouses an always on component in all their titles, regardless of what. They could be bringing out the next SimCity, Mirrors Edge or Deus Ex, but if it requires the publisher looking over my shoulder like I’m some kind of naughty schoolchild I want no part of it, and I urge others to adopt a similar tact.

–Not A Happy Gamer.