The Halo effect

We’ve all heard and seen the hoopla over the new Halo 3 and now read that it garnered $170 million in seemingly less than 24-hours. Now I’m not a fan of Halo 3. I don’t have any Xbox but have played games on it before. Frankly I don’t get the Halo madness because we’ve all done it before back when we were playing Doom and Quake. The only thing that gives Halo an edge is that it is the first console first person shooter to make a difference. But that being said, the cash Halo 3 has brought in could mark the end of quality video games.

If Hollywood is any sign of what happens when hype takes priority over quality, then video games are doomed. Halo 3 took video game marketing and hype to a new level…and it delivered…at least in dollars. Quality of the game is another issue and one I can’t comment on. But now the only thing that will matter is how much a new game can draw over a weekend, just like movies. Everyone will start paying attention to sales dollars more and more and they’ll start to lose sight of what games really are – fun entertainment.

All the graphics, voice acting, and on-line goodness can’t make up game that isn’t any fun to play. I predict games will start to follow in the footsteps of Spider-man 3 and Pirates movies. They’ll draw huge, crazy money at release and then drop sharply and get criticized harshly for lack of quality and value. Of course, when you make $170 million one day, there’s only one way sales can go – down – so that’s not unexpected, but as the price of new release games continue to climb — Halo 3 was $60 compared to the $50 that has been in place for decades — we’ll bitch more and more and won’t get any relief.

At least this is how it will be in console world. In PC world it might happen but not the same effect because you have independent games out there that are good, usually cheap or free, and that are actually fun to play. Unless the console companies open up their platforms and let people make homebrew games they will suffer while computer games will see a rebirth.

Time will tell and gamers will decide.

The DVD vending machine

We were out doing a regular pick-up at Giant Eagle and by chance noticed a DVD vending machine out front standing right next to the soda machines. I’m not sure why we never noticed it before, although I think it is rather new. A big sign on it says “$1 DVD Rentals” — a dollar? I like the sound of that, although we’ve never been one to pay to rent movies…or rent anything for that matter.

The last time I paid for a rental was way back in the Blockbuster hay day, that being when I was renting original Nintendo games. The public library has been our primary movie rental location for years, but where we’re at now really lacks a decent library within a quick drive, even for books. So when we saw a DVD machine at the Eagle we were intriqued…and the price is right. Last night we decided to “get Japanese” and rent a DVD from an automated vending machine. But I had my doubts.

To my surprise, the entire process was really easy and the rental was almost a dollar. It was actually $1.07 to be exact, thanks to tax, but close enough that I’d bite. The movie selection is limited but the titles are recent enough that they’re probably not at the public library yet. The machine is all touch-screen and it takes two steps to get your movie: pick your title, swipe your credit card, take your movie. Simple. And no people to deal with or any hassle like that.


One down side is that you have to use your credit card for a dollar purchase, but it is required because you still have to return to the DVD. I was hoping that it would be a disposable movie as I had read about a while back but it wasn’t. To me that’s the ultimate convenience when it’s a one-way trip to rent movies. The hassle for renting is always returning the movie, but since the machine is at the grocery store where we are a lot anyway, it makes it slightly less of a hassle.

One dollars gets you the movie for one night and have until 7pm the next day to return it. Every day you keep the DVD you are charged another dollar. They try to pawn it off as “no late fee” of course, but when you’re only intending to watch the movie one night and then return it, an extra dollar is the late fee. Returning the movie is crazy easy too. There’s a little slot on the side of the machine and you just drop it in. There is a barcode on the disc itself that it reads so it knows when you did everything.

So while this new option costs me a dollar, it’s close enough and easy enough (and 24 hours enough) that I’m willing to pay a dollar instead of driving all the way back to the hometown to get a movie at the library for free. The library closes by 9p every night and sometimes earlier, which is never a good thing when it comes to returning movies…at least not in our house.

If this is the future of movies, video games, and any other accessory, I can like it. Eliminating the middle man…the human and retail space…to get what I want quicker and on my own is definitely how I prefer to do things.

World in Conflict, just another RTS

I’ve been a fan of PC strategy games ever since Warcraft showed up way back when. Then it was simply Orcs and Humans and didn’t involve 9 million people coming together to share sheep skulls and fight dragons. Since that time the RTS games have gone crazy and you’ll be able to find them in any genre – real war, fake war, sci-fi, historical, aliens, goats, ants…you name it, it has a RTS. Since I built my new PC I am now able to play new games as they come off the assembly line.

Age of Empires III was my first stop. As a fan of the franchise I knew it would deliver a good show…and it does. It looks pretty good to boot. But another RTS is making headlines – World in Conflict. Reading about how great it is supposed to be I downloaded the demo to give it a whirl.

Much to my surprise it loaded and played fine on my PC. I know I have some more horses under the hood now, but I figured these new games would require even more than I have. The demo doesn’t let you tweak video settings, but even in its default mode it looks pretty damn good. World in Conflict is an alternate-fiction RTS that plays out in a World War III – basically the Russians didn’t lose the Cold War, instead they attacked from Canada. A neat concept and one I personally like better than some of the more out there RTS games.


I played the tutorial and this is on complicated game. The only upside is that there is no micromanagement of resources. Most RTS games require you mine for gold, collect wood from trees, and farm food so you can build new fighting units. World in Conflict (WIC) disposes of that in favor of a point system and the nice part is you get points just for having your guys move around. You then use those points to order reinforcements from the skies above. A neat concept that gives the game a good spin on a classic formula.

The controls for the game are double what they are for past RTS games. Moving around requires you use the mouse and keyboard extensively, including the mouse scroll wheel. You have to constantly swivel around and move forward while zooming in and out. Frankly, it made me kind of dizzy and I spent more time trying to figure out the best vantage point than I did commanding my guys to shoot stuff. Thankfully, they do a lot of shooting on their own. Maybe I’m just conditioned to the controls from a more “standard” style of RTS, but these seem way over the top.

Of course, since this is a fancy 3D game you need such controls to navigate around buildings and fields and so on. I almost feel like this game would qualify as a team game, and by that I mean having two people command the same group of guys – one navigates, the other commands…maybe even another manages incoming troops. You could easily have a small team of people dedicated to playing one side of the game. I only played the single player demo, but I’m guessing an on-line multi-player mode might play similar to that fashion.


Naturally, the graphics are great. Frankly, good graphics these days are a given. Games are reaching near-Hollywood production quality where making something look real is no longer a feat.  In WIC you get all the smoke, destructions, guys falling, and everything like that you might expect. Fun to watch but nothing new. Actually, it may be too fun to watch because I got distracted many a time admiring the carnage and not paying attention to my unit.

I’m sure WIC will be a top rated game for the Fall and be a big seller for the holiday season. I doubt I’ll run out and buy it, at least not right away. I was talking with a co-worker today about how I don’t understand all the Halo drool because I’ve been playing first-person games like that since the days of Wolf3D and Doom – Halo is really nothing new. Now it’s getting to the point where RTS games are reaching a burnout point. I think Warcraft came out around ’97 and that’s now been 10 years or more playing (more or less) the same game. Games like WIC and Age of Empires do change things up a bit by adding new challenges, quests, and little tricks — and it works at first and hooks you in, but after a while it ends up just being the same thing. Click this guy, right-click on that guy, shoot that guy, hold that position, fight of the indians, kill all the Russians…whatever.

I’m not bitter, I’m really not. I love to play video games but these games seem to require a lot of dedication just to play them through, and in the end all you get is a cut scene telling the end of the story. We’ve been playing for movie scenes for years now and it seems a little weak at times. Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from playing them, but hopefully some game out there will kick of a craze similar to what the Wii has done for consoles. Until that comes, I guess I’ll just have to hope Super Smash Brothers is everything it sounds like it could be.

Backgrounds advertising

One of the lessons I’ve had to learn over the past six months has been one about money. About how to generate money with a web site. Prior, all my web development and design skills have been focused without worry about creating revenue. Frankly, that’s the ideal situation anyone can be in – getting to do what they like, improving their game without needing to meet any financial quotas. My only measurement for success was whether or not people liked it. Unfortunately, that’s had to monetize and even when you do, no one believes you.

Advertisements are the pimples of web sites. Every designer hates them – except maybe ad designers – and they just get in the way of something that could be great. But in that same stroke, they pose a challenge that makes designing fun. It’s like if as a painter you got a canvas with a square hole in it and you couldn’t repair it. You just have to figure out a way to make it work.

It’s generally accepted that banner ads on web sites do not work. They’re ugly, stereotypical, and aren’t seen by most web site visitors. And I don’t mean they’re not seen due to ad blockers, but they’re not seen because we’ve all been trained to ignore rectangles at the top of pages and squares in the middle. We’ve adapted. And there in lies the second challenge.

Banner ads aren’t going away anytime soon regardless how uneffective they are, mostly because we can’t find a better way to generate money on an otherwise free web site. So over a very short time I’ve had to turn up my creative juices and apply them to advertisement techniques. But since my creativeness in that area is still in its infancy, I did what anyone else would do – I copied.

One method of “different” web advertising that I’ve come to be a fan of is full background advertising. This technique is when the background of an entire web site is bought by a single sponsor. If you frequent Pandora or GameSpot you have probably seen this method. Frankly I think it’s a great idea, both from generating revenue and from the designer’s point of view.

From a sales standpoint its seemingly easy to sell. The client gets more than a wimpy banner ad and gets the “entire” home page to themselves. From the designers side, it keeps the advertisement out of the main content and puts in the background where it can sit nicely and not effect anything else. Also, more often than not, this type of background is fixed, so it doesn’t move when you scroll around the page. This keeps the client’s logo in one spot all the time. With a banner at the top when people scroll it goes off screen. Fixed positioning is much sweeter.

We’re toying with the idea of full background advertisements at work now and trying to find flaws and reasons to not use them. I’m not against them, per se, but a good designer will always try to find why something won’t work before they figure out how to make it work properly. Technically this method is easy, visually it can be very challenging, especially if the client drives/creates the background. Fortunately, since all sites are different and most clients don’t have their own ad design department, I’ll end up making most of the backgrounds – which is fine because that insures it looks good to me and fits in visually with the rest of site.

The down side to all of this is that it is easy for it to go south and fast. If the background and site integration is not done carefully then the whole production ends up looking cheap and ruining what would otherwise me a good user experience when they visit. Both of those hurt the client and my web site, a lose-lose situation.

So far the only real downside to the method is screen resolution – or web site width, depending on how you look at it. If your site is wide to fill a standard 1024×768 screen then there isn’t much free background space on the left or right of your page. If your site is narrower and you align your site to the left side of the screen, you can have a couple hundred pixels of width for your background image. Of course, those that have larger than 1024 displays will see even more, but 1024 is still the sweet spot majority for most visitors – at least from my experience.

Another consideration is where the real banners ads are placed. In the case of the sites I’m over there is a tall ad – called a skyscraper – and most of our sites are left-justified. In the case where the skyscraper ad is on the right of the site the design becomes very lopsided. Since the client who bought the skyscraper also bought the background, their logo/designs are then all focused on the right side, making it feel very heavy. While this might be good for the client, it’s bad for the site as it is distracting. I’ve come to the conclusion that such a technique is best if the skyscraper is on the left side of your page — of course, alternatively, you just don’t have skyscrapers and go for more wider and square ads.

One thing that I’ve found that GameSpot has done many times before is integrate the wide banner ads with the background ad. They’ll line both designs up so there is a seamless blend from background to banner and back. Very cool and very striking, but also very complicated to pull off well.

Another downside to the method is the filesize of the background image. To cover your range of resolution possibilities, your background image has to be very wide and tall, sometimes 1600 wide or more. This can lead to a big image file that has to be downloaded, thus increasing the time it takes to load the entire page. Some backgrounds I’ve found weigh as much as 100k, which is a lot. I try to keep all images on a site less than 40k, the smaller the better, because their combined size adds up fast. In order to keep these background files small you have to really drop the quality of the image. This kind of sucks but is a fair trade-off, I suppose. If you design the background properly you can degrade the quality and it won’t look too awful. Sites like Pandora can get away with even bigger backgrounds because their site is made up of only two things; the background and the music player. They can afford to have a 200k background because even with that size the total ends up being less than most sites without a big background.

It’s a interesting advertising method that I suspect works better than traditional banner ads because it’s bigger and not something visitors are expecting so they notice it, even if only briefly. But getting such a technique to work successfully looks to be balancing act between design, web practicality, and random user resolutions.

The Killers, rain or shine

Apparently there’s not much we won’t do for rock n roll. Apparently there’s not much we won’t do for FREE rock n roll. Last night was proof as we stood in the rain for nearly 4 hours to hear The Killers play. And this wasn’t just “rain” – this was Rain with a capital R. Lightning, thunder, wind, fat drops, the whole bit. We weren’t alone, but we had one thing most of the people didn’t – free tickets.

Through the graciousness of work I acquired two free tickets, which we found out became real valuable because the show was sold out and heard that some had to be purchased for $60 on eBay (double the face value).

I can’t tell you the last time I was so soaked in my life, probably when I was in elementary school because this was a soaking. A soaking along the lines of having water slush around in your shoes. A soaking where your jeans were 10 lbs. heavier. A soaking where all the umbrellas and ponchos in the world didn’t make a difference. We didn’t have either, but many did and they didn’t fare any better than we did. Standing in the second row, I now know what wet humans and White Castle smells like. Mmmmm.

After we finally got into the venue we found that Louis XIV was the opening act. Surprisingly enough I had heard of Louis XIV and was actually interested in hearing them. Only a single or two of theirs have been played on local radio but at least I knew who they were, which is more than I can so for a lot of the opening bands I’ve seen. Louis XIV came out with their ass on fire ready to put on a top notch show. They got about three songs in when the fat rain got fatter. They had to stop their set right there while the crowd waited in the hard, fat rain.

I couldn’t even tell you how long it was before the music resumed. It’s a funny thing about being pissed and miserable in the rain – you’re not real concerned with quality, you just want to be done. Louis XIV may have sounded really, really bad but they sounded good to me because it was live music and almost justified why I was standing in my own puddle. But they did put on a good set even after the unplanned break. I’m listening to their songs now at their web site and I must say that I think their live performance music is better.

After they were done it was time to hear The Killers, the reason we were there. Jen and I are both Killers fans and while I pretty much know their first album by heart, their second (and most recent) album I really don’t know shy of the singles. Their set included a good mix of both albums which kept everyone very happy. They played great and put on a show good enough to make most of us forget it was raining. Eventually it stopped raining and just ended up being hot and humid, but it did help us all dry out a bit.

Unfortunately we don’t have any photos from the show because the venue prohibits cameras. Although there were people with their cameras taking shots so hopefully I can find them soon. I was a little bummed for not having my camera after seeing everyone else with theirs, but given the rain condition my camera would have been toast real fast. Oh well, I was so into the show it didn’t matter. I’ve found when I have a camera in my hand I become really obsessed with getting good shots and spend more time looking through the viewfinder than I do the actual live show.

The Killers seem to be an odd bunch of fellows. The lead singer definitely has some loose screws. His movements were extremely odd and he looked out at people that he saw but no one else did. You could see in his eyes that he was in his own little world. I think his “different” behaviour is possibly how he overcomes being in front of a huge crowd. The guitarist had apparently beat up Michael Jackson for his Captain EO jacket before the show. It was tin foil silver with all the zipper pockets and the whole bit. The entire show the guitarist looked bored as though he was thinking to himself, “my talent is SO wasted with this band,” and in his defense The Killers are not a heavy or complex guitar band, but every band needs a good guitarist.

The bassist looked like an Allman Brothers reject and didn’t do much to speak of. He barely moved from his spot. The drummer was quite possibly the hardest working man there and looked like Andy Kaufman trying to look like Jason Lee from My Name is Earl. Certainly a roundabout much of guys but they can play their music well and it sounded really good. Obviously not as polished as their album but it was far from bad.

To The Killers credit they just kept going. They played three encores and played what ended being probably and hour and a half. In the back of my head I thought they were doing it because they knew we were all waterlogged after standing in five hours of rain just to hear them. Despite all the rain the venue was packed, sold out. It’s interesting how bad conditions will bring people together. Here we all were soaked to the bone just wanting to hear some good music. It was a very sane crowd, shy of this fat chick who kept trying to squeeze her way past me to get closer to the stage. Bitch. Everyone was enjoying themselves, maybe more so because of the rain. Everyone was just like, “fuck it,” there’s not much else they can do to us so we’re going to jump, sing, and rock all night long.

We went through all that just to hear some live music. Pretty nuts and on a better day I would have given up early on in the quest, but I really wanted to see these guys and had free tickets. Sure, you think, “well it was free so if you left then you’re not out anything,” which is true, but I would have been out one hell of a good show. Had it been a band I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing I would have attempted to bail but for some reason it was all worth standing in hard, fat rain, soaked to my shorts.