"All right action flows from the breath"
- Hajakujo

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Music in its new Age

Read a rather interesting interview between David Byrne and Thom Yorke, discussing In Rainbows and the revolution in the business of music. Digital downloads!

The phenomenon of file sharing [the ethics of which are trawled through here] has rocked the industry, mostly because it was such a cosy, locked-in business model that the bright and the overpaid panicked, rather than because file sharing was offering a viable alternative source of the full range of music products. This full range is where people, with resources to exploit, need to be looking to grow their service portfolio...let's not forget, all they do is provide a service. Music is an auditory experience, packaging and distribution is a service. Record companies need to let go of the idea that they actually own music. That was never their function until they overstepped their mark. If file sharing sank all the old industry dinosaurs and evolved a new breed, it wouldn't be too soon.
But partisanship aside, let's be constructive and try to think of some ways the music industry can save itself, without crucifying everyone else in the world [the rough population of those who will eventually become file sharers].

How about a model where fans go to a concert and download the whole experience to their mobile wireless digital storage devices, whatever form they may take? The performance itself becomes a digital saleable commodity, one that can be traded online afterward. The concert DVD already does this, of course, but it seems very exciting and attractive to me that it would be instantly available and personalised (concert DVD's are usually only filmed in one location from a tour, this would be every location and be automatically the location the fan attended).
The ticket cost pays for the music, so ticket costs would have to go up (costs of putting on the show have to be covered).
However, maybe if the tickets were paid for by account debit or credit (or credit card), then they could form a binding contract on the buyer, and songs from the show recorded by the buyer could be digitally watermarked to allow detection of widespread distribution. I dunno, this is getting a bit like DRM...

Nevertheless, this is an inventive scheme, and it's invention that is needed as we have a real necessity to reinvent or replace the dinosaurs and bridge the gap between affordable music and sufficient revenue to produce it.

Let the music out - that's what's really needed.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Where's the Cheese?

"Hellgate: London gets content update.

...The Stonehenge Chronicles update adds open, outdoor wilderness areas intended to stand in contrast to the main game's setting in the streets and sewers of London.

The update is comprised of three different sections: The Caste Caves, Moloch's Lair and The Wild. The Caste Caves unlocks four dungeons for each enemy caste, and each tasks players with defeating a spectral overlord. "

I took this from Gamasutra, which could be seen to deflate the point I'm about to make, but I'll press on regardless (oh, and maybe see the last post also).

Caste Caves. Moloch and his Lair. Spectral overlords. Sewers. In point of fact, Hellgate!

What on earth would be wrong with an MMO set in some variant of a cool real world location, as London undoubtedly is, that didn't involve either a) the cast of ghouls and ghosts, or b) the cast of the Lord of the Rings (book not film)?

Is it that hard to let go of a glorious past and set out for new horizons? I'm sure somebody in the games industry could come up with a compelling scenario to cover the possibility space for play in an MMO mechanic, that occurs in the real world, a place many people who don't care two figs for Moloch's Lair are quite attached to!!

It's kind of sad, really.

To be fair, I'm not trying to attack Hellgate: London, which I know almost nothing about. I was just kicked off by reading the Gamasutra piece, which raised the old bugbear. Why is there so little attempt to work the tropes of familiar, everyday life into games? Not every movie or book is about a land reached only through a wardrobe - some people like to read about themselves. Dogs and ponies and invasive surgery are massively popular on a certain handheld, so why doesn't anyone leverage the cinematic visuals and power of the top-end consoles or PC's to tell a little tale about modern urban life?

Or, as opposed to invoking daemonic ingress, even an MMO about how to survive the world's end we've cooked up in the real world!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Can Games ever become Art?

Received this synopsis of an Irish Times article recently, edited by the sender but essentially verbatim. It's not an uncommon theme for the specialist press, but as we know (and as Hegarty comments) games rarely go through the mainstream press, so I thought this worth posting because he is quite an astute social commenter. My own quick reaction follows...

by Shane Hegarty, Irish Times Weekend Review, January 12
'This column will be about computer games. Please don't turn away. I mention it only because the subject appears to be regarded by newspapers as an effective reader repellent. Millions play computer games, but it seems that few want to read about them. It is a thriving, multi-billion-euro cultural behemoth, but there are more interesting multi-billion-euro behemoths elsewhere.
...I've been playing (on) an Xbox 360...Halo 3... in which the player (in practice) must ignore the story and just shoot lots of things to survive and reach the next level. (he goes on to complain that games really haven't developed/ matured with their players; film evolution was so much more impressive - from Lumiere Bros. to Fritz Lang over a similar 35-year time-frame). 'What have games given us? Pacman, Mario, Lara Croft and Sonic the Hedgehog.
"Games boast ever richer and more realistic graphics, but this has actually inhibited their artistic growth", argued Daniel Radosh in the New York times in September, after three days of eye-blurring play with Halo3. "The ability to convincingly render any scene or environment has seduced game designers into thinking of visual features as the essence of the gaming experience". worse, he complained, the genre can't break free of another medium it has pretensions to supercede. "Many games now aspire to be 'cinematic' above all else". Not so, claimed Slate.com's gamer. Reviewing the game on the merits of its single-player campaign is like judging a deck of cards on how fun your last game of solitaire was".
He argued that a game such as Halo 3 should instead be lauded for the way in which it offers open-ended artificial environments, which the player can reshape and jump into alongside players from all over the world.
This debate is seldom picked up in a wider media that tracks every trend in music or movies, and which frets constantly over standards in each. Games are confined mainly to the business or technology pages or, pejoratively, when discussing the obesity crisis. Titles are reviewed in some publications, but not with anything like the same attention given to movies or music.
There are some obvious reasons for this. Games are predictable. For all the bluff put into the story on the back of computer game boxes, many of them actually require players to do only one thing: ignore the story and just shoot lots of things to reach the next level.
Game design is also too collaborative to throw up great individuals [my emphasis].
This week, Irish-based company Havok won and Emmy. No one seemed to be able to explain exactly what it was for. They add to the realism and interactivity of games, was the standard line, although one paper just went with, "Game Geeks Win Award".
Cinema and music offer collective experiences, while gaming is still seen as pretty anti-social. Games offer collective experiences too - with the new generation of consoles tapping into social networking - but its not the same as getting several hundred, or tens of thousands, of people in the same space to enjoy the same event.
Meanwhile, cinema has personality, unpredictability, and the possibility of a great performance. The only great performance in computer games comes from the player, and nobody else cares.
Listen to this games expert on slate-com talking about his personal highlights from 2007, and see how many syllables you get through before losing consciousness. "So there I was, minding my own business, flying my Rupture-class cruiser in a low-security star system called Klogori. All of a sudden, a Thorax blastership flown by a pilot from the then-powerful RISE alliance appears on my heads-up display...". Which reminds you that, in 35 years, the genre has yet to throw up a great critic either.
So, for the moment, this cultural giant - which increasingly influences cinema, drives technology onwards, generates huge revenue, and occupies millions of people - remains somewhat in the shadows. It seems if it still has a little way to go before it overcomes its enemies and gets to the next level'.
comments to: www.ireland.com/blogs/presenttense

Hegarty is pretty much on the money here. The reason for it is that, up until recently anyway, games development usually attracts two types - men who are recidivist adolescents, with accompanying juvenile power fantasies (I've got my hand up :D), and money grubbing bastards.

And there are 'grown-up' games out there, but nobody's really interesting in talking about them, not even the games press {who are themselves even more useless than the developers, so much in the pockets of the big publishers}.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Ideas and thinking

Its funny how what we think about can totally fool our own faculties of logical and aesthetic discrimination. Beautiful ideas can creep up on you, pop out with the least effort, and be lauded and praised while you're still wondering why anyone would read it...or you can slave away on a body of work that ties in years of reading and careful concept building, and nobody gets it.

Maybe that's why some people believe in the Platonic reality.

What I've described above is quite exaggerated with respect to myself, but I'm sure of the truth of it, even then. Something in the way cognition and conceptualisation work rings true to this phenomenon. How much can we truly say our minds are arbitrary, chaotic creations of fuzzily specified hardware systems? Isn't there some thread of structure of thought that is inherent to us all?

Many have claimed there is.
It was thought to be language-based, maybe recursion, but that is by no means established. Some rather famous (in anthropology circles) Amazon tribe seems to exist entirely without recursive speech, and all it takes is one black sock.
It may hide somewhere in the little-understood processes of memory formation and recall.
The signalling system of the biological neural network is hardly measurable, and very much not understood. Allow me here a hackneyed and misplaced analogy with computers, to spell things out...If our neural nets are the physical data transfer layer, then the signalling between them is the logic gate design*. If we do not have a full grasp of even this level of algorithmic operation, how can we divine the instructions being passed, or the language that they underwrite, or the semantics being expressed?
How can we hope to reason about why thinking works in such peculiar ways? I'm afraid that for now, the engineering of cognition is a way up the slope**, and we are stuck with thinking about thinking.

The beauty of it is, thinking about thinking can be far more fun than knowing the answer :)

*We could also say 'the Turing Machine specification', but this gives the false impression that classical Turing machines are not totally superseded by von Neumann logic gates (Tesla's logic gates are kind of besides the point, occuring too soon). Also, this analogy only holds in the static case, but the dynamic is too much to go into - see Holland's Emergence.

**The slope of the acceleration of human knowledge. I'm not going to say anything about how that relates to linear time here. That woud be presumptuous.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Man...

This was going to be a follow up to, though not too promptly on the heels of, my previous oil post(it may be wise to read that first, if you haven't). However the point I am circling around is two-fold, and this part has run quite long enough, so I'm posting it standalone. I may continue back around to oil or I may diverge to the environment. We'll see!

One thing I think is often mis-understood is the exact nature of 'Them'. The Man, whoever he is. Some like to believe that there are shadowy bodies of power-brokers, overseeing great conspiracies to rule the world. Others believe that it's just ordinary people at the top, with ordinary motivations of varying shades of morality.

One thing that's not often posited is that the truth is probably somewhere in between - there are shadowy bodies of unrepresentative individuals overseeing loosely collaborative agreements on how to exercise their vast power to run the parts of the world that concern them. I doubt, however, if their motivations are larger than their capacity for vision. This is key, because I strongly believe that you don't really get to positions of great power, if you are the kind of person who sees very far beyond yourself.

Vision, in entrepreneurial terms, means discovering opportunities of indefinite expansion. Expansion, as I've said before, is the sine qua non of economy. The very idea of value is predicated on a positive prediction for economic expansion. Empires rise as they master forms of expansion, and fall as their strategies for expansion are outdated by the consequences of that same expansion. Populations of all sorts of creatures follow the same pattern - boom and bust. Managing to avoid the bust is indeed an admirable skill, and rewards its holders very highly.

It's not really visionary though.

Great, world shaking thinkers and entrepreneurs have been distinct sets of people, I believe.

To come back to the point then, where the shadowy power brokers theory falls down is that there are no people that would be put in such a position of power, and see a way to use it for truly extrinsic achievement. Read a goodly spread of sci-fi authors, and the chances are good someone will have posited a really quite plausible set of steps to be taken from the present day to escape the closed loop of our existence. And that is only the most obvious example of vision.
And where is it to be seen among those who wield power? They threw away the plans for the Saturn rockets that got us to the moon, for Heaven's sake! They used a planetary lifetime's worth of free carbon-based energy to power an economy less than two centuries old and doomed to crash by the very nature of it's design!

Still, it is little wonder, after all. 'Waste and want' are the watchwords of our world. Little wonder those at the top of food chain direct things in similar mode. Any attempt to paddle in the other direction usually costs the exemplar everything, in personal terms. So great is the flow of humanity toward oblivion, that any attempt to signal for change requires complete dedication of the signaller's life. A high price.

So it's easy to say lions for lambs, but harder to step into those shoes and be anything but the same as those led, who turn out to be more sheep with the appetite of lions.