Dvorak is at least partly right about the gaming industry

The big-time gamers are all up in arms over John C. Dvorak’s assertion that the game industry is dying. But he’s right an awful lot more than he’s wrong.

The games aren’t nearly as original as they used to be.Let’s track the evolution of the first-person shooter. Games where you run around in a maze and shoot everything that moves aren’t new. Castle Wolfenstein was a huge hit for Muse Software way back in 1981. The premise was simple: You’re trapped in a castle full of Nazis and your job is to shoot everything that moves and escape. Simple enough.

Was it the first game of its type? I don’t know. I don’t even know for certain that it was the first popular game of its type. But it at least proves the idea is is at least 24 years old as of the time of this writing.

Eleven years later, Wolfenstein 3D was published and released. It took the same premise and put it in a 3D setting. Its inspiration was obvious. And like its famous predecessor, it pushed the limits of the time: You needed a pretty advanced CPU to play it, and the better your graphics and sound cards were, the better gaming experience you got. In the early 1990s I remember people bragging about the slowest computer they managed to get to run Wolf3D.

A year or so later, Doom was released. It was considered revolutionary. The graphics and sound were better, and it required a better computer, but as far as a plot went, all one had to do was replace the Nazis with monsters and give the main character a larger assortment of weapons.

And that’s pretty much where we stand today. There is no revolution here. Each generation adds more eye candy and another layer of complexity, but the basic premise isn’t really changed since that 1981 game. Some people like that kind of thing and others don’t. Dvorak clearly doesn’t. I never really got into it much either. Once I got over the initial wow factor of seeing a computer-generated 3D world, I found I just didn’t enjoy it. I had a brief fling with a 3D FPS called Redneck Rampage. It used a recycled game engine, just replacing the original setting with a backwoods theme and replacing the characters with rednecks and aliens and playing off every stereotype in the book. I enjoyed the game mostly because I thought it was funny. Once the jokes wore off, I quit playing.

Whether this genre has been worked over to death depends on whether you like this sort of thing, I guess. And maybe that’s where Dvorak is wrong. Neither he nor I see the originality, but people enjoy the games and keep buying them. I don’t see the originality in country music either–to me, the songs pretty much sound alike, and the words are all about pretty much the same thing–but the country music industry is huge and it ain’t exactly shrinkin’, y’all.

Hrumph.

But maybe this is just a sign of a mature industry. One of my high school writing teachers was fond of pointing out that Shakespeare never wrote an original plot in his life. But the stories seemed new when he put new and compelling characters in new settings along with those tired old plots.

Some people will get bored with the FPS games and move on to another interest. Others will keep at it, no matter how bad or unoriginal the games get. The only question is whether the audience will grow or shrink as a whole over time, and if it shrinks, how profitable the genre will become.

I think part of the problem for both Dvorak and me is that we’re both old enough to remember the early 1980s, when new games would come out and the new games really did seem new. All told, a total of about 900 games were released for the Atari 2600, and of those, about 100 were really common. (Of the remainders, a very large percentage of them were knockoffs or sequels and some of them were so bad that they sold terribly, so nobody saw them.)

Most of us who lived through that time and were really into technology saw those 100 or so games and enjoyed them.

There’s another difference too. Those games were a lot simpler. That’s both good and bad. A really avid gameplayer will probably master the game too quickly and get bored with it. But a more casual gamer can pick it up and learn it and enjoy it.

A really good Civilization player will probably enjoy Civ3 more than the original because it’s more challenging. But I’ve come to prefer the first two, because I can still pick up the original and play it well. If I spent ten hours a week playing video games, it might be different.

The gaming industry hasn’t completely lost me. There are still a handful of games I enjoy: the Civilization series, the Railroad Tycoon series, and the Baseball Mogul series. I haven’t bought the new Pirates! yet, but I’m sure I will if and when the price comes down because I loved the original.

But I only pick up one or two of those games per year anymore, and I probably don’t play them for more than a few weeks when I do.

Since my fiancee enjoys racing games where the two of us can race, if I’m ever out somewhere and I see two copies of a cheap racing game that looks decent and offers network play, I’ll get it and a couple of USB steering wheels. I imagine she’ll want to play a lot at first, and then it’ll become something we do occasionally when we might otherwise go to the movies.

The gaming industry changed, and in doing so, it lost John Dvorak and it’s probably written people like me off too, because I only spend $50 every two or three years on games.

Dvorak seems to think the gaming industry needs people like him. And that’s the only point he makes that I’m not wholeheartedly ready to agree with. The gaming industry is very different now than it was when I was 15 and playing games a lot, but it’s also a lot bigger.

Selling untested memory is new? Whatever.

An article on the “new” practice of low-tier manufacturers selling untested memory got attention on Slashdot this week.

This isn’t a new practice. I’ve known about it for about eight years.There’s a pretty good reason why all name-brand memory is priced pretty much the same. You can occasionally catch a break in pricing, but on average, a Kingston module is going to cost about the same as a Crucial module, and so will any other top-tier brand. Memory from a computer manufacturer like HP or Sun may cost a bit more still, ostensibly because the manufacturer tests for compatibility. They may or may not actually test the module you buy, but at least they’ll guarantee it not only works but works in the machine you put it in.

If you’re building your own PC, by all means buy Crucial or Kingston memory or go to a specialty high-performance memory like Mushkin. The same holds true for upgrading a name-brand PC. But pay the extra money for server memory from the company who made your server. An hour of downtime will obliterate the $100 you might save.

But there’s another tier of memory. I first became aware of it back in the days when a typical issue of Computer Shopper was as thick as the Greater St. Louis White Pages. Tucked away in the back, there was always someone who beat the typical memory prices and he usually beat it by a long shot–at least 30%. For several years, that was how I bought my memory, and for a long time I got away with it.

Then along came Slot 1 and Super 7. Once CPU rates broke the 233 MHz barrier, the systems became a whole lot harder on their memory. I don’t know what was special about 233 MHz, but that cheap commodity memory just didn’t cut it anymore. Suddenly, I started noticing that commodity memory often didn’t pass the rudimentary memory test that computers perform before they load the operating system. That’s akin to flunking grade-school recess, so I started looking into it.

What I found was that commodity memory generally isn’t tested, or it’s tested very loosely. What’s worse yet is that the chips on some commodity memory were tested, and failed. They were certified for use in things like pagers and other consumer devices, but not up to the higher demands of computers.

So, having known this for about 8 years, you can imagine what I thought when I read the headline “Why untested DRAMs are getting into more and more products.” I was thinking hey, an upgrade! Since it didn’t test bad, at least there’s a chance it’ll work!

Maybe this practice has evolved in the past few months, as the author of the article in question alleges. But it’s hardly a new trick. In the highly competitive no-name clone market, this has been going on since at least the days of the 486. What was going on in the days of the 386 is even scarier.

Will Dell and the boys follow suit, like the author fears? I doubt it. PCs are problematic enough as it is, and it only takes a few months to lose a reputation that was built over the course of a decade. Shipping commodity memory isn’t like outsourcing technical support to India–there’s a fair percentage of your customer base who will never use your tech support. All of your customers will use your memory.

I can’t imagine commodity memory ending up in any name-brand PC, unless it’s a name brand whose ship is sinking fast.

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this old trick is showing back up again. The business is competitive, PC sales are down, the economy isn’t what it was 10 years ago, and profit margins are impossibly thin. If todays untested and/or defective memory is better than 1997’s, someone’s going to use it.

But part of the story never changes: Always buy your memory from a reputable manufacturer and distributor, so you know what you’re getting and whence it came. You’ll save a lot of frustration over the life of the PC that receives the upgrade.

New Order is back?

A week or so ago I was in the car with my fiancee and a song I’d never heard before but that seemed strangely familiar came on the radio. "Sounds like New Order," I said. She said she was thinking the same thing but mentioned someone else it sounded like.

"That’s a Peter Hook bassline if I’ve ever heard one," I said. "Gotta be New Order."

I heard the song again this morning, and this time, the DJ said who it was. "Yes, the ’80s band," he added.It just shows how out of touch I’ve become. Ten years ago I followed that band’s every move, being (at the time) an incurable Joy Division fanatic. Since Joy Division was gone forever, New Order was the closest thing I was going to get. And sometimes I settled for the side projects, although they were almost always disappointing.

It’s a good song, I guess (though I still don’t know the title). It didn’t instantly resonate with me like their 1993 comeback "Regret" did, but it’s a whole lot better than anything else that took up space on the same album with "Regret."

But I guess it shows how priorities change when we get older. A search revealed the album was released about a month ago. There was a time when I’d run out on my lunch break and buy it on the basis of the band’s name on the cover. I just don’t do that anymore. I bought half my collection of CDs on the basis of one song, or on the basis of who recorded it, and I’ve been bitten way too many times.

A couple of weeks ago I was in the record store and I listened to a whole pile of discs and had a blast. But I walked out empty-handed. It was a great way to spend that evening, but I didn’t hear anything that made me want to spend 17 bucks. And it could very well be a year before I go do that again.

Am I getting old, or is there that much less interesting stuff out there now than there was in 1987?

In honor of tax day… Basements.

The St. Louis Post-Disgrace ran a nice article on basements, ironically, on April 15.

I doubt anyone’s tax refund will build anything quite like these.

The article described themed St. Louis-area basements: a medieval ballroom, a malt shop, and a Lionel train layout.All very cool. Of course, I most want to copycat Jack Stein. He doesn’t live far from me at all, nor is he far from the train shop that I frequent. But I don’t believe he and I have ever met.

His 18×16-foot layout would be considered small by most toy train magazines. Something tells me my fiancee wouldn’t consider that small. I’m currently working on designing a more modest 16×5-foot layout for my basement.

Of course, there’s a lot more to life than trains. There’s ice cream. Wouldn’t a malt shop-themed room look nice next to a train room? Yeah, I’m thinking. In 30 years. But you can’t start planning too soon, right?

If you like retro stuff, it’s a worthwhile read. It makes putting a wet bar in the basement seem unoriginal.

Gas-saving sites miss the obvious

I saw a link today called "Gas Stations Hate Us." It promised money-saving tips. I clicked on it, of course. It had some advice I hadn’t heard anywhere before, like a good credit card for gas rebates, and to fill up in the morning because when it’s cooler, you get more gas per gallon.

It also had some advice on vehicles–it pushed the Toyota Prius, for instance. But it missed something obvious.Now, I have no objections to people trading in their SUVs for a Toyota Prius like the site suggests, on principle. Anything that cuts your fuel consumption is a good thing. The problem with that is there’s a long, long waiting list to buy a Toyota Prius, so you can’t follow that advice. And a lot of people aren’t going to take that advice just because of the Prius’ styling.

But there’s a less drastic way to cut your gas consumption:

Drive the speed limit, and drive nice.

I drive I-70 through St. Louis at least once a week these days. In the course of doing this, I noticed something. An awful, awful lot of people want to drive 70 on I-70. But the best way to find someone who wants to drive 80 on 70 is to pull into the fast lane, speed up to 70, and pass someone. Someone will be on your bumper in a heartbeat. And there won’t be anything you can do about it either, because on the left side, there’ll be people doing 72, 75, or some other speed faster than you, so you can’t even get over.

And of course, once Dale Earnhart gets past you, he floors it for about 10 feet, then slams on his brakes just before he kisses the bumper of the guy who was ahead of you who was doing 72. Then the whole game starts over again, until the maniac gets off the road, either by arriving at his destination or a cop pulling him over. It’s not the latter very often, unfortunately.

The speed limit on the stretch of I-70 that I’m describing is 55 miles per hour, by the way.

I got sick of trying to keep up. So I just pull onto 70, stay as far to the right as I can, and set my cruise control for 55. Sure, people zoom past me. Sure, I get there about five minutes later than I would otherwise. But you know what? I feel a lot better when I get there. I’m less tense.

And my gas mileage jumps. At 70 MPH, my Honda Civic seems to get 32-33 miles per gallon. At 55, I get closer to 38.

I’ve also taken on another habit. My Civic just happens to have a tachometer, so I can look down and get a quick idea of how hard my engine is working. If my engine is doing 3,000 RPMs or more, I back off. My Civic is a light enough car that it can get up to speed even if the engine only does 2,200 RPM. The engine doesn’t work as hard, which saves gas. And I don’t hit the brake pedal as much, which saves gas. And yes, it’s possible to develop a feel for how to keep your RPMs low while maintaining a constant speed. Dale Earnhart won’t appreciate you when he gets right up on you, but if you’re on a stretch of road where the speed limit is 35, do you really need to accelerate to 35 in four seconds?

Now, I’d love to tell people to buy a Toyota Prius. I really would. Because the only way the price of hybrids is going to come down is if more people buy them. But I thought about a hybrid when I bought my Civic. I thought about it long and hard. And this was when gas was $1.35 a gallon and people were bellyaching about it.

My Civic cost me right around $16,000. A hybrid would have cost me around $24,000. That’s an $8,000 difference. Assuming $2 per gallon, which is actually less than it costs today but it makes the math nice, the price difference would buy you 4,000 gallons of gas. That’s enough gas to drive at least 120,000 miles. A lot of people don’t keep their cars long enough to drive that far. And that’s not even the break-even point. Assuming a Prius gets 50% better gas mileage than my Civic (it doesn’t), the Prius doesn’t start paying for itself for another 60,000 miles or so.

I think it’s better to buy the most fuel efficient conventional (or diesel) vehicle that meets your needs for size and space, then drive like you would if there was a cop behind you all the time.

As it sits now, I get about 38 MPG driving that way. If I were better about using fuel injector cleaner and changing my air filter, I might get closer to 40. With better spark plugs and a really good synthetic oil like Mobil 1 or Ams oil, I might get 40. That’s not Toyota Prius territory, but it’s better than some people report getting from their Honda hybrids.

Are blogs credible?

OK, so 60%+ of Americans don’t trust blogs. Do I need to do a Gomer Pyle imitation?

Blogs are media. People generally don’t trust the media either.Ten years ago, which was a time when the Web had about 12 pages on it and almost all of them were personal pages, I was in journalism school and if there was one point the introductory and history classes tried to hammer home, it was that freedom of the press is in danger. Today, a majority of students, when presented with the exact wording of the First Amendment, believe it goes too far.

There’s an old saying that freedom of the press is for those who own one. To a degree, that presented a large barrier of entry. One can safely assume that it will cost more than a million dollars to start a magazine, and that’s been true for a very long time. Newspaper startup costs will be much higher.

But somehow that hasn’t stopped quacks from getting into print. Some quacks are very wealthy. They can buy media outright, and less-wealthy quacks can just buy some space in a newspaper and pontificate all they want about whatever bothers them and act like a syndicated columnist–some even include their picture–and the only way you would know is by the word “ADVERTISEMENT” plastered across the top and the bottom of the editorial.

In contrast, some people will give you a blog for free, and that lowers the cost of entry even further. Now all it takes is some rudimentary computer skills and the willingness to sit down and write. And if people agree with you and link to you, you might even gain some prominence.

Does that make them credible? No. But do the words “of the [insert newspaper name here] staff” give you credibility? It shouldn’t. Journalism is not a licensed profession like engineering or law or medicine. If I can convince someone to hire me and pay me to write, I’m a journalist. The same goes for you. There are just two barriers of entry: People who can string words together intelligently are much more rare than they should be, and the pay stinks. If your goal is to keep a dry roof over your head and drive a car that isn’t falling apart, you’re better off persuing a career as a garbage man. But if you’re willing to live with pay that makes schoolteachers look like aristocrats, there isn’t much keeping you from being a journalist.

The low pay is one reason I’m suspicious of a lot of journalists. To put up with that lifestyle, you pretty much have to have a hidden agenda.

So do I trust blogs? Generally, no. But don’t feel bad. Generally speaking I’m suspicious of television news and newspapers and magazines and other online news services too.

Credibility is earned. I know some people trust me. I know some other people think I’m a quack who blogs because no sane person would pay me to write anything. And that’s fine–in some cases the feeling is more than mutual.

So what to do about those big, bad blogs that have no credibility? Censoring speech is always bad. The solution to speech that needs censorship is more speech. So the answer to bad blogs is more blogs. The best of the best will rise to the top, and quacks always find a way to eventually self destruct.

Adobe buys Macromedia!

I thought this was a joke at first, but it appears that Adobe really is buying competitor Macromedia.Ironically, the app that really put Macromedia on the map (before Flash) was Freehand, which was an old Aldus product that Adobe sold off when it bought the creator of Pagemaker.

This pretty much eliminates the only viable competition for Illustrator. I don’t know that anyone considered Fireworks a viable competitor to Photoshop or not. But essentially, when it comes to desktop publishing, the only companies left to compete with Adobe are Quark (who only have one viable product) and what’s left of Corel.

If I were the FTC, I would force Adobe to sell off its competing products, although I don’t know if Quark would want them, and Corel already has its line of graphics apps, although Macromedia’s are generally better respected. But since the current administration loves big business, probably what will happen is either the competing products will be discontinued or dummied down into consumer-level products.

I think the software industry is already consolidated more than it needs to be, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen an acquisition actually result in a better product. But we’ll see what happens this time.

Punishing the curious for something that should have never happened

I saw a story on the news tonight about more than 100 students who won’t be getting into MBA programs. Why? When they applied to a number of prestigous universities, a posting on a bulletin board claimed to let them view their records and see if they were admitted or not.

It didn’t work for all of them. But those who tried to peek are being punished.My question is why is this information on the public Internet to begin with? This is precisely what intranets are for: You put sensitive information on a web server behind a firewall. Then you define one or more computers who can see it. The rest of the world can’t access it, because the rest of the world doesn’t know it exists. But those who are authorized to see it can see it, through the convenience of a web browser.

Leaving this kind of information on a web server that’s open to the public via the plain old Internet is akin to keeping student records, finals, and other sensitive information at the campus library. If it’s out where someone can see that it’s there–or might suspect it’s there–then someone’s going to look. It shouldn’t be there in the first place. I had professors who never kept tests in their office because some student at some point in time had broken in, hoping to get a preview of the final.

Punishing applicants for typing in a link that they figured wouldn’t work anyway accomplishes little or nothing, except to say that some of the nation’s finest universities have given no thought whatsoever to their computer security and network design.

I hope their graduates are smarter than the people who run the place. But that’s probably a given.

What happens when you overclock

I’ve never been a big fan of overclocking. I overclocked for a couple of weeks back in my Pentium-75 days but quit when my system started acting goofy. I did it again five years ago when I was writing my book, because, well, everyone expected me to talk about overclocking in it. So I overclocked again, and tried to use that overclocked machine in the process of writing a book. This foray only lasted a little while longer.

I explicitly recommended against overclocking in my book, based on my experience with it. Now, some five years later, we have an analysis from a Microsoft engineer, based on what he found when analyzing crash dumps people had sent in when they push the “send error report” button.There’s a lot of technical jargon in his analysis. I know enough about assembly language make a Commodore 64 flash lots of colors on the screen, so I know just enough to translate his code examples into English.

Basically, what the examples indicate is that the overclocked processor in question knew that two values were set to the same number, was told to do something if the two values were equal and something else if they weren’t equal, and the CPU did… the something else. Suddenly five wasn’t equal to five.

The second example he sites is just a sneaky way to set something to zero. These overclocked processors weren’t able to do that reliably.

Let me put this a different way. In 1989 or 1990, I read a magazine article in the late, great Compute magazine about CPUs. At the time, the Motorola 68030 was one of the fastest CPUs on the market. The author asked a Motorola engineer how Motorola made a 50 MHz CPU (which at the time was mind-blowing). Know what he said? He said they started out by taking a 33 MHz CPU, running it at 50 MHz until it broke, and then they looked at what broke and tried to find a way to make those parts stronger.

A lot of people encourage overclocking because they say it’s harmless. That quote from a Motorola engineer notwithstanding, I think it really depends on what it is that you’re doing. Some would argue that if all you do is play games, go ahead and overclock, and if you toast your CPU in a year, well, next year’s hottest game will need a newer CPU anyway. Having had a computer crash in the middle of a game where I was doing well, I’m not so keen even on that idea.

I’m certainly not going to overclock anything that’s going to have my financial information on it. When I’m doing my monthly budget, I need my computer to know that five equals five.

I didn’t recommend overclocking in 1999, and with what CPU prices have done in the past six years, if anything, it makes less sense now.

Survey sites, revisited

Back in December, I warned against paying anyone $35 for lists of survey sites.

If I was convinced then it was a bad idea, I’m even more convinced now.The hucksters promise you can make a hundred dollars an hour or more. If you do the math, that can be true–I suppose if someone offers you $35 to take a survey and you finish it in 15 minutes, you’ve essentially been paid $140 an hour–but that’s numbers trickery. You’re not going to get enough surveys to do a 40-hour week at that rate, unless you’re a whole lot luckier than I am.

I signed up at several paid survey sites, starting in late November. Within a week, I got a couple of $10 surveys. After a month or so, a couple of $25, $35 surveys came in. It was nice. Some of the surveys took longer than others, but I don’t think any of them took me much more than 30 minutes.

I think I may have made $100 in my best month.

But here’s the rub. The marketing research people who do these sites don’t want career survey takers. If you take a survey about, say, potato chips, they don’t want to hear from you again for another six months.

My best month, I made about $100. These days, I’m making more like $5 a week. I’m not complaining, because it’s usually a fairly easy five bucks, and while that’s a small amount of money, it’s about the smallest amount of money that you can actually do something with. But is it worth paying $35 to get at a list of people who are willing to shoot five bucks your way every once in a while? No.

The other thing that works against paid surveys being the secret of the universe that leads to financial independence is the speed. Some of them pay you within a couple of weeks. Some of them take months. If your rent is due next week and you’re a few bucks short, don’t count on filling out a bunch of surveys to make up the difference–you’ll be lucky if the money gets to you in time to help you with next month’s rent.

So don’t pay that survey site. If you’re curious, click that link above to the entry I wrote back in December. In the comments, there’s a link to a good site with links to literally hundreds of survey sites, both paid and unpaid. Sign up for a Yahoo mail account and use it to register for a few sites and see what happens. Maybe you’ll do better than me and make a couple hundred bucks one month. Maybe you’ll just make $15. But at least you didn’t pay $35 to find out.