Why piracy matters

Rob O’Hara offers an interesting perspective on piracy.

I agree with him. 20 years ago, copyrighted material offered presence. It was something special.

Computer software was mostly sold in specialty stores. And if you wanted something, the store might or might not have it. There was a bit of a hunt involved. I still have fond memories of going to Dolgin’s, Babbage’s, and other long-gone stores to buy Commodore software. Sure, I pirated some stuff (who didn’t?) but mostly confined myself to out-of-print stuff that you couldn’t otherwise get.

Believe it or not, I took pride in having a shelf of paid-for software.

Music was the same way. Back then, the average record store had a comparable selection to your local Target. If you decided you liked Joy Division or Sisters of Mercy, you had a long road ahead of you to collect all their stuff. Acquiring material that was far off the Top 40 path took time and effort, not just money.

Today it doesn’t matter what you want, you can probably find it in 30 minutes online. Legally, or, in most cases, illegally. Like a friend asked me about 10 years ago when broadband connections became attainable and this stuff started to change, “How can data be rare?”

The solution some people give is touring. That works for musicians, but not so well for everyone else. Book signings aren’t very profitable for most authors. There’s no close equivalent at all for software. Charging for service works for application software, but not at all for games.

The solution is to find other ways to make a living.

The loss? Culture, frankly. Music gets reduced to the lowest common denominator. Record labels can’t (or won’t) take a chance on promising young bands whose first few records don’t sell. Had U2 come on the scene in 1999 instead of 1979, it never would have made it. The Joshua Tree was a huge seller, but who’s ever heard of Boy and October? By today’s standards for first and second albums, they were flops.

The result is we see a lot more acts like Justin Timberlake, who can make a lot of money fast. If they fade from view, it doesn’t matter, because the record companies can always manufacture a replacement. Which leaves little reason to take a chance on someone who does things differently and takes a few years to really burst onto the scene. The environment doesn’t really favor the development of someone like Talking Heads, the Moody Blues, or much of anything else that deviates from the norm today. Or U2, for that matter, who may sound mainstream today, but they sure didn’t in 1980.

I see other arenas suffering too. Name me an innovative video game. There’s been very little innovation since Wolfenstein 3D came into being in 1992. Virtually everything since is just a variation on that same theme: Shoot everything that moves in a 3D environment. Yawn. That wasn’t even very innovative–it’s just that it happened in 3D. There were plenty of shoot-everything-that-moves games out there in the mid/late 1980s for the Nintendo NES. Wolfenstein itself was a remake of a 2D shooter from the early 80s for 8-bit computers called Castle Wolfenstein.

Creative people who want to have a house and a car and a few things to put in it find other ways to make a living. Like writing or doing graphic design for Pizza Today or another trade magazine. It’s steady work. It’s not glamorous and won’t make you famous, but it pays the bills. And it’s niche enough that it’s unlikely to be pirated.

Someone may find a way to make things work in this new reality. Odds are it won’t be someone in Washington. And it probably won’t happen tomorrow. Which is a shame.

DOS nostalgia?

I’ve been getting nostalgic for DOS lately. Well, certain DOS games *cough* Railroad Tycoon *cough*.

One of my coworkers’ wives is nostalgic for ’80s boy bands whose name I refuse to mention, so there certainly are worse things for me to be nostalgic about. Sure, DOS is terrible, but not that terrible.I’m using an old 128MB compact flash card in a cheap CF-IDE adapter. While 128 megs isn’t a lot, it’s adequate if you’re not going to have Windows and Windows apps loaded. After all, you can get all the DOS you’ll ever need for game playing in less than 1.5 megs. Even still, I’ll probably pick up a bigger card the next time I order stuff from Newegg. A 4 gig card is cheap, and to DOS, 4 gigs is huge.

DOS boots to a C prompt in about five seconds off the CF card, and a good chunk of that is the CD-ROM driver scanning the IDE channels for drives. The system takes a lot longer to POST than it does to boot.

The system itself is an old Micron Pentium II-266. Severe overkill, but I hear Railroad Tycoon Deluxe really wants a fast CPU. Plus, my 486 is missing in action right now anyway.

Now that I have the system running, I need to hunt down drivers for the system’s Sound Blaster card. Then I’ll get Railroad Tycoon Deluxe loaded, and then all I’ll have to do is find a little time to play it. That last step will probably be the hardest part.

If the games I want to play don’t like the P2 (unlikely but possible), I’ll just dig out a Pentium 75 or a 486 from somewhere. That won’t be a huge setback, since I’ll have everything I need gathered up to build the system at that point.

Replace your video game system’s power cord cheap

This weekend I found myself in search of a power cord for an original Playstation. It’s the same plug that the Sega Dreamcast and Saturn and Sony PS2 use, but it seems like online almost everyone wants $10 for a suitable replacement. I learned how to replace your video game system’s power cord cheap, and I’ll share the secret with you, too.

I found out by accident that the local Game Stop sells them for $4.99. I had to run an errand about four doors away from a Game Stop anyway, so I dropped in. It took me a little while to find, but I found the cable.

It’s not the same. What they sell as a “universal” AC power cable has two round sides on the plug, not a round and a square like the original Sony cable. I knew I’d seen the connector on the end of that Gamestop cable before, so I didn’t pay $5 for it. It turns out it’s universal because it also fits the original Xbox. An Xbox cable works on a Playstation but not the other way around.

Replace your video game system's power cord cheap. Look for this connector.
This super-common power connector fits most video game consoles. If you find one of these in a junk drawer, it can replace a missing video game power cord. Image credit: Miguel Durán/Wikipedia

I did some digging, and I found that the official name for the connectior the Playstation uses is IEC 60320 C7P. The “P” stands for “polarized.” The “universal” connector on the cable Gamestop was selling is the IEC 60320 C7. The nonpolarized plug fits the polarized connector, but not the other way around.

A ton of home appliances use the IEC 60320 C7. Every tape recorder or boombox I ever owned, for instance. It’s the most common connector used for devices that draw 2.5 amps of current or less. Well, my boomboxes are long gone, so I raided my wife’s. Hers just happens to be different. Rats. I ended up swiping the cable from a dead laptop AC adapter. Wouldn’t you know it, it plugs right in to the Playstation’s power port. That old laptop cable was probably made in the same factory as the cables Gamestop sells as universal video game power cables.

I’m happy. I saved five bucks. (The wasted trip to Gamestop doesn’t count because I walked there from someplace I had to go anyway.)

It wasn’t long ago that you could find this type of AC cable anywhere for a two or three dollars, tops. By anywhere, I really do mean anywhere–discount stores, Radio Shack, consumer electronics stores, maybe even dollar stores if you’re lucky.

Cables are high markup items, but even at $3, these things offer a healthy profit margin, so they should still be readily available at something near that price. I know sometime in the last decade I’ve bought one of these things at Kmart.

So before you pay even $5 for a replacement cable, raid the drawer where you keep all your stray electronics wires and see if you can find one that fits. Failing that, look around for something else around the house, like a boombox, VCR, or DVD player, that has a power cord that will fit. If not, hit the electronics section of your local discount store. Odds are it’s closer than the closest game store, and a suitable cable should cost less there too.

Don’t go into a store asking for an IEC 60320 C7 because they won’t know what you’re talking about, of course. The name may be listed on the packaging. The United States doesn’t require that name to be molded onto the cable, although some countries do. Study the image above and you should recognize the cable on sight in a store. If worse comes to worse, print out the picture above and bring it with you to compare. Miguel Durán drew it to be helpful, so let it help you.

So why does Sony use the polarized connector? Probably to fool people into buying a replacement cable from them at an inflated price to replace a lost cable. They fooled me, and I should know better.

Original Sony Playstations as high-end audio components?

I saw an MSNBC article this week about people using the original Playstations (not the later streamlined version pictured at the top of the article) as high-end CD players.I haven’t had time to try it yet. The model that you want, for a couple of reasons is the SCPH-1001. It’s easy to recognize because it has separate RCA jacks for audio and video. Later models, such as the SCPH-7501, use an odd cable that connects to a proprietary Sony connector on the back of the unit, and has RCA plugs on the other end. These days, that cable sometimes costs more than the unit, and the quality of the cable is open to debate–especially if it’s an aftermarket cable.

An SCPH-1001 unit lets you use high-end audiophile cables if you want the best sound, or whatever you have laying around, if you’re like me.

I’ll have to try it out. I have a couple of Playstations that I almost never use, and the thought never occurred to me to try one out as a CD player.

So, if you’re looking for a cheap but good-sounding CD player, look for a Playstation on, say, eBay or Amazon. If you’ve got a Playstation in the closet that you’ll never use again, if you want to sell it online and get the best possible price for it, make sure you mention the model number in your description–especially if it’s an SCPH-1001–and it may not hurt to play up the audiophile angle a bit.

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.

Ah, so there will be a Railroad Tycoon III

I was playing Railroad Tycoon II on my girlfriend’s brother’s computer (had to test it out after rebuilding it, y’know), and I thought to check something. And I see that Take 2 has announced Railroad Tycoon III will be out the second half of this year.
No word about features or anything else. Aside from the sometimes-weak AI and the annoying inability to build tunnels–who puts railroad tracks up a mountain?–RT2 was awfully close to perfect.

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